Archives For Community Gardening

Having recently experienced the magical bloom of our titan arum Alice the Amorphophallus at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we were reminded of the pure joy that plants can bring.

Alice provided special moments for many people—including me.

On September 28, at 12:51 a.m., I received a text from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s senior director of marketing, Jennifer Napier. All night, she had been watching the feed from a camera trained on the plant we hoped would yield the result that our first titan arum, Spike, did not. She texted because she had noticed something incredible: Alice was blooming.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden President and CEO Sophia Shaw pollinates a titan arum from the collection.

That’s me! Pollinating Alice the Amorphophallus took steady hands and quite a bit of concentration.

What a wonderful surprise. I took a breath and thought: This is it. This is what so many dedicated horticulturists at the Garden have been waiting for, and watching for, with our collection of eight titan arums over these last 12 years.

I arrived at the Garden just after 3 a.m.—my headlights reflecting in eyes of the raccoons who call our 385 acres home—and was let in by the third-shift security officers who keep the Garden safe at night.

At the Semitropical Greenhouse, I met outdoor floriculturist Tim Pollak, “Titan Tim,” and we breathed in the plant’s horrible, wonderful smell. Tom Zombolo, senior director, facilities and maintenance, joined us soon after. I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but it was my impression that Alice “knew” we were there; maybe our warmth and carbon-monoxide exhales made the plant believe we were pollinators? I don’t know, but in the several minutes following our greenhouse entry, we perceived that Alice’s rotten scent became even more intense. There would be a lot of activity very soon, but we shared a quiet moment to reflect on this rare phenomenon and the extraordinary dedication of so many to reach this point.

Later, thanks to Tim and scientists Shannon Still and Pat Herendeen, I had the chance to hand-pollinate Alice with pollen supplied by “Spike” and our friends at the Denver Botanic Gardens. That moment was one of the most exciting and moving experiences of my life.

Alice was on view until 2 a.m. that night, and visitors of all ages patiently stood in line up to three hours to see, and smell, the corpse flower. I was grateful for the Garden operations staff, led by Harriet Resnick, who—in ways large and small—made the experience so satisfying for our visitors. More than 20,000 people visited Alice, and it was such a happy occasion for all.

PHOTO: Twitter tells the story: #CBGAlice was the see-and-be-seen event on September 29-30. It's true—she was more popular than Beyoncé for a while.

Twitter tells the story: #CBGAlice inspired and amazed visitors September 29-30.

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Alice has now returned to the production greenhouse, joining the seven other titan arums in the Garden’s collection. Will serendipity happen again with another corpse flower bloom? Nature will determine that. But I do know these kinds of special moments truly reflect the power of plants to educate, inspire, and bring joy.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Late summer was a great time for a visit to Windy City Harvest’s Legends South incubator farm.

This summer, we hosted Katie Wilson, Ph.D., USDA deputy under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services (FNCS), who walked the entire two-acre site with us in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Dr. Wilson marveled at all the organic greens—kale, collard, lettuce, and more—that eventually makes its way to low-income mothers whose young children are at risk for nutritional problems. Wilson mentioned that small-scale farming is close to her heart—her son helps lead operations at his college’s farm in Wisconsin.

PHOTO: Rosario Maldonado of Creciendo Farms, a Windy City Harvest 2013 Apprenticeship Graduate.

Rosario Maldonado of Creciendo Farms, a Windy City Harvest 2013 Apprenticeship Graduate

What prompted her visit is the unique approach the site offers in leveraging two USDA programs—the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Windy City Harvest has partnered with Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, Inc. (CEDA) for more than five years to distribute produce through WIC channels and is proud to now offer it as a channel for farmers. Farmers at the two-acre urban refuge grow an assortment of vegetables for WIC produce boxes, distributed to 95 families per week at various offices throughout the city from June through October.

PHOTO: Stacey Kimmons of Return To Life Farming, a Windy City Harvest 2014 Apprenticeship Graduate.

Stacey Kimmons of Return To Life Farming, a Windy City Harvest 2014 Apprenticeship Graduate

As part of a BFRDP grant program, the businesses receive necessary infrastructure and support from the Chicago Botanic Garden to help mediate the risks involved in starting their own farming-related business. An affordable lease of ⅛-acre ready-to-farm land, irrigation, tools and equipment, a processing area, technical assistance, and a guaranteed point of sale for their produce are provided under the grant. The BFRDP also funds industry-specific, 14-week courses created by Windy City Harvest in business and entrepreneurship, aquaponic production, season extension, and edible landscaping/rooftop farming. These courses are open to farmers looking to continue their education in this ever-expanding field of opportunity. The Garden is in its third year of the BFRDP program and has incubated 11 farm businesses; two in its pilot year, three in it first full year, and currently six in 2015.

The farm businesses providing to WIC this year are Creciendo Farms, owned by Rosario Maldonado and Fernando Orozco of McKinley Park, and Return to Life Farming, owned by Stacey Kimmons of South Shore. Both farms have a deep commitment to the mission of WIC—to provide supplemental nutrition to low-income babies, young children, and pregnant and post-partum women.

