PEORIA, Ill. -- Until this year, Ryan Childers and Michael Hobin knew very little about gardening.
"I've never even grown a flower plant," said Hobin, 28, an apprentice electrician with IBEW Local 34.
And yet the large vacant lot behind Childers Eatery, which is owned by Ryan's father, had been calling to the longtime friends for quite some time.
"It had been pesticide-free for over 25 years," Hobin said. "We thought, why not make an organic garden out of it."
For about four years they tossed the idea around. Transforming the dandelion-filled lot into a verdant vegetable garden was appealing. They contemplated growing fruit bushes and preserving jams to sell. Childers, 30, the manager and cook at the restaurant, dreamed of planning a menu around unusual produce grown from heirloom seeds. Hobin toyed with the idea of growing hops and brewing beer.
Early this year they took the first step to bringing their dreams to fruition. It ended up being a lot more work than they'd anticipated.
"We put in all raised beds, close to 1,500 square feet of planting space," said Childers. "We started building the beds in February. Since we both work during the day, we'd start about 4 p.m. every day and work `till midnight, and we worked on weekends. We worked for four weeks straight."
The pair filled the beds with 6,000 pounds of organic compost.
"We moved it all with one wheelbarrow and two shovels," said Hobin.
On the first day of April the pair filled the raised beds with seedlings grown in a hoop house on the restaurant's back parking lot -- nine varieties of tomatoes, six varieties of pepper plants, three varieties of cucumber plants, three varieties of eggplant, six varieties of leaf lettuce, blackberry bushes, huckleberry bushes, strawberry plants, and lots of herbs, including a large patch of lemon grass.
Then the drought hit, and the real work began.
"Every day we watered," said Childers. The pair split up the watering duties, which kept the plants alive, but didn't erase the effects of the hot, dry weather.
"There are so many more nutrients in the rain water," said Childers.
When rain finally fell, they were amazed by the difference in the garden.
"You'd get a little bit of rain overnight and the plants would grow six inches," said Hobin.
The hot weather slowed the harvest, but it has not stopped it.
"A lot of the produce we would have had a month and a half ago if not for the drought," Childers said.
Large plastic tubs are filled with heirloom tomatoes of every color, shape and size. Tiny maroon tomatoes have a berrylike flavor, and little yellow ones taste almost buttery. A tomato called green zebra is yellow with green stripes on the outside and bright green on the inside.
The tomatoes have been by far the biggest success in the duo's garden. They realize now that planting 102 seedlings was probably a bit ambitious. The plants front Sherwood Street and look like a giant tomato hedge. The men recently installed stronger stakes to keep them standing -- the thin stakes were literally bent over by the weight of the plants.
"We didn't realize how much they would produce," said Childers.
The first-time gardeners are learning from the mistakes they've made this year. They planted all the lettuce at the same time, and consequently had a huge, brief harvest.
"Next year we will plant in two week successions," Childers said.
Named Sherwood Garden after the street it's on, the space has been embraced by the surrounding neighborhood.
"When we were doing the construction of the beds, people thought we were crazy," Hobin said. "People would come up to talk to us, and we'd tell them our plans, and then they would get really excited about it. It's kind of a neighborhood garden."
That appeals to Hobin and Childers. While the endeavor is a business -- they sell to the restaurant and have plans to set up a roadside stand to sell the surplus -- the gardeners have higher ambitions than just commerce.
"Working in conjunction with the restaurant, we'd like to be self-sustaining, to reduce waste," Childers said. "We want to do our own composting from the restaurant -- coffee grounds, newspapers, fruit peels."
They also hope to put bee hives on the restaurant roof.
"It would help pollinate our plants and produce honey," said Childers.
As a cook, Childers is interested in nutrition. He is developing recipes that make the most of the harvest and hopes next year to incorporate them into the menu at Childers Eatery. Already this year customers have gotten to enjoy the unusual harvest -- lemon grass tea has appeared on the menu board often.
"I was just reading today about the nutritional benefits of lemon grass tea," Childers said. It's probably safe to say that Childers Eatery is the only restaurant in town growing it fresh.
While Hobin and Childers still don't consider themselves expert gardeners, this first year has taught them a lot. For other would-be gardeners out there, they recommend the garden planner at www.motherearthnews.com.
"That thing was a lifesaver," said Hobin.
"You specify how long the beds are, and it tells you how many plants you can put into the space," said Childers. "You don't need to know much because you have every tool in hand."
Being armed with that kind of knowledge helped make Sherwood Garden a success. The only other thing necessary was hard physical labor.
"It's just become part of our daily life," said Hobin. "For me, it's kind of a release from the daily grind."
For Childers, the transformation of the barren strip behind his father's restaurant has been worth all that's gone into it.
"I get satisfaction out of the hard work. What was once bare is now fruitful."