In this month’s Grower’s Spotlight, we are featuring John Inserra, a retired schoolteacher, aspiring Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, and novice gardener living in Pittsburgh’s South Side Slopes neighborhood. John found himself inspired to start a garden as the COVID lockdown began in March 2020. This project that he started to fill his time soon became a pivotal part of his life in the neighborhood. His efforts have led to a flourishing garden with loads of produce, which he finds gratifying to share with his community. Read on to learn more about John’s gardening journey.

Grow Pittsburgh: How long have you been growing food and how did you learn?

John:  I really first got into growing at the beginning of COVID, back in March of 2020. Previously, I had grown some tomatoes and herbs in containers at my old house, but I never had a vegetable garden until I began living here.  I started collecting pallets, building boxes, and then ordering and mixing soil by the truckloads. When you put your hand in the ground here, you’ll find glass, pieces of metal, pieces of old shoes, all kinds of stuff. I just don’t know what’s in the ground, so I didn’t feel safe growing in it. So I brought in 8-10 yards of soil.  I started with one bed then a second one came along pretty quickly after and then the rest of it.

I moved here to this neighborhood in the fall of 2019, just before the pandemic. I used to live in South Hills and then when I retired, I went to go hike half of the Appalachian Trail. I came off the trail twice to be with my mom when she was ill. That was the northern half, Harper’s Ferry to Maine. Next year I’m planning to finish it, depending on how the pandemic unfolds. Who knows, I might need a garden caretaker.

GP: What’s your favorite thing to grow?

John:  I’d have to say the sunflowers. They bring the greatest joy to people, and I can’t believe how big they are. People come by and love the sunflowers. That’s probably why they’re my favorite. 

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

John: Work with your hands. I have to put my hands in the dirt. It’s how I test for moisture. I do everything I can by hand because it tells a lot. Nothing beats holding something in your hand, feeling it. It also means you’re really in there instead of a couple feet away looking in. So if you can, if you’re physically able to, try to touch things as much as possible.

GP: What’s the best piece of advice you could give to someone new to growing?

John: Number one is choosing the right plants. So many people I hear from might say something like their garden didn’t produce and they were trying to grow tomatoes. I ask them if the garden gets much sun and they’ll say, “No, just a couple of hours in the afternoon.” Tomatoes need sun. If you’re in a shady spot, grow shade-loving plants.

Number two: plant a lot. See what grows. Figure out what doesn’t. I’ll tell you what, volume hides a lot of mistakes. There’s a lot of failure here. But I grow so much stuff and get 12 or more hours of sunlight so there’s still an abundance.  You may find out your onions will come up the second year, like mine did, but not the first season.

GP:  What has growing and sharing fresh food meant to you throughout this pandemic?

John:  I started the garden because I needed a project. But then all of a sudden, everything grew and my problem became, now what do I do with it?  Last year, I called a couple food pantries and they were getting truckloads of produce from all the commercial growers since the restaurants shut down. So my couple heads of lettuce weren’t needed, and I gave them to neighbors. And that felt great.

My chalkboard has said things like “Welcome to this garden” and “We’re growing this food for you.” My sense is that irrespective of the garden, I’m a neighborhood guy. There was an older neighbor who was struggling, I went and knocked on his door to see if I could help. If I knock on enough doors, all of a sudden everybody will be waiving. And I feel like I’m building a community. I have a lot of friends who drive by here and honk. There are people who come down here on their own to grab some vegetables because I told them they could. Some people won’t but some will. I love when I see people harvesting here. Because I can’t keep up with it. I reached out to the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community this year, and I’m delivering veggies and that feels really good. 

GP:  What motivates you to be involved with and support Grow Pittsburgh?

John:  I believe in social justice. The idea that people can’t have enough to eat really bugs me. I was a school teacher before I retired. I knew kids who were hungry at home. There are a lot of people who don’t have access to real food. And here we are in all this abundance. So I like the idea of enabling people to grow their own food.

When I started this garden, I kept telling people, I’ll help you start your own garden, too. And I have. There are a few people who’ve started growing. My idea was if everybody had a garden on the hill, could you imagine what it would be like? It would solve a lot of problems. I really believe that. The mission just fits for me.

Do you know another local grower you’d like to see in the Grower’s Spotlight? Maybe it’s you! Drop us a line to be featured in our next newsletter or on our blog.