Estelle Carol of the Deep Roots Project holds blackberry flower buds in her Oak Park garden on Thursday May 18, 2023 | Todd A. Bannor

From watermelon and corn to peaches and tomatoes, ripe and juicy, summer produce makes the hottest months pleasurable. But before you rush to the grocery store, consider: what if you could grow it all in your own backyard? Not just during the summer, but fall and winter produce too?

One Oak Park nonprofit wants to make that a reality.

“Our focus is to create a system for backyard gardening that people who didn’t know how to garden could easily learn and become successful their first year,” said Estelle Carol, co-founder and co-executive director of the Deep Roots Project.

The seeds for the Deep Roots Project were sowed years ago, when Carol and Will Schreiber, the other co-founder and co-executive director, decided to take up gardening together. Neither had much practice at all with gardening. Schreiber had slightly more than Carol, having grown up with relatives who were independent farmers. Aside from the exposure, he didn’t have much personal experience. Their mutual lack of experience did not make for a bountiful harvest their first year of gardening.

“It was a disaster,” said Schreiber. “Nothing worked. Everything was a mess.”

Their lack of initial success Schreiber in part attributes to conflicting and confusing information over the best gardening practices. Through trial and error, Carol and Schreiber persisted, ultimately becoming skilled gardeners.

“Most people would just give up and quit, but we didn’t,” said Schreiber.

Will Schreiber and Estelle Carol of the Deep Roots Project and a bed of spinach in her Oak Park garden on Thursday May 18, 2023 | Todd A. Bannor

The two co-founders sought to use their hard-won expertise to help others through the Deep Roots Project. The non-profit provides all the essentials required for growing a vegetable garden, sun not included. Through its online shop, burgeoning green thumbs can purchase raised cedar beds and planter boxes, all built by Schreiber. Organic compost specifically for growing food is also available for purchase. You can also purchase worm castings, a natural fertilizer made of worm excrement, through the Deep Roots Project online shop.

“Our goal was, and has consistently been, to supply the best ingredients for the absolute best prices,” said Schreiber.

The team at the Deep Roots Project travel by pickup to gather the materials. The compost comes from a dairy farm in McHenry County, while the worm castings come from Wisconsin and the cedar is sourced from Indiana, Missouri and Tennessee. It’s all very much worth the trip, according to Schreiber.

Orders are delivered to customers by Javier “JJ” Jaimes, who is a popular among the clientele. Jaimes is not a gardener nor does he have a garden, but his work with the Deep Roots Project has prompted him to consider picking up a trowel himself.

“I’ve been thinking about actually starting one myself with those really, really nice, beautiful beds that Will makes at Deep Roots,” said Jaimes.

Will Schreiber of the Deep Roots Project with a cedar raised garden bed nearing completion in Oak Park on Thursday May 18, 2023 | Todd A. Bannor

The prospect of reaping the literal fruit of his labors makes starting a garden attractive to Jaimes. Rather than factory farmed produce, homegrown food can be enjoyed for far more than just its taste.

“It’s coming from your own hands and your own hard work,” Jaimes said.

The small team, which also includes horticulturalist Rafaela A. Crevoshay, behind the Deep Roots Project continues supporting its customers long after delivery by posting informative content on the non-profit’s website. The Deep Roots Project also provides something of a gardening concierge service, speaking with customers to solve such problems as pests and irrigation. Carol, an artist and web designer, plans to grow the non-profit’s educational content by creating instructional videos.

The Deep Roots Project became a certified non-profit in 2018 and, just like zucchini on the vine, has grown and matured with time. The COVID-19 pandemic helped to nurture the Deep Roots Project, as more and more people cultivated outdoor hobbies to pass the time spent at home. This year, the non-profit has 62 returning customers and 42 new customers with 32 cedar bed orders so far.

“There’ll probably be more because that’s what happened last year; we kept getting orders over the entire growing season,” said Carol.

One of the best parts about gardening for Carol and Schreiber is the ability to feed others, perhaps inspiring them to give gardening a try. The Deep Roots Project is always in need of volunteers and right now, the non-profit’s own vegetable garden is flush with delicious spinach – far too much for Carol and Schreiber to eat alone. They are happy to share.

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