Carmen McKee said she just wanted to create a space in the city where people could connect with nature, relax and maybe learn how to use edible plants in their own yards.
With the help of a group of volunteers and the permission of the Gary property’s owners, in 2019 she began reclaiming the overgrown exterior space of the former U.S. Army Reserve building at 3510 W. 15th Ave., to do just that.
Today the space is home to Oases Botanical Gardens and McKee, of Gary, said the next step is making the spot an agritourism destination.
“We are a garden of themed gardens,” McKee said.
Each garden space at the site focuses on a different food source. All of the plants in the gardens are organic and are edible, down to the roses.
Along with edible flowers, herbs, garlic and vegetables such as hot peppers, volunteers also have planted native nut and fruit trees including persimmon, hazel nut, serviceberry, pecan and plum.
McKee said organizers want the public to be able to come to the garden, sit down and have lunch, read a book or just enjoy the gardens in bloom. They also want visitors to learn about how they can eat what is growing.
Flower petals from cosmos, asters, zinnia, roses and geraniums are among the many edible flowers populating the gardens. While every flower at Oases is edible, she said home gardeners do need to be careful.
“You have to make sure you have the right varieties,” McKee said.
Education is a big component of the garden, which conducts various programming throughout the year about gardening and edible plants and hosts different youth groups and churches for tours. She said helping people make the connection to where their food comes is important.
“Some kids have never eaten beans off the vine,” McKee said.
Visitors to the garden can learn how to pollinate plants in the absence of pollinating insects, how to grow sweet potato plants from an organic sweet potato, and how to build gardens using everyday items.
Last year was the first year they grew organic peanuts at the garden. At the end of the 2021 growing season McKee said they made popcorn the old-fashioned way from the glass gem corn they had grown as well as some corn meal.
That first year was dedicated to clean up, McKee said. The city assisted in the effort, removing four truckloads of yard waste debris, to help create a space where the themed garden patches would be created.
McKee said when work began at the site, neighbors and particularly veterans, were curious what was happening. She said volunteers were routinely approached by veterans asking if the U.S. flag once again would fly in front of the building.
Instead, McKee said volunteers created a patriotic garden at the entrance to the facility, featuring a flag made of red, white and blue flowers.
“We wanted to be able to do something,” McKee said.
Oases Botanical Gardens also will be a site for the Lake County Eats Local farmers market program. The first Farmers Market there is scheduled May 26.
Donna Catalano, community development director with Legacy Foundation, said the Lake County Eats Local program is a partnership between the The Legacy Foundation, NWI Food Council, Purdue University Cooperative Extension, City of Gary Department of Environmental Affairs/Green Urbanism and the City of East Chicago that aims to bring sustainable farmers markets to the two cities.
The program is designed to address high rates of food insecurity and limited access to fresh food in areas identified as “food deserts,” she said. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers Market Promotional Program.
Carrie Napoleon is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.