Translating Sustainable Agriculture to the Backyard Garden in Metropolitan Chicago

Final Report for LNC10-327

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $86,963.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Anya Maziak
Chicago Botanic Garden
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Project Information


In 2011 and 2012 the Chicago Botanic Garden expanded visitors’ knowledge about sustainable agriculture techniques and encouraged them to use this information at home. Visitors were educated through broad-based initiatives, including signage, modeling on Fruit & Vegetable Garden, horticulture/public programming interns, farmers’ market demonstrations, family drop-in programs, and the website/social media. Targeted efforts included classes and mini-courses, a farm field trip, farm dinners, and open farm days. Evaluation showed that these activities were successful in engaging visitors and conveying information on sustainable and organic growing techniques.


The Chicago Horticultural Society, founded in 1890, has long been a source of information on gardening and horticulture for the Chicago region. With the opening of the 385-acre Chicago Botanic Garden in 1972, the Society established a physical resource that today annually serves nearly 950,000 people.

Since opening in 1985, the Garden’s 3.8-acre Fruit & Vegetable Garden has become one of the most popular destinations, providing a bounty of information to visitors through its many programs. In 2008, staff decided to implement organic growing practices in this garden, offering an excellent platform for teaching visitors about sustainable gardening techniques. Since this conversion, with the assistant of SARE, Fruit & Vegetable Garden and its related programs have served to demonstrate sustainable gardening techniques for the public, educate visitors about the value of sustainable techniques and sustainably-produced food, and empower the public with the knowledge to implement sustainability in their own food gardens.

Project Objectives:

The short term goals of this project were for Chicago Botanic Garden visitors to:

• Increase their curiosity about sustainable growing practices and express an interest in these methods,
• Increase their awareness of the many aspects of sustainable farming and gardening and why growing sustainably matters,
• Increase their knowledge and basic understanding of sustainable methods, and
• Gain an appreciation of sustainably-farmed products.

Intermediate goals were for visitors to:
• Apply the knowledge they gained at a home or community garden,
• Purchase sustainably-farmed products, and
• Seek out additional opportunities to learn about sustainable gardening.

Expected long term outcomes were to:
• Increase the number of individuals using sustainable gardening practices in the tri-state Chicago area,
• Increase number of individuals contributing to a sustainable food system,
• Increase purchases of products related to sustainable farming and gardening, and
• Increase consumer consumption of sustainably-produced goods, and
• Broaden the Garden’s reputation as a resource for information about sustainable gardening.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Richard Belding
  • Angela Mason
  • Eileen Prendergast
  • Jill Selinger
  • Kristen Webber
  • Jodi Zombolo


Materials and methods:

The Garden’s grant-funded education project took two different approaches: 1) programs that shared information broadly with a large number of individuals and 2) more in-depth experiences that engaged a smaller number of people and conveyed deeper knowledge. Many of these activities took place in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, which only uses organic and sustainable gardening techniques to grow vegetables, fruits, nuts, and herbs. Others took place around the Chicago Botanic Garden or at urban gardens or farms. Demonstration ideas were refined based on a fall 2009 meeting with rural farmers from the Garden’s farmers’ market.

SARE funding supported the following vehicles for sustainable education activities in 2011-12:
• Year-round interpretation of Fruit & Vegetable Garden through seasonal ephemeral signage
• Summer interpretation of Fruit & Vegetable Garden by interns
• Family drop-in programs
• Demonstrations at bi-weekly summer farmers’ markets
• Website pieces
• Classes through the School of the Chicago Botanic Garden
• Farm field trips
• Farm dinners
• Open urban farm days

Research results and discussion:

