Digging in the dirt provides much more than fresh produce for community gardeners

Although crawling on all fours in the soil may not seem natural for city dwellers, Angela Taylor disagrees.

“I don’t think gardening is for a rocket scientist,” says the 53-year-old retired social worker turned community gardener. “Make too much fuss [over] it and it will never happen. Gardening a part of nature and nature is not in a template — Just get you some space, get you some soil, get you some seeds, plant them, grow it and eat it.”

Although summer days are dwindling, it’s still possible to join up with a community garden and get in on the fall harvest. Organizations such as NeighborSpace and Connecting Chicago Community Gardens help obtain the necessary lots and tools for aspiring green thumbs all across the city. Each community garden has its own personality, and each one serves a different purpose in the city, drawing thousands of volunteers to plots around town.

LaManda Joy launched the Peterson Garden Project in 2010 to help calm the concerns of neighbors worried about food recalls and GMOs. “I grew up knowing how to grow my own food, so I thought if I taught people how to grow their own food then maybe people wouldn’t be so scared, because they could take a little bit of control into their own hands.”

Inspired by the WWII victory gardens that replaced the produce shipped overseas to the troops, Joy opened the first Peterson Garden at the intersection of Peterson and Campbell Avenues, which ended up becoming the largest edible organic garden in the city. Since then, the Peterson Garden Project teaches more than 2,650 gardeners how to properly grow their own produce, and Joy will expand that learning with cooking classes slated to start in September. “We find that a lot of people are interested in growing their own food but they don’t know what to do with it once they’ve got it, so we’re trying to close the loop on that.”

For Taylor, the benefits of a neighborhood garden have more to do with teaching discipline and life skills to the youth living in her neighborhood of Garfield Park. Since she turned the vacant lot next to her home into one of the neighborhood’s first community gardens in 2004, she’s seen the plot provide more than just fresh vegetables.

“Since the gardens have come up, a kind of negative traffic has moved itself around out of the space,” Taylor says. “The drug traffic has shifted.”

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Photo by Paulina Coletta

Other benefits that come from gardening aren’t as tangible, explains Gabriela Naveda, community greening associate with OpenLands, a land conservation group which helps maintain gardens throughout Illinois. Naveda says gardening also offers psychological benefits and physiological benefits by allowing growers to breathe the clean air produced by plants and to exert themselves in ways they haven’t before.

“There are a few areas in Chicago where there really aren’t any parks and they are really far away from the lakes and basically surrounded by cement,” Naveda says. “This is a great opportunity for them to be able to connect with a green open space. When you’re gardening, you’re pushing forth with a purpose outside of yourself and the physical work becomes more than just exercise it becomes part of something bigger.”

While the personal benefits are hard to quantify, Joy says she sees 82 percent of the Peterson Garden Project volunteers returning each year and educating the new gardeners. She says joining a community garden is as simple as researching of what type of gardening you would be interested in, filling out the volunteer paperwork and getting your hands dirty.

“Everyone has their own what I call ‘little victories’ of why they want to participate,” Joy says. “Be it from a social justice perspective or a neighborhood crime perspective or a neighborhood beautification perspective or whatever it is, these gardens really make a huge impact where they land.”

Photo by Paulina Coletta