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Linda Allen breaks a leaf from an allium plant.
"Sniff," she gently insists. The sweet acidic scent of chives fills the nostrils.
She repeats the kindness with a lime leaf, then a sprig of sage, then cardamom. Allen, a Garfield Park Conservatory staff member, sits on the edge of a raised plant bed in the demonstration garden that matches the dimensions of a city lot. Recently the conservatory, located at 300 N. Central Park, taught a free gardening seminar to open its growing season. Nearly 1,200 Chicago residents planted a variety of vegetables and learned about composting.
"If you have a neighborhood with a lot of vacant lots and you want to do something fairly constructive, put a garden in," Allen said.
South Shore resident Gwen Robinson, who attended the workshop, spent a Saturday morning turning soil and pulling weeds in the home garden she shares with her sister Phyllis Barnes. It's mostly bare this early in the season, with the exception of strawberries and a peach tree called "Georgia."
Last year, their garden comprised a 3-foot-by-14-foot backyard plot of Brussels sprouts, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. Robinson, 53, describes it as a tropical jungle paradise. "We just happened to come in, pull it and take it in and cook it," she said.
They added three more plots this season for peas, pears and spinach. Young plants grow under low-watt CFL bulbs in their living room. When the weather warms they'll be transplanted outdoors into soil fertilized with compost Barnes and Robinson made.
"All those things that used to be in our garbage, now goes into our compost," Robinson said.
They converted a 45-gallon garbage can into a hot compost bin. A thick layer of banana peels, coffee grounds, eggshells, mowed grass, cabbage leaves and onions coat the surface. Oxygen, heat and moisture break down organic material into nutrient plant food.
Indoors, the sisters use a small plastic bin for worm composting, also called vermicomposting. It's "worm poop," but specialized.
"You have to have a mixture of green stuff and brown stuff and moisture," Robinson explained.
The sisters share their passion with more than 600 active community gardens across Chicago's 50 wards, according to GreennetChicago.org.
Chicago residents can earn rebates of up to 50 percent for purchasing composting bins, trees, rain barrels and native plants. The mayor's office sponsors the Sustainable Backyards Program to encourage residents to create environmentally friendly landscapes. Churches, schools and community gardens are also eligible.