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Peoria's community gardens are doing more for the city than providing healthy produce

Cheryll Boswell
Cheryll Boswell, president of My Mother's Community Garden, standing amongst her plants.

Although thought of as a primarily urban landscape, Peoria touts an impressive amount of green spaces, and with that comes several community gardens tucked into corridors all around the city.

Typically, community gardens are plots of land that are transformed into a garden with help from community members. The harvest is then open to the gardeners and the rest of the community, providing fresh produce for all to enjoy. However, each community garden in Peoria has its own unique approach on how to best serve the community, and the personal reasons behind doing the hard work it takes to pull it off.

Budded Mattah

Ryan Foster started a community garden known as Budded Mattah last year. Since then, he and the surrounding communities near the Harrison Homes have started three different garden locations — one at the Harrison Homes, one at South Side Mission, and a demonstration garden Foster uses to showcase his larger goal of creating the gardens in the first place.

Jody Holtz
Ryan Foster, founder of Budded Mattah

“Our garden is different than the typical model that you will see in a community garden in that our goal is not simply just to have fresh produce for people, our goal is to eliminate poverty and eliminate a food desert,” said Foster. “So we're showing you can take these lots, we’ll help you get it tilled, and you can plant a garden in there, and we teach them how to go to market with it. So, we're in farmers markets, and we have a little online store, which we don't have completely populated yet, but we're just showing how you can sell the produce and create an income stream for yourself and feed your family with it.”

Foster encourages participants, ranging from the hobby gardener to those who can’t plant at their rental unit, to eventually move toward value added products such as pickles and salsas.

Though there have been plenty of setbacks along the way, such as the garden’s water source being vandalized, Foster said it’s the relationships that carry everybody through.

Budded Mattah
Budded Mattah's Facebook Page
Budded Mattah

“A lot of community gardens, they fail, and they don't sustain because of lack of relationships within the community, people taking ownership of the gardens," he said. "So at Harrison last year, our gardens were vandalized shortly after we got them going, and a lot of plants were torn up…what happened that was good out of the vandalism is some of the neighbors came out and ran off the kids…and then later on when they came back, they protected the garden, because they had invested interest in this garden.”

Generating and maintaining community interest in a garden can be a challenge. Part of the reason Foster has been able to continue this community buy-in is because for some, the garden means a lot more than just a place to grow produce.

“One of my right hand people, her son died about a month ago, and the garden family came around her and comforted her,” said Foster. “And I remember…we were doing an event at Harrison, a cookout earlier, and it was like, three days after her son passed. And she came driving up. I looked at her I said why are you here? She's like… I need this. I need you guys, so this is the best place for me to be”.

Whether seeking a tomato, some sort of financial stability, or a place to heal, Budded Mattah serves the community in several different ways.

My Mother's Community Garden

So does another garden in the area with a slightly different approach. My Mother’s Community Garden, located in Peoria's South Side, is a tribute to what many call the backbone of a community.

Jody Holtz
My Mother's Community Garden

“My mother's community garden started probably in 2012…we named that garden after my mom…so we decided to honor all of the mothers who supported this community,” said Cheryll Boswell, president of the board that operates the garden.

Instead of keeping with the traditional community garden format, Boswell and her team are beginning to move toward urban agriculture instead.

“Theoretically, community gardens are for the community where people come in, and they choose a designated plot that they're responsible for weeding and seeding and planting food. And that doesn't go too well. Right now we just have two people that have plots. Everything else we maintain and take care of. The community is welcome, but one of the things that we found there's a big education component that should come with it,” explained Boswell.

Gardening is a skill that takes time to develop. Not everyone has a solid understanding of what certain plants look like, how they grow, or when it’s time to harvest them. That can make inviting the community in to have free reign of the garden a bit tricky. To alleviate some of these concerns, Boswell has developed a fresh market concept.

“Twice a week we'll put everything that we pick, and we'll put it in the bins and let people just come and take it. And that kind of keeps our plants intact so that people don't run the plant trying to take produce off of it,” said Boswell.

