Glencoe's The Organic Gardener has built 500 gardens around the Chicago area and provided advice for more than 1,000 more, but it all started in Jeanne Pinsof Nolan's parents' backyard.
A Winnetka native, Nolan spent 17 years working on organic farms around the country after graduating from New Trier High School.
"When I was 17, I was struck with a fierce case of idealism and wanting to change the world," Nolan said. "I really went searching for a life that was focused on addressing some of the problems with the environment and society, particularly in relation to the earth and the way it was being destroyed on so many levels."
Nolan's mother found her an apprenticeship program at a commune in Southern California, and when she returned home in 2004, Nolan showed off what she'd learned by building an organic garden for her.
That garden attracted so much attention that Nolan's family encouraged her to start building gardens for others as a business. Now The Organic Gardener employs about a dozen people and their work is found at South and Central Schools in Glencoe, New Trier and Winnetka's Hubbard Woods School. They're currently working on developing a 2,000 square foot garden at Northbrook Junior High School.
“Our children can learn all of the subjects that we teach currently in schools through a hands on experience in a garden," Nolan said. "More and more schools want to have an outdoor classroom of this type.”
Nolan said that parents see that school gardens have real impacts on their kids.
“They're coming home asking their parents to cook some broccoli, buy them some sugar snap peas or grow their own garden,” Nolan said.
Growing concerns about obesity and the environment have spurred The Organic Gardener's success.
“Studies show that when you grow your own food and kids grow up eating home grown vegetables, their eating habits are much better," Nolan said. "Growing your own food significantly reduces your household's carbon footprint.”
That interest is also behind Nolan's upcoming book, which is scheduled to be released by Random House next summer. Tentatively titled "From the Ground Up," her literary debut is both a how-to guide for people who want to grow their own food and a memoir of her experiences working on organic farms.
“It was very exciting and rewarding," Nolan said. " It was really great to do physical work. I think working physically with the earth has become something of a lost art, especially when you grow up in Winnetka.”
Now she finds a similar satisfaction in sharing what she's learned with others.
“I find a feeling of connection and purpose when my moments are spent growing food and helping others grow food,” Nolan said.