Farm Report

"The Country's 1st Certified Organic Rooftop Farm!" (M.O.S.A. Oct, 2008)

Roof Top Farm during the Summer

"We have a great culinary group here in Chicago.
Great restaurants. Great chefs. Uncommon Ground
will be the future right here for many of those restaurants. The customer wants this."
- Richard M. Daley

uncommon ground welcomes

new organic farm director Jen Rosenthal!

     Farmer Jen Rosenthal

Artist turned urban farmer Jen Rosenthal graduated from the sustainable urban agriculture program Windy City Harvest in 2010. With an eye for detail and a focus on flavor and beauty, Jen spent two seasons working on the Fruit & Vegetable Island at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Additional stints at Gethsemane Garden Center and The Edible Garden at the Lincoln Park Zoo lead to an opportunity to establish and maintain Uncommon Ground’s award winning Clark Street ‘Sidewalk Farm’ in 2011. While remaining Farm Director for Uncommon Ground’s Wrigleyville location, Jen recently established her own business, PLANTED | Chicago, specializing in custom edible landscapes for Chicago-area chefs and restaurants.  

Make sure to keep checking this site as Jen takes the reigns.  And please do come visit Uncommon Ground.  We’ll be offering more opportunities to visit and engage with the farm next season and for many seasons to come. 

Goodbye Farm Director Dave Snyder, We'll Miss You!

Hello Urban Agriculture Enthusiasts,

This Season, Rooftop Farm Director Dave Snyder has been updating this farm report weekly.
You can reach Dave via
Here are some Spring & Summer photos for you to enjoy!
Farmer Dave's Weekly Farm Blog is below the photos

raised beds

more raised beds




Roof Top Farm Bee Hives


Gentle Reader,

This is my final rooftop farm report as farm director for Uncommon Ground.  As the earth tilts away from the sun and the weather moves cooler, I too am moving away.  The last three years have been wonderful, growing a ton of produce and educating thousands of people about urban agriculture.  

When I showed up in February of 2010 I was, pardon the expression, green. Immediately I hit the ground running, trying to figure out everything from fertility management to post-harvest handling in a novel, unusual environment.  Well, I’ve learned a huge amount.  Though I could fill up screens and screens talking about my thoughts on micro-scale cover cropping or the unique challenges of rooftop beekeeping, there are a couple more important messages I want to communicate.

The first is that -- and trust me here -- anyone can do this.  Time after time, I’ve counseled the befuddled brown thumbs of Chicago only to have them come back later in the season with tales of 7’ tomato plants and bountiful harvests of herbs.  Furthermore, the differences in technique and approach that separate rooftop growing from in-ground growing are no more complicated than the difference between one community garden and another.  Anyone with sunlight can grow and if you don’t know how, the best advice is to start and work out the problems as you go.  (The one caveat with any on-building growing is that you should always talk to a structural engineer before loading
roofs, porches, decks, or fire escapes.)  After your first year, you’ll know so much more than you did only a few months earlier. To quote a gardener from long, long ago and far, far away: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

The second thing I’ve learned is that this world -- in particular the urban agriculture world -- is filled with fascinating and inspiring people.  I’ve felt honored to be part of a growing movement of activists and educators, growers and writers from as near as across the street to as far as Singapore and the Netherlands.  The conversations I’ve had were a constant source of inspiration and joy.

Thankfully, as I move on, one member of this world will be talking over:

Artist turned urban farmer Jen Rosenthal graduated from the sustainable urban agriculture program Windy City Harvest in 2010. With an eye for detail and a focus on flavor and beauty, Jen spent two seasons working on the Fruit & Vegetable Island at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Additional stints at Gethsemane Garden Center and The Edible Garden at the Lincoln Park Zoo lead to an opportunity to establish and maintain Uncommon Ground’s award winning Clark Street ‘Sidewalk Farm’ in 2011. While remaining Farm Director for Uncommon Ground’s Wrigleyville location, Jen recently established her own business, PLANTED | Chicago, specializing in custom edible landscapes for Chicago-area chefs and restaurants.  

