A Taste of the Garden

On an early spring day in the offices of the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, Lisa Hilgenberg, Garden horticulturist, is seated at a rustic conference table sorting through pencil drawings of garden beds and photos of vegetable plants. Across the Garden, in the Garden View Café kitchen, chef Peter Pettorossi is considering a cabbage slaw recipe inspired by those same plants.

The concept of serving fresh, seasonal, local food at the Garden was key to café renovations completed one year ago. Produce and fruit from the garden, as well as from Windy City Harvest plots in the area, and other local vendors, is increasingly available in many dishes including salads, calzones, daily soups, and other specials.

PHOTO: The bountiful Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden in 2014.
The bountiful Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden in 2014  ©North Branch Communications

Although the café and the Fruit & Vegetable Garden are physically separate, they come together in the growing season through an intricate network of connections that bring garden to table.

“It’s such a unique opportunity,” said Harriet Resnick, vice president of visitor experience and business development. “It opens people’s eyes to what we offer here.” New signage in the garden indicates which plants are on their way to the café. It also feels right, she explained. “If you are a true gardener, that’s how you live your life—by the plants of the season.” She added that the café has only grown in popularity, seeing about 200,000 unique food purchases last year.

Hilgenberg spent much of her lifetime learning how to match seeds with soil and growing conditions, perfecting each step. She lives with the rhythm of the seasons. “We are moving back in the right direction,” she said. “There’s something exciting about eating freshly grown vegetables seasonally. It’s always new and nutritious.”

Hilgenberg begins planning a year in advance for each growing season, mapping out what she will plant and how it will be arranged for display. Seeds for cool-season plants begin to grow in the Greenhouses in late winter, go into the ground in April, and are harvested in May and June. A similar cycle follows shortly after for warm-season crops.

PHOTO: Chef slicing fresh cabbage.
Fresh cabbage from the Garden is put to use at the Garden Chef Series. Join us on Saturdays and Sundays, May 23 – October 4.

This is Pettorossi’s first spring at the Garden, after beginning in his role in November. He eagerly welcomes the arrivals of produce this spring. “If you can get something at the peak of freshness it always tastes better,” he said. As for the menu, “the season definitely dictates it,” he explained. “The menu features a lot of specials, depending on what we have in house.” No matter the season, he said the menu is always “fresh, mostly organic, local, and garden-inspired.”

Cool-season crops such as heirloom Tennis Ball butterhead lettuce (Lactuca sativa ‘Tennis Ball’) are the first to be ready this year. They will soon be joined by French Breakfast radish (Raphanus sativus ‘French Breakfast’), Hakurei salad turnips (Brassica rapa ‘Hakurei’), beets, and bunching onions. “All of our ingredients are very simple based on what they tell me they can grow,” he said, indicating that the most seasonal foods can be found in daily specials that he plans a day ahead.

PHOTO: Staff and volunteers plant the Fruit & Vegetable Garden terraces with fall season crops.
Staff and volunteers plant the Fruit & Vegetable Garden terraces with fall crops.

The connection from garden to table extends to connect people as well, from garden mentor to student, or from an individual to their culture or family traditions, for example. Hilgenberg loves hearing from garden visitors about their connections to the garden crops. She spent much of her childhood on her Norwegian grandparent’s farm in Iowa, building her own such connections.

Hilgenberg makes a point to grow widely recognized plants in the garden each year, including herbs, edible flowers, and vegetables. She grows annual small fruits such as strawberries, gooseberries, and currants in addition to blueberries and bramble fruit. She also grows less common plants such as Marshall strawberries (Fragaria × ananassa ‘Marshall’), which she and her team propagated from three donated plants. Everything grown in the garden is done so organically. “I think it’s interesting for people to try different local varieties,” she said. Many, she explained, cannot be found in a typical grocery store, especially in organic form.

This year, several beds have been planted in the French potager style, and others laid out to mirror the gardens of Monticello. There are two beds planted with vegetables people may have seen in seed houses in 1890, the same year the Chicago Horticultural Society was founded. In honor of the Society’s 125th anniversary, seeds were made available through seed catalogs, the Seed Savers Exchange, and other sources. Edible flowers, such as Empress of India nasturtium (Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’), artfully border beds of radish, rutabaga, and turnips, for example. In addition, she included carrots, kale, collard, and three varieties of cabbage (Brassica oleracea): ‘Mammoth Red Rock’, ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’, and ‘Perfection Drumhead Savoy’. Each one was selected because it is adapted to our local growing conditions, a process Hilgenberg and her staff, volunteers, and interns have mastered over the years. Last year, they grew and harvested two tons of produce. The year before, that was combined with a bumper apple crop for 6,000 pounds of production.

