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Community gardens growing in Uptown

Submitted on Mon, 06/18/2007 – 03:23.
Story by Keri Lynch
Bird calls mix with the loud cheers of baseball fans in the Ginkgo Garden in Uptown. This productive plot is tucked between condo buildings less than a mile from Wrigley Field. Despite its urban location near the “el” tracks, this garden really grows.

The first harvests, in May, are mostly herbs, radishes and a few greens. As summer arrives, the baskets, bags and bins start filling up – with tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, beans, tomatillos, squash and assorted greens, plus plums, pears, apples, grapes and raspberries.

Every Saturday, an all-volunteer crew arrives at 4055 N. Kenmore Ave. and works from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. They weed, stake plants, harvest and pack up the van. The all-organic goods are delivered to GroceryLand, a local pantry that provides food to low-income people with AIDS.

This is the third season for Dave Snyder, one of the coordinators at Ginkgo Garden.

“At first it was about the community service,” he said. “But now I really enjoy gardening and feel good about the whole program.”

Others, like Doug Lynch, are more interested in gardening. Formerly an electrical engineer, Lynch will begin a plant biology and conservation program at Northwestern University this fall. He started gardening a few years ago and realized it was his passion.

“I just showed up (at Ginkgo Garden) to meet people and get experience gardening,” he said.

Ginkgo was founded in 1994 by several motivated volunteers and master gardeners, with hands-on assistance and a start-up grant from the Chicago Botanic Garden. The city helped acquire the land, which was a vacant lot for many years, and gardeners prepared the soil and raised plant beds.

Last year, Dave Short agreed to help keep Ginkgo going when the original coordinator moved out of town. The team has keys to the gate and tool shed, and maintains shopping lists and schedules for the group’s 150 volunteers, mostly area residents and some folks from Chicago Cares.

Short said he spends six or seven hours on garden activities each week, including e-mails and meetings, in addition to his full-time job as an information technology business analyst.

The city maintains a water source that is turned on each spring. And a program called NeighborSpace, created in 1996 to expand the city’s green space, holds the garden’s funds, helps with grant writing and “runs interference,” Short said. Recently, the city contacted the developer of the adjacent property, who is going to make repairs to the rear gate and fence.

In another part of Uptown, near Wilson and Clarendon avenues, sits Sunshine Garden, named by the children that helped plant it in 2005. Sunshine is an open space that contains flowers, grasses and native plants and planter boxes for children. A stone path leads to seating areas that are popular with seniors from nearby high rises.

This garden was also built with assistance from the Chicago Botanic Garden and receives high-quality plants each spring at cost. The Park District helped secure the site near Clarendon Park, Alderman Helen Shiller’s office provided nine benches, and local businesses donated materials.

Katharine Boyda spearheaded Sunshine and coordinates gardening days with residents, many of whom live across the street.

“We had a United Nations of people create our garden,” Boyda said. “People from Russia, Ethiopia, Panama and many other countries came out to dig the hard ground, install arbors and a pathway for wheelchairs. And the kids were amazing!”

Tiffany Banks and her daughter Tyler could not wait to get their hands in the dirt this year. They planted lamb’s ear and purple sweet peppers in planter boxes, vining moon flowers that bloom only at night and butterfly bushes. When someone found grubs, which devour plants, they were tossed on the sidewalk for Tyler to squash with her tennis shoe.

“Sunshine Garden is beginning to take shape, and we’ve been lucky that not too much damage has occurred,” Boyda said. “It’s a joy to work in the garden and meet new friends every time.”

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