New Flower Power

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(Host) “Flower Power” was a catch phrase often heard in the 1960’s, but commentator Charlie Nardozzi has an updated application.

(Nardozzi) It’s not often that I meet a true visionary – someone with a clear image of the future and the will to make it happen. I was lucky enough to talk with such a person who is using gardening to improve the lives of inner city youth.

Bill Strickland grew up in the impoverished Manchester section of Pittsburgh. Like many young people in that area, he wasn’t doing well in school and was going nowhere fast. Then the high school art teacher took him under his wing. He introduced Bill to pottery, art, and music, and started Bill on a new path – one that would eventually lead him to college and a career as a successful entrepreneur.

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Bill thought back to how he was given a second chance by someone who cared, and he decided to dedicate his career to giving the same opportunities to youth in his old neighborhood. In 1968, while race riots were flaring around him, he started the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild – a craft and visual art training center for young adults. Over the last 35 years, the guild has helped many students find a purpose, passion, and direction in their lives. Since it opened, 80 percent of those participating in the programs have gone on to college.

Fifteen years ago Bill turned his attention to another love: flowers. His fascination with flowers sprouted when a friend gave him an orchid. He was hooked. He bought a book on orchids and started growing the plants in his basement. Seeing the beauty of the flower and realizing the opportunity of using the same model as the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, Bill started researching what it would take to set up a commercial orchid-growing facility in Pittsburgh to support a horticultural education center. The center would teach young adults how to care for orchids and would train them to work in the horticulture industry. After Bill visited orchid growers across the country, talking with university experts and raising almost 5 million dollars, the Drew Mathieson Center for Horticultural and Agricultural Technology opened its doors last fall.

The 40,000-square-foot greenhouse produced 20,000 orchid plants the first year. Proceeds from the orchid sales support the horticultural training program. This year 20 students are in the program, learning skills in greenhouse operations, interior plantscaping, and floral sales. The facility is designed to eventually grow 60,000 orchids and train 30 to 40 students a year.

Buoyed by his success with orchids, Bill has now focused his attention on the possibility of turning vacant industrial warehouses in Pittsburgh into hydroponic tomato-production facilities. These greenhouses would provide fresh tomatoes grown by students for Pittsburgh area residents.

Through one’s man vision and love of horticulture, Bill has shown that gardening is more than just growing beautiful flowers or tasty vegetables. It can be a conduit for teaching young people the skills they need to succeed in life.

This is Charlie Nardozzi in Shelburne.

Charlie Nardozzi is an all-around gardening expert with a special fondness for tomatoes and roses.

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