September 26, 2010

Tapping into our greatest energy source

And, no, I’m not talking about producer Heather Frey, although she runs a close second.

It’s a testament to our nation’s greed and myopia and to the obscene influence of the oil and coal lobbies in America that we haven’t figured out how to take advantage of solar energy, while companies like Solar Service, Inc. have been figuring out how to use the sun’s energy for businesses and homes alike for more than thirty years. Solar Service bills itself as the Midwest’s leading supplier of affordable and reliable solar energy systems, having designed and installed over 1,000 solar systems in over 150 communities.

Lisa Albrecht, Renewable Energy Specialist from Solar Service, is here to promote next week’s Illinois Solar Energy Tour, which is part of a national tour hosted by the American Solar Energy Association and the Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA). It’s the largest grass roots solar energy event in the world. The tour is largely self-guided features and features 190 green homes and buildings in Illinois alone. You can pick up a printed Tour Guidebook at Chicagoland Whole Foods locations or download the pdf here. Interactive maps of tour sites, including bike maps, can be customized and printed by clicking Directory of Buildings and choosing your location.

Albrecht, who is an ISEA board member, has been working on the tour since 2007, when there were 70 homes on the tour, and has watched it expand to almost three times that number. I’m most interested in her comment that ” we cannot let the market dictate growth, it will take too long. The industry needs the assurance that this will be a viable market in 20 years and from there we’ll see growth that encourages innovation and brings down pricing. I’m no expert by any means but just passionate that change is needed.”

Green roofs, compost tea, Agent Orange and Mars rocks

I met biologist Mike Repkin a few months ago when Chicago’s Progressive Talk was exploring the idea of helping a couple of businesses install rooftop gardens. One of our conversations covered subjects like whether compost tea is all it’s cracked up to be, how to make Agent Orange in your garage (hint: you don’t want to) and why it would be so very stupid to bring rocks from Mars back to Earth…thought that’s probably exactly what will happen within a few years. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Repkin was part of an organization that is in the process of re-defining exactly what a rooftop garden is capable of bringing to an urban area. It’s not surprising that the group is called Urban Habitat Chicago.

However, they’re not limited to rooftops. Among the projects they have contributed to:

You’ll find even more UHC initiatives here. However, I said that this was about the future of rooftop gardens, and that’s something that Repkin is doing with architect Dave Hampton and contractor Molly Meyer. Their outfit, Meyer Repkin Hampton (MRH) is interested in moving beyond the typical sedum and other shallow-rooted ornamental plants on top of buildings. They want to create full-flown UrbanRoofFarmsTM in Chicago.

Here’s how they describe “URF”s:

… an ultra-lightweight constructed rooftop ecosystem that produces food, fuel and fiber for hyper-local consumption. URF is different from green roofs because it weighs only 12.5 pounds per square foot and is a farm-able environment…. URFs provide the opportunity to initiate sustainable agriculture in a highly urban setting. URFs also create green collar jobs, introduce local sustainability, increase community cohesion, decrease consumption of energy and resources, decrease stormwater runoff, and encourage an ecologically-responsible lifestyle in the City of Chicago.

Experience the Hen-apalooza extravaganza!

Okay, maybe I’m a little over the top about this. But it does sound like fun. I’ve talked about raising chickens in Chicago in the past and, apparently, it’s an activity whose time has arrived. So if you’ve ever thought about raising chickens but had questions about it, you might be a candidate for this inaugural tour.

On Sunday October 3rd—rain or shine, so they tell me —the first annual Hen-apalooza Chicagoland Chicken Coop Tour will take place at 15 locations throughout the Chicago area. It’s self-guided tour, so stay as long as you’re happy. However, if you have children in tow (and have you EVER met a child that wasn’t fascinated by a CHICKEN?!) you might want to have your Hen-apalooza Passport stamped at each location. No, I’m not making this up.

In fact, there’s more to this story. Michelle Thoma, who is on the show to talk about the event, says that she recently rescued a bantam hen, who she named “Tammy.” Frankly, I had never heard of the Chicken Relocation Program (actually, I just made that up). She (um, Michelle, not Tammy) even has a blog about raising chickens, called Metropullus: Chicken Little in a Big City.

