Uncommon Ground restaurant and organic farm, in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, doesn’t have much exposed soil to work with. The restaurant building sits at the intersection of two streets, and a parking lot wraps the other two sides.
Not too surprisingly, large containers, raised beds, and trellises are key parts of the farm. Uncommon Ground also uses existing structures to provide more space for growing.
The ways it has expanded to make full use of the small lot may help other gardeners working with limited space think of new ways to expand their own little farms.
The first idea is the least practical for most of us. In order to make the roof of the restaurant strong enough that the whole farm wouldn’t come crashing down onto diners at their tables, the original wood supports were removed, new metal supports were installed, and those were set more deeply into the ground.
This is not the kind of retrofit that can be done cheaply or easily. However, anyone thinking of building a new shed or workshop in the backyard, in a spot where there is plenty of sunlight, might consider whether installing a mini-rooftop farm is feasible.
If you know a structural engineer or architect, that would be helpful. Working out how to make the structure strong enough to hold the load of soil, water, and plants will require their expertise.
Stair rails as trellises
Installing trellises everywhere possible helps, but using existing structures (and not just the rooftop!) is also good. One feature at Uncommon Ground that is hard to miss is the amazingly productive grapevine threaded through the outside stair rail, all the way up to the roof.
At my house, our grapevine is trained onto the railings of our back deck, but my vine is not nearly as productive as the vine at Uncommon Ground.
Another way I have used existing structures in my gardening in the past was when we lived on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I planted cucumbers in pots, then set the pots at the base of our (South-facing) metal-scrollwork porch posts. The cucumbers grew up the scrollwork posts. Harvesting was as easy as stepping out the front door.
It is important, when planting food crops, to remember not to set them into the ground too close to our homes in the Southeastern U.S. The foundations of our homes have all been chemically treated to deter termites.
The chemicals involved are not rated as being safe for eating, but plant roots don’t know that. The roots would bring the unwelcome chemicals into our plants along with the water and nutrients they need. The chemicals would totally wreck our plans for organically home-grown food!
Walls for plant support
The most luxuriant hop vine I have ever seen is at Uncommon Ground, supported by a brick wall. In the Southeastern U.S., we might not choose hops as the crop to drape over a wall, due to leaf-disease issues that they get here, but the idea is a good one.
Do you grow climbing forms of nasturtiums, passionfruit, or other vining crops?
If your property has a wall that is not part of the house, in a sunny spot, plants can be espaliered in front of it (little fruit trees), or draped over it, like at Uncommon Ground.
Meanwhile, in my yard
For me, just north of Atlanta, it is time to plant crops that have a listed days-to-maturity of 55-60 days. That includes ‘Detroit dark red’ beets, ‘Little finger’ carrots, and ‘Marvel of 4 Seasons’ lettuce. The carrots and winter radishes that I planted a couple of weeks ago have sent up their first leaves. The fall garden really has begun!