Make sure to keep checking this site as Jen takes the reigns.  And please do come visit Uncommon Ground.  We’ll be offering more opportunities to visit and engage with the farm next season and for many seasons to come.  

Sincerely yours,

Farmer Dave

Last night Uncommon Ground hosted a fundraising dinner for Slow Food Chicago.  We believe in the Slow Food mission and the work that Slow Food Chicago does for the city and region.  But the dinner acted as a showcase for the rooftop farm, as our peak-season crops were featured in the dinner.  Every course, from appetizers to desert included one ingredient or another, ranging from the workaday (green beans) to the exotic (amaranth shoots).

One of the most gratifying parts of this job is bearing witness to the entire life of an ingredient, from seed to plate. It begins in winter when we set our field plan and order our seeds.  Then there's a cold day in spring when we start tomato seeds indoors.  Another day later in spring, perhaps windy and damp, when we transplant the starts.  Then many days of watering, tending, pruning.  Finally, on a hot day in August, there's a harvest.   We wash them off and store them in the walk in cooler.  A few hours later, Chef Matt and Sous Chef Geoffrey have created a deconstructed gazpacho soup for 125 people.

Your understanding of a thing can change your perception.  Maybe that gazpacho soup tasted so good to me only because I feel some kind of personal connection to it.  But I doubt it.  From what I heard from the guests I wasn't alone in my appreciation.

The days are getting shorter and, even though it's in the 90s out, one can feel fall is not too far away.  Our last open house of the season is next Friday, 9/7.  Come by and check out what we've been doing all summer! 

Had you any doubt summer was in full swing, our harvest records would set you straight.  The last couple weeks have brought in the classic summer crops: tomatoes, peppers, beans.  And in good quantities too.  The end of August is usually peak season for lots of mid-summer veggies.  But farmers, like fashionistas, are always thinking one season ahead.  As we're pulling in the hot weather crops we've started in on our seedlings for fall, potting up lettuces indoors to transplant as the daytime temps recede. 

On the bee front, things have been up and down.  After such a promising start to the season -- strong hives in spring and an early harvest -- the later season has been challenging.  The extra hot days on our extra hot roof proved too intense for one of our hives, which absconded, meaning they abondoned their home too find a cooler locale for the colony.  Then, just as we were consoling ourselves on the our loss, a second hive lost her queen.  We're unsure how this happened -- whether she died or left in a mini-swarm -- but we had to order a new queen.  The work of a beekeeper is never done. 

Come on by and see how the garden grows.  We offer tours on Wednesdays at 11am and we'll have our final open house of the season on Friday, September 7th.  Hope to see you soon! 

This summer has been breaking all kinds of records: Chicago's second hottest and one of the driest as well.  Frankly, July was exhausting.  And we're not the only ones who feel this way as well, farmers all over the region are complaining of reduced harvests. But, thanks be, since I last updated the rains have come a few times taking the edge off the heat. 

The cooler temperatures ("cool" may be a bit of an exaggeration, it's still in the upper 80s during the day) have allowed us a bit of germination and some improved harvests.  The real summer crops are coming in now: tomatoes and beans by the bucketload.

Just over a week ago, we harvested one of our favorite summer crops: honey.  A trip to the roof with Liam Ford and a team of fearless staff and interns brought down one "super" of honey (a super is one of the stackable boxes that make up a modern beehive) that netted us 25 pounds of product.  Chef Matt is putting it in our granola.  Come on by and try! 

Around Uncommon Ground, we have a special interest in heirloom crops.  More than anything else, we admire their beauty, both in look and in flavor.  But we also value their connection to the agricultural history and culinary history of America. There's something wonderful about being able to eat like one's parents or grandparents.  Of course, this is easier when you grow your own. Few groceries offer heirloom varieties and even farmers markets can hardly offer a modicum of the vast amount of varieties available. 

That said, we're not sentimentalists.  We don't think everything old fashioned is necessarily better.  In particular, the weather this year seems particularly historic.  Our drought, spreading across most of the Midwest, is the worst since 1956.  Some have even been making comparisons to the 1930s droughts. 

