MCKINLEY PARK — The concept for the McKinley Park Community Garden began in earnest last fall with a group of eager green-thumbs meeting in the local library.
Fast forward about a year, and the inaugural growing season is now history.
Sixty-three garden beds planted there have yielded countless pounds of produce, fed dozens of local families and fostered a new sense of civic involvement on the Southwest Side.
How did it all happen?
“The biggest source of our success was community involvement. We made an effort to involve absolutely everyone in everything we did,” said Corenna Roozeboom, 28, the garden's founder.
Remarkably, Roozeboom said, the strategy didn’t result into a disorganized mess.
Instead, residents lent their talents and devoted their free time to creating the garden in the 1900 block of West Pershing Road between Winchester and Wolcott avenues.
One guy filled the water barrels every day before his wife got home from work. Another guy just drove by one day and dropped off a truckload of wood chips that volunteers would later spread around the garden’s impromptu picnic area.
One woman had no interest in gardening but drew up the bylaws for the group, which has formed into a nonprofit.
And the gardeners, pros and novices alike, plunked down a $50 membership fee and flocked to the former vacant lot to build garden beds, plant seeds, harvest their crops and help one another.
“They just came out of the woodwork. I felt so amazed,” Roozeboom said.
It's hard to say just how much food was produced this year, but there were plenty of varieties of herbs and vegetables.
In addition to the individual beds, the group created five “giving gardens,” the yields from which were sent to food pantries at nearby St. Andrew and St. Maurice parishes, as well as a soup kitchen in Fuller Park.
Asked about the challenges of the garden's inaugural year, Roozeboom, a zoology graduate student and budding master gardener who helps run the Chicago Park District’s Harvest Garden program, said the setbacks were minimal.
Apparently, a hungry thief or thieves discovered the crops and swiped tomatoes and peppers from a few garden beds, but Roozeboom just shrugged it off.
"So someone walked away with something healthy to eat," she said.
The garden is situated on a plot of private land leased to the group in a two-year deal that expires at the end of 2014. The group expects they’ll be able to renew it, but said they're considering backup plans just in case.
Moving all of the individual garden beds obviously would be a big project.
“But we’ve done big projects before,” Roozeboom said.