Interview and photos by Lydia Krupinski

As our food becomes frequently outsourced to other regions and countries, groups are taking a stand and resurrecting a time-honored tradition: the victory garden. While some movements set to re-invent the wheel, others look back to previous generations for inspiration and to empower their communities. One such group literally broke ground on the far North side of Chicago a few weeks ago. The Peterson Garden Project sets to connect Chicago residents with the earth, their food, and each other. Located just west of Western on Peterson Avenue, this incredible space is changing the way residents are looking at food, community, and empty lots.

By renting a plot, experienced and novice gardeners can share in the satisfaction of growing their own food, which in turn cuts down on both their ecological and economic footprints. For only $45 a season, growers receive a 24 square foot plot, access to the gardening forums, and unlimited advice from their fellow gardeners. For those unable to tend their own land, the Project’s volunteers can nurture a crop for a reasonable donation. The only requirements: Visit your plot 2-3 times a week, commit to using organic gardening methods, and pay your dues. It’s that simple!

Sprout Chicago had the honor and privilege to visit the newly tilled space and speak with the garden’s founder, LaManda Joy, about the Project and more.

BEFORE photo by Leah Ray


Tell us a little about The Peterson Garden Project.
This is a project about restoration: of an historic garden, a sense of community and an understanding of our place in history.

Where did the idea to resurrect the victory garden come from?
I travel a lot for work and my husband suggested I research Victory Gardens over the winter since I had a lot of free time at night in hotel rooms. This coincided with my 82 year old mother not being well so I was, personally, digging around for family stories fearing they wouldn’t be available much longer. My parents were part of the Greatest Generation so I’d always grown up with the “we can do it” attitude. My family history and my love of gardening made the Victory Garden story very appealing. And, like many people, I was curious about the facts and history behind the WW2 Victory Garden stats. 20 million gardeners – great! But how were they educated and motivated? Where did those statistics come from and who was doing the counting? Who were the players that worked so hard to make this happen? I quickly discovered many of these answer and, actually, fell in love with the story because it is so relevant to today. I started blogging about it. Then people asked me to speak about it… one of the photos I was using in my lecture I had seen at our local butcher, Muller Meats… one day it dawned on me that one of the lots in the 1942 picture was currently vacant. Since the historical part of it had become so relevant and timely in my mind, I thought spearheading a new garden on the site might bring some attention to how people can solve their own food challenges now just like they did in WW2.

When did you first begin to garden?
My dad taught me how to garden as a kid in rural Oregon. I really started liking it in my early 20’s when I was going to school at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I had a friend who was one of the original employees at Smith and Hawken. She taught me amazing things and I’ve been hooked ever since.

What is your favorite thing about gardening?
Gardening is a way of life. You become addicted to it and it is a really sweet, rewarding feeling.

How did you secure the space for the garden? Is it permanent?
Our 40th Ward Alderman, Pat O’Connor was instrumental in working with Asian Human Services to get permission to use the land. They have agreed to the garden being there for two years. We hope to make that a longer agreement…

Who is signing up for the plots?
The variety is astounding… from neighbors who can see the garden from their house to loop dwellers who bike the 12-mile route. Lots of chefs, some food bloggers, young families, senior citizens… it’s really diverse. In addition, we are working with a nearby counseling service to use the garden for their art therapy classes. People are really attracted to the space and a lot of great relationships and ideas are being formed.

Do you have to be an experienced gardener to participate?
Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, 90% of the Victory Gardeners in Chicago in WW2 didn’t know how to garden so it was important to us to welcome new gardeners. Plus that’s part of our mission: to teach everyone we meet how to grow their own food. If we were just preaching to the choir of seasoned gardeners we wouldn’t be able to make strides in this area.

What has been the greatest challenge in creating the garden?
Honestly it has been quite easy… people want to participate and we’ve had a great core team of very talented volunteers step up to

help with almost everything. But the biggest challenge, as with any project, is coordinating deliveries of outside services – lumber, soil, etc. But we’re moving fast – the project just launched April 26 – so, considering, I would say we’ve been very fortunate.

What has been the greatest reward?
The sense of community. People are hungry to know their neighbors and this gives them a framework for connecting. Also the generosity of people – everyone has something valid to contribute with time, talent or resources.

What do you foresee in the garden’s future?
I like to stand on the empty lot and envision two things: the original garden and what it was like to stand there in the 1940’s and see so many neighbors rallying together to overcome hardships and the

garden later this summer when we’ll essentially be doing the same thing. I’d like this garden to be a role model for how neighbors can ban together and grow their own food, teach each other, support each other. Nothing but good comes out of gardening and the more people we can get working toward community in this way the better it will be for Chicago. This garden is a rallying cry for that.

What does ecological sustainability mean to you?
That we think about our actions. What is the price of convenience and does it really make our lives better? Having grown up with Greatest Generation parents, who also lived through the depression, I’m lucky to have a touchstone of people who have always composted, always recycled, always been thrifty. Their lives are incredibly rich and not because of the stuff they have but the people they are and their relationships. My parents liked to tell me “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” and I guess ecological sustainability, to me, means thinking about your place in the bigger picture and how your actions impact others both short- and long-term.

If you could change one thing Chicago, what would it be?
Chicago is a pretty amazing place… and I think we’re poised to be the leader in edible food production in the country as we were in WW2. I’d like a greater focus on urban agriculture and home gardening in the City. Although, I think we’ve done a great job thus far.

What advice would you offer for others looking to start an urban garden?
Have a vision and get everyone you can involved: the alderman, local businesses, neighbors, other volunteers. If the big picture can be articulated, all those groups can add their special sauce to make it happen. Have a dream and go for it – others will dream with you.

If you could be any vegetable, what would you be and why?
If I can rephrase that to any “edible” I’d be a nasturtium. They’re hardy, beautiful, useful and tasty.