With Verdura, Sara Gasbarra plants the seeds that help businesses grow.
Sara Gasbarra, seen here at Green City Market, is the secret behind the vegetables served at many top Chicago hotels and restaurants.
Sara Gasbarra’s green thumb has always been a little off-kilter. Her Italian father steered her toward traditional vegetable fare, teaching her to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers in their Glenview garden. But Gasbarra felt an attraction to more unusual plants. “I always wanted to grow weird stuff,” admits the 37-year-old, who studied art history at DePaul University but found herself more interested in returning to Glenview to tend her parents’ garden. Early on, that “weird stuff” meant cauliflower and watermelon; later, when her passion for gardening drew her to volunteer at Green City Market’s childcentric Edible Gardens, it signified even more exotic foods. “We did an Asian row of things like Japanese rat-tailed radishes, which no one had seen before,” she says, reminiscing about her days of teaching youngsters about veggies like cowpeas, okra, and collard greens.
These days, the Lakeview resident can grow anything she wants—and she does, as founder of the custom garden installation company Verdura, which she established in 2011 after her horticultural skills drew the attention of businesses like Floriole Café & Bakery and Hilton Chicago. Taking on Hilton as a client, Gasbarra says, “forced me to come up with a business plan and a name.” That name, the Italian word for “vegetable,” hearkens to both her heritage and her lifelong passion for produce. The company specializes in custom crop installations and season-long maintenance for hospitality clients, including Palmer House Hilton, where, three floors beneath the hotel, Gasbarra has installed a farm with polar white and pink oyster mushrooms, which she expects to harvest in July.
Services begin with a consultation and site visit by Gasbarra, who determines the scope of the project and which crops to grow. She then installs irrigation systems with automatic timers, planting in spring and visiting each garden every two weeks thereafter for upkeep through fall. For the Italian Village restaurants, for example, she grows only a few crops in large quantities, such as tomatoes, basil, and arugula (“They did a fantastic tomato production with 15 plants, and they were taking tomatoes off their roof all summer long,” Gasbarra notes of last year’s harvest), while for the South Loop fine-dining mainstay Acadia, she focuses on “daintier” specialty products—think edible flowers, microgreens, various basils—that she tends to in a smaller garden. About her clients, she says, “They’re all really fun because they’re all really unique.”
While gardening is now Gasbarra’s profession, it’s also still her passion— and she delights in taking her work home to her Ukrainian Village garden, where she grows sylvetta arugula, Mexican sour gherkins (“They’re like baby watermelons”), Thai basil, and garnet mustard. “Growing up, it was traditional Italian,” she says. “Now I get to be creative.”