This Grower’s Spotlight packs a double punch with a spotlight on a mother-daughter duo Krystal and Nichelle Smith, who are lifetime residents of the Pittsburgh region. They currently reside in the Hill District and are active growers and members at the MLK Community Garden. Since their neighborhood is classified as a food apartheid area, folks have unreliable access to fresh produce, and that’s why being able to grow fresh food at the Community Garden becomes critical to good health. In the Grower’s Spotlight, Krystal and Nichelle share how they got started with gardening, their favorite things to grow, challenges that are coming up as the Community Garden is undergoing changes, and curse the rogue groundhogs who want a piece of everyone’s plots. Nonetheless, they persevere, and as Krystal put it in the spotlight, “It’s hard work but it’s very beneficial!” Read on!
Grow Pittsburgh: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Krystal: I am one of 7 siblings and have 6 kids. I was born and raised in Braddock. I have always liked flowers, but I was afraid to touch the dirt. Going through life, I thought I needed to learn something to do that makes me feel good about myself, and came up with the idea that I wanted to learn how to garden. I went to the library and got a book and just started learning,..learning about fertilizing, and how to design a garden. I had one for 2 years in a row, then another one and then I stopped, then I got a porch garden and now we’re in the MLK community garden. We try to stick with non-chemicals, natural things for weed killers, and fertilizer.
Nichelle: I am next to the oldest of six, 43 years old, a lifetime resident of Pittsburgh, and I have 2 children. I’m very interested in going to school to be an ecologist with a minor in soil science and am a climate activist. I’ve been little by little trickling into environmentalism. Everybody would laugh at me and my reusable bags, but then eventually people started picking it up. We have one planet, and we have to share it because it’s not just for humans. Even if it is just for humans, we need it to last for generations.
GP: When did you first begin gardening?
Krystal: I started thinking about what happens if there is no money to go to the grocery store and so, I wanted them [her children] to learn about growing as part of survival. It’s not the same to buy a plant and stick it in the ground. The first time I found it to be very rewarding to watch the seed grow into a plant. And, Nichelle wanted me to pick up gardening to help me lower my stress.
Nichelle: My mother would not stop nagging me about growing something. She got the bug from growing and she needed to pass it along. So, I got a bell pepper plant, and so she wouldn’t say anything. I picked the bell pepper because it’s a lot more expensive in the store and the plant was $2. At the time, I used to never use the whole thing, and it was irritating because it would go bad by the time I would need it again. Then every year, I began to add things. I started with the porch, and then the items overflowed. Then I needed to move on to something bigger and that’s when we moved to the community garden. I like gardening more than house plants. It fills a void. With houseplants, it’s not as engaging and I feel like I’m not giving it as much love as outdoor plants. Gardening really is therapeutic,
There’s studies that show that soil has bacteria that acts as an antidepressant, and the Sun acts as a mood booster. They make medicines from the bacteria in the soil.
GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?
Krystal: Cucumbers. They grow quick and my grandkids love when I pickle them
Nichelle: I don’t think I have a favorite thing to grow. Maybe peppers. It started with typical bell peppers, then it expanded to different colors. Then I did poblano, then jalapeno and now it’s cayenne. And now I am thinking about the picnic pepper. Temporarily… maybe it will change in the future. I also just love flowers.
GP: Tell us about gardening at the MLK Community Garden?
Nichelle: Outside of having a plot, it was like having to start the garden from scratch. There was a lot of disrepair and plants were overgrown and up to my chest. You couldn’t distinguish between the garden and the pathway. We needed a lot of help, and we didn’t have all of the things in place. It was basic things: like who orders compost and some folks wondering why we need compost, cutting grass, social media etc. The garden was established around 2014, and it fell on bad times. We started with community agreements and how we make decisions and building it from scratch. I didn’t have to go through the process of finding the land, working with the city and organizing with the community. I found out about the community garden from Hanna Mosca (Garden Dreams Nursery and Greenhouse manager at Grow Pittsburgh). When I was volunteering at Shiloh, I said I don’t have enough space on my porch and she connected me with Claire Matway (Community Garden Project Manager at Grow Pittsburgh). They told me that it was still in existence but just in a state of disrepair. I was not one of the founding gardeners, but when I joined I felt like I was starting from scratch to put procedures and structures into place and we are continuing it.
Krystal: We had to go in and mow all the weeds down and we were starting all over again.
GP: What are some challenges you’ve faced with growing here?
