Jessica Rinks and Gina Thomas met online through their gardening blogs in 2008. Almost ten years and many garden beds later, the pair have transformed what was once a vacant park area into the nonprofit Forest Park Community Garden.
Every year, the garden’s popularity has grown. But this gardening season it hit its peak for the first time in recent years. In years past, gardeners were allowed more than one plot to grow their vegetables, herbs and flowers. But for the past three years, due to increased demand for the garden, Rinks and Thomas have instituted a rule restricting each family to one plot, which means that 54 independent gardeners from Forest Park, Oak Park, River Forest and more have all been tilling the soil.
Rinks said the recent shutter of the Root-Riot community garden in Oak Park has helped drive up membership.
“I know when that garden was forced to shut we did get some extra interest from people who had been gardeners there,” Rinks said.
These new gardeners have added to what Rinks said is an important community for her in Forest Park. Rinks grew up in Tennessee and moved to Illinois to pursue her master’s degree. She said she didn’t know many people in Forest Park before the garden, and wonders what her future would have been like if she hadn’t started the space.
“Would I still be relatively sort of isolated?” she asked. “Whereas now, I feel like I have this really great community of people.”
Kimberly Adami-Hasegawa, who sits on the board of directors, moved to Forest Park in 2010. She discovered the garden through Forest Park’s annual Saint Paddy’s Day parade, when Rinks and others handed out packets of seeds instead of candy to spread the word about the garden.
“I was like, ‘Oh that would be so much fun to have a plot at the garden’ and so we applied,” Adami-Hasegawa said.
Eight years later, she agrees that the community garden has grown her friend group.
“We really made friends at the garden, that’s where our entire Forest Park friend group stems from…for us it was a good community bridge,” Adami-Hasegawa said.
Each gardener pays $50 to own a plot, though food grown from five of the plots this year is being donated to the local food pantry, a partnership that was established since almost the beginning of the garden’s history.
In 2009, a group started fundraising to build a community garden. Funds generated through a bake sale and plant sale were enough to build 10 plots. The next year, the group raised enough to expand the garden to 30 spaces.
Then, in 2011 the garden received money from the village to expand the number of plots to 54, as well as construct a fence, shed and water spigot and plant native plants along the side of Harlem Avenue. The new plots provided an excess of food, and volunteer gardeners agreed that a “Giving Garden” should be built to dedicate food to the food pantry at the Howard Mohr Community Center.
Though, it’s not always food and flowers that gardeners grow.
“There is one family that has a little fairy garden in their plot which is totally cute,” Adami-Hasegawa said.
For the past three years, Rinks has noticed a gardener who is cultivating hops.
“We all joked that they need to brew a community garden beer then we can have a community garden beer tasting,” Rinks said, adding that there is a strict no alcohol rule in the garden.
She said she is focused on recruiting more people to serve on the board of the directors. Those interested in joining the community garden board should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I do hope that there continue to be people who want to take on leadership roles…we really need people who are willing to give their time and mental capacity to serve those roles,” she said.