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An Organic Garden, Just Above Your Head

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jul 15, 2009 3:40PM

Surrounded by dirt, trellises, plants and happy gardeners; you would think we had wandered into a fairy tale about sustainable agriculture. Which, in a way, we had … except this storybook was set in a magical land 20 feet above the ground. On Saturday, Uncommon Ground opened America’s first organically certified rooftop garden at their Devon Avenue location, and they invited Mayor Daley to join in the revelry.

Owners Mike and Helen Cameron are committed to running their restaurant in the most environmentally-friendly way possible. They have participated in Slow Food, won environmental awards, used local produce and started a farmer’s market in their parking lot (Ed. Note: That Farmer's market happens every Friday from 4-8 p.m. — CS). The rooftop garden takes it to another level. There is almost a fifth of an acre on the roof of the restaurant devoted to growing organic crops. That might not sound like much land, but this isn’t a flower garden - they are focusing on high-yield crops like tomatoes, beans and cucumbers. Gardeners know how much food can be produced from a properly set-up small garden and Uncommon Ground has taken it one step farther, hiring a professional garden manager to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Rooftop gardening has some advantages that you might not expect - organic certification is unusually easy. Since there is no soil to decontaminate or test, and any “inputs” have to be lugged up a flight of stairs, controlling what goes into the crops isn’t all that hard. The owners admitted that they might face some unanticipated problems. After all, no one has ever attempted organic gardening like this on a Chicago rooftop, but they intend to power through, sharing all of the knowledge gained from any setbacks.

The mayor was in fine form, expounding on one of the topics that we believe he actually cares about: greening the city. Regardless of how much we may disagree with the mayor about city management, on this topic his credentials are impeccable, and he spoke with obvious enthusiasm about the potential for converting all of the city’s flat, open spaces to places for growing food. He hit all the usual talking points - less fuel for transport, the creation of green jobs, the taste of fresh local produce - but there was a passion and sincerity that is lacking when he speaks on other topics. Other city luminaries were also in attendance, including Alderman Patrick O’Connor and the Commissioner of the Department of the Environment, Suzanne Malec-McKenna.

We’ll be heading back to Uncommon Ground later in the summer, to taste some of this fresh food. Stop on by, especially for brunch. You won’t be disappointed.

Uncommon Ground has locations at 3800 N. Clark St. and 1401 W. Devon Ave. The garden is not open to the public, but we are assured that tours will be offered periodically - check their website for details.