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News Wed Nov 18 2009

Four-Season Farm Sprouts Up in East Village

Most gardeners in Chicago have readied their vegetable plots for a long winter sleep. However, students from Near North Montessori School (1434 W. Division) will be busy this winter revitalizing a nearby half-acre parcel of land at 1102 N. Wood St. to create a dynamic year-round garden and outdoor classroom.

The project started a year and a half ago, when administrators from the school approached the Chicago Botanic Garden to explore the feasibility of an edible garden on school property. Anna Viertel, the Botanic Garden's School Garden Coordinator, worked closely with Near North Montessori staff to develop plans and identify possible sites. The vision for a garden quickly grew to that of a student-driven vehicle for interdisciplinary, experiential learning and civic engagement that would ultimately be a replicable model for other schools and communities.

Despite significant help from the Chicago Park District, locating and securing a parcel of land viable for food production proved challenging until the fortuitous loan of the vacant Wood Street lot by the Rappe family, whose grandchildren attended Near North Montessori. The school secured permission from the Rappes to build the garden in the open space and promptly began consulting neighborhood residents about the project this past summer. In September, Viertel transitioned from the Chicago Botanic Garden to assume the new full-time position with Near North Montessori of Urban Farm Manager. Clearing of weeds and diseased trees from the site will begin this Friday.

Writers like Michael Pollan have helped bring increased attention to the topic of sustainable food systems in recent years. However, it was Maria Montessori, the eponymous founder of the child development theories on which Montessori schools are based, who insisted almost 100 years ago on gardening as a central method for the education of adolescents.

Middle-school students at Near North Montessori can choose each term to take an elective called simply "Garden Committee." Students of this class, mentored by Viertel, serve as liaisons to the rest of the school and work on every aspect of the farm, from design to the manual cultivation of the land.

The half-acre lot will be divided into two areas. Viertel and students will pack into the sunny northern half of the space as many varieties and rotations of crops as possible to maximize food yield. They will tend to seedlings for hearty greens, onions and root crops indoors this winter, and begin planting outdoors in early spring using the most sustainable and organic practices possible. Passively-heated mobile hoop houses, or moveable greenhouse-like structures, will cover one-third of the northern plot at any given time to allow for year-round crop. Students will compost and tend to worm bins at the school to help ensure that the farm soil is not depleted.

The shady southern portion of the lot will be used for an outdoor classroom, permaculture (wilder, edible specimens to be foraged) and post-harvest handling and packing stations. With the help of folks from Hyde Park's Experimental Station, trees cleared from the site this month will be used to fashion furniture for the outdoor classroom and bowls and plates for eating food from the farm.

According to Viertel, the main aim of the project is to produce "as much food as possible," and students who are "stewards of place"--that is, empowered citizens. Near North Montessori students can eat the farm's yield in conjunction with lessons on nutrition and cooking; use what is harvested for micro-economy projects that might involve selling vegetables and fruit to area restaurants and shops; and support the city's emergency food systems with donations from the farm. Viertel is working closely with teachers on integrating the farm into the curriculum.

The Near North Montessori and East Village communities have shown enthusiastic support for the project. Viertel detailed the plans at the November 2nd meeting of the East Village Association and was promptly approached with an in-kind donation of garden tools. She is now in the process of pursuing funding streams for the project, which does not have a budget. For more information on the Near North Montessori urban farm, email Anna Viertel.


Lindsay / November 18, 2009 11:12 AM

This is great news for the neighborhood and the kids that will learn so much about urban farming. Thanks for informing the rest of us about this super cool project. I'm feeling a little sad that my Montessori classes didn't include gardening!

I hope this serves as an example for other schools in Chicago and even in the 'burbs.

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