The Organic Gardener used to be one of the best-kept secrets on the North Shore, but today it’s growing like never before. Winnetka native Jeanne Nolan started the company, which specializes in the design, installation, and maintenance of organic gardens, in 2005 and, to date, a staff of 25 has planted and maintained nearly 1,000 vegetable gardens across the Chicagoland area. That’s no small potatoes.
Their work thrives in a number of distinct places, with a majority in private family homes (especially in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff) as well as schools, corporate campuses like Takeda in Deerfield, country clubs that use the yield for farm-to-table programs and even public areas such as Old Orchard Mall and Lincoln Park Zoo, where the gardens become teaching opportunities for children “to learn about where food comes from,” she says. In fact, the Zoo’s “Edible Garden” was the first Nolan officially arranged after having the idea for the company for some time.
“When I was 18 I decided I wanted to be an organic farmer and I went to apprentice on a farm in California. That turned into a 17-year journey [doing similar projects] across the country before I moved home in 2004 and began The Organic Gardener,” she recalls.
How it works is Nolan and her team meet with the client to ascertain their needs and help them pick from a five-page list of crops (everything from sugar snap peas and squash to eggplant and kale). Planting commences in April and usually is put to bed around Thanksgiving, though she says, “we can use something called ‘season extension’ to in effect create mini greenhouses that enables some of the cold hearty crops like spinach and kale to grow nearly year-round,” an especially important tactic in Chicago’s fickle climate. Then, each season, new crops can be implanted for seasonal bounty.
Her mission for The Organic Gardener is three-fold: growing gardens that are visually appealing (“We put a high priority on creating gardens that compliment the home and existing landscaping,” she says), that consistently produce a high yield of produce and that are completely organic and chemical-free.
That last part Nolan says is of utmost importance because “we have a lot to counteract in our society when it comes to healthy food and living.” As GMOs and sustainability become ever increasing buzzwords, companies like The Organic Gardener fill a unique role of allowing clients to remain accountable for their diet and lifestyle without being responsible for the heavy lifting, which can be a challenge in today’s fast-paced world. To meet that need, Nolan and her staff offer varied packages for care post-installation all the way up to full harvesting, a popular choice amongst elderly clients.
“Our company has grown consistently every year, but what I have seen recently is that the range of organizations and people seeking services has become wider and there’s more of a priority for it. People who are building new homes are now designing rooftop gardens and involving us in the process with the architect from the start. So our timing as company is good.” The popularity has also allowed Nolan to release her first book through Random House, called From The Ground Up (part memoir, part research, part DIY guide book) and also receive continual attention from the press including a regular segment on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight program.
It’s pretty much how Paula Lillard Preschlack first found out about The Organic Gardener. “I saw an ad while standing in a Starbucks one day and thought, ‘This is what I’ve always wanted.’ Someone to help me learn to garden with my children.” At the time, Preschlack’s children were two and four; today they are 11 and 13 years old and she says her connection with Nolan has turned into a great friendship. “What I really love about everyone who works there is that they take the time to connect with all the client’s family members and teach anyone of any age or ability level how to garden,” Preschlack says. “They share their passion for nature and ‘plant the seeds’ of enthusiasm for growing one’s own food into the hearts of the future generation.”
A transformation like Preschlack’s is what makes the job incredibly rewarding for Nolan. “Having a home vegetable garden can become a very positive lifestyle change in our technologically-driven world. It is really a way for families to connect to nature and each other,” she says. “When you harvest together, you cook together and end up at the table together.” It’s also an easy and effective way to take care of the environment and reduce your carbon footprint, she says. “Anyone, anywhere can grow their own food. As people start to realize that, it’s exciting to see where the movement ultimately takes us.”
To learn more about The Organic Gardener, visit theorganicgardener.net, or call 847-830-0093.