Youth Garden Grant Winner Plant Chicago (PC) is filling a gap for STEM programming on the southwest side of Chicago by providing a variety of learning opportunities including free “Closed Loop Labs” (CLL) to local schools. A nonprofit dedicated to the cultivation of local circular economies through small business support, open source research and educational workshops for K-12 students, universities, and adults, PC targets Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood (BOTY), an approximately 100-block area where residents lack access to healthy, locally grown foods. The hope is gardens will not only increase food accessibility, but also inspire and foster a sense of community in this high needs neighborhood.
Annually, Plant Chicago hosts free hands-on workshops to over 6,200 students across 8 public elementary schools and 5 high schools. They also offer these hour and half long labs to schools across Chicago for a nominal fee. Plant Chicago’s CLL workshops are aligned to Next Generation Science Standards and cover a range of topics from Native Pollinators and the Life Cycle of a Salad to Vermicomposting and Aquaponics.
Usually, these labs take place at their headquarters and in their outdoor learning garden, but with COVID-19 related school closures, Plant Chicago, like many other gardening organizations, has been forced to find creative ways to bring their educational workshops to students and teachers remotely. This spring, Plant Chicago is hosting virtual CLLs every Thursday and the nonprofit has created an educator newsletter that is being shared with all the teachers who have participated in Plant Chicago programming. Education Manager Kassies Hinrichsen says “We send them a link to a recording of the workshop and a slidedeck that they can then share with their students. We know lots of teachers are out there looking for things to do and digital content to share with their kids.” You can check out Plant Chicago upcoming events page for a full list of their virtual offerings, including both CLLs and workshops specifically aimed at educators.
Once the COVID-19 crisis is over, PC hopes to seamlessly return to in-person programming at a relatively new site; the nonprofit relocated recently and plans to use their Youth Garden Grant funds and tools to help them launch a new educational garden space. “Our new property includes an abandoned lot adjacent to our main building,” explains Hinrichsen. “We hope to build out a huglekultur garden. Hugelkultur, a German word for “hillculture” is a raised bed method of growing in layers with non-stained wood, compost, and soil. Hugelkultur gardens are perfect for locations like ours that have questionable soil health and little sunlight.”
Unfortunately, some of Plant Chicago’s plans for the new garden space have been delayed by the necessity of social distancing. “We have an extensive volunteer program and it’s a bummer to put all those volunteers who are excited to help with garden build on hold, but we need to figure out how to tackle this project in a safe, socially distant way,” says Hinrichsen. “Ultimately, the outdoor garden will consist of native plantings that will attract native pollinators, so students will be able to track and document pollinator sightings during our CLLs. We also plan on growing a variety of herbs and leafy greens to supplement different flavors for our Life Cycle of a Salad workshop.”
A wonderful example of a nonprofit working to meet the needs of their community through gardens, KidsGardening is proud to be able support the work of Plant Chicago through the Youth Garden Grant Program.