Translating Sustainable Agriculture to the Backyard Garden in Metropolitan Chicago

2011 Annual 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

Translating Sustainable Agriculture to the Backyard Garden in Metropolitan Chicago


In 2011 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, interpretive horticulture 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. These activities were successful in engaging visitors and conveying information on sustainable and organic growing techniques. Based on results and evaluation, some changes are planned for the grant’s second and final year of implementation.

Objectives/Performance Targets

As a result of this project in the short term, Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) visitors will:
• 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.

In the intermediate term, CBG visitors will:
• 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.

The project’s long term outcomes will be 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 CBG’s reputation as a resource for information about sustainable gardening.


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 uses organic and sustainable gardening techniques to grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, and more. Others took place around the Chicago Botanic Garden or at urban gardens or rural farms. Demonstration ideas were refined based on a fall 2009 meeting with rural farmers from the Garden’s farmer’s market.

Ephemeral signs – These hand-written chalkboard signs provided up-to-date 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: in spring, seed ordering, site-appropriate planting, no tilling; in summer, pollinators, interplanting, integrated pest management; in fall, cover crops, seed saving, season extension; and in winter: biodiversity, mulch, wildlife habitat. The sign writer created a series of signs on soil (testing, components, natural fertilizers, etc.), sustainability and what it is, and pollinators. Event-based signs reminded visitors to “meet your local farmer” and attend the demonstrations at the Sunday farmer’s market as well as to attend the “mini-demonstrations” executed by interns at Fruit & Vegetable Garden. At least one person indicated that they found out about the “Grow Together” sustainable agriculture class through an ephemeral sign. (Sign language attached)

Fruit & Vegetable Garden interpretation – While this garden already has rain barrels and a composting system, additional equipment was requested so that it could be interpreted for visitors. Biodiversity habitats were purchased in the form of bee hives (for a total of eight on the 3.8-acre garden) and bat boxes. Half of these were installed in 2011, with the remainder to be placed in 2012. The equipment needed to create a solar-powered drip irrigation system was purchased in late 2011 and installed this past month. (The purchase was delayed because of staff changes at Fruit & Vegetable Garden.) Once the tank is connected to the pump (which is already linked to the solar panels) and the pump to the garden, the system will water three raised annual beds containing 20 varieties of tomatoes. It will be interpreted for visitors through ephemeral signs and will be featured in an article in the Garden’s member magazine in 2012. The garden seeder was also purchased and will be demonstrated for visitors and class students. (Image of bee boxes attached)

Interpretive interns – In 2011 two interns from the Garden’s Windy City Harvest (WCH) urban agriculture training program assisted at Fruit & Vegetable Garden. These two women were enthusiastic in their work and readily shared with visitors the information they had gained through their six-month training program. In addition the interns prepared and presented “mini-demonstrations” in topics that interested them on five days in 2011. The subjects were integrated pest management, companion planting, composting, cover cropping, and growing berries. Poor weather lowered attendance on a few occasions, but this allowed for more enhanced interaction. Those visitors who did participate were engaged and would stay for the course of the activity, often asking questions. The interns also presented several seed saving demonstrations during the Heirloom Tomato weekend; close to 200 visitors attended these events. Building on this success, in 2012 the interns will present demos several times during high-attendance themed weekends to drive attendance. Additionally, a transportation stipend will be provided to encourage more interns to consider work at the Garden, which can host up to three individuals (most WCH interns are low-income and reside in the city, making transit out to the northern suburbs costly and difficult). (Fact sheet on intern demos attached)

Family drop-in programs – Children participated in the SARE grant through family drop-in programs held weekly at Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Four different guided activities engaged them in sustainable agriculture: Be a Farmer, I Can Compost, Parade of Pollinators, and Soil Search. In the first, children “planted” and “harvested” real root vegetables in a raised bed and designed their own gardens using clay models. The composting activity showed off worm composting systems and taught children about soil nutrients and decomposition. Next year this activity will also include companion planting. The pollinator drop-in allowed children to “play-pollinate” flowers with insect/animal puppets and explained fertilization and seed formation. The enhanced “Pollinator to Pantry” activity in 2012 will focus on the necessity of pollinators to the food we eat. In the soils class, educators talked about the differences between good and bad soil and the components of healthy soil. Cover crops will add a new element in 2012. Approximately 4,200 people participated in these free activities that were designed for children to understand the most basic premises of plants and agriculture. (Image of drop-in activity attached)

