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Day 28: Growing Community Through Victory Gardens

It started with a simple idea.

LaManda Joy was standing in her local, Chicago neighborhood butcher shop a few years ago, when she noticed a vintage photo on the wall. It was a Victory Garden from WWII that had once stood right in her neighborhood. It was the standard nostalgic photo with straight rows of vegetables and had been taken during the gardens peak production in 1943.

Peterson Ave. WWII Victory Garden 1943

A few days later, as LaManda was driving down that same street, her eyes drifted over to a large abandoned, unused lot and…it clicked! THAT was part of the same lot as the photo on the butcher shop wall!

It was an Aha-Moment for LaManda as she pondered,

“What if, we revitalize that vacant lot into a modern, neighborhood Victory Garden – a community garden where people can reconnect with their food source?”

You might be thinking…Who has thoughts like that?

Well, luckily for us – LaManda does!

I’ll go ahead and tell you the happy ending. She set to work and within just a few short months (and a lot of passionate work) that vacant lot became…

The largest organic edible garden in Chicago!

100’s and 100’s of people volunteer and grow food in the 157 plots each year.

The story of how that happened is a great one. But, the story of what happened after that is even better!

Now, LaManda didn’t create this Victory Garden alone. Far from it.

So how did she do it?

LaManda Joy

LaManda is a fellow garden writer, blogger (The Yarden) and very passionate edible gardener who I have been fortunate enough to know through our garden writing associations. She has long family history in Victory Gardens – During the war, her grandparents had victory gardens that continued as kitchen gardens long after the fighting was over. Her mom even worked as a Rose-the-Riveter! LaManda has all the same passions we discuss here: growing food, canning/preserving, eating local-in-season food.

She is one of us!

The thing about LaManda is that her enthusiasm oozes from her pores. She makes you want to grab a pitchfork and help the cause. So it comes as no surprise to me that she used that talent to ignite the same in others.

She “rallied the troops” to create the not-for-profit, Peterson Garden Project, started fund raising efforts and even used social media to spread the word. An entire team of like-minded individuals came together to help, donate, volunteer and grow food.

A Vintage Victory Garden Crew

The story of how LaManda started The Peterson Garden Project is a good one and you can learn more about it HERE and HERE.

But There is MORE to This Story!

The part that I also find fascinating is what happened after the gardens were planted.

See LaManda’s original goal was to inspire people to grow food, reconnect their food supply and build community. Since the original garden was based on the WWII Victory Garden model, she followed the steps her gardening predecessors had taken 70 years before and she hoped to get at least 20 people interested. Well,

She got a lot more than that!

Fast forward to 2012 and the idea of putting unused urban land into production had caught on. The Peterson Garden Project installed four large Pop-up Victory Gardens for the 2012 season – jumping the number of garden plots they could provide the community members from 157 to almost 700! Despite the record heat waves, over 2400 people were involved and over 50% were growing food for the first time. Over 30,000 pounds of fresh, organic produce was grown over the summer with over a ton donated to local food and nutrition programs!

  • An entire community grew
  • Free classes were taught
  • New gardeners were born
  • Food was grown for the needy
  • Lifelong friendships were formed
  • Entire neighborhoods were transformed
  • And this one person (with her wonderfully crazy idea) made a difference. A real difference.

I caught up with LaManda to ask her a few questions about the AFTER part:

That original garden has expanded to so much more. Tell me about that.

The idea that people can grow their own food has really caught on in Chicago. When I started my blog, The Yarden, in 2008 there weren’t a lot of food gardeners talking about what they did in Chicago. So much has changed in a few short years!

We gardened at our original spot during the summers of ’10 and ’11 and then we moved on. We knew the land use was temporary and that has always been ok with us – we’re more interested in long-term gardeners than long term gardens.

In 2012 we put in a number of large Pop-up Victory gardens, partnered with Seed Saver’s Exchange to put in an “Edible Treasures” garden at the Field Museum (to teach museum visitors the value of seed diversity) and opened a Learning Center.

We’re really reaping the benefits of the Learning Center in the winter months – we’ve had a roster of classes and events to keep the community connected and draw in new potential gardeners both for our community gardens and also home gardeners.

What has been the most surprising result from this project?

It is all really a miraculous ride… while it may have been my crazy idea to start the original Peterson Garden, I often say that I was the spark but everyone else was the kindling. People love this project – love helping with the leadership team, love volunteering, love working and gardening together. It has really become a “happy place” for people for a variety of wonderful reasons. The devotion I see from folks makes me very thankful to be a part of it. What also touches my heart is when I can tell my 85 year old parents how the way they raised me has impacted so many people…I know they are proud and I feel that I’m carrying on a family tradition.

In what ways has this Victory Garden grown community?

It is easy to talk about the infrastructure of the gardens – how many plots and gardeners, how much food is grown, etc. but the even bigger impact that can’t be quantified is with communities where the gardens go in. In some instances strangers have been walking by unused, trash littered lots for decades. When the garden work starts happening on these empty lots, these strangers become friends and have a common place to work together and share community values. I see this transformation again and again in every garden. 

What do you hope people can take away from learning about this project?

Here’s my advice: Don’t believe what you hear in the media that our world is messed up and there are no solutions. As JFK said, “One person can make a difference and everyone should try.” Gardening and community come naturally to us as human beings…People are good and community gardens give them a place to be good and help each other.

So do it. Get with some friends and grow some food. You’ll make mistakes and who cares. You don’t have to be perfect in a garden. And when you open yourself up to that – take a step to do something you love with others – you make a difference and miracles happen. 

 This post is part of the 31 Days of Living Homegrown. Sign up for my newsletter (weekly or monthly) so you don’t miss any of the inspiration and resources I will be sharing for living local, fresh and homegrown!

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy®. For 9 years, Theresa was the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two sons and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.