In my role as television host of GardenSMART, a show that features beautiful gardens, I’ve seen some pretty spectacular places. Yet none compare to the garden I just returned from this week. Although it may never qualify as drop-dead gorgeous, and its location might deter all but the bravest visitors, to me, this was the most beautiful garden I have ever seen. What’s more, it didn’t even exist before I arrived.
Nestled between two dilapidated public housing buildings, what started out as a weed infested field, transformed into a full blown garden nine hours later, replete with hardwood trees, raised vegetable and herb beds, an orchard, annual and perennial plantings, and a central community gathering area where young and old alike could take a break on any one of four cozy benches.
This pop-up garden was the first installation this year by Fiskars, a company intent on spreading the gospel of gardening through similar programs across the country through their initiative Project Orange Thumb. The idea is to find a well-deserving location that would benefit from the installation of a turnkey community garden. Everything is provided, from the soil, plants and tools and even the labor to get it all done.
About a month ago, I had been asked by Fiskars to design this garden for them. We reviewed pictures of possible sites for consideration. One site stood out from the others. Although I knew very little of the details, my gut told me this was the place. Four weeks later, nearly 100 people including me would converge on this very site, to create an amazing place--and for me, a memory that would last a lifetime.
As the big day approached, I learned that the site I had selected was located on the south side of Chicago. Known as Altgeld Gardens, it was the first public housing project in the United States, created to provide African American soldiers a place for them and their families to live after returning home from World War II. Since then, it has seen its share of successes and many challenges.
As we arrived to the complex for the first time on the morning of the installation, there was an eerie quite to the neighborhood of 3500 residents. Although strides are currently being made to renovate all the buildings, most are boarded up and abandoned. Even the small strip of convenience shops has long ago fallen to the same fate.
As we made our way into the heart of the neighborhood, winding through the maze of streets and buildings, the quarter acre patch of land that I had only seen in pictures, finally revealed itself for the first time. It was a strange site indeed. A very tall chain-link fence topped with three stands of barbed wire surrounded this very barren plot of dirt.
Plants and soil began arriving by the truckloads and curious onlookers made their way in our direction as the sleepy neighborhood came to life. A large bus soon arrived with Fiskars employees, eager to take on the day as they put their carpentry and gardening skills to work. By mid morning, the garden site was abuzz, filled with corporate and community volunteers and a dozen or more residents, all busily at work with an energy and excitement I had never before witnessed. On this day, scores of people happily worked side by side, many strangers to each other yet blind to their varied social and economic differences. The only thing that mattered today was planting a garden from scratch and being able to walk away at the end of the day, knowing they had left behind something very special for people they will never meet.
On this one special day, individuals gave of their time and talents, strangers became friends and all witnessed an amazing transformation of one forgotten plot of land into a beautiful place where life now has a chance to thrive, not only for the newly planted trees, shrubs and flowers, but for all who come to enjoy this extraordinary place. Gardens are indeed beautiful to look at, but when they provide such an opportunity as this, well those are the most beautiful of all.