Archives For Community Gardening

Cultivating Nostalgia

Jasmine Leonas —  June 30, 2016 — 7 Comments

The Garden’s head of urban agriculture took a trip to Cuba and reminded me of my culture’s resiliency and connection to gardening.

How do you farm when you have little to no resources? Cubans “inventan del aire.”

Literally meaning “inventing from air,” this is the philosophy that is required to get by in Cuba.

Angela Mason, the Garden’s associate vice president for urban agriculture and Windy City Harvest, traveled to Cuba to see firsthand how the farmers there create and maintain collective farms. These farms provide much-needed produce for a population that lives without what we’d consider the basics in the United States. The average hourly wage in the Chicago area is around $24.48. That’s more than the average monthly wage in Cuba.

“Before going, I didn’t understand why people would risk their lives getting on a raft and floating 90 miles,” she said. “But when you see the degree of poverty that some of the people are living in, it’s heartbreaking.”

Angie recounted to me the details of her trip; the people she met, all of whom were welcoming and warm, and the places she saw. She visited several farms just outside of Havana and another in Viñales, in the western part of the country.

PHOTO: Angie Mason, Fernando Funes and Madeleine Plonsker in Cuba.

Angie Mason, associate vice president Urban Agriculture/Windy City Harvest (center), poses with Cuban trip liason Fernando Funes, and Madeleine Plonsker, a member of the Garden’s President’s Circle who has visited Cuba many times and who helped Angie put the trip together.

Poverty in Cuba means the farmers there grow without supplies and tools that are standard here. But they are still able to create beautiful and sustainable harvests through ingenuity. For example, Angie asked one of the farmers she met what he used to start seeds. He showed her dozens of aluminum soda cans that he’d cut in half. One farmer dug a well by hand. He then used the rocks he dug out to build a terraced garden.

PHOTO: Isis Maria Salcines at her farmer co-operative, Organopónico Vivero Alamar in Havana, Cuba.

Isis Maria Salcines at her farmer cooperative, Organopónico Vivero Alamar, in Havana, Cuba

PHOTO: Finca Marta, Fernando Funes' farm outside of Havana, Cuba, in the province Artemisa.

A glimpse of Finca Marta, Fernando Funes’s farm outside of Havana, Cuba, in Artemisa Province

I asked Angie many questions about her trip and what she saw, because I relish every detail I can learn about Cuba, the country where both of my parents were born.

The reasons for Angie’s trip felt especially close to my own family’s heritage, because I come from a long line of farmers on both sides. My mother’s family had a farm in the province of Matanzas. My father’s side did as well, in the more rural province of Las Villas. Both properties have since been seized by the Cuban government, as was all private property after the revolution in 1959. Neither one of my parents has been back to visit since they moved to the United States as children (my father was just a few years old and my mother was 11) so the stories they can share are scarce. The only tangible evidence of childhoods spent in the Cuban countryside are a handful of faded photographs: my mom riding a horse when she was in kindergarten; my father in diapers and running around with farm dogs. And as each year passes, the memories of Cuba are farther and farther in past.

PHOTO: My mother and grandparents and uncle on the family farm in Matanzas province with my grandfather's most memorable purchase: his Jeep.

My mother and grandparents and uncle on the family farm in Matanzas province with my grandfather’s most memorable purchase: his Jeep

Two of my grandparents, both now deceased, had many stories to share with me as well. My maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother were fixtures in my life and both often shared stories of their lives before the United States and growing plants and food in the fertile Cuban soil. It’s a talent that apparently never leaves a person, even if they change their country of residence, because both had beautiful backyard gardens at their homes in Miami.

My grandmother had a knack for flowers. The bougainvillea in her yard was always resplendent. Hydrangeas were the centerpieces at my sister’s wedding shower; months later the plant repotted and cared for by my grandmother was the only one that thrived. My grandfather leaned more toward the edible. His yard was full of fruit trees. Whenever he’d visit, he usually brought something growing in the yard: fruta bomba (more commonly known as papaya), mamoncillos, or limon criollo (a type of small green lime).

PHOTO: My grandfather and uncle, circa 1940s in Bolondron, Cuba.

My grandfather and uncle, circa 1940s in Bolondron, Cuba

Growing up, I always associated the cultivation of plants, whether flowers or fruit, as just a part of their personalities. Gardening was a hobby they enjoyed. While that was true, I realized later that it was also an activity that kept them connected to Cuba. As long as they could grow the plants they remembered from back home, that life was not completely gone.

My grandparents, as well as parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and pretty much most people I’m related to, have all tapped into their resiliency to make it as immigrants in the United States and adapt to their changed lives. The same personality trait that allows a Cuban farmer to grow vegetables without any tools has gotten my family through decades of living outside of Cuba. No matter the situation, members of the Cuban diaspora “inventan del aire.” It’s how people survive in Cuba, but it’s also how Cubans outside of the country get through exile.

