Perched on a Porch: Garden Ideas for Small Spaces

Lacking a plot of ground

| August/September 1995

  • How many herbs can fit in one pot? Chives nestle up here with oregano and a small tarragon plant on Barbara O’Connor’s porch.
  • This window, with its box of geraniums and herb pots dangling from above, looks onto a corner of a plant-filled porch.
  • As afternoon shadows encroach, a bay tree and its companions soak up as much sun as they can get.
  • Here’s a space-saving idea: a chain stretched across an open space accommodates several hanging planters.

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.

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