Gardeners hope their pitch for community plot takes root

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By Marty Farmer

In 1975 the community shared a plot of land on the south side of Forest Park where residents toiled in the dirt, growing vegetables and raising flowers. The community garden, which was located around the Industrial Drive area of Forest Park, had a successful run before closing in 1979 with 260 plots - 100 more than when it started.

Today, Forest Park residents Jessica Rink and Gina Garrison have begun lobbying for a new community garden in town that they say would offer economic, ecological, educational and social benefits.

A community garden is a green space shared by an entire community for the purpose of growing vegetables, flowers and herbs. Rink and Garrison, who are both from Tennessee and share a love of organic gardening, are excited about the prospect.

"The idea for a community garden really started about two or three months ago," Rink said. "I have a blog where I mentioned that I'd like to start a community garden in Forest Park and Gina saw it. Soon after, we were making plans on how we could make it happen."

Garrison called the municipality to inquire about the process of pitching the idea. Since that initial contact, the two friends have put together a Web site (www.fpcommunitygarden.com), attended a pair of Forest Park Recreation Board meetings, spoken with Commissioner of Public Property Martin Tellalian, distributed flyers to local businesses and held an organizational meeting on June 25.

Last week, per the recommendation of the Recreation Commission, Rink planned on attending the Fourth of July celebration at the Park District grounds to collect signatures for a petition demonstrating people's interest in a community garden. The petition will be presented at the village's next council meeting, she said.

On their Web site, Rink and Garrison have also posted a survey to determine what community members might like to do with such a plot.

"We're starting from scratch but we have already made good progress," Rink said. "We had over 20 people show up for our meeting [on June 25] and some people signed up to help out with a fundraising committee. For our second meeting with the Recreation Commission, we doubled our numbers, and we gave a power point presentation, which they were impressed with."

Although there are two other possible spots for the community garden, the ideal location Rink targeted sits along Harlem Avenue, just north of the westbound on-ramp to Interstate 290. It is owned by the Illinois Department of Transportation and leased to the Park District.

"It's our favorite location because it's centrally located and visible," she said. "The location is also good from a security standpoint."

The tentative timeline would be to till the soil next fall so planting could begin around March of next year.

"If we had permission to use the land, there are several things we would need to do," Rink said. "We need to patch the fence because it has a few holes, put in a security gate, have a soil test, and check on water availability at that location."

According to Rink, the community garden will require 6,000-square feet of "sunny" space. She estimated the garden would cost $3,000 to $5,000 to start up.

Of course, the community garden proposal is still very much in the formative stages. Rink said she's not yet spoken to the Park District about gaining access to the small, largely unused park along Harlem Avenue. Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone said he is aware of the effort to start the garden, but knows few of the details.

"If people want to have it, I wouldn't put up any roadblocks," Calderone said. "Of course, we want to understand who would do it, how it would get done, and all kinds of information, especially if it involves using village resources."

Rink and Garrison have been focusing on generating community interest and fundraising.

"We don't have any money, we're starting from scratch," Rink said. "It was great news to hear that there used to be a community garden [here] back in the 1970s. It means that this community has proven that it will support a community garden."

Rink, who envisions the garden also having a seating area, picnic tables and a tool shed, said the plot would serve as a valuable education tool for children as well. Gardening can teach kids about science, ecology and where their food comes from, said Rink, who suggested that local schools could harvest a plot.

"At this time in the country, it's good to think about growing food locally," Rink said. "A community garden is a good way to harvest organic food and actually understand where our food comes from. It also can be a place where people can enjoy beauty and get to know their neighbors."

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