A few years ago Sarah Steedman noticed that most of the vegetables grown in her Uptown community garden ended up rotting on the vine. “No one was harvesting them because they were on vacation or forgot or lost interest or whatever,” she says. “I thought it was terrible, because there was a lot of poverty in that neighborhood. I thought it would be a good idea to give it to a soup kitchen so it wouldn’t be wasted.” She brought some of her neighbors’ surplus to the Inspiration Cafe, which serves free meals to homeless people in a restaurant setting. There she met Jill Swan, a fund-raiser for the cafe, and together they decided to start the city’s only organic food-bank garden.

In 1994 they found a city-owned, tax-default double lot tucked between two six-flats on Kenmore just north of Irving Park Road. “The lot was used as a playground for kids,” says Steedman. “I felt bad and got them involved with the cleanup and turning it over. But we sort of took their play lot.”

Swan secured a $12,000 grant from the city’s Department of Environment. She and Steedman used the grant to buy soil, shrubs, fencing, a tool shed, and wood for aboveground planters. The city helped with the construction. “Raised-bed gardening makes it easy to amend the soil and control growth,” says Eric Salus, who took over for Steedman in 1995 despite “not knowing anything” about gardening. The project was originally called the Inspiration Garden, but as it grew large enough to supply other food distributors, it was renamed the Ginkgo Organic Gardens, after the tree that stands in front of the lot. Salus coordinates the garden’s operation with Swan and more than 20 volunteers, most of whom come from the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service master gardener program.

“We would have liked for it to be a homeless garden project,” says Steedman. “But it didn’t work out. Some people did come in the beginning, but they were not focused on going every day to a garden. I could not address the things that were concerning them and the violence they were talking about in their lives. We would have needed a horticultural therapist to do that. I totally understand that now. I was under the impression that there were all of these people who really wanted to do this, but when it came right down to it they really didn’t.”

These days the garden has a flagstone path that winds past the ginkgo tree through a maze of native and perennial plants. The fenced-off back area is partially accessible to the handicapped and houses 27 beds of heirloom vegetables, edible flowers, tea, and herbs. For pest control the garden uses what Salus calls organic pesticides–ladybugs, praying mantises, and companion plants that draw the pests from more productive plants. Each volunteer is given a small space; one has a tea bed, and another grows medicinal herbs. Last year Salus grew tobacco, dried and powdered it, and plans to use the dust as an insect repellent at the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, where Steedman works as manager and seedlings are grown for the Ginkgo garden.

During the harvest season, the gardeners lug bushels of vegetables and herbs to the Inspiration Cafe and to Grocery Land, Open Hand Chicago’s free supermarket that supplies food to low-income people with HIV and AIDS. “Our nutritionist is delighted and our clients rave about it,” says Open Hand’s Lori Cannon. “People with HIV are dealing with a lot of health problems, like very sensitive digestive systems and change in their taste buds because of the medication. Some have mouth and esophagus disorders, so that eating becomes a painful chore. They’re on toxic medication and have compromised immune systems. Using fresh, organic produce has proven to be a very important new chapter in fighting the epidemic.” The market serves from 400 to 450 people a week.

Salus’s job managing the Music Box leaves him free during the day to work at the garden, and despite his initial inexperience, he thinks running the project has made him a better gardener. “The ground is very forgiving,” he says, “and the plants are very forgiving and willing to grow, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

On Saturday and Sunday, Ginkgo Organic Gardens will host its annual plant sale, which will include herbs, edible flowers, and traditional fare. The sale takes place from 10 to 2 at 4055 N. Kenmore; for more information call 773-342-8430. –Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.