Succulents in one of the student labs. Photo by Bill O'Toole.

Just north of Heinz Field, in the shadow of Route 19, more than 2,200 poinsettias are getting ready to bloom.

Walking through the interlocking greenhouses of The Drew Mathieson Center, Director of Operations Mark Wallace explains that cultivating a rotating selection of specialty crops is a key source of funding for the nonprofit. After they finish with the holiday favorite poinsettia, they’ll move on to selling hydrangeas for Mother’s Day.

When the educational greenhouse complex first opened 15 years ago this past January, it grew only orchids, which were booming in popularity. But big horticulture soon figured out how to mass produce the flowers at cut rates. Like Gregor Mendel’s pea plants, The Drew Mathieson Center had to adapt.

“The plants and technology in the building have changed substantially” in the last 15 years, says Wallace. “We have evolved throughout the life of our unique operating model.”

That operating model takes the revenue from the center’s various retail ventures selling plants, flowers, and herbs, and funnels it toward educating adult students in the finer points of horticulture science.

“It’s all about workforce development,” says Wallace. The program is an offshoot of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, which has provided no-cost training in horticulture, culinary arts, laboratory tech, and medical for the last 50 years.

Originally known as the Harbor Gardens Greenhouse, the space was renamed by Manchester Bidwell Founder and Executive Chairman William Strickland in honor of his friend and mentor Drew Mathieson, who managed the RK Mellon Foundation for several decades until his passing in 2001.

Class sizes are kept small, with just a few dozen students per each intensive, eight-month course. Once accepted, students have the option to specialize in a variety of fields such as botany, landscape design, and plant propagation. Overall, the greenhouses produce 17,500 plants a year.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Wallace says that this year the organization’s evolution continues with the pursuit of hydroponics. Wallace and his team are in the early stages of fundraising, research and design for a project to upgrade two of their four greenhouses as spaces that can support a variety of greens grown indoors with minimal to no soil.

Director of Operations Mark Wallace moving tables at The Drew Mathieson Center. Photo by Bill O’Toole.
Director of Operations Mark Wallace moving tables at The Drew Mathieson Center. Photo by Bill O’Toole.

“What that means is growing veggies and herbs hydroponically, in a controlled environment, 12 months a year,” says Wallace. “It provides new learning opportunities for our adult students, and we can upgrade our technology at the same time.”

While the center already has longstanding business relationships with Giant Eagle and Whole Foods Market, Wallace says that the goal is not to compete with large-scale brands. Rather, they will devote their one acre of growing space toward high quality, boutique options.

It is, Wallace says, “very much the artisanal approach.”

This year’s anniversary and the new initiative will be celebrated Nov. 17 at the Center’s sixth annual open house. The evening’s entertainment will include music from the nearby Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild jazz center and writer Doug Oster, the Home and Garden editor of the Tribune-Review.

Beyond sustaining the center for another 15 years, Wallace hopes the hydroponics project could eventually serve as a blueprint for other, even larger civic-minded job training programs.

“We’re perfecting this local model that we hope can be scaled to a regional model,” he says.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.