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From the Ground to Gourmet: an interview with Jen Rosenthal

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Consider this a new adage: eat the food you want to become. It might seem like a strange concept, but a deeper look reveals clues about a positive new outlook on life that is entirely possible. I want the food I eat to be nourishing and bright, unique and complex, and these things apply to my personality and sense of self. I want to eat well to be well.

In a time when it is even more difficult to trace the sources and nutritional value of the food we eat everyday, it is critical that we develop methods of growing and understanding the things we put into our bodies. Enter Jen Rosenthal of PLANTED I Chicago. Jen builds gardens for local institutions like Lula Cafe and Uncommon Ground. For her latest project, Jen will teach a select number of Brooklyn Boulders Chicago members how to sprout sunflower seeds int heir kitchen. Then, chef Alia Dalal will provide two delicious recipes for members to eat. Read on to learn more about Jen and her work.


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Q: WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND? HOW DID YOU GET INTO GARDENING?

Jen: I started with an art background and this simple hobby turned into a passion. In 2010, even before then, I started gardening in my back porch, so I guess that’s kind of where it started. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I don’t come from a farmer family, which I think shocked a lot of people, so this was all trial and error. I got really interested in trying to figure out why did this fail or why did this produce.

I think growing your food connects you to the earth, to environment, to nature, which brings us a lot, especially in an urban setting.

Every year, I tried to grow more and grow different things. It really started with the fact that I love tomatoes and everyone who knows me knows how crazy I am about tomatoes. I first tried organic tomatoes and they were the best thing that I had ever eaten. I was looking for a change in my life and that’s where everything culminated. I started being unhappy where I was at with my career. I used to design washing machines, which people think is kind of insane. It’s like a complete 180. It wasn’t like I was producing anything meaningful in this world.

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I really felt like growing food at least … at the end of the day, I could see myself and my family and my friends. And because I had an art background, it’s kind of just combining my two passions – food and art. In 2010, when I found an intensive shift harvest program for nine months for a certificate facilitated through a partnership with the Chicago Botanical Garden and the Chicago City Colleges, it was just sort of serendipity.

I graduated the apprenticeship program in 2010 and just haven’t looked back since. I’m trying to get my hands around every passion so I can just experience the passion of growing food. I try to spend days outside. It’s good and helps you with the hard work. A lot of people have a super romantic notion of what is it that I do. A lot of it is backspacing and very long days and weather conditions. You know, it’s not always 75 and sprouting with greens.

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Q: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO BECOME SUCCESSFUL AT THIS?

I was kind of in the back porch for three to four years but, honestly, every year I would run into something big enough to me that takes a huge time. The first year I made the mistake with potatoes. I crammed too many plants in too small of a growing environment for them. Then I talked to a person in the garden center a lot, they gave me advice.

When you grow that plant, starting with seeds and then transplanting them and then harvesting, there’s so much love and time and effort.

It was a couple of years where I experimented and it didn’t feel like that long before I was all in. I think a lot of people who start to garden say it’s like getting bitten by a garden bug. You know, you take care of things and finally you see the fruits of your labor.

Q: HOW DO YOU TRY AND MAKE GARDENING SEEM MORE ACCESSIBLE FOR PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN AN URBAN TERRAIN?

Well, I feel like I’m just a really good example of that. The fact that I started off making all the mistakes that people are scared of making. That’s what’s so great about this work: I failed this year, I’ll try again next year. It’s very typical, like, you know the cycles of growing can be short and so you know what is and isn’t working.

And that helps inspire other people to not be discouraged after a first failure. Everyone fails and if it’s something that interests you, here’s a couple tips. There’s a thing that once you’ve got the basics down, they translate. There are ways to break it down to simpler farms and I think once people grasp this simple farm, it really is super simple and not rocket science. Nature is amazing. It’s a lot easier than a lot of people assume it is.

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Once people see how you do this, it’s like a gateway. I tell people that the next stop is to try herbs. A lot of them are super ambitious. If they want to plant everything, they want tomatoes, and peppers, and cucumbers, and corn and seeds. They don’t really understand all of the needs of those separate crops. They need to be treated a little bit different so I say to try with herbs because they’re really forgiving. You can forget to water them for a while and they won’t, you know, die. They can do it a little without sunlight and still produce and that’s something you can do in winter, in the kitchen. When you get that kind going, go outside and try that tomato plant or try that potato plant or try the cucumbers.

Q: WHY DO YOU GROW FOOD? WHY DO YOU THINK IT’S IMPORTANT FOR PEOPLE TO LEARN HOW TO GROW SOMETHING?

I think growing your food connects you to the earth, to environment, to nature, which brings us a lot, especially in an urban setting. And two, I feel that, when you start to grow your own food, you start to have a different perspective, a different viewpoint of where the food is coming from and how much value is in our food.

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I like to talk a lot about how we value our food system. Whenever you want anything, you can go to the store and get it. You know, an avocado in Chicago in the middle of winter … those things don’t grow here. What does it take to get things here? I think, once you start to connect personally, it gives you a better appreciation. When you grow that plant, starting with seeds and then transplanting them and then harvesting, there’s so much love and time and effort. You get a little connection. It starts to change the way you approach that thing and when you are going to purchase a thing, you understand maybe how hard farmers are working for the beautiful thing that they’ve got there for you.

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(Photo credits: DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard, Jen Rosenthal, Uncommon Ground)