Community garden in Natrona takes root |
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Cultivating a green thumb in the shadow of heavy industry seems daunting, but Natrona residents are gearing up for that challenge.

With the help of gardening specialists from Allegheny Grows, a program through Allegheny County Economic Development, residents of the township’s Natrona neighborhood are planning to create a community garden this spring.

It will be located on an L-shaped lot along Federal Street between the railroad tracks and Greenwich Street. The lot is directly across the street from ATI-Allegheny Ludlum property that was formerly home to the specialty steel company’s meltshop.

“I think it is going to do real well,” said Mike Knapek, a neighborhood resident. “We’ve got a lot of involvement.”

That involvement could be seen Saturday when the neighborhood improvement group Natrona Comes Together hosted a Gardening 101 Workshop attended by 18 residents at the Knights of Columbus hall on Garfield Street.

Marisa Manheim and Ray Sorock, community garden coordinators for Allegheny Grows, went over aspects of community gardening from composting to choosing what to plant for about two hours.

Manheim and Sorock work for Grow Pittsburgh, the city’s community gardening initiative, but work as subcontractors for the county program.

Part of a pattern

The purpose of Allegheny Grows is to encourage community and work force development through urban farming and gardening. It has partnered with Grow Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, to provide education, planning resources and technical assistance for existing and newly developing community vegetable gardens in low-to-moderate income county communities.

Manheim, who has been in her position for three years, said community gardens are experiencing a rebirth.

“There are community gardens in Pittsburgh that were started in the ’70s,” she said. “This is kind of a new wave of interest in community gardening as the cost of food has gone up because of fuel costs.”

“Plus, people are becoming more aware of eating healthier,” Manheim said.

She said seven community gardens exist in Allegheny County in communities including Braddock, Millvale, Penn Hills, Wilkinsburg and McKees Rocks. Natrona and Clairton were selected as sites this year.

Right location

The Natrona garden will be on a 52-by-80-foot section, about half of the vacant lot, and will be divided up into individual plots for residents who request one. The rest of the property is to be used for a park to commemorate Natrona’s industrial heritage.

As Manheim told residents at the workshop, soil is everything when it comes to gardening, particularly when it is near industrial sites. She said if no contaminants were found in soil samples from the site that were tested.

“The thing we are most concerned about in plants is lead because it does occur in an urban setting,” Manheim said. She added that soil would not be suitable if its composition includes lead at more than 400 parts per million.

She is enthused about the Natrona site, noting that it gets full sunlight and is highly visible to passersby, which can encourage others to start gardening. As for it’s downside, she said a lot of truck traffic passes by and generates soot that settles on plants.

Manheim said they will plant a hedgerow along Federal Street to help mitigate that problem.

“I’m superimpressed with this group of people,” she said of Natrona Comes Together. “They are well-connected in the community, and they are superpassionate about the community.”

“We’re always trying to do something to improve the town,” resident Jim Buss said. “Hopefully, this will bring people together — and give them something to eat.”

Going green

A series of meetings and workshops are scheduled in connection with the Natrona community garden.

The next thee are:

• Volunteer Day, Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

• Garden Kick-Off, April 4 from 6 to 8 p.m.

• Volunteer Build Day No. 2, April 28, from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

Anyone interested in participating in the community garden can contact Natrona Comes Together President Bill Godfrey at

724-226-9353, or Patty Walters at 724-224-7599.

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