The GardenWorks Project defines a community garden as any place where people garden in a group setting – schools, neighborhoods, businesses. We wish to provide community gardeners with inspiration, education, and support so that you can start your gardens and maximize your harvests.
Explore Community Gardens' Impacts
It’s called the “World Community Garden”. And, the name might surprise you for being located in Wheaton. But, it fits. This community garden at the Marian Park Mercy Housing site is home to 14 gardeners from 7 countries, speaking 7 native languages and growing varieties not often found in your typical grocery store.
The GardenWorks Project began a partnership with the Marian Park community in 2017 with the installation of a 5 bed system intended to serve low income and elderly residents desiring to grow their own produce and, according to Resident Service Coordinator, Bethany Atchison, “empower and nourish bodies and souls.” “Our community has a large population of refugee families that have moved often during their first years here in the United States. It is a permanent residence with the opportunity to garden, which is often the first time since they have been at home. Gardening gives them something familiar in a very foreign country.” The program has since grown, expanding the site to 14 beds at two locations on the Mercy Housing-owned campus.
Each GardenWorks Project garden site is assigned a volunteer lead to guide the gardeners through the process and support them throughout their growing journey. After several years coaching individual families, Lisa was thrilled for the opportunity to become a lead at Marian Park’s community gardens. As the spring season began, so did her relationship with the garden residents. “One of my favorite ways to get to know someone is to ask them what they like to grow and what they like to eat. The stories the residents shared about some of their favorite vegetables and how they like to prepare and eat them were full of wisdom.” A gardener from Africa taught Lisa and the other gardeners that a plant thought to be a weed was actually African spinach, a prized delicacy in her culture, and were planted with purpose, as were sweet potato vines and their edible leaves.
GardenWorks recognizes that food is important, not only for physical health, but their mental and emotional well being. Food connects us to each other and our family history. “We do our best to honor the significance food has in someone’s life and cater to cultural palatability” notes Executive Director, Jeannie Iseman. GardenWorks sources seeds for specific vegetables at client request, such as a special variety of eggplant for Sarah, which reminded her of Liberia, which can be eaten as raw fruit. “Volunteers like Lisa help us honor these needs of our clients”, Jeannie notes, “by growing special requested varieties at home from seed, so that we can provide garden-ready seedlings to our participants”.
The gardeners at the “World Community Garden” have honored the name by expanding the benefits of their garden into the community. They share produce, cooking tips, recipes, and even finished dishes with their neighbors and even with their community food pantry. They share tools, seedlings, plants, vegetables, and advice with one other, Marian Park staff, and interested residents. They introduce the community to a variety of different varieties of vegetables and growing techniques. Their neighbors at St Francis High School – volunteer students from the Ministry team – have also come to help them refresh their garden beds.
Throughout this year’s growing season, different people would visit with Lisa at the gardens. “One time, someone insisted on sharing a few of their beautiful tomatoes with me. Another time, I talked about the collard greens that a resident remembered from her childhood. Yet another time, a resident shared with me how she met an “Auntie” from her home country who was fascinated with the sweet potato vines growing in her garden bed, and how she shared them out of respect.” Lisa got to hear how they were able to share some of the produce with their adult children when they visited, how neighbors who might not have previously known each other were now sharing green tomatoes to pickle. We talked about which okra was too far gone to eat, but was almost ready to be harvested for seed, how the eggplant was the kind a resident remembered from her country, and how excited she was to save the seeds and try to grow them again next year.
The World Community Garden has opened up a world of possibility for this community. It’s brought these gardeners joy and pride, helped build connections and relationships, fostered dignity and a sense of empowerment. “Even now, as the growing season winds down”, Lisa notes, “I feel a sense of community created by a few wooden boxes and piles of soil, a community I am so grateful to have been a small part of.” As we prepare the gardens for winter, we are already looking forward to next season. We invite you to join us – volunteer at a community garden and see what worlds open up for you, too.
Lori connected with The GardenWorks Project in the fall of 2020. She had heard about the organization and its gardening program through the Birth to Three Program in West Chicago, and decided to submit an application.
At first, Lori’s family was approved for a GardenWorks Project balcony box, but they were excited to learn that, without access to land, her family was eligible to receive a space at a GardenWorks community plot near her home.
Even while processing changes, the process felt seamless for Lori.. “GardenWorks was really flexible, accessible, and easy to work with.”
It wasn’t until last summer, though, that Lori and her now two-and-a-half-year-old son enjoyed a full season of watching plants grow. He delighted in helping his mom take care of it, too.
“In a little two-year-old way, he takes his watering very seriously,” Lori said. “Something about him picking the tomatoes himself makes introducing vegetables easier, having him more willing to eat vegetables because he’s participating in it.”
He even eats Swiss chard and kale – with cheese, of course – in his scrambled eggs.
Before they grew it, they had never tried chard before. It was not something Lori even considered buying at the grocery store in case he did not like it.
“I’m not going to potentially waste money on something he’s not going to like or eat,” she said. “Because we watched it grow throughout the summer, he sampled it willingly and we both like it!”
