Jeanne Nolan’s new book, From the Ground Up, is a rare and improbable thing: a gripping gardening memoir. That’s not because of the author worrying whether her seeds will sprout, or if her crops will be damaged by a grasshopper plague—her seeds always sprout, and her domain isn’t the harsh plains of Little House on the Prairie but rather the backyards and vacant lots of Chicago and its suburbs, where, if nothing grows, there’s always Whole Foods. No, what’s gripping about Ground Up is Nolan herself.
Her sophomore year at New Trier High School, in the 1980s, Nolan met a boy named Mark, who introduced her to Thoreau, Hesse, and sex on golf courses. She’d been a preppy straight-A student; now she and Mark vowed to reject their materialist roots and live close to nature. They made a plan to run off to the southwest. In a Flagstaff, Arizona, grocery store, Nolan first heard the term “organic.”
“It was 1987,” she writes, “and I was blown away when [the grocer] told me that most food was grown with chemicals. . . . I resolved to find a life that was connected to farming and organic food. My discontent with mainstream society and my desire to find what I viewed as a better, ‘truer’ way to live had coalesced around this one issue.”
Nolan saw (in this very paper) an ad for Zendik Farm, a “farm/arts cooperative” in southern California seeking an apprentice in organic farming and animal husbandry. She was sure she had found her path. For 17 years she lived on the farm, following when it migrated to Texas and then North Carolina. The list of the things she learned about farming fill three pages in her book. But she also came to realize that its leaders’ insistence on absolute control over the farm’s members made Zendik Farm less like a commune and more like a cult.
In 2004, Nolan and her young daughter came home to Winnetka. At first she was overwhelmed by culture shock. Her mother suggested that it might be soothing if she planted a garden. In the process of hunting down soil, fertilizer, and seeds, Nolan realized that while she’d been away, organic farming had gone mainstream, even on the North Shore. Within a year, she had a job at the Green City Market and her own business, the Organic Gardener, and was planting gardens in Glencoe, Lake Forest, and Lincoln Park.
From the Ground Up interweaves the story of how Nolan rebuilt her life and became one of Chicago’s preeminent authorities on organic gardening together with practical tips. (Most important: You need to plant your garden in a spot that gets six to eight hours of sun every day.) Her voice is an honest and reassuring one. It makes you believe that even if you have the blackest of thumbs, you could be growing organic tomatoes in tubs on your back porch. As Nolan’s sister tells her, “You went away in search of something and you found valuable knowledge. Now you’re bringing it back to share among the people you can really reach.”