An Urban Garden Work of Art
By Doug Oster
May 12, 2021
It’s hard to imagine even one more little plant could be squeezed into the lush landscape created by Chris Kosin and Josh Koshar. This stunning city garden in Lawrenceville is a work of art. I actually tripped on the sidewalk, mesmerized by the plantings, not paying attention to where my feet were going. Hopefully, my misstep went unnoticed.
You can’t help but smile when entering this overflowing garden. Pots filled with a bald cypress tree and other plants wait patiently for their gardeners to conjure up planting space somewhere.
The pair has spent three years transforming the old house, surrounded by rubble, into an urban paradise called Hallowed Ground Homestead. In 10-months they renovated the house and planted the garden.
“The maintenance is all in the art of trying to jam it all in there,” Kosin says proudly. “Trying to get the most out of the space.”
He’s inspired by Ruth Stout and others’ no-fuss gardening style. To convert the rock, gravel, clay, brick, stone area into a fertile and lovely garden, a layer of clean cardboard was laid down and then covered with three to four inches of compost.
“You can plant it that day,” Kosin says smiling. Over time compost is added to amend the soil.
He has gardened since childhood, his first gardening memory is of a plant given to him by his grandmother, who named it “Tommy Tomato.” Kosin has gardened just about every place he has lived over the years, and like most gardeners, it was a journey of discovery through trial and error.
“I learned how to do things the absolute wrong way,” he says laughing.
Although his partner Koshar enjoys the planting, it’s the design aspect of gardening which interests him — cooking all the great stuff from their prolific vegetable garden too. “He grows it,” Koshar says of Kosin, “and I cook whatever it is.”
The deck is covered in flats filled with deep green vegetable seedlings, annuals and perennials, which the couple will either give away or sell as a way to fund the creation of a garden at West Penn Hospital, where Kosin works. Proceeds are also donated to Grow Pittsburgh.
(The West Penn Hospital garden is in the planning stages. The idea is to convert 12,000 square foot space into a garden to help the community.)
For now, the pair grow countless flats in the basements but fantasize about building a greenhouse on the property.
Why give the seedlings away?
“They are either going to go to someone who can use them, or eventually they are going to go into the compost,” Kosin says of the plants. “I want to feed people, and teach people as much as possible. Cost shouldn’t be a factor.” If you can, they’ll take a donation, but it’s not required.
“People are far more generous than I would have ever thought”, Koshar added. “Because they realize we’re not doing it to make a lot of profit.”
When talk turns to the tomato seedlings they love, the couple’s eyes light up and the first variety mentioned is ‘Costoluto Genovese,’ an Italian heirloom that Kosin describes as a “ribbed, red, juicy, a really full-flavored tomato that doesn’t crack.” They love the sweet orange cherry ‘Sungold,’ even know it’s prone to cracking. The famous heirloom ‘Paul Robeson,’ named for the black singer and political activist, has a tasty, almost smokey flavor, according to Kosin.
‘Garden Peach’ has a soft layer of fuzz around the fruit and ‘Yellow Pear’ is even sweeter than ‘Sungold,’ the couple added.
There’s the gnarly yellow tomato, found years ago during May Market at Phipps. They saved the seed. It’s another favorite for its low acid, taste and huge size.
“You almost need to use two hands to hold it,” exclaims Kosin.
As canning has become a pandemic staple, ‘Amish Paste’ and ‘Hungarian Heart’ lead the pack for a big meaty tomato to preserve.
The interview comes to a screeching halt as the two announce they don’t have to battle deer. But continues, as they lament the groundhogs, a rabbit who enjoys their mustard greens and sparrows who are only interested in spring pea shoots.
Anyone who grows figs would be jealous, as their plants are already filled with early fruit. When that happens it’s called the breba crop, which means there’s a possibility of a second crop of figs at the end of the season.
It took 16 garbage cans filled with leaves and the trees wrapped in burlap and plastic for winter hibernation. They even put holiday lights around them for a little extra warmth. “Those are Christmas figs,” Koshar would tell friends.
“The biggest thing for me has been the unexpected response from the community,” he says of the garden. “People literally light up when they pass the garden. It’s really brought a neat community, young and old, a really diverse group of people together.”
This garden invites you in, and if you can get these two to stand still for more than a minute, you might leave with a few plants, some sage garden advice and possibly a couple of new friends.
Kosin laughs as he talks about this inviting space.
“The next thing you know our neighbors are poking around in your backyard stealing herbs from you.” Of course, they are welcome, as these gardeners love to share. He pauses for a moment, reflecting on the garden and quietly saying, “This has been my therapy.”
At every turn, there is another gardening treasure. A container is filled with pansies and violas along with unique luminescent lewisia blooms. A large laughing garden statue, low to the ground, welcomes visitors to the back garden, a gift from Koshar’s father.
Near the deck, an unusual, pretty dogwood tree is filled with pink and white blooms standing guard over the soft leaves of lamb’s ears. There’s even a dawn redwood for God’s sake, behind the compost bin.
This account barely scratches the surface of what’s planted in this urban garden.
On the edge of the vegetable garden are vigorous ‘Fairfax’ strawberries flowering. It’s another variety Kosin learned about through the late Ruth Stout’s garden writing and continues to swear by. “I had a hell of a time finding that one,” he says with a proud smile.
Sitting on the deck on a cool spring afternoon, Koshar explains a little bit about what working in the garden means to him.
“I think it grounds you,” he explains. “The weather, the lifecycles, plants, you can’t trick them. They are either going to work or they are not going to work. They like what they like. You kind of know what a plant needs. It keeps you paying attention to things like the weather, the sky, the birds, the seasonality, the frost dates.”
For Kosin, he echoes his partner’s sentiments, especially about the connection he feels with their ever-expanding community.
“The giving part of it — growing the seedlings, sharing seeds with people, sharing produce with people. It’s a cool thing,” he says. “It brings a lot of people into your life. It’s more than just the gardening and the plants.”
As the afternoon fades and the cold finally works its way from fingers and toes inward, it’s Koshar who sums up a feeling just about every gardener can understand.
“There are also those really wonderful calming moments of sitting on the front porch with coffee in the morning and watching the dew on the plants,” he says. “All the flowers have that glow and shimmer to them. Those are the best moments. Unless you live in a garden you can’t really explain it.”
Kosin and Koshar are presenting a garden workshop in their home garden on May 16 from 2 – 4 p.m. “Growing with your Garden,” focuses on vegetable gardening in small spaces. The details can be found on their Instagram and Facebook pages.