Saturday, July 26, 2014

Chicago--Where Garden Communities Matter

I know, I know. I'm behind--again. Bad blogger. I'm having a moment of inspiration, though, because out of all of my travels so far this summer (more on those in upcoming blog posts), the past 3 days in Chicagoland hanging out with buddy and fellow partner in horticultural crime, Shawna Coronado (, have been some of the most fun! Not just fun, but really garden-centric--real gardening, vegetable and flower gardening, dirt gardening. Real people, real gardeners and the kinds of gardens that are born of a love and need and desire to do better for ourselves and to do better by and for those around us.

Chicago is the first leg of a two-week-long driving trip that started in Nashville and will take me from here to Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Raleigh, Asheville and back to Nashville before it's over. The purpose of the grand tour? I'm doing the photography for an upcoming book by Charlie Nardozzi ( called "Foodscaping" and needed a wide variety of gardens and places to visit and photograph to get the needed material for the book. So, here I am and as luck had it, I'm here on the weekend of an "edible garden tour" that is happening in the Oak Park area of Chicago this weekend. This was not just a tour vegetable gardens, though--or at least not in the traditional sense. This was a tour of gardens belonging to passionate gardeners who were blending flowers, vegetables and herbs together on their urban lots to make the most of their space, both aesthetically and productively.

I can't share the photos that will eventually be a part of the book, but I can definitely share a few snapshots of some inspirational community-based gardens that are really delivering for the folks in their neighborhoods.

The first stop of the day was the Forest Park Community Garden, where people from all around the neighborhood garden in about 30 plots.

These decorative raised beds were in a nice sized green space that butted right up to the interstate, traffic whizzing by on the street above, as well as on the freeway just to the right and slightly out of view in this photo.

Inside of the fenced area (rabbits, you know) the individual garden plots were immaculately kept and held everything from traditional peppers, tomatoes and eggplants to cosmos, salvia and other flowers for cutting and bringing indoors. One gardener was even growing their own hops! I wonder how many hops it takes to make a batch of home brew?

Perhaps my favorite of all was this small garden--maybe 20' x 30', at most--just outside of the Wonder Works Children's Museum. Magnificently done, it had everything from fresh greens to tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers and even watermelons growing vertically on a sturdy trellis. Every child who comes to the facility--a creative and imaginative education center for young children up to age 8--gets to experience this garden and all it has to offer.

The watermelons at Wonder Works were growing so well they had to be supported in mesh bags on their trellis!

This innovative vegetable garden was seen at an apartment building where space was extremely limited. Gardening vertically allowed them to grow an impressive number of plants in a small space. In this simple space--about the size of a 55-gallon barrel--there were collard greens, mustard, eggplant, kale and beans all growing together and successfully producing a bountiful harvest.

Our final stop of the day was at this small community garden. The lady who tended this bed of corn and beans, as well as the two beds you can see toward the right of the photo, was so proud of what she had accomplished and ready to tell the story of her success! At the end of the day, that's what it is really all about. Inspiration. And a little elbow grease that turns into successes that turn into more inspiration. I'm already wondering what I can take out of the garden when I get home to make room for more edibles!