By Doug Oster / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“I love tomatoes and cucumbers,” says Rodney Tucker as he pulls bright red, tennis ball-sized fruit from the plants towering over him.
Mr. Tucker has lived at the Allegheny YMCA on the North Side for the past five years and is one of the founding forces of its garden, now in its fourth season.
A wide strip of grass was transformed into a series of raised beds now filled with shrublike kale, greens, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, herbs, flowers and much more. Early on, the garden benefited from help provided by master gardeners, local nurseries and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. As it grew, Grow Pittsburgh’s City Growers program pitched in with a grant to purchase everything from plants to hardscape.
The garden is thriving, filling with much-needed produce. Its riches are due in part to all the rain, but also “because of all the tender loving care we give it,” Mr. Tucker says, laughing.
He works the garden with fellow resident Michael Rushin and others as they come and go from the facility.
“It’s special because a lot of us come from different backgrounds, Mr. Tucker says. “To get the camaraderie of people [from] different cultures to participate in our garden venture, it’s amazing. It gives you a lot of pride when you see everyone come together.”
Mr. Rushin watched as the garden went in the first season and then visited to enjoy a variety of treats harvested from its beds. The second year he jumped in to help. He can now be seen daily doing garden chores.
“You got to pick it and pluck it and pull weeds,” he says. “I like doing it.”
One of the benefits of the garden is providing nutritious produce for some of the 105 residents.
“It’s pretty hard for a lot of the guys to get fresh food here,” he says. “But when we do get it, we take advantage of it. You can taste the difference between store food and garden food. It tastes totally different.”
Since 1926, the Allegheny YMCA has provided a place for men to live. They aren’t homeless; they pay rent to stay there. Office manager Mary Collins says many residents don’t make a lot of money, have health issues, prefer to live a simpler life or just like it there.
“A lot of the men who are longtime residents feel this is a family home,” she says with a soft smile.
Ms. Collins says the garden is more than a source of healthy food for residents who work there.
“Their personalities really changed. It just gave them a purpose, It gave them a lot of self-worth.”
Planting parties, with pizza sometimes as an incentive, bring more residents down to help. The garden isn’t fenced, but the men can see it from the windows. Each visitor is scrutinized from above, but in a good way.
“Oh, there’s a lot of pride,” Mrs. Collins says. “[The garden] made it more like a place to live instead of a place to stay.”
The plot’s name, the Boxy Caufield Memorial Garden, was a unanimous choice, taken from a longtime resident instrumental in getting the project started who died of cancer. He was a much loved character at the YMCA, and a classically trained musician, too. Even though he wasn’t too interested in planting and caring for the plants, he worked tirelessly to recruit helpers and find donations to make the garden a reality.
“He was a guy who went out of his way for everyone,” says executive director Bill Pricener. “It’s a tremendous tribute to him. The men really loved him.”
As Mr. Rushin finishes his garden chores, he remembers Boxy, too. “He was a good all-around gentle, humble guy.”
As he stands in the garden, beaming, he tries to explain what he finds there other than good things to eat.
“I get peace of mind. I relax. All my stress is gone. I spend hours out here, just messing around.”