Nichelle: PWSA has a plan to uproot the garden and put a cistern in the garden as part of the stormwater management plan.
Also, we have too many impervious surfaces and the water can’t get through to the ground. We’ve got pavement everywhere, and it’s contributing to the problem. Concrete and asphalt prevent water from getting through to groundwater, and so it has to go through another spot. So the water runoff can flood. There are four-lane highways on both sides of this area.
It would be better to do a bioswale, it’s a rain catchment system and other options like ponds that could be made or smaller ponds. There are plants that like sitting in water and ones that clean water better than others, and that are free which is better than paying a company to clean it. Plants are superheroes. We need them for food, clothing, fuel (oil, coal and gas), clean air, and clean water.
Right now, at the garden, we can’t put perennial plants since they’ll be pulled out for this project. We need to meet with them to figure out the restoration plan. We might need raised beds once the cistern goes in, and move our shed and reorganize the whole garden. We all are part of the process, but some gardeners are more involved than others in the logistics.
Krystal: Location, our location is challenging to me. Other people’s ideas can also be challenging and it’s hard for everyone to agree on something. Financially getting it rolling is challenging. I also think that tools getting stolen and plants getting stolen can be an obstacle.
Nichelle: Also there are the two groundhogs who eat half the greens. We don’t have a trap, because my understanding is that the city doesn’t take groundhogs. I don’t have a car so I don’t want to manage them. We’ll see if someone wants to step up.
Krystal: It’s nature. My book told me to plant extra, so they have food to eat too.
Nichelle: We have tried some tests with some sacrificial plants. Also, it’s hard to keep up with the chores, the mulch, weeding, or just maintain the pathways. We have a large community garden, it is a baseball field, and you need as many hands on deck as possible. I’ve seen people do good work. We wanted to get a watermelon patch and a lot of people came out to get it done.. but groundhogs had something to say about that..I am just appreciative of the times we have been able to come together.
There’s a couple who seems to know a lot. It’s good to have a community around the garden who provide tips and provide beneficial information about how to grow. They have sunchokes in their plot and they say that it keeps the groundhogs away.
Krystal: When people don’t get their way, folks can get upset and get the idea that the decision-making is not democratic. Some people have a hard time going with the flow. We also need more people. We need to get on the same page, because we all are doing things, but sometimes not in sync and it takes work to get in sync. Though, everyone seems to be nice and when you ask for help they are willing to step up. We took some plots, we covered them and now new gardeners don’t have to weed and can lift the tarp and start their garden.
GP: From the Grow Pittsburgh’s values, which one resonates with you the most?
Krystal: Resourcefulness. Claire is always willing to help and give you the knowledge and she does it freely. It’s good to have her as a resource.
Nichelle: Food Sovereignty. Supporting people’s rights to access food is critical since we live in a food desert or a food apartheid area and we have no grocery stores in this area. With climate change being an issue, it’s better to have food closer to you to reduce emissions.
GP: What are some lessons gardening has taught you?
Krystal: The garden has connected the circle of life for me. How you need plants, dirt, matter, and insects and it’s given me perspective on how everything is connecting. When I told you I learned gardening from a book, it also talked about planting the plants when the moon is at such and such and I listened to it and it worked. I did it and it worked. Even though at first I was like this is crazy, but when I followed it and it helped with my yield.
Nichelle: It’s taught me patience. Nature’s gonna do what nature’s gonna do. I am a perfectionist and I like to follow rules. Spinach is not going to grow in the summer and you can’t force it. So with gardening, you have to make peace and accept. That rolls into all other parts of life.
Krystal: Nichelle you’ve been helping me a lot too and getting real technical and remembering the names of the things we are planting, and teaching me things about the dirt.
Nichelle: We as humans have a desire to bend nature to our will. Spinach was the most profound way for me to learn that. I was taking it in and out during the summer, but it didn’t work. Stop spending your energy fighting this one thing, but instead put it into something else.
GP: How do you hope to learn and grow your skills as a gardener in the future?
Krystal: I want a greenhouse.
Nichelle: I, too, want a greenhouse. This is my first time growing in the ground so I think I will learn about pests and insects. Getting shrubs and plants to attract pollinators. Of course all of this depends on the PWSA’s project because we can’t get perennials in there until that project is done.
GP: Any advice for folks who are getting started with growing their own food?
Krystal: It’s hard work but its very beneficial
Nichelle: Expect some things to die and you will get it right slowly. Failure is part of success. If anyone wants to volunteer they can reach out to me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org