When Natalya Pinchuck saw a worker cutting down trees in her neighborhood, she asked if he would bring his wood chips to Pennley Garden. He did, and she used the wood together with salvaged cardboard to create paths that outline the five long rows of edible plants in the community garden.
With this quick resourcefulness and an artistic eye, Natalya has put a lot of work into transforming a grassy field into a thriving communal gardening space. Pennley Garden is tucked beside East Liberty’s commercial area–across the street from McDonalds, sandwiched between basketball courts and a large concrete parking lot. Natalya currently coordinates the space, which includes several rows of gardening plots for individuals and a communal area that is shared by the gardeners.
Pennley Garden first got started around 2009 with lots of sunflowers and gardening plots available to people in the neighborhood. A communal area developed two years later when a small group, including Natalya, envisioned a large space where the participating gardeners could grow a wider variety of food together and share the produce. Since then, some of the initial gardeners have moved away, but there is still an active group of around twenty gardeners who share the space. Natalya continues working to incorporate a greater variety of plants in the communal garden, especially perennials so that it becomes increasingly self-sustaining.
“I love abundance,” Natalya says. “I grow a lot so there’s enough for everyone, and there’s enough for failure, and there’s enough to try and to play.”
Not too long ago, Natalya was an artist of jewelry design and metalsmithing, represented by international galleries and working as a tenure-track professor, but she found the demands and pressures of the field to be stifling. Now at age 35, she has moved away from her art career. She’s also moved away from traditional notions of working.
“I’ve come to learn that you don’t need all of the things that people say you need,” she explains. For her, this currently means not having a job and instead investing her time and creative energy in projects like the garden.
When I ask her to show me around the garden, she has me taste and smell all kinds of herbs like papalo (“very stinky,” she says”), epazote, fennel, chamomile, and holy basil. There is shiso growing from seeds she collected in a Washington D.C. park. She pulls up kohlrabi and garlic for me to have for dinner. She insists that I collect blackcurrant leaves to use for tea.
Natalya uses the herbs to experiment with fermentation and flavors, and she encourages others to as well. “For me, a lot of it is about learning,” she says. “I try out things. I don’t necessarily follow the rules. This much space gives me the opportunity to do that.”
This year, the Pennley Garden plans to donate vegetables for the Anthony Rivers Celebration of Life Event that will take place at the neighboring basketball courts in August. It’s become an annual event of basketball games, music, and food, organized in memory of Anthony Rivers, a young man who was robbed and killed in the nearby Garfield neighborhood. The event brings a positive atmosphere, Natalya explains, and there will be plenty of tomatoes to share by then.
In one corner of Pennley Garden is a colorful patch of lettuce, zucchini, and borage. The compost pile used to sit here. When Natalya noticed so many healthy plants reseeding themselves, she decided to let them grow and relocated the compost pile elsewhere. She hands me a beautiful head of red lettuce that she says will go to seed soon if it stays in the ground.
Her next idea? Sprinkle lettuce seeds in all of the remaining open spaces. “Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t,” she casually offers. With how well the garden has come together so far, I trust that something lovely will grow.