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 firstname.lastname@example.org.