Fresh MArket
Jody Holtz
The Fresh Market in front of My Mother's Community Garden

Education has been a main priority of the garden. Through a partnership with Peoria Public Schools agriculture program and Proctor Center’s summer youth program, Boswell and her team provide hands-on, interactive learning methods to teach kids about the seed to table concept and how food is grown.

To sustain the operation, Boswell and her team look to value added products, too.

“We started doing hot sauce as a test to see if people like it, and the last couple of years it has become really, really, really, really popular…we expanded our growth of growing peppers to make our own hot sauce with, and we have about three different types of hot sauce that we make…It's pretty good,” said Boswell.

While the hot sauce is surely one incentive to keep the operation going, Boswell said the real reason is, of course, the people.

“One of the youths that were working with us a year ago, he said…being in this garden…relieves my anxiety, it takes away my anxiety. And then I had an instructor that said on her lunch hour, she comes in and she just sits in her car just for lunch. So when we do this, it's more than just feeding the body. It's also about feeding the soul mentally. That's why we do it.”

East Bluff Community Center's Garden

Feeding the body is an issue that hits close to home in South Peoria. It’s no secret the area is a known food desert. That’s why many of the community gardens in the area are all working to get fresh produce into the hands of those who need it most, including the East Bluff Community Center’s garden.

“The thing that makes it real convenient is that we are right physically next to one of the doors that goes into the East Bluff Center, where on Saturday mornings people who need food can come to the food pantry, and they get free food. And so we advertise to them…come on out and pick what you see,” said Nancy Long, a neighbor of Peoria’s East Bluff and one of the people who oversees the garden.

Nancy Long
Jody Holtz
Nancy Long

This garden has several different plots all cared for by different community members. The garden is open to the public, with priority given to East Bluff residents. Long attributes the garden’s success partially to the connection with the food pantry.

Like Budded Mattah, this garden also had some run-ins with vandalism.

“For a while there were kids… who liked to get in and, you know, we noticed a great big squash down the road, and one of the neighbors actually was yelling at the kid about it,” noted Long.

To solve the problem, Long invited some of the kids who would frequently visit the garden into garden.

East Bluff Garden
Nancy Long
Preparing the East Bluff Community Center's Garden beds

“We made rows and assigned kids different rows, and they planted their own yellow or green beans…And I remember the day that we decided that it was time to harvest. I asked him to, you know, pick a bean or two from your row and taste it and tell me what it tastes like," Long said.

"And they did…they were like, apples, and you know, that's true. If you think about a fresh green bean. It's not very different from an apple…but that was a real positive so they were munching…So that's I think one way, you know, just by connecting with whoever's coming in, that we try to prevent damage to the crops.”

Engaging with the community, especially the younger generation, goes a long way in the community garden landscape.

“We've had lots of very capable parents and grandparents teach their own family children using the garden space,” noted Long, adding that an investment in yourself and your family is an investment in the community.

“Taking care of yourself and your body and your family's health, that translates into more interest in the community around you. If you're feeling pretty strong and healthy, or if you see other people who can help you, and so this is just one other way to get people out,” said Long.

Sow to Grow & Phoenix Community Garden

Another garden that has success in getting people out and about is Phoenix Community Development Services (Phoenix CDS) garden. Janine Donahue is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener who oversees the operation of Sow to Grow, and the Phoenix community garden, both operating side by side.

She said the mission of Sow to Grow is to educate children and families, especially those who reside in Glendale Commons.

Janine Donahue
Jody Holtz
Janine Donahue sitting in the Sow to Grow garden

“A lot of the local areas within walkable distance to provide food for these individuals often have processed food and not really fresh, nutritious food, so I am happy to provide that for them in addition to the education,” said Donahue.

Through the upcycling of materials and a grant from the National Realtors Association, Phoenix has been working to expand the garden to provide a community space to gather and relax. While the food within a fenced area is for residents of Glendale Heights, the other garden provides food for the surrounding community and neighbors.

Like others, Donahue said the success of the garden is all about the labor of love and commitment to the community.

“My experience with the community is people need to get to know you and see you and see what this is all about. I think different community gardens are run in different ways. And some individuals may not have a full understanding of what the garden is…I think Phoenix community development is going to do some signage to this additional garden so that local people understand that they can become very involved,” Donahue explained.

