First-person accounts from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford
“I’m adopted, and my parents got me when they were older. They were both active in World War II. Gardening was just something you did then. In 1997, my husband, Peter, and I moved to a condo and didn’t have a garden. After seven springs of ‘Aaaa! Must garden! Can’t garden!,’ I found this recipe for stacked tomato salad. I was like, ‘This would be so much better with your own homegrown tomatoes.’ That was the last straw. One morning Peter said, ‘Should we go look for houses? Wait, should we go look for yards?’ We ended up buying a yard with a house attached to it.
“The vegetable garden is 1,700 square feet. Eggplants, potatoes, peppers, melons, garlic, tomatillos, tons of greens, chard, mustard, kale, herbs. In some years, we have 35 different kinds of tomatoes. Tomatoes with hollow cavities so you can stuff them, teeny-tiny little currant tomatoes, sausage-shaped tomatoes. It’s ridiculous.
“I’m a vice president for a live-events company. When I didn’t know if I was going to have a job, my husband suggested that I research World War II victory gardens to distract myself. I learned that Chicago led the nation in gardening during the war. In 1942, we put in over 500 community gardens; by 1943, there were 1,500. Chicago also had the largest victory garden in the country, where Northeastern University is now. Eight hundred families gardened there.
“In 2009, I was driving down Peterson Avenue with my husband and saw an empty lot. It clicked that it was one of the gardens from this picture I had from the war. I went to the alderman and said, ‘Hey, did you know this empty lot was a victory garden? I want to make it into a community garden.’ He said yes before I was done pitching him.
“The Peterson Garden Project launched April 27, 2010. It’s the largest organic edible garden, we think, in Chicago. It’s not hard to garden. You just need a place and someone to observe for a while. We have families with young children, we have senior citizens. We have a bunch of refugees gardening with us from nine different countries—Burma, Iraq.
“We pulled the kids together and had watering classes. It’s a very important thing, because if you water improperly, it spreads disease. We said, ‘If you’re gonna drink water, where do you put it?’ One kid goes, ‘In your mouth!’ We said, ‘That’s right. You don’t put it on your elbow or head or knee. So when you water a plant, you want to put it in the plant’s mouth, at the base of the plant.’ These little kids became the water ambassadors.
“The Peterson Garden is on private property, and there’s a big ol’ ‘For Sale’ sign. So as soon as the property sells, we’re kicked out. With the economy the way it is, people aren’t developing land as fast, so it gives us a three- to five-year window to move into these places, put in community gardens, and teach people how to grow their own food. I think we can short-circuit this food crisis that’s pending.”