Forest Park’s nearly year-old community garden got bigger this weekend as the neighborhood spirit behind it got stronger. Saturday morning, volunteers built wooden frames for 15 new raised garden beds, which will double the growing capacity of the village’s public planting space.

To water all of these prospective plants, a company called Upcycle donated 10 rain barrels. Public Works will fill these with its water truck, saving gardeners the chore of lugging water.

Public Works Director John Doss has a natural affinity for helping out the community gardens. Back in the 1970s, his mother, Eloise Doss, was in charge of the village’s community gardens along Industrial Drive. These gardens had an underground watering system, donated by a Forest Park business. Besides the fresh vegetables these beds provided, the gardens were a popular gathering place for growers to socialize.

Promoting social interaction was one of the goals that Community Gardens President Jessica Rinks had in mind when she helped launch the project last June. She and Vice President Gina Thomas also want to educate community members and schoolchildren about the benefits of homegrown vegetables.

“We’re hankering to help Forest Park as much as we can,” Thomas said. “We would like to educate Forest Park children about gardening, perhaps by building gardens on school property.”

This hasn’t been proposed to Elementary School District 91 but other innovations are already in place. Two beds have been set aside at the garden entrance solely for the benefit of the local populace. One will be a help-yourself flower garden; the other will be a help-yourself herb garden.

In keeping with their focus on charity, Rinks and Thomas will keep three beds to grow vegetables for donation to the food pantry, through the auspices of Forest Park’s new farmers’ market.

“Last year, we took vegetables to a soup kitchen in Austin,” Rinks said. “This year, we’ll have a table at the farmers’ market, where patrons of the food pantry can select vegetables. Usually, pantries have to hand out processed vegetables. These will be fresh.”

The community garden in a park on Harlem Avenue just north of the Eisenhower Expressway on Harlem. It’s owned by the Illinois Department of Transportation and leased to the Park District.

About 75 people are on the community garden mailing list. All 15 existing beds have been rented. Yearly rental of a bed is $30, with help available for anyone who can’t afford the fee. The garden’s annual budget of $1,500 comes from fundraisers. For example, garden members sold buckets with seeds to children for $5 apiece and quickly ran out of buckets.

The leaders have also applied for tax-exempt status for their nonprofit organization. Once that is approved, they will be eligible for community grants.

The money they raise goes toward buying the frames and soil for each bed. They are planning a maximum of 40 beds for the south half of the park, leaving the northern half as green space for neighboring residents.

Among the volunteers who helped build frames Saturday was Drew Harrison. Harrison moved to Forest Park in August and was immediately interested in the community garden. His motivation was mostly environmental and partly financial.

“We’re growing peppers, because they’re expensive to buy,” Harrison said. “We also wanted to build ties with the community by meeting like-minded people.” Harrison’s living room looks like a mad agricultural experiment, with 230 plants taking root in an array of receptacles.

As for building ties with Forest Park through gardening, Gina Thomas will second that. The Tennessee native declared, “I’ve never lived anywhere where I felt so connected with a community.”

Want to help?

The new beds will be installed this Sunday, May 23, from 9 a.m. to noon.

It will be BYOB – Bring Your Own ‘Barrow.

The Forest Park Community Garden is on Harlem Avenue, just north of the westbound on-ramp to Interstate 290.

The group will also be planting tulip bulbs and sowing seeds for annuals. If you have plants to donate, this would be a good time to bring them by.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.