Spooky trees, a spooky election and Mr. Brown Thumb on “Good Growing” in Chicago

October 31, 2010

Spooky trees in spooky places

Now, I don’t want to SCARE you…even on Halloween…or maybe I do, but there’s something a little, um off-center about my friend Guy Sternberg. It’s not just that he stands about six-foot-six and has the deepest voice in horticulture (I’m going to make him say “You raaang?” on the show), but he has this fascination with trees. Of course, a lot of people like trees. Some even hug them (you can include me in that group.) But Guy is the kind of, er, guy who starts his own arboretum by planting as many trees as he can possibly get his hands on. It’s called Starhill Forest Arboretum and it’s located in Petersburg, Illinois, just down the road a piece from New Salem, where Abraham Lincoln hung his legal shingle for awhile.

But that’s not the only thing that sets him apart. Sternberg wants to tell you all about creepy but cool trees that grow in cemeteries. Heck, I didn’t even know that was a category! He’s teaching a course called Cemetery Botany at the Morton Arboretum on Halloween Day from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the Vistor Center.

They tell me you’ll discover why particular trees are found in cemeteries, what different trees on headstones symbolize, and how cemeteries can contain botanical history. The class will show photos from cemeteries all over the country.

Of course, while I have him in the studio, I’ll ask him about the status of the Kewanee Osage-Orange tree, which was one of the stops on the 2010 Stihl Tour des Trees in July. Guy and I and about sixty cyclists spent a couple of hours with this historic tree, which pre-dates the Civil War. That very day, it was pruned by another superb arborist–and another Guy–Guy Meilleur. As of now, the tree is still standing and healthy…thanks to the work of many people, including the two Guys.

Voting for the environment in Illinois

Voting isn’t what it used to be…and that’s not a bad thing. What I mean is that, in the past, this would be the day when I urged people to get out to the polls next Tuesday, and hoped that rain wouldn’t be forecast because it would hold the numbers down. Well, I’m still urging people to vote on Tuesday, but I know that many (including me) have already cast their ballots. So this kind of last minute information post has less of an effect than it once did.

Nevertheless, many of you haven’t voted yet, and since my passion is the environment, I’m talking today about green issues and which candidates are most likely to support them. That’s why Jack Darin, Director of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, and Max Muller, Program Director for Environment Illinois are stopping by to talk about their respective organizations’ political endorsements for 2010.

Click here for Illinois political endorsements from Illinois Sierra Club.
Click here for Illinois political endorsements from Environment Illinois.

Introducing “Good Growing” on The Mike Nowak Show!

Starting with today’s show, I will be featuring correspondents who stop by once a week for a short segment I call “Good Growing.” I can’t possibly cover everything that’s going on in the gardening/horticulture/urban farming world, so I’ve enlisted the aid of some pretty impressive friends to talk with me about a wide range of topics. For instance:

  • the “new” gardening, with an emphasis on environmental sanity
  • the people who are growing our food, including urban/rural farmers and farmers in training
  • community gardens of all kinds
  • news stories about urban policies, breakthroughs in growing techniques, weather and more
  • tips for gardeners and farmers, whether they grow crops, flowers or both
  • horticultural and environmental events that are of interest to growers

Some of the correspondents will be people like Martha Boyd, Program Director of the Chicago Urban Initiative for Angelic Organics Learning Center and her colleagues Tom Spaulding and Sheri Doyel.

Today, we kick off with Mr. Brown Thumb, who is ubiquitous on blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Here are some of the subjects we will try to get through (probably not all of them…but that’s why you can always go to some of these links.)

Mr. Brown Thumb writes:

Urban Gardening

Now is the time of year when you prepare your garden for next year. Gather fallen leaves and use them as leaf mulch or add them to your compost pile. Plant ornamental bulbs like tulips and edibles like garlic. If you’re too busy to get everything in the ground now, pre-dig holes so you can plop your bulbs into the ground in case we get a hard freeze before you’re finished. Save seeds from your garden to plant next year. You can also sow seeds for perennials that need a cold treatment now directly into the soil.


