IRVING PARK — Kilbourn Park will have thousands of seedlings for sale at this weekend's annual plant sale, a number all the more impressive considering the park's greenhouse lacks a fair amount of one of the essential components in the growing cycle: light.
"That is my major issue — not getting sufficient sun," said Donald Choy, in his first year as manager of the greenhouse for the Chicago Park District, having spent the previous 13 years at the Lincoln Park and Garfield Park conservatories.
Patty Wetli joins DNAinfo Radio to talk about the Kilbourn Park greenhouse:
The greenhouse, at 3501 N. Kilbourn Ave., was built in 1928 and once served as a source of plantings for the entire park district. Over the years, whether due to vandalism or age, the building's glass roof fell into disrepair and was replaced with less expensive fiberglass.
Fiberglass, Choy noted, decays until it becomes opaque, which is hardly ideal for a greenhouse. Plant stems weaken, he explained, as they stretch sun-ward.
As Choy was deep in the throes of generating seedlings for his first plant sale — he brought in eight heavy-duty fluorescent light fixtures to mimic Mother Nature — word came that $350,000 in Tax Increment Financing dollars had been allocated to remedy the greenhouse's solar problems.
The funding will cover new roof and side panels that will bring in more light and create a more weather-tight enclosure.
The announcement was welcome news to Jeanne McNulty, acting president of Friends of Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse. The group had been attempting to raise money for greenhouse improvements on its own, springing for fans in 2012.
"We have an active volunteer base and everyone did their best to get the word out," McNulty said. "It probably would have taken a long, long time."
Since 1996, the greenhouse has operated as an educational facility, with a mission of bringing urbanites, especially children, closer to nature and local food. Programs include gardening classes for adults and an after-school session for kids age 7 through 12.
Choy worked with the youngsters over the winter to start plants from seeds and encouraged the children to eat what they sowed, picking off sprigs of parsley and leaves of kale.
"Some taste it and spit it out," he said. "But for some it's like candy."
The plant sale, scheduled for May 17 and 18, is Kilbourn Park's showcase event, largely run by volunteers.
Facing stiff competition from garden centers and big box stores for consumers' dollars, Kilbourn Park emphasizes that its plants are organically grown, many of them from heirloom seeds.
Choy has placed his own stamp on the sale by focusing on plants particularly well suited for urban gardens' tight quarters, including more self-contained varieties of space hogs like melons and squash.
"I chose a lot that are more compact and stay that way," said Choy, who grows his own tomatoes against a fence.
Edible flowers such as marigolds and nasturtiums — there's even a variety with foliage that can be used like tarragon — promise to be another unique draw, and McNulty said she suspects seedlings of the famous Ghost pepper, one of the hottest chiles in the world, will be a "conversation piece."
Veteran visitors to the plant sale should have no fear: McNulty promised that tomatoes would still be front and center at the event.
"I don't think anyone will go home without a tomato," she said.
Any seedlings remaining at the end of the weekend will be up for grabs at a half-price sale, May 21.
"That's kind of a popular, low-key day," said McNulty. "Gardeners can always find room for another plant."
The Kilbourn Park plant sale will run 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Plants are $2 to $5 each, cash only. Master gardeners from the University of Illinois Extension service will be on hand to answer questions.