Let it grow

Elizabeth Gibson

As he passed through the Evanston community garden plots at McCormick Boulevard and Bridge Street earlier this month, Ken Kastman bragged about the skills of his fellow gardeners, pointing out who grows the best flowers, which gardens contain exotic fruits and where new renters are trying their hands at a plot.

The site has about 40 garden plots, all currently rented out by the Evanston Ecology Center. The city has more than 400 plots. Residents work other sites at Central Street and Sheridan Road, at Bridge Street and Simpson Street, and in James Park in southwest Evanston.

The plots attract a variety of gardeners. Some prefer growing flowers, others vegetables. Some bring children or pets, others enjoy solitude. Some hail from apartments, others from houses with well-manicured yards ill-suited for growing produce.

“It really is a community garden,” Kastman said.

Evanston residents like Kastman can pay $55 to rent a 400-square-foot plot or $27.50 for a half plot. Senior citizens and Evanston Environmental Association members receive discounts. Kastman has been working on his garden for more than 15 years, so mint and parsnips from last year had already begun growing when he arrived to start preparing his garden for this year’s growing season.

The Evanston Ecology Center requires renters to plant their plots by early June, to put in five hours of gardening a week, to maintain pathways next to their plots and to contribute three hours of community garden service. The season is just starting off, with the first community work day scheduled for April 29. The signs of gardening already are appearing.

“But it’s going to look a lot better than this,” Jim Brown said.

Brown pounded metal posts into the ground Saturday for a new gate for his neighbor’s garden. His family supplies labor, and in return they get to share in their neighbor’s harvest. The reconstruction is the first step to making the garden presentable and functional.

Britt Stramoyer briefly stopped by her garden to prune her currant bushes. The preparation may not look particularly fruitful, but by the end of summer she has enough fruit to make 20 jars of jam.

Daffodils sprinkled throughout the plots awaited many gardeners on their first visit of the season. Most renters came to assess and start weeding their plots. Resa Ivey and her daughter Claire picked flowers and munched on asparagus that had come back from last year.

“It’s just a fun thing to do for the kids,” Ivey said.

Later that day, Ivey returned to do more intensive gardening. Gardeners loosen weeds with shovels and deposit the plants in waste bins with wheelbarrows provided by the Evanston Ecology Center.

Once finished weeding, Karin Richards started laying down compost created by leaves collected by the city in the fall. Richards said she’s working on training her children to help pull weeds as they pop back up. If the young gardeners start to lose interest, her solution is a turtle-shaped sandbox in the corner of the plot.

Wally Pape remembered his own adventures in gardening as a child.

“I think I (garden) mostly because of my grandparents,” he said. “But I couldn’t get my own kids interested.”

But his children have no qualms about eating the produce, he said.

The gardens provide adults with their own entertainment. In addition to digging in her plot, Stramoyer chatted with fellow gardeners like Diane Robinson. The gardeners form a community, teasing each other about secret methods for gardens without weeds, offering to water while friends are on vacation and giving neighbors excess plants to transplant into their own plots.

The whole process is a pleasure, Robinson said as she laid seeds in carefully dug furrows.

“These little seeds in the ground look like nothing,” she said. “And then in a few months it’s so lush. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a miracle to me.”

Reach Elizabeth Gibson at [email protected]