LINCOLN SQUARE — Neighbors with a green thumb can led a hand at Winnemac Park’s popular youth garden this weekend before the weather turns frigid.
Volunteers will host this season’s final fall harvest and cleanup day 7-10 a.m. Saturday at the garden, 5100 N. Leavitt St.
The community garden is on the southwest corner of Winnemac Park. Volunteers aren’t sure when exactly its beds were first tilled, Mike Roach said, but neighbors and their children have taken stewardship of the eight garden beds and tirelessly tilled them to grow a wide variety of herbs, fruits and vegetables over the past two years.
These include sunflowers, beans, basil, strawberries, rosemary, cucumbers, patty-pan squash, zucchini, jalapeños and bell peppers.
The garden’s renaissance started in summer 2021 with a tiny, wild tomato vine struggling to grow among the dandelions that had taken root in the neglected garden, Roach said.
“I jokingly blame my daughter, Ella, for this. She’s now 3, but when she was 1, she loved hanging out in that space more than swinging on the swings,” Roach said.
While playing in the garden, Ella noticed the tomato plant and pointed it out to her dad among the various weeds, he said.
“She didn’t talk then, but she knew how to say, ‘daddy.’ And she was like, ‘Daddy, daddy,’ and pointing to the tomato plant,” he said.
Roach said he thinks Ella recognized the tomato plant from their home garden, which prompted him to want to help it thrive, he said.
Roach returned to the garden with a tomato cage, fertilizer and tools to clean up the garden bed, and he lugged water to the tomato plant for weeks, he said.
“It just flourished, man. And that one plant gave all the neighborhood kids literally hundreds and hundreds of these delicious little cherry tomatoes by the end of the year,” Roach said.
That first harvest had Roach hooked. While he technically didn’t have permission to grow anything in the garden beds at the time, he figured he’d ask for forgiveness instead of permission the following year, he said.
Starting in May 2022, Roach worked the garden 5-7 a.m. most days, he said.
This involved pulling out invasive trees, hundreds of dandelions and other weeds and asking staff from the Park District’s Forestry Division for wood chips, he said.
The garden became an “emotional outlet” for Roach as the country grappled with mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and suburban Highland Park that year, he said.
“One bed led to two, then three. … I just took all my feelings out digging up that garden,” Roach said.
Roach dropped by the park for his usual morning gardening session one day and found someone had anonymously cleared the final bed of weeds and and other debris, he said.
As the 2022 summer growing season went by, neighbors such as Kris Montalbano, Betsy Godwin, Dave Moore and Amy Butts and local businesses like Gethsemane Garden Shop and Waste Not, Want Not started showing up to help or donate needed tools, plants and other materials, Roach said.
Picking up on that momentum, this year the Park District certified the garden as one of its official Community Garden in the Parks sites. Librarians from the Sulzer Regional Library teamed up with garden volunteers to host story times there, Roach said.
“As far as we know, we’re the only one of 107 gardens recognized this year that’s dedicated to helping kids learn about gardening, eating healthy and taking care of our environment,” Roach said.
But the mystery of who first tilled the garden is still something volunteers are trying to figure out.
When a park staffer dropped off wood chips he casually mentioned a woman named “Gina” who had helped launch the garden, Roach said.
“In the park, carved into one of the chairs made from a tree stump, is the name ‘Gina.’ I just thought it was some random graffiti,” Roach said. “But it turns out that was the woman that set up this park. But no one knows anything, like how long ago that was. No one knows her last name.”
Volunteers heard Gina worked with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office but have been unable to find her to let her know her garden won an award this year, Roach said.
Messages left with the State’s Attorney’s Office were not immediately returned.
A single chive plant in the garden’s western-most bed is the only living remnant from the original garden Gina planted, he said. Volunteers hope Gina will stop by Saturday to see how far the garden has come, Roach said.
“We just want to find out who she is so we can thank her and tell her, ‘Hey, look what you started.’ We brought it back to life, and now it’s award winning,” Roach said.
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