Ours is a story of how the two communities of Algonquin and Lake in the Hills came together to build vegetable gardens that feed local families in need, educate new gardeners, and provide a peaceful artistic space.
In 2012 the Algonquin Lake in the Hills Interfaith Food Pantry moved to a new home at Lake in the Hills, Illinois. The property is owned by the Village of Lake in the Hills and the garden is open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 am to 12pm. I, Laurie, was asked to design a vegetable garden to provide fresh produce to those in need who are serviced by the food pantry. I am not a Master Gardener, but I have had a vegetable garden nearly all my life.
The site had soil and drainage problems that required us to build twelve raised beds; eight beds were four feet wide twelve feet long and one foot tall. We used PVC to make trellises on the north side of the beds. Three additional beds were taller (two feet tall) and handicap accessible. Funds were raised by the Lake in the Hills Rotary and Greco, a local contractor, built the raised beds. We have a traditional row garden on the property that we call the “Back 40.” An herb garden on site is managed by Peggy and the McHenry County Master Gardeners.
Andy, a Village of Algonquin supervisor, suggested that part of the property at the Algonquin Waste Water Treatment Plant be used for a vegetable garden benefitting the pantry. This garden was maintained and harvested by the treatment plant workers on their own time.
My dream was that recipients of the pantry would be able to volunteer and help grow the vegetables in the pantry garden. This did not happen, but my family and friends helped.
We grow everything organically; heirlooms preferred, recycling as much as possible and using free resources such as leaves and ground tree mulch. Many of our tools come from estate/garage sales or are donated. Our goal is to grow as many different varieties of produce as possible so the recipients have a great deal of choice. Everything we grow is given away free of charge.
One of the first problems we encountered, that I never expected, was getting people to take the food. Our tomatoes, being heirloom, were not perfectly round with a sticker on them. The beans were not in a can. It is hard to believe how many people don’t know what to do with fresh produce. To combat that problem we set up a farmer’s market in front of the pantry and manned it to explain what the vegetables are and how to cook them—we even supply recipes. That first year a recipient came to me and said, “ I want you to understand just how important what you’re doing is to me. Everyone says to eat better but when you go to the store with only $50.00 in your pocket and you are at the produce counter looking at vegetables you have never eaten and have no idea how to cook, you end up going back and buying what you know. Now, because of the pantry I can try new things without the risk. My boys and I tried zucchini for the first time and we love it.” Her words stuck with me. We continually try to search out the best tasting varieties that are hardy and easy to grow. We show that vegetables come in all shapes, sizes, taste and colors. We also add unusual vegetables that you are unlikely to find in a store, such as cucuzza, Thai purple yard long beans, and Armenian cucumbers. We have created an environment where our recipients now ask the names and how to cook the vegetables.
Food pantries like ours can change the eating patterns of the families we serve. Where else can people try new vegetables picked in their prime and delivered the same day—free of charge.
Our gardens produced 2,981 pounds of produce this first year, 2012.
In 2013, United Airlines donated the money for a greenhouse; their employees and sons built it on site. The greenhouse gives us the ability to start everything we grow from seed. Our local high school, Harry D. Jacobs High School, approached us asking if their Green Eagles, an after school environmental group, could help. They start seeds at the school greenhouse in the spring.
Jack started helping at the garden and continues to come up with inventive ways to make the work at the garden easier.
The property had eight established apple trees and a couple of pear trees. The trees had not been sprayed in years and the fruit was unusable. We asked the pantry board to spray the trees which increased our work load tremendously, but added fresh apples and pears to give to our recipients.
During our second year we started picking up volunteers from churches and scout troops. They would help for a day or a project. The day to day labor still fell to Jack, family, and friends. Our gardens produced 2,250 pounds of produce in the second year, 2013.
In 2014, we started all of our seeds in soil blocks. You use a metal mold and press the soil into blocks. As the seeds grow the roots will go right to the edge of the blocks and stop, waiting to be planted into the soil. This works great! The seedlings have less transplant shock and your plants get a great jump start. Soil blocks also save us the cost of buying plastic pot inserts to start the seeds and keeps plastic from ending up in the dump.
Thanks to Andy and the Village of Algonquin we added electric and running water to the greenhouse, which made caring for the plants much easier. Electricity powers fans to circulate air to avoid mold and disease. Andy and the volunteers dug a trench two feet deep around the greenhouse and added wall insulation below ground outside the greenhouse. The insulation keeps the outside cold from entering the greenhouse through the ground. The insulation prevents snow from accumulating outside and prevents the greenhouse from freezing. We also recycle straw bales that families use for fall decorations, putting them around the greenhouse to help with insulation. We have been able to harvest tomatoes growing in the greenhouse until the end of December without any added heat other than a can heater and a water barrel.
We had tried all kinds of ways to tie up our tomatoes, without success. This year we tried cattle panels in the “Back 40”. I highly recommend them, they are so versatile and such a time saver.
