Franktuary is excited to be on this year’s garden tour, Saturday June 22nd, which features a variety of gardens within walking distance through Lawrenceville. The tour begins inside the Allegheny Cemetery at the Lawrenceville Community Garden, where you can pick up a map and take the free, self-guided tour from 11am to 3pm. When you tour our garden, you’ll get a coupon for a drink at the bar that features something we’ve grown on the property!
I’ve always dreamed of being the kind of restaurant that grows food on site, whether fresh herbs in containers for the bar or a significant contribution of vegetables to offset our weekly produce deliveries. When we signed the lease for 3810 Butler Street, I was immediately fascinated by the hillside that meets the back parking lot. There was a lot of unused land, but it was steep and barren, or wildly overgrown. I’ve gardened extensively in containers and successfully worm composted for several years (save the season when I forgot to bring them indoors for the winter, oops) but the thought of soil tests, pH monitoring, and the high clay content of the hillside seemed awfully daunting. I spent the winter stomping about in the snow and perusing the Carnegie Library for garden books, finally deciding to loosely follow Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method. Mel’s approach is one of realistic efficiency: he encourages growers to plant only what they are excited about eating, in manageable quantities for their household size, and in a raised bed grid system which is structured for plant rotation, low weed infestation, and reach-in access. An easy reach means you’re not continually trampling and compacting the soil around your plants, which allows for minimal water use, applying it directly to a cup-shaped soil depression you form around each stem. As one 12″ square area comes to harvest, you plant that section with another plant you’d like to eat, and the garden is continually changing.
While Mel’s approach is fairly low impact, I did opt out of the peat moss he suggests due to concerns about its sustainability. Peat is highly absorbent decayed plant matter, formed in bogs where plants are submerged in oxygen-poor water, breaking down incredibly slowly over time and storing huge amounts of carbon. Peat moss bogs cover just 3% of the earth and add only .06mm to their depth every year. After eons, peat will eventually become coal, making the bog’s product what Organic Gardening magazine calls “a baby fossil fuel.” The magazine estimates that it will take 3,000 years for one of Canada’s peat bogs to recover from a harvest, and each harvest releases significant amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere. Peat, it seems, isn’t created for repeat, so we went a different direction.
I sourced 40/60 compost to soil blend from local food recycling business AgRecycle, drastically threatening the suspension on an employee’s pick-up truck; we’ll supplement with worm enriched soil and castings from our vermicompost bins throughout the season. Alex, the aforementioned truck owner, then spent a blazing hot afternoon hauling 5 gallon buckets of soil straight up the hillside – a two-to-one grade! – from the parking lot to fill our four 4’x4’x12″ beds at the top. Wood for the beds was sourced from Ed Johnson of Wilderness Lumber Company in the East End, who milled beautiful larch planks salvaged from city trees. Another kitchen staffer Justin – our resident forager of brunch berries, ramps and the like – has a brother who grows organic produce as Butter Hill Farm, and they donated a flat of mostly unlabeled heirloom tomatoes right after I purchased a variety of seedlings, including many tomatoes, from Garden Dreams via Whole Foods. A bartender diverted several blue metal recycling bins from UPMC’s dumpsters so we’ll fill those with tomatoes too. It’s going to be a chaotic, tomato-centric first season!
One of our dishwashers asked if he could bring in his family’s corn and pea plants for the steeper areas of the hillside. Mugaza is a patriarch of the Somali community here in Pittsburgh, his family being the first to come over in 2004 from Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. He and I communicate in very broken Italian about plants and “vermees” – worms – but I know he farmed in Africa and is thrilled to have more land this season.
We’re working on a rain barrel, and in the mean time I have our servers emptying each table’s remaining water into a 5-gallon bucket. I can usually convince some strong young thing to carry it up the hillside for me…we’ll see how long that lasts!