A Publication of WTVP

“One of the more enjoyable phone calls I’ve ever made was to a local food pantry to ask if they could use a donation of organic tomatoes,” says Greg Tomlins, coordinator of the West Bluff Community Garden (although he prefers the more humble title, “backyard gardener.”)

An initiative of Peoria’s Campaign for a Walkable West Bluff (CWWB), the garden, tended by local volunteers, yielded over 500 pounds of organic tomatoes last summer—the entirety of which was donated to local food banks, with some help from Heart of Illinois Harvest (HOIH). And while impressive, these efforts are but one facet of the project.

Tomlins explains that the focus of the garden is “to produce for nearby food pantries,” yet, in line with the organization’s moniker and mission, it is also an effort to inspire “people to go out and walk and get to know their neighbors.”

To Tomlins, the pedestrian-friendly ambitions of the CWWB represent more than the beautification of streets and the development of stores. While the bountiful garden brings life to Western Avenue with its bold splashes of vivid color and dense thickets of vegetation—Tomlins refers to it as a “tomato jungle”—it is also motivation for local residents to interact and explore the area.

A Leisurely Approach
The parceling out of work at the community garden is determined by the interests and tastes of the volunteers. “A network of neighbors can get a lot more done than any one person,” remarks Tomlins. “It’s surprising how much you can accomplish in an hour with 12 or 15 people.” This division of labor expedites the growing process, ensures that volunteers will be comfortable with their chosen tasks, and serves as a source of relaxation for some.

“We have people who like to weed to burn out some stress,” explains Tomlins. “Some people like to plant, some like to water, some are harvesters…We encourage people to do what they like.”

Though individually nurturing a plot of this size—75 tomato plants inhabit the garden—would be a strain for even a veteran gardener, the flexibility of the system lightens the load. Last growing season, the group formally met on Wednesday evenings, and, when necessary, Saturdays. Twelve to 15 volunteers showed up regularly, while others came by in their free time to handle tasks that require constant upkeep. Overall, close to 30 locals participated in the community garden at least once.

The CWWB feels that the success of the inaugural growing season will kindle local interest, and more Peorians will show up to offer their support for the expanding project, which will include a second plot of land for crops such as lettuce and spinach this year.

“We’re very appreciative of any time anyone can give us,” Tomlins says. This receptive spirit isn’t just a practical way to organize labor, either. The attitude seems an extension of collaborative spirit that helped shape the direction of the community garden.

Community of Gardeners
Though the CWWB was the impetus for the creation of the West Bluff Community Garden, it was not the only Peoria collective that contributed to its success. Tomlins is ardent in his graciousness toward the Western Avenue Greenway Project, the group which contributed the land for the garden. For the last 30 years, the not-for-profit Greenway Project has worked to create a linear park along Western Avenue.

Greenway Project leader Ray Ellington explains that the diverse group, composed of members from West Peoria, the West Bluff and Bradley University, was formed in response to an initiative to widen Western Avenue. Residents felt that a broader street would unnecessarily intrude upon the adjacent yards, and decided to band together to beautify the area.

The Greenway Project works to buy decaying, abandoned houses, which are then removed and replaced by greenery. Upon hearing of the CWWB’s hope to plant a local garden, Ellington felt that the project was “in keeping with the tradition” of the Western Avenue Greenway Project. “We had some land that had been cleared, but we weren’t ready to use it,” he explains. This land became the site for the community garden.

Other groups pitched in as well. LHF Composting and Better Earth donated organic compost for the cause, while the Antique Tractors Club tilled the soil so the gardeners did not have the burden of doing it by hand. Keystone Steel & Wire Co. provided fencing, which kept the plot rabbit-free. Many of the plants were private donations, and Tomlins credits fellow CWWB member Lisa Ferolo with organizing “the lion’s share of donations” while finding time to physically help out at the site most weeks.

Numerous enterprises and individuals congregated to shape its direction, but the CWWB typically returns to the Heart of Illinois Harvest and the Greenway Project when stressing their most essential partnerships. HOIH crucially helped the CWWB distribute its yield to area food pantries, but the project itself would not have left the drawing board if the perfect location—and willing landowners—could not be found.

Fortunately, the site along Western Avenue accommodated all of the group’s needs. In addition to the generosity of the Greenway Project, it was in close proximity to the homes of interested volunteers. It also had stretches of empty land that sit a good distance from the busy street—a must since the project is used to help Peoria children get a taste of the heretofore unseen wonders of the rural lifestyle.

Hands-on Education
Tomlins is quick to expound on the horizon-expanding visits to the site experienced by local children. He notes that children who spend most of their time in urban areas are often “unfamiliar with growing practice.” The Western Avenue plots provide an unusually inspiring educational setting.

Tomlins notes that the children—typically brought to the garden by their volunteer parents—were “kind of in awe that they could plant something tiny and in only a few weeks see it grow into a forest of tomatoes.” The CWWB involved the kids by sending them on hunts through the green maze to pick the ripe fruits and vegetables and encouraging them to taste things they’d never seen before, like grape-sized tomatoes.

Perhaps the most exciting revelation for the children was that all this produce could be grown by anyone, even in a city setting. “To eat something that was grown right down the street from their house kind of blew the kids away,” says Tomlins, who hopes to bring entire classes of children out to explore the garden this season.

Having some extra hands around Western Avenue may be a necessity this year, as the CWWB will be expanding its community garden to two plots. Finding more help shouldn’t be too difficult, though. Tomlins notes that while many Peorians might have enough land to grow their own vegetables, this undertaking is unique enough to get people to leave their homes and walk the area. “With a project like this, it isn’t hard to find people who are willing to donate their time,” he says. iBi

» For more information on the community garden and the Campaign for a Walkable West Bluff, visit