The secret behind the vegetables served at many top Chicago restaurants and hotels, green-thumbed Sara Gasbarra develops rooftop gardens, window boxes and lush, harvestable patios for restaurants across the city at her full-service garden design company, Verdura. Specifically tailored to the needs of a restaurant kitchen, she specializes in unique and rare varieties of plants and vegetables, organic growing practices and urban farming in unconventional spaces.
You have a degree in art history. How did you end up starting a garden design company? Gardening has always played a big role of my life. My father was born in Italy and growing up in suburban Chicago, we always had a large vegetable garden – growing traditional Italian varieties of vegetables, tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplant, lots of basil and other herbs. I’ve always gravitated towards creative pursuits – in high school, I was an honors art student and in college, I studied Art History. But upon graduating, I discovered that well paying jobs in the arts were not very easy to find and I wound up working behind a desk, in a windowless office, staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day, having lost all of my creative energy.
In 2008, I made the decision to shift gears drastically and I quit my job. Not having a real plan of action, the following day I made a list of things that I took pleasure in and gardening, food, farmer’s markets and restaurants were at the top of that list. I felt silly because those were all just hobbies of mine, extra-curricular interests, and I had no clue how to transform them into a career – it seemed impossible. So to kill time, while I weighed my options (going back to school, looking for another safe desk job…) I decided to become a volunteer at Green City Market, Chicago’s premiere year-round farmer’s market, which also happens to be a non profit. I spent a lot of time at the market (probably too much time!) but I made a point of getting to know as many people as I could there, most importantly chefs and farmers. The market runs a 5,000 square foot educational vegetable garden called The Edible Gardens in partnership with Lincoln Park Zoo, and I was hired on to assist in the garden’s programming and soon after, became a project manager overseeing the planning, planting and field trip program. I had a real affinity for incorporating rare and usual heirloom crops into our garden plan – I wanted the kids who toured the garden to be wowed by all of the colorful, beautiful and strange varieties of vegetables that were out there.
When Instagram debuted in 2010, I started posting photos of all the crops we were growing and harvesting and immediately began receiving inquiries from chefs asking if I could help them start a garden. It was then I discovered I might have a marketable business venture and I really owe so much of this to the power of social media.
What can you tell us about Verdura? Verdura is full-service garden design company. While every project is quite different, I do begin each one in the same way – we walk the space, discuss the chef’s the vision and goals for the garden, determine the scope of the project, the budget and review my comprehensive crop list which includes over 350 varieties of greens, herbs, edible flowers and vegetables. I design custom drip-line irrigation systems for each one and generally installations and planting take 2-3 days. Once install is complete, I work with the clients for the duration of season, visiting regularly to maintain the project, reseed and replant to ensure a continuous yield and perform important tasks required to keeping a healthy garden like pruning, staking, weeding, pest prevention/management and fertilizing. At the end of the season, I clear up all of the expired plant debris and put the garden to bed for winter.
What was your first project and what have been some of your most recent? Through my wonderful network of chefs at Green City Market, I was fortunate to meet Sandra and Mathieu Holl who own Floriole Café and Bakery early on. Floriole had a booth at Green City Market selling their delicious European-inspired pastries prior to opening up their cafe in Lincoln Park. They had a perfect spot for a garden on a beautifully manicured roof above the kitchen and needed help setting up the garden. This year will be my fifth year working with the Floriole team and I grow edible flowers, baby greens and specialty herbs for use as delicate garnishes on their many pastries and cakes.
Working with large hotels such as Palmer House Hilton, the crop selection is a bit more expanded and on their vast 25th floor rooftop we’re growing heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, beans, root crops, greens, strawberries and more. This year the hotel has decided they’d like to make their own hot sauce, so we’re currently planning for a significant chile pepper planting in May. We also manage an apiary on the roof and I’m fortunate to work with beekeeper, Laurell Sims of Growing Power Chicago on that part of the project.
And one of your most challenging projects to date? All of my projects do present an initial challenge because each space is unique. The initial walk through of a space is critical as I assess access to the roof; do we have an elevator, a stairway or (worst-case scenario) a ladder? Is there a water source for the irrigation system? I won’t install a garden without an irrigation system, as the health of a garden relies so heavily on a consistent watering schedule. The restaurant staff is busy, it can be challenging to maintain that watering schedule, especially in the summer months when you may be watering in twice a day. I’m always thinking about how I’ll bring materials up to these rooftops when we install, the hauling of 40-60 lb. bags of soil, flats of plants, irrigation supplies, etc. I’m become quite savvy when faced with challenging spaces with limited access to the roof and have used makeshift pulley systems with ropes and tarps. There’s never a dull moment during garden install season.
What is the most rewarding aspect to your work at Verdura? For me it’s the dialogue and interaction with the incredibly talented chefs I work with. They do absolutely beautiful things with the product I grow for them. Its exciting to see the entire process come full circle on social media when Sandra posts a photo of one of her beautiful yellow passion fruit tarts garnished with the nasturtium leaves and flowers they plucked that morning from the garden. I take great pride in seeing my work intersecting with their artistry in the kitchen. It’s inspiring to me.
