Garden Dreams and Urban Renewal
Where many people see a vacant city lot filled with weeds and debris, Mindy Schwartz sees potential for growth.
Schwartz has spent the past decade transforming vacant parcels on Holland Ave. in Wilkinsburg into Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery.
An environmental consultant who now serves as development and IT manager at nearby Construction Junction in Wilkinsburg, Schwartz says she has loved gardening since the age of 10.
“In my neighborhood there were a couple of derelict and abandoned houses. One of the houses was demolished, leaving a large, 50 x 140-foot lot,” she recalls. “I often looked at that empty lot and imagined gardening on it.”
Seeds of Change
She eventually did just that. “I had started a garden design business with a friend, and I began growing seeds on the lot. Eventually I decided to apply for ownership of the lot through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program.” After a three-year process, she was approved to purchase the lot for the bargain price of $650, less than its assessed value. The other abandoned house was also eventually torn down and Schwartz began the process again to acquire that lot through the same county program.
The reclaimed lots formed the foundation for Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery. Although creating a productive garden in soil littered with bricks and urban debris was a challenge, the small farm now sells high quality vegetable, herb and flower seedlings grown using organic methods. Heirloom tomatoes (more than 100 varieties), sweet and hot peppers, eggplants and basil, all Certified Naturally Grown, are a specialty.
Garden Dreams is also the site of a Sustainable Living Center, which when complete will be a resource for Wilkinsburg and the greater region. It will provide a community gathering and education spot that will focus on sustainable living technologies and practices (such as catching rain water and gardening) that can economically benefit lower income individuals. The goal is to serve as a resource for people to learn sustainable principles in gardening, cooking, design and conservation. In the future, Schwartz envisions developing another nearby vacant lot that might eventually become the site of an outdoor bake oven and additional community activities.
“The farm has become a draw for people who want to move into the neighborhood,” says Schwartz. “They like the idea of living near an urban farm. Our intention is to buy more lots contiguous to the property with a goal of growing food on a neighborhood scale.”