Growing Food

Green City Market’s Edible Gardens Teaches Kids To Get Hands Dirty

Jeanne Nolan at Edible Gardens at Farm in the Zoo.
Jeanne Nolan at Edible Gardens at Farm in the Zoo. Photo: Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Tonight’s Green City Market BBQ represents the glitzy side of how the farmer’s market brings star chefs and great farmers together. But the vision of the late Abby Mandel for this market extended beyond shopping and dining to a full educational role in reconnecting city dwellers with their food. And one of the key ways the market does that— and one of the main things tonight’s event will be supporting— is the Edible Gardens project, located in the Farm in the Zoo at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

275,000 people pass through the garden each year, and 2000 schoolchildren attend full, hands-on programs through their schools. The garden is tended by Jeanne Nolan, an organic gardener whose company also helps schools, businesses and individuals plan and maintain gardens of their own. There are actually two gardens— a small vegetable garden next to the farmhouse, and a large plot in the center lush with everything from corn to rainbow chard to raspberries and blackberries. We started at the vegetable garden.

Where did the idea for a garden attached to the market come from?
It was always part of Abby’s vision for the market— that it be educational about where our food comes from. She had worked with Alice Waters on the Edible Schoolyard, and the idea kind of grew from that.

At the time, this was a little vegetable garden by the house— basically abandoned. It was the saddest little garden! And I was working for Abby and she said, if we took this over and tried to make it an organic garden and interactive for kids, would you know what to do? And I said, I could do that!

So in 2005, we took this over, as a joint project with the zoo. We got an Inclusion Grant to make it more wheelchair accessible, which also covered replanting it. See those boxes over there? Those were lower so you could see them from a wheelchair.

So… why are they higher now?
Rabbits! We have the most aggressive rabbits in Chicago. Notice the wire extensions on the fences, too.

Anyway, it’s now our heirloom garden. One of Abby’s missions was to encourage farmers to grow heirloom and heritage varieties. So we have heritage canteloupes, watermelons, squash, grapes, blue and red and white potatoes, we have heirloom tomatoes, corn, sunflowers— kids love those.

What did the big garden in the middle used to be?
It used to have corn, and wheat, and soybeans, and alfalfa— it was just kind of a static display. Not interactive for the kids. And the paths were all gravel so everything was coated in this gray dust. Again, just kind of sad and neglected. One of Abby’s points was, a garden should be beautiful, too, if it’s going to inspire people. We should value beauty.

So we took it over in 2007 or 2008 and replanted it with all kinds of vegetables, fruits, and some flowers, both edible and ornamental. This year it’s really nice because some of the fruits we planted back then have really taken hold. We’re getting red raspberries, black raspberries, blueberries, all kinds of things.

What do kids typically do on a visit here?
Well, one of the things about Edible Gardens is— it’s meant to be a real time garden. Whatever’s really going on that week in the growing season, that’s what the kids see and do. If we’re composting, they compost. If we’re harvesting, they harvest. They get their hands dirty.

Then we take them over to the market, and they meet farmers, and they taste stuff. Studies show that kids who eat things they grew themselves are more likely to eat good food in general.

Yeah, we can testify to that, we’ve used that one (“It’s not just lettuce, it’s our lettuce that we grew!”) on our kids. You also have programs for adults, right?
More and more. There’s really a lot of interest in growing your own food. So we do free workshops— you have to sign up on the Green City Market site, but they’re free. Again, they’re about whatever is going on at that time in the growing season.

We demo composting, we demo container gardening— it’s all about showing best practices for successful, organic gardening.

You see families who come over with little kids, maybe they live in an apartment but they regard this as their garden. And then eventually maybe they find a little patch or a container and start growing their own food a little. When you grow something of your own, when you plunge your hands into the dirt and plant something, your whole relationship to the world changes.

Green City Market’s Edible Gardens Teaches Kids To Get Hands Dirty