December 2015 | Volume XXXIII, Issue 6 »

Can You Dig It? Library Gardens Are Growing in Illinois

November 30, 2015
Heather McCammond-Watts, Midlothian Public Library

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”–Cicero

 Libraries and gardens are natural cousins—they both depend on collective effort, they are bedrocks of our communities, they bring people together, and they require a lot of weeding! Dozens of Illinois libraries are utilizing outdoor spaces in creative ways to expand their mission—connecting with their communities through experiential learning, outdoor events, and participatory nature programming. These library gardens all share a powerful service ethic to increase environmental awareness and a knowledge and appreciation of where our food comes from. No matter the size of a garden or whether it is in a rural or urban area, the results are the same: to create a place where people find connections with each other, with their library, and with the beauty of nature all around us.


At Aurora Public Library’s Parker Garden, people with memory loss and their caregivers have a safe and serene place to enjoy the outdoors together. A generous donation from the Parker family honors their mother, Elaine Parker, who was a beloved educator suffering from dementia when she died in 2012. Her legacy is this gracious garden designed by landscape architect Quatrefoil, Inc. Raised beds allow patients to touch the sensory plants, everything is nontoxic and sturdy, chimes alert caregivers to the gates, and benches and handrails help with limited mobility. “As a culture, we’ve learned to accommodate physical disabilities with elements like curb ramps, elevators, and text-to-speech capability on computers, but we can’t seem to bring ourselves to make environmental improvements to accommodate dementia,” said J. Scott Parker, one of Elaine Parker’s sons.This garden oasis is a serene and welcoming place to rejuvenate and reflect, just like the library itself.


Like to stop and smell the roses? Are flowers your forte? Help beautify the library all summer long by planting our flower beds. Plants will be provided. Members of the garden club of Decatur will provide the expertise. All ages welcome. This simple invitation brings out the nicest folks to come together to beautify the flower beds at Forsythe Public Library every spring. Garden club members work with each child individually to pick out a plant, find a good spot, and talk about how plants grow. When kids come back to the library all summer long, they want to see how their little plant is doing. What makes the garden successful year after year is the special relationship the children develop with the outdoors and garden club mentors.


Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, inspired Waukegan Public Library to encourage kids to spend more time in nature—being outside and digging in the dirt turns out to be are two of the best ways to teach kids about the environment and nutrition.Waukegan started its garden in 2010, and every summer, more than 250 kids help plant, weed, harvest, and cook from the produce. Most are from Hispanic families, with older teens translating for parents and helping younger kids learn English names for vegetables. Library staff and volunteers demonstrate how to grow vegetables in small spaces and containers and teach about the growing cycle. Kids learn about worms, composting, weeding, nutrition, good bugs vs. bad bugs, and most importantly hands-on STEM skills. Library staffer Sandy Sherwood enthuses, “It’s exciting because some children have been with the program since the beginning and they have little gardens of their own at home. They start to recognize cilantro, and hot peppers, and maple seeds that look like helicopters!” Colleague Amanda Civitello adds, “The garden promotes a sense of lifelong learning in the community, where it’s a great experience for parents to learn alongside their children and be able to share those new experiences together.”

Fairmont City (population 2,635) is 75 percent Hispanic, and most of the recent immigrants are from Mexico. Fairmont City Library Center started its community garden in 2013 and partnered with the University of Illinois Extension Office and the local 4-H club. Master gardener Margarette Gibbs was essential in providing hands-on expertise, and partners like Home Depot, the garden club, and local farmers all contributed. Produce goes directly to the families, and last year they harvested over 250 pounds of vegetables. Families learn about new veggies and how to cook with them. People from all walks of life gather together for this program that crosses ages and cultures, and working side by side helps them relate to each other. There’s nothing like harvesting and making zucchini bread together to create a bond!

Ida Public Library’s goal was to create interest both in the library’s community garden and in the possibility of people starting their own community gardens, with the library functioning as a center for information about local food and gardening. The project helps people grow food, educates young people about the food cycle, emphasizes healthy eating, beautifies the property, and creates a healthier workplace by providing an opportunity for library staff to work in the garden and eat its produce. The garden was funded by a community action grant from the city of Rockford, volunteers and staff work side by side to maintain it, and local extension offices and master gardeners help facilitate programming. Just ask local partners to pitch in—they can surprise you!

City and suburban kids often live in apartments or houses without yards for planting, and libraries can show patrons how even a small container or plot of ground can still grow plants. Arlington Heights Memorial Library started the “Sprout Squad” last year during their “Summer Reading, Summer Doing” program. They developed participatory experiences for teens, and partnered with the park district to start a community garden. The park had a plot of land, and the library provided the teen volunteers and staff who could teach them gardening basics, research skills, and how to make healthy snacks. Whole Foods offered presentations about organic food, and the library brought laptops to the garden to access databases for plant identification. Ten teens and two mentors do everything, and at the end of the summer they show up at the farmer’s market to give away produce and demonstrate new recipes they’ve learned. Extra produce is donated to the Wheeling Township Food Pantry.


