Sep 10, 2021

Home Gardener enters her third season with the GardenWorks Project

everyone deserves fresh produce

Lewis has been gardening with The GardenWorks Project for three years at Bridge Communities as part of the organization's Home Gardening Program, which has built 525 home gardens and improved access to fresh produce for 2,094 individuals since 2012.


 

Denise Lewis makes a beeline towards her garden. The screeching of a train's wheels echoes over the tall wood fence that surrounds the garden area.

Lewis bends down to get a closer look at her compost. Garlic, coffee grounds and onions peek out of the soil that fills her 4’ x 8’ raised bed. Satisfied, she rises and begins to weed. 

After pulling a few weeds, Lewis walks around her garden, running her hand through the plants. She searches for produce that is ready to harvest. She planted a variety of plants this year: peppers, tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, cilantro, mustard greens, lettuce, chives and basil.  

Lewis has been gardening with The GardenWorks Project for three years at Bridge Communities as part of the organization's Home Gardening Program, which has built 525 home gardens and improved access to fresh produce for 2,094 individuals since 2012.

Bridge Communities and GardenWorks partnered in 2016 to build gardens through their transitional housing program for women. Megan DeAngelis, manager of nutrition services, has helped connect all of the participants with GardenWorks. Bridge transforms the lives of homeless families through a variety of programs, including housing and schooling to transition residents into a self-sufficient lifestyle. 

“The relationship with Bridge is really cohesive because we connect at their transitional housing program sites to provide gardens and food growing training,” said Jeannie Iseman, executive director of The GardenWorks Project.

Every Home Gardening family receives a 4’ x 8’ raised bed garden, soil, compost, seedlings, seeds and gardening tools, and access to educational resources to grow a successful garden. 

Lewis taps into what her grandparents taught her growing up. They had a small lot, about 1,152 square feet, where she spent much of her childhood.

“My grandparents grew corn at their place in the city,” she said. “There was a whole farm in the backyard.”

Lewis grew a variety of vegetables her first year, but tomatoes dominated her garden. When she harvested them, she had plenty of extras to pass around. She made sure to give a few to her godmother and a member of her church.

She grew the same plants in her second year. Once again, the beautiful tomatoes were fruitful, and she was able to give bags full of leftover fresh produce to other Bridge residents. 

Lewis likes to grow everything. She grew lettuce for the first time last year and said it was the best salad she ever had. 

“I loved the freshness,” she said. “It was better than any fancy restaurant that I’ve ever been to.”

Now in her third year, Lewis has become a confident and ambitious gardener. She is growing many plants this year, and visits her garden almost every day to weed and water. 

Most of the time, her son Caleb will come out and garden with her. Once they have tended to their garden, they will go around and assist new gardeners in their first year of the Home Gardening Program at Bridge. Lewis will help answer any questions the new gardeners might have. She helps weed and water and tame the wild vines and offshoots of the plants that grow outside of the plots. 

“Having a Home Gardener like Denise is the dream!” said Amanda Bryant, program manager for The GardenWorks Project. “She’s enthusiastic to learn and more importantly, always willing to share her new gardening skills with new families entering the program.” 

Lewis mentioned that the gardens have built a tight-knit community at Bridge. Gardeners have forged bonds through stories of grief and celebrations while they garden.  

“Gardening is a community,” she said. “You meet people and build relationships.”

Lewis hopes to continue these relationships as well as gardening at her house when she moves out of Bridge Communities. She plans on installing a raised bed similar to the ones that The GardenWorks Project uses. 

In the meantime, she will continue to learn as much as she can from the home gardening program and pass that knowledge along to other Bridge residents, hoping to empower them to grow their own gardens. 

“Gardening takes my mind away from other things,” she said. “I have peace when I garden.” Some people do yoga, I garden.”

 

Rachel Huser is a senior double majoring in corporate communication and digital journalism with a minor in social media at Dominican University. Originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, she came to Chicago to explore the Windy City and play collegiate soccer. She is an avid reader, hammock lounger, and lover of the outdoors!