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News Wed Sep 15 2010

Sowing S.E.E.D.S. for an Urban Garden

This story was submitted by freelance writer Christopher Gray.

dunne_garden.jpgSeventy-year-old Janice Brown reaches over the Dunne Elementary fence along 108th Street and asks to see some turnips. "I just want the bottoms, not the tops, just the bottoms, not the tops," she says.

Paula Roderick, a North Sider volunteering at the half-acre S.E.E.D.S. minifarm in the South Side's Roseland, plucks out some turnips from the large, thriving garden, twists off the edible turnip greens and leaves Mrs. Brown with just the edible bulbs, perfect for soup.

Roderick charged her a nominal price, but S.E.E.D.S. (Southside Education and Economic Development Systems) is not really looking to make a profit on any of its produce which sprouted for the first time this summer in what had been just a grassy lawn north of Dunne Elementary.

Pumpkins vine their way across the garden, which also has rows of tomatoes and beans, melons, corn and greens.

The garden has been so popular that many residents have just been sneaking in and stealing the vegetables. "You see old ladies come in, and all of a sudden, you see the bag," says Darryl Gibson, a second volunteer.

The western edge of Roseland is not a "food desert," devoid of supermarkets; a Save-A-Lot is a block away on Halsted. But still, Roderick and Gibson said Roseland had the space for a community-size garden, and fresh, organic vegetables would be as valuable as on the North Side.

And they were able to use fund from the Put Illinois to Work program to get local residents jobs in the tough economy. "The idea was to get work out of parents ... get them a chance to work at something meaningful," Roderick said.

For two months, 20 workers were tasked with cutting up the sod and tilling the surface until it showed black topsoil. They then planted seeds as well as plant starts from the greenhouse at nearby Fenger High School. The contract would get them a paycheck for four months.

But then all of a sudden, the contract was pulled at the end of July by Central States SER, an organization in the West Side's Little Village that administered the funds. "What they said is that we weren't properly supervising the workers," Roderick said. Central States could not be reached for comment.

Rather than keep paid staff on site, the all-volunteer S.E.E.D.S. delegated supervision to two foreman, recruited from the new hires. Gibson said they never had any problems, and the garden was evidence of their work.

"When [Central States] came out all they were able to see was the ground tilled up, and all the seed in the ground," said LeShawn Smith, one of the foremen.

Weeds went unpulled and ears of corn were left to rot. The workers, many who had never tended a garden before, were unable to stick around to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Smith said he has still not received his last paycheck, and S.E.E.D.S. continues to try to get funding.

"For us, it felt very mean-spirited," Roderick said. "They should've seen the fruits of their work."

But the garden was not a failure. The hard work of turning an urban lawn into a mini-farm was finished. The seeds were planted and with ample sun and rain, the plants did the remainder of the work.

"We had really tasty summer squash," Roderick said. "The corn was really popular. It was real sweet."

Students at Dunne have planted three rows of spinach, hoping they'll ripen before the first frost. And Roderick already is planning how they can reuse seed from this garden so that west Roseland will have another garden next year.

Cecilia / September 15, 2010 1:34 PM

You sew clothing or pillowcases or what have you. You sow seeds.

Andrew / September 16, 2010 2:49 PM

You're absolutely right. Corrected.

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