I was always under the impression that the green revolution would be big and shiny, tall and turbine-y. We would know we had tipped from fossil to renewable fuels when white, three-bladed windmills lined the interstates throughout the middle of the country and Phoenix was able to generate enough solar energy to power Las Vegas.
We still wait for those signs. Although the economy is bending toward fuel that is more elemental and less detrimental, we are not a passive utopia yet. It turns out, though, that this revolution is coming from the ground up.
It’s not large utilities or regional groups who are changing our behaviors to rebalance our fuel mix. The change is coming from cities, schools, parks and recreation areas, state agencies, and, most importantly, individuals. I have the privilege of being part of a group that is cheering and, when needed, leading or funding many small Chicago-area projects aimed at planting gardens for food, soil improvement, and soaking up stormwater; re-purposing industrial and otherwise underused property as nonprofits or businesses; encouraging kids to be more involved in food growing and environmental stewardship; and convincing homeowners that what we once considered “weeds” are actually beneficial and beautiful as landscaping material.
Because of my involvement in these issues, I have the chance to visit many small projects that are making big differences. The GardenWorks Project promotes organic suburban agriculture and helps food-insecure families grow and prepare food for themselves. I have volunteered with them, but also my local organic gardening group supports them in other ways, including financially. I was able to participate in an Open Garden day this summer, where I saw two different projects that seek to bring the benefits of growing vegetables to different populations.
At Elmhurst College, I met some students who give me those happy feelings of hope for the future that seem to be in short supply lately. The Elmhurst College Sustainability & Heritage Garden (find them on Facebook) wants to encourage their fellow students and the Elmhurst community to use the living spaces around us to grow vegetables.
They had just re-started the garden this spring, and by August were surrounded by overflowing beds of tomatoes, chard, onion, and cabbage plus sunflowers and coneflowers.
They had high ambitions, many of which they’ve accomplished already, including donating food to local pantries and to the college’s food service. Getting college-grown produce into the hands of college students is a priority for them. I was jealous that this hands-dirty movement has occurred many (many!) years after I was a student.
The second garden I toured was the veterans’ garden at Cantigny Park in Winfield. Cantigny is known for many things, including its gardens. This is a non-public garden open to veterans of all branches that provides a place for them to grow their own vegetables and flowers. It’s beneficial in many ways for those who have served, but the project actually started as research into how growing food can be affected by a nearby road (a major regional artery is a few yards from the garden).
I was lucky to meet the veteran who helps run the program — lucky not only because of his service and continued good works but because he had detailed information on the container that the veterans used for growing. The Smart Pot is made of a rubberized material. Tiny holes around the pot aerate the plants and also act as stops for the roots, which then send new roots in a different direction, making the plant structure stronger.
Visits to gardens and other small-scale projects that exist to promote sustainability and self-sufficiency are great learning experiences as well as antidotes to the too-familiar feeling of overwhelming hopelessness one gets from stories of pollution, erosion, and climate devastation. If you get one tip for yourself, it was worth the time. But what you will certainly get is a greater belief in how local networks, like roots, branch out and make the whole planet stronger.