It's most likely the most photographed and videotaped backyard edible garden in Chicago, seen around the world.
The urban organic growing space outside the back door of the home of Chef Rick Bayless serves many purposes. It produces hundreds of pounds of produce for his restaurants; serves as a backdrop for scenes in his popular PBS television show “Mexico—One Plate at a Time”; is a model for intensive urban agriculture and is a vibrant setting for the Bayless outdoor kitchen.
“This garden can teach a lot of people,” says Master Gardener Bill Shores, manager of the Rick Bayless Organic Garden. The main garden commands two and a half city lots. Shores oversees the urban farm as well as indoor systems and a rooftop garden above the Bayless restaurant, XOCO.
“All of the growing systems we use are based on small-scale spaces so are very translatable to the home environment,” he says.
Container planters are his “go to” choice for urbanites. “They have so many advantages, including portability.” He and his crew will plant about 100 containers this season, many will be filled with perennial herbs, which have overwintered in the ground.
A second-story 150-square-foot greenhouse allows year-round production. Microgreens as well as seedlings for the outdoor garden are grown all year indoors. “Typically, in mid-April our salad green production is starting to really get going. The days are long and the greens are under protective fabric row covers [like mini greenhouses but insulated], keeping them growing steadily.”
Shores also maintains a 75-square-foot indoor light garden at the Bayless residence, where microgreens are produced year round. To get ready for spring, he starts seeds under grow lights in his basement in late winter, then brings thousands of them to the Bayless garden for transplants. Not everyone has the time or space to start crops indoors. Many people opt for seedlings at the nursery but he encourages home gardeners to try their hand at growing from seed once the soil warms up.
“Root crops, beans and most salad greens are best planted from seed. Lettuce will take a bit longer but will grow very well from seed.”
In the Bucktown backyard they also practice intensive gardening in raised beds, which encompass 1,000 square feet. The method is different from row-crop gardening where there is space in between plants. At the height of production in the Bayless salad beds you can’t see any bare ground. Succession planting is employed and workers sow seeds from 20 varieties every four weeks, creating a vibrant carpet of shades of green and crimson.
Shores says the challenge with this type of farming is maintaining the fertility of the soil. Every bed is amended with 100 pounds of compost and monitored throughout the growing season as the crops deplete the soil’s nutrients. In between each succession another 10 to 15 pounds of compost will be added.
The average yearly crop yield is astounding: 760 pounds of greens, 628 pounds of tomatoes, 223 pounds of herbs, 150 pounds of butternut squash. “We custom-grow greens to exact specifications in terms of size and texture. We produce unusual herbs for the restaurant. We produce and send in fresh microgreens, mint and dwarf basil plants in pots or containers to be harvested right in the restaurant.”
And then there are the edible flowers from the garden, “produced by the thousands for the chefs.”
When Shores started at the Bayless garden 10 years ago, he estimates he was putting in 50 hours a week of work. Over time he added workers and now has four part-time employees, two interns and two volunteers.
His goal, he says, is to have the garden “camera-ready 12 months of the year.” While not everyone can cook like Rick Bayless, Shores believes they can still have a garden like his.
“I believe any garden should look good, it should be functional as well as a visually pleasing space for entertaining.”
For information on tours of the Rick Bayless Organic Garden: urbanedible.net.