Michelle Obama isn’t the only locavore with a backyard Vegetable garden. These three urbanites have turned their private patches of land—including a rooftop in Ukrainian Village—into micro farms. Their mantra? Anyone can do it. PLUS: Read our quick beginner’s guide to planting and check out our resources list.
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When does Melina Kelson-Podolsky sleep? Besides teaching full-time in the culinary arts program at Kendall College, running a catering business on the side, raising her young daughter, and training for marathons, Kelson-Podolsky somehow found the time last year to turn her entire corner lot in Skokie into an organic food garden. Does she sleep? She laughs off the question. “I’m not really capable of doing things small if I’m impassioned about them.”
No kidding. Here on her city-size lot, located on a busy street amid a sea of nondescript 1950s brick ranches, Kelson-Podolsky has planted roughly 115 different cultivars of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. The majority of what she grows began life as charmingly named heirloom seeds: Flame lettuce. Green Arrow peas. Mr. Stripey tomatoes. Unlike bland grocery-store vegetables, bred mainly to survive long-distance travel and extended stints in the produce aisle, these old-time varieties have been handed down through generations of gardeners primarily because they are deeply, intensely flavorful.
And Kelson-Podolsky clearly is first and foremost a foodie, prone to rhapsodic and detailed descriptions of what she grows, such as purple tomatillos that she says are “downright dessert-like-fruity with this sort of light, tomato-y essence on the finish.” She grew up the child of two food writers (Allen and Carla Kelson, who pioneered Chicago magazine’s restaurant criticism in the 1970s and ’80s); became a baker and pastry chef; and married a former chef for Levy Restaurants. Although she did go to a farm camp as a child, she was more into riding horses and milking cows than anything else. “I never thought of myself as someone with a green thumb,” Kelson-Podolsky says.
Nevertheless, she decided to plant a small plot of vegetables in the backyard after she and her husband bought their home in 2002. She wanted a garden mainly so she could grow “all kinds of crazy things I wouldn’t be able to find in the grocery store.” The whole thing really took off last year after Kelson-Podolsky attended a seminar by Growing Power, a nonprofit group that promotes urban agriculture. “It was a completely impulsive thing,” she says. “I started ripping out our ugly grass [to create planting beds]; I thought my husband was going to kill me.” One bed became four, which eventually became pretty much the entire yard except for daughter Jordan’s swing set—and its time is running out.
Surprisingly, people in the cars whizzing past Kelson-Podolsky’s home are unlikely to notice the bounty of food growing there. Wanting to avoid straight rows that would look too “farmy,” she instead created curvaceous beds with colorful thatches of cosmos, bee balm, and coleus planted among the produce. “I want to fit in the neighborhood,” Kelson-Podolsky explains. “I want it to be beautiful as well as practical.”
Initially she was concerned that the neighbors might object to such an unconventional use of the home’s public space, but the garden has proved to be an unexpected community builder. One day, she came upon an elderly woman sitting among the gooseberries and corn and arugula out front. The woman declined Kelson-Podolsky’s offer of help, saying, “I’m just enjoying the garden. Is that okay?” Another woman, who had never spoken to Kelson-Podolsky in the many times they had passed on a nearby running path, dropped by to give her an anise hyssop bush. And after pausing a half-dozen times during the installation of the front planting beds, a stranger around the corner announced he had rented a chainsaw to hack down his bushes. “I’ve never gardened before,” he told her, “but I’m putting in a garden.”
Nothing could delight Kelson-Podolsky more. “I think there’s a spiritual connection to growing your own food and being really engaged in the process,” she says. “Yesterday, one of my neighbors was asking what the collard was. To be able to break off a few stems and say, ‘Here, go home; this is how you cook it,’ and for them to know, ‘Hey, she was growing that on her front steps’—that’s deeply gratifying.”
Photograph: Andreas Larsson