Wicker Park garden club grows out of community

Standing in front of the Westfall Gardens in Wicker Park in  January, it is hard to imagine the garden in full bloom, when  visitors flock from the city and suburbs.

But the display doesn't tend itself. A half-dozen core volunteers and a crew of gardening students give hours of their time to make the 8,000 square feet of flora spectacular.

Doug Wood is coordinator of volunteers, education and arts programming for the Wicker Park Garden Club, a not-for-profit organization started in 1984. The Garden Club tends the gardens in Wicker Park and hold events year round.

Membership is open to anyone who attends club functions or participates, tending park gardens, serving on a committee, fundraising or teaching classes, Wood says.

"Each year there are about 800 people who participate in one of these ways."

Member and workshop instructor Richard Tilley, 84, says he believes the gardening program has helped decrease crime in the park by building a sense of pride and community.

"I've lived in the neighborhood for 30 years," he says, "and the park used to be not so safe. I think the garden has had some effect on turning that around."

Tilley teaches classes in gardening and tool sharpening, and keeps his own garden as well.

"Gardening keeps you young," he says. "I'm always planning, always anticipating the future."

During winter months, the club hosts lectures, workshops and a book review series.

The season kicks off in November with a day of decorating the fountain and twelve urns in Wicker Park.

Members also offer children's classes in plant propagation, garden design and tending as part of the "Wicker Park Kids Grow" project.

Members are now gearing up for Spring; a season of tending the gardens, a task that even beginners are welcome to do.

"Often we are contacted by people who want to start gardening--we offer them classes and the opportunity to tend the park gardens," says Wood, who was part of the club's revitalization efforts in 2002.

A 10-week garden design class gives members a chance to learn to design their own gardens while gaining hands-on experience tending to the park gardens.

Urban gardeners can learn to get the most out of small spaces, Wood says.

"There's a lot of work you can do in containers, or 'growing boxes,'" he says. "Since most people don't have soil readily available, you have to adapt your garden to city living."

Urban gardening trends include indoor potted gardening and a focus on native plants. Rooftop gardens are also popular, he said.

"We have worked with many neighborhood organizations and garden clubs around the city," says Wood. 

These include the chamber of commerce, the Wicker Park Committee, the Parkways Foundation, the Friends of the Park and the Chicago Park District. The club also collaborates with the University of Illinois Master Gardeners, GreenCorps and GreenNet.

Wood says the organization's broad community network is a key to its success.

"Everything we do is for the development of the park and the neighborhood," he says. "It's a unified effort."

For more information and a list of upcoming events, visit the Wicker Park Garden Club's website.