An Uncommon Rooftop Farm in Chicago

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To see Chicago's first certified organic rooftop farm you'll have to look up. This urban farm is situated on the roof of Uncommon Ground, 1401 W. Devon Ave.

The farm's director, Natalie Pfister, attended a Slow Food Benefit Dinner last August, right after the rooftop farm was put in place by Helen Cameron Michael Cameron, co-owners of the restaurant, and immediately fell in love with the place. "The two loves of my life, food and soil, in a new and creative way were there," remembers Pfister. She soon started an Email correspondence with Helen that would eventually lead to her being the full-time Farm Director at Uncommon Ground.

Natalie's mother farmed their backyard in rural Colorado and Natalie credits her interest in farming to those early childhood memories. She received formal training while doing volunteer work on organic farms in Colorado.

You would think that with a 2,500-square foot organic rooftop farm to look after on a full-time basis Natalie wouldn't want to spend her free time playing in the dirt. She lives on the second story of an apartment building just south of Wicker Park that has no garden, so she farms the two fire escapes outside her kitchen and bedroom windows. "It's not a lot of space, but
alternative methods of food production are what is intriguing to me," Says Pfister. So, what does Natalie grow at home? "I grow 6 varieties of tomatoes, 2 varieties of cucumbers, garlic, rosemary, basil, thyme, strawberries, purslane, arugula, mesclun mix and some edible flowers," she says, adding that most days it's an experiment, but that the challenges fascinate her too.

Natalie points out that Chicago was built on the plains of the Midwest and she hopes that the rooftop farm will influence people and show them that it is possible to raise those plains to all our rooftops.

"I hope that people take away a sense of how important it is to be knowledgeable and participate in the food system, especially in an urban environment," Says Pfister.

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(Left) The view of the rooftop farm looking West. (Right) The view of the rooftop farm looking East.

Natlie and the owners of Uncommon Ground are aiming to grow 1000 pounds of produce on the rooftop farm but hope to surpass that number. The day I talked with Natalie she mentioned that she was in the process of researching agriculture techniques in Arizona because the conditions on the rooftop farm are similar. Because of the usually cold and rainy weather we have been experiencing the plants on the rooftop farm are a little behind schedule. But Chicagoans who dine at Uncommon Ground between now and November will dine on meals with ingredients grown on the roof and supplemented with fresh produce from the Green City Market.

The day I visited there were 5 kinds of tomatoes growing, along with arugula, eggplant, 4 varieties of peas and a view lettuce mixes and various herbs. One tomato was even producing a fruit that Natalie christened "Plumber's variety." A reference to the deep cleft on one side of the still unripe fruit. If you look carefully you'll also find a couple of beehives in a corner of the roof, producing honey the restaurants will use. Russian bees had to be brought in after the first hive didn't survive the winter. What's the one crop that isn't being grown at the rooftop farm that Natalie wishes they were growing?

"Potatoes! I want to, but we aren't quite there yet. We would need a deeper system, and at the moment it isn't doable," Says Pfister. But maybe there is hope for potatoes there in the future."Each year we will expand in a new way, utilizing any and all the space we have on our property," Says Pfister.

(note: I recently came across another Chicago garden blogger who is growing potatoes in bags in his garden. You can do it too.)

It is often said that gardeners are nice people, my experience has taught me that some nice people just happen to be gardeners. On a recent visit and tour of the rooftop farm-- fellow garden blogger Gina,MySkinnyGarden,commented on how genuinely nice Natalie was. Natlie credits loving the work she does and her fire escape farm for making her a happier person.

No arguments here.

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Partial view of farmers market from rooftop farm at Uncommon Ground.

At the last farmers market I had a conversation with music photographer, Paul Natkin, that covered; photography, organic foods, farmers & Chicago's neglected neighborhoods. We were joined by a local who wanted to make sure we'd seen the trailer to Food Inc. and who wasn't bashful about expressing his disgust with big farms. The live music, colorful locals and kids running around gave the farmers market more of a neighborhood street festival vibe. If you're in the area on Fridays from now until October 31st stop by the farmers market and get a guided tour of the rooftop farm by the farm's interns. The farmers market starts at 4PM and goes until 8PM. You can follow Natalie's farming blog at Eat This. Grow That.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE VIDEO

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  • I have plans to grow potatoes on my rooftop next year, in a garbage can (new of course :), the dark plastic will provide the perfect warmth for the potatoes to grow in.

  • In reply to OhioMom:

    OhioMom,

    I was suppose to grow them this year in trash can like you but forgot all about it. I even bought a new trashcan last year just for this purpose and it is sitting in the attic as I type.

  • I can relate to how Natalie enjoys experimentation. Gardening would be boring without it.

    The farmers market sounds like a lot of fun, and I'd love to see the rooftop garden. Sounds like Uncommon Ground is lucky to have Natalie. I love that there are restaurants organically-growing some of the food they're feeding their patrons. It's very exciting!

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    SSGardenGirl,

    We will be really close to there when we all meet on the 11th for lunch. I can email Natalie and see if we could get a tour of it after we go to Gethsemane if you like.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    MBT, I'd love that! I'd still like to try to get up there sometime for the market and dinner too.

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