A community of gardeners

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Sandra Reid, an avid gardener, understands why many individuals who grow their own food are at odds with squirrels.

"Before all the disease came, we had a lot of oak trees on our block. Now there are a lot of squirrels who have managed to survive by ravaging trash cans and gardens," Reid says. "Back then, I would plant something in my garden, and it would be gone the next day."

Four years ago, she heard about a local movement interested in planting some community gardens in Oak Park and just over the border in Chicago.

"It was Amy Beltemacchi and Seamus Ford [co-founders of Root-Riot Urban Garden Network] who found some private land, and then a group of us searched around for soil and the wood to build the boxes," Reid recalls. "From there we got a lot of help from some high school kids who contributed muscle power, and we built the garden in Oak Park."

Root-Riot Harambee, 500 N. Waller Ave. in Austin, and Root-Riot Kuumba Tre Ahm, 2908 W. Warren Blvd. in Garfield Park, are now part of the mix, too. This year at Root-Riot in Austin, besides all the vegetables, one of the participants is tending to bees and a small herd of goats, too.

"The goats are really part of fulfilling the mission of the garden," says Ford, "which is to weave the fabric of community back together in Austin. So we want people to see a working community garden, have a phone number to call, and the novelty to having goats at the sidewalk is very different."

Greening and growing together

Four years old now, the community gardens are thriving. In Oak Park, about 100 people participate, ranging in age from 2 to 80. Ford says that in those three sunny spaces, community garden participants are growing virtually every vegetable he can imagine growing in the Midwest — and even over-wintering garlic and lettuce inside cold frames.

"In 2010, I went on a tour with a few other folks from Oak Park up to a place called Growing Power in Milwaukee. I had been interested in the whole conversation around local food for a while," says Ford. "I had taken a permaculture course. From that course, I wanted to take on the challenge of doing something to make a difference in this area. So for me, Root-Riot is really committed to being an organization that facilitates the notion of community-based gardens and initiatives that use the garden as an educational and development vehicle."

By the end of the first year, roughly 150 households were participating in the community gardens in Oak Park and Austin.

"This is a chance to get out and meet new people and start conversations you ordinarily wouldn't have a chance to," says Reid. "And I like the idea of fostering community involvement. When I first started growing the veggies four years ago, it was like I was picking up on something my grandma used to do, and I do enjoy thinking about what she would think about what I am doing now."

The garden at 838 Madison St. in Oak Park will soon be moving to a location two blocks west.

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