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TH Taste: Uncommon Grounds

A new crop of farmers sows ideas as well as seeds

In the Fairmont Hotel’s rooftop garden over-looking downtown Dallas, Executive Chef André Natera (left), Charity Lortie, and Laura Roush grow many of the vegetables and herbs used in the hotel’s Pyramid Restaurant & Bar. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

By Jennifer Nalewicki

One of the things I liked most about summer in Texas was helping out in my mom’s garden. But when I moved to New York City last year for a job, I figured the only place in the concrete jungle where I would find herbs, tomatoes, and other produce would be at the supermarket. I was wrong.

In cities across the nation, from the Big Apple to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, there is a burgeoning movement growing alongside the tangles of concrete and steel. Thanks in part to a nationwide interest in sustainable agriculture, city-dwellers are putting down roots in places once considered unsuitable for gardening, like rooftops, vacant lots, and truck beds. Their mission: to educate the public on healthy eating habits while sharing some delicious edibles along the way.

Two pioneers of this urban agricultural revolution are Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis of Brooklyn, New York, who filmed a 2009 documentary called Truck Farm, about how they converted a rusty Dodge pickup truck into a portable garden, which they drove to area schools and farmers’ markets to promote sustainability and good nutrition. Now, three years later, their concept has expanded to include a fleet of 25 trucks across the nation, including one champagne-colored Dodge D150 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area owned by Marilyn and Donelle Simmons of Waxahachie. 

When I first met with the mother-daughter team, there was still an early-spring chill in the air. It was too soon to begin planting crops, but they already knew what they wanted to grow in their second season as a participating Truck Farm: cantaloupes, squash, leeks, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and herbs. Thanks to their gardening backgrounds and love of nature, Cheney and Ellis had tapped them to represent Texas as its sole Truck Farm. Luckily, the Simmonses already had a truck, which they used for Garden Inspirations, their garden-education and landscape-consulting firm. Next, they just needed to drill some holes in the pickup bed for drainage, lay down soil, plant the seeds (heirloom only!), and install a solar-powered drip irrigation system. As with the other trucks in the fleet, the Simmonses’ portable farm uses organic gardening methods, so instead of chemical fertilizers, they use worms to provide nutrients to the soil. The worms prove especially popular with the students they meet during gardening demonstrations at area schools. So far, the Simmonses have found the children to be eager to learn gardening skills. “We’ll put a ladder up against the truck, and they can climb up and touch and smell the garden,” Donelle says.

City-dwellers are putting down roots in places once considered unsuitable for gardening, like rooftops, vacant lots, and truck beds.

When the Simmonses aren’t visiting schools, they set up shop at the Waxahachie Downtown Farmer’s Market on Saturdays from May through October. This year, they plan to participate in the annual Food Day in Dallas on October 24, a grassroots event celebrated in cities nationwide to help communicate the importance of healthy, sustainable food. “When we went last year, some of the chefs at the event used our herbs to season a salmon-and-rice-pilaf dish,” Donelle says.

Donelle Simmons, along with her mother, Marilyn, converted their 1985 Dodge truck into a portable farm. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)Across town, amid the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas, Chef André Natera tends to the rooftop garden atop The Fairmont Dallas hotel. Natera is the executive chef of the hotel’s Pyramid Restaurant & Bar, and he incorporates much of the yield from the 3,000-square-foot herb-and-vegetable garden into his culinary creations, like the Niman Ranch Beef Tenderloin, a blue-cheese-and-mushroom-encrusted filet of beef paired with cippolini onions. Every afternoon before dinner service, he and his sous chefs ride the elevator to the rooftop to pluck chives, parsley, golden sage, lemon balm, and creeping thyme to enhance their creations. “Working in the garden has made me a better chef,” Natera says. “After spending months tending to the garden, I make sure produce never gets wasted.”

During the warm months, restaurant guests can dine al fresco on the rooftop terrace as part of a five-course menu made with items from the garden, including honey from the two resident beehives and microgreens grown in the greenhouse. “The ‘Dining in the Garden’ meal is meant to entice all of the senses,” Natera says. “Guests can smell the rosemary and basil in the garden while enjoying a meal made from fresh ingredients that I picked from the garden only hours before.”

Back on terra firma, 20 minutes south of downtown, sits Paul Quinn College, home of the WE Over Me Farm, a two-acre working farm situated between the end zones of a former football field. The student-run operation donates some 10 percent of its yield to the local community, including sweet potatoes, cantaloupes, blackberries, strawberries, leafy greens, and herbs. The farm also holds regular pick-your-own days and provides produce to the school’s cafeteria. “The arugula in particular was a hit with the students,” says Elizabeth Wattley, the college’s director of servant leadership. “They’re not going to find produce fresher than that.” 

The private college has been donating food to the community since the program began in 2010. That same year, Paul Quinn created a Social Entrepreneurship curriculum that teaches students about sustainability, agriculture, marketing, and business principles. In April, the farm hosted its second annual “A Community Cooks” event, when local chefs served cuisine using produce from the farm. The event raised more than $250,000 and donations that included a greenhouse on the football field’s western edge, where the school plans to offer public classes on everything from canning preserves to transplanting tomatoes. 

By July, I will be tending to the container garden I planted on my apartment’s fire escape in Brooklyn. Thanks to a few green thumbs back in Texas, I’ve learned that, with a little water and sunlight, I can start a garden anywhere. Even in the concrete jungle. 

From the July 2012 issue.

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