Somewhere behind the two busy intersecting urban highways on the northern edge of Chicago, there’s a large piece of land occupied by a community golf course, an animal shelter, a garbage recycling centre and the James Park Community Gardens.
The gardens are no more than 1.49 acres and yet they’re a site in which as many as 40 amateur farmers come at all hours of the day and night to tend their postage-stamp size pieces of land.
“Community gardens have become so popular these days that people have to apply for a plot. And then they are selected lottery-style,” says Robin Gaston, a retired senior auditor for Hewlett-Packard. He got lucky three years ago, winning the lottery that allowed her to start a small garden of her own.
“I’d never been into gardening before, but when my friend Sue asked me to water her plants while she was away, I saw the appeal of being out in the open air and watching the way plants grow,” says Robin who adds she loves harvesting crops that she frequently transforms into healthy meals.
She also enjoys sharing her bumper crops with friends and neighbours alike.
Out of the 40 odd gardeners at James Park, some are like Robin - retirees with leisure time on their hands.
Meanwhile, others rely on the crops they grow to feed their families or at least supplement their diets with fresh fruits and vegetables which they’re assured have no harmful chemicals sprayed on them.
Technically, the land belongs to the City of Evanston and is overseen by a lands department head. But once a person pays a minimal annual fee ($80 or Sh8,240), she or he has access to all sorts of benefits.
“We each get the key code to enter the garden. And once inside we have access to wheelbarrows, shovels and other gardening equipment,” says Robin.
“We also have access to water and hoses so we can keep our gardens green and thriving.” Having spent all her working life behind computers, analysing company spread sheets and problem-solving in a transnational company, Robin says gardening has ensured she doesn’t miss the corporate world at all.
Having a plot that’s around 15 feet long and 10 feet wide, she’s been able to grow everything from beans, broccoli and Brussel sprouts to kale (sukuma wiki), Swiss chard, yellow squash and zucchini as well as egg plants, tomatoes and green peppers.
“But I’ve been in battle with the bunnies from the beginning,” Robin says.
“Last season they destroyed my beans and nearly finished my lettuce. But this year, I’ve gotten better at fencing so I think my veggies will be okay.”
Fortunately, the bunnies are not as keen on munching Robin’s spices so she grows everything from mint and oregano to “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” the latter a lyric that had me humming the Simon and Garfunkel classic tune the rest of our morning in the gardens.
I got to hum while my friend weeded and harvested scads of yellow squash, parsley and thyme. I had anticipated meeting some of other gardeners who I’d been told were regulars in the gardens.
There was the African American man who’d been tending his garden plot for the past 20 years and who’d given Robin invaluable advice when she first started out.
Then there was the Eastern European gentleman who’d constructed a beautiful trellis at his garden gate on which he had draped raspberry vines, the berries of which were just starting to ripen as we passed by.
The temptation to snitch one or two was almost overpowering; but seeing how careful members of the gardens were not to intrude on one another’s territory, I felt compelled to abide by their invisible ethic and kept my fingers to myself.
After she’d finished weeding, Robin gave me a ‘grand tour’ of the gardens where I saw almost every postage-stamp sized plot proliferating with leafy greens, be they pumpkin, kale, Swiss chard or sundry spices.
What I especially loved was the way Robin brought all her veggie left-overs from home and threw them into her ‘compost tumbler’, a manual machine that provided her with all the organic fertiliser she needed to grow beautiful vegetables, like to yellow squash, baby tomatoes and parsley that I took home that warm sunny day.
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