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Community gardens offer historical lesson

Staff Writer

Published: Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 17:09

marigold

Photo by Matt Crosby/Prospectus News

Marigolds are one of many plants that grow in the Eddie Albert Community Garden in Dodds Park.

Despite the severely hot and dry summer season, garden plots at the Eddie Albert Community Gardens are flourishing. Located in Dodds Park near the softball fields on the Parkland campus, the gardens offer Champaign-Urbana residents the opportunity to grow their own vegetables.

Originally, the gardens started out as a program in 1972, designed to teach adults and children about organic gardening and environmental awareness. The program was directed by famous actor and activist Edward Humberger, better known as Eddie Albert.

It was created in response to a disaster that struck American farmers in the early 1970's. Scientists had developed hybrid corn seeds that were designed to eliminate the costly harvesting practice of hand de-tasseling each corn stalk. 

T-cytoplasm was its name, and it was hailed as a wonder crop by farmers, scientists and economists alike as it allowed for quicker and cheaper harvests.

However, lurking beneath the surface of these genetically-engineered wonder crops was a disease that would eventually wipe out as much as 25% of Illinois' corn crop, and as much as 15% of that of the nation as a whole.

The disease didn’t end here, though. It ended up spreading as far as Japan, Latin America, and Australia. It was a disaster for farmers and businessmen across the globe.

First noticed in 1968 by seed-farmers in Illinois and Iowa, the T-cytoplasm seeds were producing corn with "ear rot."  Initially ignored by farmers and scientists as nothing out of the ordinary, the blight rapidly spread to corn crops across the nation.

Transmitted by spores born on the wind, the disease spread rapidly. Farmers who were simply attempting to salvage what they could of their crop caused the spores to be dispersed into the atmosphere. 

Once a field was infected, the disease could lay dormant and survive temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero and still be able to germinate.

Things got so desperate that Congress called a special hearing on the blight. They invited farmers and activists to testify on what they believed should be done to curtail the problem. 

One such activist was Eddie Albert. He testified before Congress that he believed the only way to solve the problems posed by the Southern Corn Leaf Blight and other future diseases was to end monoculture factory-farming and replace it with wholesome, organic gardens.

Thus, Congress granted Eddie Albert the rights to a parcel of unused land in order to spread organic gardening knowledge.  Originally located at Robeson Park in Champaign, the program has now become the Eddie Albert Community Gardens located in Dodds Park.

The gardening season begins at Dodds Park around April 2and ends around October 28.  Individuals wishing to tend to their own plots must stop by the Bresnan Meeting Center in order to fill out the forms and pay the required fees.

Ideal for individuals who do not have their own space to garden, the plots come in two sizes: 20 feet by 20 feet and 20 feet by 30 feet.  For the smaller of the two plots, the fee is $25 for Champaign-Urbana residents and $37.50 for non-residents. 

The larger plot is $30 for residents and $45 for non-residents. Raised beds are also available for individuals with special needs.

The Champaign Park District provides a hose so that individuals may water their gardens. They simply ask that the hose be returned to its original location once it is done being used to allow others to locate and use it. 

They also till the gardens under at the end of each season. Everything else is up to the individual who rents the plot including seeds, gardening tools or fertilizer.

For more information on the Eddie Albert Community Gardens, please visit the Champaign Park District website at www.champaignparkdistrict.com or stop by the Bresnan Meeting Center at 706 Kenwood Drive in Champaign.

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