PHOTO: The growers of Creciendo Farms, including Windy City harvest graduates Rosario Maldonado and Fernando Orozco (far right).

The growers of Creciendo Farms, including Windy City harvest graduates Rosario Maldonado and Fernando Orozco (far right)

Fernando and Rosario both received WIC benefits themselves as children. They believe that farm-to-clinic WIC boxes serve as a great way to introduce families to fresh, local produce, while allowing farmers to serve their communities and build sustainable businesses.

Stacey chose WIC as his primary market to serve because, he said, “I wanted to make sure I helped assist them in having healthy choices of food.” When developing his business plan, he knew he wanted to farm for profit as well as support a great cause. “I have friends who have WIC, and they have nothing but positive things to say about it, and now to know that I have something to do with that positive thing, is a great feeling.”

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Something is growing in a food desert on Chicago’s West Side. A farm designed, built, and managed by Windy City Harvest for the PCC Austin Family Health Center began operation in the spring to help provide more of what the challenged Austin neighborhood lacks—ready access to produce that is fresh, affordable, and nearby—and enable the center’s patients to more easily fill the prescription for healthy living they receive in the examination room: eat more fresh vegetables. Spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, and other produce grown at the farm will be sold on-site.

PHOTO: Creating the raised beds at PCC Austin Farm last fall.

Creating the raised beds at PCC Austin Farm last fall

The project finds Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden urban agriculture and jobs-training program, partnered with an urban health provider, PCC Community Wellness Center, in paired missions of feeding communities and improving the health of those living in them. The Austin location is one of the PCC system’s 11 Chicago-area centers.

“We needed to come out of the four walls of our medical center and look at ways to give back to the community, get the community involved, explore ways to change the environment, and let people learn about gardening,” said Bob Urso, PCC president and CEO, explaining the project’s genesis. Funding comes from a $350,000 Humana Communities Benefit grant awarded to PCC Wellness Community Center by the Humana Foundation.

The farm’s groundbreaking took place in October on a grassy vacant lot a few steps from PCC’s modern LEED Gold-certified building at Lake Street and Lotus Avenue. Called the PCC Austin Community Farm until neighborhood residents choose a permanent name, the 8,000-square-foot site comprises more than 20 raised beds that include plots where eight families each year can grow food for their own use, a hoophouse (similar to a greenhouse), and a small outdoor seating area surrounded by fruit trees for gatherings and relaxation. Housing flanks the 50-foot-wide, fenced-in farm on two sides, with a parking lot on the third and more homes across the street. Trains rumble by on the Chicago Transit Authority elevated tracks a half block away.

PHOTO: Harvesting carrots.

Carrots: a late spring crop, and one of the first to come out of the PCC Austin Community Farm.

The farm’s seasonal coordinator is Windy City Harvest’s Brittany Calendo, whose role dovetails with her background in public health and social work. “It’s exciting to look at the farm as a away of promoting health and preventing disease rather than just treating symptoms,” she said. Plans include monthly workshops on nutrition and gardening for neighbors and patients led by Windy City Harvest and PCC. “Preventive medicine is some of the best medicine,” agreed Humana spokesperson Cathryn Donaldson. “We’re thrilled to be partnering with PCC on this important initiative.” Looking ahead, Urso said he will know the farm has achieved success when he meets patients who say they feel healthier and whose chronic conditions are under control after learning to eat better.

While it is among Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, “Austin is beautiful,” Tyrise Brinson said of the people in the place where she grew up and lives now. Although no one believes the project can by itself meet the area’s produce needs or change lifelong eating habits overnight, “It breaks cycles within the community,” Brinson said. “It’s the beginning of a chain of beautiful events to come.”

This post by Helen K. Marshall appeared in the summer 2015 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden. ©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Two years ago—before his life took a head-spinning turn—Fernando Orozco was a 19-year-old juvenile offender in the Cook County Sheriff’s detention center. Recently, he completed work as a grower and crew leader on the Kraft Food campus in Northfield, Illinois, as part of a 13-week stint in Windy City Harvest Corps, an educational and transitional jobs program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden.

PHOTO: Fernando Orozco.

Fernando Orozco at the Kraft Makers Garden

“I never thought I’d have a job like this where I have my own site and, not only that, the responsibility of caring for a crew of other guys,” Orozco said, on a break from work last summer in the 8,000-square-foot Kraft Makers Garden.

His crew included young men, ages 17 to 21, in the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice system. The team grew enough tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and other produce to fill 55 boxes a week for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program. Other crops included cherries, beets, swiss chard, and watermelon, made pretty with plantings of scarlet runner beans and firecracker flowers, all grown in full view of Kraft employees as they worked out in the company gym. Produce from the site is donated to WIC centers and food pantries in the networks of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Orozco became interested in farming at the sheriff’s detention center, where he learned basic growing and organic practices in a program run by Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative. He went on to complete the nine-month Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program, earned a certificate in safe and sustainable urban agriculture, and interned at locations including chef Rick Bayless’s home garden in Chicago.

