Storm clouds break up and drift away on a humid summer day. Bonnie Banze is followed by a group of excited children through the gate of a pale green picket fence into the Learning Garden in front of Sarah Heinz House on Pittsburgh’s North Side. The children pick from the garden then begin tasting the herbs, leafy greens and other produce.
“I tasted everything,” Michael Gredler says as he smiles.
“I liked the parsley. I didn’t lake the sage or lavender.”
Gredler, 10, has spent a couple of years as a camper in the Learning Garden program. A decade into its existence, the Learning Garden successfully provides a respite for children, adults and seniors — some of whom have never known a leaf from a weed.
Banze is the program’s director in addition to serving Sarah Heinz House as its adult fitness coordinator. The peace she finds from in the garden is surpassed by the joy she takes from taking children into it.
“Some of them have never tasted any of these herbs, or if they did they might have seen it in Italian dressing,” Banze says. “I just like them to light up, to taste it and smell it and take it all in — because when you live in the city, you might never have that experience.”
Gredler, who lives in Pittsburgh, fits the profile. A home gardner himself, he appreciates one of the big benefits.
“It tastes fresher,” he says.
A partnership with Penn State Master Gardeners helps by providing the Learning Garden indispensable teaching tools — from tips for amending soil to design suggestions. The master gardeners visit about once a month, and their services include hands-on instruction.
In the case of Lee Bognar, hands-on means handing out mint to the children.
A master gardner from Forest Hills, Bognar looks the part in an oversized hat and knee-high, bright blue boots. Her fondness for the children can hardly be contained.
“It’s just so exciting to see them out there digging, planting and learning where their food comes from and how it can taste if you don’t have cheese on top of it,” she says.
The garden at Sarah Heinz House is lush with vegetables and flowers.
There are tomatoes and vine crops. Rows are filled by bright green lettuce, peppers and berries. Onions, eggplant and pollinator plants make inviting neighbors.
Whatever the garden harvests is given away to people connected with the Sarah Heinz House, a non-profit founded in 1901 by the Heinz Family.
“Everybody needs to see the garden,” Bognar says. “They need to see how valuable it is.”
Once each month, Banze brings seniors from her adult fitness classes to work alongside the children.
Don Ford, who is a spry 82, has formed a bond with these young kids. For him, getting into the garden isn’t only about getting his hands dirty.
He also likes “keeping (the children) away from their cellphones for a couple minutes.”
The wonders nature provides is one of many lessons offered by Learning Garden initiatives.
One day, after discovering flavors from the garden, campers participate in a short, outdoor class that detail water conservation. Banze is the instructor, and she focuses on turning an empty bottle into a water-saving container.
Many of the Learning Garden’s children do not live in homes with grass planted outside. Banze is trying to impress upon those kids the limitless potential of gardening.
“I think the world is coming back to a place where we should grow our own things because then we know where it comes from,” Banze says.
“I hope they get that.”
Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, owned and operated by 535Media. Reach him at email@example.com
© 2018 Everybody Gardens. All Rights Reserved.