Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery: The Hidden Oasis of Wilkinsburg
I could easily spend my entire day at Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery. Guarded by a worn wooden fence along Holland Avenue in Wilkinsburg, the lush sanctuary brings serenity to the bustling neighborhood and hope to home gardeners.
When Assistant Production Manager Danielle Marvit gives us a tour of the space in late April, young apple trees, blossoming strawberries, and garlic sprouts are already flourishing at our feet. The main garden is “healing,” letting cover crops like pea tendrils and Phacelia tanacetifolia replenish the soil and lay groundwork for a fruitful harvest in 2017, while the Pollinator Garden is literally buzzing with bees, wasps, and ladybugs who do their part to protect the plants from destructive insects. Demonstration and trial gardens sit still, awaiting children and curious neighbors who will take advantage of the hands-on education opportunities through the “living laboratory.”
The real stars of the show are budding seedlings, housed in tiny plastic pots that take over much of the two-lot area — inside two greenhouses, atop pallets up front, and behind just about every corner you turn. “That is the bread and butter of what we do here,” Marvit explains. “We produce upwards of 50,000 seedlings a season.”
Fruits, vegetables, and herbs — all certified organic — are potted and nurtured at Garden Dreams, then purchased by local gardeners who will plant them in their own home gardens. Mindy Schwartz developed the concept in the early 2000s, growing and selling seedlings out of her home garden until she could acquire the vacant lots Garden Dreams sits on today. “Mindy started this business, built this business,” says Hannah Reiff, production manager and operation manager at Garden Dreams. “We’re trying to grow it.”
Originally known for its heirloom tomatoes, the garden has since developed a reputation for providing everything from specialty peppers to unique varieties of basil. But the most valuable offering is advice. Even as Marvit and Reiff join me at a sunny picnic table, the murmur of 11 chickens behind us as we chat, customers politely approach them with garden-related concerns.
“Education is a big part of what we do,” Marvit says. And rightly so. The idea of growing your own produce and herbs sounds like a rewarding and nutritionally beneficial endeavor. But actual gardening can take a few, sometimes discouraging, rounds of trial and error.
“Gardening is great, healing, and therapeutic. But gardens can be a source of stress if you’re a new gardener or you plant too much or it’s all weedy. Or you feel like you’re supposed to grow all of your own food and you’re failing,” Reiff says. “We’re uniquely positioned to help people succeed and have gardening be a positive experience. Not just this idyllic view of how it should be, but what works best in a person’s specific situation.”
When they’re asked “everything from organic pest control to how to space your kale,” as Reiff thoughtfully summarizes, the experts at Garden Dreams talk you through every concern. They teach you how to make your plants more attractive to beneficial insects instead of handing you a bottle of organic weed killer. They show you the kale growing in their gardens to help you gauge how much space to allot in your own. The amount of warmth that goes into each customer interaction reaches the level of care that goes into the growth of each seedling.
The success of a community’s farm is not defined by how much grows from the soil, but by how much the community grows because of it. The prosperity of Garden Dreams shines through the increasing number of returning customers, traveling from as far as West Virginia or as close as four blocks away. Their positive feedback ripples through the Pittsburgh area, opening the gate for the
farm to extend its impact. Through classes at the East End Food Co-op and Carnegie Library, and relationships with groups like Grow Pittsburgh, which Schwartz is one of the original founders of, Garden Dreams can share its knowledge with a greater audience and make the most
of this incredible space.
“We’re so privileged,” Reiff says. “We’re not on a farm that’s been exposed to chemicals. We’re in this very idyllic situation where we are using organic methods. We’re trying to heal this space and share that with people.”
Through informal opportunities for education and the range of healthy options at our fingertips, Garden Dreams continues to benefit our bodies and minds. As for the emotional aspect? Families find comfort beneath the blanket of peace that covers Garden Dreams, bringing a sense of quiet calmness as they take their time and take in the bounty of the earth.
“I think it’s just an amazing oasis in the middle of a community that needs a safe, beautiful place to come to,” Marvit says. “Everybody needs that. Allow yourself to have that moment to breathe and take in your surroundings. Life is so stressful and crazy. It’s good to take that moment and reflect on something positive.”
Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery, 806 Holland Ave., Wilkinsburg. 412.501.3276. mygardendreams.com.