Pittsburgh gardening: Easy instructions for turning weeds into a vegetable garden in Lawrenceville
Pittsburgh is a unique place to garden. This is especially true in old industrial neighborhoods, like Lawrenceville, near the confluence of the Allegheny and Monogahela Rivers. Here the modern industrial economy was born and flourished for more than a century and a half. Over this period, enormous quantities of waste were generated, therefore reclaiming sites for gardening in many places may appear daunting – at first. If it’s not the Japanese Knotweed smothering your site, then it’s the seemingly endless stream of red bricks, coal ash, and empty packs of Newport cigarettes. Do not fear, this article will reveal how anyone with fortitude can get a post-industrial urban vegetable garden off the ground.
When considering a garden locality, first determine how much sunlight reaches the site. If you receive 6 hours of sunlight or more each day, then continue further. Are there patches of soil where vegetation will not grow, despite adequate sunlight and water? Can you smell gasoline or oil on the soils? Is there any odd coloration? If the answer is yes, then DO NOT put a garden there. Consult a professional or contact your local EPA office if it looks hazardous. If the potential site gets adequate sunlight and grows healthy weeds, you’re probably good to go. However, I would still recommend soil testing for lead (like UMASS), especially if you plan to eat root vegetables, such as carrots, or are planning on growing a member of the Brassicas (kale, collards, etc).
To start, you will want to break up the sod into 2 ft x 3 ft patches with a shovel, pitchfork, or “Hound Dog” turf destroyer (pictured in yellow). After thoroughly breaking up the sod, rake up the weeds and soils into a small pile near the edge of the patch. This process will reveal more deeply rooted weeds, which will be loosened considerably. By hand, slowly pull deeply rooted weeds until the patch is cleared. Afterwards, scoop up your pile of weeds, soil, and debris from the patch and deposit them in a bucket or container.
At this point the small area cleared is ready for some soil supplementation that is critical in a vegetable garden. Take some rotten compost and distribute it over the patch. In my garden, I used organic garden compost mix sold at Dollar General. When the compost layer is down, take a handful of bone meal and spread it over the surface. This will add calcium, phosphorous, and nitrogen, which could be lacking in the acidic soils commonly found in Pittsburgh.
Take a ½ inch metal screen secured to a wooden frame to sieve the pile weeds and dirt back into prepared 2 x 3 ft patch. Within this coarse material there will be a few weeds, rocks and other undesirables. Quickly break up soil clumps by hand and sort out weeds from rocks into two separate containers – the rocks and trash for the waste pile and the weeds for the compost. Level the sieved material with a metal rake.
Every year add compost and other organic materials to the soils (i.e. eggshells, coffee grounds, manure). Lime or crushed limestone can be applied if the soils are too acidic. Make sure to thoroughly weed the beds a few times a year. Layering with straw or wood chips around the base of your plants will add carbon and potassium to the soils and will reduce evaporation of water from the soils during dry periods.