Farmers’ market demonstrations – Every other week during the summer the Garden hosted a Sunday farmer’s market with 10-12 vendors. In 2011 the farmers’ market was moved to the Esplanade, a focal space near the Garden’s entrance, which raised attendance. Twice-daily at 10am and 2pm a farmer gave a demonstration on a certain subject in his or her expertise related to sustainable agriculture. The 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. These demos were advertised in the Garden member magazine and through other outlets, such as the Local Harvest online calendar. A sign at the market entrance encouraged casual passers-by and market attendees to participate. The demos also often attracted one or two farmers from other market booths. Due to cold weather, a few demos were not well-attended, although afternoon times usually attracted more participants than the morning event. For this reason, the 2012 demos will both take place in the afternoon. (Fact sheet on farmer’s market demos attached)

Website – Throughout the past year, the Garden uploaded myriad articles and videos related to sustainable agriculture. Examples from the Garden’s video blog include such topics as eco-friendly (and money-saving) gardening, creating pollinator habitat, seed starting indoors, planning a vegetable garden, and more. Each monthly e-newsletter included a monthly plant “check list” and tips from the Garden’s Plant Information department, and many of these included sustainable growing methods for vegetables. The newsletters mentioned activities related to sustainable agriculture, including classes and certificates, farm dinners, “farm to fork” events, 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 hosting an online discussion with Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange. Photos, recipes, videos and more are also shared on Twitter and Pinterest, the latter of which the Garden recently joined to reach a new audience. (Example of videos attached)

CBG School classes and WCH mini-courses – Two classes were taught through the School of the Chicago Botanic Garden: Let’s Grow Together and Organic Gardening. The former was a family-friendly series, where participants met four times over the growing season. Fifteen people participated, including seven adults and eight children. Participants designed a 32-square-foot raised bed garden and collectively chose what vegetables to grow (at Fruit & Vegetable Garden and in their own home gardens with CBG-sourced transplants) in order to compare progress throughout the season. In 2012 this class will be reduced to three Saturdays, as registration was low in March at the time of the first class. The one-time organic gardening class provided 17 participants with the 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. Additionally monthly mini-courses related to sustainable vegetable production were offered through the Garden’s Windy City Harvest urban agriculture certificate program at a Chicago community college. The eight workshops held January through August engaged 37 people. Topics were crop planning, seed starting (spring and fall), season extension (1 and 2), container gardening, building healthy soil, and organic pest and disease control. These classes attracted diverse students from throughout the urban area. In 2012 they were again scheduled for late winter/early spring (two have already taken place) with similar subjects and will be offered on-demand to community groups for the remainder of the year. Due to increased marketing and a more established reputation, staff anticipate attracting more people in 2012 (the January and February sessions alone already served 21 people). (WCH mini-workshops description attached)

Farm field trip – Eleven individuals attended the September 21 field trip to Heritage Prairie Farm, about an hour’s drive west of Chicago. The farm manager led a tour through the farm and explained the sustainable methods used in producing the vegetables, honey, and chickens, and what precautions he takes given that the farm is surrounded by conventional growers. He discussed the farm’s connection to restaurants and their CSA-restaurant model. (Big Bowl is one of their customers, and attendees tasted the white turnip popular with that restaurant.) The tour ended with a drink and snack and visit to the farm store, where participants purchased farm products. In 2012 the Garden hopes to attract more participants through an organic farm tour at Loyola University’s Retreat and Ecology Campus, which will include harvesting produce for a meal prepared by the resident chef. After a tomato tasting, participants will visit the nearby W&M Land Corp farm to learn about crop rotation, high tunnels, and other sustainable methods.

Farm dinner – Three farm dinners were held at Fruit & Vegetable Garden in 2011; each event averaged approximately 45 participants. A Wisconsin or Illinois farmer spoke at each of the dinners: one each from McCluskey Brothers Organic Farm (beef and cheese), River Valley Ranch (mushrooms), and Heritage Prairie Farm (vegetables and honey). 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, tour Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and hear from the farmer and GYF/WCH participants as they ate. Conversations were genial and many participants professed that they learned much through the dinner and their interactions with the farmers. (Image of farm dinner attached)

Open farm day – Four open farm days were held at the Green Youth Farm and Windy City Harvest sites. A mix of program participants’ family and friends, donors, community members, and passers-by attended these four events. The Windy City Harvest open house was targeted to drive community member attendance, and program interns distributed flyers at weekly farmers’ markets and posted flyers in the vicinity. This open house was also advertised in the Garden’s member magazine. Upon their arrival, visitors were given tours of the urban 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. At the WCH open house, 150 kale starts grown in compostable pots by WCH interns and accompanied by growing instructions were distributed to attendees, who were delighted with their takeaway (another 150 were distributed at a community farmers market the following weekend). Approximately 75 people attended each open house, with a larger group of about 125-150 at the WCH location. (Image of open farm day attached)

(The system will not allow proper ordering of attachments to follow narrative.)

