Grow Seeds Of Hope

By David Raica

When the Cary Park District—located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago—first dreamed of community gardens, they were just considered resident rental-garden plots. A larger idea germinated, however, and eventually the Cary Park District-Hoffman Park Give Back Demonstration Gardens were born. Now in the gardens’ fifth season, volunteers have harvested approximately 5,000 pounds of fresh organic produce and donated it to the Cary-Grove Food Pantry.

A variety of volunteers serve the 600-square-foot garden space to provide fresh produce. In fact, the concept really took off when we invited members of the Northern Illinois Special Recreation District (NISRA) to tour the gardens. They took a keen interes,t and before we knew it, we had visitors and helpers at the gardens from all walks of life.

Here are a few things the park district learned along the way about demonstration gardens:

·         Start small, as you will be surprised by the amount of food that can be grown in a well-planned garden space.

·         Seek a diverse mix of partner-volunteers from local food pantries, government bodies, special-recreation districts, elder-care facilities, and local youth and adult civic and local churches.

·         Place the demonstration gardens in a sunny, open park that has a minimum of 6 inches—preferably 12 inches—of topsoil. These gardens have an opportunity to beautify and increase patron foot traffic, so be conscious where they are placed. Proximity to parking, shelters, and restrooms really pays off for all users, but especially those with challenges.

·         Create gardens with raised beds of various heights that can withstand a person standing or sitting on them. Use cedar lumber instead of treated wood. Our gardens have a raised concrete border so people in wheelchairs or mobility devices can still access soil and plants without having to bend over. Plant items closer to the edge of the garden for those persons with less mobility.

·         Follow suggestions on what to grow from your local food pantry, but don’t think of this as limiting the possibilities. For example, volunteers select plants that the local food pantry has suggested, such as cabbage, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and any type of squash or pepper. Volunteers stay away from leafy items like spinach and lettuce, as they tend to wilt quickly before they can be taken to the pantry. However, since each garden is tended by different gardeners, there is still an opportunity for gardeners to show off different plants, methods of planting, design ideas, and ways to collect and store water.

·         Install a variety of plants, information signs, and other garden follies to help connect people to the mission of the gardens and plants and varieties. Try conventional arrangements like typical row planting, or do companion planting. Some gardeners demonstrate different methods or support the plants with sticks or small branches to help stabilize the growing plants. Some gardens contain flowers to draw in pollinators that also serve as an accent to the vegetables.

·         Promote healthy living and sustainable practices by holding bi-monthly participation groups that can not only tour the gardens but tend them. A practical visit lasts 45 to 60 minutes, which is enough time for people to get a sense of the space and feel like they have made a difference. Have groups visit the gardens several times during the growing season so individuals can see how quickly the gardens change over time.

·         Use local resources to garner interest. Our park district installed a worm farm that borrows from Midwest historical and cultural themes with modern adaptations. It provides just enough information about worms and worm-farming composting to allow people’s curiosity to learn more. The site connects people to the past regional heritage of the area by the use of a cistern for water collection and a farm-style windmill that supplies the only water for these gardens. This approach also teaches the community about the benefits of water conservation.

·         Grow hope. There is something magical about seeing the smallest of seeds become beautiful plants, flowers, and wholesome food. It is even more amazing to see people with disabilities, day campers, school children, and adults volunteer, interact, and help build community. When people see and hear about the collaborative demonstration community garden space, they slow down, take notice, and gain a great sense of civic pride and gratitude.

·         Have fun. Each time a NISRA participant or visitor comes to the gardens, he or she starts a wonderful journey of discovery. They scout for what’s new, they identify good plants, weeds, and bugs, and later into the summer, they celebrate the first harvests. Many of our participants take photos as well as selfies to brag about their hard work.

·         Set harvest goals, measure yields, and record the largest or the most unusual vegetable items. Keeping track of the harvest throughout the growing season, really helps motivate the volunteer tenders as well as the special visitors who appreciate the efforts of all.

Long-Lasting Life Skills
The park district’s liaison says she has received cards, letters, and emails from NISRA’s participant parents and/or their guardians expressing gratitude for what has been taught at the gardens. One parent expressed thanks because their son was doing more around the house without being asked and making healthier food choices. Participation in these demonstration gardens brings seeds of hope towards long-lasting life skills.

In an ever-changing society, we have only provided an open invitation and a framework for growing hope. These gardens, the seeds and plants, and our natural environment, are really a life canvas upon which each volunteer gardener and visitor get to experience the joy of a living and lasting masterpiece.

David Raica is the Director of Planning & Development for the Cary Park District in Illinois and liaison for the demonstration gardens. He has had a passion for gardening since planting the family garden at a young age. Reach him at