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Love of the land: From pumpkins to pansies, the Reillys keep things growing beautifully

Thursday, October 12, 2000

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Get Mike Reilly talking about his second career as a pumpkin farmer and garden store proprietor, and an amazing thing happens.

In 1983, Col. Michael Reilly (with wife Cherie) retired from the Marines and bought his father's acreage in Ohio Township with the dream of making it into a productive farm that would support his family of six. He succeeded. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

The eyes light up, his mouth curves into an easy smile and the hard, no-nonsense edges acquired from a 20-year career with the military magically evaporate. The man positively glows.

It hardly matters if he's explaining how he goes about each winter deciding which new plants to add to his inventory of more than 2,000 perennials and annuals, or simply waxing poetic about the pleasure of losing yourself among things that not only look pretty and smell good but offer one of the most elusive perks in today's busy lifestyle: peace and quiet.

It all makes him feel good.

"There's such a sense of accomplishment in seeing how things develop and grow," he says, relaxing -- for just a minute -- in the cozy living room of his century-old farmhouse in Ohio Township, just a stone's throw from dozens of youngsters oohing and aahing their way to his 6-acre pumpkin patch aboard a giant tractor. "And I always want to make it bigger and better and more beautiful."

And don't forget more customer-friendly.

It isn't enough that people who travel to Reilly's Summer Seat Farm & Garden Center find just what they're seeking for their garden or patio or window box -- the process of discovery has to be just as pleasant.

"I want them to feel like they're walking into a garden and not a store," Reilly says. The experience, he adds, "should surround them."

His wife, Cherie, listening with a smile, nods.

"This is not a job for Mike," she says. "It's a passion."

Little wonder, then, that over the past 17 years Reilly's has grown from simply a good place to raise a family (the couple has four grown children) to a working farm loved by children, weekend green-thumbers and serious gardeners.

Fun at the farm during festival season

If you go …

Reilly’s Summer Seat Farm & Garden Center, 1120 Roosevelt Road, Ohio Township, is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 31. Cherie Reilly’s “Pumpkin Patch Proverbs & Pies” costs $9.95 and is available at the center, as well as at Borders Books & Music at the Northway Mall, Ross.

For directions, call 412-364-8270.


In the spring and summer, its six greenhouses draw customers from as far away as Ohio; in the fall, hundreds of schoolchildren and families make the annual pilgrimage to Reilly's to crawl through the cornstalk maze, roast marshmallows over a bonfire or take a hayride to the Great Pumpkin Patch, where they ferret through the thousands of Jumping Jacks, Spookies, Baby Bears and Sugar Pie pumpkins in search of the perfect jack-o'-lantern.

The farm, which today totals 82 acres, was originally part of the "depreciation lands" set aside for George Washington's troops after the Revolutionary War. Richard Somers, a Philadelphia farmer, was awarded a 334-acre parcel of land in 1786 for his service and named it "Summer Seat." Shortly after, he sold it to land speculators.

In 1819, the O'Neil family, Irish immigrants, purchased the original log cabin and a tract of land and farmed it for the next four generations. In 1941, the family went bankrupt and sold its homestead and 37 acres to Reilly's parents, Thomas and Dora Reilly. Thomas, 93, still lives on the farm.

Mike Reilly's love of the land started early, long before he left home to study agriculture and biological science at Penn State University in State College in 1958 after graduating from North Catholic.

One of eight children, Reilly, 60, grew up on the farm that bears his name. Though it was not a full-time working farm at the time, there were plenty of chores: milking the cows, weeding the garden, digging ditches, putting up hay.

"My father always says, 'If I've done nothing else, I've taught my boys to work,' " Mike recalls with a laugh.

Cherie, too, spent her youth on a farm, though halfway across the country in South Dakota, where her parents raised cattle and grew grain.

Cherie Reilly is framed by corn stalks while walking through her farm in Ohio Township. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"I spend the first 20 years of my life praying for rain," Cherie says, laughing.

Though Mike Reilly would have liked to put his education to use on the farm, it wasn't large enough to make a living. Instead, he joined the Marine Corps. Following a tour in Vietnam, he met Cherie in California, where she was teaching elementary school, and the couple spent time on both coasts. They also lived for two years in Morocco and three years in Okinawa, Japan.

