Ten thousand pounds of produce – that’s how much yield Paul Hamilton hopes to get out of his commercial garden this year. In 2013, Hamilton and his wife, Wendy, purchased an empty 2½-acre parking lot and turned a ¼-acre of it into a commercial urban garden. Hamilton Farms’ garden is located across the street from Vin de Set in St. Louis’ Lafayette Square, one of several restaurants owned by the couple.
How did you start your restaurants’ garden? We started off a few years ago when a woman representing aeroponic towers approached us. We’re on a roof [at Vin de Set], so the towers don’t take up much space, and they use less water than a traditional growing system. By exposing the roots to air, aeroponic systems speed up the growing process and are proven to grow food quicker than hydroponic or traditional gardening. We bought a few of them to grow herbs, and [we] put them out in the open so people could see them. Once I figured it out, it worked pretty darn well.
How did you transform the parking lot into an urban garden? After removing the torn-up asphalt and adding soil and compost, we put in six planting beds and started growing root vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, beets and more. Underneath the asphalt was all rock, so the drainage was almost too good. Last year I converted the tower-garden system from 16 towers, seven pots high, into a commercial tower system of 20 towers, 11 pots high. I can do 1,000 plants now. All the towers are hooked up to water and fill automatically; all the nutrients come from one source. I gravitated to growing lettuces, Swiss chard, kale, sorrel and leafy herbs in the tower gardens because they were easy to pick and clean; last year we harvested 5,000 pounds of produce total with the tower system and traditional gardening. This year I put in a drip-irrigation system and planted 750 tomato plants, 1,000 greens and 600 peppers, as well as hundreds of other fruit and vegetable plants including green beans, squash, parsnips, cantaloupe and more, all using [seeds from Missouri’s] Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.
How have the menus at your restaurants been impacted by the garden? We use a lot more greens on the menus now. There is a Tuscan kale salad we’ve started doing at Vin de Set, Eleven Eleven Mississippi and PW Pizza. One of the things we’ve focused on is planting things that cost more, things less easily available and different, [like] watercress and sorrel. We made a sorrel pesto and worked it into a sauce for summer, fall and winter because it was growing so fast. In October and November, the tomato plants are loaded with green tomatoes, so we pick them before the last frost for pickling or fried green tomato specials.
What’s new this year at the garden? Up until this year, it was just me and my chefs helping in the garden. Now I’ve hired an official gardener, and he’ll keep better track of our yields. Because it is an urban setting, we have to optimize the space we have. I’m also planning to buy some city Land Reutilization Authority lots [parcels of vacant or donated lots owned by the city] in the nearby Gate District to put a commercial greenhouse, where the towers would grow year-round and be able to produce 75 percent of our restaurants’ produce and greens.
Vin de Set, 2017 Chouteau Ave., Lafayette Square, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.241.8989, vindeset.com