Fruit & Vegetable Garden interpretation – Interpretation took two forms: 1) hand-written signs and 2) an intern. The chalkboard-like signs provided sustainable gardening tips and practical information for visitors to Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Most of the signs were changed seasonally; some were applicable to the entire growing season. Each season brought a new focus, such as summer themes of water conservation, companion planting, cover cropping, and urban/suburban composting. Other topics included promoting biodiversity, non-synthetic fertilizers, crop rotation, integrated pest management, simple seasonal extension techniques like building cold frames, and much more. This signage also interpreted the new solar-powered irrigation system parts and the native pollinator habitats (bats, bees) that were purchased with SARE funds, along with already existing items (rain barrels, composters, etc.). These pieces provided practical examples for homeowners to implement sustainable devices in their own yards. Because of the new solar-powered system, one farmers’ market demonstration focused on the basics of solar power for homeowners and was met with enthusiasm by participants. Additional opportunities to teach people in the setting of this garden took the form of special themed festival—including Heirloom Tomato Weekend and Herb Garden Weekend—where farmer-led demonstrations taught visitors about companion planting, seed saving, organic tomato growing tips, and other sessions. A winter seed swap with accompanying lecture and workshop also garnered much interest. The special programs provided opportunities for rural farmers to sell their products to more informed consumers.

Fruit & Vegetable Garden was also interpreted by Windy City Harvest interns; for ten summer weeks these participant in the Garden’s urban agriculture training program assisted in the garden, implemented mini-demonstrations, and served as knowledge bases for visitors. In 2011 two interns filled this role, and in 2012 one intern worked in the garden. Demos in 2011 related to integrated pest management, companion planting, composting, cover cropping, and growing berries. In 2012 the intern wore an “ask me a question” button to encourage engagement. She addressed questions ranging in topic from using soapy water to catch cucumber beetles, tomato plant troubleshooting, bee hives, farmers’ markets, and plant identification to drought effects and amelioration. Because in 2012 the intern spoke Spanish, she was able to articulate these answers to Spanish-speaking visitors as well, broadening the audience reached.

While the Fruit & Vegetable Garden intern engaged people on Garden grounds, two additional interns worked in the city. One worked at the newly developed mixed-income Legends Housing (former site of public housing) to teach residents about organic farming and help them plant and maintain a community plot. Her enthusiasm and dedication encouraged families with no experience in gardening to take on growing their own vegetables using sustainable techniques that are the Chicago Botanic Garden’s standard. The second intern worked at the Pilsen farmers’ market, prepared produce boxes for Women, Infant, and Children coupon beneficiaries, and interpreted and demonstrated the primary urban farm site techniques—including aquaponics setup, greenhouse soil blocking, raised bed crop rotation, three-bin alternating and worm composting systems, native pollinator garden, and more—for all formal tours (including city and state officials) and informal visitors.

Family drop-in programs – Children were engaged in sustainable gardening through free family programs. In 2011 these sessions were held at Fruit & Vegetable Garden and in 2012 were shifted to the newly opened Children’s Growing Garden. In 2011 four different guided activities engaged them in sustainable agriculture: Be a Farmer, I Can Compost, Parade of Pollinators, and Soil Search. Children “planted” and “harvested” real root vegetables in a raised bed and designed their own gardens using clay models, explored worm composting systems together with soil nutrients and decomposition, “play-pollinated” flowers with insect/animal puppets to discuss fertilization and seed formation, and learned about the components of healthy soil. Offerings were expanded in 2012 with activities on companion planting, “pollinator to pantry,” and cover crops. For the companion planting sessions, participants planted a seasonally-appropriate vegetable seed with a marigold plant and discussed why this was useful, then took home their plants with a care sheet. The Pollinator to Pantry puzzle showed the route food takes from when it is pollinated to the time it lands on the table. Finally, children planted the cover crop alfalfa in the Growing Garden and learned how cover crops add nutrients back into the soil.

Farmers’ market demonstrations – Every other week for a total of ten times during the summer in 2011 and 2012 the Garden hosted a Sunday farmers’ market with 10-12 vendors. At each market a farmer gave a demonstration twice that day on a certain subject in his or her expertise related to sustainable agriculture. The 2011 topics included: soil prep basics, companion planting, pasture-raised meat, beekeeping basics, the importance of plant diversity, role of pollinators, backyard chickens, extending the growing season, and backyard composting. The ten 2012 topics included some repeats as well as new topics: chickens, beekeeping, composting, and companion planting, as well as pests, cover crops, seed saving, solar power basics (based on products purchased through the SARE grant), farmstead cider, and aquaponics. Visitors gathered at a designated tent for the approximately 15-minute demonstration, after which farmers answered questions from the audience.

