LINCOLN PARK — As far as gardeners are concerned, "It was a great year," Sally Drucker said.
Drucker was referring to the weather during the growing season this spring and summer as she sat Tuesday morning in what's commonly called Fire Station Park, behind the firehouse at Armitage Avenue and Larrabee Street. Drucker is the point person for the Lincoln Central Association in tending the park, and she said it was a banner year for the vegetables in the help-yourself community garden, especially for string beans, snap peas and cucumbers.
The Lincoln Central Association and the surrounding neighbors celebrate the end of the season with the fourth annual Evening in the Garden at Fire Station Park from 6-8 p.m. Thursday. It's the season-ending bookend to the association's annual Summer Sipper event in June in the park.
Drucker said the community gathering takes on "a very different tone" in the September event, adding, "It's like putting the garden to rest for the winter."
Not that that should keep park visitors from picking their own herbs and tomatoes, which continue to ripen on the vine.
"People try to pick things probably before they're ready," Drucker said, "but they're so eager!"
Still, there's plenty left, including lemongrass for the first time, as well as chard, which Drucker said has been hardy and healthy and growing all summer.
"Every year, we continue to add compost to the two vegetable beds, and the vegetables just get better and better," Drucker said. "A garden is a dynamic place, so it's always changing."
That goes for the park as well, which actually does not belong to the Chicago Park District, but to the Chicago Department of Transportation.
According to Drucker, it was more of an ornamental garden that had gone to seed when then-Ald. Vi Daley asked the Lincoln Central Association to take it over in 2010. The association agreed, with Drucker placed in charge, and it began planting the following spring, making this the seventh annual season.
"What we plant is for the community," she added.
"This garden is so many things," Drucker said. Her original idea was for it to go more natural, and that's still the case on the street side of the park, where there's a small bit of grassland prairie in one corner and a woodline in the other.
But through the years plots for herbs and vegetables in the center were fenced off — sometimes serving firefighters — and in the back there's a sculpture and a small concrete area that has become a gathering place for Lincoln Park High School students, after school and even during the day for those with a class open.
"It's a nice space for them," Drucker said. "People of all ages use this garden."
Drucker said that local schools actually don't make enough use of the park, which could welcome field trips for plant and flower identification and other lessons.
"There's a lot of educational opportunities here, because it's right under their nose," she added.
It's a finalist for an Excellence in Gardening Award presented by the Chicago Community Garden Association, with a final decision expected by the end of the month.
This year, the association had to deal with change in the form of the loss of a few ash trees to the emerald ash borer. The city replaced one in the parkway in front with a gingko, but they're still mulling what to do with the open spaces in the middle.
"It's changing the whole light of the park," Drucker said, perhaps for the better where the vegetables are concerned. So the association is weighing whether to plant another burr oak, like the one already in the prairie area, or leave it open or do something else in the empty areas.
One thing the association wants to keep, though, is this year's annual rotating sculpture, "Traveler" by Boyan Marinov, which has proved to be popular with its image of a child standing atop a globe-like silver ball. Drucker said the association is looking into buying it when it becomes available and making it a permanent part of the park.
It will still be there for Thursday's Evening in a Garden, however, as will food and drinks from Geja's Cafe, Tobacco Road and J9 Wine Bar in an event that's free and open to the public. Magician Benjamin Barnes will perform as well.
Lincoln Central President Kenneth Dotson has called it "a reception-style event celebrating our wonderful neighborhood and saluting our volunteers."
Drucker emphasized that those volunteers are always welcome, and the park is always open to however local residents want to make use of it and whatever they want to plant there — within reason, of course.