Fresh from Chicago

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In a New York Times op-ed on the blight that has infected tomato crops across the Northeast, chef Dan Barber opines that the disease spread more quickly than usual this year via a proliferation of home gardens. According to the National Gardening Association report Barber cites, 43 million households planned a backyard garden or put a stake in a share of a community garden in 2009, up from 36 million in 2008.
A look at the report reveals that more than a quarter of those 43 million households garden in the Midwest (and some of them, it’s fun to look out our windows and observe, do so next door to our UCP offices). These local gardeners are inheritors of a long Chicago tradition, the history of which Cathy Jean Maloney narrates in Chicago Gardens.
Evoking the world of nineteenth-century Chicago vegetable gardening, Maloney recalls an article from the 1868 Prairie Farmers Annual that aimed to inspire backyard growers. “Did it ever occur to you,” the writer wonders, ” … that a well kept and properly planted acre in vegetables would make one-half the living of your family, which, with the product of your fruit garden adjoining, would render you happy and contented, and ward off dullness and disease, produced, perhaps, by a too liberal use of hog and hominy?”
If what Barber terms “the explosion of home gardeners” is any indication, Americans a century and a half later are having (blight aside) similar realizations.
The exhibition inspired by Maloney’s book underscores this link between gardens past and present. This is the last week to visit the Chicago Tourism Center to see highlights including a look at the planning and growth of Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden; gardens as explored in the book; public gardens in Chicago parks; community gardens; and photographs of private Chicago gardens and other artwork inspired by nature.