Organic Gardener Ed Kugler
Shares Knowledge and Produce
For Highland Park native Ed Kugler, a new idea is always growing, whether to teach high school students to grow produce with no chemicals, offer adults an easy way to get healthy food or spread his organic message at local festivals and parades.
The market manager of Ravinia Farmers Market for the past two seasons, Kugler, 65, grew up in an era when being a vegetarian and eating only organically grown foods made him an “oddball”, he recalls. Since then, organic gardening and eating have become more mainstream. “I’m a small piece in the puzzle of trying to make that happen,” he says.
Kugler says he loved baking as a child, which led him to taking food preparation courses in college. The school, he says, espoused the belief that the look and taste of food was more important than how it was produced, but that didn’t sit right with him. So Kugler began going off campus, visiting natural food restaurants and organic food co-ops, attending seminars and expos and meeting people that were vegetarians and cared about the environment, he recalls.
He became a vegetarian and learned about organic principles when it was just a beginning industry, he explains, remembering how in 1976 he traveled more than 5,000 miles visiting 14 organic farms, 52 natural food stores, 37 natural food eating places, 19 distributors and 13 co-ops, seeking the answers to his many questions. Kugler believes that growing and eating organic foods helps humans stay healthy and protects the environment.
In 1978, Kugler opened Ed’s Sprout Shop, in nearby Highwood, where he served organic food and juice, and grew organic sprouts to sell at one of the North Shore’s first farmers’ market in Ravinia, now celebrating its 40th year. His father, however, was sick for much of his adult years, so Kugler transitioned away in 1981 to help care for him and the family business. During his spare time from 1981 to 2000, he created the Natural Food Dance Fest, in Evanston, and helped run turkey-free Thanksgiving dinners in Chicago while president of the Chicago Vegetarian Society. He also sourced donations of locally and organically grown food for Farm Aid.
When his children were young, between 2001 and 2011, he created his concept, Taste-A-Thon, to bring organic snacks to Highland Park grade, middle and high school students to try. “They loved it,” he says. “I brought juices, chips, bars, cookies, cereals, bread and organic produce sometimes. My motivation was to enhance the awareness of organically grown produce and vegetarianism.”
Since 2010, he’s brought Taste-A-Thon to Highland Park’s Fourth of July parade, handing out organic products along the curbside. Kugler has traveled to green, gluten-free and vegetarian festivals across the country to promote companies by offering organic and natural food samples and acting as their branding ambassador.
Locally, Kugler created the Organic Teaching Garden (OrganicTeachGardenHP.org), an organic edible landscape on his property that serves as a teaching garden for students at Highland Park High School, where he volunteers. He said he was inspired to create the garden when he met Neil Young and Willie Nelson.
With help from four friends, he removed all the grass in his backyard, prepared the soil and built raised beds which they plant each season with kale, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes and other produce grown from organic seeds. “I have 80 openings for raised beds, all different sizes. I water twice a day. I don’t spray. I don’t add anything to the soil. I just plant,” he says. His business partner, Robert Boyce, helped design his front yard. Today, it’s a haven for native plants, pollinators, herbs and fruit trees, Kugler adds.
For the past eight years, 200 Highland Park High School environmental science students annually have visited his garden for field trips and learning experiences.
“In September, when the school year begins, they taste vegetables like tomatoes and peppers fresh off the plant,” Kugler explains. In February, they plant organic seeds in pots, which Boyce cares for at his Lake Zurich greenhouse. Then in spring, they prepare the garden and plant seedlings outdoors. Christine Hill, her husband, Howie Hill, and Beth Peterson are three environmental science teachers who work with Kugler.
“Ed is another professional voice from which students can gain information,” Howie says. “They can learn directly from the source. They interact with people who can influence what they want to do in the future.”
Kugler’s latest endeavor is a neighborhood-supported, organic produce growing program, The Organic Food Club (OrganicFoodClub.com). “With this concept, we allow people to pick the organic seed pack they want,” he says. Kugler and Boyce then plant the seeds, tend to the plants and harvest the vegetables for subscribers that pick up their produce. He and Boyce operate two plots in Highland Park and Lake Zurich, and are working to grow the program during the next several years.
What Kugler says he hopes most is that people take the time to read, learn what organic means and really understand that it’s a crucial component to living on the planet.
For more information, contact Ed Kugler at [email protected].
Sheryl DeVore is a Chicago area writer, editor, educator and photographer and author of three published books on nature. Contact her at [email protected].