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Through this project, the Garden aims to interpret Fruit & Vegetable Garden’s organic and sustainable practices for its nearly 950,000 visitors. The goals are to increase visitors’ awareness, interest, and appreciation of organic and sustainable practices; increase their ability to apply these methods; and—ultimately—increase the number of people gardening in a sustainable manner and consuming sustainably-produced goods. The evaluation measures implemented in 2011 captured a sense of progress on these goals, but more ambitious efforts will be made in 2012 to achieve more detailed information. Following are some examples of 2011 evaluation strategies, measures, and changes for 2012.

In 2011, the Garden’s visitorship neared 950,000 people; many of these individuals came to Fruit & Vegetable Garden. Observation of visitors in this garden showed that many were engaged by the ephemeral signs. For example, visitors would follow the soil primer series, which consisted of a number of signs in sequence in a bed, reading each one. The sign writer interviewed visitors at random and found that interaction ranged from light (“I read this one sign because I wanted to know more about this plant”) to heavy (“My granddaughter reads every sign to me and then we discuss”). Visitors found the signs informative, although most did not express the intent to implement this knowledge at home. However, one focus group participant said, “I’m impressed because the Garden walks their talk. It’s not just talk. You actually turn out results that people can see. And I think that’s where I learn.”

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.” A total of 98% of participants gave a positive response.

Observation of the farmer’s market demonstrations showed that visitors were engaged and felt comfortable enough to ask follow up questions. In many the farmer shared additional resources or informed the audience about upcoming events. The number of participants at each demo ranged from just one individual to a high of nearly 30 people at “Beekeeping Basics.” All the surveyed individuals stated that they learned something new and that they could use this information at home.

In 2012 a web survey will be introduced to capture information from the Garden’s virtual audience. The Garden’s Facebook page now has 22,390 “fans” (compared to 4,200 in 2009), its Twitter account has 5,686 followers, and the newly joined Pinterest page has 185 followers.

A survey of School class participants showed that they were very happy with the Keep Growing course; all evaluators gave the highest marks possible. One student commented, “This was a great class. My 7-yr-old son and I really enjoyed it. The content was invaluable to us in setting up our raised garden at home.” The Organic Gardening survey feedback was less enthusiastic but still positive; nearly all respondents gave the class a four or higher (out of five) for almost all categories. The survey will be modified in 2012 to include questions related specifically to organic/sustainable growing methods. These will also be implemented for the Windy City Harvest mini-courses and field trip.

A focus group with students from the sustainable/organic gardening classes conveyed some interesting information. Participants were satisfied with the classes they took and afterward sought out additional information through books, films, or additional classes. They stated that they gained new information and used their new knowledge at home. Many stated that if they had more time they would be able to do more, and that they needed additional resources for follow up questions, but they also agreed that the classes brought about at least minimal lifestyle changes. One woman stated, “I find myself much more likely to pay more money for organics when I shop. But also, I’m very conscious of what’s in season and what isn’t in season and maybe not buying the pineapple, because I know that it came from, even if it’s organic, it still came from Argentina or something. I’m much more of a think-local, consume-local shopper.” The focus group resulted in twelve main suggestions, ranging from hosting an informal monthly gardening group to having a class on smart/efficient/time-saving ways to garden organically and sustainably. Staff are considering these elements for 2012.


Jodi Zombolo

[email protected]
Director of Events and Visitor Programs
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022
Office Phone: 8478356848
Eileen Prendergast

[email protected]
Manager of Family Programs
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022
Office Phone: 8478358363
Jill Selinger

[email protected]
Manager of Continuing Education
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022
Office Phone: 8478356849
Richard Belding

[email protected]
Fruit & Vegetable Garden Horticulturist
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022
Office Phone: 8478356825
Kristen Webber

[email protected]
Director of Interpretive Programs
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022
Office Phone: 8478356851
Angela Mason

[email protected]
Director of Community Gardening
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022
Office Phone: 8478358254