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Taking Root in Chicago's Communities

by Tony Abruscato, Director of the Chicago Flower & Garden Show

What is your garden yielding for you this month? Besides cut flowers, savory herbs and delicious, fresh fruits and veggies, it may be stirring up memories of your cultural heritage and helping your family connect with nature.

I recently met with Ben Helphand, executive director of NeighborSpace (link to, for a grassroots look at how gardens are helping Chicagoland thrive.

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We’ve worked together to repurpose some of the Chicago Flower & Garden Show’s ( plants at the close of our spring show. Tell us about NeighborSpace and what you’re doing this summer.

“We’re the only nonprofit urban land trust in Chicago that preserves and sustains gardens on behalf of dedicated community groups. NeighborSpace shoulders the responsibilities of property ownership — providing basic insurance, access to water and links to support networks – so community groups can focus on gardening. We’re now protecting 91 gardens across 31 of Chicago’s 50 community areas, each run by an independent community group.”

What’s the pulse of today’s community gardening scene?

“In Chicago alone, there are between 400 and 500 food producing or floral community gardens, and that figure doesn’t include school gardens. People now expect community gardens to be a part of their lives and city. Park districts are looking for ways to add community gardens, just as they would a baseball field.”

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What benefits are people finding from working in community gardens?

“From my own personal experience, it’s connected me with my neighbors – people I never would have met. A community garden has a dynamic to it that’s rare these days. It’s an opportunity for a group of citizens to work as a team, making decisions and creating something that is always evolving. Some community gardens share their yields with their local food pantry. Others have group potluck with the harvest. It can manifest itself in wonderful ways.”


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How has the Chicago Flower & Garden Show influenced gardening?

 “For so many gardeners, it kicks off the new season, where everyone can come together and solve problems, get new ideas and buy the latest gadgets. It’s such an impactful resource, we held our Connecting Chicago Community Gardens conference at the 2014 Chicago Flower & Garden Show at Navy Pier. “

I know from our year-round work with the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, my garden never sleeps! Does this apply to community gardens, too?

“Absolutely. In Chicago, people pay special attention to winter interest. After the final harvest, we made wreaths from branches, did food preservation and made teas. Those are great ways to enjoy your garden year-round. We begin planning with the turn of the New Year, and growing seeds soon after that while we brew pots of tea from our garden.”

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What does “Do Green. Do Good.” mean to you?

“It encapsulates how so many community gardeners live. By making your garden thrive, it will benefit yourselves, your environment, your neighbors and people you’ll never meet, who pass by and enjoy its fragrance, beauty and sometimes taste. Being on the land and growing together is natural for us. It’s part of our history.”

How can people get involved and learn more about community gardening?

“Gardeners can join their peers and meet new friends for exciting tours, networking, a garden soiree and presentations during the American Community Gardening Association’s (ACGA) Gateway to Community in the City of Neighborhoods Conference ( in Chicago, Aug. 7 – 10. From pre-conference events to the 40 presentations and roundtables and closing keynote, the 35th Anniversary Conference is a wonderful way to collaborate with and learn from community gardeners.”

Stay tuned to the Navy Pier blog for our monthly “Do Green. Do Good.” feature, follow us for timely tips on Facebook and Twitter, and mark your calendar for the 2015 Chicago Flower & Garden Show, blooming March 14-22 at Navy Pier!


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