Flower power

Ben Clark

Flower power

Evanston residents enjoy springtime planting in public park plots

By Ben Clark

The Daily Northwestern

Alicia Antonia spent Tuesday afternoon on her knees, covering her newly-planted peppers with flower pots to protect them from the cool 52-degree breeze.

Antonia said that she spends two to three hours per day cultivating peppers, onions and strawberries — a pastime that she enjoyed with her father when she lived in the Philippines.

“When you see your garden doing well, you feel better,” she said. “You feel relaxed at the same time — you’re doing something useful and something good.”

Because of the trees that shade her yard, Antonia — like many Evanston residents — cannot garden at home. Instead, she travels from her home, across Oakton Street to the James Park community garden plots in southwest Evanston.

Community Garden Coordinator Becky Kass said the Evanston Ecology Center leases garden plots at James Park and two other locations so residents can cultivate their gardening hobby, even if they live in apartments or condominiums or have shaded back yards.

“If you are a person who really likes to garden, it’s just almost part of who you are as a person,” Kass said. “You have to be growing something in the dirt.”

Kass said the city leases roughly 150 plots to interested gardeners, charging $55 for a full plot and $27.50 for half-plots. She said the gardens are there for the public’s good.

“I think there are some people who find being outdoors very refreshing,” she said. “It’s really a quality of life issue.”

The city provides gardeners with flexibility to use the space as they see fit with few restrictions. No plot is identical, and freshly-planted bulbs share space with tomatoes and strawberries.

“We have people who rent a garden plot and do perennials and use it as a cutting garden so they can have fresh flowers in their home,” said Elizabeth Cullen of the Ecology Center. “We also have people who do organic gardening, and it supplements their food budget.”

Northwestern Prof. Phyllis Lyons has been maintaining a garden at James Park for the last 15 years and has put the 20-by-20-foot plot to a number of eclectic uses.

“It’s a place where you can feel responsible for something without repercussions,” said Lyons, a professor of Asian and African languages.

Lyons grows 15 varieties of tomatoes, other fruits and vegetables, and some perennial flowers — a hobby that provides a break from the rigors of academia.

“It is a kind of Zen experience,” Lyons said. “You see young couples starting out, you see young children, you see mothers try to keep young children from pulling out plants.”

During the school year, Lyons said, she has to balance gardening with her more pressing responsibilities at the university. But during the summer, the garden takes her attention.

“The trunk of my car turns into a toolshed,” she said.

And her summer labor provides her and her colleagues and students with fall treats.

“If students stop by my office, I may have a few extra tomatoes to hand out,” she said.

Lyons said students staying in Evanston during the summer can call the Evanston Ecology Center if they are interested in planting their own garden.

Although all plots are occupied now, residents who have not started their garden by mid-June lose their plots.