City Grange owner LaManda Joy cuts the ribbon at the grand opening Friday. Credit: Jonathan Ballew/Block Club Chicago

BUDLONG WOODS — City Grange, the highly anticipated community gardening store, is open for business after a grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony Friday.

The store at 5500 N. Western Ave. sells plants, seeds, gardening supplies and more. But beyond just supplies, the store will be a hub for gardening training both on-site and online.

The business is the byproduct of many years of dreaming for owner LaManda Joy. It started over a decade ago when Joy started the Peterson Garden Project.

It was right after the housing crash and the idea was to teach city folks how to grow their own food. Joy is from Oregon, where her father instilled in her a love for gardening from an early age. When she moved to Chicago, she felt she was in a bit of a gardening desert.

Joy’s parents are from the “Greatest Generation” and she was inspired by WWII Victory Gardens. She would walk by vacant lots each day and eventually developed what she called “lot lust.” Eventually, Joy was able to broker a deal with the owners of an undeveloped plot of land that allowed her to start a community gardening project. Thus, the Peterson Garden Project was born.

A decade later, the Peterson Garden Project has grown to be a massive force in Chicago’s community gardening scene. They now have over 3,500 gardeners who sign up each year to plant and harvest in seven different plots on the North and West Sides.

The Peterson Garden Project has taught over 23,000 people how to garden in an urban environment, and they have grown over 250,000 pounds of food — with 14,000 pounds of food going to local food pantries.

With the Peterson Garden Project becoming such a success, Joy wanted to open a brick and mortar store to provide new and seasoned gardeners with organic supplies.

“With creating so many new gardeners, we knew they were going to need to buy their supplies somewhere,” she said. “We figured, might as well buy from us.”

Joy wants City Grange to operate as a staple of the community, supporting local businesses, artists and entertainers. She also wants to use City Grange as a jobs program, particularly for young people.

United We Blossom is a six-month job training program created by City Grange where associates are hired and paid to learn about the gardening industry. After their six month training program, many of the associates will be hired by City Grange as full-time staff. Other associates will get help finding permanent job placements with other shops in the industry.

Joy said there is a huge percentage of lawn and gardening jobs that are unfilled because there is a shortage of qualified workers. She said focusing on 18-25 year olds — who suffer from higher than average unemployment rates in Chicago — is a way to fill two needs at once.

Darius Cole (left) helps a customer check out. Cole is an associate of the United We Blossom jobs program. Credit: Jonathan Ballew/Block Club Chicago

Darius Cole, 21, was hired as a United We Blossom associate. He said he had always been interested in gardening and has had his “hands in the dirt” since he was two.

“I’ve learned more at City Grange about plants and their care than I have ever known before,” he said.

He said he used to work a warehouse job and while he learned a lot there, he is much happier putting his gardening skills to use. He grows indoor and outdoor plants at home and someday he hopes to manage his own gardening store.

Although City Grange will have all the plants and gardening supplies a perspective green thumb could want, the business is really about training and education.

“I’ve seen the power of people being together in gardens,” she said.

City Grange will offer various gardening kits, which will include all the supplies a gardener needs — along with training on how to grow the plants. The training will be on-site for those who can make it to the store, but also have online options.

Joy is particularly excited about a future kit called “How to grow your own butterflies.” The kit won’t actually grow butterflies, but it will help gardeners grow plants that will attract the delicate winged beauties.

“We really want to remove the barriers to gardening success,” said Joy.

The biggest of those barriers is education and access. Joy is hoping City Grange can help new gardeners overcome both obstacles.

In order to make the store more accessible, City Grange offers valet parking on weekends. It’s a way to help out those who might have trouble finding parking or walking longer distances.

Joy said the store has a special focus on environmentally safe and organic products. She said everything on the shelves has been hand-selected to meet strict criteria.

“We’ve thought through everything so when you come in you know you are buying good, organic stuff,” she said. “We’ve done all the thinking for you.”

Although Joy has seen her dreams blossom over the last decade, she said the first location is not an end game. She already has plans for another location to open in Evanston in 2020. And 10 years from now she hopes to have a City Grange in “every major metropolis.”

She wants to use gardening to help bring urban communities closer together.

“There is a saying that all the world’s problems can be solved in a garden, and it’s absolutely true.”

For more information, check out the City Grange website. Twitter @JCB_Journo