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Joliet Park District organic celebrates 5 years of community gardening

Joliet Park District (Handout)

The Joliet Park District’s organic community gardening program has reached a milestone in 2016, celebrating its fifth anniversary thanks, in part, to an active and engaged group of gardeners.

Residents in attendance for an April 21 information session, “Making the Most of Every Inch in the Garden,” shared similar sentiments about the program.

The program first took root in 2011, when the state of Illinois Central Management Services leased approximately 74 acres of land to the park district. A soccer complex for youth sports was set up, leaving about 9 acres of land.

Kristen Gurnitz, garden coordinator for the park district, said it was unclear what to do with the leftover land at first, but an idea later grew among those on staff.

“Internally, we started brainstorming ideas for what we could do with that space,” she said. “We came up with the idea of having an organic community garden.”

Gurnitz noted that the amount of space was unlike any other community gardens in the area, which would allow a large number of participants.

“We began looking at how to put together a garden, and we decided to be organic so we’d be leaving the Earth in a better condition than we found it,” she added.

There are a number of benefits to having an organic community gardening program, including putting the land to good use, encouraging residents to share knowledge among one another, and addressing some of the issues surrounding a lack of healthy food options in some areas of Joliet.

Upon inspection of the land, park district staff found the land to be in good shape and not missing any nutrients.

“It’s giving people an opportunity to grow their own produce,” Gurnitz said, noting how the absence of chemicals will help in providing healthier options.

Jan Vargo, of Joliet, was one of about 40 people seated in attendance for the information session. She said she loves the program and comes out to the park district almost every month.

“I always learn something new,” she said. Vargo added that she uses the sessions to learn about space saving in her garden. “My garden’s 10 [feet] by 10 [feet], so it’s not huge. But, I want to get the most I can out of it.”

She said she has a plot set up in the park district’s community garden, and is eagerly waiting for the day when her tomatoes start sprouting.

Carol Kemp, of Joliet, said she found the class to be very interesting. This is her first year with a garden plot at the community garden this year.

“I want to grow quite a bit in a 10-foot space,” she said. “This is really helpful in terms of getting the most out of my space.”

Kemp added that she intends to grow a number of items in her garden, including lettuce, carrots, green beans and beets.

“[I’ve learned] more about the succession planting and to make sure that you don’t plant things too close together to allow them to have enough space to grow,” she said. “I was planning to plant a lot all at once in a small space so now I know better than to do that.”

Kemp said she has been gardening since she was a child and her interest in knowing more about it has only grown over time.

The hope, according to Gurnitz, is that people will realize the many benefits that come with planting their own organic garden.

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