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Beverly, Mt. Greenwood, Morgan Park

South Side Gardeners Adjusting To Pandemic Life: ‘You Really Don’t Need Much Space To Grow’

You can grow crops on a sunny windowsill or stoop to cut down on grocery trips, said May Yen, whose Beverly seedling business has moved online.

The 71st and Crandon Community Garden in South Shore sits empty May 7. While technically open, a posted sign encourages gardeners to stay home.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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BEVERLY — The coronavirus pandemic has put a few of May Yen’s gardening plans on hold for the season.

The eco-friendly vermicomposter can no longer work for the Park District as a harvest garden counselor, where she normally teaches South and West Side kids how to grow and cook healthy foods.

Yen also planned on volunteering at the Edna White Memorial Garden in Morgan Park, which supplies South Side food banks like the Maple Morgan Park Food Pantry. That’s no longer possible because of coronavirus, she said.

But what the pandemic hasn’t stopped is Yen’s Beverly-based Down to Earth seedling business. A regular vendor at the 61st Street and 95th Street farmers markets — both closed for the foreseeable future — Down to Earth has moved to providing no-contact home deliveries and no-contact pickups in Beverly and Woodlawn.

“The two farmers markets that were my only outlet to sell the thousands of seedlings I grew this year weren’t able to open during our peak sales season,” Yen said. “I had to develop an alternative to get plants to gardeners.”

Credit: Facebook
May Yen of Down to Earth Beverly poses with her seedlings in June 2016.

Though many gardening opportunities have been threatened or canceled by the pandemic, there are still ways to grow and consume healthy foods in Chicago, said Wendy Zeldin, 61st Street Farmers Market manager.

Garden centers are now considered essential businesses in Illinois, and seedling vendors like Down to Earth and the Urban Growers Collective in South Chicago are taking online orders.

“You really don’t need much space to grow a good amount of food, especially for tomatoes or herbs or lettuce,” Zeldin said. These crops work well “for windowsills, balconies and little porches.”

Resourceful gardeners are growing crops in water from scraps, like green onions, carrot tops and lettuce, Zeldin said. Vegetable scraps can also be used to make broth.

A commitment to food sustainability can pay off in times of crisis — like this pandemic. Yen said she’s only been to the grocery store twice since March, when the statewide stay at home order was enacted.

That’s because Yen and her partner Jeff Deutsch have dehydrated foods stocked up alongside bulk supplies of whole grains and beans. She makes tofu from soybeans and soy burgers from the okara left over from tofu production.

“With two cups of soy beans, I can make 12 ounces of tofu, whey for soup and okara burgers, essentially creating a few days’ worth of meals with the perfect no-waste food,” Yen said.

Though Yen and Deutsch have a large yard and greenhouse, sustainability doesn’t require a lot of space, Yen said. A sunny window, patio or stoop are all sufficient for growing crops.

“It’s been encouraging to see activities like baking and gardening become more popular during the pandemic,” Yen said. “Anything we can do to get closer to whole, fresh, locally grown foods, and away from processed foods, the more sustainable we will be.”

You can order organic seedlings from Down To Earth here.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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