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Simple Pleasures are Naturally Best—For Many Reasons

Growing your own food and preserving it yield many more benefits than just providing something to eat.

Did you ever bite into a ripe, luscious August tomato? You know the type I mean—the walls are meaty and slightly firm with sweet, small seeds.

I had the pleasure of eating one of these last night, picked directly from a local organic garden in Elmhurst. This handsome Cherokee purple heirloom tomato was the star of our dinner—a simple thing, but sliced up with a dash of sea salt and a drizzle of fine, extra virgin olive oil. It put the planked wild salmon, roasted asparagus and Asian cabbage salad to shame.

Simple pleasures, like the explosion of taste from this juicy homegrown tomato, really are the best. And the satisfaction and ability to raise this masterpiece from a tiny seedling make it all the better.

"I come out here in the morning just to smell all the fragrances from the vegetables and herbs," Elmhurst resident Cathy Anderson-Berry said.

Anderson-Berry has been harvesting a bounty of fresh produce all summer long from her raised garden beds that were designed and planted by Todd Jones of Every Last Morsel. Jones, of Elmhurst, will design and build you a vegetable garden, and either maintain it weekly for you or provide guidance on maintenance. Jones' business, which we has met with much success in its first summer.

Being the naturally curious person that I am, I wanted to follow up to see some of his gardens in bloom.

I am no stranger to gardening. My Italian grandpa grew tons of Roma tomatoes and melrose peppers on his small plot on the northwest side of Chicago, while my Polish grandpa had a massive garden on the vacant city lot next door to his apartment building on the west side. And, there also is a farm on my husband's side of the family.

But I had never seen such lush produce in my life as that grown by Jones.

Jones, who is 6-foot-5-inches tall, is dwarfed by some of the Berrys' tomato plants (see above picture), all bearing an abundance of fruit. (Tomatoes are a fruit, you know!) What kind of fertilizer was this dude using, I wondered out loud?

"These have all been grown organically," Jones said. "I used an organic compost mix to start the bed."

The secret, according to Jones, is in the raised garden bed. He constructs rectangular boxes and fills them with more than a foot of this compost. The lush environment spurs on growth, while the boxes help keep the weeds out. And a strong plant is a healthy one, which doesn't leave much opportunity for weeds to establish themselves.

Jones also uses companion planting when designing his beds. Some vegetables are naturally complementary to each other and flourish when planted together. Scented marigolds repel harmful pests while attracting beneficial bugs. Legumes help break down nitrogen so it can be easily digested by other plants, such as tomatoes.

Put tomatoes and potatoes together, though, and you may find that both plants have increased risk of blight.

That's what is neat about organic gardening. There are myriad combinations of plants, herbs and flowers that synergistically work together to enhance flavor and growth and retard pests, without relying on harmful chemicals.

While the Berrys maintain the garden, Todd consults with them and regularly stops by to check on progress and any problems.

Rather than shoving the garden to the back shadows of the yard, Cathy and her husband, Rob Berry, have uniquely incorporated the raised garden beds into their outdoor living space. Five rectangular beds are arranged in a semi-circle around the seating area.

This is only the beginning stages of the plan, Cathy said.

Jones has designed a comprehensive blueprint for their whole lot, incorporating fruit trees, arbors, seating and, of course, more garden space. (See embedded video). They'll have their own compost bin, as well.

"The diversity of wildlife that has been attracted to the garden is amazing," Rob said. "We've seen caterpillars, a small garter snake, a horned owl and even a beautifully marked spider back here."

A thriving ecosystem, right here in suburban Elmhurst.

Cathy, who owns Berry Massage and Wellness in Elmhurst, is a certified massage therapist and raw food chef. She believes in eating organic vegetables, juicing, and other holistic practices. Having this garden has saved her a ton of money in gas and grocery bills, she said. 

On my way home from the Berrys' house, I reflected on the many problems in our society: poverty, obesity, high unemployment and too much consumerism. Perhaps it's just my optimistic idealism, but imagine the ills we might cure if every block had a community garden.

We'd all incorporate fresh, healthy vegetables into our daily diets. Maybe all those antioxidants from the vegetables would help us reduce cancer.

Blighted urban areas would have more access to fresh healthy foods. Unemployed residents would have the satisfaction of working daily in the garden and seeing the fruits of their labor. Single parents working two jobs could come home and make simple, nutritious meals consisting of fresh produce from their neighborhood garden. The garden might serve as a positive catalyst in underpriveliged neighborhoods, encouraging an atmosphere of working together and self-sufficiency.

The homeless could have the community of a garden, working to help produce an abundance of healthy food. And those of us compelled to always buy the next new thing might be more likely to make do with what we have and respect our ecosystem more.

I took a canning and preserving class recently at the Flavour Cooking School in Forest Park. I was struck by how easy and uniquely satisfying the process of canning really was. Working together as a team, several of us chopped vegetables, stirred steaming pots of jelly, filled glass jars with pickled peppers and whole tomatoes, and processed the newly canned goods in water baths.