Click here for information and a Hen-apalooza Passport to track your tour progress, or check out the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts Google Group. A map of tour locations is available here. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. No dogs or other pets please. Street parking available at each location. Please consider biking or using public transportation.

I should mention that Hen-apalooza is supported by Angelic Organics Learning Center (a friend of my show), Backyard Chicken Run, and Double Take Design. And if want to raise your own chickens, register for the Angelic Organics Learning Center Backyard Chicken Care Workshop on November 6, from 10AM to 1PM at 6400 S Kimbark Avenue, Chicago (Woodlawn neighborhood @ 1st Presbyterian Church).

Mike speaks out about recycling in Chicago

In case you thought you saw my name in print in the past couple of weeks–especially if the words “Chicago recycling” were part of the story–yeah, that was me. I say it often enough on the radio show, but in case it somehow hasn’t registered with you, I’m President of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. We are an all-volunteer, not-for-profit organization that basically monitors the recycling efforts in the City of Chicago.

As you can imagine, it’s been a roller-coaster ride for the past two decades. And now that Mayor Richard M. Daley has decided not to run for re-election, well, a lot of things are up for grabs–including whether Chicago will finally get a full-scale, functional recycling system in place. Here are a few of the links to stories that have quoted Mike in the past two weeks. Expect more in the future.

By the way, a big THANKS to Fran Spielman at the Chicago Sun-Times, who called to interviewed me while I was driving in Chicago. Being the responsible citizen, I pulled off Elston Avenue to talk to her abour recycling. Note, however, her–oh, I don’t know–literal use of the word “gonna,” as she quotes me in an interview that is being done on a cell phone. Hey, Fran, cut me some slack!How many people do you know who actually say the word “going” complete with a hard “g” at the end? And then to see the phrase “It’s gonna be a very difficult thing to pass” quoted by three or four other media outlets is, at best, odd. At worst, since most of the bloggers didn’t actually talk to me, it’s disturbing.

Safer Pest Control Project’s Lady Bug Bash is October 8

If you’ve listened to my show at all, you know that I’m a fan of Safer Pest Control Project. Over the years, they’ve appeared on my show to discuss things like organic lawn care. Lately, they’ve been in the news as bedbugs have made an unfortunate resurgence in America.

The important thing about SPCP is that their whole goal is reducing the health risks and environmental impacts of pesticides by promoting safer alternatives in Illinois. I could go on and on about how dangerous pesiticides in our lawns and gardens are, but they do it even better. Anyway, if you’re interested in music, auction items and great food, all in the cause of making our environment a little healthier, head out to the annual Lady Bug Bash at Space, 1245 Chicago Avenue in Evanston from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. on Friday, October 8. You can get your tickets here.

How a garden can make a difference

September 19, 2010

It’s nice to be proud of your friends. At this moment, I couldn’t be prouder of my friends in the Midwest Ecological Landcaping Association (MELA). I have to start with the disclaimer that I am one of the founders of the organization. That being said, however, I didn’t have a whole lot to do with what they accomplished this summer. Beth Botts tells the story in a blog post and the Chicago Tribune does likewise here.

The story of the O’Keeffe School Victory Garden starts with a ten year old boy named Troy Law, who was murdered in 2006. His fellow students at O’Keeffe Elementary School at, 6940 S. Merrill Avenue in Chicago, were determined to plant a “tree” in his name at a small neighborhood garden a half block south of the school. The plant they chose was not really a tree, but a burning bush, in honor of Troy’s favorite color, red. It was even dug out by vandals at one point, though enough roots remained and the shrub grew back. That could have been interpreted as a sign that the garden was meant to be.

On the other hand, gardens don’t happen by themselves. The plot became neglected, as they do in urban environments. Believe me, I’ve seen that happen in my own neighborhood. And yet, when the right people get involved, amazing things can happen. The not-for-profit organization NeighborSpace owns the land where the garden is situated, and its executive director Ben Helphand connected with MELA about reviving the garden.

