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From Home Garden to Production Garden

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This is the story of the Bayless Garden. Well-known restauranteur Rick Bayless grew up in Oklahoma City, was closely involved in the family barbecue restaurant, went on to study the regional cuisines of Mexico and opened the wildly popular Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. Seeking sources of locally grown foods, Rick was instrumental in building a local food movement in the Upper Midwest. Ever moving forward, Rick sought out and found the perfect Chicago residential space to have a working organic production garden in his own backyard. The Bayless Garden was born!

The Bayless garden is situated on three contiguous city lots, with two residential spaces, an attractive outdoor kitchen and several patio and deck spaces for al fresco dining, entertaining and relaxing. A 1000-square-foot backyard edible garden shares space with lush beds and container plantings of annuals, perennials, tropicals, trees and shrubs. The Bayless residence is also home to a wide variety of tender perennial plants that overwinter as houseplants or in an attached second floor greenhouse. A portion of the basement area supports the production of microgreens grown under fluorescent lights.

News of this unique garden spread among urban growers, including me.

My career in urban gardening had begun years earlier when I was studying and became inspired by the incredibly productive small space backyard gardens I had seen in Central America. By the time I was introduced to Rick, I had been a professional grower for nine years and was seeking a more challenging urban garden project that would allow me to really explore the full productive and aesthetic potential of a small residential space.

Based on our shared mutual interest in urban food production, Rick and I agreed to establish a partnership for running his garden. He would supply the space and all needed supplies and use all the food produced onsite for his restaurant, and I would hire and train my own crew and be responsible for overall management, design and site upkeep. Our shared goals for the space included significantly boosting food production, maintaining an attractive outdoor entertaining space, increasing onsite compost production and exploring ways to incorporate an educational component to the garden.

When growing for a chef, crops must be grown in quantities useful to the restaurant and supplied on a consistent, predictable schedule. To produce for a restaurant in a very small space such as this, it is essential to focus on growing a narrow variety of crops. While crops such as heirloom tomatoes are beloved by many, including celebrity chefs, they are simply not prolific enough to be useful in a small space production garden.

At first glance, the Bayless Garden appears far too small to supply meaningful amounts of food for a busy restaurant such as Topolobampo. But it does. My team and I have delivered our organic greens and more to the Bayless restaurants every week for the past 11 years!

Here are the simple, yet highly effective growing methods we use.
• Fast maturing crops including microgreens that yield tiny greens in as few as seven days from seeding, and baby (3-inch) salad greens yielding crops in 3-4 weeks from seed. By growing these crops to size, harvesting the entire planting, then clearing and replanting the space immediately, a significant amount of greens can be produced in a very small space. This method is called succession planting.

Astoundingly, fast-growing salad greens such as arugula and lettuce are planted up to 28 times in one Chicago growing season. Microgreens are planted 52 weeks a year. For Rick this means a steady, bountiful supply of high quality greens for his restaurants.

• Season-long crops that produce over an entire growing season (or longer) such as Chinese long beans, parsley, garlic chives, mint and lemon verbena. Season-long crops are relatively low maintenance and produce a harvest every 1-3 weeks, allowing growers with multiple plantings of a crop to stagger the harvests for a predictable, weekly supply.

• Space efficient, high-value crops including a wide variety of edible flowers, many well-suited to growing in containers indoors and out. Growing in containers frees up more space in the garden for salad greens.

• Vertically grown crops such as climbing winter squash provide two crops and edible flowers all summer long, followed by a bountiful harvest of tasty squash fruits each fall. Concord grapes grown on an arbor above a garden deck are also multifunctional, providing a pleasant, dappled sun environment all season along with a substantial harvest of grapes that are prized by Rick’s pastry chefs.

• Crops suited to growing indoors. Years before partnering with Rick, I realized that chefs that work with locally grown produce crave a year-round supply and that there was money to be made by mastering the art of growing food indoors. The tiny salad greens called microgreens had just come on the scene, and when I brought samples to local chefs, they were immediately hooked.

At the Bayless Garden indoor-grown microgreens were the only off-season crop. I knew that we could expand on this, so I focused on testing and developing other crops suited to growing in the indoor environment. I discovered that many crops we were growing in the outdoors such as pak choi, baby salad greens, and a wide variety of herbs and edible flowers could also be grown indoors in containers. I was now able to frequently utter a phrase that is music to a chef’s ears, “This crop is now available year-round.”

In addition to the edible garden, the Bayless Garden virtually overflows with a large number of ornamental planting beds, vertical plantings and container gardens, all requiring design and grower attention and care. The plantings are designed to give the garden several themes. For example, colorful showy displays of tropical plants alongside a tranquil waterfall and goldfish pool give the viewer a sense of being in a lovely Mexican garden.

Nearby, tall native perennials and shrubs towering over the center mounded garden are the garden’s nod to the Prairie State. Various medicinal and edible plants, not used for the restaurant, are scattered about, serving as an acknowledgment of the importance of plants to our health and well being.

The vegetable garden is designed to demonstrate that a food garden can, at the same time, be exceptionally bountiful and beautiful. A rainbow of colorful salad greens anchors the entire center area of the garden.

Surrounding plantings of Italian parsley, garlic chives, wild Sylvetta arugula and a very old, but highly attractive sage plant provide a visual anchor and textural interest to the space. A planter bed filled with stunning nasturtiums, dianthus and marigolds and vertically grown butternut squash (all providing edible flowers for the restaurants) provide a large scale focal point in the background.

Keeping all this planting bounty in top shape requires not only a skilled crew but a high quality soil. The Bayless Garden’s composting systems are the key. All crop residues, trimmings, even woody material from the garden are shredded and composted in a timber-lined bin quietly tucked away in a corner of the garden. This compost bin, along with worm bins used to process food wastes, produces nearly two tons of high quality compost every year. Applied to plantings of all sorts, this compost, available year round, provides immediate and detectable increases in plant health and vigor.

Finally, the educational component for the Bayless Garden has been quite successful. For the past 10 years my team and I have hosted hundreds of tours of the garden. Tour goers get to see the garden up close and learn about methods for designing and maintaining organically-managed urban-ornamental production gardens.

The garden is staffed by a combination of paid growers and interns, all in training to be professional urban growers. A garden of such complexity requires growers with a very large horticultural skill set. Training, therefore, is a top priority and ongoing task. I am pleased that many of my former assistant growers who started as interns have gone on to successful careers in urban horticulture.

Now entering our 12th season, I feel the partnership between grower and chef has been exceptionally fruitful. The garden itself is an ongoing learning experience and, as I frequently remind my assistant growers; “Most of what I have learned about gardening, I have learned from studying the plants themselves. They are the master growers.”

Bill Shores is a garden designer specializing in space-efficient edible/ornamental gardens. He can be reached at urbanedible.net



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