On the sixth level—the top level–of Weiss Memorial Hospital’s parking garage there’s an urban farm of sorts. I heard about this from Jed Shenkier, my son-in-law, who’s involved in it. Jed’s very into to urban farming, city dwellers growing their own food. His enthusiasm stems partly from a pleasure in nurturing plants and watching them grow. Of course, fresh organic produce for his table is a big plus, too. But there’s more than that behind his interest. “It empowers people,” he says, “being able to grow their own food. And it frees them to some extent from Agri-business.” Agri-business’s current domination of agriculture alarms him, with agri-business’s fondness of pesticides, herbicides, patented seeds, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified crops.

            As a twenty-something recent college grad working in the loop and living in Uptown, Jed  started working a plot in Uptown’s Winthrop Community Gardens. Then in early 2010 he went to see his Alderman, Helen Schiller, about converting a vacant lot near where he lived into a community garden. Although Schiller was unable to help him with this, she noted his interest and began letting him know about workshops on urban farming around the city.     


The farmers market at Weiss

Weiss Hospital is in Uptown, and around this time, Alderman Schiller received a call from Terri Tuohy, Director of Medical Education and Director of Volunteers at Weiss. “Small hospital, many hats,” Tuohy said of her job title, when I spoke with her and Jed in her office last summer. Anyway, she’d come up with the idea of setting up a Farmers Market at Weiss Hospital as part of a Fit for Life campaign which her CEO was instituting at Weiss. She was calling to request help obtaining a city permit and support services the city of Chicago offers Farmers Markets. Some weeks passed, and in March Tuohy called Schiller to check on the progress with the permits and such. Schiller said that Weiss was good to go; everything was set. Just in passing Touhy said, “You know, Helen, we’d also like to try growing produce up on our rooftop in the flowerboxes.” (There are large cement flowerboxes at several points atop the wall around the parking lot’s top level.)            “It was just a comment.” Tuohy laughed as she told me about it. “I don’t know if I even asked her for anybody. All of a sudden I got a phone call back from her. She said, ‘Terri, I got these two young men {by this time Jed had recruited his friend Will Pool}. They’re eager and they want a plot of land. Can they farm your rooftop?’ I told her sure…I’m not a gardener or a farmer; I just had a good idea. Their coming in was a huge break.”

Jed and Will went to work up on the top level of the parking garage. In addition to planting in the flowerboxes atop

Jed working one of the soil beds

the outer wall, they persuaded Terri to let them create a couple of beds of soil in the parking lot in places that blocked no parking spots. They made the beds by laying down a layer of rock and then putting soil purchased from local landscaping wholesalers on top of that. Then they built wood frames around the soil to prevent rain from washing it away. The garden is a very green operation (excuse the pun), and they bought the lumber for the frames from The Rebuilding Exchange, a business that recycles boards from “deconstructed” houses. They then hauled the boards and the soil for the beds in a truck which uses bio-fuel. How green is that?   

They planted a variety of produce that first season and got a good yield, which they sold at Weiss’s weekly Farmer every Thursday.

One of the farm's melons

Along the way, Jed and Will discovered a few differences between farming up on the roof of a parking garage and working a plot on the ground. “The biggest thing that comes into play is the issue of water,” Jed told me over lunch one afternoon last summer. “For example, most people who grow tomatoes don’t water them. But we have to water them every day because we have such a hot, sunny environment. And also because our soil depth is limited, so the moisture dries up a lot faster. Another problem we have to deal with up here on the roof,” he added, “is water run-off. Because the water can’t seep down into the soil very far, the excess water runs off and takes some of the soil with it. You can see the soil is lower at the end of the season.”   

Everything they were learning, however, wasn’t about raising plants: They also persuaded Terri that first season to let them raise bees up there on level 6, about which she’s very proud. She chuckles about it now, however. “So around May,” she told me, “they started bugging me: ‘We want bees.” I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no, no…’ They were like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we gotta have bees.’ And I did know there was a crisis with bees’ world. So I finally said all right. Next thing I know, Jed tells me we’ve got 50,000 bees and they’re pollinating in a three mile radius. I’m like, everything in Uptown is being pollinated by our bees. He’s like, ‘right.’ He’s a good salesman. I said, ‘Well, Jed,

The Bee hives on level six

 when do we get the honey?’ He pulls out a book and says I’m not at that chapter yet…” She chuckles again. “They read up on this stuff; they studied it. They found people who were doing it. And we eventually had the purest honey I’ve ever seen or tasted in my life.” I can back Terri up on this. I’m a long-time honey lover and this is absolutely the best honey I’ve ever had. Maybe because it’s so fresh. I usually get mine at farmers markets and that’s pretty fresh, but his honey came straight from the hive, a very light golden color and just freaking delicious.

I did wonder if people really wanted to park next to several bee hives and asked Terri about that. Not a problem, she explained: “The reason six levels {of the parking lot} were built was because the city has an ordinance that for X number of offices you have to have X number of parking places. No one even parks on the fifth level let alone the sixth, where we have the farm. It’s out there in all the weather, the sun and the snow; nobody parks there anyhow.” What with public transportation–and bicyclists–in Chicago, Weiss ended up with a lot more parking spaces than they actually use. (Still by law, the have to keep the parking spaces open. Otherwise, I think Jed would love to cover the whole top level with soil and farm it all. He said a little wistfully, “There’s a building in New York where they’re doing what we’re doing, but instead of doing it in beds, they actually turned the entire rooftop into a garden.”)

            That first season went well enough that Weiss expanded the program for the second year. Jed and Will added

One of the farm's squash

eighteen more beds of soil around the parking lot, one of which runs the entire length of one wall, over fifty feet. They added rain barrels to conserve water, and oh yeah, more bees. This season they raised raspberries, strawberries, cabbage, lettuce, zucchini, beets, cucumbers, egg plan, onions, squash, and a wide variety of greens, beans, melons, and herbs. And they sell what they grow each week at the Farmers Market.


           Jed and Terri both seemed especially proud of one other aspect of their efforts when I spoke with them, and that’s the educational component. They have visitors coming by every week to see what they’re doing  up there and learn about urban farming: schools, community centers, social service group, aldermen, legislators, individuals from the community. “It’s great,” Jed told me. I hope more and more people around the city learn how to grow more of their own food and start doing it. It can only help.”

            Now that the farm’s second season has wound down, I recently asked Jed what they had planned for next year. “Next season,” he said, “we’re going to try to find some way to catch the water run-off I told you about and return it to the soil bed. That’ll conserve water and cut down on our soil erosion.” He added that he means to do more mulching (covering the ground around the plants with straw or woods chips) to help conserve water. “When you mulch,” he added, “the sun doesn’t hit the soil directly, and it’s not drawing out all the moisture straight up from the ground.” Weiss is also considering opening up some of the plots on level six to seniors from the community to farm. And as a form of community outreach, they may offer some classes around the area on urban farming. As far as expanding production up on the roof, Jed feels they’ve gone about as far as they can. “It’s a question of room,” he says. “We really don’t have any more here.” The hospital does have another piece of land that they might farm, “And,” he adds,  “we might be a helping some people in the West Side community set up community gardens in their neighborhoods.” When Terri, Jed and I spoke, Terri, who thinks big, said, “Ideally, what I want for theses guys is to get the portfolio going and put his whole process on the road and start doing this as consultants to hospitals all over the country.” Jed kind of smiled at that. “Hey, I’m always glad to talk to anyone anywhere about urban farming.”  

Up on Level six


About kentmcdanielwrites

Writer and musician.

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