A Day's Work

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Jun 2004 / a day's work :: email this story to a friend

You Grow, Girl
By Julia Smillie

It's nearly four o'clock on a Friday afternoon in late May and it's unseasonably hot, even for St. Louis. Sweltering hot. AC-and-iced-tea hot. Get-out-of-the-sun hot. I'm thinking I might possibly die if I stay out in the sun for more than thirty seconds when I see Carrie Fathman arrive, cycling into the parking lot of Schlafly Bottleworks.

Barely breaking a sweat, she hops off her bike in jaunty red shorts and fairly bounds over to greet me. Carrie, it seems, has chosen to be outside in this weather. She has chosen to exercise in it. But what else would you expect from a woman who will spend the dog days of summer overseeing Bottleworks' ongoing mission to convert three quarters of an acre of the former Shop 'n Save parking lot into a sustainable urban agricultural experience? And doesn't that sound like the basis of a Fox reality show?

It isn't, though. It's part of a vision developed two years ago by Bottleworks' co-owners Tom Schlafly and Dan Kopman — men who thought that if you could make your own beer right here in downtown Maplewood, you might as well grow your own food to accompany it.

Overseeing The Garden at Bottleworks, as the project is known, is 26-year old garden manager Fathman, who relocated to St. Louis three years ago. From California. On purpose. "I wanted to move to a real city in the middle of the United States," she says, without the slightest hint of sarcasm. "I definitely wanted to live in the Midwest. I'm drawn to the more settled nature of things here."

Armed with an urban planning degree from Stanford University, Fathman found the work opportunities in her field limited and resigned herself to that post-collegiate fall-back — waiting tables. She applied at Bottleworks, largely because she felt a philosophical connection with the restaurant's commitment to creating, supporting and sustaining a greater sense of community. She was particularly impressed, Fathman says, with Bottleworks' "almost political" commitment to using and promoting the goods of local purveyors on its menu.

Now, Carrie calls it crazy timing that her application happened to arrive just as the position of garden manager was opening. But from where I stand, it's enough kismet to quiet nay-sayers that an interview for such a position was extended to the young woman who claims that urban gardening's been a passion since junior high.

"I love the idea of urban gardening," she enthuses. "Creating food — and healthy food — in the middle of wherever you want and having it be practical and beautiful. It helps counteract the negative forces that seem to be around us." She pauses and looks at me. "We're all here in urban places, we might as well make this work." And you gotta give props to a woman who can make urban gardening seem logical and righteous even to me.

When Fathman joined Bottleworks in the dead of winter last December, the garden was but a gaping hole and an ambitious plan, drawn up by local landscape architect Linda Kraft. It has now become Fathman's responsibility and passion to transform "the garden from a daydream to a functioning urban agricultural system."

As she talks about the garden, Fathman's admiration for her employers is apparent. "As an urban planner, I know that one of the most challenging things to do is give up parking space," she says of the lot Bottleworks has sacrificed for cultivation. "It's a valuable commodity."

But this project, she is quick to point out, isn't about the bottom dollar. It's about maintaining a philosophy, committing to the community, making an actual difference, one little plant at a time. "In my eyes, you look at profit in a more complex way. You may be drawing people here to the restaurant who are attracted by this philosophy," she says. "There are certain things you can't measure."

Nor will the garden's offerings likely be measured in bushels. The goal here is not to be able to feed all of Maplewood in the event of a nuclear attack. Nor is it, Fathman stresses, to replace any of the produce they currently receive from local purveyors. Instead, the goal is to grow small amounts of herbs, fruits, flowers and veggies intended as inspiration for menu specials.

This rather daunting undertaking began when Fathman met with Bottleworks' executive chef Scot Smelser, to browse through veggie porn (read: seed catalogs) and select items he fancied. From there, Fathman ordered and planted the seeds in inside flats in a makeshift indoor greenhouse.

In the meantime, the soil had to be built. Yes, built. "It's a big concept in organic agriculture — building your soil, thinking about your soil structure, nutrients [and] quality," Fathman explains, noting that the strips of gravel and clay revealed beneath the asphalt were unsuitable for growing anything.

Today, the garden is clearly a garden, no longer a stretch of parking lot. The once-gaping hole is now marked with plants at various stages of growth pushing through the dirt, a poetic order and symmetry to their neatly divided rows. Fathman spends about 15 hours a week here as garden manager, sowing, planting, harvesting and tending to Bottleworks' other landscaping needs. (The rest of her time, she slacks off at her second job — managing two acres of organic farmland in Ferguson, where she helps train the developmentally disabled in horticulture-related jobs.)

Fathman also oversees a number of volunteers, who she insists — rather modestly — are the real key to the garden's survival. To that end, Bottleworks has declared the last Sunday of every month Community Garden Work Days, offering members of the community a chance to pitch in, be part of something bigger than themselves, contribute to urban agriculture, learn about organic gardening — and get 50 percent off all their food and drink for the day.

"There's been so many people who have come forward, out of the woodwork, offering hours and hours of their time to help get this garden going," Fathman says, clearly moved by the way the community has embraced a project so obviously close to her own heart. "It's just so neat how it's all sort of weaving together."

In turn, Bottleworks has made available six community plots in the garden, all currently under the care of individuals without access to a garden of their own, like most city or apartment dwellers. "The only thing I ask them is that they put in a total of ten hours of garden labor over the summer for the general good of the garden."

It's Friday, which Carrie has set aside for harvesting ripe goods from the garden and handing them over to the chefs for that weekend's specials. Today, after we talk, she's heading out to pluck fresh peas off their vines, gather some Asian cabbage and kale, a few handfuls of radishes, beets and basil. Where they'll end up in the menu — perhaps as an unexpected addition to a soup or salad or as a fresh, specialty side dish — is as much a mystery to her as the customers who will eat, quite literally, the fruits of her labor.

Julia Smillie tends her own little growing community over at readjulia.com.

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