• Oct. 22, 2021

    Garden provides bounty of produce

    USCHS studentsThe Alexander Gilfillan Garden, which began 2016, has grown from a few raised beds to a harvest of more than 2,500 pounds of produce in 2021, to date.  The garden is a collaboration between Westminster Presbyterian, Upper St. Clair High School and the Historical Society of Upper St. Clair.

    “It is amazing to think that we started five years ago with just five raised beds and have since grown to have 10 raised beds and 10 40-foot rows in the field,” Lynn Kistler, Upper St. Clair High School science curriculum leader, said.  “This summer, we planted and harvested multiple varieties of squash, tomatoes, peppers and beans.”

    The garden is one of 13 that provides food for the South Hills Interfaith Movement (SHIM) food pantries. Due to COVID-19, SHIM is serving approximately 2,700 individuals each month – about 30% of whom are children – compared to 2,100 people per month last year.

    “Since many of the families that rely on the SHIM food pantries are Asian, we also grew some bitter gourd, hairy melon and long beans,” Ms. Kistler said. “We were also surprised to learn that several plants that we considered to be weeds, such as lamb's quarters and purslane, are extremely nutritious and often added to salads and soups!”

    Upper St. Clair High School students began garden work in March by starting tomato and pepper plants in the classroom. As the 2020-21 school year ended, many students enjoyed garden preparation, transplanting the peppers and tomatoes, and sowing other seeds directly into the garden.  

    Throughout the summer, community, church and student volunteers continued to meet at least weekly to continue the care of the garden and harvest. The USC Rotary also provided volunteers for our spring and fall work days and provided grants to purchase trellis supports and compost. 

    “Sue Wyble from Westminster Church does a tremendous job of keeping all of the summer volunteers organized, constantly keeping watch for pests, and delivering the harvests to SHIM each week,” Ms. Kistler said.

    Volunteers can see the positive impact of their time and energy as the garden continues to grow and help feed neighbors who depend on assistance through SHIM.

    “Last summer was extremely hot and water was a constant concern but we still managed to harvest about 1,100 pounds in 2020,” Ms. Kistler said. “Thanks to improved weather and adjusting some of our techniques, we have harvested over 2,500 pounds of produce this year, with a few more weeks of harvest to go!”

    Students who are enrolled in Ms. Kistler’s Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) Environmental Science class have visited the garden this fall and collected and tested soil samples to help with planning and possible soil amendments for fall and spring. A second student fall work day is set for mid-October when they will harvest sweet potatoes, plant garlic, and prepare the garden for winter. Another community work day with the Rotary will be in November.  

    “Sue and I have already been talking about plans next year...fewer tomatoes and more hot, hot peppers!” Ms. Kistler said. 

    Over the years, Ms. Kistler has made several attempts at a pollinator garden onsite with varying results. She is a member of the Pennsylvania Master Naturalist program and has received approval to work on developing a native plant pollinator garden this fall and spring with student and community volunteers.   

    “Without using herbicides, this will take some time to develop fully but I have high hopes for success,” she said.

    Ms. Kistler credits the success of the Alexander Gilfillan Garden to so many organizations and individuals working together.

    “This project could not be possible without the support of the school district and fantastic collaboration with the community,” she said.

    Dr. Timothy Wagner, Upper St. Clair High School principal, praised Ms. Kistler along with Sue Wyble for leading and cultivating a successful community garden.

    “In a matter of years, they have brought to life — quite literally — a space that fulfills the mission of the Historical Society of USC, the vision of Margaret Gilfillan, and the needs of members of our community,” he said. “We are thankful that Marjie Heins and Rachel Heins-Carlson gave the school district ‘the keys’ and their blessing — what happened after that is exceedingly remarkable. Though many hands have been involved, Lynn and Sue have been the key individuals behind it all.”