This Grower’s Spotlight features Sheila Petite, a long-time gardener and Pittsburgh resident who grows in her backyard and at Sunny’s Community Garden in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Sunny’s Community Garden was started in 2021 and serves the community as a space for garden education, free food distribution, and community events. Sheila walked by the garden one day and asked if she could help out, and has been actively involved since!

Sheila Petite standing next to an Okra raised garden bed at Sunny's community garden.

GP: When did you first begin gardening?

Sheila: I grew up in Pittsburgh living in public housing so gardening wasn’t readily available to us however, My Mom was from Tennessee and each summer we visited and had the opportunity to experience farm life which is a cherished memory.  Immediately after my husband Oscar and I bought our home 30 years ago we began planting.  We planted flowers, veggies, a peach and cherry tree right in the Hill District.

GP: Why do you grow food? 

Sheila: There is nothing fresher and more satisfying than going out to your yard and pulling something up and eating it. I love to grow greens, basil, and tomatoes. They’re my three favorite things to eat! This year I really struggled with zucchini. I know that zucchinis are supposed to be easy to grow but I didn’t have any luck with them!

GP: What are some lessons gardening has taught you?

Sheila: It’s never too late for a do-over, if you screw up, maybe you can fix it or try again. I’ve learned that it’s alright to let stuff go.  Pull it out and plant something else if it didn’t work. Sometimes It’s the same way in life.

GP: What benefits do you think gardening brings to the community?

Sheila: It gives people a place to relax and slow down in a fast world. It allows you to use your senses. Sight and smell are so important in the garden. I can sit in the garden and take a moment to appreciate it, to thank the insects and plants for all that they do. Gardens also give communities the ability to have fresh food and to experience different kinds of food that you may not have been able to try before. It’s important that people know that food doesn’t always come from the grocery store- it starts in the dirt.

GP: How do you hope to expand your garden in the future?

Sheila: I and three other women will be taking over the management of Sunny’s Community Garden this fall.  Our hope is that the community will embrace the garden. We want to concentrate on bringing more Hill District residents, especially seniors, into the garden to help out and experience everything it has to offer. I’m hoping to start outreach this fall and winter so we have people helping out in the spring. We want people to stop by off the street like I did; we have a lot of folks that stand outside and look in and we want them to be comfortable coming in.  We are also hoping for Audubon Society status.

GP: Which of GP’s core values, found here, do you identify with most? What draws you to that value?

Sheila: Food sovereignty; I think that it doesn’t matter how much money you have – you can always grow something to eat. I want everybody to learn to grow their own food so they always have something to eat, it’s important to me. My family was rich in nutrition and everybody was healthy and lived to 90+, and I would like to think good eating had something to do with that.

GP: Any advice for folks who are getting started with growing their own food?

Sheila: Buy your pots and soil and just start! Whether it’s a flower or a veggie, just try it and watch it grow. There’s a lot to learn and the research can be overwhelming, I got overwhelmed, so just do it! You can always go back to read later.

GP: Any last thoughts?

Sheila: Come to our garden! It’s open to people to come visit and learn together, and we need you to succeed!