Editors' note: This story was mentioned in "An urban locavore," the Chef Insights article in the May 2010 issue of Chef Magazine.
It is rainy in downtown Chicago as I hop on the Metra train early Friday morning on April 16, bound for the north suburbs of Chicago, where high rises, skyscrapers and condos give way to neat two-story houses and sprawling front lawns. This morning I'll play assistant to Sarah Stegner, co-chef/owner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, Ill., and Prairie Fire in Chicago, and Jeanne Pinsof Nolan--better known as The Organic Gardener--as they sow the first round of organic vegetables, herbs and flowers of the season. Pinsof Nolan picks me up from the train in her station wagon with a car top carrier strapped to the roof filled with gardening tools. "Sorry for the smell," she says as soon as I climb in, blaming a sackful of her granular organic fertilizer in the backseat.
She explains how she launched The Organic Gardener six years ago, a business that helps mainly families plant and maintain edible organic gardens. She started in 1987 apprenticing at an organic vegetable farm in California. Seventeen years later, after stints working in southern California; outside Austin, Texas; and south of Asheville, N.C., she returned to Chicago where she partnered with Green City Market to establish The Edible Gardens for kids at the Lincoln Park Zoo. As The Organic Gardener, she not only helps families, but also Chicago-area restaurants such as Uncommon Ground and North Pond as well as schools install organic vegetable gardens. "It's kind of been my dream job," she confesses.
We pull up to the ranch-style house and are instantly greeted by chef Stegner; her husband, co-owner and wine director of Stegner's restaurants Rohit Nambiar; and their six-year-old daughter, clad in purple leggings and a pink and purple floral top. I peruse the sunny 25- by 75-foot plot in the backyard, which was tilled in the weeks before our arrival. Stegner rakes several bags of organic soil over the plot, and I follow, sprinkling scoopsful of Pinsof Nolan's granulated fertilizer--her own organic blend of dehydrated manure, bone meal, bloodmeal, kelp and green sand.
Then Stegner, her daughter, Pinsof Nolan and I sit down cross-legged on the walkway and pore over the vast selection of seeds to choose from. This is Stegner's second straight year of planting a backyard garden at her home, a tradition she started "to show that if I can do it, anyone can," she says. The size of the plot is just large enough to supply her family and a few friends with vegetables and herbs this summer--Stegner won't serve any of the product in her restaurants, adding that the garden primarily serves as a way to encourage people to grow their own food. She set up a Gardencam overlooking her backyard, which has an online feed on Prairie Grass Café's Web site, so viewers can track the plants' growth until harvest.
Since we aren't entirely safe from another frost or two in mid-April, we will stick to the plants that can withstand a few more chilly nights--hearty root vegetables like beets, fennel, carrots and dragon carrots; greens and lettuces including mizuna, broccoli rapini, cress, red Swiss chard, speckled lettuce, Grandma's lettuce and red grand rapids lettuce; snow peas and shelling peas; sturdy herbs like heirloom parsley, basil and rosemary; as well as five varieties of sunflowers. In the warmer months to come, Stegner will plant Matt's Wild Tomatoes from Nichol's Farm, sweet peppers, jalapeños, squash and several species of heirloom beans.
Lettuce seeds coated in seed pellets for better uniformity and improved performance held by Stegner, with the help of little hands
"I think we'll do all sorts of peas along the fence this time," Pinsof Nolan says, plucking packets of snow peas and shelling peas from her large basket. Stegner had just confessed to less than great luck last year with lettuce in that same location. Meanwhile, Stegner's daughter pulls on a pair heavy-bottomed pink boots as she prepares to plant snow pea seeds. "These are my winter boots, but I also use them for planting," she announces.
After Pinsof Nolan creates a few shallow furrows parallel to the fence with a diamond head hoe, we squat and begin dropping the tiny dried peas into the ground with about 3 inches between each seed. We cover them loosely with dirt. "You can help me plant snow peas over here," Stegner's daughter says. She carefully drops exactly six peas into my hands, "because I just turned six," she adds.
"Last year, the basil plants were all in a row and just took over," Stegner says. To prevent another basil coup, we nestle each plant at the head of the rows, keeping them separate from one another this time. Stegner later told me she thought we planted them a bit early in the season. "They'll come back," she assured me. "They just won't be as prolific as usual."
It's been nearly two hours, and the empty plot is now dotted all over with small wooden stakes to mark where each vegetable or herb starts. We pack up Pinsof Nolan's car and get ready to leave. It feels good to have hands covered in dirt as I board the CTA to head back into the city. And I've already started mentally planning my own little "garden"--rather, assorted pots and plant boxes filled with herbs, tomatoes and peppers on the south-facing porch at my city condo. It is encouraging to see the wide array of vegetation that can thrive in this finicky, Midwestern climate. Not only that, but Stegner's dedication to encouraging everyone--chef or consumer--to learn how to grow has won me over enough to try my hand at growing some food of my own, even though I don't have a sunny backyard.
Why do you think it's important for everyone to learn how to grow? Does your restaurant have a vegetable garden, or do you grow a personal chef's garden? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section.