We're forging forward with our summer though.  Thankfully, we have an irrigation system and a dedicated crew of interns keeping up on watering, which is an immeasurable help.  However the extreme heat (5 days over 100 degrees this year) has effected flower development on some plants and severely inhibited germination of mid-season crops. 

Peppers, however, love the heat.  We just pulled over 200 shishito peppers off our plants to run as a weekend special. Come on by and check them out!

While June was exceptionally warm, July has started off sweltering. In Chicago, a lot of folks celebrated Independence Day with central air or open fire hydrants as the mercury bubbled up past 100 degrees. Today came awful close to breaking Chicago�s all time high, which was set in 1934 during the Dust Bowl Era: one of America�s most extreme periods of hot, dry weather. Our rooftop has been blissfully free from dust storms. In fact, even in the extreme heat we�ve been harvesting consistently. Today we even harvested two kinds of lettuce: Parris Island and Yuugoslavian Red. Still, June is often a transitional time as the spring crops are past and many of the summer crops are still growing and ripening.

Stop by and see how we�re doing. We�re having a rooftop open house tomorrow, July 6th, from 5pm until sundown. I�ll be there. Come by, say hi, and see what we�re up to.

This June has been hot and dry. The average June rainfall is over two inches and we haven�t even gotten a half an inch yet. Not even a half an inch! Furthermore, it�s been the warmest June in 25 years. While many of my friends have been spending their days off at the beach, gardeners and farmers like me have either been too busy watering or too busy worrying to relax. To make matters worse, our irrigation system has been only semi-functional due to an especially difficult to reach leak.

That said, stuff�s starting to get tall. It is, now, officially summer and so summer crops seem especially happy. Two crops that shocked us with their success was our shallots and garlic. Many alliums (the genus of plants that includes onions, garlic, shallots, leeks and chives, among others) are planted in late fall for harvest in early summer. Our garlic tops were looking a bit yellow, so we picked them along with our shallots last Thursday. Our little bed netted 52 pounds of tasty bulbs. If you�ve never tried fresh garlic, it�s worth a go. Their sharp heat dissipates quickly.

If we�re to believe the weathermen, they say it�ll rain this weekend. Here�s hoping.

Junebilation! After the hustle of our early spring, we�re starting our transition into summer. Memorial Day has passed and the solstice is approaching. The radishes and kale of winter have to make way for summer�s tomatoes and peppers. Of course, as the spring crops reach the end of their days and summer crops still need weeks before they fruit, harvests from the roof will slow down for a brief window. That said, some of our favorite crops are coming in right now. Snow peas, truly one of the finest garden vegetables, are coming in by the handful. Perhaps even more excitingly, currants and strawberries are coming in from our perennial plantings.

Also at the end of May one of the best things about summer began. Our 2012 group of interns started. We�ve got a wonderful group of diverse, passionate folks who will be helping us out.

If you want to come see the fruits of our labors, we offer farm tours on Wednesdays at lunch and have our first rooftop farm supper coming up in two weeks. Call 773-465-9801 for more details.

I read once that baby blue whales gain 200 pounds a day. This week felt like my greens could have fit in at Sea World. Perhaps I exaggerate, but again this week we harvested 30 pounds off our little garden patch in the sky. That was last Friday and by today it already looked overgrown again. In particular, our leaf lettuce seems invincible this spring. We grow head lettuce and then mixed leaf lettuce as well. For the leaf lettuce, we save seed every year. Now, if you�ve saved lettuce seed before, you are probably dubious of this, since lettuce crosses easily. In fact ours does too and we exert no effort into isolating our varieties. As a consequence, our lettuce mix every year represents an assortment of random hybrids of whatever previous lettuces we�ve grown that year. Each mix, then, represents a genetic snapshot of lettuce for that. Last week I came into Uncommon Ground for dinner with a friend. We ordered the rooftop salad special and when it came out I knew: that was the 2011 mix that night. Come by and check it out for yourself!