How do libraries make learning and appreciation for nature part of people’s everyday library experiences? Through outdoor classrooms and learning labs. Most libraries don’t have large outdoor spaces, or a budget to create an elaborate garden, but use their own ingenuity and local resources to customize a small area. Patios, courtyards, raised beds, and containers are all options for libraries with limited space. The Hanover Park Branch of the Schaumburg Township District Library decided to take Bedtime Storytime outside one night to enjoy the soft summer evening. Everyone was involved and happy, and they thought, “Why not use this space more? What if we had a garden?”The project started with five raised beds and a summer lineup of experiential programs for suburban kids who are not exposed to farming. “We want them to be able to connect that this is how we get vegetables—they don’t just appear at the supermarket,” said coordinator Monica Tapia.Spring Valley Nature Center is co-sponsoring the initiative with a “Farms and Food” program, and future plans include butterflies and Jack and the Beanstalk literary tie-ins.

 A patron who works at Garden Patch Farms in Homer Glen ( connected the Indian Prairie Public Library District to the farmers, and that folks, is how a seed library is born. With a donation of five hundred starter seeds of fifteen different varieties, the library packaged five seeds per envelope, labeled them, set up loan rules, and started a circulating seed collection. The hope is that people will return the envelopes with new seeds they harvest, although the seed library is self-sustaining with ongoing donations from local partners. A seed swap and expertise from the local garden club launched the project, and this hands-on opportunity makes learning to grow a garden as easy as...bean plants. A request to The Gift of Carl Foundation ( secured hand tools for adults and kids, kneeling pads, watering cans, and how-to gardening books. “Now we’re offering the seeds and all the tools so all people need is a little plot of land, or even a container,” noted library staffer Natalie Williams.

Gardens come with insects, so many garden programs also feature information about these fascinating creatures. The North Branch of the Peoria Public Library has created a huge buzz with their indoor observation beehive in the Children’s Room. Patrons can view live bees inside the hive and observe them flying out of the hole in the outer wall to the prairie grasses beyond. The library does not gather honey, but bees are there for everyone to observe close-up. Several libraries raise butterflies, but now bees are buzzing in the stacks!


Aurora Public Library’s Juvenile Protective Association Children’s Nature Garden is a magical playground for children to explore nature in an outdoor learning environment. Waterfalls, a fairy garden, reading gazebos, jumping stones, and a gathering tree for storytimes are a few of the charming areas kids will discover when they visit the library. Geneva Public Library District has a small garden area with objects such as pine cones, sea shells, acorns, and rocks for child-directed free play. The Chicago Botanic Garden hosted a program, “Inspiring Nature Play,” and library staff discovered a wealth of ideas about the importance of outdoor play for children both physically and developmentally. Midlothian Public Library uses its Storybook Garden for nature art projects, a sand and water table, storytimes, and outside playtime. Give children materials and an invitation to explore, and they will figure out creative and wonderful ways to connect with nature all on their own.  


StoryWalk®, created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vermont, is an innovative and delightful way for children—and adults!—to enjoy reading and the outdoors at the same time. Laminated pages from a children’s book are attached to wooden stakes, which are installed along an outdoor path. As you stroll down the trail, you’re directed to the next page in the story.Several Illinois libraries have adopted the model, partnering with park districts, county forest preserves, and other agencies to bring the delight of stories to outdoor spaces.

In “Trail Tales,” Waukegan Public Library and the Lake County Forest Preserve District bring local school children to outdoor experiential learning sites in Ryerson Woods. This fully bilingual storywalk features the book, Miss Maple’s Seeds. At the end of the trail is a Little Free Library, and kids are always excited to see what books they can take home. The walk is self-paced, and panels integrate with the surrounding foliage.

Park Ridge Public Library’s StoryWalk at the Wildwood Nature Center features the book, “Little Owl’s Day,” encouraging walkers to “Move, read, and spend time with your family outdoors!” Oak Park Public Library tied their Storywalk to a local author visit by Eric Rohmann and Candace Fleming for their book Oh, No!, and Wilmette Public Library highlighted Muncha, Muncha, Muncha! at Vattmann Park.


Libraries are expanding their walls to include natural spaces and to provide opportunities for all ages to connect and learn together about plants and gardening. Engaging programs such as cooking demos, gardening advice, nature journals, poetry, and art can enhance your garden’s impact. The success of these projects comes down to forging community partnerships, tapping into local resources, finding staff who are interested in gardening, and just giving it a try even in a small way. Local businesses, civic organizations, garden clubs with master gardeners, and county extension offices are the key to making a gardening project work. A steady volunteer corps can be built with just a few interested people, and just like the process of starting a garden growing, you’re steadily growing community right alongside it.


Thanks to the library gardeners featured in this story:

  1. Heaether Venetucci-Johnson, Ida Public Library, Belvidere, IL.
  2. Kim Crawshaw, Geneva Public Library District,
  3. Amy Roth and Laura Stoney, Aurora Public Library,
  4. Janet Van De Carr and Kelly Durov, Park Ridge Public Library,
  5. Janet Piehl, Wilmette Public Library,
  6. Natalie Williams, Indian Prairie Public Library District, Darien, IL.
  7. Monica Tapia, Schaumburg Township District Library Hanover Park Branch,
  8. Trisha Noack and Anna Hutson, Peoria Public Library North Branch,
  9. Amanda Civitello and Sandy Sherwood, Waukegan Public Library,
  10. Trixie Dantis, Arlington Heights Memorial Library,
  11. Rachel Miller, Forsyth Public Library,
  12. Katie Heaton, Fairmont City Library Center,
  13. Katie Clausen, Midlothian Public Library,
  14. Lori Pulliam, Oak Park Public Library,
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