What started as just a few plots in 2009 now takes up an entire city block. Credit: Courtesy El Paseo Community Garden

In the permaculture site at El Paseo Community Garden, seven layers of plants grow in a harmonious, planned ecosystem. Wild strawberries flourish at the foot of fruit trees, out of direct sunlight. Comfrey grows near herbs and berries, bringing nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil, acting as a sort of natural fertilizer to neighboring plants. A natural depression in the earth is host to swamp hibiscus, a wetland flower that can make use of the excess water that collects, while at the same time providing nourishment to bees, hummingbirds, beetles, and other pollinators. The holistic permaculture food forest models the way the members of El Paseo work together to grow both food and community.

The garden was founded as Growing Station by a group of community members in 2009. Initially bordering an active railroad, it included just a few garden plots along 21st Street, but has gradually expanded over the years to encompass the entire block from 21st to Cullerton. In 2015, Paula and Antonio Acevedo took over as garden leaders and have been responsible for much of the garden’s expansion over the years. Each major project area has its own committee and leader, which this year includes a farm plot, collective garden beds, allotted garden beds, a senior program, beekeeping, the permaculture site, wellness programming, a prairie, and a group planning a dog run in a newly acquired adjacent lot. Every position is done on a volunteer basis.

“It’s a really beautiful thing to see, how it’s growing organically,” Paula says. “When we’re growing, it’s really because the capacity is growing as well.”

During the warmer months, El Paseo has free programming nearly every day, from yoga to drawing and meditation classes to flamenco dancing. Sundays are public stewardship days, where anyone can come and work on garden projects or do regular maintenance work, like weeding. On a recent Sunday, more than a dozen volunteers were at work on various projects: one group was painting a new educational sign about the beekeeping station, another was laying a flagstone path in the permaculture forest. Paula notes that there has been an influx of interest in the garden and its programming in the past year.

El Paseo Community Garden
944 W. 21st
773-234-6188
elpaseogarden.org

“The pandemic has really highlighted the need for all of these programs in outdoor space,” she says.

The growth of the garden, which is formally owned and managed by land trust nonprofit NeighborSpace, is a testament to the dedication of its members. As many volunteers told me, Paula and Antonio are very receptive to new projects or ideas, so long as they align with the garden’s mission and are accessible to the community. One of the newest projects is “Xochiotia,” an earthen monument by Marcela Torres. Made out of adobe bricks from the garden’s dirt, the monument is an homage to Mesoamerican tradition and ritual, a place for the community to burn incense and have space to grieve, a necessity in a time of so much loss. Torres wasn’t even a garden member when she proposed the project, but says leadership was supportive of her vision from the start.

The beekeeping station has also grown through the investment of volunteers. The current project leaders, Noah Frazier and Matthias Lampe, had no experience with beekeeping when they started. 

“I wouldn’t have even thought that I would ever do that, and now we teach 15 people here in the beekeeping program,” Lampe says. “The engagement of people here is really incredible.”

Lampe’s experience echoes what Paula says is one of the garden’s greatest strengths: fostering community leadership. “Community garden leaders throughout, they can all vouch that the most challenging part is growing the people. Not the plants, not anything, it’s all about growing people,” Paula says. “That’s what these spaces really are.”

El Paseo is a space where Pilsen residents can learn to grow their own food, or even harvest a bounty from the community beds or the permaculture forest: from tomatillos to swiss chard to basil. But for the garden’s leaders, the growth of the members is the most rewarding part. 

“It’s really great to see that, it’s kind of like an incubator space,” Paula says. “Although we call ourselves a community garden, typically when you see community gardens, they’re fenced in plots that are more like gardening clubs. We really are an outdoor community center. We’re trying to create an example of what these green spaces can be.”

Abby Wagner just got involved in the garden this year, but already grows food there and is also leading kids programming this season. She likens the El Paseo community to a family. “It’s really special,” she says of the garden, looking out at the verdant farm plot that is new this year. “We were just planting seeds, I guess it was two months ago, and now everything is so lush.”