Hamfast Gamgee, a hobbit brought to life by J.R.R. Tolkien in “The Lord of the Rings,” was the father of Samwise Gamgee. Known for imparting words of wisdom to his son, the Old Gaffer, as he was commonly known, served as gardener in The Shire and passed along his profession to his son.
Berwyn resident, Holden Wilson took inspiration from Tolkien’s minor character when naming Old Gaffer’s Garden — a garden collective designed to increase greenspaces in in populous areas and making fresh produce more readily available within urban communities.
“Overgrown and a little wild is definitely my style of garden. I pay attention to soil quality and want to keep things as close to nature as possible,” said Wilson, the farmer behind Old Gaffer’s Garden. “We are not certified organic, but all my gardening practices are organic and environmentally responsible.”
Established in 2020 at the height of the pandemic Old Gaffer’s Garden is a vendor at both the Oak Park Farmers Market (Saturdays 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.) and the Riverside Farmers Market (Wednesdays 2:30 to 7 p.m.).
Wilson grew up around the culinary industry. His parents owned The Hillside, a fiercely independent restaurant-diner in DeKalb known for serving upscale, seasonal, home-style fare. Wilson learned the business from top to bottom under his parents’ watchful eyes and entered the industry himself.
He spent five years working as a breakfast and brunch sous chef at Little Goat Diner in Chicago before leaving the industry last year to focus on Old Gaffer’s Garden.
“My mother was a big gardener,” said Wilson. “But I didn’t think I was a gardener for a long time.”
Wilson’s work as a chef nurtured his natural curiosity about food sourcing and led him to become a hobby gardener. He enjoyed the smaller plot gardening city living required and become passionate about no-dig, minimal-till and organic gardening practices.
Once he felt he had established himself as a “legit” hobby grower, he decided to make moves to get out of the kitchen and into the garden full time.
He retained his Chicago garden plot and moved his family to Berwyn where he found it easy to work with city officials to establish Old Gaffer’s Garden as a business. He converted the backyard of his Berwyn bungalow into a working garden including pollinator plants, tomatoes, zucchini, and assorted salad greens like arugula and spinach.
Wilson houses grow tables in the basement of his Berwyn home, brimming with assorted microgreens including diminutive broccoli, sunflower and pea shoots. He grows microgreens for local restaurants including Autre Monde in Berwyn and La Barra in Riverside.
Despite feeling slightly rushed to get up to speed this year, Wilson expanded Old Gaffer’s Garden to include a garden in the yard of a private Riverside residence. Kylea and Tony Liese, who live on Bartram Road, expressed interest in hosting a garden on the back quarter of their property.
They give Wilson, who calls the plot the “Riverside Farm” on the Old Gaffer website, free reign to grow what he wants and he in turn sells the produce at farmers markets.
As for the families who host the gardens, Wilson is clear it takes a special kind of person to let him take over part of their yard. He has a second Berwyn location in the works and is open to more partnerships to increase the number of gardens in his collectives.
“I actually feel like I am behind the trend of collective gardening. Cities like Detroit really blazed the trail for this kind of farming,” said Wilson. “I am following good examples and farming in a way that fits into a city environment.”
For now, Wilson is the sole employee of Old Gaffers Garden and handles all planting, harvesting and sales. Old Gaffer’s Garden also offers weekly, bi-weekly or monthly salad shares via local home delivery.
Though he is committed to Old Gaffer’s Garden, Wilson admits he is not done being a chef just yet and looks forward to the day he can marry his two passions in the future, but for now folks will find him roaming around and growing crops around town.
Wilson would surely make the Old Gaffer proud.