In Conversation with Jeanne Nolan - Founder of The Organic Gardener

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Jeanne Nolan, founder of Glencoe-based The Organic Gardener about the Organic Garden at Westfield Old Orchard shopping center in Skokie, Illinois. Read on to see what she had to say about her company and the work that they do, Westfield Old Orchard’s Organic Garden, the importance of connecting with nature, the benefits of growing your own food and eating organically-grown produce and much more.

Jeanne Nolan (Photo Credit: Jill Paider)

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): I actually hadn’t heard of “The Organic Gardener” until recently. When & how did the company start? I was just looking at the website, and noticed that you really provide quite the range of services.

Jeanne Nolan (JN): Yeah, we do. My husband and I run the company together. We have about 20 people on our team, and we are in our 10th growing season. We started the company in 2005. It’s been a special year for us. We published a book with Random House. It’s all about the ‘grow your own food’ movement and about our company and my personal story. Yesterday we had a big review of the book in The New York Times. We have built over 700 food gardens in and around Chicago. We work with residential gardens, with families, both in the suburbs and in the city. We work in backyards, front yards, on rooftops, containers. We have a large teaching garden in Lincoln Park Zoo that we’ve had for 10 years that we do on behalf of Green City Market. Some of the work that we do is more focused on food deserts in the inner city. We work with a homeless boys shelter, boys & girls clubs that have after-school programs. We have all kinds of projects going.

AD: Yeah. I noticed there’s really everything from individuals to non-profits to restaurants and  schools and beyond. 

JN: That’s right, and you know, it’s especially remarkable to us that the great people at Old Orchard called us and said that they had done a survey of their shoppers. One of the questions that they had asked is whether the shoppers would like to have a community garden at the mall, and the mall got an overwhelming response that they would. Then they called us and said ‘Well, what is a community garden? How do we do that?’ So we figured that out together.

We live in a fast-paced, technology-driven world, I think it’s really important on so many levels to connect with nature. To connect with where our food comes from. So, growing food is something that can be done just about anywhere, obviously. We’re doing it in the center of a shopping mall [Westfield Old Orchard in Skokie, Illinois], and we’re getting an amazing response there. Really any time of day, on a nice day, if you stand and watch the garden, there’s a constant flow of children and adults marveling at it and interacting with the plants. I think that we’re all hungry for more basic, real connection to each other, to our food and to our planet, and growing food is a wonderful gateway to that.

The Organic Garden at Westfield Old Orchard (Photo Credit: Westfield Old Orchard)

AD: Especially now, when most of us — or many of us — here in the U.S. are so used to living in these sort of urban environments or suburban environments, as the case may be, whether that’s in Chicago or in Skokie or Glencoe, or really anywhere else on the North Shore. Normally we’re pretty far removed from where our food comes from. You walk or drive from your home to this grocery store — this big-box environment — you buy what you need or want to buy there and then you take it back home with you. There’s really no interaction with nature, no interaction with the environment. It’s totally removed from the process itself. So, I think that it’s wonderful to have these kinds of opportunities to reconnect, to think about and learn more about where our food actually comes from.

JN: Right. And there are so many positive benefits to be connecting. Children who grow vegetables eat more vegetables. That’s been proven in numerous university studies. Gardening has a very positive effect on our mood, on our attitude. So there are just so many positives that are so easily available when you dig in.

AD: And hopefully it also will make people feel more responsible toward the environment, more inclined to take care of the planet, to do the right thing by the planet upon which we depend.

JN: I completely agree. There’s this perspective that we are the stewards of the Earth. We are responsible for the planet. Only when we take care of it will it continue to take care of and sustain us. It’s this reciprocal relationship, and when we engage in growing food, it really makes that connection obvious.

The Organic Garden at Westfield Old Orchard (Photo Credit: Westfield Old Orchard)

AD: It certainly makes the fact that our own health and the environment’s health are related — are inextricably linked, as it were. There is no separating the two.

JN: That’s right. You know, we are a small planet within a big system, and it’s our air and our water and our soil. It’s all connected, no matter where we live. 

AD: You said you’re working with a pretty diverse array of people, companies and organizations. What kinds of services do you provide?

JN: Well, we basically cover the full gamut of what is needed to succeed at growing vegetables. So, we design. We have a landscape architect on our team. We build. We build fences and raised beds and irrigation systems and composting systems. We plant. We work with families and groups to plant together. Then we come on a regular basis — every week 
or every other week or several times a week — to teach at and maintain these gardens. So, we’re really involved from seed to table, the whole process of helping to create successful edible gardening programs.

AD: Also, as far as the organic garden at Westfield Old Orchard, you have a pretty wide range of events planned this year. For readers who are interested but who may not be familiar — I tried to look over some of it — what are some of the highlights of some of the events that are coming up?

JN: We have a lot of different, fun activities that we do with the kids where they create garden journals or they release ladybugs or they make seed necklaces. There’s a harvesting of all the food that’s grown in the garden. It’s then donated to a local food pantry. So once the garden is full of food, the kids are able to help us harvest and get that ready to be donated.

