Jeanne Nolan (Photo: Jill Paider)
by Andrew DeCanniere
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jeanne Nolan who is the Founder and President of The Organic Gardener Ltd., based in Highland Park, Illinois, and the author of From the Ground Up (Random House, 2013), regarding her partnership with AMLI Residential. Read on to see what she had to say about the The Organic Gardener, the community gardens she created at some of AMLI Residential’s properties, the benefits of community gardens and much more.
UR Chicago Magazine: For those who may not already know, what is The Organic Gardner and how did it get its start?
Jeanne Nolan: Our company is headquartered on the North Shore, in Highland Park, and this is our 12th year in business. We focus on creating and managing edible gardens for residences, families, businesses, non-profit organizations and schools. Since we started the company in 2005, we have created well over 1,000 vegetable gardens in the midwest region — primarily in and around Chicagoland. We attribute the growth of our company to the simultaneous growth in our society of the seed-to-table movement or the Good Food Movement. As you and I had been discussing, more and more people from all walks of life, and all facets of our society, are paying more attention to what they’re eating — to health and wellness and to an environmental focus for our planet. Growing food and learning about where our food comes from is a wonderful way to connect to something more basic and very primary to being human. When we participate in growing our own food, it brings a lot of pleasure and positive benefits.
UR: Certainly on multiple fronts.
JN: I agree. Everything from kids needing to have more time outside in nature to childhood obesity to anxiety and depression to all the unhealthy foods the kids are eating. It goes on and on.
UR: And now you’re teaming up with AMLI Residential, which sounds like a really interesting concept.
JN: It’s a very exciting partnership. We began with AMLI in their River North location in 2013, so this is our fourth year in that location. They approached us because they are leaders in creating high-end luxury apartment living that reflects the values of sustainability and being green. Very often their buildings are LEED-certified and they try to implement as many green initiatives as they can. They have a lot of unique, well-developed amenities, so they’re not just apartment buildings. Adding this unique amenity of being able to have your own organic garden right within your own complex, is very well-suited to AMLI’s mission and the mission of The Organic Gardener. Our message is that almost anybody, anywhere can grow — or participate in growing — some of their own food. Even in the River North neighborhood, on the rooftop of an apartment building, families and individuals can connect with nature and where their food comes from.
UR: And I think just that connection to your food — knowing how it’s grown, who grew it, where it comes from — can all be that much more difficult in an urban setting like Chicago. I think it’s all too easy to become disconnected from where your food comes from when you can just go to the grocery store, get whatever you need and bring it back home. There really isn’t that connection to the source.
JN: Absolutely. I think that’s a really good point and, along with that, there are people in our country like Michael Pollan, Alice Waters and Mark Bittman who are really trying to convey the importance of eating fresh food that has come directly from the earth, as opposed to food in a box. I think more people are tuning into that. When we eat all processed foods or fast food, we’re eating foods that have been prepared for us by corporations. That is not a very personal relationship. When we shift and buy food at a Farmers’ Market or when you grow your own food — or, in this case, if you’re a resident at an AMLI property and walk in the lobby and can take a bundle of fresh herbs that were just picked from the garden — we’re putting our values right there, in our food. We want a world that is more personally connected and connected to the earth. We want to know where our food came from. It’s very empowering.
UR: And, as you seem to say, the more connected you feel to the environment, the more thoughtful and respectful you tend to be of it.
JN: One of my personal missions and goals — and obviously one of the missions of my company — is to bring children into a deeper understanding of our profound connection to the earth. Our actions do have an effect and when we grow our own food, we lighten our carbon footprint. We’re making responsible decisions and that can get us interested in making other decisions that are, as you said, more respectful and more thoughtful. We try to live as citizens of the earth, doing our best to live lightly. It’s very challenging in a technology-driven world, but growing your own food can often be one of the first steps a person takes. Then they may want to compost their food waste, or they stop using plastic bags, or whatever it may be.
UR: And I’d think it’s a wonderful way to put where we fit into the system, as it were, into much more concrete terms. The idea that we have an impact on the planet is no longer just this abstract idea, as it might otherwise be to some people.
UR: You also touch on the social benefits of the community garden. It seems to me that is an important aspect, particularly nowadays. Not only can we, at times, be disconnected from the planet and our impact upon it, but we can also be quite distracted or disconnected from one another. So, it seems to me that people are also hungrier than ever for more of that human connection or interaction, too.
JN: Absolutely right. Gardens are very often gathering places. They’re places the community can enjoy together, places that bring people together. Certainly, these gardens are designed to do that. Just as you may have shared workspace or office within an apartment building, the garden is another shared space where people can gather together.
UR: Then you mentioned the health benefits as well.
JN: Absolutely. We certainly have a health crisis in our country.
UR: I was actually just discussing that very thing with someone the other day. It seems more an opportune time than perhaps ever before. You have reports talking about obesity — which you just mentioned — about the diabetes epidemic, about how we’re living more sedentary lives than ever before. It just seems like a wonderful way to help address some of these very serious problems facing our society.
JN: I completely agree, and very often when we help create gardens for families in their backyards, I end up having conversation with the parents where we view the garden as an offset to our fast-paced, technology driven lives. People can slow down and do something that humans have done forever. We can grow our own food, gather food and be more active.
UR: And it seems like the movement has really grown. I just took a look at your Press Release and in it you say that community gardening is up by 200% since 2008.
JN: Right. It’s a rapidly growing movement. It’s a pretty doable way to take action and do something positive in our lives. I think so many of us are hungry for that. There is a lot of bad news in our world. Data and the news around this seed-to-table movement — and the growth of this movement — is very inspiring, hopeful and positive.
UR: Last, but not least, since we’ve talking about how much the movement has grown in such a short time, I’ve been wondering, when and how was it that you initially recognized its importance and became involved?
JN: Well, when I was 18 years old, I became upset about the destruction of our environment, and I wanted to do something outdoors and physical. I’m a suburban kid. I grew up around your area. That was at the very beginning of the time when an increased environmental awareness began to take hold, when some of the earlier people who stated this movement of growing your own food began to really get going. It’s been more in the past 10 – 15 years that it has really picked up pace and has become more mainstream.
This interview originally appeared in Chicago Splash Magazine.