Being in the community plots, the young family had the chance to get to know other gardeners and learn from them at a time when most people were indoors and craving community during the pandemic.
“It was so wonderful just to have a place to go that was outdoors, among others, but also felt safe,” Lori said.
According to the West Chicago resident, gardening is an accessible way to teach her son valuable life skills and instill values like patience, flexibility, gentleness and respect for the Earth.
“I think that if everyone took care of the earth around them, then the earth we are in contact with would be better cared for,” she reflects. “We can invest ourselves in the earth AND have delicious vegetables at the end!”
In a world of instant gratification, where groceries can be ordered without even going to the store, we have somewhat lost our connection to our food. “Our gardeners not only get delicious fresh produce, but can rebuild their connection to the earth and their food – like Lori’s son who now eats kale and chard!” says Jeannie Iseman, The GardenWorks Project Executive Director.
Between the flourishing veggies, household savings and the lessons imparted on her son, Lori wholeheartedly recommends GardenWorks.
“It’s a wonderful experience, you save money, it’s relaxing. I’m taking care of other people, animals, plants. It makes you feel kind, reflect on yourself in a positive way.”
During the 2021 growing season, Lisle Township Community Garden harvested and donated 1,100 pounds of fresh produce to The Lisle Township Food Pantry.
Founded in 2012 by caring community members, the garden was planted to supplement the fresh produce offered at Lisle Township Food Pantry right next door. Community members accessing the pantry for grocery assistance wanted more produce, but it did not have enough to offer regularly.
“Fresh produce is the number one thing people want,” said Charles Biggins, food pantry director. “Customers are looking for plant-based diets to fight health issues.”
According to a groundbreaking study by United Way, more than one-third of households in DuPage County do not earn enough to afford their most basic needs, forcing them to make difficult decisions.
With such tight budgets, it can be difficult to afford higher-quality and specialty grocery items to help some people manage diet-related diseases or just maintain their preferred diets.
The fresh produce harvested at The Lisle Township Community Garden would add more variety and fresher options for the 500 families that Lisle Township Food Pantry serves monthly.
By 2017, though, the garden was overgrown and neglected. Chairwoman Paula Garcia decided to take over the garden herself.
The GardenWorks Project donated cedar planks, soil and compost for eight raised beds. After clearing out four-foot-tall weeds and rototilling the soil to prepare for planting, the garden was once again ready to start producing fresh produce for the Lisle community.
“The Lisle Community Garden was one of the first projects we supported when we launched our Community Garden Grant Program,” said Jeannie Iseman, executive director of GardenWorks. “They have had a direct impact on food access by increasing the amount of fresh produce available for those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.”
Four years after this renewal, the garden harvests about 50 pounds of fresh produce three times a week for the Lisle Township Food Pantry.
“Food access is something everyone should have a right to,” said Garcia. “We want to make sure that our community has that.”
Combined with the donated food from local grocery stores, customers can fill their fridges and pantries and feel a little less stressed about their budgets for the month.
The items grown vary from year to year. The garden originally started growing kale and swiss chard, but when many people politely declined it, they cut back and started to grow more eggplants and sweet potatoes.
This collaboration with the community ensures that people have access to foods they are familiar with, especially if they did not grow up in the United States.
For many immigrants, finding fresh produce items that meet their cultural and religious needs can be difficult. Over the years, Garcia said, they have learned what people want.
“We had someone point out the sweet potato vines and tell us they are a delicacy in her home country,” Garcia said. “We don’t throw away the persling, either, because it can be used in dips and other recipes.”
Some of the other produce items that the garden grows include:
- Swiss chard
- Sugar snap peas
- White cucumbers
- Perennial strawberry patch
- Sweet potatoes
- Hot peppers
- Green and banana peppers
A group of 14 volunteers split into two shifts a day throughout the growing season to maintain it. They water, weed, check on and even talk to the plants. Over the years, as the garden yield has gone up, more people have wanted to give back.
The Lisle Service Corps awarded the garden a grant that helped pay for the fence. The local Eagle Scout Troop visited the garden in 2021 and installed that fence. The local Girl Scout Troop has also been a frequent visitor for various volunteering opportunities.
“The community has been very involved and very helpful,” said Garcia.
Ultimately, the garden has been a huge help for the pantry to help meet the customers’ fresh produce needs, especially during the pandemic. As inflation reaches 9.2% in DuPage County, and lower-income households stretch their resources even farther, the 2022 season will be mean just as much to the customers visiting Lisle Township.
“We provide people with stability,” Biggins said. “Food is important for people to thrive.”
Support Your Community Garden
Community Garden Supplies
Each community garden project has receive the following:
- 4 handmade, 4’ x 8’ x 8” cedar raised-bed frames along with soil and compost
- 20 free seed packets
- Discounted seedlings at our Spring Seedling Sale (May 16th, West Chicago)
- 20% off additional raised-bed garden frames available for sale at our Resource Center
- Free attendance to all GardenWorks Project educational offerings
If you are already a community gardener and want to get more engaged in the greater community network, join our Facebook page, Grow DuPage Community Garden Network today.
