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Wanna Start a Community Garden? Experts Tell How to Give Root to Your Idea

By Patty Wetli | February 1, 2013 10:39am

RAVENSWOOD MANOR — It's called "lot lust" — the feeling that comes over a person when staring at a parcel of vacant land, picturing it lush with raised beds of tomatoes, zucchinis and cucumbers.

Most people never act on the emotion. LaManda Joy, founder of the Peterson Garden Project, turned it into her life's mission and is now sharing her experience with other like-minded dreamers.

"I see all these lots around our neighborhood. I just don't have any idea where to start," said Gillian Hastings, a member of Silent Theatre Co., which rents a loft space in Bucktown.

Where to start was precisely the theme of an information session led by Joy and Maribeth Brewer, a member of PGP's leadership team.

"We get lots of emails about, 'Hey, we want to start a community garden. Can I meet you for coffee and pick your brain?' " said Joy.

A recent Q&A held at PGP's Learning Center, 4642 N. Francisco Ave., killed a number of coffee klatches with one stone, drawing more than a dozen attendees from all parts of the city.

"There's no one way to do a garden, there's a jillion ways to do that," said Joy. "But you have to have land, you have to have water, and you need a community."

Joy found all three at the corner of Campbell and Peterson avenues (hence the name Peterson Garden Project) where unused land owned by Asian Human Services became PGP's first garden in 2010.

The non-profit volunteer organization now operates a string of gardens on Chicago's North Side (along with an Edible Treasures Garden at The Field Museum), involving more than 2,500 gardeners who become members for $65 which includes education, materials and a 4-foot by 8-foot raised bed, with PGP providing all of the raw materials.

That's the kind of success others are eager to replicate, whether it's developing programs for hospital patients or creating raised beds at their condo building.

"I don't think I have any special qualities," said Joy, who originally hails from rural Oregon and moved to Chicago in 1994. "I knew how to garden and had this interest."

Though Chicago has lagged cities such as Seattle in developing community gardens, it has a history rich in small-scale food production, according to Joy.

The daughter of what she terms "greatest-generation" parents, Joy has extensively studied Victory Gardens established during WWII and discovered some astounding statistics: In the 1940s, Chicagoans established 1,500 community gardens and more than 250,000 people started home gardens.

PGP taps into that tradition — Joy's first object of lot lust turned out to be the site of a former Victory Garden — while at the same time playing on the current "back to the land" movement. It's common for PGP's garden plots to sell out in 24 hours.

"People are so wired in these days," said Krzysztof Piotrowski, also a member of the Silent Theatre Co. "What kind of world do you want to live in? It's about maintaining a human connection."

In walking attendees through the PGP playbook, Joy's first piece of advice: Do your homework in advance on the land you're hoping to use — get the property's PIN, investigate tax records, try to identify the owner — and then present a plan to your alderman.

Joy boasts a particularly strong relationship with Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th), who paved the way for the original Peterson Garden.

"They have removed every obstacle," she said of O'Connor's staff, but cautioned "some [aldermen] see it as a lot of work."

Be sure to cozy up to neighbors as well.

"People don't like finding out about things second hand," said Brewer. "Flyer the neighbors, make people a part of it."

Those same folks might just be a garden's best source of water, which is often an organizer's greatest challenge, even more so than securing the land. PGP has obtained water, either free or for a nominal fee, from adjacent homeowners.

Next, practice your pitch to the property owner.

Stars Garden, which PGP organized for the 2012 growing season, was situated on the former home of the Stars Motel, 6100 N. Lincoln Ave., which was demolished in 2006 to make way for a condo development that never materialized.

"Stars was junky, trashiness. The neighbors hated it, the alderman kept fining it," Joy said of the vacant lot. "It's really good for the community to beautify these spaces. It helps deter crime and improve property values."

In fact, PGP made Stars so attractive, the owner reclaimed the land for 2013, putting development plans back on the front burner.

Which brought Joy to another lesson: Be prepared to let go of what you build.

PGP is specific about its intentions when recruiting gardeners. The organization's land leases tend to be temporary — typically for two to three years — with the primary mission being to create lifelong gardeners, not lifelong gardens.

"It's great to give people the training wheels to go out and do it," said Joy.

Still, many become attached to what they view as "their" garden.

"The neighbor at Peterson, when she learned we were moving, she broke down and cried," said Brewer.

Ultimately, Joy said, community gardens are 90 percent community, 10 percent gardening. It's an important distinction to make in relation to urban farming, which is focused more on food production.

"Our gardens aren't a way to get off the grid," she said. "It's some produce but the real benefit is getting outdoors, teaching your kids."

Today, PGP has reached a large enough scale that it commands discounts on bulk purchases for soil and lumber and negotiates donations from partners for items such as tools. Looking back on her first community meeting to recruit gardeners, Joy could never have predicted such a result.

"I thought maybe 20 people would be there. Before we knew it there were 50 people in the room," she recalled. "I might have been the spark, but those people were the kindling."

That brought her to her final piece of advice for prospective garden organizers.

"As leaders, you want to be the conduit that makes these happy places happen."