Drive around the village of Itasca and you are sure to see green garden stakes rising out of container plants in front of homes and businesses. A closer look reveals these words painted on each: Giving Garden.
Participants displaying their vegetable plants -- as many as 70 across town -- are taking part in an innovative offshoot of the traditional Giving Garden campaign promoted by the Daily Herald.
For the last 10 years, Daily Herald readers have grown a row for the hungry, and established entire Giving Gardens, designed to provide fresh vegetables to food pantry clients.
The individual garden stakes add a new twist to the program. They are the brainchild of Marty Lundeen of Itasca, who helped to launch the Itasca Giving Garden two years ago, when he walked away from his job as a bond trader at the Board of Trade.
After experiencing dwindling interest during his second growing season last year, he decided to reinvent the concept.
"It's based on an 'adopt a plant' garden concept," Lundeen explains, "that allows people to participate through growing just one plant at their house."
Instead of one central Giving Garden, he envisioned the garden stretching out across the community.
Jean Hoder, president of the Itasca Garden Club, whose members have embraced the concept, says that people all over town, as well as businesses, have adopted plants.
"People have been very willing to pitch in because we know the food pantry will benefit," Hoder says. "Hopefully the results will be stellar."
Lundeen designed the green garden stakes as "branding" for the concept, hoping they would further promote it and make for conversation starters as people noticed them taking root throughout the neighborhoods.
Lundeen took his idea to Indian Princess and Girl Scout meetings first, as well as to his fellow Itasca Garden Club members, local businesses, Benson Elementary School where his daughters went, and to his neighbors.
Jamie Helm, chief of the Cheyenne Tribe, loved the idea. His group is part of the Indian Princess Nation, based out of the Elmhurst YMCA and made up of dads and daughters from Itasca, Elk Grove Village, Wood Dale and Bloomingdale.
"It's a great way for kids to get involved with their community," Helm says, "as well as teach them how to care for plants and learn a little something about their environment."
At the Indian Princess meeting where Lundeen made his pitch, girls decorated their garden spikes with paint pens and beads. They also received their own tomato plants to put in containers or in their backyard.
"Everywhere I went, the response was overwhelming," Lundeen says. "Every single person I talked to wanted to participate."
In fact, it grew so fast, Lundeen stopped promoting it until he could work out the logistics of how he could get plants to people -- and how they could donate their harvest to the food pantry.
He decided to make it as easy as possible. At most places Lundeen gave out free plants, thanks to a budget from the Itasca Garden Club. He also offered to pick up their produce on Friday afternoons, if they left vegetables in a container on their front porch.
Or, he encouraged participants to drop off their produce at the food pantry themselves.
Lundeen expects the harvest to begin coming in this week, and officials at the Itasca Food Pantry, which typically feeds between 30 to 40 families a week, are excited.
"Fresh produce is the first thing to go; you'd think we were giving away gold," says Megan Sheridan, one of the volunteer coordinators. "But fresh-picked vegetables from the garden is that important to these families."
Lundeen and his daughters, Margo and Stella, continue to nurture a Giving Garden in their Itasca Park District plot that they started two years ago, but he hopes the community participation makes an even bigger impact on the food pantry and its clients.
"This has totally exceeded my expectations; I was hoping for around 20 people to participate," Lundeen says. "But it turns out that this kind of idea is a perfect fit for a small town like Itasca that has such a strong sense of community."