Organic Roof

By Colin Shively

The aroma of Indian cuisine wafts through the alleyways and storefronts on Devon Avenue while passers-by walk to accomplish their daily chores. Only a few trees and bushes line the sidewalks intermittently, most are small and turning shades of brown as the season changes. In an urban setting, it can be difficult to find forests in the  midst of a cement jungle.

However, there are people who believe urban and rural can coincide and produce a new kind of living environment. Uncommon Ground, located at 1401 W. Devon Ave., is making such a union while becoming greener, and not just in color.

Stationed on top of the building is a unique and blossoming creation that has captured the attention of a nation. Two stories up is the first and only certified organic rooftop garden in the United States.

“What [they] wanted to do was show that any urban area can be green and can flourish with urban farming,” said Jeanne Nolan, owner of The Organic Gardener who helped design Uncommon Ground. “We did it; we became the first and only one certified organic in the United States. Anything is possible,” Nolan said.

Uncommon Ground’s venture into a new style of farming has not gone unnoticed. In March 2009, the U.S. Green Building Council awared Uncommon Ground the USGBC Environmental Award. The award has a prestigous reputation among designers of green buildings. Yet the building Uncommon Ground now resides in has not always been given a green thumbs-up.

Built in 1908, the 1401 W. Devon Ave. building has had many names and housed numerous businesses including clothing boutiques, restaurants and office suites.

“The building has been through a lot,” Nolan said. “There was a fire that destroyed about one side of it and in the ’60s most of it was demolished to make way for a parking lot, so when we purchased it, we wanted to make it something it has never been before, something that didn’t exist until now.”

Until Uncommon Ground’s purchase of the building in 2007, a supper club was housed there until it closed its doors in late 2006, leaving the building vacant between owners.

Now, however, Uncommon Ground’s garden is growing bigger by the year. As each season passes, Helen Cameron, Uncommon Ground’s owner, saves the seeds of the plants that did well in order to plant a new and stronger garden.

“Keeping the seeds of the strong plants provides us with a new generation that is capable of getting stronger and adapting,” Cameron said. “Nature helps nature here.”

With more than five varieties of tomatoes, beans, squash and other vegetables, Uncommon Ground has been able to adapt to the unpredictable weather of an urban setting.

Uncommon Ground received their organic garden certification in October 2008, which surprised those familiar with the lengthy process to become certified organic because that is one third of the time it usually takes to become certified.

“Well, in a typical farm setting, it is going to be a three-year process, not necessarily a three-year certification process, but at least three years of no prohibited substances being applied to the ground in order to become certified,” said Steve Walker, a certification judge with the Midwest Organic Services Association that inspected Uncommon Ground.

Walker said to become certified organic the ground must be free of any prohibited substances for three years. Following the certification, the farm must be inspected annually and file reports concerning any changes that would affect their organic operation.

“The general rule of thumb in organics is that all synthetics are prohibited and all natural substances are allowed,” Walker said. “However, there are exemptions on both sides. There are some natural substances, like arsenic, that are prohibited for organic use.”

However this is no typical farm setting. The garden that grows atop Uncommon Ground is a different environment. There are benches that circle the garden where bees from Cameron’s four beehives fly to and from, providing Uncommon Ground’s honey. Cameron said It is an ecosystem completely different from the surrounding urban life.

“In a situation like a greenhouse, or in this case a rooftop farm, they are essentially bringing in potting mix that is already organic,” Walker said. “They don’t need to go through a three-year certification [process] because what they bring in has already been certified. What they do is they turn in a description of how they will manage things organically.”

When Walker refers to managing organically, he is not just talking about making sure the cabbage is free of arsenic, pesticides and artificial growth hormones. Uncommon Ground sees to it that their entire rooftop is organic and eco-friendly.

After the building was purchased, the urban farmers realized that the building, in its rundown condition, would not be able to sustain a rooftop garden, let alone an organic one. Utilizing local designers, such as architect Peter Moser from the Swiss Design Group, Uncommon Ground went to work to construct a roof that could not only hold a garden, but be equally as green.

Cameron said the roof is made of recycled plastics and organic wood. Not only does this strengthen the support for the garden, it also aids in keeping the plants organic.

“A rooftop garden is different than a regular farm,” Walker said. “Whereas they don’t have to worry about surrounding farms or land, they do have to worry about the materials in the building and how they are going to keep prohibited substances from entering their garden.”

The roof is a tribute to eco-friendly projects in itself. It houses solar thermal panels to help keep the garden warm and energy consumption low, as well as utilizing any excess materials such as murals and even benches.

“We are not just about being organic in what we can eat,” said Angie Mead, marketing coordinator for Uncommon Ground. “We want to make Uncommon Ground’s carbon footprint as small as possible. That means buying from local businesses, supporting local groups and even hosting local Farmers Markets to help spread the word.”

Every Friday from 4 p.m. – 8 p.m., Uncommon Ground hosts a Farmers Market that includes live music, local fashion designers and local farmers, who want to get the food to their community.

“This provides the community with a chance to get to see Uncommon Ground and to connect with their local food providers,” Cameron said. “Our garden is open to the public during the market so anyone can go and see what we offer here. It is a very community-oriented business.”

Uncommon Ground does not just sell its produce during hosted Farmers Markets. Every day, patrons consume their greens in the restaurant located below the garden while their sister restaurant at 3800 N. Clark St. receives its food from local farms.

There might not be a garden on the roof at the second Uncommon Ground, but live musical performances, art fairs and private parties provide the entertainment, while food lovers can still enjoy the fresh taste of locally grown and delivered food.