As the gardening season comes to a close, members of the Forest Park Community Garden met for the first time on Sept. 20 to discuss ways to improve the group and, more specifically, to address security issues.

Some members have said they’ve felt threatened at times while working alone in the village-owned garden on Harlem Avenue near Interstate 290. On one occasion, a couple went to tend to their two plots, and a man stood facing the garden, exposing himself with his pants down. In another instance, a woman left her purse on a picnic table, and when she walked over by her garden plot, she saw a man going through her bag.

“Nothing has happened to anybody,” said Gina Thomas, the group’s vice president. “There are just things that are making people nervous. The gardeners are feeling threatened.”

Representatives of the Forest Park Police Department attended the meeting and offered tips to the gardeners, emphasizing that it is OK for them to call the police if they ever feel uncomfortable.

At the same time, the police learned how the garden works – in that each plot is tended individually – so as to better monitor the area.

“We want people to feel safe,” said Jessica Rinks, president of the Community Garden, which is in its second year. “At this point we are able to take a step back and address some things that we neglected before. We are new to this, too.”

Some ideas that the members discussed included wearing lanyards with some type of a membership card so that other people can tell if they belong in the garden.

This summer, theft was on the rise as people reported more missing vegetables than they remembered from last year.

“Yea, we would get that car that stops and somebody takes their grocery bag around to all the different plots,” Thomas said. She noted, though, that vegetable theft has been up at community gardens all across the Chicago area.

Kim and Brad Zandstra, who grow tomatoes, peppers, celery, brussel sprouts, cauliflower and red cabbage in two plots at the garden, said they’ve had some minor thefts over the summer.

“We’ve had a few plants plucked from the ground, some ripe tomatoes pulled from the vine and somebody cut half the stalks off the brussel sprouts,” said Kim Zandstra, 46.

In meeting each other for the first time at the meeting, though, the group is hoping it will help everyone to recognize who should be working on the land. They also talked about implementing a buddy system so that no one works at the garden alone.

“We can all kind of watch out for each other now,” said Leo DeJoy, who grows tomatoes, swiss chard, peppers and brussel sprouts in his section.

DeJoy also said it will help them all grow together as a community, now that they have been introduced to one another.

“Some people have different talents that we can tap into,” he said. “I know more about flower gardening, so I might be able to help someone with landscape or design or recommend plants for the shade. At the same time, this couple is really good at tomatoes.”

The Community Garden now has 30 plots among 19 gardeners. The group – run by volunteers – earned status as a non-profit organization last month, which enables them to apply for grants and also engage in fundraising in which the donations are tax deductable.