Urban gardening has become very popular these days. From New York to L.A., chefs and restaurant owners are choosing to embrace growing and harvesting their own food. Local restauranteur Allen Strong has created his very own Urban garden here in C-U. He was kind enough to sit down and talk with me about what’s happening over at the flourishing Courier Urban Gardens.
Smile Politely: What was the inspiration for starting Courier Urban Gardens?
Allen Strong: Well, we had this little piece of grassy land right next to Courier Cafe and honestly, I’m not crazy about mowing. I decided planting a garden would be a good use of the space.
SP: What made you decide to plant an urban garden?
AS: We wanted to be able to fully control the quality of our ingredients. Now we can use it right out of the ground. We’ve always been known for our fresh quality food and this garden brings the quality to a whole new level.
SP: Who tends to the gardens?
AS: My wife and I, then we have head gardener Vickie who comes every morning around 6:30 or 7:00 a.m., and our assistant gardener Tim helps out as well.
SP: Who decided what would be planted?
AS: Last year we tried to plant everything, but we quickly learned that this wasn’t very practical. We planted watermelon that was quickly used up and also we tried beans that were used up in just one day. This year we focused on planting things with a high production rate and things that would continue to grow, like tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, herbs, and greens.
SP: What types of materials did you use when constructing the garden?
AS: We used raised wooden beds made of natural cedar and all of our compost and mulch came from Landscape Recycling here in Urbana.
Note: Cedar is a good choice for prolonging the life of the beds without having to treat them with chemicals. Landscape Recycling is a local non-profit that uses ecological and economical methods to recycle yard waste that is then made available for residents and businesses in Champaign County to purchase.
SP: Could you give me an overview of what the garden is offering this year?
AS: We have a lot of tomatoes this year. They are doing really well! Go ahead and pick one to taste. (Which I did with pleasure! The cherry tomato was perfectly ripe, sweet and juicy.) They’re are lots of varieties of heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. We have kale (two types), chard, lettuce, herbs, peppers, and strawberries, just to name a few. (I also got to sample a sweet red strawberry.) We expanded to 6 more beds this year so we could have more of a rotation. We have carrots here too, but only a few for the kids to pull up and eat when they visit. It’s a fun way for them to see how things grow and where their food comes from.
SP: Does the herb garden fully supply herbs for both restaurants?
AS: It has been a while since we bought any herbs. The garden is now almost fully supplying both restaurants with fresh herbs.
SP: Did the garden weigh into your decision to acquire bee hives?
AS: Yes, the bees pollinate the garden and help it to stay healthy and productive. We don’t sell the honey right now but we do bottle it to use in the restaurants. Right now we have around 40,000 bees being cared for by our head bee lady Maggie.
The tour was complete and I was having such wonderful time chatting with the owner that I probably could have spent hours there. It’s not only a great place to sit and relax, it’s also a place where you can learn how your food is grown. As restaurants grow their own urban gardens, their customers can be assured that they’re eating fresh local produce. This latest trend is a perfect way to help keep communities healthy. I caught myself more than once daydreaming about the delicious salad bar that's created from the beauty of this amazing garden. It is abundant with fresh ingredients waiting to picked and made into delicious dishes. I look forward to seeing how Courier Urban Gardens grows and expands over the years.
Courier Urban Gardens is located right next to the Courier Cafe at 111 N Race St, Urbana, IL 61801.
Photos by Rebecca Wells.