How do you garden with climate change and unpredictable weather? And can gardens grow communities in addition to growing plants? 

About 200 cheerful gardeners of all ages and Chicagoland neighborhoods gathered on Saturday, March 30 at the seventh annual Chicago Community Garden Association (CCGA) conference at Breakthrough FamilyPlex, located at Carroll and Kedzie. They learned new green thumb tricks, studied climate change, networked with new friends, and went home with garden door prizes and free seeds and advice. Garfield Community Council and Garden Network, NeighborSpace, and Openlands co-sponsored the event.

Gina Jamison chaired this year’s conference. “The idea of CCGA is to get community gardeners to share ideas, network and cooperate,” Jamison said. “Julie Samuels organized the association when Mayor Rahm Emanuel eliminated grants for community gardens. We intend to hold our new mayor accountable. We must address food deserts and teach our kids to eat healthy so we will have healthy minds and make healthy decisions.”

She’s encouraged by her own experience with Kuumba-Tre-Amb Garden at Warren and Francisco, on a lot she acquired from her uncle. She said her grandfather once had a mansion on the 5000-square-foot property which he used as a boarding house for relatives visiting from North Carolina. She named the garden for the Kwanzaa principle of “Kumba” — creatively uplifting the community — and two of her grandsons. After several years of gardening and inviting neighborhood kids to plant and eat vegetables, she began hosting block parties. In 2018, the third year, her neighbors joined in, bringing grills and chipping in for a DJ and a water slide. They told her, “You shouldn’t have to do this by yourself.”

“It just takes time. You’ve got to be diligent and know it’s going to happen,” she said. 

Lila Hodges, U.S. Army veteran, said her grandson got into gardening as a preschooler at the Rainbow Beach Victory garden. The whole family joined other veterans and families in a veterans’ section of the Hermitage Street Community Garden in Englewood, founded by Cordia Pugh, who is now starting a nonprofit gardening program for boys and another for girls. 

“The garden is a chance for veterans to get out of their housing and come take a breath. We can sit and contemplate and rest ourselves between being veterans and civilians, Ms. Hodges said. “We’re all family now.”

“Three or four decades ago we had Scouts and afterschool programs,” Ms. Pugh said. We need that support for kids now in our marginalized communities. We are what we eat and our kids are eating too much processed food.”

Christopher Shuttlesworth leads a class for youth on nature and gardening, Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Garfield Conservatory, open to all, usually meeting in the Fern Room. On the South Side, he leads Children’s Earth Foundation in projects cleaning up vacant lots and starting community gardens in South Shore, Auburn-Gresham and Morgan Park. He returned to Chicago after college and work in Takoma Park, Maryland, where he joined community efforts to clean up the Anacostia River.

“Young people learn about community and nature when they pick up litter, learn to recycle, grow and eat their own food. And we need seniors’ expertise to help teach them,” Shuttlesworth said.

Natchura Hapi of Oak Park said cleanup and gardens are often a first step to re-creating a community. When she and her husband Dr. Asar Hapi lived in Austin in the 1990s, they confronted young people who were smashing their garden tomatoes and demanded their respect. They asked the youth to paint over neighborhood graffiti, teaching them to use rollers and brushes, and held a party for them afterwards, she said. 

Mrs. Hapi said, “How can we have a community if we don’t commune? It’s like they took out the word ‘neighbor’ and left the word “hood.”

Wilhelmina “Mina” Wade, a retired police officer, said gardening with the Hermitage group helped her recover from brain tumor surgery 13 years ago. “It helped me get my fine motor and cognitive thinking skills back together. Associating the plants with color coordination helped me. I’m more visual and vocal now; I’ve tapped into my artistic side.” She brought colorful hats for conferees to pose for pictures. 

Emilia Areliano and Mattie Wilson, who both teach gardening and nature workshops with Garfield Conservatory Alliance, gave a workshop showing how to draw up garden plans. They demonstrated by placing patches the size of tomato, carrot and cucumber plants on a 4×8-foot screen, the size of a typical community garden raised bed. Think about the plants’ width and height in the peak season, they advised. Make sure the taller ones are on the north side of your bed so they don’t shade shorter plants from the southern sun — unless they are shade-tolerant plants like lettuce. 

How do you defend against climate change — extreme heat and cold, and heavy rains that pound your plants? Areliano and Wilson suggest mulch — straw, leaves, cardboard, shredded newspapers. It will absorb the force of the water and hold moisture in the soil to help plants through dry times. Water the soil directly, not the leaves of the plants, they said. 

In her workshop on Healthy Soil, Native Plants and Garden Sequestration, Adrian Ayres Fisher advised gardeners to add organic matter which encourages natural bacteria, fungi and worms to build nutrition and tilth in the soil.

Ms. Fisher, sustainability coordinator at Triton College, said gardeners are part of a powerful solution for climate change — carbon sequestration. Too much carbon in the air causes an imbalance which has been raising temperatures around the globe, wreaking havoc in the weather. Large-scale agriculture, baring the ground, planting a single crop year after year, and using fossil fuels for heavy tractors and fertilizers, puts more carbon into the air and depletes the soil

But the antidote may be right at hand. Trees and prairie grasses hold carbon, and their roots send it deep into the soil, sequestering it and keeping it out of the atmosphere, she said, Farmers and gardeners can help revive Illinois’ rich prairie soil, by alternating crop areas with strips or borders of trees and bushes. This encourages birds, bees and butterflies which pollinate crops and contribute to natural cycles. In gardens, use mulch, cover crops, and low-lying ground covers to hold down soil. Eliminate pesticides, use patience, and get a natural cycle going in the soil, and you can curb commercial fertilizers, using less petroleum and avoiding water pollution. 

Fisher’s motto, “Gardening is a political act of necessary beauty,” seemed to fit the conference. 

Info on garden how-to’s and local garden groups can be found at 

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Bonni McKeown

"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years.  She has led classes for young and old on...