Starting 2017, The GardenWorks Project began supporting community gardeners with their local projects, offering resources and materials to support their vision. Since 2017, The GardenWorks Project has supported the following organizations:
garden grant Partners
- Christ the Servant Church (Woodridge)
- Compass Church (Bolingbrook)
- College of DuPage (Glen Ellyn)
- Elmhurst College (Elmhurst)
- Gary Memorial United Methodist Church (Wheaton)
- Horizon Elementary School (District U-46) (Hanover Park)
- Madison Elementary School (Lombard)
- Mercy Housing (Wheaton)
- Park View Elementary School-Lombard (Lombard)
- Whittier Elementary School (Downers Grove)
- Winfield Community United Methodist (Winfield)
The GardenWorks Project partners with 40 area food pantries and social service organizations to identify clients who are both in need of food assistance and want to grow their own food. We are proud to partner with the following organizations:
Sorted by Location
Community Garden Resources
Donate Produce for Pantries
According to the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau, 42.2 million Americans are living in food insecure households, including 13.1 million children. Food pantry clients are at the highest risk for inadequate intake of fruits and vegetables, as the non-perishable foods that fill the shelves do not provide the nutrients of fresh produce. In order to improve food access in our community, The GardenWorks Project emphatically encourages home and community gardeners to donate excess harvest to food pantries.
There are approximately 42 million home and community gardeners in the U.S., with estimates of 11.47 billion pounds of excess produce annually. Based on estimates that individuals should consume 415 pounds of vegetables per year, the excess produce that can be donated by gardeners could potentially provide vegetables for over 27.5 million people. Home gardeners in DuPage County can make a difference by expanding their gardens for the purpose of donating their extra produce to a local food pantry.
Increasing yields is simple with the resources provided by the GardenWorks Project Food Growers Network. We offer our members access to gardening tools, seeds, books, and discounts on seedlings and raised bed garden frames.
When you find yourself with extra produce throughout the year, consider donating to your local food pantry. Your produce can inspire more growers and provide healthy food for the 74,000 food insecure in DuPage County. Any amount of produce is helpful and needed.
Related reading: Ahmed, Selena and Byker Shanks, Carmen. Stop Wasting Food: Ending Hunger by Donating Excess Garden Produce. Ampleharvest.org
- The best time to harvest is in the morning before veggies heat up too much.
- For leafy greens, pull off damaged or yellowed leaves at harvest. Submerge them in cool water to remove heat shortly after harvest to prevent wilting.
- If harvesting more than 12 hours before you plan to make a delivery, see chilling storage tips below.
- Not all produce should be washed after harvest, see the guide below.
- Rule of thumb for produce quality: donate produce that you would eat. Some holes and light damage is okay; no bugs.
- Wash (if needed) and refrigerate: All greens, bok choi, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, leeks, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, parsnips, beans, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash
- Wash but don’t chill: Potatoes, sweet potatoes (dry thoroughly and store in dark, dry place)
- Don’t wash, do refrigerate: Peas, corn, okra
- Don’t wash or refrigerate: Tomatoes, garlic, onions
- Contact the pantry in your area to ask the days/hours that they accept donations.
- If possible, bundle produce into 1 pound bags or rubber band in 1 pound bunches. Loose produce is welcome at most places as well, call first to check.
- Please deliver produce in a clean bin, most pantries will have a bin to transfer it into upon arrival.
- Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you donated, and to what pantry. It helps us to have an idea of how much produce gets donated from folks in the GardenWorks Food Growers Network.
- Ask to volunteer at the pantry if you’d like!
Check out our more comprehensive Resource Guide on Harvesting and Donating Produce!
Other Community Garden Grants & Education
The community gardening movement continues to grow, and The GardenWorks Project would like all groups in our region to be well-equipped with all they need to succeed. Below is a list of other grants and educational sites that support the community gardening effort nation-wide:
- Project Orange Thumb
- Home Depot Community Impact Grants
- Captain Planet Foudation
- Carton 2 Garden Contest
- Youth Garden Grant
- Farm to School Grant
- Annie’s Grants for Gardens
- Scott’s Miracle Grow GRO1000 Grant
- The Kitchen Community’s Learning Garden
- Lowe’s Toolbox for Education
- Seeds of Change Grant
- Whole Kids Extended Learning Garden Grant
- Whole Kids School Gardens Grant
- Green Thumb Challenge Grant
- USDA Farm to School Grant Program
- Katie’s Krops
- Jamba Juice Garden Grant Program
- Yard Care Life- Gardening with Kids
The GardenWorks Project is just one of many area organizations involved in the fight to end hunger and/or support the sustainable food movement.
Information about Obtaining Seeds and Plants with SNAP
Community Hunger Network – A network of emergency food providers working to provide quality food and nutrition to those in need. Includes a list of all food pantries in DuPage County.
DuPage County Community Gardens – A comprehensive list of community gardens in DuPage County.
Gardening Resource for Kids – Want to get your children more involved in gardening? Check out our resource on how to get your children excited about getting out to the garden!