Tis the season for fresh and tasty homegrown veggies, but the harvest itself is not the only reason that Pittsburgh’s Jewish gardeners have a passion for planting.
For Bruce Rabin, who has a lush vegetable garden on Inverness Avenue, gardening is about family and exercise.
Rabin has been gardening for 70 years, catching the bug from his grandfather when he was a young child.
“My grandfather grew vegetables in his backyard in Buffalo, and I started gardening with him when I was a kid,” Rabin recalled. Now, although he no longer has a big enough yard for a garden, Rabin maintains one at the home of his son and follows his grandfather’s example by gardening with his own grandchildren.
Rabin’s crop is diverse and lush: cucumbers, radishes, carrots, herbs, corn, various types of peppers, tomatoes, peas and lettuce.
“Gardening is a joy,” he said, adding that he appreciates the physical activity that his hobby naturally provides. Exercise, he said, “is very important, especially as people get older.”
A former medical researcher accustomed to having to wait a long time to see the fruits of his labor, Rabin appreciates the quicker gratification that comes from gardening.
“Doing something where you get results in just a couple months is a joy,” he said.
This year, his crop has been particularly good, owing to lots of rain and perhaps to a tip Rabin got from an Osher class to not turn the soil.
“It all tastes delicious,” he said. “There is nothing more delightful than having a big salad with it all coming from your own garden.”
About two miles south of Rabin’s garden is one tended by members of the Howard Levin Clubhouse, a psychosocial rehabilitation program of Jewish Residential Services that helps those in recovery from mental illness develop strengths and abilities. The garden, located on the grounds of Community Day School, not only provides those who tend it with a valuable activity, but also offers a healthy addition to their meals at the Clubhouse.
“The key to recovery is engaging in meaningful activities,” said Jill Pawlowski, director of the Clubhouse. “The garden is a part of their meaningful work. And we bring our food back to the Clubhouse and incorporate it into our daily lunches.”
The Clubhouse garden includes an apple tree planted in memory of Jane Haskell, a dedicated community member whose foundation donated funds to support the project, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, kale, collards, lettuce, carrots, beets, squash, beans and herbs.
The staff and the members of the Clubhouse “work side by side, so there is no hierarchy,” said Pawlowski.
The garden is all organic, noted Emily Kramer, food and horticulture coordinator at the Clubhouse, noting that it has an area for composting.
Some local gardeners have faced problems with deer and other animals helping themselves to the fresh produce and have turned to planting types of gardens that are inaccessible to wildlife.
Gabe Goldman, an early childhood educational consultant for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, is trying container gardening for the first time this year “because of the deer problem.”
Goldman has been married to, and gardening with, his wife, Pam, for 43 years. They both have a passion for it, he said.
The Goldmans’ crop this summer includes cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, basil, strawberries, potatoes, grapes and raspberries; they are also cultivating milkweed to attract butterflies and mullein, which they will use to make tea as a remedy for car sickness when they are traveling with their grandkids.
“At the simplest level, it’s exciting to grow your own food,” Goldman explained. “There is no comparison to food grown in a home garden and the food in a supermarket.
“At a more profound level,” he continued, “it’s as close as I can come to giving birth. It’s the ultimate act of creativity. At the spiritual and personal level, it satisfies something I can’t get any other way.”
Goldman also enjoys the creativity involved when working to overcome the challenges of gardening, including weather, animals and pests.
“It’s intellectually exciting to have ongoing challenges,” he said.
Elaine Stept does not grow vegetables in her Point Breeze garden, but has instead created a tranquil oasis which provides a space for her to relax and recharge.
She sees herself as a newbie to gardening, having picked up the passion “just 30 years ago,” beginning at her former home, also located in Point Breeze. That garden got a lot of sun, she said, so when she moved to her current home in 2002 and found her new yard was shaded by two magnificent oaks, she needed to re-group.
“My friend Phyllis Gricus is a landscape artist, so I told her I wanted beautiful flowers that grow in shade and asked ‘Do I have to have hostas?’”
The answer was a resounding “no,” as is evidenced by the huge variety of plants — including flowers that bloom at different times throughout the season — thriving on Stept’s property.
“There’s something always blooming in the garden,” she said.
Gricus, a garden coach, helps “problem-solve” and gives “horticultural guidance with environmentally sustainable practices in mind, such as using compost as a soil amendment, choosing plants that are right for the local environment and, most importantly, using nothing, doing nothing, that is harmful to the earth,” Gricus said.
“Showing respect for our environment through gardening is my professional and personal purpose,” she added. “Trees, especially, resonate with me. To my eyes, a home that sits desolate in an expanse of lawn without a tree to shade it, protect it from wind and soften the frame of the architecture is a home without comfort.”
Gricus suggested that Stept plant a moss garden in her front yard, as Stept’s husband preferred not having grass to mow.
The result is impressive, moss that resembles a foam gel that flourishes in shade and can take a lot of rain, common during a Pittsburgh summer.
But the real stunner is Stept’s backyard, where she has created small trails and what could be called a “secret fairy garden,” with foliage of all colors and shapes, a bird feeder to attract finches and a pond with a fountain.
“It’s so soothing to hear the water,” said Stept, who works as a paralegal. “It keeps me sane; it’s therapeutic.”
Stept pointed to recent research that shows that endorphins are released when people dig in the soil.
“I did that before I found the study,” she said. “I think there is something to be said for that.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at