South Side florists convert vacant lots into sustainable, organic flower gardens

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Local florists at Chicago Eco House are building a better Chicago by converting vacant lots around the city into sustainable, organic flower gardens.

"We have the mission of using sustainability to alleviate inner city poverty," said Quilen Blackwell, who started Chicago Eco House with his wife five years ago.

"We have solar panels on our sheds for on-site power, and we harvest rain water for our irrigation. So our farms are 100 percent sustainable and our flowers are 100 percent organic."

Chicago Eco House is a nonprofit that Blackwell started for the gardens. The other side of his business is South Side Blooms, an online flower shop for direct-to-consumer sales.

Blackwell currently operates four gardens - one in Englewood, one in West Garfield Park, and two in Woodlawn - and recently hired their first two employees.

Kobe Richardson, the newest employee, finds peace through gardening after spending years of his life in gangs.

"[In] 2016, I had a very bad incident that kind of made me listen. I got shot 14 times," Richardson said.

"I done came here [to this garden] plenty of times before I actually got hired. I can actually just breathe and get a peace-of-mind."

Farm operations manager A.J. Boyce has experience with agricultural work and approaches the job with a focus on social justice.

"I enjoy this work because it is my fight against 'white environmentalism,' which is this notion that environmental movements are going to be most efficient, most effective when they're implemented by white people," Boyce said.

"Everyone has those historical ties to nature regardless of your culture, because everyone is from the land and the land is for everyone."

Blackwell believes his work especially important in an industry that he calls "one of the most unsustainable industries on the planet."

"A lot of people don't know that about 80 percent of your flowers that you see in a store comes from overseas...You need to spray them with heavy toxins, fumigate the boxes, you know put a lot of nasty stuff on them to extend that shelf life. What we're doing is the exact opposite."

With winter about to start, the gardens are being put to bed. South Side Blooms will start selling flowers again in May.

But Chicago Eco Gardens is built to grow. The founders plan to convert thousands of vacant lots and employ hundreds of Chicagoans.

"We're coming for every vacant lot in Chicago," Richardson said.
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