But it wasn’t just about putting plants in the ground. Anybody can do that. MELA is about finding more earth-friendly ways to create landscapes. In fact, the O’Keeffe School Victory Garden is part of MELA’s Sustainability in Action initiative. And there were weeds…lots of weeds. In many cases, somebody would whip out the Roundup and that would be that. In this case, however, MELA had people like Lynn Bement, the Organic Garden Coach; Pam Wirtz of Grace Landscaping, Grace Koehler from Pizzo & Associates; and MELA executive director Carol Becker involved. Do you think they were going to reach for the chemicals just because it was easy? No way.

The school kids learned that you can renovate a garden by pulling the weeds and covering them with cardboard and mulch (that’s a lesson for you adults, too.) They also learned that you can recycle and reuse things like stones and lumber to create beautiful spaces. I’m proud to say that wood from the WCPT Ultimate Backyard Makeover is well on its way to becoming benches for the garden, mainly thanks to the hard work of Ron Cowgill from Mighty House, who tore down the deck in the Bolingbrook backyard and made sure it got delivered to Chicago’s south side.

I’m honored to have O’Keeffe Elementary School science teacher Emily Kenny and neighborhood resident Thresa Conley on the show this morning, along with MELA Executive Director Carol Becker. In fact, here’s part of the confirmation letter I received from Emily:

We appreciate the vision that you have for starting an organization like MELA. MELA brought hope to the South Shore community.  No matter how ugly things get with all of the street violence. Every now and then, the beauty of man kind rears its maginificent head, and people, like the MELA family, appear to perform small miracles that impact individuals and communities.

Whoa. I think I need a tissue. And while I’m sniffling, if you’re in need of a landscaper who is as likely to care about our environment as their bottom line, you should go to MELA’s Community page and see if there’s somebody near you.

Now is THE time to see Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.

Well, pretty much any time of the year is the right time to visit this magificent jewel on Chicago’s downtown lakefront. But the reason I’m talking about the Lurie Garden today is to introduce Jennifer Davit, its new chief horticulturist. Of course, she’s been on the job since since March 15, but she hasn’t been on my show since then, and that makes all the difference.

Davit comes to Chicago by way of the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami, Florida. But this is really a trip home for Davit, who grew up in the Chicago area. She has more than 12 years of horticulture experience in private and public gardens, though it’s hard to imagine a more challenging–or rewarding–job than tending this four-season masterpiece. Jennifer Davit is in studio to tell us what to look for in the fall Lurie Garden. Whatever it is, I can guarantee it’s spectacular.

Is Romeoville oil spill behind regional gas price spikes? Why?

Here we go again. Another day, another oil spill. You would think that the 250,000 gallon Enbridge Energy spill that happened beneath a warehouse complex in suburban Romeoville on September 9 and continued for four days would be considered aonce-in-a-lifetime occurrence in the Midwest. Except that we went through this a month ago in Michigan! And while the good news is that the Obama Administration may be able to pass stricter rules for pipeline companies, there are still too many unanswered questions.

Among them:

I’m happy to have the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Josh Mogerman back on the show to help me address these questions. For instance, regarding the spike in regional gasoline prices, he wrote to me:

There is a very big difference in oil futures and gas prices. Gas prices changed the day after the spill. And jumped locally by 15 cents/gallon in just a couple days in Chicagoland. There was no disruption at local refineries at the time. We have historic petroleum reserves nationally. There is no doubt that a long closure of lines 6A and 6B will have an impact on gas prices. And not too far down the line, since there has already been a disruption from the Michigan spill that was putting extra oil into the IL line. But nothing about Romeoville impacted gas production that week. There was no reason for gas prices to jump—the gas at your typical station had already been produced and delivered. Certainly futures jumped—lots of speculation and it makes sense, but that impacts gas prices in the future…

Should be an interesting conversation.

Next Saturday, Adopt-a-Beach and help the Great Lakes

If you think that there’s not much you can personally do to keep our Great Lakes healthy, you haven’t been paying attention. On Saturday, September 25, volunteers in four states will be out in force on the beaches of the Lake Michigan to help clear litter and debris. The effort is courtesy of the Alliance for the Great Lakes and it’s their 20th anniversary event.

The numbers are impressive. Since 1991, some 61,300 volunteers have removed more than 152 tons of debris from Great Lakes shorelines.

This fall there will be at least 235 scheduled cleanups in four states:  Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. Anyone interested in joining a cleanup is encouraged to check this website for a nearby event, or register to lead their own. Dates and times may vary depending upon location.

