In the Ground and On the Air
WTTW’s Homegrown Grows an Audience
by Becky Liscum
photographs courtesy of WTTW
IT STARTED OUT AS A DEMONSTRATION PLOT, a place for teaching WTTW viewers how to start a garden from scratch. Now in its third year, the organic community garden on the grounds of the flagship Chicago PBS station provides not only produce, but also rich content for viewers. The Homegrown segment on Chicago Tonight and its companion web episodes at WTTW.com have evolved into a popular DIY series, attracting new viewers and garden enthusiasts.
“It’s an in-house lab for us,” says Chicago Tonight Executive Producer Mary Field. The idea came to her after a guest segment with Jeanne Nolan, known as The Organic Gardener. After the show aired, Field felt there was more to be done and so they began collaborating to create content. “The primary purpose of the garden,” Field explains, would be to “incorporate the ‘how to’ that PBS does so well and serve viewers with nuts-and-bolts info.”
Associate Digital Producer and Chief Gardener Kristen Thometz spearheaded the project. She plans the segments and documents the process, learning as the plot grows. “I had never gardened before. Everything is new to me—how planting seasons can vary with the weather and just seeing how much you can grow. The tomatoes at the end of the last year were over 10 feet tall!”
One of the segments this season is about container gardens, a way to pack a lot of crops into a small balcony, a relatable concept to many Chicagoans. “They have been extremely prolific. I can look out the window and see the garden,” says Field.
She is not the only one with an eye on the patch. “I was worried this garden would be eaten by deer and squirrels,” she says. Turns out, the green space is quite popular with employees, and one on-air personality in particular.
“I’m worse than a squirrel,” admits Phil Ponce. He confesses to poaching sugary sweet cherry tomatoes now and then. “I feel guilty about it. We’re supposed to wait until the produce makes its way into the conference room … it’s supposed to be pretty democratic,” his voice trailing off.
But, without prompting, he blurts out his defense. “It’s like candy, just like you’re eating at the theater like from a box!” Who can blame those late to the edible garden party when they exude such enthusiasm? He’s an ornamental and flower gardener at heart but the Homegrown series has opened new dimensions for him.
“One continuing surprise is just how much is produced out of a very small space. That has been a revelation I hope viewers are responding to,” says Ponce. Viewers weighed in via social media last spring to choose the crops.
To learn more about the varieties growing and to check the progress of the garden: chicagotonight.wttw.com/homegrown