Everything Evanston: Edible Evanston’s growing gardening efforts

Erica Schmitt, Assistant Audio Editor


Everything Evanston explores Edible Evanston, a non-profit growing food in the community and for the community. The podcast explores the initiatives they have been working on.

TIM SONDER: I think we find that people really get a greater understanding of how they fit into the natural world and how important all the creatures out there are to our survival so that we look at things as an ecosystem, as habitat, as ourselves, as part of a system. And that when people start growing food for themselves and sharing it with other people in the community, you’re empowering people to both feed themselves and to take care of the rest of their community and to understand how they’re connected to nature.


ERICA SCHMITT: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Schmitt. This is Everything Evanston, a podcast covering what’s going on in the city. That was Tim Sonder, co-leader of Edible Evanston. He’s dedicated his time to the Evanston non-profit since 2013, striving to, quote “encourage and support food growers and provide opportunities for education and sharing food” unquote.

ERICA SCHMITT: Sonder said Edible Evanston has four initiatives in the community. One of its largest is the Food Forest located in Eggleston Park, a garden of perennial and herbaceous plants. But before that, it started as a typical garden at Northwestern.

TIM SONDER: The idea of a public community orchard was actually the idea of a group of undergraduate Northwestern students: the Brady Scholars. And, they had made some attempt for a long-term plan in that, and Edible Evanston had not been actually involved in the original conception. They needed advice, and we quickly got involved and were a part of the original creation of that orchard. After they graduated, we basically became the manager of that space that the city of Evanston was kind enough to provide for us. And it became clear after a couple of years — and we did more, more expansion and more planting — to the point that we had about 80 fruit and nut trees planted and producing in Eggleston Park.

ERICA SCHMITT: At one point, Sonder said Edible Evanston had to make some adjustments to today’s Food Forest, wanting a full and sustainable ecosystem for the plants that also fit into the space the city permitted.

TIM SONDER: We rearranged some of the plants in there, kept most of the fruit trees where they had originally been and redesigned the space so that we filled in all the layers. A food forest is organized into something called guilds, where we look at the major plant in an area and call that a guild and design what is going to fit in that space. So that everything works together there and tries to build a functional ecosystem like a forest would be. Those are filling in the niches in concept and then we fill in the niches in actual physical space, getting an underground layer going, a ground cover layer going, herbaceous layer, a shrub layer, sub canopy and maybe a canopy and some fining things to fill in as well.

[sound of pulling weeds]

ERICA SCHMITT: The process of maintaining the plants grew when the forest began to expand each year. Today, the Food Forest is maintained by many individuals, volunteers and groups, including the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy, an afterschool program for students in grades five through 12.

ERICA SCHMITT: Program Director of Justin Wynn Leadership Academy Carrie Ost said her group found out about Edible Evanston through a parent in 2020.

CARRIE OST: We’ve been volunteering with them ever since. The kids really love participating. It’s a really fun big group activity for them to do. And they’re really committed to sharing produce with people in need, and of course, to sustainability and locally grown agriculture. So it’s just something that the kids really enjoy, and I also really enjoy it, and I’m really glad that we have this partnership.

ERICA SCHMITT: Ost brings about 20 students and some of their families a couple times a year, including this past October. She said students love the activity because it is outdoors.

CARRIE OST: We help out with bigger projects that they tend to have because we can provide a large group of volunteers. We’ve been there probably six or seven times over the past few years, and we have done things like building fences, building raised beds, doing significant weeding and pruning. And then, of course, helping with the things that are always ongoing like planting, weeding, harvesting.

[water plant sound]

ERICA SCHMITT: Sonder said the forest produces crops for the community, which are then shared to local food pantries. This year, Edible Evanston is serving three of them.

TIM SONDER: We serve Hillside Food Pantry, which is in north Evanston on Crawford, and they were serving about 2000 families a week. And then we serve all the way at the other end of Evanston — the Vineyard Fellowship Church on Howard Street. And this year there’s a new food pantry which is the one run by the C&W store at Church and Dodge. And so we’ve been serving that primarily from the food we produce ourselves at the Food Forest, but the community has been able to contribute for that as well.