What are some of the most unusual items you grow? Each year, my crop list expands due to client requests or just my own research. I the winter, I’ll spend hours and hours online sourcing seed and researching new varieties of crops that I can make available to the restaurants I work with. I try to grow a lot of unusual heirloom varieties. Last season, I grew an heirloom tomatillo from the mountainous Coban region in Guatemala called Purple Coban; it’s probably the most beautiful vegetable I’ve grown in years. A total stunner and its just tomatillo! Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is such a fantastic resource for many of these unusual and rare varieties. I make a point of offering many options of one particular crop – so within the carrot category, I grow traditional orange types, and many other colors, shapes and sizes. My favorites include a Japanese variety called Kyoto Red, a pure white called Lunar White and small round Parisian market carrots.
What will you be growing in the Verdura gardens this summer? While I do grow tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and brassicas for some of my clients – I really hone in on edible flowers, specialty greens, herbs and leaves. This year I’ll be growing seven varieties of nasturtium, several kinds of Asian mustard greens, wood sorrel, flowering carrots, cardamom leaf, lime scented geranium, kinome leaf, four varieties of shiso, some funky Vietnamese specialty herbs and greens and the list really does go on. Every year this crop list I have gets more and more involved.
How do you deal with weeds, insects, and birds? Surprisingly on rooftops, I do encounter pest problems. Last year one of my projects had a bit of an issue with tomato hornworms and I often encounter aphids and slugs. It’s normal and expected each year and part of the importance of maintenance is that I try to identify problems early on. I practice organic methods of fertilizing, weed control, pest prevention and treatment – so I always hand weed and use the hand-plucking method when dealing with caterpillars or worms. I’ve learned to get over the gross-out factor pretty quickly in this gig.
Are more restaurants, chefs, and bartenders growing their own food? Absolutely. You really don’t need to have an expansive space to keep a successful garden; there are always things you can grow that will yield well in small quantities. If you have limited space, set up a few boxes and grow one item you use most frequently in your kitchen. If its nasturtium, then grow all of your nasturtium flowers in those boxes. Or select 2-3 specialty herbs that take up very little space. You certainly don’t need to have a “rooftop farm” for a garden project to meet your kitchen needs. I see a lot of restaurants incorporating edibles into their patio gardens, which generally is reserved solely for ornamentals. Mixing edibles in with ornamental flowers and foliage gives you the best of both worlds if you select crops that are aesthetically beautiful all season long, but can be used in the kitchen as well.
What are your top 5 tips for first timers when creating a rooftop or urban garden?
1. Sunlight! Make sure you get between six to eight hours of direct or bright, filtered sunlight each day.
2. Consistent watering is key. Water on a schedule the same time every day and be mindful that at the height of the season, you will most likely need to increase your watering to twice a day, especially if the garden is on a sun soaked rooftop.
3. If you are purchasing plant starts, make sure they look healthy, are watered in and not stressed out. Stressed out plants are already at a disadvantage no matter how much you care for them. I prefer purchasing seedlings at my local farmers’ market. Generally the varieties you find there are more diverse and if something goes wrong during the course of the season, or you have a question, you’ve got an expert you can visit to make those inquiries. Plus, you’re supporting local farms.
4. Healthy soil is critical to keeping and maintaining well-nourished plants. If you are purchasing bagged soil, opt for organic brands with elements of composted matter. Research composting programs in your area, as often times there are organizations, nurseries and businesses who make their own soil and can deliver in bulk.
5. Keep it simple. If you’re a first time gardener, stick to a few varieties, things that are more common – and select only one variety that is more unusual which could pose a challenge. Taking a risk with one crop, but playing it safe with the others is a good rule of thumb when starting out. And do your research online, remember that plants are different and all have specific needs and requirements.
What trends do you see in the gardening community? The dialogue and information exchange pertaining to gardening on social media has really taken off. You can interact with gardeners from around the world on platforms like Twitter and Instagram and exchange notes, stories, photos and tips. Since 2010, I’ve developed fun social media “friendships” with gardeners and growers in Australia, Japan and even a multi-generational citrus farming family in Iran. I find it so fascinating to follow my “peers” across the globe and interact with them on a daily basis – everyone is so excited to share information, it’s quite a supportive network. Through the power of social media, I’ve just teamed up with Lloyd Fenn of Glow Pear out of Melbourne, Australia, who designed and developed a beautiful and fantastic self-watering container system that just recently launched distribution in the U.S., which I think would be perfect for restaurant and hotel rooftop projects. There are also social media feeds that I find truly inspiring like the Aaron Kiefer’s (@TFL_culinarygardener) – who oversees the culinary garden at The French Laundry and Paulette Whitney (@provenancegrowers) who is an incredibly talented and engaging farmer in Tasmania.
What do your future goals looks like for Verdura? Eventually I’d like to branch out of Chicago and consult with chefs and restaurants in other cities. I’d assist them in every step of the planning process and educate them on how to successfully manage the project in-house.