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Wednesday, January 27, 2016
As reported by Heather Punke, Well Community: Chicago’s North Side
This is the first installment in a three-part series profiling community gardeners from the Peterson Garden Project.
It’s just a four-by-eight foot box of soil near Lawrence Avenue. But for Lincoln Square resident Jim Javenkoski, the raised bed garden is a memorial where he can think about his late mother Mary, who passed away in May following a brief but intense battle with cancer.
“Our garden is a place of comfort for me, at a time when I really need it,” Javenkoski said.
Javenkoski’s mother was an occasional gardener who loved good food, especially fresh vegetables. The plot his family tends at the Global Garden location of the Peterson Garden Project—filled with a variety of plants including fingerling potatoes, tomatoes, beans, peppers, basil, collards, broccoli, cucumbers and more—is now a place where her spirit lives on. It is also a place for her grandsons, four-year-old twins Gavin and Jackson, to learn about gardening and her life.
“I named it ‘Grandma’s Garden’ so our young sons can remember her in a kid-sized space that is alive with blossoms, bees, worms, vines and leaves,” Javenkoski said. “When we water the garden or harvest something, both of the boys will periodically ask me, ‘Grandma’s very happy?’ It’s an innocent but thoughtful question. So, they know what this place is all about.”
One of the plants growing in Grandma’s Garden has a direct connection to its namesake. Watermelon was the last solid food that Javenkoski’s mother ate while she was a patient at Agrace HospiceCare in Fitchbur g, Wisconsin. The fruit was a thoughtful gesture by his sister-in-law Jan, who knew it would be refreshing and easy for her to eat.
Across the street from the hospice, Javenkoski happened to run into two chef friends who were tending a production garden and transplanting heirloom Picnic Watermelon seedlings. They offered a seedling to Javenkoski, who carried it to his mom’s room and displayed the tiny plant among the floral arrangements that had been sent by family and friends. A few days later, he transported the seedling to his home in Chicago and then planted it in Grandma’s Garden shortly after his mother passed away.
“That watermelon plant sprouted several long, leafy vines which at one point covered nearly half of our garden. A few blossoms emerged on the vines and one of them became a melon,” Javenkoski said, explaining that the plant, blossoms and fruit were symbolic and a connection back to where his mom spent her last few days.
“For me, the most meaningful moments of gardening this summer was seeing the boys run from our car to our garden plot, eagerly checking how much the watermelon had grown since our last visit. I loved the sound of excitement in their voices as they shouted, ‘Look, Dad!’ while gently patting the melon,” he said.
In early September, Javenkoski and his sons harvested the single fruit produced by the plant—a seven-pound watermelon. The fruit was sweet and refreshing, but the taste was superceded by something even more significant to Javenkoski’s family: the heirloom seeds.
After enjoying every bite of the juicy melon, Javenkoski and his family carefully saved more than 400 seeds from the watermelon.
“My mom’s spirit is directly linked to this fruit so I want it to endure, as well,” he said.
They dried and stored the seeds, and hope to grow seedlings in years to come.
“I’m thinking the boys could learn a bit about business and benevolence by setting-up a watermelon stand, with all of the proceeds going to Mom’s memorial fund at Agrace HospiceCare,” he said.
Learning in the Garden
While Javenkoski holds both a Bachelor’s degree and a PhD in Food Science and has worked in the food manufacturing and food service industries, this year was his first experience with gardening. He explained that edible gardening has filled an important gap in his understanding of the local food system, and more importantly, a learning opportunity that he’s been able to share with his sons.
Peterson Garden Project—through its seven community gardens, classes and demos—has given him and other rookie gardeners (a.k.a. “Grewbies”) an easy way to participate in a fun, social setting.
“Community gardening is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding learning experiences I’ve had,” he said. “During most of our daily visits to the garden, I greet other parents, chat with their kids and learn through conversations and by doing. We’re not just harvesting fruits, herbs and veggies; we’re harvesting knowledge, too.”
Now that he’s spent the summer with his hands in the soil, he said he cannot imagine a life without edible gardening.
“For our family, there will always be a Grandma’s Garden. Her spirit will endure through the sweet refreshment of watermelons and all of the other foods we’ll grow, harvest and enjoy with gratitude at our dinner table, just as she would have done.”
For more information about the Peterson Garden Project and how to get involved, visit their website at http://petersongarden.org/about.