U of I Horticulturist Grows a Billboard Salad
October 8, 2007
  • /Crop Sciences
URBANA - At some point in life, just about all of us have spelled something out on our plate with food. A University of Illinois Horticulturist has taken this concept to new heights -- spelling out the words "Fresh Salads" on a billboard advertisement using real, growing lettuce.

Greg Pierceall was first contacted by the Leo Burnett advertising company to ask for his assistance in creating the billboard for one of their clients, McDonald's Corporation -- the goal being to stress the fresh salads in their menu. "Burnett googled horticulture and Chicago and my name kept coming up, so they called me," said Pierceall.

Pierceall has over 30 years of experience in environmental education and landscape design. Currently he is advisor of a horticulture degree-completion program for Chicago area students. "They can complete the last two years of a four-year degree and get a diploma from the U of I without having to move to Champaign-Urbana," said Pierceall.

The initial request from Burnett was about the feasibility of growing information in a vertical growing system. "I have always had an interest in vertical growing and creating 'art' pieces with plants as growing art so their request was Heaven," said Pierceall. "So, defining the growing system was the first effort and then selecting what plants to use. After I knew who the client was, it was easier to proceed with the investigation and research part of the design process," he said.

The growing system is patented by a company in Canada. "It's a framework that provides the vertical growth of plants, kind of like plant pockets or storage for shoes in a closet," said Pierceall. "It has specific soils, or in this case soil-less soils, to hold the moisture and allow the plants to grow."

The plants for the billboard were grown by a local grower the Good Earth Greenhouses and Garden Center in Forest Park and growing facilities in Lockport, Illinois. "Interestingly, the owner of Good Earth is Regan Cronin, one of my new students in the Chicago degree completion program."

The billboard was mounted in Wrigleyville near the intersection of Addison and Clark streets. Pierceall said that the "shelf life" of the billboard is unlimited as defined by Mother Nature, and even she can't be pushed. "The ad agency wanted the billboard to be up this summer, but I told them it had to wait because lettuce is a cool season crop and would never be successful in the summer in Chicago. The seasonal nature of the plants defined the presentation timing and the eventual length of the presentation, kind of like installation art."

The art concept of the billboard was that the lettuce would start out spotty and then grow to solid letters, but Pierceall said that the direct seeding presented flush letters right away. "They will get more pronounced and increase in texture and colors of the greens selected as time goes by," And if you're looking for truth in advertising --"The actual plants we used on the billboard a blend of mesclun greens that are used in the McDonalds salads," said Pierceall.

The lettuce required some tender loving care at the seeding stage and later establishment at the greenhouse and adoption to the actual site. "The first week was a shake down as to plant, in space and the environment," said Pierceall. "The wind, sun and temperature are inconsistent have to be watched daily. And, lettuce is 90 percent water and can dry quickly." The Brickman Group was hired to do the growing management of the system after it was in place.

Pierceall said that not only was this a challenging project for him as a veteran landscape architect/horticulturist, but he was able to share the experience with his students. "I teach what I call active education. I have a plan, but as world and life issues present themselves, I include those elements actively in my course work and with students.

"With my teaching between Urbana and Oak Brook weekly I cross-pollinate the groups by sharing the design ideas back and forth with both groups," he said. "In design, we strive to find the second, third and fourth right answers. How better to see alternative than to share all the students ideas. Inherent in design education is the opportunity to find alternative and solutions to a single problem in multiple ways."