Greening Chicago: Meet Garden Girl Sara Gasbarra

There is urban agriculture. And there is really urban agriculture.

Rooftop produce garden, Chicago Hilton, overlooking Willis Towers

This container vegetable garden -- with its great view of Chicago's Willis Tower, the tallest building in North America -- is on the 8th floor sub-roof of the Hilton Chicago hotel on South Michigan Avenue. It is one of the "edible gardens" being designed for chefs at several of the city's restaurants by Sara Gasbarra, the self-described "lead garden girl" at Verdura, a small business she founded last year.

The garden consists of 84 EarthBoxes, each of which weighs 90 to 100 pounds when fully loaded with soil and plants, according to Gasbarra. The plants being grown for use in the Hilton's restaurant kitchens include varieties of tomatoes, herbs and peppers.

Basil plants, rooftop produce garden, Chicago Hilton hotel

Tomato plant, rooftop produce garden, Chicago Hilton hotel

The Hilton installation is one of several Gasbarra has built or is building around Chicago. Her other clients include Floriole Bakery and Cafe, Farmhouse Chicago, Nellcôte, Acadia, MidwestRoots and 550 St. Clair. Her work builds upon the pioneering done by eco-conscious eateries such as Uncommon Ground, located on Devon Avenue on Chicago's far North Side, which has the first certified organic rooftop "farm" in the United States.

Like many people in food-related businesses who I've come across in my reporting, Gasbarra started out doing something else, working in university administration. But a few years ago, she decided she wanted to pursue something more fulfilling. She said she initially didn't know what that was, but she had grown up working in her family's garden in suburban Chicago -- something she picked up from her father, an Italian immigrant -- and she readily responded to a friend's suggestion that she volunteer at Green City, a long-established farmers' market located at the south end of Lincoln Park.

"It was life-changing," said Gasbarra, who said her volunteer work led to a paid position helping manage a 5,000 square-foot edible garden that the market maintains at the farm exhibit at the nearby Lincoln Park Zoo. She worked at the garden, which attracts many groups of schoolchildren from around the city and metro Chicago, for three years before leaving to start Verdura (an Italian word for vegetables, not surprisingly).

Gasbarra remains engaged with the Green City Market, and lobbied successfully to establish a junior board, on which she serves, that works to connect younger consumers with Green City in particular and the idea of shopping at farmers' markets in general. The board stages six "Meet the Market" events each summer, the next of which will take place this Thursday evening (June 28) at Farmhouse Chicago, located at 228 W. Chicago Avenue downtown.

While the Hilton rooftop garden is not open to the public, Gasbarra said the container garden at Floriole (1220 W. Webster Ave., in the west end of Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood) is viewable from the upstairs seating area.

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