Website – Since receiving the SARE grant, the Garden has included information and resources related to sustainable agriculture both online and in print pieces. Recent blog topics such as resolving to “go organic” in the garden in the new year, seed saving methods, and tomato eco-tips added to past information on eco-friendly gardening, creating pollinator habitat, seed starting indoors, planning a vegetable garden, and more. In both years, monthly e-newsletters included a monthly plant “check list” and tips from the Garden’s Plant Information department; many of these included sustainable growing methods for vegetables. The newsletters mentioned activities related to sustainable agriculture, including classes and certificates, farm dinners, edibles festivals, and more. It also featured special “Smart Gardener” articles on topics such as peppers and harvesting, among others. Sustainable gardening is a common theme on the Garden’s Facebook page. The most recent example included starting an organic vegetable garden in a small space, growing cool season vegetables, and videos of Garden staff featured on local news to discuss “green” gardening.

School classes and WCH mini-courses – In 2011 the Garden offered two classes related to sustainable agriculture: the four-series family-friendly “Let’s Grow Together” class and the one-time class on Organic Gardening. In the former, families designed a 32-square-foot raised bed garden and met through the season to learn different techniques. The latter provided participants with fundamentals, including reasons behind these methods, the basics of sustainable plant nutrition and pest management, and a discussion on organics from a retail consumer perspective. In 2012 this class was again offered under the name “The Sustainable Garden.” Two additional classes—“Vegetable Gardens: Plant Now for Next Year’s Harvest” and “Raising Backyard Chickens”—were also offered. The Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture training program also offered small, half-day mini-courses in 2011 and 2012; 2012 topics included crop planning, seed starting, composting, and cooking with local produce, the last two offered in conjunction with Mercy Hospital.

Farm field trips – In 2011 participants were given a tour of Heritage Prairie Farm and an accompanying talk on the farmer’s sustainable methods. This past year participants toured Loyola University’s Retreat and Ecology Campus as well as W&M Land Corp farm. Participants toured the student-led farm on the 100-acre campus, learning about the sustainable agriculture techniques—both ancient and high tech—employed in the upkeep of the garden, orchard, and compost and bee operations. Participants harvested some of the sustainable produce and then brought it to resident chef Scott Commings, who offered an heirloom tomato tasting and prepared a delicious meal through a cooking class demonstration. At W&M Land Corp, farmer David Woodruff showed off his farm and the practices he uses, including cover cropping and high tunnels.

Farm dinners – Six farm dinners prepared by chef Cleetus Friedman were held in 2011 and 2012 at Fruit & Vegetable Garden. A Wisconsin or Illinois farmer was featured at each of the 2011 dinners: one each from McCluskey Brothers Organic Farm (beef and cheese), River Valley Ranch (mushrooms), and Heritage Prairie Farm (vegetables and honey). In 2012 the River Valley Ranch farmer participated again, as did two Illinois producers: Faith’s Farm (meat) and Wind Ridge Herb Farm (herbs). In both years participants in Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest (GYF/WCH), the Garden’s urban agriculture programs, were also present. Dinners featured the farmer’s products as well as produce from the two programs. Diners had the chance to talk to the farmer during cocktails and the multi-course meal, tour Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and hear from the farmer and GYF/WCH participants as they ate. Participants were impressed by the beauty and bounty of Fruit & Vegetable Garden as they learned how the Garden grows edibles sustainably.

Open farm days – In 2012 five open houses at urban farms showcased these training programs for youth and young adults and informed community members about sustainable gardening. The events were advertised to the Chicago Botanic Garden community, residents of the urban farm neighborhood, and farmers’ market attendees. At the open houses, visitors were given tours of the farms by program participants, who explained their growing techniques and adeptly answered questions. Visitors were then offered lunch prepared by the participants with produce fresh from the gardens. They also had the opportunity to buy fresh, organic produce and take home a free seedling to plant in their own backyards.