The camaraderie of our group, composed of both women and men, fostered a happy and productive environment. As we sat down and tasted the delicious peach jam, I realized that the process of growing, preserving, and cooking food was a communal act that has brought people together since ancient times. You can't get that same satisfaction by heading to the local grocery and picking up a jar of jelly.

But imagine if communities did work together, canning their own freshly grown produce. Making fresh salsa to be enjoyed in the dead of winter. Preserving juicy tomatoes for winter chilis and salads. Making pots of Renee's protein-rich, sustaining  to be canned and enjoyed easily after work. Feeding each other, relying on only ourselves and each other, to sustain and enjoy a life worth living.

It's been said that America doesn't make anything anymore. Why not make our own food when we can, creating a cycle of self-sufficiency and good, honest work? Sometimes, the old ways, getting back to the basics of life, can be the simple answer to much of what ails us. 

Todd Edward Jones of Every Last Morsel is available to work with school groups to create and grow their own gardens. If you are a PTA member or a schoolteacher, this is a wonderful project for your students! He can be reached at (312) GROW VEG or at everylastmorsel@gmail.com.

Justin Hunt September 02, 2011 at 04:21 PM
I love it. The wife and I incorporate a similar growing philosophy and we have grown and shared over 60 pounds of produce. Now, if Elmhurst will allow us a few egg laying hens and a small hive to help pollinate our fruiting bushes and trees, we'll be on our way to transforming from consumers to producers.
Tina Tuszynski September 02, 2011 at 04:29 PM
Justin, I have a friend who has a couple of chickens out in the far western suburbs, and they love having fresh hormone-free eggs. I wish we could do the same here. Thanks for your comment - and please share your pics!
Todd September 02, 2011 at 05:19 PM
Justin, you are a man after my own heart! Sadly, given the uproarious outrage about the big, beautiful garden at 150 Arlington, I sincerely doubt public opinion about chickens and bees will change any time soon. However, I'd certainly be willing to do my best to sway them if I had supporters.
Tina Tuszynski September 02, 2011 at 05:38 PM
What's happening on 150 Arlington? That garden looks very cool - many friends have commented on how neat it is. We thought it was operated by the Elmhurst Farmers market.
Todd September 02, 2011 at 06:56 PM
The family has installed a beautiful vegetable garden and complimentary landscape but it seems the neighbors have been complaining to the mayor, who has visited to express his disapproval. Leslie, if I remember her name correctly, told me there is a public hearing scheduled for the near future. I have been composing an email to Mayor Dicianni and I suggest you do the same. She said the mayor probably doesn't hear from those who happen to like what they've done. Mayor Dicianni can be reached at pete.dicianni@elmhurst.org
Jim Court September 05, 2011 at 04:57 AM
What was the issue people were complaining about?
Tina Tuszynski September 06, 2011 at 01:55 PM
Jim, I don't know. But I did drive past it the other morning and I wouldn't have any problem living nearby, as I thought it was beautifully done. I'd be interested in hearing the other side of this issue. I know in Oak Park, for example, there was a big to-do about a couple of people who had gardens in their front lawn, which they ended up outlawing, I believe.
Jim Court September 07, 2011 at 02:05 AM
Tina, I would appreciate if you do find out to please inform me. Ike
Todd September 07, 2011 at 04:43 AM
I have not spoken to the mayor directly; however, it is my understanding that he thinks it hazardous and an eye sore -- back yard gardens are great, but they're on a corner lot and misusing the space.
RobertAWilson September 07, 2011 at 02:46 PM
That's hardly the Mayor's decision. Front yard "farming" is very enviro friendly and he should embrace it as a way to, if nothing else, reduce runoff and capture rainwater.
Bill Angel September 07, 2011 at 05:22 PM
Hey folks, I do think the Mayor should mind his own business. The 150 Arlington home looks great! If you want to see a real eye sore, go see the building where Pete runs his printing outfit. Located at 421 S. Addison Road, Addison. Tel. (630) 833-5100.
Jim Court September 07, 2011 at 08:02 PM
I drove by today and the garden looks exceptionally well maintained. At first glance i wondered if it couldn't be placed in the back of the property, not that it mattered to me. I then saw a huge shaded area in the back as a result of a tree. I now understood their logic. As much as I grew up admiring the lush lawns of the area, I also realize that these same lawns require intense fertilization, much watering, and cutting with mowers that emit high amounts of emissions and consume large amounts of fuel. This is the reason for the movement for a more natural and environmentally friendly nature scape. We have also talked about water issues and plantings as a way to absorb excess water. Plants also cleanse the air. Based on all of the above reasons maybe Elmhurst should show its progressive and educated self and promote the concept. Some people are opposed to any form of change or anything different, no matter how beneficial. To those who complained, perhaps you can explain your reasoning. I am open minded and would like to hear both sides of the argument. My thought is, do we lead or do we follow?
Vincent Russell September 07, 2011 at 08:27 PM
Jim, don't be a stalker.
Jim Court September 07, 2011 at 11:37 PM
I don't know what you mean by "don't be a stalker" but when the tomatoes are ripe an invite by the owners of this garden would be more than welcome.