PHOTO: The Herbs de Provence garden bed in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.
The Herbes de Provence garden bed in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden: what is not used fresh can be dried in one batch at the end of the season.

How does the chef manage to find a way to serve even the most unusual varieties with style? “I always try to add a little acid [such as lemon or vinegar] to food because acid makes flavors pop,” he advised. “A lot of lettuces are sweet, but others have a bitterness to them,” he added, “so you would have to find that perfect vinaigrette to go with that bitterness,and maybe add a touch of honey or something sweet.”

In addition to growing and preparing food at the Garden, “we are also this amazing workforce and training program for underserved youth and adults,” said Resnick, who explained that participants in the Windy City Harvest program, with large growing beds off-site, provide a significant amount of produce for the Garden View Café and learn to sell their produce at farmers’ markets. On-site each year, a few Windy City Harvest interns work directly with Hilgenberg.

Anyone walking through the Fruit & Vegetable Garden today may see the beginnings of a dish they can enjoy in the café by early summer. The season will continue to evolve in coming months, with the Garden Grille opening in late May. In June, warm-season crops such as heirloom corn, Japanese Nest Egg summer squash (Cucurbita pepo ‘Japanese Nest Egg’), White Patty Pan squash (Cucurbita pepo var. melopepo ‘White Patty Pan’), Yellow Pear tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Yellow Pear’), and Blueberry Blend tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum ‘Blueberry Blend’) will replace the spring plantings in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, giving way to new edible discoveries.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Chicken and the Veg

People who raise backyard chickens say there’s one potential pitfall — getting too attached. It’s too late for Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturist Ayse Pogue. Cradling a black-and-white hen with a bright-red comb, she says, “I love my chickens.”

Breeders describe chickens as either single purpose — raised for their eggs, or dual purpose — raised for both eggs and meat. Pogue sees a third purpose for her hens. “I grow vegetables,” she says. “I think the chickens add another dimension of having fresh food from your yard.”

The clucking of hens blends into the sounds of summer in Pogue’s suburban backyard; which contains a patio, lawn, perennial garden, vegetable patch, and chicken enclosure. Pogue cleans the coop and run once a week and adds the used straw and wood chips to a compost pile in the corner of her yard. The mixture makes good winter mulch for her organic vegetable garden. Omnivores, the hens also eat up kitchen scraps, insects, and mice.

Chickens became part of Pogue’s life last year when, inspired by the growing backyard-chicken movement and a related lecture at the Garden, she decided to order three chicks. “I was just hearing about it, hearing about it everywhere,” she said. “I told my husband. He said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think that’s going to happen.’ I said, ‘Too late. It’s happening.’”

PHOTO: chicken coop
A ramp provides access to the elevated coop.

Three days-old chicks — now known as Henrietta, Misty, and Fistik — arrived at the post office last July in a small cardboard box with breathing holes. They sheltered in Pogue’s garage until September when they were big enough to go outside in the small compound hand-built by a colleague, Garden horticulturist Dale Whiting.

Whiting built the coop, ramp, and run for about $300 (spent mainly on hardware). He kept costs low by using wood scraps, slightly damaged lumber sold at deep discounts, and shingles leftover from a neighbor’s roofing project. The roughly five-by-five foot coop, and eight-by-seven-by-six foot run can shelter three to five cold-hardy hens through Chicago’s sweltering summers and bitter winters. A heated dispenser prevents the chicken’s water supply from freezing, and on the very coldest days, Pogue uses a small heating element to warm the coop.

PHOTO: eggs
A sampling of colorful eggs laid by Easter Egger hens
(Photo by Will Merydith)

Pogue was sure to select breeds that can tolerate freezing weather. Henrietta is an Easter Egger, a chicken named for its beautiful blue and green eggs. Misty and Fistik are Barred Rock chickens, which do need an occasional application of Vaseline to keep their prominent combs from freezing in the worst of winter. The three are in their peak laying year and provide Pogue’s family with one to two eggs a day. “Every time I pick up an egg I’m amazed at how perfect they are,” she says.

The many rewards of backyard chickens have inspired Pogue to expand her flock with three new chicks — Cody, another Easter Egger, and Pearl and Olive, hardy blue laced red Wyandottes. The days-old chicks are bright-eyed and fluffy, small enough to hold in one hand and cute enough to steal anyone’s heart.

PHOTO: chicks
New arrivals, Cody, Pearl, and Olive.

Before getting too involved, it’s wise to check with your local officials. Not all municipalities allow residents to raise chickens. Those that do often ban roosters and limit flock size.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org