©2016 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

Interns Harvest More Than Veggies

What internship with Windy City Harvest gave us this summer

Windy City Harvest —  August 26, 2014 — Leave a comment

A summer spent at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden is full of little joys and big surprises.

Interning at Windy City Harvest, we (Lesley and Rachel) started our time with grand plans to become farmers, urban agriculture pioneers, business owners, and horticulturists. We thought a summer at the parent organization—the Chicago Botanic Garden—learning about a vast collection of fruit and vegetable plant varieties would be a good way to jump-start our careers in the field.

But the weather and the Garden had a much different education for us in mind.

PHOTO: Fruit and Veg interns Leslie and Rachel

Fruit & Vegetable interns Leslie and Rachel weeding the beds

The summer’s weather has been very cool and wet: this is not ideal for some of the fruiting crops that most people prize. Cucumbers and squash are everywhere and right on schedule, but the bright red, heavy tomatoes we love to harvest this time of year are taking a bit longer to ripen in the cooler weather. And yet, the cooler weather has brought visitors to the Garden in friendly droves. These visitors (avid gardeners, young children, families, and globetrotters) have encouraged us to keep the garden in good shape throughout the season, and shared their own sense of wonder about fruits and vegetables.

Although the Chicago Botanic Garden has a separate garden—the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden—dedicated to working with children, many families bring their children to visit the Fruit & Vegetable Garden while they are here because of the broad range of fruit and vegetables we have on display. They can also learn about bees or growing watermelons. They may even spot toads here and there, if they have a quick eye.

PHOTO: Potato flower (Solanum tuberosum 'Kennebec')

Can you identify this gorgeous bloom? Its tubers are a staple food crop.

Both of us have enjoyed showing children how carrots and potatoes grow, since those plants, specifically, look very different when they are growing than when they are on a plate. Getting the chance to talk to children about food and farming has affirmed our commitment to the work that lies ahead. Sharing our knowledge about growing healthy, sustainable food is one of the most important skills that we can develop as future farmers.

One warm July day, a group of 7- and 8-year-olds walked into the garden, where we happened to be cultivating “the three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash). They stopped in their tracks, entranced by the long ears of corn. “Do you know where popcorn comes from?” Rachel asked. The curious kids looked at one another, shrugged, and all eyes turned to the apprentice farmer. She asked the children to look around and spot the plant that might be responsible for the delicious snack. Suddenly, it dawned on a few of them, and they jumped and pointed, “It’s the corn! It’s the corn!” The corn plants took on a new significance when we were able to put them into context.

PHOTO: Popcorn cob

The discovery of how favorite foods grow brings delight in the garden.

The diversity of plant life in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden attracts some of the most inquisitive, passionate, and skilled gardeners from around the globe. Patrons are constantly asking us questions about plant varieties, weather patterns, soil amendments, and why our eggplants don’t look like their eggplants. They want to know what cardoons taste like, or where we sell the gigantic Zephyr squash.

PHOTO: Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

A highlight of the vast collection displayed at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, the cardoon. Is it a thistle or an artichoke? A little bit of both—and edible!

On a particularly lovely early morning, a couple from England pulled us aside and shared what they’ve been growing in their allotment garden across the pond. They were inspired by the fruits and vegetables they saw in the garden and wanted to share and compare notes about their own bounty at home.

“Have you ever made beetroot chutney?” they inquired. We looked at each other and shook our heads, but we wanted to know more. We had never heard of the recipe but were certainly intrigued by the sound of it. The couple explained that it was a savory dish consisting of sautéed beets, onions, herbs, and vinegar—lovely as a condiment or side dish. We were both inspired to call beets “beetroot” and make beetroot chutney after that conversation.

Herein lies one of the greatest gifts of our internship: we have been able to learn from experts, share knowledge with visitors, and get a lot of hands-on experience. We thought we might have a difficult time adjusting to the early morning hours and manual labor, but the joy we have experienced has definitely made it worthwhile. Our paths have crossed with so many interesting and amazing people—all in the name of fruits and vegetables.

Both of us are former educators who value the gifts of teaching and learning. Our previous classrooms had four walls that bound us to a specific space. We continue to teach and to learn. But our classroom looks a little different—no walls, open space, tons of possibilities—the Garden.

PHOTO: Girls gather in the vegetables on a field trip to Fruit & Veg.

There is much knowledge to share about growing fruits and vegetables—for experienced pros and newcomers alike.

These experiences are not only for Windy City Harvest interns. Hop on your bike, take a walk, and plan a visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden or your local farm and talk to your gardener!


Lesley Grill
Rachel Schipull

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

All the possibilities for the Obama Library plus our Windy City Harvest Youth Farm are featured in the Chicago Tribune today! Read about it in Community groups pin hopes on Obama library (PDF).

