Sugar Beet's annual Edible Garden Tour highlights 'urban farming'

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

As the peak of the summer growing season approaches in Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest and Chicago's Austin Community, any green thumber — or any wannabe — can pad through 10 private and public "urban farms" to harvest a few new ideas during Sugar Beet Co-op's 3rd annual Edible Garden Tour on Saturday, July 26, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Organized as a bike-friendly, self-guided tour, the trail of gardens winds through four communities, many of them featuring kid-centric ideas. Cost is $10 for Sugar Beet Co-op members, $12 for everyone else, and children under 12 are free. However, since tickets are limited, advance purchase is recommended at www.sugarbeetcoop.squarespace.com/edible-garden-tour. Organizers anticipate the tour will sell out. Tickets and maps can be picked up the day of at Oak Park's soon-to-be community-owned grocery store: Sugar Beet Co-op at 812 Madison St. 

"Because there's such a trend toward growing our own food, we can now know where our food comes from, realize that home-grown veggies taste a heck of a lot better, it's fun, and when you have a garden at home, you are saving money at the grocery store," said Cheryl Munoz, co-founder of Sugar Beet Cooperative and creator of this annual fund-raising event. "It's about building community through eating good food, growing food, and encouraging people to be connected to the land. Hopefully all this will help grow stronger families, just by having backyard vegetable gardens."

Schools join in

With District 97 school gardens popping up at Holmes, Longfellow, Lincoln, Hatch, Mann, Irving, and Beye elementary schools as well as Brooks Middle School, one highlight of the 2014 tour is the Longfellow School Family Garden Club at 715 S. Highland Ave. in Oak Park. Now in its second year, the row of seven 4 x 8-foot raised beds is built from repurposed wood, salvaged when the school re-designed its playground, says Jill Niewoehner, the returning chair of the tour and founder of this child-parent club.

"This is the only school garden this year, but our hope is to feature a new school garden every year because in District 97 there are a lot of them," she said. "On the tour, we want people to learn that anybody can grow their own food."

Planted in view of all on the southeast side of the building is almost every vegetable one can imagine. The garden is tended all summer long by about 50 garden-loving moms, dads and kids, including Longfellow Principal Angela Dolezal, with her young family in tow.

 Tucked in among all those go-to veggies, Niewoehner said, are also "patches" of strawberries, plantings of rhubarb and a large crop of potatoes because the kids love the treasure hunt of harvesting spuds.

"I think having a garden at Longfellow is a great community builder in the way our families just voluntarily come to plant, water and weed the beds, and help harvest the food throughout the summer," said Dolezal, noting that a side benefit is how students can walk by and see "what a garden looks like, and how easy it is to grow one, especially if they don't have one at home."

Experimentation

Oak Parker Angie Cataldo's kid-centric veggie patch is where her kids, Jonah, 6; Adam, 4; and Sarah Ann, 6 months, learn how to explore the natural world, from the ground up.

Figuring out what to grow in her urban-sized yard is always an adventure. But Cataldo bases it on cultivating only the veggies her family eats, so "it's not the most exciting group of vegetables, but it is everything my kids love," she said. 

A highlight is the simple and inexpensive-to-make cucumber teepee — a vertical growing tool that, for her boys, doubles as a secluded reading nook. 

"In the garden, I let the boys do science experiments, like on the cucumber teepee, where we'll put a water bottle over a young cucumber, and let it grow in the bottle," said Cataldo. "The boys love the 'magic trick' — how did we get that big cucumber into such a small space? The cucumbers they don't like so much, but they're fascinated by how the plant grows and its fruit … how big the leaves get, how the vines grow, and how the tendrils will reach around and grab on." 

Another kid-friendly add-on is her DIY watering wall, a peg board screwed to the fence, to which they attach funnels, tubes and bottles, found and recycled or purchased at the Dollar Store.

"Sometimes we put a bucket underneath to catch the water, and the boys will use it to water the plants, so it's a play station that acts as a watering hub," Cataldo said.

"We like to do science experiments in the garden, and we do look at things closely, digging into the dirt to get to know what a grub looks like … and looking at a young plant, wondering why a certain leaf curls and another is straight." 

Against the garage in a coop sit Flo and Sally, the Rhode Island Red and Red Star hens that produce more than a dozen eggs a week.

"Chickens are smart, have their own personalities, and they help out in the yard," she says. "They love eating slugs, and all these other bugs they go after. I love that about them."

Taking the leap

New to the tour this year, Niewoehner noted, will be the Dominican Priory Vegetable & Herb Garden in River Forest; the Wonder Works Children's Museum Garden in Oak Park; and The Forest Park Community Garden at Harlem Avenue, northwest of the I-290 expressway.

Back by popular demand this year will be a stop at the Ioder Goat Farm and Homestead in Chicago's Austin neighborhood, plus a few new demonstration gardens.

"If someone might have a lack of knowledge, or tools, or just might be nervous about tearing up their yard to plant this kind of garden, I think when they see other people here in Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park and Austin doing it, and understand that there are resources nearby, they will be more willing and able to take the leap," Munoz says.

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