Wow! It’s hard to believe we’re here in our tenth Grower’s Spotlight installment. When COVID changed the world as we knew it last spring, we started this series as a way to cultivate community in spite of social distancing restraints. Over the past year, we’ve introduced you to some inspiring backyard growers, community gardeners, small agribusiness owners, and even a master composter. This month, we’re returning to the building blocks of a healthy food growing environment: the soil. Today’s featured grower, Jasen Bernthisel, is a recent graduate of Grow Pittsburgh’s Master Composter certification program, now in its second season, as well as a community gardener at Hamnett Place Community Garden in Wilkinsburg (Fun Fact: Hamnett

Place was the third garden to be established through Grow Pittsburgh’s community garden program back in 2011!). In this spotlight, Jasen shares about his experience in the program, connections he’s facilitated through the garden and COVID, and a personal affinity for chestnuts.

GP: How long have you been growing at Hamnett Place Community Garden?

Jasen: I am excited to be going into my second year of involvement with the HPCG .

GP: Why were you interested in participating in the Master Composter program?

Jasen: I am interested in learning methods to mitigate the catastrophic loss of topsoil, locally and globally and composting is a crucial tool in this endeavor.

GP: What has your experience been like in the program?

Jasen: This program exceeded my expectations and was truly delightful. An intensive Zoom lecture series thoroughly examined everything from soil microbiology to community outreach strategies. The immersive site visits were incredibly rewarding in their conviviality. Meeting fellow land stewards and witnessing the work they’ve done with their sites across Pittsburgh reinvigorated my sense that people do truly care for nature and are capable of tremendous power in fostering abundance and diversity. I hope to work on projects with my fellow master composter colleagues in the future.

GP: What kind of system and/or project for composting are you implementing at your community garden site?

Jasen: Our composting system was installed years ago and was built so robustly that it doesn’t require much improvement for our current needs (big thanks to our HPCG predecessors) so I am advocating for focusing on community outreach and composting education.

GP: How has Hamnett Place adapted in the last year with COVID? Have you seen more of an interest in folks being involved in the garden?

Jasen: With the increase in food insecurity, we have noticed more people becoming interested in establishing varying degrees of food autonomy. We are finding and helping one another and building stronger and more resilient connections between ourselves.

GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?

Jasen: My favorite thing to grow are blight-resistant varieties of Chestnut trees. Chestnuts are wonderful perennial sources of staple carbohydrates as well as excellent tools in carbon sequestration – although they are a little too big for a community garden plot! In his book Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, J. Russell Smith illuminates the magnificence and luxury of a tree crop harvest by describing a group of three farmers sitting under a Chestnut tree in a Corsican village:

“It was a beautiful day in June. As the chestnut trees were only now blooming, it would be two full months before these men, one-crop farmers and owners of chestnut orchards, would have to go to work.”

I share the belief of many that one of the more delightful possible futures of agriculture is one that focuses on the majesty and abundance of tree crops. I was able to successfully raise 16 Belle Epine varieties of Chestnut cultivar this season from a pound of seeds. I hope to scale to five pounds of seed next year and far more into the future.

GP: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your time gardening?

Jasen: Taking risks will allow your courage to grow. Share resources and work towards establishing a life in common.

GP: What’s been a favorite resource of yours in your growing journey?

Jasen: Partisan Gardens is a radio program and terrific resource for insights into food autonomy, community nourishment and care for joining together to build a more resilient world.

GP: Anything else you want to share with our community?

Jasen: If anyone is interested in planting multitudes of Chestnut trees and other food producing trees and perennials, drop me a line at

While we started this series in the pandemic, we hope to keep it going and continue celebrating the amazing local growers that are abundant in our community. We have some future spotlights in the works but want to know who you think we should feature in the Grower’s Spotlight. Know another local gardener you think more folks should know about? Maybe it’s you! Drop us a line to be featured in our next newsletter or on our blog.