“Learning together in the garden, and kitchen, does much more than put fresh, nutritious food on the table. It helps build stronger communities, connect us to cultural heritage, improve public health and create a more sustainable, resilient city.” – LaManda Joy

LaManda Joy wants to inspire everyone she meets to grow their own food (seriously). She is an author, national speaker and master gardener who was voted the “Best Urban Farmer in Chicago” by readers of the Chicago Reader in 2013. Inspired by the World War II Victory Garden movement, Joy founded the Peterson Garden Project in 2010.

This award-winning education and community gardening program uses empty urban property to create short-term organic gardens where thousands of people have the opportunity to learn how to grow their own food. Peterson Garden Project also operates a Community Cooking School to teach people how to cook their own food.

Joy has collaborated on Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland: A Month-by-Month Guide for Beginners (2013). Earlier this year her book – Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook – was published by Timber Press.

Joy has served on the board of the American Community Gardening Association, spoken at the Library of Congress, national conferences, garden shows, festivals, libraries and has appeared on PBS and other media outlets. She appeared in the documentary Food Patriots. Her home garden, The Yarden, has been featured in local and national news outlets and is the basis for her blog, Facebook and Twitter presence.

Her rallying cry “We can grow it!” recognizes the influence of the past while invigorating the American “can-do” spirit to create a positive future.

Q: What inspired you to start the Peterson Garden Project?

LaManda in yarden_cropped copy
LaManda Joy. Image: PGG.

Joy: I had lived in Chicago for a number of years in condos or apartments. I experienced agony each spring, because I wanted to grow food and I didn’t have a place to do it. One spring, after nine years of living in small spaces, my husband and I “bought a yard with a house attached to it.” The garden we installed was organic and focused on heirloom varieties … it was – and still is – really lovely.

I was so happy and inspired that I wanted to reach out and find other food gardeners so I could have a community around this passion … and I discovered that many people wanted to learn how to grow food but few knew how so that’s when I started my blog — The Yarden — to share what I knew.

A specific piece of property in my new neighborhood was another catalyst. I joke that I had developed a medical condition called “lot lust” after putting in The Yarden — I’d see an empty lot and lust to put a garden there. This one particular empty lot near my house on Peterson Avenue had caught my eye. One day I was at the local butcher, waiting for a chicken, and saw an old photo full of World War II Victory Gardens. A few days later it dawned on me that it was the same lot I’d been driving by.

The World War II story resonated with me because I have “greatest generation” parents. Dad was in the occupying forces and my mom was a Rosie the Riveter in Los Angeles. She became a bomber door riveter on her 16th birthday. I grew up with the World War II ethos of pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps, being self-reliant … the idea that no one else is going to do it for you, so you might as well get to work.

That was the inspiration for that first garden in 2010. I thought if 20 people wanted to do it that would be cool. It ended up being the largest organic food garden in the city at the time. We knew we were onto something and the “project” part of Peterson Garden Project took hold.

PGG gardener Nebi pointing at carrots. Image: PGG.
PGG Garden Nebi. Image: PGG.

What makes us special and different from what people would consider a community garden is probably how we use space. The lot on Peterson was for sale. I knew we could never afford that lot or any other land in Chicago … land is too expensive. So I realized our focus shouldn’t be on acquiring land, but finding creative ways to partner with land owners to have places to teach people. So we decided to focus on long-term gardeners versus long-term gardens.

We come to agreements with property owners to utilize their unused space for gardens. We use a lot for a minimum of two years, we build the garden, we use the land carefully and wisely, we bring people in and educate them. And when the property owner needs the land back, we disassemble our operations and move to a new spot.

We call this concept a “Pop Up Victory Garden.” We’ve built a total of 12 over the last couple of years and currently have eight in operation. We have a total of 1,200 plots at various sites, and almost 4,000 people gardening at these sites. Most of these people are brand new gardeners or just a few years into it.

Many of our original gardeners from 2010 are now key volunteers and garden leaders. I’m so proud of them because a few years ago they knew nothing and now are teaching others in our program or elsewhere. My favorite thing is when our gardeners spin-off to help with other community gardens, school gardens, gardens they share with condo associations, etc. We’re developing a community-based pool of skills and resources … training people that not only know how to grow food but to engage others in the process.

Q: Your nonprofit, Peterson Garden, has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years. Tell us about the organization’s growth, why you think the garden message is resonating so broadly, and what your hopes are for the future.

