As she toiled under a hot afternoon sun, Gina Thomas took a break from constructing a series of raised garden beds to consider the creeping traffic on nearby Harlem Avenue. For a year now, Thomas and Jessica Rinks have been working toward this day and were delighted to see their hopes of a community garden become a reality. That neighbors will be planting in a small park near the junction with the Eisenhower Expressway is a good thing, said Thomas, because more people will see what a young and hip community Forest Park is.
“We really like the fact that it’s right here,” Thomas said.
For four hours on Saturday, June 27, more than a half-dozen volunteers hammered together wooden pens that they filled with a mix of compost and top soil, creating Forest Park’s first public planting space in decades. For $25 a year, green thumbs can rent a 4-foot by 8-foot plot and work toward the taste of homegrown tomatoes, beans, corn or any combination of vegetables and flowers they like. Rinks and Thomas also hope to organize monthly classes on gardening, provide a small selection of tools for people to share and, perhaps most importantly, see their neighbors take an interest in the community.
“I want this place to be jam packed with flowers and happy people,” Rinks said.
While the group was busy building, curiosity got the best of a nearby resident who ended up renting two of the plots. At the end of the afternoon, only three of the garden beds had not been claimed, according to Rinks.
“The community has been really supportive,” Thomas said. “Now that we actually have something to garden with, we hope people come out of the woodwork.”
The garden sits in a sun-drenched plot of grass that is owned by the state. The park district leases the site and gave the volunteers permission to use it. A local business, McAdam Landscaping, donated the top soil and compost to get the project started.
The community garden is still in its infancy and Thomas and Rinks are looking for additional volunteers. They also recognize the greatest shortcoming of the location is that there’s no water available. To tap into a nearby municipal water main would cost about $7,000, they said. So in the meantime, gardeners will have to bring water to the plants.
Theresa Browning, a 35-year-old Madison Street condo resident, has had some success growing tomatoes and jalapeno peppers on her balcony, but she’s never managed a garden as substantial as the one she’s now renting. Browning got her hands dirty and her brow sweaty on Saturday, and said the effort is part of the reward.
“That’s kind of the whole point of it too, to have ownership of it,” Browning said.
She got involved after spotting a flier and, having moved to Forest Park in 2005, figured it might be a good way to meet new people. She helped Thomas and Rinks with a fundraising event where she made a few connections, and on Saturday the volunteers were all unfamiliar faces.
Julia Moran Martz was the first to rent a garden plot and has been helping Thomas and Rinks gain support for the project. She planted her bed using a strategy employed by Native Americans in which the corn stalks serve as a trellis for bean plants. Moran Martz has a garden at her Oak Park home, but this site gets more sun, she said, so she can try different things.
Gardening strategies and tips are part of what Rinks hopes to impart to her neighbors. In 2008, she completed the Chicago Master Gardener Program offered through the University of Illinois Extension in cooperation with Cook County. Rinks said that the recession and heightened awareness of food sources could make this a great time to begin a community garden.