As Michelle and Barack Obama watch their first vegetable garden at the White House grow this spring, and as the nagging need to cut back on weekly grocery bills continues to fill our plates, the idea of growing fresh fruits and vegetables in smaller urban places and spaces is taking root everywhere – especially here in progressive Oak Park where we already promote ourselves as a clean, green, sustainable community.

So this February, in an effort to encourage more people to consider growing vegetable gardens wherever they live, Margaret Provost-Fyfe, the interim director at the village’s Department of Public Health, reached out to local gardening guru, Henrietta Yardley, manager of the Oak Park Conservatory to put legs on the local greening movement, and from that phone call propagated the first-ever VOP Urban Gardening Initiative. It’s an evolving volunteer-driven effort composed of a consortium of communication and gardening experts from village hall, the park district, Farmers’ Market and local gardening groups, plus a corps of certified master gardeners fresh from the University of Illinois-Chicago Extension program.

In the initiative’s inaugural year, says Provost-Fyfe, one page of the village website (www.oak-park.us/environment) has become a clearinghouse of gardening info. Visitors can now access data as well as links to gardening resource materials ranging in scope from soil assessment, plant selection and proper watering to container and raised gardening and composting, she says.

“Purchasing an heirloom tomato from Whole Foods Market is pricey, but you can grow a bunch of them in your own backyard,” says Provost-Fyfe. “The biggest obstacle to gardening in Oak Park, other than our beautiful shade trees, is thinking it’s more difficult than it really is. We will have information out there in many formats and places.”

Being produced is a series of instructional, entertaining gardening videos to air on Cable Access Channel 6. What’s more, several local master gardeners will dig in to field questions at upcoming community events including “Bustin’ Out Green” on May 30 at the Farmers’ Market.

“The real trick to growing vegetables,” quips Yardley, “is to sort of think about them as any other weed, because if you do they will just grow like crazy and you won’t be able to get rid of them.

“But for the most part, veggies are easy to grow, provided they get sufficient sunlight, at least 6-7 hours a day. If you don’t have that, you can try to put them in non-traditional spaces such as a window box, or on an elevated deck or balcony. I also suppose you could use a moveable container to push things around to the sun. A wheelbarrow is perfect. So it’s either getting your vegetables to the sun, or deciding to buy organic from the Farmers’ Market.”

Tell-tale tomatoes

Growing and eating tomatoes is an American pastime, but choosing the best one or two varieties to try for the first time, says master gardener Sandy Lentz, can be a bit overwhelming at first. After that, though, growing tasty tomatoes at home is pretty easy: Plant them in good soil with full sun, water them evenly, stake them, then just watch the plant grow.

“Tomato plants require some basic understanding and care, but they aren’t really all that fussy,” says Lentz, president of Friends of the Oak Park Conservatory (FOPCON), who also sits on the park district’s Green Advisory Committee. “Go to a reputable nursery and you will find there are hundreds of varieties from which to choose. Hybrids tend to be more disease resistant – Early Girl, Big Girl and Big Boy. Those are the names of the ones you will probably find, but everyone has their favorites.”

Lentz says she grows heirlooms, but for a gardener who is just starting out, that variety is much more susceptible to disease, the wilts and other things that affect tomatoes, so she suggests gardeners peruse the attached tag to ascertain how a healthy plant is expected to fare in everyday conditions.

“Often, people think the smaller cherry or pear-shaped tomatoes taste better. Generally speaking, these varieties tend to ripen quicker than the big ones do, so if you aren’t able to get your crop in on time this year, those are good ones with which to start, and they don’t take up much space,” she says.

Charlie Ruedebusch, head gardener at Cheney Mansion, says he absolutely loves growing tomatoes, especially heirlooms. Each year at work and in his home garden, he blissfully nurses numerous varieties of heirlooms in an ongoing quest to find out which grows best and “tastes the coolest.”

In early spring, he enjoys starting tomatoes from seed in Cheney’s onsite nursery, later transplanting the seedlings to a raised bed on the grounds. Many of these plants are used in the mansion’s culinary class creations, and over the years Ruedebusch speculates that he has grown and peddled 12-15 different varieties of tomato plants to Oak Parkers via their annual mid-May plant sale, including up to six varieties of heirlooms, he says.

“If you have the time and somewhere you can set up fluorescent lights, you can grow tomatoes from seeds on your own,” he says. “First sprinkle the seeds in small pots with planting soil, which is not from your garden, and then give it a lot of light. A cheap fluorescent shop light will work.

“Keep the seedlings an inch away from the light for 15-18 hours a day, and as they get a little bigger, give them more. Putting the pots on a window sill just won’t cut it,” he cautions. “But you should not stick tomato plants out in your garden before the middle of May, and I know many people who do it Memorial Day weekend as the plants will catch up because of the warm weather,” he says.

He realizes most people will go and buy a tomato plant from a store because it’s much easier. Aside from the big box stores, he recommends checking out The Good Earth in River Forest, or McAdam Nursery and Garden Center in Forest Park, or marking your calendar to attend the Oak Park Conservatory’s Scented Plant and Herb Sale on May 2 or Cheney Mansion’s Spring Plant Sale on May 17 where new gardeners can purchase quality plants and get expert advice on how and where to plant them.

Tomato-topia

Master gardener and local tomato pro Don Nekrosius, meanwhile, goes gaga for this sweet summer fruit. Since 1979, he and his wife have kept an urban garden in Oak Park at Clarence and Adams with a satellite at their cabin in west central Wisconsin where they sow and reap baskets full of fruits and vegetables grown in three plots on their small farm. In season, the retired English teacher and FOPCON board member relishes the opportunity to share his bounty with family, neighbors and conservatory volunteers. For Nekrosius, growing his own vegetables is always a community event.

One year for fun he planted 50 different tomato plants – only 30 yielded fruit that year because he had to “stick 20 of the plants in places no tomato should try to live.” Because he is an avid horticultural hobbyist, he believes every gardener should experiment with seeds.

“There are a bazillion of them,” he says.

Over the years, Nekrosius has tried scores of tomato varieties, ranging from Rutgers (aka Jersey) and Brandywine of the heirloom family to his wife’s favorite, a pretty heart-shaped giant in the Oxheart family, to cherry and Juliette grape tomatoes, and for fun, a green zebra (yellow stripes) or conversely, Mr. Stripey (red with yellow stripes).

“Tomatoes are heat-loving and sun-loving plants, so you want to put them in the best location where they are going to get sun, and the more sun for a tomato, the better it is,” the prolific gardener advises.

New gardeners or other green thumb wannabes should try googling tomato.edu to access a plethora of reliable information and instructional gardening videos produced and provided by a variety of sources, including the University of Illinois Extension Web site, www.urbanext.illinois.edu/veggies/tomato1.html.

Other local resources who can help are the Oak Park Conservatory, www.oakparkparks.com/parks and the Garden Club of Oak Park-River Forest, www.dir.gardenweb.com/directory/gcoprf. But the best gardening expert around is still probably on his or her knees, preparing and weeding a patch of dirt across the alley or on the other side of the fence.

“If you see a neighbor growing something you like,” Nekrosius says, “wander over and ask them what they are doing and talk about their problems and successes. I love growing things because it puts me in contact with the real world – touching the soil, picking up a bug and looking at it, losing my fear of it and coming to the realization that we are all a part of nature and should respect it.” n

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....