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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, July 19

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If you take a shovel or a pitchfork and turn over some decent soil, you are bound to find decomposers: roly-poly bugs, centipedes, worms. If you do this with several 9-12 year old girls nearby, I suggest putting those foam ear plugs, the kind you may have used at rock shows in your past life, to protect your ears because girls that age like to scream. A lot. It may well be that they aren't even grossed out by whatever is underneath that shovel, they might just as readily scream "oh that's so cuuute!" about potato bugs, so it isn't necessarily a negative thing, I'm just warning you is all.

I accompanied 15 awesome girls to the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, one of Chicago's truly hidden gems, last week. There we met Kirsten Akre, floriculturist and brand new program manager at the greenhouse, and she put us all to work. As you may or may not know, every year Kilbourn Park hosts a two-day sale of organic plants, including many heirloom species and lots of unusual flowers and vegetables. Our Girl Scout troop contacted Kirsten a few months ago about bringing a bunch of Scouts over to lend a hand to help them get ready for their sale.

Kilbourn Park Greenhouse has always been a sort of mythical place to me. I was there once, about three years ago and loved it, but I never went back even though I fully intended to figure out a way to spend all of my free time there after my one and only visit. My memory of it began to shift into that hazy sort of memory usually reserved for dreams. Had I actually been in this amazing place on a chilly winter night, where people were casting cement planters with leaves pressed into the outer surfaces? Were there really spotted bunnies in a cage? Did I imagine wandering through rows of healthy, happy garden plants wintering over in a warm and cozy greenhouse, all tended by people working cooperatively with one another? It all seemed a little too good to have been true, but it was, and is.

The greenhouse was built in the early 1900s and was used to grow flowers for the park district. Mid century it was used to grow plants for victory gardens grown in parks all around the city. In 1988, the greenhouse closed for eight years. Happily, it reopened in 1996 and was used for community gardening. The popular annual organic plant sale began at that time. The plants that come from those sales are great; a friend of mine used to give me the stuff she bought but couldn't fit into her garden — everything was beautiful, unusual and healthy. Every time I heard anyone talk about it though, the words "mob scene" were always somewhere in the sentence, and that kept me from venturing into the fray — I don't do well with a mob scene, particularly with a child or three in tow. I contented myself with my less agoraphobic friends casts-offs. I know why everyone "mobs" the "scene" though — the plants are amazing.

The reason they are amazing is because Kilbourn Park Greenhouse is not only mythical, but magical as well. The magic is the dirt. The Girl Scouts were set to work on a patch out back that had been gardened once, last summer, and not touched before then or since. I've been working on the soil in my yard for seven years and it looks nothing like this stuff. Kirsten handed out gloves, pitchforks, shovels, wheelbarrows and rakes and the girls got busy turning over the beds, pulling weeds, pulling up old black plastic, and examining the lives being lived under the soil and amongst the decomposing plants.

While doing a preliminary walk-around with Kirsten, a big old garter snake slithered on by. Surely you've deduced by now that I love the nature, but being a city dweller, the only snakes I see are the ones behind 2" of glass at the zoo. Pigeons, yes. Squirrels, opossums, mice, fine. Stray dogs, cats and even the parakeet we rescued from the backyard are all animals that have wandered across my path in Chicago. I saw a coyote loping along at 88 and 355 and a hawk ate a dead pigeon before my very eyes at Byron and Cicero. Just this past Sunday in fact, we rescued three baby rats from a garbage can! Happy Mothers Day! But snakes? Nope. Now I can say "snakes? Yes!" thanks to Kilbourn Park. Anyway, the snake went by and I got a little bit freaked out; my youngest was playing in a pile of dirt about 15 feet away. Maybe I'm wrong, but aren't snakes near babies one of those things that we as humans have evolved to feel is just wrong? Kirsten would disagree. She said, "Isn't that sweet?" Girl Scout leaders have a motto: "your attitude sets the tone," so knowing that I could either have 15 Girl Scouts totally 100 percent psyched about snakes or 15 freaked out Girl Scouts, I decided that yes, that snake was sweet, and living a pretty darn good life in the city.

The girls and volunteering moms were all divvied up and assigned tasks. Four girls weeding an overgrown bed, three girls pulling up the black plastic that covered old beds, a few girls shoveling compost into a wheelbarrow, a few girls using a pitchfork to turn over the soil. I was assigned the job of clearing up the piles of composting plants that had collected at the head of each bed. Kirsten is not a piler, she prefers an orderly garden, and the untidy piles were high on the list of things to be carted off. They were completely fine for the snakes though- baby snakes! Lots of them. One of them was so irate about it's cozy little house being taken away that it was both hissing and spitting. Having 15 girls standing in a circle around him, shrieking at the tops of their lungs was not helping the situation either, so we took him over to the newly formed windrow to chill out. (A windrow is a long heap of brush, weeds, old plants and compost, left to do what it will in an orderly row. Imagine brush blowing around on the prairie, eventually the wind would drive it into a row, hence the name.)

After the snake show ended we spent some time ogling centipedes. We've all seen centipedes in our gardens, freaky looking red things with spooky spiny legs. These were not like that. They were very thin, like angel hair pasta maybe, and about 2-4 inches long and very bizarre to watch. They move like the robots in The Matrix, very slithery and curvy. I don't know why the creatures that live at Kilbourn Park are different from the creatures that live everywhere else in Chicago, maybe it's a nature vortex or something, or like the land of the lost, but it's not at all like anywhere else in the city. Plump potato bugs, earthworms and centipedes frolic under every clump of dirt and dusty sunflower stalk, radiating health and happiness with a decomposers life well lived.


Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse is located at 3501 N. Kilbourn Ave. They are hosting several open houses throughout the summer, so stop by to find out about programming for children and volunteer opportunities for adults and families. You will get a chance to marvel at this emerald gem in our fair city and feel like you've stepped into another realm, one that's literally crawling with nature.

Unfortunately, this year's organic plant sale was last weekend, so you'll have to wait another year to experience the mob scene for yourself. There is a great playground right next to the greenhouse, so if you have to bring along kids, maybe think about teaming up with a pal and taking turns being playground monitor/plant shopper.

Open house dates and times are:

Wednesday, May 24, 6-7:30pm
Saturday, June 10, 10-11:30am
Saturday, July 22, 10-11:30am
Wednesday, August 23, 6-7:30pm

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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