Sandi “Sunny” Welch, 74, has been a master gardener for 30 years and saw a need in Pittsburgh’s Hill District for people to learn how to garden and understand where food comes from.
“I wanted to get people involved in gardening, understanding food, and luckily found somebody who gave me a piece of land to use,” Welch says.
The Center that CARES donated a parcel of land at 613 Granville St. in the Hill District for the first Sunny’s Community Garden, named after the nickname Welch’s grandchildren gave her. An anonymous foundation sustains Sunny’s with a grant, and Sunny’s does one fundraiser per year for wishlist items.
Welch says she began the garden in 2021 with an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. She graded and leveled an empty lot.
“I didn’t know a soul on the Hill when I started, but as people walked by and said ‘What are you doing? Can we help?’ — we gathered a really solid group of volunteers who came on a regular basis,” Welch says.
The Hill District garden has 19 raised beds and 15 grow bags. Among the crops, there are tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, onion, shallots, leeks, spinach, lettuce, kale, squash, and eggplant.
“And all the herbs,” Welch adds. “I don’t think we got any ginger this year.”
Aside from edible produce, there is a memory garden and fish pond, five lunch tables, and a shaded deck for activities.
Welch also teaches a class called “Seeds of Resilience” to write about lost loved ones to place on a small plaque on a pot.
Sunny’s serves as a community space — Welch has seen rallies and marches come through the garden, poetry readings, Zumba classes, and even three weddings. The space is accessible and embraces diversity, inclusivity, sustainability, fairness, and fun.
“We give away everything we grow,” Welch says. “Sometimes people come in and say, ‘What’s ready today?’ And they’ll walk out with cucumbers or some carrots. Everything is out in the open. The neighborhood is very respectful of the garden.”
Today, Sunny’s Community Garden Fund is managed by the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies and is a member of Grow Pittsburgh, which entitles them to 10 buckets of compost and mulch per month.
Welch was content with the work in the Hill District. But an empty lot at the corner of N. Franklin and Sedgwick streets in Manchester beckoned.
“I didn’t think I was going to do a second garden,” Welch says.
But the second Sunny’s Garden opened on June 10 in Manchester, a program of the Manchester Academic Charter School.
Volunteers gathered for a grand opening work session to transform the lot into a garden. They spread soil and wood chips, built a storage shed, work tables, and a compost system, and prepared 13 4’x8’ raised garden beds.
The garden includes kale, spinach, beans, tomatoes, eggplant, summer squash, carrots, herbs, onion, garlic, ginger, herbs, and flowers.
Part of the reason Welch is able to start a second garden is all the help she has received in the Hill District.
She says she never intended to manage the Hill District garden long-term; rather, she helped train volunteers from the community to maintain the space.
“My original thought was to turn it back to the community after five years, but after two years, they were ready,” Welch adds.
Welch trained three women from the Hill District to serve as lead gardeners.
“One day I said, ‘You guys don’t need me anymore,’ ” Welch says. “‘You have the skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the garden to take it over,’ and that’s what they did.”
Lisa Minor is one of the lead gardeners for Sunny’s in the Hill District.
“Besides serving as a therapeutic outlet, the garden has introduced me to three lifelong friends,” Minor says. “I could not think of a better way to volunteer: helping feed the community with fresh veggies and herbs while spending quality time with friends.”
Lead gardener Janis Franklin agrees, “I feel a big part of the garden is having a place of beauty where people can come to relax and get away from the cares of daily life for a while. Many times I’ve heard people say that they were having a rough day and just wanted a place to come to relax.”
Sunny’s Community Garden is looking for volunteers in Manchester and the Hill District For more information and upcoming events, visit the Facebook page.