Restaurant opens 2,500-square foot Organic Rooftop Farm – first to be Certified Organic in the USA
Photo: Scott Stewart, Sun-Times. Helen Cameron inspects the veggies growing on the roof of her restaurant. “I come up once a day to see what’s ripe,” she said. Six tons of soil were carried up to the roof. Larger image here.
An uplifting aspiration – Uncommon Ground has reached new heights in its efforts to bring food production back to earth.
By Dave Hoekstra
September 3, 2008
In late July the folks at the Uncommon Ground restaurant, 1401 W. Devon, opened their 2,500-square foot organic rooftop farm. The lofty mission is to deliver organic produce for the downstairs restaurant and to use the garden to teach adult volunteers and children how to grow food organically in an urban, roof-top environment.
“There’s a lot of green roofs in Chicago,” said Helen Cameron, co-owner of Uncommon Ground during a roof top tour. “But they are not necessarily geared for full-on production and as an educational tool. We made an enormous investment with the idea of producing food for the restaurant. That’s the biggest difference between us and other green roofs.”
The uncommon farm is built on recycled deck material 20 feet atop the street. The farm currently has arugula, beans, beets, collard greens, cucumbers, peas, peppers, pumpkins, tomatoes and watermelon.
Uncommon Ground Executive Chef Brian Millman said, “We just used the peppers from the garden and stuffed them with chorizo. When things from the farm are ready, we’ll incorporate it however we can. I come up once a day to see what’s ripe and ready. We work a lot with local farmers and it’s one thing to go to the farmers markets and get produce knowing it was picked a day or two before. But to be able to come up here and immediately put it into use is mind-boggling.”
The restaurant seats 160 inside and another 40 on an outside ground level cafe. The Uncommon Ground on Devon also has a 1,500 square foot performance space. Millman said the rooftop produce also will be used at the original Uncommon Ground at 3800 N. Clark St.
The rooftop farm also has a pair of beehives that produce 40 to 50 pounds of honey for the restaurant. Cameron met her beekeeper Liam Ford at the Hideout block party; after all that’s how Chicago works.
Farm equipment includes 28 cedar planter boxes, designed by Cameron and the Organic Gardener in Evanston. The planter boxes were built by the restaurant’s construction team. They have digitally programmed irrigation systems for water efficiency. Another 12 earth boxes were delivered from the Growing Connection, a group affiliated with the United Nations. The enclosed organic boxes are used as an educational tool and growing system for places worldwide. Cameron is working to have the space certified as an organic farm through the Midwest Organic Services Association.
“I don’t want any use of chemicals,” she said as a butterfly fluttered across the skyline farm. “It is also designed to create a zero carbon footprint. We will experiment with a variety of different plants to see which produce the best in this environment and really angle our growing process towards that, growing as much as we can use in the restaurant.” A portion of the farm is shadowed by five 4′ X 10′ solar thermal panels that heat up to 70 percent of the restaurant’s water.
The Uncommon Ground rooftop farm is not open to the public, although owners Helen and Michael Cameron are known to offer private tours. (Once the details are worked out for the public classes, they will be held on the rooftop.) A table with an umbrella sits on the northeast side of the farm for gardeners to have lunch or a cool drink.
Building the farm was no picnic.
Volunteers from the community and the restaurant carried six tons of soil to the roof. As is the case with all rooftop gardens and farms, the use of vegetation keeps the restaurant cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, which reduces energy use. Eventually the restaurant will build a large catch basin to collect rainwater from the roof to be used at ground level. “We’re trying to be very efficient with our resources,” Cameron said.
Michael Cameron said the construction process was the biggest challenge for the restaurant. Including structural elements, the project cost roughly $150,000. “My structural engineer said we could probably land the presidential helicopter on the roof,” Michael Cameron said. “With the new building codes and city requirements the beams that support this farm are the same beams that support that high-rise over there,” and he looked at one nearby. “We resupported the entire building. We dug down five feet and put in all new posts and beams. That was all to support what we wanted to do on the roof.
“This has been one giant experiment. We are definitely winging it on what we can get up here.”
Large Panorama Photos of Uncommon Ground Rooftop Food Garden
Kids Taking Class on Roof