Totally Organic

It’s a big mission – building the greenest city in America, if not the world. But, big missions can’t be accomplished if they aren’t first demanded. (Think of President John F. Kennedy’s demand to put a man on the moon).

Such is the case with the windy city and its mayor – Mr. Richard M. Daley.

“The mayor’s whole greening agenda begins with the knowledge that when people are around beauty, they are calmer because they feel like they’re being well taken care of by their city, “ says Adam Schwerner, Director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Chicago Park District. “They tend to relax, to hang out more.”

As we all know, industry studies show beautiful parks increase nearby real estate values and business at local retail establishments. And some even show how pastoral landscapes can help fight road rage.

But these studies were really more supporting evidence then decisive elements in the mayor’s decision to develop and push a greening agenda. His real epiphany hit while crossing the country on a train.

As Schwerner says, “the mayor talks about being struck by how very unattractive it was to enter a lot of cities. It wasn’t welcoming with arms around you. And, so that’s why our entry corridors (like the airport) are so importantly landscaped. That’s the infrastructure in which we work. That’s the thought process.”

Filling in the Pieces

With the mayor outlining the major greening goals, it was up to the park district (and other government agencies) to fill in the pieces to the best of their ability. One of the broad goals was to increase the number of organic vegetables grown in the city.

As Schwerner and his staff talked about what that meant for their department, they focused on one of the mayor’s over-riding beliefs – “if you show people it can be done, they will do it.”

Aha. Show don’t tell. Always a good motto.

Looking around the city, there seemed no better place for an organic garden then the highly visible Grant Park. Located less then a block from Buckingham Fountain, one of the cities most visited sites it ensured high traffic for the garden.

To make room for the organic garden, the park district simply replaced the 40,000 square foot annual flower garden with raised beds (no bed is deeper then four feet) and voila’ hip, organic farming on a grand scale.

Growing Power

Of course, “simple” is an exaggeration. Saying you’re going to build an organic farm downtown Chicago and then actually doing it are two different things.

Schwerner and his staff recognized growing vegetables was even more labor intensive then maintaining annual flower gardens and they would have to get creative with how they were going to staff and manage the mini-farm.

They turned to one of their sub-contractors, Moore Landscapes, for advice. One thing led to another and eventually, Moore Landscapes sub-contracted the work out to Growing Power, Inc. – a non-profit agency (headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) specializing in organic farming.

As it turned out, Growing Power specialized in more then just growing the food, but also in providing a business model under which the mini-farm could operate without being a drain on park resources.

In its final form, Schwerner oversaw the plan (and re-worked the design to make sure it met his aesthetic goals), Moore Landscapes sub-contracted (and oversaw) the actual installation, maintenance and harvesting to Growing Power who, in turn, worked with After School Matters to employ at-risk youth to actually do the work – and get paid for it.

Confused? It’s easier then it looks. Let’s start at the beginning.

Building the Garden

“We based this urban farm project in the style of the French potager or kitchen garden,” says Erika Allen, Artist and Community Food System Planner for Growing Power, Inc., “as a means to showcase the potential for cities to grow and maintain vegetable crops in a manner that is beautiful and well kept – with an aesthetic that is in keeping with the formal garden designs in Grant Park.”

To do that, Allen picked out over 150 varieties of vegetables. The plants were chosen for their color, growing season and vegetable. She then handed the design to Schwerner and the folks at Moore Landscapes who, as Schwerner says, basically pulled the design apart and put it back together again.

Once they had a workable design, one that ensured something of color would always be in bloom, the folk’s at Growing Power went to work.

They built the raised garden and prepped the soil with their Living Biological Worm System – a composted material that is friendly to worms and builds soil fertility. Basically, top soil on steroids.

“We compost vegetable waste, brewery grains or mesh, coffee grounds and straw as the food for worms, red wrigglers (eisenia fetida and perionyx),” says Allen. “These worms digest the compost producing fertilizer and re-mediating pathogens and other hazardous materials.”

To ensure the compost is weed seed and pathogen free, the material is hot composted to at least 130 degrees to kill off the bad stuff.

“It is thought that the microbial life in the castings is what makes them so beneficial to plant growth,” says Allen. “The microbes help reintroduce natural nutrient cycling in the soil, helping make these nutrients more available to the plants.”

Solving the Labor Issue

As Schwerner says, this is very high-level gardening. Soil is measured and prepped for specific plants, water schedules are set and each plant receives the optimal amount of water at the optimal time for the optimal length.

Obviously, you can’t do this with an irrigation system. So, its left up to good old hand watering, hand weeding, hand seeing, etc. Very labor intensive.

Normally, this also means very expensive. Not in the case of the Grant Park garden. Here again, Growing Power worked with another non-profit, After School Matters, which had secured a grant to help at-risk youth learn life skills.

“Using farming as a hands-on teaching tool, these 15 youth were challenged both mentally and physically,” says Allen, “and they gained a broad range of experiences from observation and decision-making, to physical fitness and tool usage, to aesthetic and culinary appreciation.”

And, of course, they were paid for their efforts.

So, if you’re keeping score at home, here’s who did what:

1. Chicago Park District – Developed the initiative, provided the space, provided the funding and approved the design

2. Moore Landscapes – Found the appropriate sub-contractor and managed the relationship

3. Growing Power – Managed the building, planting, rotating, harvesting and clean-up of the garden. And, hired/supervised the labor

4. After School Matters – Provided 15 at-risk youth to work the gardens and secured a grant to pay them for their efforts

In the end, the garden was a huge success. Touted in local and national media, it served as a focal point for the mayor’s green agenda and acted as a boon to the local organic products market. And, it was just plain cool.

So cool that Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp traveled across the country to hold a press conference for Farm Aid in front of the gardens.

“We grew a great deal of stuff,” says Schwerner. “We grew 350 pounds of summer squash, 305 pounds of tomato’s, 100 pounds of mustard greens, 250 pounds of collards, and 300 pounds of kale. We gave it all to food shelters and homeless shelters.”

The mayor’s agenda, it seems, was good for everyone.