In March, the Deep Roots Project was awarded a Big Idea Grant of $17,000 by the Entrepreneur Leaders in Philanthropy Fund, a giving group of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.
The award will fund Deep Roots’ Lawns to Garden initiative, and as part of that initiative, Deep Roots is holding a contest that runs through Nov. 1 to give away 10 edible gardens, along with two years of maintenance, free workshops and a gardening coach.
As the group prepares to show off the first of those 10 gardens on Saturday, July 29 at River Forest’s Trailside Museum from 2 to 4 p.m., Deep Roots encourages others to apply to win a garden.
Estelle Carroll, co-director of the Deep Roots Project, originally became interested in growing food at home for health-related reasons.
“I didn’t want to eat conventional food. It’s making people sick,” she said. “It can be really expensive to buy all organic, so I decided to grow it myself.”
As Carroll began to grow food in her home garden on her front lawn, she also decided to become an activist and get others to do the same. She quickly realized that there was a lot of conflicting and outdated information available on growing food without chemicals.
“I wanted to teach people to do more home-grown food with more affordable and easier to use methods that also don’t waste so much water,” Carroll said.
In 2017, she paired up with Deep Roots Co-Director Will Schreiber to encourage others to practice good environmental stewardship and foster an edible gardening community.
Hoping to reach a wider audience and obtain funding, they entered the Big Idea Grant competition in 2017. They enlisted the help of David Murphy, now the Deep Root Project director, as well as businesses including Dig Right In Landscaping, Kali Kale and Sugar Beet Schoolhouse.
Although they were chosen as a finalist, the Deep Roots Project did not receive funding in 2017 and spent the next year introducing itself to the community via workshops on natural lawn care and edible gardening.
They set up outreach tables at the Oak Park Farmer’s Market and attended “green” block parties in Oak Park. In 2018, they again applied to the Big Idea Project, pledging to create 20 free edible gardens and 100 pledged pesticide-free gardens if they won the contest.
While they didn’t win the big prize of $50,000, the $17,000 award will allow them to offer a scaled-down vision for the next calendar year.
How to apply
Applications for winning a free edible garden can be found on the Deep Roots Project website (www.deep-roots-project.org) under the “projects” tab. Deep Roots volunteer coordinator Briana Villarrubia says that Murphy is happy to answer questions about the process, help fill out the application, visit the site and explain the garden and lawn care.
Applicants must live in Oak Park or River Forest and have to take the pledge to keep chemicals out of the yard. In addition, applicants must agree to learn about chemical-free gardening, incorporate some native plants in the garden, have enough sun for the garden and place the garden in a visible spot.
In return, winners not only get a complete garden setup valued at $1,000, they also receive support for two years and the services of a garden mentor.
Schreiber said that the support is a key component to the award.
“The idea is for it to be successful,” Schreiber said. “We will set up each winner for two years of mentorship and health. It’s kind of daunting for an individual to wake up and say, ‘I want to grow my own food.’ We’ve spent eons studying this and have the tools necessary to help this work.”
At the end of the day, the award-winning gardens, whether they are at individual homes or local institutions like schools and business, will stand as examples of how to garden and grow your own food in a healthy way in your own front yard. Deep Roots hopes that these examples will lead others to want to garden in the same way.
Carroll, whose own Oak Park front yard is lush with greens and vegetables this summer, said that it can be hard to change mindsets.
“People get in the groove of old habits,” she said. “It’s hard to change. We’re trying to figure out how to get people to consider this and give them the tools and education to do it themselves, so they’re not overwhelmed by it.”
Schreiber agrees, noting that Deep Roots really wants to help implement a shift in cultural norms.
“I don’t have to look out my front window and see green lawn,” Schreiber said. “I can see a garden and native plants.”
The Deep Roots Project aims to help people learn those methods and apply it to their modern lifestyles.
“People don’t have the time to labor in their gardens with most households having two workers,” Carroll said. “People aren’t learning it from their parents anymore.”
To that end, the Deep Roots Project has monthly community meetings on the fourth Friday of the month from 6 to 8 p.m. at Good Earth Greenhouse, 7900 Madison St. in River Forest, and members continue to work on new methods to make organic gardening easier. The next meeting is on July 27.
Schreiber is designing new raised beds that eliminate bending and that can be configured to fit on smaller decks or balconies. He is also fine-tuning an automatic irrigation system using solar power and rain barrels.
“We’re trying to make it simple and take all of the mystery out of it,” Schreiber said.
When the gardening season is over, the Deep Roots Project turns its focus on education.
Next up? Youth programs designed to get teens and children involved in healthy gardening and the healthier lifestyle effects that can come from eating organic foods.