Ohare's Oasis; Up Up and Away in an Urban Garden

Blogger's Note:   Nature can show up in the most unique places. 

For those transiting alone or with family via one of the USA's busiest aviation hubs, be sure to visit and learn about sustainability.  Chicago's Depart. of Aviation has made a solid commitment to sustainability with an innovative urban garden design that "strengthens the local economy and job market, provides a unique learning opportunity for travelers, and reduces urban sprawl, traffic congestion, habitat loss, and pollution from transportation of produce.”   Great lessons for wee ones in-tow to absorb!


As the nearby jumbo jet taxis for takeoff, I politely startle a garden guest with the request: "please place your hand here and feel the vibration."

Perhaps, sensing a non-threatening, professorial tone in my voice the oasis visitor kindly obliges, reaching for the rail.  As the jet takes off and rumbles overhead, the railing rattles and the edible voila flower petals -- making the trine -- respond in kind.  

He smiles and gets the vibe.  

Lacking a ready supply of insects in this indoor space it's the best winged fly-by these flowers are going to get.  Known as buzz pollination, it works extremely well for indoor growing to gently shake blossoms to transfer pollen.  And, it's just one of the innovative features to be unearthed if travel takes you through Chicago’s busy O’Hare International Airport.  The "buzz" is really to your benefit -- if you are sporting an appetite:  the use of targeted vibro-acoustics like this lets self-pollinating plants such as beans and peppers provide fresh organic produce grown right in the airport to be supplied to four of the facility's restaurants.

Vertical Sustainability: Truly Local Food

Opening in the Fall of 2011, O’Hare is home to the world’s first airport aeroponic garden, meaning that a solution of water and minerals is used instead of soil.  The seeds start in small cubes made out of “nutrient-dense and biodegradable volcanic ash material” and are moved into tall towers once they are grown.  Situated in the rotunda building nestled between terminals, there are over 1,100 plants offering up 44 types of organic vegetables and herbs, including swiss chard, chives, purple basil, dill, edible viola and nasturtium flowers, green beans and habanero peppers.

This environmentally-friendly urban garden, a testament to efficacy in resources and space (comprising 928 sq ft) sits in a "foot-print" rectangle no larger than the average living room.  It uses about two-thirds less water than a comparable conventional garden and provides a higher yield by giving the plants a richer mineral, organic food, free of pesticides.

“It uses and recycles water," said Rosemarie Andolino, Chicago Aviation Commissioner. "The water has nutrients in it that feeds the vegetables, so it’s using less land growing vertically instead of horizontally," adds Andolino.   With the produce being served in some of the in-airport restaurants, she notes hungry flyers will not be disappointed. “So you’re not eating airport food. You’re eating real good food that you would get at any restaurant in the city or elsewhere.”  A recent traveler, Steve Ditty, of Decatur, IL  agrees whole-heartedly: "I sampled two soups a "veggie" and later a minestrone," he said, "it was so fresh, I couldn't resist going back for more."

Tidy, Circular, Educational Space

The garden is on the mezzanine level tucked in a circular area that connects terminals 2 and 3.  Managed jointly by HMSHost and the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA), Andolino hopes it will become a calming oasis and respite area for weary travelers.  She would really like it to improve the airport experience for travelers. ”It’s a constant opportunity to cultivate, educate and bring kind of a tranquil area to the airport,” she concludes.  An exhibit display -- at a child-friendly, eye-level describes the sustainable benefits of the aeroponic system and highlights other sustainability initiatives.

For instance, ticketed airport visitors can relax in the oasis area or directly view the garden while enjoying a meal at the O’Hare Bar and Grille.  So if you are traveling through this holiday season (or any time for that matter -- that being the beauty of non-seasonal indoor gardening) drop by the oasis for a tidy lesson in garden ingenuity.  And do try a bowl of the soup.  I hear it's delish!


Randy Eady, a former professor at the USAF Academy and practicing Nature Therapist is always on the prowl for innovative eco-psychological practices -- that use therapeutic methods and help children learn about garden design.

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