Deep Roots

In South Shore, a few hundred yards from Lake Michigan, is a secret garden. Its fences are overgrown with trumpet vines and morning glories, sheltering dozens of individual plots from the noise of the nearby roads. This is the Rainbow Beach Victory Garden, over sixty years old and, as such, Chicago’s oldest community garden.

Last weekend, the Chicago Architecture Foundation let the secret out and the public in as part of its Open House Chicago festival. Though it was quite late in the season, the garden was still lush and green; members had spent their Sunday afternoon steadily tending their plots.

Newlyweds Madeleine and Ben Walsh have had a garden here for three years now. Madeleine, who grew up on the South Side, decided to learn how to garden partly just to get some fresh air and spend some time away from electronic distractions.

“It’s just you and nature and a lot of hard work,” she said, using a shovel to overturn a garden bed that she and her husband were preparing for the off-season. “It connects us to the natural life cycle.”

The Walshes maintain a “full size” plot—around twenty-five by thirty feet—though they started with a half size, and attribute their success to the gardeners around them who have taught them the ropes. When a garden dates back to the 1940s, people tend to come and go. But “institutional memory gets passed around,” says Madeleine. More experienced gardeners lead by example and help newer gardeners put down roots.

Most people discover Rainbow Beach by word of mouth, and some have stayed for over twenty years. Just off the main path is a memorial plot, under the care of the entire garden, for those members who have passed away. The garden community as a whole also plants and maintains a bright, central pathway, this year edged with red salvias and Hawaiian blues. The colors bring to mind the patriotic roots of “victory gardens” in the 1940s, when they were strongly encouraged amongst American families in order to reduce dependence on industrial food production and supplement rationing.

According to Summer Alexander, a garden member and one of the open house volunteers, there are people who are gardeners and people who are farmers, but “everybody is creative in their own way.” Alexander let me see her plot, on the northern edge of the garden. She has grown flowers, herbs, perennials, vegetables, and more in the three years since she started.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have a yard where you could grow flowers,” she told me. “I told myself that when I had my own house, I’m going to grow me a rose bush. Now I have thirteen of them. They all have names.”

Before I left, she gave me a handful of rosehips to make tea with, and a single white rose named Queen Elizabeth.

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