Learn About The Urban Community Garden
With LaManda Joy

The history of edible gardening in the modern era owes much to the urban community garden, most notably the WWII victory gardens.

From 1942-1945, Peterson Garden at the corner of Peterson and Campbell in Chicago (US) was one such garden, and in 2010 LaManda Joy restored edible gardening to the lot with the Peterson Garden Project.

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Since then, the Peterson Garden Project has won 1st place from the Mayors’ Landscape Awards, as well as recognition from Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Giving Through Growing Garden Heroes, and has donated hundreds of pounds of food to local nutrition programs.

Since I've been involved with promoting local organic food production for a while now, I'm very excited to be able to interview LaManda Joy.

How did you get interested in the history of the WWII victory gardens?

There are a few factors that fuel this interest.

First, I have Greatest Generation parents – mother was a Rosie the Riveter and father was in the occupied forces in Japan. Two uncles and an aunt also were in the armed forces so I grew up with lots of WW2/Greatest Generation stories.

Secondly, I'm an armchair historian with an obsession for history. My favorite quote is "The only thing we learn from history is we learn nothing from history." So, in a way, I've made it my personal mission to prove this wrong in one tiny way in my life. Victory Gardens might be that way.

Third, I'm a lifelong edible gardener. In 2006, after seven years in a condo with no garden, we bought a "yard with a house attached to it" so we could put in The Yarden.

Once that happened, and I started blogging about our garden in 2007, I realized that people were interested in growing their own food.

Finally, our local butchers have a photo on their wall of a Victory Garden in our neighborhood from 1942. One day while driving down Peterson Ave I had an epiphany that this empty lot was the lot from the picture and wouldn't it be cool to put in another garden there 65+ years later.

Your work with the Peterson Garden Project seems to have had the intent of rekindling the urban community garden concept in Chicago. Do you feel as though this been successful?

Chicago already has a great history of community gardens – they’re all over the city. But most of them are ornamental gardens vs. food gardens.

When we built the garden at Peterson and Campbell the express purpose was a place to teach people to grow food – we weren’t focusing on beautification or green space (although those have been nice byproducts). And we weren’t concerned with longevity – the land is privately owned and very expensive so we knew, at some point, we wouldn’t be able to garden there anymore.

I think the history of the lot, the community aspect and the food aspect are a bit different than what other gardens are doing and therefore it has gotten some attention.

What a huge project! What challenges have you faced in getting this particular urban community garden started?

The biggest issue was the weather in 2010 when we were building it. The rain did not cooperate with us! But we got it in and it has been fairly easy ever since.

We also have an incredible team of volunteers who work on the garden both gardening and organizing. That helps tremendously.

Tell me more about the Peterson Garden itself. How large is each allotment? How many people have participated so far?

The beds are 4x6. Over the two seasons we had 800 people (give or take) garden or volunteer with us. The garden is organic and we grow only edibles. 50% of the people who garden with us had never gardened before so there’s a big education piece involved.

What have been the most interesting gardens that people have created?

With 157 raised beds there are a lot of interesting gardens! I like walking through and seeing people’s style – it’s almost like it reveals their personality. You can really tell the people who are obsessive compulsive. Some people REALLY like ornaments. The “engineers” are obvious with their elaborate trellises, etc. It is a phenomenal sight to see!

Where do you feel the urban community garden in America is going in the future?

My goal is to make the urban community garden part of the norm and not a fad.

We’ve had a few waves of intense food gardening interest in this country since WW2. The first was during the oil crisis in the 1970s when the back-to-the-landers had a big influence on home food production. The mid-1980’s saw another big upswing in urban gardening as a way to fight urban blight and decay.

This time around I feel there’s a sense of urgency because of the state of our food systems. People are scared of their dependency on businesses that may or may not share their values regarding the environment, business practices, food safety, etc.

Hopefully the interest in community gardening this time around will convert into a lifestyle change that many people can incorporate long-term.

I’m on the board of the American Community Gardening Association and their motto is “a sustainable community in every garden.” It is relatively easy to build a garden – keeping the community in the garden isn’t always so easy.

I would encourage people interested in community gardening to see it as an experiment of giving – time, talent, sharing – vs ME ME ME which is so typical in our culture today.

The other thing I’m excited about for 2012 is that it is the 70th anniversary of the first Victory Garden year of WW2 (1942). In honor of that, The Peterson Garden Project is putting in (at least) five new gardens as big or bigger than our garden at Peterson and Campbell. We’re expecting 3,000 more gardeners this year!

And, on a sad note, the property owners for our Peterson/Campbell garden need to use the land to build a health clinic so we won’t be gardening there this year. Although I have been lobbying with them to build the structure so it can have a garden on the roof. That would be a long-lasting victory!

Thank you for talking with us, LaManda!

To find out more about this urban community garden, visit the Peterson Garden Project.

To learn about the history of WWII victory gardens, visit LaManda's new site We Can Grow It!

Have you ever done urban community gardening? Come talk more about your experiences in an urban community garden with a group of people who love edible gardens as much as you do. Join the Tasteful Landscape community:

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