Rick Bayless' Urban Edible Garden

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Over the weekend I participated in a tour of Rick Bayless’ Urban/Edible garden with a group of garden bloggers from across the country that were visiting Chicago. I don’t think the word ‘garden’ does Rick’s place justice; perhaps “oasis,” “farm” or “Eden” would be a better word to describe it. The garden is tended by Rick Bayless’ full-time gardener, Bill Shores & his wife Lori. I won’t post all of the pictures I took from that day, I’ll add some to the Chicago Garden Flickr group. If you’re gardening in Chicago join the group and contribute photos to the pool.

After watching Rick’s show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, on Channel 11, my initial reaction to the garden was one of disappointment.  

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That all went away when it dawned on me that I was expecting the perfection of television. Have you ever seen a celebrity in person and thought they didn’t look as good as they do on television? That’s what happened to me when I entered the garden, now that I’ve had time to reflect on it I see things different and want to visit it again without the pressure of helping move a group around.

The garden, really more of a working urban farm, produces $20,000 worth of crops that are used in Mr. Bayless’ restaurants. To grow that much produce they spend $3,000 on seeds every year. The urban edible garden sits on three city lots in the Bucktown neighborhood, but the area used for agriculture is a pretty standard-sized backyard in Chicago, at least compared to the ones I’ve seen. Bill Shores takes advantage of the garden’s microclimates to plant lettuce three times a year. It gets planted pretty close to one of the houses that provides shade and cool surroundings during the summer heat.

The vegetable garden is organic and the compost bin is said to produce 40 wheelbarrows of compost during the growing season.

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The rows of vegetables planted to the right you can see raised beds and in the area in the back with the lattice wall looks to be a staging area for hardening off plants or to hold extras. To the right along the wall there are more raised beds with support systems for what I assume will be tomato plants because I didn’t get to that area. In the far corner of the raised bed along the wall there is a spot for Nopales and other desert plants. I didn’t notice it while I was there because I didn’t think we could walk into that area, and only spotted them when editing pictures for this post. I chuckled because I remembered Phil Ponce, anchor of Chicago Tonight on Channel 11, tweeting that he was planting “garden cactus” while it was snowing in April.

The wall you see in the pictures isn’t part of the Bayless fortress to keep the family safe from rabid foodies and gardening groupies, it is actually part of the Bloomingdale Trail.

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Bill Shores mentioned that he and Rick Bayless have plans to convert the wall into something usable to grow even more food. I wonder how Ben Helphand’s vision of the Bloomingdale Trail will impact, if at all, the plans to bring the wall to life in the future. For now you can see that the abandoned tracks look planted to provide some privacy from the neighbors. Up on the deck there are a number of window boxes that are also used to grow food. Below the deck a collected of potted plants and you just may be able to make out the potted banana tree against the wall. If I remember correctly there was a worm bin in the space between the house and the wall and I don’t know why it made me smile to think they had a worm bin there but it did.

My initial reaction to seeing the garden was rather jaded, but looking over my photos and thinking about it; I’m in awe of the garden and what has been accomplished in an urban environment. While my backyard isn’t as big as this one I could replicate something similar to it and I have to say I’m pretty inspired to do it.

If you’re looking to be inspired take a tour of this urban/edible garden, farm, oasis, Eden sometime. Bill Shores conducts tours of the location in the spring and summer. Although, you’ll have to wait until 2010 because it is booked for this year. I feel lucky to have gotten a chance to see it this year.

I wonder if they get that farming tax credit and if Phil Ponce does tours of his garden.

P.S. To the garden bloggers who visited for Chicago Spring Fling: Michael Thompson, of the Chicago Honey Co-Op and Chicago Tomato Fest, whom you may have met at the Lurie garden used to work for Rick Bayless and started this garden.

You can see more pictures of the Bayless urban/edible garden on local blogs: MySkinnyGarden & GardenGirl.


