Green teen

A group of Ginkgo Garden volunteers washes potatoes before delivering them to a food pantry. (Photo courtesy of Ginkgo Gardens)

By Leah Barber
University of Chicago Lab
and Alexa Bits
Niles West

Spring is in full bloom … and so are gardens all over the Chicago area. While digging and planting traditionally are associated with sprawling yards in the suburbs, urban gardens have found their way into city apartments and homes.

Katie Harris, a junior at University of Chicago Lab, started gardening with her family when she was in elementary school. “Urban gardening and farming was something that my family and I worked on gradually,” Harris explained. “We started with community plot gardening when I was in lower school and then expanded to beekeeping in the backyard, having our own vegetable plots and, finally, a chicken coop.”

And while you might not be able to imagine chickens running around your backyard, Harris said you never know what urban farming can lead to. “Gardening feels like something of a chain reaction,” she said. “Once you get started, you realize how much better organic food is and it makes you want to do it more.”

TEACHING THE CRAFT

Even city schools are getting their students outside and digging. In 2010, Marcus McVane, then a freshman, became involved in the opening of Northside’s green space for gardening. He and other students partnered with Urban Habitat Chicago to transform a space that was being used as a salt storage facility by the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation. The spot was converted into an urban garden, named The Joy Garden, where students now can grow corn, eggplants, kale, onions, berries and more.

McVane, now a senior and president of Northside’s Dirt Actualizer Club, said that the green space brought change to the school’s environment.

“What we wanted to do is bring agriculture to everybody,” McVane said. “Now there is a spot where kids can go, lay down in the sun, play football, do whatever, and there are no unpleasant sights around … there are gardens around them as opposed to just concrete in the rest of the city.”

Sometimes, it just takes a little digging to find an unused or unsightly outdoor spot that could be transformed into something beautiful.

IF DIY IS YOUR THING …

Starting a garden doesn’t have to be complicated, said Dave Short, a board member of Ginkgo Organic Gardens, a community garden in Uptown that donates everything it grows to local nonprofit organizations.

“Once you clear the land or grass, you need to amend it with some good-quality topsoil and some mulch,” Short said. When the land is cleared and ready, it’s time to grow.

According to Michael Repkin, one of the founders of Urban Habitat Chicago, teens are not limited in their growing options. “The vast majority of vegetable crops you would go to the supermarket for, you can grow right here in Chicago,” Repkin said. That’s right: If you see it in the produce aisle, chances are you can grow it in your backyard.

Once the seeds are planted, the real work begins. According to Short, checking on your garden every day is a must. Make sure your space is free of pests and well-watered.

Besides the obvious benefits (fresh veggies, pretty flowers, etc. …), gardening connects people with their environment, which can be hugely beneficial, according to Repkin.

“Making something that might be your dinner, you’re more likely to be invested in it. You’re doing something that’s good and something that’s doing good for you, so that connection is really important,” he said.

TIGHT SPACE

Now, let’s say you don’t have a backyard, or maybe your parents won’t allow you to dig up the space they do have. Fret not, you can still be an urban gardener. Herb gardens, tomato plants and even potatoes can be grown on windowsills and balconies.

“You can do more than you think in a limited amount of space,” Short said.

In today’s world, it’s easy to stay inside and give in to eating fast food. Urban gardening, however, fights both of these bad habits. Being outside daily and incorporating homegrown vegetables and herbs into meals ensures a healthier lifestyle.

“I definitely find it rewarding,” Harris said.  “Organic food really makes a difference in your diet. Having homegrown food makes me more confident about my health choices, and on a larger scale, being an urban gardener makes me feel better about my environment.

“It’s nice to know that I don’t buy food from large corporations who treat their chickens ruthlessly, put mass amounts of chemicals in their beehives, and drench their vegetables in pesticides. It makes you feel safe,” Harris said.

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About The Mash

The Mash is the Chicago Tribune's newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free each Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.

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