A Curious Garden In A Parking Lot

We love it when byproducts of the roasting process at Metropolis Coffee Company become fodder for the greater good and that’s what’s going on at Haymarket Gardens, an “open source urban agriculture experiment” by Dan Scotti and Tim Sparer.

Scotti and Sparer are pouring blood, sweat and tears (i.e. hard labor) into a plot of ground at a unique, high-minded, and large-in-scope urban agricultural site, The Plant (simply put, a vertical farm and business incubator) in hopes of turning a former gravel parking lot for big rigs into a food-producing plot of land. Sounds easy, right?

Maybe not. Seen recently on the Haymarket Gardens blog: “Due to a finger-eating fence, we’ve taken a bit of an unplanned Hiatus this past week, and will probably be extending it into sometime the next week.”

Long days, tired bodies and bloody injuries aside, Scotti and Sparer (who began volunteering at The Plant in the fall of 2010, helping to deconstruct the old Peer Foods building in which it’s housed) have found what farmers and laborers know well–it’s hard work and you work until you’re finished.

They kicked off the project in mid-March and “that was three months ago and it’s certainly been a lot of work to start from gravel and now we have things growing and are expanding throughout the summer,” says Scotti. “We have a couple-hundred plants growing: tomatoes, carrots, melons, beans, squash, and a few others.”

There’s plenty of room to volunteer as the guys have access to about two acres of land and aren’t using all of it at this point due to lack of manpower. Some do volunteer, says Scotti: “We kind of feel bad because people show up with this romantic idea of tending to a garden and we have them picking up trash and moving bricks.”

It’s not all fence building, though, and that’s where our burlap coffee bean bags come into the picture. They’ve been used to line the bottom of the raised plant beds they’ve built in the parking lot. They’ll also be working to reclaim some plots of the actual gravel parking lot.

“The burlap goes under the mulch and the soil to keep the roots from driving too deep into the gravel and force them to use our compost and our soil that’s full of nutrients and not just gravel, says Scotti, who notes they’ve also picked up burlap from Bridgeport Coffee Company and mulch from the City of Chicago. “You can go to various Chicago [Department of] Streets & San[itation] locations and get as much mulch as you want for free. It works in reality and for our mission because it comes from trees knocked down by storms, old telephone poles and such. It’s good mulch that will turn to compost in a few years.”

Can They Hit Pay Dirt? If You Help!

While they’ve gotten their hands dirty, and bloodied, it seems, Scotti and Sparer have also taken the time to try to give the project life online and raise funds to further their goals for the space. It isn’t easy, but their backgrounds help. Sparer has a degree in psychology from the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and will likely continue his education. Scotti studied film at Columbia College of Chicago, hence the sweet explanatory video detailing the project better than we can here. “We are different people with different strengths and weaknesses, but we both have experience in and a lot for building gardens in the city,” says Scotti.

So, what’s the goal? “Honestly, we’ve always been into urban gardens and to have the opportunity to do it on a larger scale, we said why not,” says Scotti. “In that vein, we’d like to open up some space for people in the community to come and start their own small plots and grow veggies for themselves,” says Scotti, noting that much of the credit goes very directly to Edel.

Want To Volunteer?

It’s always best to check in before you go, but there are usually volunteers working at The Plant, regardless, on Thursdays and Saturdays. Tasks might include building garden walls out of rubble being taken from inside the building. “We use these old bricks that no one’s touched in 100 years and we’re bringing it outside to re-purpose it and build walls around our raised bed and keep some extra water and that certainly is not an easy task with just two people moving thousands of pounds of old brick and concrete.


  • SVD says:

    These projects are exciting; I’m glad that you’re making these things happen. I am so proud to be a Chicagoan, because of folks like you.

    But, I have one questions. As I read, “…in hopes of turning a former gravel parking lot for big rigs into a food-producing plot of land”, I wonder: how come there is no mention of soil testing. In a future post, could you explain how the soil was tested?

    I can’t help but think that big rig leaks went into the ground at some point. Any help?

    (Also, I wonder the same thing for the project in Woodstock; since this information isn’t easy to find on their site either.)

    Kudos, my friends!

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