Jim Court September 08, 2011 at 01:21 AM
Vincent, Since my initials are JAC maybe I could be "JAC and the bean stalk"
Darlene Heslop September 08, 2011 at 04:12 AM
i drive past this garden every day and have seen it grow over the course of the summer - i hope that if there are any "leftovers" that they get donated to the food pantries to help others. can someone find out about the public hearing regarding this property? i'd like to attend.
Jim Court September 08, 2011 at 12:17 PM
Please let me know about the public hearing if there is one. It is Oak Park Michigan that passed a resolution outlawing this type of garden based on the complaint of one individual. The is the problem with the bureaucratic mindset of many of those in code enforcement. They vastly over react, apparently in a desire to prevent any possibility of finger-pointing, which is typical of passive-aggressive people. Those on the receiving end of this should make sure that they tell as many people to join with them and vote anyone out of office anyone who supports these behaviors. Let see, one vote for the complainer, a couple hundred who I can and will influence, which gives me an idea. Does anyone want to join with me to create a collective voice if they believe that their values and ideas are being ignored? I am ready to start such a group right now.Imagine all the votes we might control. In unity, there is strength.
Jim Court September 10, 2011 at 02:46 PM
Oh well, so much for a group of like minded people.
Karen Chadra (Editor) September 10, 2011 at 05:03 PM
I'll see what I can find out.
Caroline September 16, 2011 at 12:07 AM
My name is Caroline and I am the daughter of the owners of the garden on Arlington. I currently live in the city but I come out to the garden on the weekends. The garden was started for a variety of reasons- gardening has always been my mother's passion. It's healthy, organic, local, Michael Pollan would approve :) It sets a great example to the community, and it shows that it IS possible to grow sustainable food in the neighborhood. It is true that they mayor did come to the garden and express his displeasure. However, as many of you have noticed- there is not a backyard on the property that would be useful for gardening. I would encourage anyone interested in promoting gardening in their community to write the mayor to express your positive opinions. We have been canning a vast majority of the produce from the garden. Everything was grown from seed (all heirloom) and is organic. In addition, all of the materials used to construct the garden were recycled from the previous house on the property (wood, stone, etc). We have over 10 varieties of tomatoes, beets, beans, peas, broccoli, okra, many pepper varieties, fruit trees, as well as some fruit bushes. If you have any questions please feel free to email me. I'm happy to answer questions and offer explanations about the garden. I can be reached at: cthoms@uchicago.edu
Jim Court September 16, 2011 at 12:30 AM
As much as I agree with everything you have done, why don't you plant bushes and create privacy and deny the neighborhood the progressive, intelligent, and productive garden a view that speaks of an intelligent community. Keep everything vanilla and you will be okay. As I said before, do we lead or do we follow. With all the issues the city faces I wonder why this is even an issue. One thing I know about the City. Let one neighbor complain and the city bends over backwards to placate the complainer while running shotgun over the recipient of the complaint. It does not matter whether the complaint is valid or has merit. It also does not matter if many people openly have the same issue. Example, existing stone driveways that are grandfathered in. We really need to examine are whole code enforcement process. It is inconsistent, arbitrary, and subject to misapplication of existing rules. It is not proactive but overly reactive. Let's see. The three people reading this will ignore what I have said. Why do I waste my time?
Justin Hunt September 29, 2011 at 07:54 PM
Caroline, great to hear from you. Sarah and I are mostly shut in recluses and only just discovered the food oasis on a walk last week. I marvelled at layout and found it to be very well designed with outlook into future seasons. I too am growing many heirloom varieties and would love to meet and exchange seeds (That sounds so seedy) <groan>. Jim, you waste your time because you care. We care too. It seems like we're still out it front of this, as I haven't seen any negative commentary in the Independent or the council minutes. This coming monday the 3rd is the next council meeting, though I hesitant to draw issue to it. It's one of those sleeping dog things. They haven't poked us, we don't need to bark. jhunt02@hotmail.com
Tina Tuszynski September 29, 2011 at 09:33 PM
As an update, I did contact an alderman and was told that there is no hearing scheduled on this matter, nor has there been any discussion about it during council meetings. This was confirmed.
Jim Court September 29, 2011 at 11:34 PM
Tina, I have repeatedly commented about our code enforcement program and the way it is implemented. Why don't you interview me so that it receives a wider response. It is a problem that needs to be addressed. Had this woman not received such widespread publicity she would have found herself removing the garden. I know what I am talking about. An interview would help publicize a much needed improvement that code enforcement needs.
Jim Court October 09, 2011 at 04:35 AM
Why does no one respond to the above statement? Especially Karen. It is a legitimate issue that MUST be addressed.

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