This Grower’s Spotlight features leaders of the Zenshine Community Garden, Dorrie Smith-Richie and Lee Robinson. ThieseNorthside residents are helping their community members grow their own food and creating a relaxing place for people to enjoy at Riverview park. Dorrie and Lee have been helping with the garden since the beginning and are excited for more growth. They are especially excited about their garden tour and opening event on June 3! Read on to learn more about these growers and community leaders.
Grow Pittsburgh: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Dorrie: I am a resident of Observatory Hill. I live in the top part of the park. I am also very involved in the community, I sit on a lot of boards on the north side. I am a retired educator and a photographer.
Lee: I am a newer resident, I moved here in the last few years. I am a musician, a saxophone player. I have known Dorrie for a long time, and she asked me to participate in the garden and the community, so I volunteered. I am the chairman of the garden and president of the community organization.
GP: When did you first begin gardening?
Dorrie: For me, I started as a child. On my father’s side of the family is a bunch of farmers. I learned about growing seeds and watching them grow into food that would end up on our table to eat. I have been growing and planting for years.
Lee: I have been around it since I was very small, but I didn’t know I was really gardening. We had trees in the back of our backyard growing up with my family/ Cherry trees, peach trees, apple trees, crabapple trees with grapes, everybody had grape vines all over the place. My father during the season would pick the cherries, put a ladder up and all the kids in the neighborhood would come over he picked them put them in a basket and threw a few down everywhere. Peaches the same way. My grandparents also had a garden and would ask us to weed her garden. My aunt also had a big garden and was always growing and canning stuff. So I guess I’ve been around it I’ve been gardening since I was young.
GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?
Dorrie: Anything that I can eat. Also herbs. Because I started an organic skincare line, I plant a lot of herbs at my home to infuse into oils.
Lee: I am more of an experimenter. I like to grow things I can eat. This year I am thinking about getting some greens since we had a half-season last year. This year I will grow watermelon and maybe try some beans, and I already have some Jerusalem artichokes in my garden bed.
GP: Tell us about gardening at the Zenshine Community Garden. How did you get involved?
Dorrie: The Garden is a project of the 5 Points merchant organization in Observatory Hill, which I am the executive director of. Councilwoman Darlene Harris had given us $10,000 for a project and because Northside is a food desert-most people have to go to the suburbs for quality food- so we said, lets do a community garden. That was in 2019, right before the pandemic. Once the pandemic hit, anxiety was at an all-time high for people. So we wanted to add an extra mindfulness portion to teach people that there is a way to calm their bodies. That’s where the idea of the labyrinth came in so that there is a place for people to walk and sit. That’s how Zenhine got started.
Lee: Before I was a part of the garden, I would walk the trails around here and explore. I didn’t know the history of this area until I got involved with the garden. I found out that there wasn’t much down here, they kind of let it go, and there was just a ball field.
GP: What are some challenges you’ve faced with growing here?
Dorrie: For me, I think that’s probably the greatest challenge, just getting people here to the space and letting them know we are here because it’s so nestled. Valley Refuge is little known in the park. There is usually a road that takes you right up to the activities building in the park, but it collapsed. Because it’s collapsed you have to come all the way down and by that time, people lose interest. Those have been the challenges, just getting people here to this space.
Lee: The back side of it is we have to change perceptions of the location. And one of the things that the garden does IS change perception.We have to let people know it’s a nice and tranquil space. We would like to have it open for the community to come and visit anytime. And we are going to incorporate some community beds where people who want to get some food can come and pick what they want from those beds. But we just have to change the perception of the area.
GP: What has been one of your favorite moments while working in the garden?
Dorrie: The positive thing is people come down here, they are paying attention, and a lot more people will walk by and say this is really great. We are going to start having more events and activities down here to bring a lot more awareness. The positive part of all of this is the area. You can stand here and listen to all of the sounds of nature around you. The gardeners are like a tight-knit family. Sometimes we’re dysfunctional. But we can all just sit here hanging out. Especially workdays workplaces are fun because everybody’s laughing and joking and hear the music Lee plays.
Lee: I’ve been down here several times by myself, and people will come by. Everybody’s so positive. They say, “ I haven’t been down here a while. This is great. How can I get involved?”. That was some confirmation for me to just leave it to leave the gate open because people were very nice and very curious.
GP: Last thoughts?
Dorrie: What I would like to end with is, when Five Points came up with this idea we didn’t realize what resources were out there to help us. So organizations, like Grow Pittsburgh has been really great. I think for a lot of people who may want to do something like this, they don’t know that they have those resources. If you have an idea, and you want it to happen, especially if it’s on a public space, like the city space, make it happen. Make those phone calls, don’t be afraid, I had to pitch this for three years before they even said yes.
Lee: Keep an eye out for us. You’re welcome to come down to the garden.
Zenshine Community Garden will be hosting a grand opening and tour of the space on June 3 from 12-4PM. You can find the garden at Valley Refuge Shelter, Riverview Park. Stop by for food, music, and vendors!