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  • Great stuff - I walked down the Bloomingdale trail about a week ago and was stopped dead in my tracks looking at this from the top. It took about 30 seconds to piece together the fact that it had to be the Bayless' garden. Along the top of the path, they have done a great job of planting forsythia and generally sprucing up the trail along their property. It does not give the feel of a block for privacy, but a more a nice touch in the neighborhood.

    One of the neat things about looking in at this garden from the top is that there are so many plants I did not know. I can spot a fair run of herbs, but it seemed like there are any number of plants that I do not know, and yes, I wanted to try them all.

    Peeking in comes with a sense of invasion of the Bayless' privacy, but not all of us have this space so how can you not stop for a look? I hope the growth of the Trail is a positive thing for all involved and that more people can come away inspired as I did.

    I did not know that Michael worked for Bayless. No surprise I guess...

  • In reply to CandidWines:

    Hi Damien,

    Thanks for stopping by again and commenting. If I remember correctly at the plant sale when I told Michael that I was going to the Bayless garden he said said he had worked for Rick and has started the garden. Next time I see him I'm going to have to pick his brain and ask him questions.

  • In reply to CandidWines:

    MBT - the most spectactular thing I found about Rick's garden was the food production part. But, I'll admit, it wasn't quite what I expected either. I've never seen his TV show, though.

    I've never heard of this Bloomingdale trail you are referring to but I did a quick search and it looks like something I definately need to check out. There is still so much in Chicago that I don't know anything about.

  • In reply to ginthom:

    Funny thing is that when I checked my email and saw your comment Rick's show was on TV. We'll have to do some hanging out before the weather gets too hot for me and show you some of Chicago.

  • In reply to ginthom:

    Given the amount of food produced, this really is an urban farm.
    As Martha would say, "that's a good thing".

  • In reply to Sydney:

    Yup, it is. Seeing it I wish there was a program or something that created places like this across the whole city so many more people could tour them and get an idea of what is possible if you're interested in growing your own food. Thanks for signing up for an account Sydney, your support means a lot.

  • In reply to ginthom:

    Eewww! Can I get my own avatar here?

  • In reply to Sydney:

    Sydney, I answered this one for SSGardenGirl but the answer is basically the same so I'll just quote myself"

    "LOL, you know I didn't know how to answer your question so I had to create a test account because my account is different. Anyway, I created one then when I signed in, I clicked on the username in the upper right-hand corner (same place where you sign up and sign in) and it took me to the profile page where I could put in more profile info and add a picture. Let me know if you have any problems and I'll pass it on."

    Hope it helps.

  • In reply to ginthom:

    I was impressed and pleased with how attainable many of the elements of the Bayless garden are. I loved the salvage-style design elements - conduit espalier supports, old rusty stuff - stuff you could find at a flea market or garage sale. There were lots of neat ideas in the design and decor using ordinary objects in interesting and creative ways. And of course the food gardening operation was very impressive. I learned a few things I can use in my teeny tiny veggie bed. The tour of the Bayless garden was fascinating and inspiring.

  • In reply to ginthom:

    And yeah, how DO we get our own avatar? I haven't been able to figure that out. I know that's a traffic cone, but it reminds me of a witch's hat! :)

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    LOL, you know I didn't know how to answer your question so I had to create a test account because my account is different. Anyway, I created one then when I signed in, I clicked on the username in the upper right-hand corner (same place where you sign up and sign in) and it took me to the profile page where I could put in more profile info and add a picture.

    Let me know if you have any problems and I'll pass it on.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Thanks Mr.Brown, found it right away this time. Don't know how I missed it before!

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Mr.Brown Thumb, that is!

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    What a wonderful day and amazing pictures. Wish it were my garden, farm, oasis :-)

    I do believe I will have to try and sign up for a tour in 2010!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    I have been wanting to take this tour for two years now -- 2010 is going to be my year. Need to look into signing up.

  • It is even bigger than the pictures lead you to believe, I didn't include all the pics I took because what would be the point of paying for a tour when you've seen it already? Anyway, I'll add a couple more to the Flickr group just to give you an idea. But he has a sunny area like you have and has created shady, woodland looking areas. Looking at the pics I almost find it hard to believe they are on the same property.

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