The Windy City Harvest Apprenticeship program attracts a diverse group of students, including young adults with a history of incarceration and those with significant barriers to employment. “Just because they’re checking that box that says ‘felony offense’ doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad people,” said Angela Mason, director of Windy City Harvest. “They just need someone to give them a chance and support them through those changes. ”

Fernando and WCH Crew work at Kraft

Using organic methods and operating on eight acres at a dozen locations throughout Chicago and Lake County, Windy City Harvest students annually grow about 100,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables, serving an estimated 143,000 people.

Now Orozco tells the former juvenile offenders with whom he works that they can leave their past behind. “I’m not the smartest person in the world,” he tells them, “but I saw an opportunity and I took it, and the same opportunity is happening to you guys. Are you going to take advantage?”

Orozco hopes to run his own farm some day. “But, for now, I’d be happy if I were here, doing the same thing, just perfecting the craft, growing food and helping people, growing people,” he said. “I can’t ask for a better job.” 

This post was adapted from an article by Helen K. Marshall that appeared in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Windy City Harvest Youth Farm Joins a Growing Community

Farmers' markets are growing in Illinois, and we're working hard to keep the momentum

Laura Erickson —  October 24, 2014 — Leave a comment

Can you remember a time when farmers’ markets were few and far between, and local food was nearly impossible to find, unless you grew it yourself?

Today—October 24, 2014—is National Food Day. Learn more about this initiative by visiting, and join the movement with @FoodDayCHI and @FoodDay2014, and #CommitToRealFood.

Now farmers’ markets are popping up all across Illinois—in rural, suburban, and urban landscapes—providing healthy food to many communities.

According to the USDA, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has grown by 67 percent since 2008, with more than 8,000 markets and counting. Illinois ranks third in the nation for the number of farmers’ markets, with nearly 400 markets.

PHOTO: Juaquita holds up a freshly washed carrot harvest.

Windy City Harvest Youth Farm participant Juaquita holds up part of her freshly-washed carrot harvest.

The Chicago Botanic Garden has been a part of the growth of farmers’ markets in Illinois. With the farmers’ market held at the Garden, along with the farm stand markets hosted at Windy City Harvest Youth Farm sites, we have contributed to the improved access of healthy, local food, especially in underserved neighborhoods of Chicago and North Chicago.

Throughout the summer, the Windy City Harvest Youth Farm program operates three farm stand markets as way to share its fresh, sustainably grown produce with the surrounding neighborhoods. These markets are set up on-site (or nearby) at each of our three Youth Farms. These farms are located in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, the South Side neighborhood of Washington Park, and the community of North Chicago/Waukegan. All of these communities are considered food deserts, as the access to fresh food is extremely limited.

The produce sold at Windy City Harvest Youth Farm markets is grown by the community for the community. Teenagers from local high schools are hired to work at the Youth Farms from May through October. They participate in all aspects of farming, including the growing, cooking, and marketing of the produce. Every week during the summer, the teens set up a farm stand to offer their fresh bounty to the community. The produce is sold at very affordable prices. Our markets accept food stamps and other government assistance benefits, so the food can be accessible to all members of the community.

PHOTO: Happy customer at the first market.

Happy customers enjoy a bounty of fresh vegetables at the first market.

Season after season, the benefits of these markets can be seen in both the teen workers and community. The teens learn business and customer service skills, practice their public speaking, and make positive connections in their community. One of our teen workers, Henry, said that this year’s opening market in North Chicago was the “best day of his life” because the participants nearly tripled their sales goal and broke the previous sales record for an opening day. A former participant of Science First (another wonderful Garden program), Henry was especially proud to host the program at the farm that day and assist with farm stand purchases. He even persuaded a young Science First participant to purchase black currants (later reporting that the Science First participant was eating the tart currants like candy).

We often hear from our market customers how grateful they are to purchase local, sustainably grown produce at an affordable price. They comment on how tasty and fresh our farm produce is compared to the produce available at their local grocery store, and they enjoy the farm tours and recipes provided by our teens. We often hear how our Youth Farms remind them of a farm they grew up on in Mississippi or Mexico. 

PHOTO: Potato harvest success.

Potato harvest success!

Besides impacting the food system and community health at a local level, we also help shape food policy and accessibility statewide. I have had the privilege of representing the Chicago Botanic Garden on the Illinois Farmers Market Task Force and on the board of the Illinois Farmers Market Association. The Task Force—which consists of farmers, market managers, and public health officials—advises the Illinois Department of Public Health on statewide local food regulations. We also provide education to consumers and market managers on food safety at the market. The Illinois Farmers Market Association connects the farmers’ market community to resources and educational tools. Lately we have been training market managers on how to accept food stamps at their markets and working with government agencies to better inform food stamp recipients on the markets that accept those benefits.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and