ERICA SCHMITT: Ost said students enjoy the gardening experience but love the mission behind Edible Evanston even more.

CARRIE OST: They’re really passionate about the climate, and the environment and sustainable food growing is one way for them to be able to contribute to a positive environment. They are also really passionate about the food sharing component of Edible Evanston’s mission. Through the Justin Wynn Leadership Academy, the students have a lot of experience volunteering at food pantries and soup kitchens. And this is another way that they can spend their time to help make sure that healthy, fresh produce is getting into the hands of people who can’t otherwise get it.

[watering plant sound/birds chirping]

ERICA SCHMITT: Edible Evanston also uses the Food Forest to teach community members how to grow crops with its Growing New Gardeners Program. The series takes place once a month for nine months, teaching people how to seed, soil and maintain their own crops.

ERICA SCHMITT: One of the new gardeners that just finished the program is Chuck Wasserburg. He’s also a vice president of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, which promotes sustainability efforts in Evanston. He said he got involved for two reasons.

CHUCK WASSERBURG: One was that as a member of Citizens’ Greener, it was just important for me to get a better idea of what some of our programs are doing, so I wanted to be more involved from that perspective. But this was also a way for me to kind of literally get my hands dirty in the gardening aspect because I just moved and I was interested in growing my own food, and I wanted to get some expert input on what I was doing. And so it was a great idea because it sort of takes you through the whole growing season with these people, and you’d be on-site some of the time outdoors.

ERICA SCHMITT: Wasserburg stressed the importance of learning crop and plant life as well as understanding the origin of food.

CHUCK WASSERBURG: Everybody should know how to grow plants — not I don’t mean flowers, I mean like grow something to eat because it gives you a sense of where your food comes from. That’s really critical.

ERICA SCHMITT: Wasserburg said the most enjoyable experience was working with the Food Forest because he got to watch the growth happen.

CHUCK WASSERBURG: The time that we were first out there at the beginning of the season, when you were standing in the mud, and it was cold and then watching things start to sprout and then having them show you how they were bringing things along and suddenly, well not so suddenly, but voila, there are these beautiful beds of whatever they were growing — kale or tomatoes or whatever.

ERICA SCHMITT: Sonder said their season of harvesting is wrapping up as the winter months come, resulting in Edible Evanston taking the proper measures to protect the garden.

TIM SONDER: The winter protection we tend to do is — and most of it stays in place year round at this point — is some protection that is physical and not just what we plant around it. Although we use that too, to prevent rabbits and mice and voles and deer from destroying too much, some of those animals are likely to strip bark from trees and that can kill the tree. So we try to prevent that, of course. And then the other kind of thing we do is adding lots of mulches, be they wood chips or straw or things like that to places because we never want any bare ground. We always want either living plant or to have the soil covered with a mulch. The other thing we do is make sure our plants are healthy by doing things like spraying compost tea on them.

ERICA SCHMITT: Sonder also said the plants sprout again in March and April. During the winter, though, Edible Evanston focuses on their education initiatives. Sonder said their biggest change to the non-profit has been with their programming so it reaches a wider audience.

TIM SONDER: We’ve been working with the Evanston Public Library to reach more people that way. We did food forest tours with them. We’ve done some gardener training with them. The Robert Crown branch of the Evanston Public Library is very active in trying to help people with their food security and with their desire to grow more food in the community, and so we have been working with them. And last year we did one of our seed swaps was in the lobby over at Robert Crown outside the library to work with them.

ERICA SCHMITT: Ultimately, Sonder and his team want to create a sense of community through gardening. Wasserburg said he has felt nothing but welcomed there.

CHUCK WASSERBURG: When you feel like there are people you can go to for help with things, that’s a community and that’s what they have provided. I mean, I could have gone to a gardening store, I guess, and gotten that too, in a way, but it wouldn’t have been as regular, it wouldn’t have been as organized a fashion. So in that sense, yeah I think it’s a really strong community.


ERICA SCHMITT: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Schmitt. Thanks for listening to another episode of Everything Evanston. This episode was reported and produced by me. The Audio Editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lawrence Price, the Digital Managing Editor is Angeli Mittal, and the Editor-in-chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @eschmitt318

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