Jeanne Nolan has been growing food organically for over twenty-five years. As a teen in 1987, Jeanne left her suburban home along Chicago’s North Shore in search of a less materialistic, more authentic lifestyle. Beginning her career with an organic vegetable gardening apprenticeship, she continued to live and work on a communal farm in Southern California, Austin, TX, and Asheville, NC, for nearly two decades.
Returning home in 2004, Jeanne began doing what she loved – growing food – on a small plot in her parents’ backyard in Winnetka, Illinois. Friends and family quickly took notice, pointing out how times had changed since her teen years. As a young radical environmentalist, Jeanne had turned her back on mainstream suburbia, looking to create meaningful change by removing herself from the system. But now, returning decades later, Jeanne found that an entire movement had grown within the mainstream, a movement rooted in environmental sustainability, healthy living, and good clean food.
Looking to get more deeply involved, Jeanne took a job with Chicago’s Green City Market as local food pioneer Abby Mandel’s assistant. In 2005, Abby asked Jeanne to transform the existing demonstration garden at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Farm-in-the-Zoo. Abby envisioned an interactive project the likes of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA – a place for children and families to learn about where their food comes from and how to grow it themselves. Jeanne took on her first major urban food production project and created The Edible Gardens, a 5,000 square-foot educational children’s garden that she still maintains today in partnership with Green City Market.
It was the research for The Edible Gardens project that connected Jeanne to the diverse and widespread food movement that had grown within Chicago and throughout the nation while she was on the commune. She was struck by urban agriculture’s thriving progress – where growing conditions were seemingly more challenging and limited – and found it strange that suburban agriculture had not taken off in the same way, as suburbanites had abundant green space to work with and a growing interest in organic food.
And so grew Jeanne’s idea for her own business – the answer she’d been searching for was no further than her own backyard all along. In 2005, she founded The Organic Gardener Ltd., and with TOG has now built over a thousand organic food gardens in and around Chicagoland for families, schools, restaurants, businesses, and non-profit organizations.
In 2006, Philip “Verd” Nolan joined Jeanne as Chief Operations Officer (and husband). Although Verd grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, they first met and farmed together on the commune in Austin, Texas. As entrepreneurial partners, Jeanne and Verd fused their practical farming know-how, their cooperative leadership styles, and their enduring passion as idealistic environmentalists to guide TOG’s development.
In early 2010, Landscape Architect Jacqueline Kotz brought a new level of design experience to the still growing operation. Today, at the height of the season, TOG’s team is twenty-five strong – a dedicated mix of gardeners, designers, educators, and creatives, headquartered in Highland Park, Illinois.
For TOG’s full story, check out Jeanne’s book, From the Ground Up: A Food Grower’s Education in Life, Love and the Movement That’s Changing the Nation, published by Random House in 2013.
Photo: Andrew Nelles, Chicago Tribune