But he never quite forgot his roots, or the joy of being one with the earth.

"I'd come home from work and just dig," he remembers. "I took all my stress out on the garden."

In 1983, Reilly, then 43, retired from the Marines. Too young to stop working, he decided it was time to come back to Pittsburgh, buy the land from his father and -- after purchasing some adjoining acreage -- begin anew as a farmer. And, he says with a chuckle, turn his own children into farm slaves.

Pick-your-own strawberry and raspberry farms were quite profitable in the '80s, and after a lot of research, Reilly figured he could probably make a living at it.

First the property -- it still boasts the barn built in 1909 to replace one that burned -- had to be made into a farm.

Cherie recalls clearing the land, ridding it of decades' growth of weeds and then grading so fields could be developed. The couple, who did much of the work themselves, also laid one mile of irrigation lines and catch basins so water wouldn't run down the field every time it rained.

Because it would take about four years before the first strawberry crop, the Reillys decided to turn six acres into a pumpkin patch. A year later, in 1986, they had their first crop. They also tried growing hydroponic vegetables -- and quickly went broke.

Needing something to put in the greenhouses, they opted for bedding plants -- impatiens, geraniums, pansies and, eventually, most everything else a gardener could want.

Every year it was fewer vegetables and more flowers, says Cherie, so by the early '90s, the farm had developed into a full-grown garden center.

Today, in addition to berries in the spring, flowers, plants and trees in the summer and pumpkins in the fall, Reilly's specializes in what Mike calls the "new, different and unusual" that add color and texture. This summer, for example, he offered sweet potato vines and angelonia, a fragrant, heat-resistant plant that bursts into big spikes of purple flowers.

This fall's hot buys include purple aguga, a cover perennial that "glistens" when the cold weather hits; bergenia, a plant with big, wide leaves that turn red-purple by Thanksgiving; and grasses such as carex.

No matter where he is -- and that includes on vacation -- Reilly is looking for anything different that has potential.

Coming up with new ideas is far from his only challenge. He says the business of running a farm has so many pieces, it's staggering.

In addition to deciding more than 100 pages of inventory, Reilly orders the plants and fertilizer, plans a planting schedule and figures out what plant goes where. There are also 22 fields to soil test, seeds to start in his basement grow chamber and "babies" and cuttings to cultivate. And all the time, he's looking forward to the next season.

While it's not her passion, Cherie, too, has come to eat, sleep and breathe the farm. The former teacher is responsible for the educational programs -- the spring strawberry tours and fall school visits,as well as the night hay rides in October for Scouts and other groups.

She is also the farm's PR person. In the early '90s, customers didn't always realize when they were open, so Cherie developed a newsletter. That once-a-year missive has grown to one newsletter a month for the 3,000 or so North Hills residents on the mailing list. Along with a listing of what's new, she says, it includes "little tips about the wonderful plants we just sold you."

Over the years, Cherie has kept track of all that's happened on the farm and, after taking a few writing courses, she decided to write those stories down and self-publish a book. The paperback tome, "Pumpkin Patch Proverbs & Pies," was printed this fall.

The essays are accompanied by pumpkin recipes from pumpkin growers across the country. The patchwork quilt illustrations and proverbs at the end of each story add a touch of whimsy. For example, a story about an unpleasant duck named Howard who gets run over by a car posits this little jewel: If you have an ugly appearance and disposition, don't cross the road.

"They're sort of my little aha! moments, when I thought, I've learned something here," Cherie says.

Living and learning the farm life, after all, is what Reilly's Summer Seat Farm is all about. Places like Home Depot and other mega garden centers, well, they just sell plants. Reilly's, says its owner, does it for love.

"You have to enjoy what you see and smell and putting it all together," he says.

Mike Reilly pauses, then smiles. He's glowing again. "It's a way of life."

If you go

Reilly's Summer Seat Farm & Garden Center, 1120 Roosevelt Road, Ohio Township, is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 31. Cherie Reilly's "Pumpkin Patch Proverbs & Pies" costs $9.95 and is available at the center, as well as at Borders Books & Music at the Northway Mall, Ross.

For directions, call 412-364-8270.

Related Recipes:

The Big Pumpkin Brulee
Gloria's Sensational Double Layer Pumpkin Pie
Jody's Pumpkin Cheese Cake

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