In this month’s Grower’s Spotlight, we talk with Helen Naimark, a 90-year-old gardener, retired office worker and artist. Helen has lived a long life of fulfilling adventures and is in no way looking to stop. During our interview with her for the Grower’s Spotlight she remarked “I’m not going anywhere, I’m too young!” and “I still have a lot to do”. In this spotlight, she shares her story, her passion for plants and pollinators, and the impact that being a GRC member has had on her gardening journey. Read on to hear from Helen!
Tell us a bit about yourself?
Helen Naimark: I am 90! I was born in 1931 and I’m originally from New York and moved to Pittsburgh when my father went into business here. I started out as a music major, with a teaching minor, and was accepted at Chatham which at the time was the PA College for Women. Because there weren’t any scholarships and I was paying full tuition, I decided to change my career path and went to business school. I graduated after studying shorthand/typing and landed a job at a firm in Downtown. In 1979, I attended the Art Institute when I was in my forties while everyone else was 18 years old. Over the years, I have provided temporary help, owned an engineering firm and done interior design work. Now, I am a retired artist, and had my last art show 3 years ago. I’ve tried a little bit of everything, but gardening is the best, because plants don’t talk back.
GP: When did you first start growing, how did you learn about growing?
Helen: I started learning about gardening on my own and through doing my own thing. When we bought this house 30 years ago, it was a wreck. Being an artist, I thought it needed new shrubs and plants. There was a front and back lawn and required lots of work. We have a great backyard, and it’s almost level. Gardening is something that makes you feel good inside. Watching something grow is a good feeling.
GP: How long have you been growing?
Helen: I have been growing things forever, around 30 years. I love my yard! We redid the whole yard when Joe and I first moved into our home. For me, it’s getting harder to dig and I will solicit the help of my sons, or any unlucky victims who can provide some assistance. In many ways, gardening is what life is, you watch things grow and then regenerate. “Where flowers bloom, so does hope”- Lady Bird Johnson.
I also became heavily involved with Monroeville Garden Club. Once I found it, I started volunteering and donating. I am the VP of the Garden Club, and always looking for ways to engage the members with interesting programming. We are very few in number (women and men), and we are always looking to get more members. We are gardeners, and workers and need more people who want to get their hands dirty. When we get requests to do programming with students we have helped to instruct students in public schools. The Club maintains two street-corners in Monroeville couple areas and donates to a scholarship program for people studying agriculture. We start the seedlings in a greenhouse for Boyce Park, and if we don’t raise our own seedlings, we have to put orders in for growing. We have a huge plant sale in Boyce Park West around the middle of May. We see it as a community endeavor.
GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?
Helen: I love growing everything. I hand trim and hand plant. I love to grow Butterfly Weed for the monarchs. Black Swallowtails love Parsley so I plan to put a lot more parsley this year to support them. I also grow a lot of herbs and lots of basil to make a basil pesto sauce. I also have a couple of banana plants, no fruit, but they are gorgeous.
GP: What advice would you give a new gardener?
Helen: First, get a couple of basic gardening books. Begin with taking care of what you already have. Start looking at everything, and identify it. Personally, I take a picture on my phone and identify my plants through an app called PlantSnap.
The thing to remember for planting is to do native! native! native! That is what supports our insects and our birds, and it is for the good of our country and for the good of our community. I also limit my use of any pesticides or chemicals harmful to the environment.
GP: How long have you been a member of GRC, and how did you get involved?
Helen: It’s been around five years, and as soon as I went there and began talking to people, I felt I was part of a community. After the first time I went, I was hooked because it was something I needed. I couldn’t wait to go back to see who would show up. I filled my own buckets with soil and would connect with people as I dug, and for me, it was social time.
GP: What do you value most about being a member of the GRC?
Helen: I loved being at the GRC, it has a special attraction. You all are young and helped so much. You load the car for me and then I am able to come home and ask my neighbor to help unload it. In 2020, I received home deliveries from the GRC for a short period. A surgery on my spine prevented lifting at that time so it worked out great. Also, when I started, the membership was $40 a year and everything you could haul, it was amazing. All of the GRC products are superior to other places.
GP: What motivates you to be involved as a supporter of Grow Pittsburgh?
Helen: Because I love the people, and purpose. Once I made a connection, I just had to be there and talk to people at the GRC. Every time I went, I met a different family. The people who are also growing and gardening are special. I love to talk to them about gardening, eating and food. You don’t get to talk to people at a grassroot level and learn from them as often anymore and the GRC provides that for me. More people should go to the Garden Resource Center. I donate what I can to you because I love to support the mission.
Helen’s backyard and her art
Check out Helen’s backyard in the winter and also some of her prized art pieces.
A steel bottle tree in Helen’s backyard.
She bought the frame at an art festival in Shadyside and saved wine bottles (emptied) from special trips and events to make a recycled art installation!
The steel moose, named “Wolfgang Amadeus Moosehart” also in Helen’s backyard
A painting of Calla Lilies by Helen
A painting by Helen