Purple Cows, Orange Butterflies and Glorious Sleep

September 12 , 2010

Welcome to our new time–9:00 to 11:00 a.m.!

Did you enjoy that extra hour of sleep? I sure did. Boy, I feel refreshed and ready to go! Just so we have everything straight, here’s the new early Sunday schedule for Chicago’s Progressive Talk:

If you’re wondering what happened to Mighty House, it’s now on Saturday morning at 7:00 a.m.. So if you were waiting to hear from Ron Cowgill, Joe Builder and Robbie Ehrhardt, you need to go to their website and listen to the podcast of yesterday’s show…and then tune in at 7am next Saturday.

I never saw a purple cow, I never…oh, you know how it goes

But have you ever seen a Purple Cow Organics? Now that’s a cow of exactly the same color. I’ve been running into Purple Cow’s Sandy Syburg for several years now at various gardening shows. He always impresses me with his knowledge of organic soil amendments, and not just those from his own company. He’s also a fan of organic lawn care, which gives him a lot of brownie points as far as I’m concerned.

One of the things we’ve chatted about over the years is the idea of how to create a potting mix that doesn’t use peat moss, which some people (aside from those in the sphagnum moss industry), don’t believe is a sustainable resource. Syburg tells me that there are technologies that can create “peat alternatives” that work just as well and won’t result in environmental degradation.

Are butterflies really free? (Depends on how hard you work)

Here’s an email from a satisfied customer:

I’m a mama!!!!  Elmer was ‘born’ around 9:30 this morning, and he hung around until about 2:30.  Then it was getting ‘frisky’.  So we took him outside, he kissed my cheek, and flew off.  It was so fun!!

I can’t wait for the other 4 to emerge – I bet they’re going to be girls because they’re smaller!

Thanks for sharing your knowledge with me, Bob.  I love learning!


You have probably already figured out what we’re talking about here–people who collect Monarch eggs or larvae (caterpillars) and raise them until they emerge from their chrysalises as butterflies. They then release them for their impossible journey to overwinter in the mountains of Mexico.

Bob Erlich is one of those people. In fact, the email above was written to him by one of the folks he is teaching to raise these wonderful insects. He is a member of Monarch Watch, an educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas that engages citizen scientists in large-scale research projects.

Bob says that he has released 850 monarchs already this year, with more to be set loose. He’s also recruited teachers and others to help him, including a woman over 70 who has released 95 monarchs herself. In his tireless effort to help monarchs, Bob has passed out more than 300 caterpillars and built three “monarch way station gardens” for organizations in his area.

But it hasn’t all been a bed of, er, milkweed for monarchs this year. Some of the same weather conditions that have plagued plants have affected monarchs as well. Diseases brought on by high heat and humidity have taken their toll. Bob gives us the straight dope on today’s show.

Horticulture or Politics? The Cook County Jail 2010 MG Class

On Thursday, it was graduation day at the Cook County Jail. Non-violent detainees who have been gardening on the grounds of the jail and studying horticulture received their Illinois Master Gardener certificates. I wasn’t there, but blogger Mr. Brown Thumb did an excellent post on the zoo that the ceremony became once Mayor Richard M. Daley announced that he would not be running for reelection as Mayor of Chicago.

The reason? Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was there. So? He should have been there. After all, he’s the Cook County Sheriff. Ah, but because he is the nominal front runner for Mayor of the City of Chicago, the media types were out in force. Well, I guess that’s one way to get some coverage for what is a very good program at the Cook County Jail.

It’s been made even better by the addition of a greenhouse that allows for seedlings to be grown in a controlled environment. In fact, I showed up for the dedication of the greenhouse earlier this year, and I was one of the few media people on hand. In fact, I think there were three…including me. Gee, my timing is wonderful. At any rate, that’s when the photos on the left were taken.

I want to send my kudos first of all to Ron Wolford, Nancy Kreith and the staff of the University of Illinois Extension for the hard work they have done in training and educating the jail inmates. Also to people like David S. Devane, Executive Director of the Cook County Department of Community Supervision and Intervention, and my buddy garden coordinator Mike Taff, who have worked tirelessly to get the word out about this very worthy program.