PHOTO: Windy City Harvest Youth Farm teen waters in the garden.

( Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune / July 16, 2014 )
Oluwapelumi Ajayi, 15, waters vegetable beds at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban farm in Washington Park last month. Sophia Shaw, the botanic garden’s CEO, hopes the Obama presidential library will settle on the South Side and include a garden.

Click here to download a PDF of this article.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban youth outreach and development program, Green Youth Farm, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year!

What started as one lone staffer and 13 teens on 1.5 acres in the Lake County Forest Preserve has grown to a program with up to six sites all across Chicago and in Lake County, cultivating a new appreciation for plants and wholesome food in 90 young people a year, while teaching them job skills for future success! Here’s a year-end recap on the people and hard work that make up Green Youth Farm (GYF).

That “lone staffer” mentioned above is also known as our fearless leader and Green Youth Farm program founder, Angela Mason. Angie is also celebrating her ten-year anniversary at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Maybe you haven’t met her…that’s probably because Angie has kept herself pretty busy over the past ten years!

Some of the things she’s developed have been the Windy City Harvest (WCH) adult certificate program in sustainable urban agriculture; the Harvest Corps program for young male offenders to learn about gardening while incarcerated and then placed in transitional jobs with our programs post release; the Kraft Foods Garden in Northfield; and most recently, a new partnership with McCormick Place to turn its green roof into a food production site. If you see Angie around the Garden, grab her quick, because she walks really fast, even in heels!

PHOTO: Angie Mason with Vince Gerasole and GYF kids

That’s Angie with the shovel and the heels! :D

PHOTO: Green Youth Farm alum/intern Joe Young.

Green Youth Farm alumni/intern Joe Young

PHOTO: Green Youth Farm crew member Evon at the North Lawndale community farm stand.

Green Youth Farm crew member Evon at the North Lawndale community farm stand

Green Youth Farm hires program graduates! To date, we have two WCH graduates on staff, and have hired 15 Green Youth Farm graduates and WCH students as summer interns.

Green Youth Farm grows food! This season alone, on less than two acres of land, students and staff grew more than 25,000 pounds of sustainable fruits and vegetables.

PHOTO: Truck bed laden with grocery bags full of fresh vegetables.

Delivery for the WIC cooking demos!

Green Youth Farm feeds communities! Eighty percent of the food we grow is distributed back into the food desert communities where our farms are located. We sell at below-market value prices at our community farm stands and accept all types of federal benefits — the Illinois Link Card; Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons — as payment. We also partner with WIC through the Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) of Cook County, the Lake County Health Department, and Sinai Health System to distribute boxes of food to moms with young children in need.

Green Youth Farm cooks! Teens learn that “all life depends on plants” by turning the plants they grow into delicious meals! Each week, a crew cooks a wholesome, plant-based meal for their peers, staff, and farm guests.

PHOTO: Staff and crew feast at picnic tables in the shade on a sunny day.

Green Youth Farm staff and students enjoy a farm-fresh meal cooked by crew members!

Green Youth Farm students are successful adults! Our alumni leave GYF with a sense of community responsibility, a greater appreciation for the environment, and an understanding of what it means to be successful in whatever career they choose for themselves. They carry these values with them through life, no matter what they choose to do…whether that’s college, a job, farming, or raising a family. We are proud of our GYF alums!

PHOTO: Facebook status update.

Facebook post from one of our alumni currently studying environmental studies abroad during a semester at Colgate University. Julio is the first in his family to attend college.

GYF inspires horticultural and food entrepreneurs! Former interns, growers, and coordinators have started businesses all over the United States. These include urban farms at, food trucks using local, sustainably grown food at, and sustainable floral design with!

LOGO: Ten-Speed Greens LOGO: Lulu's Local Eatery LOGO: Field & Florist
PHOTO: GYF student Tatiana talking with a guest about the farm's honey.

Tatiana shows off her hard work at the After School Matters annual gala event.

Green Youth Farm partners! Staff from Green Youth Farm works with more than 34 partners from all different kinds of organizations to help deliver quality programming in the communities we serve. Some of these include the Lake County Forest Preserve District, the Chicago Park District, NeighborSpace, Chicago Public Schools, After School Matters, and Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, Inc.

Green Youth Farm loves volunteers! This year, GYF saw the most dedicated crew of volunteers in its history…volunteers came together to support programming when teens were on-site and do the dirty work of farming when teens were back in school. If you are interested in learning more about the work we do at GYF to cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life in our city’s youth, contact the Chicago Botanic Garden volunteer department!

PHOTO: Group photo of the 2013 Washington Park participants.

Green Youth Farm class of 2013 at the Washington Park (Chicago) Green Youth Farm

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and