Everyone one must eat. This basic need creates both common ground and opportunity for Myrna Vazquez and Sophie Krause, Chicago Botanic Garden interns bringing vegetables to market as they prepare for careers in environmental education.
“Food is more than a daily life necessity, it is a link to our cultures, economies, industries, and environments,” said Krause, who recently graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz. “Because of this, I see food as a powerful tool for fostering a more environmentally literate society.”
The Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture certificate program, an accredited nine-month course offered in partnership with the Richard J. Daley College, is providing Krause and Vazquez a practical, hands-on education in sustainable urban agriculture. Six months of study at the college’s Arturo Velasquez Institute taught the two women such farming techniques as soil testing, prepping raised beds, seeding, and planting. Their knowledge is growing through a three-month internship in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.
“I’m learning to grow beautiful, functional, and educational gardens,” said Vazquez, who worked in an after-school drug-prevention program before enrolling in the certificate program as part of a midlife career change. Vazquez says she’s absorbing all the Garden has to offer, including beekeeping, natural pest control and native plant gardening.
The women gain market-management skills when they sell the produce at the Garden’s bimonthly Farmers’ Markets, offered the first and third Sundays of the month through October 30. “Nothing feels better than working hard to harvest for market, where I get to see the whole system come full circle—from planting a seed to feeding a customer and to helping the Windy City Harvest program grow,” Krause said. “Today’s food system demands a revival, and it feels good to be part of that process.”
Whenever I tell anyone that I work for the Chicago Botanic Garden, the first response I get is “Wow, you must have the best job ever!” (well, yes, in fact I do) followed quickly by “So, what do you do in the winter?” In response to this question, I have spent the last month or so keeping a photo journal of some winter days at Green Youth Farm.
So what is it we do in the winter? WE FARM!
Even though everything looks like it is frozen solid, under hoophouses and low tunnels, tucked beneath coldframes and cozy in greenhouses, food continues to grow! Spinach, lettuce mix, and swiss chard will be harvested all winter long, while carrots, onions, and kale await warmer weather and contribute to an earlier spring harvest. Last year alone, Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest grew more than 80,000 pounds of produce—all on less than four acres of land. This number would not be possible without maximizing our short Chicago growing season with low-tech season extension.
In addition to growing produce we keep beehives, and last year we harvested more than 70 pounds of honey with our students (many of whom were scared silly of bees when they started the program). Over the winter, we need to check the bees to make sure they have enough food and are staying warm. We are happy to report these hives at our Washington Park location are buzzing!
Confession time: just like the home gardener, we professional gardeners face winter frustrations, too. I’m not proud to admit that we left a couple of hoses out in the garden, now full of frozen water. So yes, some of our wintertime is spent making up for summertime haste.
P.S. It was 14 degrees F. this day and the lock to the gate was frozen solid— so to add insult to injury, I had to scale the fence, get the hose, schlep the hose back over the fence…
P.P.S. Word to the wise: put the hose away in October, not February.
Every year, Community Gardening staff go out to corporations, schools, and garden clubs, as well as conferences and meetings (American Community Gardening Association, Good Food Fest, American Public Garden Association, etc.) spreading the gardening gospel. Last year alone, we reached more than 500 people outside the Chicago Botanic Garden. Our favorite event of the year is our own Facilitator Training program, where we teach folks interested in replicating the Green Youth Farm model more about what we do and how we do it. This year participants came all the way from Springfield!
The Green Youth Farm will hire 13 staff and more than 90 student participants. This year, we more than 50 applications for the three coordinator positions alone. In addition, each year the Green Youth Farm receives more than 250 applications from students from 15 different Chicago, North Chicago, and Waukegan high schools. It’s always fun reconnecting with former students during high-school recruiting visits.
Between Windy City Harvest and The Green Youth Farm, the Community Gardening Department has more than 50 community partners who enable us to do the work we do outside the Chicago Botanic Garden, providing us space to grow on and work in, and program enhancements like art and access to Women, Infant and Children (WIC) clinics and coupons (we distributed almost 1,000 boxes of produce to the clinics last season). The winter is a great time to reconnect with all of these partners to debrief how last season went and think about how we can constantly improve on our work together.
While everyone’s job here at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a little different, each one of us is just like those bees in the hive—while the Garden might look peaceful from the outside, on the inside, we are all flapping our wings like crazy to stay warm and productive until spring shines her light on us once again. So until then, stay warm and think spring!!
Blayne Greiner, Instructor for the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture program, gives us some tips from his recent class on seed starting. A lot of information was covered in this 3-hour workshop, so if this video still leaves you with questions, consider taking these courses. Visit chicagobotanic.org/windycityharvest/courses to sign up for the next one.
In case you missed it, here’s the recipe for blocking mix: 30 quarts brown peat, 20 quarts compost, ½ cup lime, 20 quarts coarse sand or perlite, 10 quarts soil, 3 cups organic fertilizer mix (blood meal, colloidal phosphate and greensand mixed together in equal parts).