This year the season is happening much faster than my previous years. A combination of early, warm weather and more aggressive early season planting has led to strong May harvests. Last week we pulled off 30 pounds of greens and radishes. To compare to last year, we didn�t have harvests that big until the third week of June. The spring greens are gorgeous too, unworried about the influx of diseases and pests they contend with later in the season. They don�t look too bad in the ground, either. If you want to check �em out, come by for a rooftop tour: Wednesdays at 11 AM. Call 773-465-9801 for more information and to make a reservation.

This afternoon as beekeeper Liam Ford and I went to check on our hives, we saw something surprising: one of the hives that hadn�t been doing very well was suddenly filled with bees. We�d been checking up on the hive often enough to know that there hadn�t been enough brood to produce so many workers. We took a look through the hive and even saw a queen. Our only explanation was that a swarm from somewhere else in the neighborhood had taken up in the old hive. There�s an old saying, a swarm in may is worth a load of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon, but a swarm in July isn�t worth a fly. Which, other than adding whimsical color to your conversation, tells you that the earlier you catch a swarm, the more time the bees will have to store up honey before you winter comes. On first inspection, however, we didn�t see any new eggs, so we may have caught an infertile queen. If so, we�ll cancel that order for hay, and likely combine with another hive.

One of the best things about growing is that it's different every year.  Last week I mentioned we've been growing some different Asian greens
on the roof this year. My boss, Helen Cameron, brought a bunch of seed packs of mustard greens back from the Kitazawa Seed Company out of Oakland.  Some I was familiar with, I've been growing mizuna and Osaka purple for a few years, but there was one that was new to me: komatsuna.  Knowing it was cold hardy, we sowed it early, and it was one of the fastest out of the gate.  Not only has it been productive, but, my lands, is it delicious.  Savory with a hint of spice, it's definitely my favorite of the spring harvests this year. 

On Friday we'll be bringing in komatsuna alongside our other Asian greens, lettuce, radishes, and herbs.  Come on in and ask your server what dishes you can try it in.  Also, if you want to come up and see the komatsuna in situ, then come by for one of our weekly tours.  They're every Wednesday, at 11am.  They cost $10 per person, but if you stay for lunch, we'll knock a 10% off your bill, too!  Call 773-465-9801 to make a reservation.

All over the city, everyone�s been talking how weird Chicago�s weather has been, asking me if I�m nervous about it. No, I�m not nervous about it. Gardening breeds a philosophical outlook on a lot of things, the weather included, and a warm March lead only to a dry April. It just means I�ve had to keep up on my watering and who can complain about one more opportunity to spend your mornings outside? Well, finally this weekend the rains came. Coming back into work on Monday it seemed like the plants grew three sizes over the weekend. In the next few days we�ll be serving the bounty. We�re growing a couple of mild Asian mustard green varieties � mizuna and komatsuna � which we�ll be harvesting for the kitchen on Friday.

Also this week, Liam Ford and I took the opportunity to check in on our bees. Our two active hives are going strong, their populations increasing quickly and their honey stores doing great. Last Friday Liam put another super (the small top box that normally fills with honey) on one of our hives, and when we checked today it was already filled with fresh honey. It�ll take a while for the bees to cure it and cap it with wax (their preservation technique) but it�s making us optimistic about this season.

Keep checking this site for updates on bees, veggies, and the progressing season.

The past week has been distinctly vernal and cool enough that growers all over the city were peering at their lettuces nervously. Perhaps we got a bit excited with our warm March. Perhaps we committed the cardinal sin of any agriculturalist: meteorological optimism. It got cold enough late last week that we had to run cover our baby starts with floating row cover to help keep them warm overnight. It seems to have worked fine and we�re anticipating a similar harvest to last week. Not only will be pulling in more of the same greens as last week, such as kale, spinach and lettuce, we�ll also be working in some of our perennial herbs, such as sorrel, lovage and savory. Just this morning we were discussing where the produce will fit in on this weekend's menu. If you want to try the results, come on in and ask if any of the specials include anything from the rooftop.

