Gardening program teaches food sources on former Gary Preserve building lots – Chicago Tribune
Carmen McKee said she just wanted to create a space in the city where people could connect with nature, relax, and maybe learn how to use edible plants in their own backyards.
With the help of a group of volunteers and permission from the owners of the Gary property, in 2019 she began reclaiming the overgrown outdoor space of the former U.S. Army Reserve building at the 3510 W. 15th Ave., to do just that.
Today, the space is home to the Oases Botanical Gardens, and McKee, of Gary, said the next step is to make the place an agritourism destination.
“We are a garden of theme gardens,” McKee said.
Each garden space on the site focuses on a different food source. All the plants in the gardens are organic and edible, right down to the roses.
In addition to edible flowers, herbs, garlic and vegetables like hot peppers, volunteers also planted native nut and fruit trees, including persimmons, hazelnuts, serviceberry, pecans and plum trees.
McKee said organizers wanted the public to be able to come to the garden, sit and have lunch, read a book or just enjoy the blooming gardens. They also want visitors to know how they can eat what grows.
Flower petals from cosmos, asters, zinnias, roses and geraniums are among the many edible flowers that populate the gardens. Although every flower in Oases is edible, she said home gardeners should be careful.
“You have to make sure you have the right strains,” McKee said.
Education is an important component of the garden, which organizes various programs throughout the year on gardening and edible plants and welcomes different youth groups and churches for visits. She said it was important to help people make the connection to where their food comes from.
“Some kids have never eaten beans on the vine,” McKee said.
Garden visitors can learn how to pollinate plants in the absence of pollinating insects, grow sweet potato plants from an organic sweet potato, and build gardens using everyday objects.
Last year was the first year they grew organic peanuts in the garden. At the end of the 2021 growing season, McKee said they were making old-fashioned popcorn from the glass gem corn they had grown along with cornmeal.
That first year was all about cleaning up, McKee said. The city joined in the effort, removing four trucks of yard waste debris, to help create a space where the themed garden plots would be created.
McKee said when work began on the site, neighbors and especially veterans were curious to find out what was going on. She said volunteers were routinely approached by veterans asking if the American flag would fly in front of the building again.
Instead, McKee said volunteers created a patriotic garden at the entrance to the facility, complete with a flag of red, white and blue flowers.
“We wanted to be able to do something,” McKee said.
Oases Botanical Gardens will also be a site for the Lake County Eats local farmers market program. The first farmer’s market is scheduled there on May 26.
Donna Catalano, director of community development at the Legacy Foundation, said the Lake County Eats Local program is a partnership between The Legacy Foundation, NWI Food Council, Purdue University Cooperative Extension, City of Gary Department of Environmental Affairs/Green Urbanism and the city of East Chicago that aims to bring sustainable farmers markets to both cities.
The program is designed to address high rates of food insecurity and limited access to fresh food in areas identified as “food deserts”, she said. The program is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Market Promotion Program.
Carrie Napoleon is a freelance journalist for the Post-Tribune.