Local master gardener LaManda Joy has a powerful green thumb. As founder of The Peterson Garden, she resuscitated the Victory Garden model of World War II to create a local and sustainable food source that feeds 150 families.
LaManda’s passion for the non-profit project extends to her popular blog The Yarden, a lecture series she developed and recently presented at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and a role on the American Community Gardening Association board.
Here, LaManda shares the seeds of her inspiration and the fruits of her labor, and elaborates on snagging one of the inaugural Woodbridge grants by Robert Mondavi Giving Through Growing's "Heroes" project, enabling her to provide free gardening classes and events to the public.
Where did your passion for gardening initially develop and how did it shape your career?
LaManda Joy: My dad taught me to garden when I was growing up in rural Oregon. It wasn’t a hobby to us -- we grew food because it was economical. T me, it was also a “chore.” Kids always get stuck with the boring tasks -- namely weeding -- and I was no exception. I really fell in love with gardening when I went to the University of Oregon. Luckily I became friends with a woman who was one of the original employees of Smith and Hawken. She was a patient and passionate advocate for edible gardening and her incredible garden was my training ground. I’ve been hooked on growing my own food -- and teaching others -- ever since. Regarding my career, until recently I wasn’t in the gardening industry professionally, but I’ve always used gardening as a metaphor for management… helping people thrive in the right conditions, transplanting them to somewhere better suited to their needs, etc. Gardening teaches you patience, which you definitely need to be a manager.
What challenges did you face in building a non-traditional business? On the flip side, what opportunities did you encounter by launching such a unique organization?
LaManda Joy: The Peterson Garden project was a happy accident that turned into a very meaningful and inspiring place for many people in Chicago and around the country. It has certainly changed my life. We’re a non-profit so our mission grew out of the goals of the garden: to recruit, educate and inspire a new generation of gardeners who want to make urban gardening the norm, not the exception. The project “sold” itself to everyone who encountered it because it belongs to the community. That makes it easy to be interested and involved. I believe one of the reasons the garden has thrived is that we removed as much complexity as possible so our gardeners could succeed. We made all bed sizes standard, taught people a unified method of organic gardening -- more than 50 percent of our gardeners had never gardened before -- and made the guidelines simple, clear and flexible. We also focused on the community aspects as much as the technicalities of gardening.
What role has social media played in building your business, raising awareness and attracting participants?
LaManda Joy: Social media has been the cornerstone of The Peterson Garden Project’s outreach platform. When I first started studying WW2 Victory Gardens --the impetus that lead to the garden itself -- I wanted to tell that exciting story to anyone who would listen. My blog, TheYarden.com, Facebook and Twitter were key to that.
Our goal for 2012 is to reach even more people, so we’re introducing a more user-friendly and education-based website this month. Continuing to leverage social media, especially Facebook, in tandem with the new site will help us communicate with our gardeners, share relevant information and encourage a public forum to discuss the Peterson Garden Project, our live classes and edible garden workshops. We’re hoping to develop three to five other large gardens and social media will be even more critical as we expand our community.
What is your long-term goal and how do you plan to achieve it?
LaManda Joy: Our goal is simple: to teach everyone we can how to grow their own food. Seriously. 2012 is the 70th anniversary of the first year of WW2 in the U.S. and the 70th anniversary of the first Victory Garden season. We want as many people as possible know we’ve grown food as individuals, families and communities on a large scale before and we can do it again. We’re using all the methods they did in the 1940’s -- radio, newspapers, classes -- and some new tactics -- namely social media, video and television -- to get the word out. Our new website will be central to that effort and wouldn’t be possible without Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi believing in us. We are very grateful.
How do you think the growing interest in sustainability will impact Chicago’s business community? What impact do you think you’ve had personally?
LaManda Joy: There is a nascent community of sustainability minded small businesses in Chicago. Many of them have been incredible supporters of The Peterson Garden Project. Having grown up near Portland, Oregon, I’ve seen how a sustainably based business community operates and how it can succeed. With Chicago being so much larger I think there’s an education component that needs to happen. People need to know that just buying “green” stuff isn’t necessarily sustainable. They need to take a personal interest in sustainability and how they can reuse more, share more. People vote with their dollars so as this education happens and people get in the groove, sustainable businesses should flourish.
Community is the key to gardening, sustainability and healthy life. That’s really what a green economy is all about – supporting one another, doing your part, no matter how small it may seem and voting with your dollars.
Rachel Gillman has an insatiable appetite for dining out and an obsession with the restaurant industry. She's also fascinated by entrepreneurs and enjoys uncovering the story behind building a business from scratch. You can follow her on Twitter @RachelGillman.