Reports of spring�s death have been greatly exaggerated. After the warmest March on record, the weather has stabilized to a more normal spring in Chicago. The risk of frost doesn�t pass in Chicago until May 15th, still, we took the opportunity to sow some seeds and harvest some greens. Since it was so balmy, we threw in a few handfuls of seeds. Our annual beds are already sprouting carrots, mustard greens, radishes, beets and lettuces. While it�ll be a several weeks before we start pulling them, just seeing their little leaves gives a grower an optimism for the season. You�ll remember from the last farm report, that we had a hoop house on the roof this winter. While this didn�t let us harvest much during the winter, it gave us a jumpstart on the year. Already we�ve harvested over a dozen pounds of greens from the roof including kale, spinach, lettuce and two kinds of mustard green. The cool weather means the leaves are extra tender and the frost-kissed kale was some of the sweetest I�ve had. We�ve been running these harvests as Friday night salad specials and they�ve been selling out. If you come in, ask your server if anything�s coming off the roof.

It�s the start of a new year, a time for celebrations and resolutions, but also for reflection. Up at the rooftop farm, we�ve been spending some the off season, in between processing seeds and organizing our files, to look back on our year. Ultimately we�ve come to the conclusion that 2011 was one heck of a good year.

The year, we harvested over 800 pounds from our Devon Street location. We were awful proud of this, considering our small size and considering this is 122% of last year�s harvest. What�s even better, is the chef found this year�s produce to be more consistent and of consistently higher quality.

Perhaps the largest change this year was the development of the Sidewalk Farm at our Clark Street location and the addition of Jen Rosenthal to our team. Jen whipped this farm into beautiful, productive shape, harvesting around 150 pounds of produce and scoring a Mayor�s Landscape Award (2nd Place for Specialized Garden). Moving forward, we�d like to expand our Clark Street growing even more.

The Rooftop Farm at Uncommon Ground isn�t just about vegetables. We try and use our growing environment as a tool for outreach and education. The centerpiece of our education program is our summer internship, which brought six young farmers on board to learn about urban agriculture hands-on. One of last year�s interns, Erin McMillan started the Fresh From The Farm, a summer program, in conjunction with Seven Generations Ahead, which offered an exciting urban-ag curriculum for school-age children.This year we offered weekly lunchtime tours and monthly open houses to make sure folks from the community could check out what we we�re doing. Also we participated in openhousechicago which brought several hundred people over two days. 2011 also saw the debut of Rooftop Dinners, with specialty, family-style menus and �U-pick� salads, were exceptionally popular.

Beekeeping this year was a mixed bag. Even though we lost all our hives over last winter, we got an early jump with one hive of Italian bees, followed later by two of Minnesota Hygoienics. We harvested about 40 pounds of honey in August. Now, going into winter, we�re optimistic about at least two of the hives.

Even now that the temperature�s dropping, we�ve still got work to do. We�re growing microgreens in our basement and have a hoop house on the roof, so very small harvests are coming in yet.

All in all, 2011 was a banner year for the rooftop farm. Makes us excited about 2012!

Thanksgiving is tomorrow which, briefly setting aside the pilgrims, football, parades, and shopping, is American culture's version of a harvest festival, where we stuff ourselves into blissful catatonia in appreciation of season's bounty.  At Uncommon Ground it's an opportunity to think back on our season with the same kind of gratitude for the nature's generosity.  Not only have we increased our harvest this year (exact numbers to be announced in December) our produce was, in this farmer's humble opinion, beautiful.  Even still, as if a symbol of the harvest, we're pulling out spretnak lettuces out from under our hoophouse, in addition to kale, radishes, arugula, spinach, parsley and peas.  The small hoophouse was such a success, we wanted to duplicate it on the roof.  Our model was to build a large hoophouse, similar to a high tunnel, on our roof, spanning four of our four-by-ten beds.  The construction and installation went without flaw, but the next day Chicago saw 40 mile an hour winds and the poor hoophouse got a bit beat-up.  Well, the trusty interns gathered 'round and we rebuilt it with a slightly different design and so far it's been holding up, at least to 35 mile an hour winds.  I stopped in there today and it was warm enough to not need a sweater.  For that, I'm thankful. 

