Garden Fare

The whistle of an ocarina at the Hyde Park Garden Fair’s annual plant sale blended with distorted snatches of music from the live bands playing on campus almost a mile away at the University of Chicago’s Summer Breeze festival. Both scenes were mobbed, but while few people over 23 were spotted on campus, the garden sale at the plaza by 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue attracted a diverse crowd of older gardeners, domestic-minded students, and plenty of young children. The fair, now in its 50th year, presented tables of potted fir trees, cacti, passionflowers, and many others in order to raise money for the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference and local gardening projects.

Beautifying the city is an admirable goal, but admittedly a luxury. What about creating victory gardens to boost households’ food production without draining the budget? Bill Tobin, a Garden Fair volunteer working the vegetable table, explained that the largest obstacle to growing food in Chicago is the lack of sunlight. “Air quality’s not an issue,” he said. “It’s all the tall buildings. People come up and ask, ‘Can I grow vegetables?’ And the first thing I ask them is, ‘Do you have enough sun?'” The three-story buildings common in Hyde Park can shade a garden more than many vegetables can tolerate, and workarounds like growing tomatoes indoors by a south window are creative but probably doomed.

For those with a sunny backyard, community garden plot, or the willingness to guerrilla-garden a vacant lot, the Fair offered a number of cultivars of the most popular home-grown vegetables. Late on Saturday afternoon, 18 types of tomatoes were still for sale, while the Fair’s catalog boasts an initial selection of 39 different tomato varieties that can be grown in the ground or in containers on an adequately-lit balcony. While both humble carrots and elitist arugula were offered at this year’s fair, Tobin said that the range of plants had shrunk overall from last year; instead, the Fair sold more distinct varieties of specific plants (the tomatoes being a case in point).

Options for low-light conditions were limited: the Garden Fair website recommends trying leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and mustard in shady spots, but even those plants require three to four hours of daily sunlight. The small herbs sold at the fair might do well in a kitchen window, but most apartment dwellers will have to seek their fresh veg fix at the summer farmers’ markets.