Seed saving. Image: PGG.

Joy: I liken what people are doing today to the World War II Victory Garden efforts. Then, it was a necessity because of food shortages. Today it’s more about connecting with the outdoors, saving money, learning a skill, empowerment, teaching your children where food comes from and eating a more healthy diet. I see all these things happen around our gardening work. Everyone has a different reason — or combination of reasons — and they’re all valid.

Some people come at it from a strong food focus: they are chefs and want a tighter connection to the food they prepare. Or home cooks who feel the same way. There are so many reasons to garden. When I started the project in 2010, there was a lot of fear around the nation. We were in the recession and there was so much economic difficulty and uncertainty. There were also some major concerns about food safety – for example, there was a listeria outbreak in fresh produce. People were also interested in connecting more with locally produced food. And as our work has gone along people have learned very quickly about supporting local farmers, organic food and community-based efforts in food.

The entire gardening movement has spread like a wildfire in the past five years, in my opinion. It’s astonishing. But maybe not surprising, when you think about Victory Gardens in World War II.

Q: You’ve strongly linked cooking education with gardening work. Tell us more.

Homemade Fruit Preserves 6-27 (6)
Cooking preserves. Image: PGG.

Joy: The very first year we realized if we were going to teach people to grow their own food (and sometimes they were producing a lot of food.) There’s an obligation to help people use that food as well. People had lots of questions and didn’t know what to do with what they’d grown … how to prepare or preserve the food.

So we opened a Community Cooking School in 2014 to teach the fundamentals of cooking. We use home cooks as volunteers and peer education to teach others. That’s not something that most other organizations do. Cooking has become so professionalized that we watch it on TV versus doing it ourselves. I’m not a professional chef, but I can teach people how to prepare a good meal. We sometimes have chef instructors, but we really try to focus on home cooks. Our Tuesday “Taste Test” program is phenomenal. Home cooks with a passion for a particular food (like egg rolls or pierogies or shrimp and grits) offer a demonstration and then we share a meal. In many ways, it’s a family. And in our community – our family – we learn more about how and why food connects us.

Q: When you launched your organization, did you ever envision that so much would fall out of that work?

Joy: Yes and no. “No” in that when I first spoke to the alderman about the property, securing land seemed like such a challenge and I had no background in community engagement. But I come from a project management background in a corporate setting, so I was confident that I could organize the project in such a way that it would be sustainable. I set it up for scale and to be accessible to anyone who wanted to be part of it. That’s given it staying power – last year alone we had 1,000 volunteers dedicate 3.5 full-time employee’s worth of time. People feel very dedicated to the project. It really is one big group effort.

As you know, I was inspired by the World War II Victory Garden effort. The Victory Garden movement created massive and positive change in Chicago in a very short period of time. I knew that if we followed that model, things would work out well.

Q: What are you growing at your home?

Joy: Peter and I are in our ninth growing season at The Yarden. It’s really fun to watch him become a seasoned gardener. My dad passed away in 2013. … I was traveling a lot to Oregon to be with my mother and I was bereft. Peter took over our home garden that year and he’s been the boss ever since. I’ve been demoted to chief weeder. We have just about everything you could imagine: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, raspberries, apples, currants, sunflowers and more. Nasturtiums are everywhere … they’re my favorite. We grow greens, of course. And mostly heirlooms. It’s a really beautiful space. My dad taught me to garden … it’s been a lasting gift that I’m so happy to be able to share with others.

Q: You have a new book out. What would you like community gardeners — or aspiring gardeners — to know about this?

Joy: Peterson Garden Project introduced me to the bigger world of community gardening and the activism associated with it. I became a board member of the American Community Gardening Association and started to see how people across the nation were experiencing the same issues that I had.

And there were bigger problems of gardens failing because people weren’t focusing on the “community” part of the garden first. (Without a community you just have a big garden that requires lots of care.) And as the Peterson Garden Project succeeded, I got lots of people asking me for advice. So I worked with Timber Press to write “Start a Community Food Garden: The Essential Handbook.” It is definitely a beginner’s guide. There’s so much to a community in a garden that is unique to each group’s mission! But at least it can help new garden leaders avoid some of the pitfalls so many people encounter starting out.

Q: I’m giving you a super power. You can change one thing about the food system with that super power. What change would you make?

Joy: My superpower would be to remove the confusion in the food movement to help people really understand what information is useful and what is just scare tactics. Food should inspire joy, not fear.