For Vicki Nowicki, August is the cruelest month.
“It’s not April. April is full of promise,” she said. “August brings Japanese beetles, blight, fungus. The miracle of gardening is that after August, you want to do it again.” But Vicki will not be deterred. Not only does she continue to garden every year, she has spent the last 30 years recruiting new gardeners and helping suburban homeowners plant vegetable gardens and native landscapes.
Vicki's intention with these gardens is about much more than creating beauty. “Mown lawns were supposed to be a place to bring people together, and that has failed,” she said. “It is vegetable gardens that will be the landscape that will bind people together, because food is the heart of a home.”
For her tireless work to replace suburban lawns with vegetables and native plants, Vicki Nowicki has been honored with the 2009 Garden Crusader award for Restoration from Gardener's Supply.
Vicki and her husband are both landscape architects and they run a landscape business in Downer’s Grove, Illinois — a suburb of Chicago — called The Land Office. They design, install and maintain landscapes for homeowners. Vicki describes their work as 80 percent sweat and toil and 20 percent intellect.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but it is grounded in a philosophy that I try to live every day,” she said. “I don’t get to talk about it a lot, but it’s present in all of my work.”
Vicki’s life work has been to help people slow down, learn about the land they live on and take better care of it. “What I’ve been trying to do for 30 years is to glorify the place where you live,” she said. “I want to use food gardens to nail people down to their place. A garden helps to reveal the nature of your site and bonds you to the land,” she said. “When you have a garden instead of a lawn, you are now producing something, not just consuming at the maw.”
Vicki has been working against the dominant trend in landscape architecture her entire career. When she first started out, home landscapes were the same virtually everywhere in the country. “Lawn with a few yew plants,” is her description. “You could see that same landscape in Arizona and Illinois. That seems kind of crazy.”
To help promote the use of plants appropriate to her part of Illinois, she co-founded a local chapter of Wild Ones, a group devoted to using native plants in the home landscape.
Soon, she was also adding vegetables to home landscape designs. The problem was, the homeowners often didn’t pick the vegetables. “They would say they weren’t sure it was ready or they didn’t want to make a mistake or they were too busy,” she said. So last year, she started a new business called Let’s Grow. She and her crew plant vegetables, maintain the gardens and then harvest the food for the landowner.
“These homes are sitting on some of the best soils in the world – literally the breadbasket, so it is only right that they grow vegetables,” she said. “We can get so much food out of these small gardens, that our clients end up sharing food with their neighbors.”
She teaches her clients and neighbors how to take care of the gardens, how to harvest and how to preserve the harvest. She and her husband have turned their own suburban yard into a permaculture site, combining vegetables and fruit trees. They hold workshops and tours to teach others about their methods.
Her newest project pulls together everything she knows and believes about gardening. It is a website called libertygardens.com. The site will include tutorials and garden journals and will be a resource for anyone interested in gardening.
Here is how she describes it:
“It's for the 21st century and it's about growing food at home in order to make it a home. Our lives will change and our world will change when we start to plant food gardens at home. It's a simple act that each person can choose to do at any time without a new law being passed, or a feasibility study being run or a stimulus package being doled out. But talk about a shovel-ready project! If our land is worth caring about and if our families are worth caring about, we can each choose to create the food supply that we have been asking for. We have the liberty to choose what to grow and how to grow it. People have always done it.”
And with Vicki Nowicki’s help, more and more people will be joining in, and doing it too.
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