5 Easy Tips for Building an Onsite Garden
From Perfect Soil to What to Grow, Experts Offer Tips
Prominently displayed at Arbor’s entrance is a surefire conversation starter: a World War II-era bicycle with a miniature cart melded to its front.
The cart presents a typical sampling of the restaurant’s latest bounty, varying from cherry red tomatoes and juicy huckleberries to some other colorful produce.
It’s not a marketing ploy to prove that they’re serving fresh produce; instead, it plays up the fact that Arbor grew these things on its own farm—located directly behind the restaurant. Owners Chad Little and Leonard Hollander have carved out at least 17,000 square feet of space dedicated to growing—at its peak—up to 70 different types of produce.
The duo, who have worked as chefs and managers at various Chicago restaurants, opened the eatery in the city’s trendy Logan Square neighborhood. And while it’s in an area that’s fully embraced the farm-and-table movement with award-winning restaurants like Lula Café and Longman & Eagle, they maintain that they don’t grow these items to be on trendseekers’ radars.
“We don’t do it for the recognition,” says Little. “We do it because we want to have better produce for the restaurant and bar.” On the farm, they grow black currant bushes, Japanese eggplant, baby onions, microgreens, edible flowers, asparagus, hops and radishes. And inside, throughout the restaurant, they’re growing various herbs such as mint and rosemary.
It sounds like a daunting undertaking, but Little admits that they were lucky in acquiring the services of an experienced husband-and-wife farming team, who also happen to work in Arbor’s kitchen. Nevertheless, he says, anyone can start a farm with the right materials and mindset.
Tip 1: Good Soil is #1
Before anything, Little emphasizes, one must have good soil. “We’ve learned just how crucially important soil is,” he admits. “If your soil health isn’t there, it won’t work. Nothing will grow.”
Seasoned gardener and master mixologist Lynn House offers some great tips for generating wallet-friendly soil. “You want to make sure that it is rich with nutrients,” says the national brand educator for Heaven Hill Brands. She recommends using old coffee grounds or eggshells as well as turning leaves into compost.
Tip 2: Start Simple
Little also recommends that those new to farming or gardening should grow simple items. “Start with something really small like wild strawberries,” Little suggests. “They’re crazy expensive to buy (in stores), so growing them would be perfect. They just need good irrigation and sun.”
Tip 3: Explore Other Restaurants
For the ambitious, he continues, look to see what other restaurants are putting on their menus and research to see if you can grow those items. One of his hobbies is exploring ethnic restaurants to learn everything he can about their ingredients.
Tip 4: Grow Flavorful Herbs
Herbs are also easy to grow and maintain, he adds. “A lot of restaurants will grow herbs like mint in little pots. It’s simple and makes sense. And it’s worth it because your cuisine changes drastically. You won’t want to manipulate your dishes as much because you’ll want that ingredient (that you grew) to shine.”
Tip 5: Invest in Some Literature
Good old-fashioned reading is also essential, she adds. “Invest in a gardening book. Sunset Gardens is one name that jumps out for me. You can also Google pretty much anything now, so research basic garden tips.”