Jody Holtz
Heather Ford painting the Phoenix CDS mural onto flower boxes in the garden

This garden recently underwent a beautification project where residents and neighbors painted the Phoenix Community Development Center’s mural, designed by Bradley University instructor and digital artist Heather Ford, onto the flower boxes.

Jody Holtz
Eileen Setti next to the sunflowers in Phoenix Community Garden

“I think it creates a bright, cheerful space," said Donahue. "I think this will tie it very much into the mural at Phoenix Community Development, and maybe tie in that mission of serving individuals who may have been homeless, or faced other barriers. And I hope that just increases awareness of the garden and its mission… but the goal is, as this evolves, that this will be a safe and comfortable place for people to sit and enjoy what is here.”

Increasing awareness about a community garden can be difficult to do on your own. Eileen Setti, chief operating officer of Phoenix CDS, said having a larger organization be the anchor is helpful to the garden's progress.

“We're able to collaborate and coordinate resources, but really, it's gotta be the neighbors that are invested in it. And so I think organizations can have the best of intentions, and, you know, start a garden, and that's wonderful. But really, the sustainability is getting the community involved with it,” said Setti.

OSF Saint Francis Medical Center's Garden of Hope

Another garden in the area also associated with an organization knows a thing or two about building a garden from the ground up.

OSF Saint Francis Medical Center’s Garden of Hope has two locations: St. Anne’s located at the south end of Peoria, and St. Matthews located at Route 91 Center for Health. Mike Brooks was hired to grow the garden in 2018.

“Eight, nine years ago, a faith community nurse at St. Anne's, Marianne Burke, started the St. Anne's garden hope. It was really small, just a few plants for the community to harvest. Her and the sisters would weed, water, plant…and so now it's a total of two acres on the south end of Peoria. One acre of it is open to the community all the time. Another acre I harvest out of and hand out food every Wednesday from nine to three for people in need,” explained Brooks.

Mike Brooks
Jody Holtz
Mike Brooks, garden coordinator for OSF's Garden of Hope

With Brooks being the only paid member of the garden, volunteers fill out the rest of the roster. Last year, more than 200 volunteers contributed 2,000 hours of service. Many of these volunteers come directly from OSF in some way.

“The most unique part of it is that the hospitals backing it. It's not very common that you see a health care facility that is taking the approach to health care from food, and they are really standing behind and making this happen,” said Brooks, noting that having the backing of OSF gives the garden a sense of ownership.

“Gardens cost money, and typically when you get as large as this one it costs a lot of money. So, it is hard for just a single person to start a community garden without having 100% buy-in of a community because of the amount of labor and the amount of money that it takes. It really is difficult,” said Brooks.

To help alleviate some of this difficulty, Brooks and other community partners lead the community garden network

garden of hope.jpg
OSF Healthcare website
The Garden of Hope

“The community garden network was started last year, in collaboration with the Partnership for Healthy Communities…and it's just a group of community gardens where we can share resources and help each other out," said Brooks. "And if someone's looking to start a community garden, they can reach out to us and we can give them tips and let them know what our failures were so that hopefully they don't make them.”

Within the Tri-County, 19 community gardens are currently part of the network.

Brooks has extensive expertise with gardening, having worked in a greenhouse for 19 years prior to his current position. He offers some simple, yet effective advice for those looking to start their own community garden.

“The first thing I would do is get a soil test and find out if your soil is good or not…second would be to create a plan before you really jump into anything and detail it and give yourself milestones to achieve and slowly build up to that…so start small, grow big, and take your time.”

Ryan Foster also offers some advice.

“Focus on the people and relationships over the task at hand, and keep that first and foremost because when things begin to go wrong, the people are the ones that are going to carry you through it.”

Though all these community gardens are different, they all share one common goal: to increase food access, community pride, and make Peoria a little greener in the process.

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Corrected: August 12, 2022 at 9:03 AM CDT
My Mother's Community Garden is located on Peoria's South Side, not the North Valley.
Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program director and host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and WCBU's morning news podcast On Deck.