Lacking a plot of ground, Barbara O’Connor has created her herb garden out of innovation and perseverance. On two tiny porches off her third-floor walk-up in a South Side Chicago neighborhood, she has been growing herbs in a big way for twenty years. She uses every square inch available, then makes space where none exists, then borrows a little more from neighbors. The measure of this garden is the pleasure it delivers, not the square footage it occupies.
“My friends call it a five-acre farm on two porches,” Barbara says with a laugh. The south-facing back porch, which looks down on a playground, measures 3 by 5 feet; the front porch, with a northern exposure, is a 4-by-10-foot balcony that faces a courtyard surrounded by a cluster of apartments. Here Barbara keeps more than fifty containers of all shapes and sizes densely planted with herbs, flowers, and an occasional vegetable. The plants perch on and dangle from every surface and railing. In the summer, her porches become an extension of her living space, which takes on the feel of a terrarium.
Barbara lives in the Hyde Park/Kenwood area near Lake Michigan and adjacent to the campus of the University of Chicago. This was the first racially integrated neighborhood in the city, and through the years it has maintained its vitality and a strong sense of community. “People work very hard to make this community a livable place in urban America,” says Barbara, a longtime civic organizer and political activist who has lived in the same apartment building for forty years. Gardening, she adds, is one way in which residents have nurtured their community pride.
One of Barbara’s ongoing projects is encouraging her courtyard neighbors to grow plants on their own porches. She has seen ample evidence of gardening’s contagiousness. Over the years, flowers have sprung up in front yards all over the neighborhood. Her garden group, which was formed in the 1950s as part of a community service group, has built gardens at street intersections and worked with merchants and planners to beautify major thoroughfares.
Each spring, the group puts on a two-day garden fair; this year was its thirty-sixth annual event. “We sell mountains of annuals, perennials, wildflowers, baskets, ground covers, trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs. At the fair this past May, we sold 4800 pots of herbs in two days,” says Barbara, who chairs the herb committee.
It’s really not surprising that Barbara should bring such zeal to the hobby of gardening. She has spent most of her life in the cause of reform—labor organizing, political campaigning, rousing community groups to action. She campaigned for President Kennedy and was a precinct organizer for his brother Bobby in the sixties; she was a campaign organizer in the legislative and congressional races of Abner Mikva, now counsel to President Clinton. More recently, she worked for former Chicago mayor Harold Washington. She now works in the elections department of Cook County as a field supervisor. She also volunteers time for her favorite candidates. Barbara wears her liberal streak proudly. She cares.
Barbara’s bits and pieces of garden are a respite from the hurly-burly. “During these periods of high intensity, I still have to pay attention to my garden. But even if I’m working twenty-hour days, the garden is a joy. The plants don’t talk back to you. They’re fragrant and pleasant. You stick your fingers in the earth, and it’s good.”
Tucking an entire herb garden into baskets and pots in a tidy little space has a few advantages over tending landscapes, once you’ve accepted the inherent limitations. Weeds aren’t a worry. Barbara can move pots around to find the spot where plants grow best or to give herself a change of scenery. Tender plants are easy to transport inside if blustery weather threatens. Gardening without pesticides is simple; insect problems never get so bad that they can’t be handled with a squirt of a hose. “And I can always hide the scraggly ones when guests are coming,” Barbara adds.
At dinnertime, the herbs are as conveniently located as the kitchen tap. Cooking is synonymous with herbs for Barbara: “I use them all the time. I doubt I’ve ever cooked anything without herbs.”
Arugula and sorrel grow in a single container in a shaded corner. They’re also companionable in the kitchen, and arugula is an important part of Barbara’s sorrel soup. On the smaller but sunnier back porch, she grows a large number of basils. Barbara was teaching other people to make pesto long before fresh herbs became the rage in America. She has grown the small-leaved Piccolo and Spicy Globe and the exotic-flavored varieties such as lemon and cinnamon, and is now growing the fine-flavored Sweet Aussie, Red Rubin, and the green/purple New Guinea. As a matter of principle, Barbara won’t eat a tomato unless it’s accompanied in some way by basil. She makes a lot of basil vinegars in the fall; in fancy bottles, they make fine Christmas presents. Her friends have come to expect gourmet gifts from her larder.
Growing alongside the basils are oreganos, sweet marjoram, savory, lavenders, and many rosemaries, including Salem, Hill Hardy, Blue Boy, Tuscan Blue, and Joyce DeBaggio. The best of the rosemaries come inside for the winter, but despite Barbara’s coddling, these sometimes succumb to mildew. A dozen or so thymes are interplanted with flowers and other herbs. Nasturtiums, whose flowers and leaves find their way into salads, trail down from some of the pots and vine their way up supporting posts. Three small bay trees ensure a supply of fresh leaves for the kitchen. Plants spill into the space of an adjacent neighbor, who doesn’t mind the overflow.
Barbara’s north-facing front porch, which gets bright slanting light in the morning and afternoon, is home to salad burnet, parsley, tarragon, mints, lemon balm, a few scented geraniums, chives, chervil, annual chamomile, cilantro, catnip, borage, and lemon verbena; the last rates a spot on both porches. A chain stretching diagonally from the side of the building to this porch supports an assortment of pots, thus extending her space. A family of birds lives in a nearby hole in the brick building, visible from the porch but out of reach of Barbara’s cats. Those birds (or perhaps their descendants) have lived there as long as she has, providing endless amusement for her cats.
Barbara has a small lemon tree whose fruit she uses for marmalade. She has grown a number of trees in containers, but she gives them away to friends when they inevitably outgrow her space. Flowers such as fuchsias, impatiens, browallias, marigolds, and lobelias are mixed in with the herbs in a carefree fashion. “I really garden intensively. I put things very close together. That way you don’t get weeds,” she says.
The apartment manager also has given Barbara a tiny space—about 1 by 3 feet—on the ground at the edge of the building to fill with fennel and at least one lavender. No matter how busy she gets—with elections or with her other interests such as photography and knitting—she’ll always take a little more gardening space whenever she can get it.
Anyone, Barbara says, can grow plants—if not in a yard, then on a porch or a windowsill. You make do with what you’ve got. “There’s something about growing things. It forces you out of yourself. Maybe it’s because gardeners care about living things, and you tend to translate that to the world and to people. If you don’t care for plants like they’re living beings, they will perish.”
Kathleen Halloran is editor of The Herb Companion.