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. It may never be described as drop-dead gorgeous, and its location might deter all but the bravest visitors. Still – to me – this was the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen. What’s more, it didn’t even exist before I arrived.
Nestled between two dilapidated public housing buildings, a weed-infested field was transformed in nine hours into a full blown garden – 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 one of four cozy benches.
This pop-up garden was the first installation this year by Fiskars. Their initiative, Project Orange Thumb, is intent on spreading the gospel of gardening through similar projects across the country. 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, tools, and even the labor to get it all built.
About a month ago, I was 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 yours truly) converged 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 selected site was located on the south side of Chicago. Known as Altgeld Gardens, it was the first public housing project in the United States. It was created to provide African American soldiers a place where they and their families could live after returning home from World War II. Since then, it has seen its share of successes and many challenges.
As we arrived for the first time to the complex on the morning of the installation, there was an eerie quiet to the neighborhood of 3,500 residents. Strides are currently being made to renovate all the buildings, but most remain boarded up and abandoned. Even the small strip of convenience shops had long ago fallen to the same fate.
As we made our way into the heart of the neighborhood, we wound through the maze of streets and buildings. The quarter-acre patch of land I’d 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.
As the sleepy neighborhood came to life, plants and soil began arriving by the truckload, and curious onlookers made their way in our direction. A large bus soon arrived – full of Fiskars employees who were 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. We were 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 were strangers to each other, yet blind to their varied social and economic differences. The only thing that mattered that day was creating a garden from nothing and being able to walk away at the end of the day knowing they left behind something very special for people they would never meet.
On this one special day, individuals gave of their time and talents. Strangers became friends, and everyone witnessed an amazing transformation. This one forgotten plot of land became 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 an opportunity like this, those are the most beautiful of all.