Saturday, July 11, 2009

The nation's first rooftop organic farm, in Edgewater

The woman: Helen Cameron. The tomato: 'Oregon Spring.' The news: The garden -- pardon me, farm -- atop Helen's restaurant, Uncommon Ground in Edgewater, is officially the first certified organic farm on a rooftop in the United States. Mayor Richard M. Daley came to cut the ribbon (that's Helen's husband Mike holding it on the right).

Yup, it's true: Though many tomatoes are being grown in pots, whiskey barrels, Earth Boxes, wading pools,

custom-built planter boxes or five-gallon buckets on Chicago rooftops, this is the first rooftop in the entire nation that has been certified as meeting the USDA's strict standards for organic farm production.

Daley, who loves this stuff, was there to say, "We really believe that this is the future of the city." He sees opportunity in every flat roof to grow food that is known to be safe and doesn't have to be transported far to market at a cost of energy and emissions. "There is nothing more local than climbing your fire escape to harvest tomatoes," said Natalie Pfister, who manages the Uncommon Ground farm along with seven young interns.

Which brings up another point: Green jobs in the city. Daley says he's hoping that agriculture can really become a significant source of urban employment. There is an increasing number of job-training programs centered around agriculture in Chicago. Among my favorites is Growing Home, which has two farms on formerly vacant lots in the city and another in downstate Marseilles where farmer/teacher/social workers help homeless people climb out of desperation by raising organic produce. I was much moved a few weeks ago, at Growing Home's annual dinner at the Cultural center, to hear from a proud graduate who had gone from homelessness to a job and college with the organization's help.

The reasons for growing food in the city -- whether for your own use or commercially -- are many. The big problem is scarce growing space (although Daley pointed out that a city agency, NeighborSpace, helps community gardeners secure vacant lots for gardens; see for all kinds of useful links). But there's plenty of flat, full-sun territory over your head.

Helen says she's hoping that the Uncommon Ground garden -- pardon me, farm -- can be a model and a source of knowledge for future rooftop farmers. Pfister and crew are still experimenting, she says, but as they learn more about what works and what doesn't they are eager to share their knowledge. The farm at 1401 W. Devon Ave. is open to visitors every Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. during its weekly farmer's market. Tours can be arranged (see the Web site for contacts) to share knowledge with those seeking to start their own rooftop farms. (Wear shades: the solar panels are dazzling.)

So here's the nitty-gritty: The Uncommon Ground rooftop farm (.015 acres) consists largely of deep planter planter boxes, set up on legs about waist high, with netting trellises for the scarlet runner beans and other vining crops. The main crop is tomatoes of various heirloom varieties. Most of the plants I saw were pretty small, but I hope with the full sun and assiduous care they soon will catch up. The restaurant is going to need to sell a lot of tomatoes to pay for this.

There are a lot of Earth Boxes around too, and some crops in the ground around the restaurant's street-level patio.

The city provided substantial subsidies, including green roof grants and some tax increment financing, because the project required foundation work and roof reinforcement to support the weight of 4 tons of soil. Aldermen Patrick J. O'Connor (40th) and Mary Ann Smith (48th) were highly supportive, Helen says, as

were the neighbors who helped carry those 4 tons of soil up the fire escape stairs.

The roof did a fine job Saturday of supporting a thundering herd of journalists, bloggers and TV camera crews to the well-publicized ribbon-cutting. Mr. Brown Thumb was there too. So was Gina of My Skinny Garden, apparently, although somehow I totally missed her.

The farm is in its first full year after its installation last year. Organic certification, with the help of the Midwest Organic Services Association in Baroka, Wis., was a snap: Since the farm and soil were all new and untainted by pesticides or built-up fertilizers, there was no 3-year transition period like that required for in-ground farms shifting to organic production.

Mary Ann Smith, who is a longtime friend and lives down the street from Uncommon Ground, promptly showed her support for the restaurant (and me) by taking me to lunch there, and I can testify that the salad with grilled trout and banana bread are lovely. Therefore I can wholeheartedly recommend a visit (on Friday afternoon so you can check out the roof).

Now, about that tomato: 'Oregon Spring' is a cultivar bred to fruit early in Oregon, where the kind of cold, rainy spring we've had is normal, Helen says, and she was able to pick a couple of fragrant 1 1/2-inch fruits already on Saturday. She thinks it's a keeper.

"We're having a lot of fun with 'Oregon Spring,' she said. She and her crew seem to be having a lot of fun in general.

Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

All contents of this post are copyright Beth Botts. Feel free to link or share a brief excerpt with a link, but please do not reproduce photos or any other part of this blog without my express permission.


garden girl said...

Wonderful, comprehensive post Beth. It was a privilege to be there amongst the politicians, press, bloggers, and other supporters of this fantastic, hopeful, historic project - made me proud to be a Chicagoan.

Beth Botts said...

Oh, I missed you too! Too bad... Beth

Chicago Garden said...

It was my second visit to the rooftop farm and each time I go I wish I had a flat roof.

Nice seeing you again.


Gina said...

Hey Beth - nice review of the ceremony and the farm. Sadly, I have toured the rooftop farm twice and shopped at their farmer's market once, but I've yet to eat at the restaurant.

Next time we end up at the same function, I'll definately make sure to at least tap you on the shoulder and say hi. You just looked so busy!