They will last for years and are inexpensive. Nick, for his Eagle Scout project added grape arbors so we can provide grapes to our recipients.
We saw an increase in volunteers: church groups and scout groups.
We have tried a variety of ways to make the soil more fertile. We want to keep compostable waste out of the dump. Our friend, Trudi, told us about burying compostable material underground. We came up with an idea of digging a “pit” trench three feet wide by three feet deep by 60 feet long. We filled it with the compostable waste from the garden and food pantry. We would covered the trench and planted right on top of it. The trench was dug with volunteers and assistance from Andy and the Village of Algonquin. We saw production improvements with each pit we dug. Jack, Carol, Karen and Gloria became consistent helpers this year.
Our gardens produced 4,960 pounds of produce this third year, 2014.
2015 brought a surprise for me! When I originally designed the garden in 2012 I had drawn an entrance sign with vertical supports for vines to grow on. I had forgotten the drawing but Sal held onto it and when he was approached by Josh for an Eagle Scout project my drawing came out and Josh made it reality, far exceeding my original idea.
A local McHenry County College horticulture class now comes in the spring to trim our grapes and fruit trees.
Jack designed a drip irrigation system that ended the need to water by hand. The pantry garden is on a well. We had tried many commercial drip hoses only to have them quickly clog with the minerals in the water. Jack’s new system has cleanable filters which blocks the minerals. Jack also redesigned four of our original beds. He joined two beds together and raised them an additional foot. The additional height and soil nearly doubled the production of the beds and made them much easier to work on. We got rid of the original PCV trellis, which had started to break down from years out in the weather. We added a cattle panel trellis set off center in the beds.
Our garden has started attracting more attention. We are receiving more garden tour requests, more group and individual volunteers on a daily or weekly basis. In our fourth year 5,810 pounds of produce was harvested, 2015.
2016 brought us helpers Bryan and Laura R. It turned out to be a big year for changes in the garden. Laura B. from the Lake in the Hills Parks and Recreation approached us to build a children’s vegetable garden on the pantry property. Due to the location we were unable to plant in the ground and had to build raised beds. We received a grant from a local Lowes store and designed the beds to be at a child’s height. We added a cattle panel to each bed for vertical growth. The grant paid for the wood and construction materials and Lowes employees built the beds. A group of local businesses donated to pay the cost of the soil. Filling these beds with just soil would have cost a fortune. We filled the first foot with partially decomposed wood chips then topped the rest of the bed with a mix of compost and soil. When we checked the beds the following year the chips had completely decomposed.
We had new volunteer groups from NISRA and Clearbrook. Both groups are day programs for disabled adults. Other groups included preschoolers and day campers from the Lake in the Hills Parks and Recreation and students from the Crystal Lake Montessori School.
A fun addition to our garden was built by Jonathan, a high school senior, who designed, built and paid for a twelve-foot teepee in the children’s garden. We grow pole beans on the teepee. It is enjoyed by young and old. No one can resist getting their picture taken in it.
We always try to recycle so we built a grow tunnel by taking the frame of six foot portable greenhouse and attached it to the top of two beds, one on each side. The previous year we lost a giant shade tree in a storm. The Lake in the Hills Rotary built a shelter for us. The loss of the tree added additional space for beds.
We won a second Lowes grant for 2017.
Our gardens grew 5,175 pounds of produce the fifth year, 2016.
2017 brought us additional helpers: Don, Dave, Steve and recipient helpers Georgina and Sylvia. Austin, an Eagle Scout, and Jack finished raising the original beds by a foot. They joined the beds and filled them with soil and compost. Lowes built another four beds, four feet by two feet by nineteen feet.
In the children’s garden we took a cattle panel from every other bed and made an arch connecting every two beds. We started a no-fee program with the Algonquin Park District where people sign up to learn how to grow vegetables at the garden. We began asking for senior volunteers now that we have the taller, easier to work beds.
Our “Back 40” has always had black walnut trees next to it. We have always been aware of the juglone black walnut trees trees spread in the soil that kills many of the vegetables. The black walnut roots found the compost pits and flourished, spreading juglone through the “Back 40” Nothing can grow there now. We have lost that section of the garden as everything we planted there died.
At the Algonquin Waste Water Treatment plant their plants produced heavily due to the addition of the new soil added the previous fall.
In 2017, our sixth year, 4,121 pounds of produce were harvested. With each year our garden has presented new problems and improvements. It will continue to do so. I consider our garden a success, not because of me, but because of the collaboration of all our helper teams. We freely share ideas and build upon them. We would not be able to implement any of these ideas without the support of the Algonquin Lake in the Hills Board of Directors, the Villages of Algonquin and Lake in the Hills, local businesses and civic organizations, and individual Eagle Scouts.
With all the talk of improving the nation’s dietary habits and needs we are doing it one family at a time. We hope that our food pantry garden concept will inspire other food pantries and communities.