While the streets of Chicago were beset by candy hungry ghouls, things were a bit more pacific on our roof.  Slow but steady, we're still pulling off lettuce, spinach, basil, kale, radishes and parsley. It has been an encouraging fall.  Encouraging enough that we're considering some more season extension that we already have.  Details are still being worked out, but hopefully we'll add a couple more hoop houses in the next couple weeks, so as to keep bringing down produce even longer.  Also, if you come by the restaurant this weekend keep your eyes out for root veggies.  We're planning on harvesting our carrots, beets and, dream of dreams, our rutabagas this Thursday for the weekend menu. 

Well, the
unseasonable weather has passed on and seasonability, for better or for worse, has set in. The USDA suggests that the first frost in Chicago can be as early as October 10th and at this point in the autumn, even with these colder temperatures, we're counting our good fortunes that we haven't had a freeze yet. Still, we're putting up a hoop house in our patio bed and using floating row cover over our spinaches and lettuces upstairs. This Thursday, we put on our scarves and gloves and harvested 27 pounds, mostly of leafy greens. The weather for this week is calling for temperatures down in the 30s, so we'll see how long we can keep pulling stuff out.

The unseasonable weather continued this past week and the greens went nuts. Spinach, lettuce and mustard greens seemed to redouble over night and our harvests, while small compared to the middle of summer, are robust given the time of year. Not to be outdone, late season peas have been coming in, their white flowers giving this Saint Martin's summer the feeling of spring. Not all our growing is limited to the roof, of course. Around our patio area we have a few planter boxes and even a couple raised beds. There, lettuce and root vegetables have been enjoying the mild October and we're hoping to get some rutabagas out of the bargain, even if we have to cold frame in a week or two. We also prepped one of the downstairs beds for garlic which we'll plant in just a couple weeks for harvest in summer of 2013. The forecast is calling for cooler temperatures next week and quite a bit more rain. But who can complain? I for one am thankful for this brief delay of fall.


Just as last week was cold and dreary, this week has been spectacular.  One of the Polish folks in the neighborhood informed me that she called it Old Lady's Summer.  Regardless of nomenclature, people are almost as thrilled about the weather as our plants.  The daytime highs in the 70s and nighttime lows in the 60s are perfect for our greens, while the tomatoes seem to be getting a second go at ripening.  This week the harvest bumped back up to 27 pounds, although largely because we harvested our grapes heavily before the squirrels could get to them. 


Fall is truly upon us.  Cool, rainy weather has been the rule this week and the impact on the farm is apparent.  The tomatoes, admittedly, look awful.  Let it not be said we're pessimists; we'll keep them around a little while longer in case the warm weather comes back.  Meanwhile, the lettuces, spinach, peas and greens are looking beautiful.  Greens usually mean smaller harvests, by weight anyhow, but we still pulled in just shy of 20lbs this week. 

This week we're continuing to harvest and seed save. Fall crops are planted but we're still pulling in a few summer crops like tomatoes and basil. This week we harvested ground cherries, tomatoes, kale, sorrel, spinach, mint, sage, basil, radishes, mustard green, parsley, lettuce for a total of 33 pounds 14 ounces.

The bees seem to be doing well. The south hive has good over-all health. The queen is laying in the top super, which will make any late harvest difficult. The north hive seems to be doing OK. The queen has laid a bunch of brood in the bottom box and the top box has quite a bit of honey storage. Didn't see the queen, but there was young brood. I didn't get the chance to check the middle hive because it got really windy. I'm talking the bees were blowing off the frames, windy. Best to let the bees be, says I.

Farmer Dave took last week off for a friend's wedding in Maine. While he was away, his diligent class of interns harvested 35lbs of produce. Fall crops are coming back in, including lettuces, spinach, radishes and peas. We also set up a new in-container composter. We only have a few more Wednesday tours this season, so come visit us soon!

This week on the farm we hosted one of our Farm Dinners.  It looked like folks really had a blast.  We also harvested over 55lbs of produce for the kitchen, including squash, mustard greens, kale, mint, basil, tomatoes, beans, radishes, parsley, and lettuce.

Here are some "before" pictures of the roof top farm as we get it prepared to plant for the 2011 season.
uncommon ground

uncommon ground   1401 West Devon Avenue  Chicago, IL  60660   773-465-9801