It’s been three years since Jeanne Nolan, author, lecturer and founder of The Organic Gardener, moved into the 4.5 acre Northbrook farm she, her husband, and their two daughters (plus three dogs, three chickens, two goats, a hive of honey bees, and a pair of alpacas) now call home.
As the Nolans’ menagerie of animals frolic inside a paddock, Verd and Jeanne are preparing their large, organic vegetable garden for the season’s first crop of lettuce, spinach, broccoli, sugar snap peas, and radish seeds, to be planted at the end of April.
“Early spring is a time when we till our soil,” explained Verd. “We bring compost into our raised garden beds and work in those nutrients so the soil is really alive – adding air by turning and fluffing it.”
When it comes to soil, as with all topics related to gardening, the Nolans are experts. Thirteen years ago, Jeanne founded The Organic Gardener, based in Highland Park and rooted in the heartfelt belief that anyone anywhere can grow his or her own food, whether it’s in a backyard, a schoolyard, or an urban fire escape.
Since then, Jeanne, Verd, and a team of 14 full-time and 14 seasonal employees designed, built and maintained over 1,000 edible vegetable gardens in homes, schools, non-profit organizations, country clubs – even shopping malls – up and down the North Shore and beyond, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana.
Jeanne’s 2013 memoir, From the Ground Up, features a forward by Alice Waters, owner of the Berkeley, CA restaurant, Chez Panisse, famous for its organically grown, locally sourced ingredients.
“The Organic Gardener is more than just a business,” said Jeanne. “It’s a movement.”
So too is Middlefork – the Nolans’ busy Northbrook homestead – more than just a house. It’s also a demonstration farm, where the Nolans put principles of organic gardening into practice; a living laboratory, where gardeners, prospective clients, students groups, and educators, are all invited to observe.
The Nolans even hosted a successful fundraiser at Middlefork Farm for the Chicago non-profit, Green City Market, with whom Jeanne has worked closely over the years.
‘”Our home and our business are one in the same,” said Jeanne. “We’ve essentially created an interactive, sustainable project here in our own home.”
Since purchasing Middlefork’s 1938 farmhouse and outbuildings in 2015, the Nolans have been hard at work. A small white toolshed on the property serves as a carpentry workshop for The Organic Gardener. A wide variety of fresh, organic vegetables are grown on the property, including berries, pumpkins, corn and watermelon. Jeanne and Verd have also planted an orchard of miniature apple, pear and peach trees, still yet to bear fruit.
“Come back in 2020 and these things will really be going,” said Verd.
The farm’s two lively Nigerian Dwarf goats – while small – produce milk with a high fat content, a food product the Nolans plan to utilize one day. The Nolans’ alpacas are prized for their fiber, but also their dung, one of the chief fertilizers used at Middlefork.
“You can place alpaca droppings directly onto a garden – right away,” said Verd. “They won’t burn it with nitrogen.”
Chewbarka, the Nolans’ lovable Great Pyrannees/Maremma Sheepdog mix, patrols the farmyard, working the fence line and barking when coyotes threaten to encroach.
Suburban farms like Middlefork, say the Nolans, have become increasingly popular as local residents seek a connection with nature and a deeper involvement in the growing of food. Gardening, the couple suggests, is an antidote to modern America’s, junk food- laden, screen time- saturated, society.
“Growing a home garden is a great way to make sure today’s kids are getting their hands dirty and know how to do some physical work,” said Jeanne.
As far back as 20 years ago, when Jeanne was still a New Trier student growing up in Winnetka, she craved a less materialistic, more authentic lifestyle. For nearly two decades, trailblazer Jeanne lived and worked on communal farms in Southern California, Asheville, NC, and Austin, TX, where she met Verd, a native of Oak Park, IL.
“We were 16 and 18 when we started growing our own food,” said Jeanne. “We were outliers at the time. Remember, this was long before Whole Foods.”
Now back in Chicago, working and raising a family, Jeanne appreciates the North Shore community in which she was raised.
“From Lake Forest all the way to Evanston, everyone is gardening,” said Jeanne. “Not only does this community love and care about plants, it’s also very focused on health and diet, which co-aligns with our business.”
True to their belief system, the Nolans use organic marketing for their business.
“Word of mouth is primarily how we’ve grown,” said Jeanne. “Those North Shore dinner party conversations are very helpful to us.”