The Organic Garden at Westfield Old Orchard (Photo Credit: Westfield Old Orchard)

AD: And I don’t know if there is, but is there a specific age range that you have in mind for these activities?

JN: I’d say ages 3 to 11, but we have a lot of adults who come by and learn at the garden.

AD: Which is great. I was just about to say that there probably are a lot of topics that are covered that would be of interest to adults as well. There’s something that they can learn by stopping by.

JN: Yeah. I think that with them we tend to do a little more question and answer. What people are interested in. They get to ask us questions and we talk gardening. That works real well.

AD: And it’s also great that it highlights the benefits of growing your own produce and the benefits of eating organically grown produce, versus what is termed ‘conventionally grown.’

JN: Right, and part of what we wanted to demonstrate is that you can grow just about any vegetable you like, even in a container. You know, our garden in Old Orchard is not in the ground, but in a series of containers that grow food very well.

The Organic Garden at Westfield Old Orchard (Photo Credit: Westfield Old Orchard)

AD: Which is also a wonderful lesson for people who perhaps don’t have as much of their own outdoor space in which to grow things. For example, I’m in a condo, so my outdoor space is a balcony, and container gardening works well for that kind of a setting. People can learn what they can do at home.

JN: Definitely. And there’s such a wide range of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers that you can grow. It’s pretty amazing, and one of our goals is to demonstrate that and inspire people.

I think there are more and more people realizing that the footprint of how we human beings are walking on the planet is a detrimental one, and that the fabric of these things that we do that are woven into our daily lives are really having a negative effect. On the flip side of it, there are so many ways in which we can make a difference, and growing our own food and eating food that’s been produced locally is a very significant way we can walk lighter on the planet.

AD: And the local movement certainly seems to be catching on as well. You certainly are seeing more farmers markets cropping up, and even grocery stores are beginning to promote locally-grown produce. 

The Organic Garden at Westfield Old Orchard (Photo Credit: Westfield Old Orchard)

JN: Definitely. And the food tastes so much better, too. You know? 

AD: Yeah, in large part because it’s not shipped from who-knows-where and handled who-knows-how. Often grocery stores don’t necessarily handle, transport and store every item the way it should ideally be handled, transported and stored, and so by the time it’s out on the shelf at your local big-box type supermarket, it’s really past it’s prime. It either is very, very evident that it has just been picked way too early in an effort to get it to the supermarket in time, or it’s just super obvious that it has already started to go bad. Often they’ll have no taste to it whatsoever.

JN: Yeah, it’s more like cardboard than food.

AD: When you have local, when you have these farmers markets, it just seems like the quality is so much better. Things actually taste as they should. An apple tastes like an apple, for example. It’s food as it should be. Is there anything else you would like to add?

JN: Well, I think that we welcome families to come. Our garden is just adjacent to the relatively new PlaySpace at the Old Orchard mall, and I think it’s a great place where families can hang out and their kids can play and wander over to our garden and learn about where their food comes from, right in the middle of our suburban lives in the mall, and I think that that’s very exciting. There’s a garden on the White House lawn. Just so many places in and around cities and suburbs where people are making a difference growing food and it’s fun that we’ve got a program like that right here. Our staff loves to interact with children and adults, and help them learn hands-on about all of this.

The Organic Garden at Westfield Old Orchard (Photo Credit: Westfield Old Orchard)

AD: And I think it’s great that you’re just getting out in the community. Not to say people wouldn’t seek that sort of information out, but I guess a lot of people don’t. So this may get their wheels turning. After visiting the garden, having sort of stumbled upon it, maybe they will start to think about what they can do. 

JN: I think so and that’s certainly one of the goals of it. Especially with young people. When kids get exposed to this, it’s really exciting and wondrous to them. Part of our children being the future of a sustainable world is them understanding our relationship with the planet and our food and how that works, and it’s a great chance for them to do that. I would encourage anybody who wants to start their own garden and who wants some form of help with it — we’re here to help people succeed and I look to share my book with people as well. My book is a personal memoir about my own journey, but it’s also a lot about how to grow food, why it’s important to grow food, and also the back of it is an appendix, 10 lists of 10 — a fairly simple sort of how-to lists to help you get started on this journey.

The Organic Garden at Westfield Old Orchard (Photo Credit: Westfield Old Orchard)

Jeanne Nolan is the founder of The Organic Gardener, Ltd, as well as a well-known educator, consultant and the author of From the Ground Up (Random House, 2013). For more information regarding The Organic Gardener, visit their website, and follow them on Twitter. For a complete listing of events at Westfield Old Orchard’s organic garden, visit Westfield Old Orchard’s News & Events page, look for the information on the Organic Garden and then click on the “More Information” link under the Organic Garden section of the page.

Westfield Old Orchard is located at the intersection of Skokie Boulevard & Old Orchard Road in Skokie, Illinois. For additional information regarding Westfield Old Orchard, visit their website or call 847-673-6800. Westfield Old Orchard’s Organic Garden is located on the northeast end of the shopping center, near the mall’s new PlaySpace, just outside of Anthropologie. You can also follow Westfield Old Orchard on Twitter.

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