August 24, 2012 by Robin Plaskoff Horton
I’ve just returned from Chicago, where I spent some time with my friend, LaManda Joy, Founder and President of The Peterson Garden Project, a revival Victory Garden venture she conceived in 2010 to encourage new generations of urbanites to grow their own food. While there, Joy shared with me the city’s neighborhoods and gardens, including several that The Peterson Garden Project has transformed from trash-filled vacant lots into productive community gardens.
The Seed of an Idea
Two years ago, while on the road significantly for business, Joy’s husband suggested that since she loved gardening, she might occupy her evenings researching the history of victory gardens. She did, and in the process discovered that from 1942-1945 an empty lot on Chicago’s Peterson Avenue was part of an original WWII Victory Garden. This historical factoid propelled Joy to approach Chicago Alderman Pat O’Connor asking for his assistance in negotiating with the lot owners to obtain approval for its conversion into a modern day victory garden. The Alderman was overwhelmingly supportive, the property owners agreed, a waiver of liability was signed, and the Peterson Garden Project was born–or perhaps “reborn.”
During WWII, to help overcome wartime food shortages, the government encouraged Americans to grow their own fruits and vegetables in ”Victory Gardens.” In the name of patriotism, nearly 20 million Americans responded. They pooled resources and planted away in backyards, empty lots, and rooftops. Overnight, urban dwellers became farmers.
…And Victory Now
Joy’s parents, who taught her to garden, are one of her biggest inspirations. “My parents grew up during World War II,” Joy told me. “Like everyone in that generation, if there was a problem, they stepped up to fix it. When I spoke to my mother about food issues, she just said to me, ‘a little less talk, a little more action.’”
Joy’s vision is for Chicago’s urban residents to become farmers like they were 70 years ago–this time in temporary pop-up gardens lasting through the growing season. Even those Chicagoans with no gardening experience are profiting from the experience as they learn “from the ground up.”
The original Peterson Avenue garden no longer exists, but what began as a single garden has now evolved into a project, consisting of five gardens on Chicago’s underserved north side and another 3-5 projected for next year.
Learning in Style Outside the Garden
In a short time, The Peterson Garden Project is well on its way, not just in delivering its message about the importance of growing one’s own food, but also in cultivating community. And they are doing so in style. Witness the project’s new Learning Center where a team of friends and volunteers directed by Patrick Ewing and Mark Kanazawa, transformed an entire raw space using only found and recycled materials.
For a GardenChat party at the Learning Center, ordinary cans upcycled into lights. Photo: robin Horton, Urban Gardens.
The talented Ewing-Kanazawa duo come equipped with some creative expertise: when they are not dumpster diving for pallets and other usable objects in and around Chicago’s back allies, Patrick is Windows Manager for the Ralph Lauren Chicago flagship store and Mark is Toy & General Gift Buyer for the Field Museum Stores. So designing planters from pallets, lights from rusted tin cans, upcycling ladders into magazine racks and tin drums into cocktail tables, comes quite naturally to the two Peterson volunteers.
A fence at the learning Center with hanging mason jars and Authentic Haven Brand manure teas. Photo: Robin Horton, Urban Gardens.
In addition to classes, the Learning Center will offer roundables on specific topics with experts in the field, will feature authors, and show films. Community building events like Food Swaps are in the works, where individuals will exchange homegrown and homemade foods. There are more plant sales planned and perhaps a holiday market featuring artists in the gardens.
To broaden the message about urban vegetable gardening, The Peterson Garden Project has partnered to establish the The Edible Treasures Garden, a community garden on the West Terrace of the Chicago Field Museum, one of the country’s greatest natural history museums.
In partnership with the Field Museum, Jewell Events & Catering, and Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), the largest non-profit seed bank in the United States, this Peterson Garden Project effort will introduce visitors to the value and diversity of heirloom seeds.
Focusing on growing “seeds with stories,” SSE founder Diane Ott Whealey selected heirloom edible plants to demonstrate how seed saving allows gardeners to preserve history by passing down specific homegrown vegetables from generation to generation.
Museum employees donate their time to tend the garden which was designed (drawing above) by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, installed by Kemora Landscape Designs, and featured in a video by Dig In Chicago, a new TV program for the windy city’s area outdoor enthusiasts about enjoying outdoor living spaces.
A Growing Project
“We’ll continue to fine tune food education,” explained Joy when I asked her what was in store down the road. “And we are considering adding a cooking component.” The cooking piece is such a natural extension for this program–learning first where your food comes from, then learning to prepare it. If you are a regular reader here, you know that I love the synergy and interconnection between growing, cooking, and serving. Who knows, perhaps there’ll be a Peterson Garden Project Café in the future?
“Okay…coming in this evening was quite spectacular,” recounted Les, a Peterson Garden volunteer. “People were already working in the garden and as time went on, people were bringing in plants, shovels, and their excited faces; ready to plant in their wonderful garden space! Definitely was a great feeling just watching these people. I didn’t even work on my plot because I didn’t want to take up any shovels or wheelbarrows, they seem so happy to work and I didn’t want to stop them!!! So fun and I’m so happy to be part of this. I just kept thinking as the next group kept coming, about the movie “Field of Dreams,” …”if you build it, they will come.”