Spring is truly here when the garden planning begins in earnest, and in Forest Park the infallible sign of the vernal equinox is the annual Forest Park Community Garden Seed Swap. With most of the snow gone after this year’s unusually cold and oppressive winter, enthusiastic gardeners filled the gym at St. John’s Lutheran on Circle on Sunday for the growing season’s kickoff.  

The community garden itself began as a seed in the minds of garden founders Jessica Rinks and Gina Thomas.  The two women met in 2008, when they realized they were both Forest Parkers who happened to write gardening blogs and believed the village needed a place for people with no access to land to enjoy the pleasures — and fruits — of their own garden space.  Said Rinks, “We both have back yards, and felt overwhelmingly compelled to see to it that Forest Park has a community garden.  And the village has been super supportive” over the years.  [Village Administrator] Tim Gillian built our shed on a platform poured for us by the public works department.”  The village also gave the garden $40,000 as part of a Cook County Department of Health grant in 2012.

Activities Sunday included an art project for kids, who created large painted flower designs that will be weatherproofed to decorate the garden fence.  The main event, of course, was the chance to try new seeds by exchanging them with other gardeners.  Even those with nothing to swap could buy in for 50 cents a packet.  Many heirloom seeds, and those saved from year to year, were also available.  Attendees were also encouraged to sign up for an email list, with requests for items from gardeners dividing or culling plants later in the season.   Rink says the board also has “events, like barbecues, to enhance the social aspect of gardening, and get the people together for fun.”  

Former board president Rinks appeared pleased with the turnout — the tables were surrounded with gardeners poring over little packets with tiny print and tinier seeds — and admitted to a lifelong interest in growing things.  “My dad was a gardener, and my first back yard was in Forest Park.” 

She emphasized that there is no residency requirement for those who choose to rent and tend a plot in the community garden.  Rental is $50, she said, “which includes a $15 refundable security deposit and can potentially more than pay for itself in food yields alone.” An important health advantage, she pointed out, is that the garden is strictly organic:  “We do not allow users to bring in pesticides, herbicides, or Miracle-Gro.” 

 The original Forest Park Community Garden featured 12 plots rented to interested gardeners. People had to haul in their own water or wait for the fire department to fill rain barrels.  Today, the garden has grown to offer 51 raised 4 – by – 8 – foot beds, fencing and running water.   Soil to fill the raised beds is provided, including extra to top off any beds that have sunk over the winter.  

Standing on Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) land on Circle just north of the Eisenhower Expressway, the garden has so grown in popularity that there is a waiting list for people wishing to tend one of the plots.  And there is a lot more to it than rows of tomatoes:  the garden features hundreds of native plants that draw bees, butterflies, and birds.  People have augmented their plots with trellises, plastic- or net-covered hoops, and cold frames.   Those interested in renting a plot, or at least getting onto the waiting list, should contact the board by email: fpcommunitygarden@gmail.com or by phone at 708-792-3724.

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