Community gardening grows in popularity

When plots in a community garden are assigned, plenty of people turn up to claim one. Growing vegetables is very popular.

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    These community garden plots have already been assigned. They've been very popular with urban residents the past several years.
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After an anemic spring in the Chicago area — the least sunny on record; hello, climate change? — people are jockeying for position in Chicago’s community gardens.

The weather may be cold, but gardening is hotter than ever.

Big demand

On a recent Saturday, would-be gardeners queued at a community garden in hopes of landing a choice plot.

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Some gardens parcel out space by the row; others assign each gardener a rectangular plot. As with real estate, some areas are more desirable than others: sunnier, or closer to the water spigot, or less weed-prone.

You can’t always afford to be picky, however, because space runs out fast. Most of Chicago’s community gardens have long waiting lists.

At the garden in question, Jeremy, a 20-something staffer for the nonprofit organization Growing Power, calmly played the part of St. Peter, deciding who would pass within the sacred garden gate. Growing Power runs this garden on behalf of the Chicago Park District, which owns the land.

Jeremy is broad-shouldered and tall, with dreads that frame his face and dark, unrevealing eyes.

To one lady he offered hope. “Your plot hasn’t been built yet,” he said, nodding to an expanse of unbroken grass within the picket garden fence. “Once we build it, then you can plant.”

Not what she wanted to hear, I’m sure, but far better than being turned away.

“I was hoping I could get a second row,” said a woman with a 20-something son. Jeremy considered this entreaty for several ponderous moments before deciding, “We have to see who comes today before we start giving second plots.”

Many return year after year

I was one of the fortunate ones; I have had a plot here for four years now and, unless I abandon it or show up with a jug of Roundup — pesticides and herbicides are strictly forbidden in this garden — I am likely to keep it.

I gladly entered the garden to pluck weeds among the cheerful, blessed gardeners who had already received Jeremy’s approval. Many grasped cellphones with muddy fingers, encouraging gardeners unseen. “He says there are still spots available. But you have to come today.”

“Was this your spot last year?” a short-haired, wide-smiling woman asked her row-neighbor.

“I’m waiting for compost,” another called. “Is the compost coming?”

A third gossiped, “A guy came up to me while I was planting and said, ‘Hey, that’s my plot.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? That’s not what Jeremy said.' ”

Some had never gardened before. An older lady the same height as her shovel stood astride her row and apologized. “I hate to dig up all these beautiful plants, but I need the space.” The beautiful plants, all of them, happened to be weeds.

An undergraduate named Tamara introduced herself blithely to everyone. “I’m studying sustainable communities, so I thought I needed to get out and learn how we can produce food in a city.”

“I’ve been waiting two years to get this plot.”

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Christopher Weber is a journalist and work-at-home dad in Chicago. He has written about gardening for the Chicago Tribune and taught it at a local school. His current favorite vegetable to grow is Brussels sprouts. You can find more information about him, including articles and blogs, at christopherweber.org. To read more by Christopher at Diggin' It, click here.

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