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Kilbourn Park Plant Sale Blossoms After Setback, Thanks to Facebook

 The gardening community rallied around Kilbourn Park after word spread online of plant sale setback.
Kilbourn Park Plant Sale
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IRVING PARK — Failure is a given when it comes to gardening, but it doesn't usually result in the loss of thousands of plants and dollars.

That was the situation facing Kirsten Akre, the Chicago Park District floriculturalist who manages the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse.

Earlier this spring, Akre and an army of volunteers had planted somewhere in the vicinity of 15,000 seeds in advance of the park's annual plant sale, scheduled for May 18-19, with the goal of raising $25,000 for the greenhouse's programming.

Then came the Facebook post on May 11, announcing: "the quality and quantity of our crops is far below our expectations and standards."

A combination of factors led to greatly reduced yields and markedly undersized transplants, Akre said.

"We potted up and usually we get this huge growth," she said. "That didn't happen."

She cited cool temperatures, gray skies and the low light situation caused by the greenhouse's 65-year-old roof as stresses on the plants, as well as a new sustainable, peat-free soil mix that didn't provide seedlings with enough nutrients.

"It's been the most challenging and difficult time of my life," said Akre. "Every time I thought the weather report was being nice to me, it bit me back."

In the run-up to the plant sale, Akre was forced to toss out huge quantities of damaged sprouts that had been hand-watered and lovingly cared for seven days a week since they were seeds.

"It was devastating," she said.

Word of Kilbourn's plight quickly spread via social media.

A Facebook follower of the greenhouse posted a message to Peterson Garden Project, which operates a number of community gardens on the city's North Side, and had coincidentally held its own plant sale Mother's Day weekend.

"We realized we were sitting on almost 2,000 [unsold] seedlings," said Leah Ray, a member of Peterson Garden Project's leadership team.

Peterson Garden Project immediately offered up its plants to Kilbourn Park, as did the Chicago arm of Growing Power.

"We were delighted. We had these organic heirloom seedlings, which you can't buy most places," said Ray. "It's sort of like an adopted pet going to a good home."

Akre's reaction: "I started crying."

Kilbourn Park's plant sale went off as planned at 10 a.m. on Saturday, with buyers flocking to the greenhouse to pick up tomatoes, peppers, onions, kale, zucchini and more. Many opted to roll the dice with Kilbourn's Charlie Brown-Christmas-tree seedlings.

"People came out in incredible support," said Akre. "What makes me happy, we've had a lot of very loyal people. Everyone's been very gracious and understanding."

The plant sale continues Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., 3501 N. Kilbourn Ave., along with an "Easy Being Green" festival that includes cooking projects, demonstrations of green cleaning products and a how-to on worm composting.

"Even though it's been a difficult time, when times get tough, you get stronger," said Akre.