This Grower’s Spotlight features Gwendolyn Moorer, a longtime Northside resident and one of Grow Pittsburgh’s Perennial members. Gwendolyn moved to Pittsburgh in the 1970s and has been involved with the (now defunct) Homewood Cemetery community garden, the Olde Allegheny Community Garden, and the East Commons Community Garden at Allegheny Commons. She also cultivates her own beautiful garden on two lots in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood. Hear from Gwendolyn about how even after more than 45 years of growing in the city, gardening continues to be a lifelong process of learning.

Grow Pittsburgh: How did you get started gardening?

Gwendolyn Moorer: I started in kindergarten. We were selling seeds for a school fundraiser. My mother is from the South and we were living in New Jersey and we sold all these seeds and had some left over. She said let’s plant all these zinnias and marigolds in the backyard. 

When I moved to Pittsburgh in 1971 to a townhouse in East Hills, I had a little section in the yard, just a little patio section. When I moved to the Northside in 1979, we didn’t have the community gardens here yet, so I had a spot at the community garden in Homewood Cemetery. Then in 1980 my mother and some of the old ladies started the Olde Allegheny Community Garden so I helped them. We got our own two plots there and that worked out fine. Then they added the East Commons Garden at Allegheny Commons a few years ago. I’ve been gardening in Pittsburgh continuously since 1978-79. 

GP: What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from gardening you’d like to share with others?

Gwendolyn: Don’t space your plants close together. My mother always told me that, and I was planting my tomatoes like a foot apart. With most gardening, don’t plant things too close. Plant them so you can walk through them, so they have enough air and space for their roots. Each of the plants has their own personality. Like people, they need their space. So when you crowd them in you’re not going to get great production. This year was my first year that I got hundreds of San Marzano tomatoes, and I would say that’s because I planted them further apart this year–more like two feet. I think next year I’ll even do three feet apart. I didn’t fertilize them with anything special. I just kinda let them go and this has been my best year.

GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?

Gwendolyn: San Marzano tomatoes! I love them. I was growing Romas for many years, but I went to Italy and someone introduced me to San Marzanos and it’s been them ever since.  I went over to Braddock Farms to take your canning tomatoes class to see if I could learn some tips.  I can all of mine. Sometimes I let them simmer overnight. So far, I’ve put up 21 quarts of San Marzanos and I still need to pick more.  Unbelievable! One thing I learned from going to your Tomato School class at Shiloh Farm is how to tie them up so they don’t fall over and are more stable next year. 

I’ve given some tomatoes to friends of mine. One woman is Italian American and she said those are the best San Marzanos ever. She took some to her nephew’s picnic and her Italian family members said to her–can you save seeds for me? Those are just the best. They’re so hardy and healthy and sweet and tasty. For an eating tomato, I love the Cherokee Purple. That’s my favorite. I like cucumbers and squash too. This year I grew pole beans for the first time, and now I prefer those to bush beans. I purchased vegetable and flower seedlings from Garden Dreams, Soil Sisters and Fresh and received donated started plants from Grow Pittsburgh.

All my sunflowers are volunteers. Isn’t that amazing? I guess that’s where the birds dropped them. Look at that monarch butterfly! Oh! I have butterflies, a cardinal, a hummingbird who visits. It’s nice to see them all. I can look out my window at this front yard. There used to be two houses here, but they burned down years ago. I bought the two lots, and it was Grow Pittsburgh that helped me understand how to transform these two lots into a beautiful garden.

GP:  What do you enjoy about the combination of gardening at home as well as being part of a community garden? 

Gwendolyn: I garden both at the Olde Allegheny Community Garden and at the East Commons Community Garden at Allegheny Commons over by the pool and here at home. The three gardens are all different. This one at home is just a solo garden with me having help every once in a while. Folks occasionally stop by here on Arch Street. Some will sit and read a book on my bench there. Or they’ll ask if they can walk through, and I say yes (though walk at your own risk. Watch out for the bee hives!).  At Olde Allegheny, I have a smaller space and I’ve been there since 1982. And at the newer garden at Allegheny Commons there’s a bunch of young people and we get together every Thursday night. I like that time and interaction with them as well. It’s a nice group of people. I enjoy all the community gardeners. I love talking with other gardeners because most of my friends don’t garden. I get a lot of good tips. Many times you’ll get plants or seeds to use, too. I learned about a lot of old heirloom seeds from small companies that I wasn’t aware of. And now I understand how to connect with them as well. 

I like that and the community that comes with community gardens.  But I realized I needed time and really wanted to garden on my own too. I really enjoy playing in the dirt. I really do like gardening by myself because it’s my time.

GP:  Why do you support Grow Pittsburgh? What motivates you to be involved? 

Gwendolyn: If it wasn’t for Grow Pittsburgh, can you imagine? This garden wouldn’t be what it is. The first Grow Pittsburgh class I took in 2012 taught me how to organize my thought process as far as gardening. It made gardening more of a science to me than just a happy hobby. And I also like what you’re doing in the schools. I like the outreach programs you have. And this year was the first time I went to Braddock Farms and Shiloh Farm. I think you foster sustainability of gardening and urban gardening especially.

I’ve been a member of the Garden Resource Center (GRC) for many years. It’s a great foundation for us all, being able to get the compost and mulch and topsoil. It’s wonderful. And if I didn’t have that as a resource–and the same is true for so many around the city–I don’t think we’d have the urban gardens that we have now. You’ve been a wonderful resource for all of us—advising, cultivating, and providing all the different resources we need including materials and equipment. 

GP:  What’s the most important benefit of gardening for you?

Gwendolyn: Relaxation. I work in technology and I can’t tell you how much it means to relax in the garden. Plus there’s the thrill of when you grow something from a seed or seedling. Like the San Marzanos. I got the seedlings at Garden Dreams, and then when I was canning, I could say to them, “I cultivated you.” From those little two-inch plugs to these wonderful plants that have produced so many tomatoes. And now I can eat the sauce.

As people walk past my garden, they’re so happy to see this green space. Our street is more like a boulevard that kind of runs all the way down to the Allegheny River at one point. With that boulevard effect, people can see green spaces here and there (my garden and Olde Allegheny) and then Randyland. It’s a nice promenade from the Park. Grow Pittsburgh helped me do all this. 

Gardening is my favorite pastime and I recommend it to everyone. Even if you only have a little plot or a small planter, grow some vegetables. You can just watch them grow. Especially if you have children; it’s nice to have them experience the process of what it looks like when something like a tomato or cucumber grows.  When I retire I’m going to garden full time. Every morning and every evening I’ll be gardening.