Boaz Frankel unearths regional history, teaches Pittsburghers about plants
Through classes and newsletter, master gardener is hoping to green some local thumbs
The season is right to learn from master gardener and Squirrel Hill resident Boaz Frankel. The Jewish anthophile is offering two programs at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and one at the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival.
On March 13 and 27, Phipps is welcoming Frankel for an after-hours walking tour titled “Secret History of Plants.” The standalone sessions will be interactive. Through props, readings and music, participants will learn how different plants have influenced medicine, architecture, storytelling and religion, Frankel said.
A March 26 program with the Humanities Festival titled “Pittsburgh’s Secret History of Plants” will unearth regional roots and explain how Pittsburgh’s steel industry evolved from prior growth.
“Hundreds of millions of years ago — when there were tropical forests here — Pittsburgh was near the equator. The plants that were growing fell into bogs,” Frankel said. The dead plant matter then submerged in swampy environments.
During the next several hundreds of millions of years, heat and pressure helped the matter transform “from moist, low-carbon peat, to coal, an energy- and carbon-dense black or brownish-black sedimentary rock,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a 54-year-old group founded by students and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Allegheny County’s vegetation has a rich history, Frankel said, adding that attendees of the Humanities Festival can expect to learn more about “how plants have shaped Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers have shaped plants.”
The three upcoming programs reflect Frankel’s love of greenery, nature and learning. After moving to Pittsburgh in early 2019, he enrolled in a master gardener program at Phipps. Returning to the Oakland-space on March 13 and 27 is a chance to showcase the conservatory’s collection in a fun “theatrical” way, he said. The two after-hours gatherings are a chance to go deeper than docent-led tours, avoid the hustle and bustle of daytime visitors, explore the conservatory’s narrow crevices and hear about the “crazy stories” behind so many plants that have altered human history.
Frankel hopes his time with Phipps and the Humanities Festival will not only green a few local thumbs, but inspire the elimination of a chore made more difficult by local topography.
“No one likes mowing a sloped lawn, so I say this is the year to just get rid of it,” he said.
Those electing to remove their grass need not rely on chemicals, Frankel noted. Either apply cardboard or a tarp on top “and then you can just kill it on its own.” At that point, once the rolling turf is gone, residents can plant Pennsylvania Sedge, flowers or shrubs.
“You can do anything you want,” he said. “You could have a tiny forest. You can have a meadow. You could plant a tree. Anything that can grow on a flat surface can grow on a slope. The only thing is it's harder to seed. You probably have to put some plants in there because the seeds might just come down in the next rainstorm.”
For those who aren’t ready to reconfigure their property, Frankel recommends tackling simpler projects, like growing peas, tomatoes or herbs.
Reconnecting with the land is important, he said. “So much of Judaism is tied to what’s in harvest, what’s blooming or what’s lying fallow.” The Jewish holidays align with Israel’s growing patterns; and by living in Pittsburgh, or elsewhere in the Diaspora, it’s tough to always remember “we're marking these harvest dates that are totally arbitrary to us.”
Those unable to attend Frankel’s upcoming programs, or who would like to reap additional expertise from the fount of flora-related insights, can sign up for his newsletter, “Rootbound,” on Substack.
The Jewish gardener and author said he hopes people will develop a newfound appreciation for vegetation, since clothing, medicine and history aren’t the only things tied to plants.
“If we want to move to Mars, we're gonna have to figure out how to grow tomatoes there,” he said. But before interstellar relocation becomes a reality, he added, Pittsburghers should understand “plants can survive fine without us, but we can’t survive without plants.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.