Vegetable gardens build community for Levy Senior Center and Garden Club of Evanston


Daily File Photo by Madison Smith

The original garden beds at the Levy Senior Center are raised, making them accessible for seniors and those in wheelchairs.

Kelly Cloonan, Reporter

Nonna’s Marinara Bed: teeming with tomatoes, basil, thyme, onions and garlic.

The Three Sisters Gtegan: corn down the center, with pole beans twisting up the corn stalks and squash at the base.

These crop composites were featured among last year’s four themed vegetable gardens at the Levy Senior Center, organized by the Levy Senior Center Foundation and the Garden Club of Evanston. 

Organizer and GCE member Cie Bond said the garden will expand this spring to include several new beds, an irrigation system and more Levy member volunteers. This will be the garden’s second year, and as it continues to draw more seniors around Evanston, garden volunteers from both GCE and Levy are focusing on growing enough vegetables for donations to community fridges.

“I felt like (the garden project) was the most amazing community building activity,” Bond said. “I didn’t realize what an impact it had on people.”

Bond said four new garden beds will be added to the garden, including “Grandma’s Root Cellar,” featuring horseradish, onions, carrots and potatoes and “American Soul Food,” which will include okra, collards and cowpeas. Unlike the four beds last year, these beds will be in the ground so deep root vegetables like tomatoes and eggplants can grow.

Bond said this year’s garden will also incorporate a new irrigation system installed by the city that will automatically water the beds every day. 

Tended and maintained several times a week by Levy members under the mentorship of GCE members, the gardens produced enough vegetables last year for volunteers and other Levy members and employees to take produce home – and then some.

“We would have six cucumbers to give away, or six squashes, or a bunch of lettuce,” Bond said. “We would put it into plastic grocery bags and put it on a bench that’s just south of the beds.”

Not enough food was left over to donate substantially to community fridges, though, which Bond said she wants to change this year.

GCE President Anne Berkeley said the collective impact organization Evanston Grows will work with the Center’s team of gardeners this year to help distribute the vegetables grown. Evanston Grows partners with local gardens to fight food insecurity and aims to donate 3000 pounds of vegetables across all their partners this year, she said.

So far, all community members involved with the garden said GCE volunteers’ involvement with the Levy Senior Center’s gardens last year has helped build community for everyone involved. 

Becky Santos Anderson, a Levy member who volunteered at the gardens often last year, said she remembers connecting with one neighbor who was on a walk and stopped by the gardens.

“I found out she was also from the Philippines and was raising some vegetables that we didn’t have,” Anderson said. 

The neighbor gave her a basket of hard-to-find vegetables from the Philippines, like bitter melon, Anderson said. The neighbor will also donate seeds for a new bed, “LaoLao’s Asian Garden.”

For the Levy members, the gardens have provided both gardening lessons and a sense of purpose. GCE members attended the volunteer sessions every week to mentor Levy members in planting seeds, watering and pruning plants.

Last year, about 15 seniors from the Levy Senior Center expressed interest in volunteering and six came often to work in the gardens, Bond said.

This year, 41 Levy Senior Center members have expressed interest to center staff in working in the garden, Bond said. An informational meeting for those interested will be held on May 14, and gardening will start May 16.

Anderson said the gardens provided a safe place for her to get out of the house.

“It’s the only time I go out because of COVID,” Anderson said. “I’m just so scared to go out anywhere. But it’s outdoors, so I go as often as I can because it’s the only thing I feel comfortable with.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kelly_cloonan

Related Stories:

Evanston organizations work to fight food insecurity, foster community during pandemic

No Mow May pushes residents to swap grass cutters for gardens

Evanston Township High School takes science outdoors on their arboretum accredited campus