We till and supplement the soil, plants go in the ground, we water, we fertilize, we hope for sun. And after some days, our efforts are rewarded; green shoots break through the soil and our continued patience brings a tomato, a cucumber, and green beans. Our plates are laden with food grown by our own sweat and hands. The first bite of tomato can make all the work worth it.
And so it goes in Slavic Village, where I live. There are all types of green spaces around my home, a neighborhood located near I-77 and Fleet Avenue on the city’s southeast side. Often the way we think about gardens and green space are places where we can grow plants, fruits, and vegetables. They also serve as a solution to the growing number of vacant lots that plague this neighborhood.
Anne Sherridon has designed and maintained Gertrude Gardens, located at 6419 Gertrude Avenue, for years. Once a vacant lot used as a cut through, it now boasts a paved path, flower gardens, fruit trees and art installations. Sherridon will be out working and people will stop and talk.
“People see the flowers and I guess they figure you’re approachable,” she said. “They come and they tell me stories about their childhood or just stop and talk to me or they discuss the art.”
Cherise Kent, Green Corps Coordinator for Holden Forests & Gardens, is looking forward to the ways the Slavic Village Learning Farm at E. 54th Street and Fleet Avenue will connect local gardeners with knowledge so they can green their own spaces. Once an active garden with weekly vegetable sales, it has been dormant over the past couple of years. But plans are in the works, said Kent, to repurpose the land, thanks to local partners.
Trent Balduff is one of those partners. Balduff is the founder of Have a Hive, a nonprofit committed to creating colonies of bees, helping beekeepers, and healing communities. At the farm, he has one hive of bees and hopes to offer integrative classwork and live demonstrations with beehives. Balduff sees bees as a way for people to learn about self-reliance and being part of a community.
“They don’t have an alarm clock,” he said of the bees. “They do everything off of instinct. They communicate humbly amongst one another. They’re all just fulfilling their role so that they cannot only survive as an individual but bring back some sort of contribution to the community.”
Having a hive at the Learning Garden will be one more way to connect green space and urban living.
Grai Oleksy is also a partner at the Learning Farm. Oleksy has an urban farm on Union and sells vegetables to local restaurants. He will be tending part of the farm, removing weeds around the perennial plants, the raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. He hopes to plant native trees and vegetables the groundhogs won’t eat. Part of the area will also host a composting pile for the Arts and Gardens Initiative (the AGIs), a group of local gardeners led by Anne Sherridon (who is also Grai’s mother).
The AGIs is another way Sherridon is caring for the green spaces in Slavic Village. She refers to the group as guerilla gardeners, ones who garden on a property you don’t own with or without permission. They meet weekly for an hour, weeding, planting, and picking up garbage. The Facebook page alerts people to that week’s meet up. Sherridon said she encourages people to “show up whenever you can for as long as you can.”
Sherridon sees these efforts as ways the area can claim garden district distinction. Her commitment expresses itself further through the free plant stand she maintains across the street from Gertrude Gardens. For four years running, she has operated the plant stand–it’s like a “little free library” only with plants. From May to November she sets up the stand where anyone can pick up and drop off plants. So successful is the stand that by Sherridon’s count, thousands of plants have gone out into the neighborhood. Recently, a man came by wondering when plants would be available because he’d had such a good bounty with last year’s tomato plants that he was sharing them with neighbors and was ready to begin again this year.
The service has grown so that she receives donations from other organizations–the summer sprouts program and the botanical gardens–house plants and veggies–all for free.
In the beginning, people would steal plants from Gertrude Gardens. They don’t do that anymore. People realize that it’s a place of beauty, a place of rest, a place where people can come and enjoy the color because it’s there for everyone.
Sharon Core is a resident of Slavic Village. Her walk most mornings is Fleet Avenue from E. 65th Street to I-77 and back. She notices the gardens and green spaces along the way. Core participated in The Land’s community journalism class.
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