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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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From Rooftop-to-Plate, Urban Farmer Helps Chicago Chefs Grow Hyper Local Sustainable Produce

June 11, 2012 |

Over a decade ago, Chicago led the way for green roofs by covering the top of City Hall with 20,000 plants and more than 150 species. A series of grants followed and many green roofs cropped up across Chicago’s skyline. O’Hare Airport alone boasts a dozen green roofs including the top of the Control Tower and massive 190,000-square-foot FedEx Cargo Building. Now the city’s restaurants are beginning to green their rooftops as well, filling planters with organic herbs and vegetables in an effort to be green and deliver ultra local rooftop-to-plate fare to diners.

It was this trend for chefs to have their own rooftop gardens that caught Sara Gasbarra’s attention and moved her to found her company, Verdura Edible Garden Design. Verdura has been up and running for one year now and business is booming. This month she plans to install 83 Earthboxes at the Chicago Hilton, her biggest job yet. The large garden installation, which Verdura will set up on the hotel’s visible 8th floor outdoor deck, will feature red peppers, cherry tomatoes, and a wide array of herbs and greens to be harvested for dishes at its restaurants.

Asked about the Earthboxes she employs in her rooftop garden projects, Gasbarra says, “EarthBoxes lend themselves well to urban gardens. They can be clustered on a roof together strategically and work well in small spaces.”

As part of her rooftop garden planning process, Gasbarra first has the chef client create a wish list. She then evaluates the space and light, considers the logistics, and subsequently determines which plants from the wish list will work best. “My intention is to maximize the yield, taking into consideration limited space and seasonality,” explains Gasbarra.

For her projects, she sources organic plants from a few select local farmers (not nurseries), and her sustainable methods include the use of organic soil and fish emulsion, and custom irrigation systems with timed drip watering. Verdura also provides year round maintenance services and tends the gardens for many of its restaurant and chef clients.

Though Gasbarra grew up eating meals prepared from her Italian parents’ backyard plot, her passion for planting gardens took hold at Chicago’s impressive Green City Market, which serves the city’s chefs, food organizations and public with organic and sustainable produce. Her volunteering led to full-time work managing the Lincoln Park Zoo garden, an educational program spearheaded by the expanding farmers’ market.

“Green City Market was instrumental in changing my life,” says Gasbarra who worked in universities before finding her calling. “It’s where I honed my skills in creating gardens in a city setting.” She met a lot of chefs at the 14-year old farmers market, where they would come every Wednesday to pick up local farmers’ fruits and vegetables, from apples to squash. In fact Sandra and Mathieu Holls of Floriole Cafe and Bakery, Verdura’s first client, had a popular pastry stand at Green City Market before the couple opened its café.

Earthboxes on the Rooftop Garden at Floriole Cafe and Bakery in Chicago. Photo Credit: Verdura

Customers find the rooftop garden “pretty awesome,” says Sandra Holl, who spices up salads with her own seasonal herbs. “It is very convenient to run up to the roof for some more chives as opposed to going to the market. Heartier greens like mustard and kale are used on our pizzettas or quiche.”

Holl of Floriole notes that it’s not cheap and takes extra work, but loves having herbs and flowers at her fingertips. “Our produce needs are much larger than what our little garden could ever yield, but having fresh herbs and produce so close—in the city—is priceless.”

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