Away from the fairways and closer to the clubhouse, golf grounds crews around Chicago are tending a different sort of green—greens in lovingly planted gardens, meant for use in clubs’ kitchens and served in dining rooms.
At Skokie Country Club in Glencoe, an elegant potager, or ornamental kitchen garden, flanks the dining patio. “We chose Tuscan kale, rainbow chard, bronze fennel, along with herbs and flowers for good looks from start to finish,” says Jeanne Nolan of Glencoe-based Organic Gardener, who created the gardens for the club.
Larger production gardens in raised beds are tucked near the paddle courts, with vegetables, fruits, herbs and edible flowers planted in tidy rows. Chef Richard Stanton helps select produce for his dishes, including purple cauliflower, watermelon radishes, striped heirloom tomatoes and more than 50 other crops and varieties. Along with the gardens, the club has bee boxes and a flock of hens. Members are eating it up, and other local clubs are following suit.
A recent menu special at the clubhouse featured multicolored beets and honey goat cheese topped with hazelnut “soil” and sorrel. The bar also offers garden-inspired cocktails, such as a mojito infused with honey harvested on-site.
“The club has become our go-to place to eat,” member Amy Boehm says. “Why go somewhere else that can’t match this quality?”
The trend toward gardens on golf club grounds is beginning to spread across the country, and Chicago-area clubs are on the leading edge, says Melissa Low, spokeswoman for the Club Managers Association of America. The gardens, along with beer brewing and rooftop gardens, are among the modern amenities clubs are trying as they strive to stay competitive.
The number of golfers has dropped from 30 million in 2005 to nearly 25 million in 2014, according to the National Golf Foundation. Since the economic downturn in 2008, golf rounds have waned and course closings have been on the rise. “Diversification has become a primary interest of golf clubs,” Low says. “In order to attract and retain members, clubs have been adding distinct amenities.” The focus has become more family-oriented and relevant to today’s lifestyles. New facilities and experiences designed to entice younger members include fitness centers, spas, junior programs and modern dining.
“Despite some skeptical golfers, guess what, (the kitchen gardens) work,” says Chuck Scupham, general manager of Skokie Country Club, which has 600 members and a waiting list. “Golf clubs are uniquely positioned to grow food on-site with idle acreage, landscape staff and members’ high dining expectations.”
Skokie ranks in the 98th percentile for club food and beverage sales, according to Club Benchmarking, an online management tool for clubs across the nation. “It’s about adding value and building our brand,” Scupham says. “We’re appealing to our diverse membership now and a few years out.” Clubgoers have embraced local food and sustainability, the hottest restaurant trends.
North Shore Country Club in Glenview grows organic produce in a greenhouse and a converted half-acre garden. From asparagus to zucchini blossoms, vegetables are harvested by the club’s chef and woven into the menu. “Members get a kick out of the garden; you can’t get any fresher,” says Golf Superintendent Dan Dinelli, who spearheads tending of the garden. “It’s not much more effort for us and we’re having fun. Plus it fits in with our wider environmental initiatives.” Going full circle, food waste (excluding meat) is collected daily from the kitchen and fed to thousands of worms in outdoor bins. The resulting vermicompost is used as an organic fertilizer.
Butterfield Country Club in Oak Brook and Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest have culinary gardens as well. Meanwhile, Nolan of Organic Gardener, known for creating attractive edible gardens at homes, schools and businesses in the Chicago area, including Lincoln Park Zoo, is planning gardens for other clubs, including Sunset Ridge Country Club in Northfield.
Back at Skokie, a third garden was added this spring. A custom-built chicken coop, fashioned with interior calico curtains, houses 11 breeds of heritage hens. Scupham points out that, unlike roosters, hens make little noise. The grounds crew feeds kitchen and garden scraps to the flock of 20, keeps the quarters clean and collects the coveted pale green and brown eggs (soon to be served by the kitchen, pending certification).
Interest in bee and wildlife conservation led Don Cross, superintendent of the course, which is ranked by Golf Digest as a top 10 Illinois venue, to become the master gardener/beekeeper/poulterer as well. Over the past 24 years, he has naturalized the grounds with native grasses, flowers and trees, along with nesting boxes for birds and bats. His extensive environmental stewardship practices have earned the club designation as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program since 2001. Caring for bees, which are ideal garden companions, was a natural next step. Around 450,000 honeybees, sheltered in nine bee boxes, reside at the club. Cross points out that “honeybees are peaceful and interested in gathering nectar and pollen, not golfers.” He harvested 140 pounds of honey last year.
Cross, his crew and the culinary team tend to the gardens, assisted by Organic Gardener’s maintenance service. The club’s growing season begins with an April planting and can extend until December for hardy produce. The first year’s cost for installation of beds, irrigation, fencing and maintenance was $25,000, Scupham says. The second year, installation of the new bed, the chicken coop and maintenance came to $15,000. As the gardens become more self-sufficient, he estimates that maintenance will range from $4,000 to $5,000 annually.
In keeping with the club’s family-friendly business model, garden experiences have been integrated with programs. Members are invited to garden tours and talks; kids in the summer junior sports camp visit the vegetable plot for lunch; and beekeeping members have helped harvest honey at an extraction party. Cross says tending the gardens, bees and chickens has become a nice break in the day.
“It might seem cutting-edge for a country club, but actually the gardens are consistent with everything we do,” member Brian O’Toole notes. “It’s become a point of pride.”
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Originally printed in Crain’s Chicago Business on September 28, 2015