Research conclusions:

Over the past two years, 1.9 million people visited the Chicago Botanic Garden. Many of these individuals visited Fruit & Vegetable Garden and/or were somehow engaged in the Garden’s message about sustainable and organic agriculture. Observation of visitors in Fruit & Vegetable Garden showed that many were engaged by the ephemeral signs or horticulture intern and appreciated the opportunity to learn. These “gentle touch” opportunities allowed the Garden to reach numerous general visitors who happened upon the offerings during their visit, rather than other more informed individuals who sought out the Garden for sustainability information through classes or targeted events. The interns who worked in the city were also able to reach underserved individuals and introduce them to organic produce and sustainable methods of gardening. One focus group participant stated that she takes pictures of the ephemeral signs in order to remember the valuable information later. Another person stated that, as a result of seeing the sign about the solar powered system, she looked up the installation company (Habi-Tek) and did some research and is now taking action to implement similar measures in her home.

Over two years in another broad-based initiative, the free family drop-in programs, approximately 8,600 people participated in activities designed to teach children some basic premises of plants and agriculture. Because the audience for the family drop-in programs consisted mainly of children, staff implemented a simple evaluation measure. Children were asked to rate the class by choosing a colored marble—blue for “thumbs up” and yellow for “thumbs down.” An average of 98% of participants gave a positive response in 2011 and 2012.

For the farmers’ market demonstrations, the shifted times in 2012 (later in the morning and earlier in the afternoon) seemed to appeal to visitors more, but the summer’s record high temperatures may have countered this improvement, as the 1pm sessions were less well attended. In 2012, 170 people engaged with rural farmers through sustainable farming demonstrations for a combined total of 341 over the grant period. The most popular demonstration focused on raising backyard chickens, with the second most popular one covering beekeeping basics. In 2012, 49 people responded to a follow up survey. For 86% of responders, this was their first market demo. A total of 100% said that they learned new techniques, and 81% said they would use this information at home.

The School classes and field trip together served 174 individuals in 2011 and 2012. Evaluations show that, on average, students were highly satisfied with their experience, giving the classes the highest scores possible regarding content and quality. Of the 37 evaluation respondents, 78% indicated that they “strongly agreed” that they “learned organic gardening techniques they would use at home,” with the remainder stating that they “agreed.” In addition, 68% and 28% strongly agreed and agreed (respectively) that they “will purchase supplies with sustainability in mind.” Only one person disagreed that “as a result of this class, I place greater value on organically produced food.” One focus group participant stated about the field trip experience, “I had no idea that the certification for ‘organic’ was so rigorous!” and that she felt more informed as a result. In addition, the success of the School’s new classes has prompted the Garden to start a new six-class certificate course on sustainable gardening starting in 2013. Each class, open to anyone at any point but encouraged as a series, will focus on 1) general introduction, 2) water, 3) soil, 4) economic benefits of sustainable gardens, 5) material and energy usage, and 6) social impacts. The Windy City Harvest mini-courses delivered intensive, hands-on programming to 86 community members in Chicago.

The open farm days reached approximately 600 people over two years, many of these people members of food desert communities that gained access to fresh produce through the work of the urban gardens. It is anticipated that all the individuals that took home organic kale seedling starts from the open houses planted them and participated in the gardening process.

Economic Analysis

The economic impact of this educational grant is difficult to quantify due to the many different methods used, ranging from broad-based single-interactions to more in-depth experiences. Many of the people who were engaged through targeted initiatives indicated that they would in the future participate in a sustainable agriculture economy, either through the purchase of sustainable gardening materials (non-synthetic fertilizer, vermicomposting kits, rain barrels, etc.), participation in farmers’ markets, or higher estimation and purchase of sustainably produced food. These people will likely buy goods that reflect the new information gained through the Garden program. Still others might take the very first step into gardening by buying seeds or seedlings and planting their first herbs or vegetables in a container garden, potentially influenced to use sustainable methods through the sign they saw at the Garden or conversation with a horticulture intern. The children who learned about pollinators, companion planting, and cover crops in drop-in programs may grow into the next generation of informed consumers, gardeners, or even farmers. The Garden’s efforts to reach its many visitors about sustainable agriculture have been multiplied due to the SARE grant, and the potential economic implications have grown in parallel.

Farmer Adoption

This section does not apply to this grant.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

All of the grant-funded activities focused on outreach. The Garden’s website and blog “published” information on sustainable agriculture for virtual visitors. A press release informing the public about the grant was picked up by one news publication (attached in "introduction" section).

Project Outcomes


Areas needing additional study

This section does not apply to this grant.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.