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Treeocracy Wants To Bring 'Edible Landscapes' to Chicago

By Casey Cora | January 6, 2015 5:23am
 Stephen Ulman's edible landscape business aims to grow across the city.
Stephen Ulman's edible landscape business aims to grow across the city.
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DNAinfo/Casey Cora

BACK OF THE YARDS — Landscape architect Stephen Ulman looks at Chicago's backyards and sees nothing but potential. 

The unused part of the yard  — basically, your lawn — can be transformed into an "edible landscape" filled with greens, herbs, nuts and berries to form something that's both fantastical and practical at the same time.

Edible landscapes "are not just a static landscape that can just look pretty. You can actually interact with it. I think the idea is to really connect people back [to food]. We have such a disconnect from where our food is growing," said Ulman, 30, the bearded, mild-mannered founder of Treeocracy, a landscape design firm that's hatching at The Plant, a sustainable food production facility and green business incubator in Back of the Yards. 

Ulman tells Casey Cora that edible landscaping is possible even in dense urban areas:

Ulman is a Florida native who's bounced across the globe, racking up geography and landscape architecture degrees along the way. He ended up in Chicago to pursue his dream of marrying urban agriculture and landscape design, he said, because the city's green scene is just starting to emerge.

So far, building the business has been slow going. 

Ulman set out on his own after only finding work as a laborer for a few different local landscape companies, where he's tried to persuade his bosses there's a world beyond ordinary design. 

"They're all like, 'We love what you're doing, it's cool, we can't pay you,'" he said. 

But there's reason for hope. 

Ulman hooked up with The Plant in 2013 after volunteering there and meeting Ed Hubbard, the entrepreneur behind Nature's Little Recyclers worm farm. 

Now, the former meat packing facility at 1400 W. 46th St. that helps launch environmentally friendly businesses is where he hopes to grow his budding firm. 

Already, Ulman has one client in Ravenswood and has plans to create edible landscapes for the shops and restaurants near his Ukrainian Village apartment. 

He concedes that some areas of the city wouldn't be ideal for the edible utopia he's trying to create: densely populated areas dotted with sun-blocking high rises, for example.

Still, Ulman said many yards and public spaces in the city can indeed be prepared for harvestable landscaping, it just takes some ingenuity — a clipped tree branch to allow sunlight here, a clever irrigation system there.

He wants to be one of the turn-to guys for Chicago's foodie-friendly yardwork, the expert who can determine the best plants, soil types and irrigation systems for growing plants year after year. 

An overhaul would cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000, which includes consultations, designing and planting. 

"It makes sense, especially for people who have kids, because food can be educational. And as well as having a landscape that looks beautiful, it has street appeal," he said. "And who know? Maybe you could be growing the next fad superfood."

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