70-foot blue spruce from McHenry has been chosen to be Chicago’s Christmas tree.

Chicago Wilderness Congress 2010.

Thursday, November 4 9AM-4:30PM . Program covers Chicago Wilderness strategic initiatives: to restore the health of local nature, implement the Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure Vision, combat climate change, and leave no child inside. Registration Fee: Registration is $50 at the door student rate $20 more info at www.Chicagowilderness.org/congress.php

Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference

November 19-21 Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY. In the 1920 over 14% of U.S farmers were African American. By 2007 that number was less than 2%. The Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference will focus on green jobs and food-related issues that contribute to inequality. Will Allen, Growing Power Founder & CEO will be the keynote speaker on November 20, 2010. More info at http://www.blackfarmersconf.org/home-1


3rd Annual Bioneers at MCC Conference. Saturday November 6th, 2010 Topics include how to make Local Food Happen, Becoming a Locovore, and Healthy Food and Schools. There will be a Green Living Expo added to the event this year that will showcase green services and products.  More info at http://www.mcbioneers.com/

Frontera Farmer Foundation

Midwest family farms that practice sustainable farming can apply for the capital grant from Frontera Farmer Foundation. http://www.rickbayless.com/foundation/downloadapp.html

MrBrownThumb is the screen name of an urban gardener in Chicago. He can be found at his eponymous blog MrBrownThumb and Chicago Garden at ChicagoNow.

The state of Cook County Forest Preserves, recycled granite, heirloom bulbs and giant pumpkins

October 24, 2010

Changing of the guard in Cook County government: What does that mean for the forest preserves?

Long before we know who the next Mayor of Chicago will be, the political landscape of Chicago will already have changed. The November 2 elections will bring a new president to the Cook County Board, following current President Todd Stroger‘s unceremonious booting by voters in the February primary.

Regardless of whether Democratic candidate Toni Prekwinkle, Green Party candidate Tom Tresser or Republican party candidate Roger A. Keats steps into the seat, they will be dealing not only with a severe county budget deficit, but with a Forest Preserve District that has suffered from near-epic neglect and mismanagement by its own county board for decades.

Consider this statement:

Over the last decade, the other five counties in the Chicago region have ollectively raised more than $1.1 billion to acquire land for their forest preserves (and one conservation district) – largely through successfully passing 16 of 16 bond referenda. Cook County has never pursued a land acquisition referendum.
Nor has it aggressively sought funding from other sources for acquisition, or land donations. It has largely been absent from efforts to raise new state funds that could be a source of funding for the FPD.

That it taken from a report called Forest Preserve District of Cook County Green Paper on Key Policy Issues, which was released in June of this year. The green paper was presented by Audubon-Chicago Region, Friends of the Forest Preserves, Friends of the Parks, Friends of the Chicago River, Openlands and Sierra Club – Illinois Chapter. It’s not a terribly long document (which means you should take the time to read it), and in simple language it outlines six key areas that need to be addressed:


Benjamin Cox is Executive Director of Friends of the Forest Preserves. He is also a Friend of the Mike Nowak Show, though there is no official not-for-profit organization dedicated to that (anybody want to start one?) Anyway, it’s a pleasure to have him back on the show to talk about keeping this precious natural Chicago-area legacy healthy and sustainable.

Paving smart with recycled granite

Julie Rizzo doesn’t strike me as your average construction worker. Ah, but that’s why there are sayings that advise you not to judge a book by its cover. She may be petite, but if you look at the video on my home page, you’ll see that she knows her way around a granite smashing machine. Actually, granite stamping is probably more accurate, but what do I know?

Julie’s company, Recycled Granite, takes left-over countertop material from stone fabricators in the Chicago area and turns that scrap into pavers that are three times stronger than concrete. Not only that, but 100% of the granite is recycled, which keeps the waste from being dumped into landfills.

This is certainly the kind of thing you can expect to see at Greenbuild 2010, which returns to Chicago November 17-19 at Chicago’s McCormick Place West. There are a whole slew of events, including tours. It’s nice to see that it’s not just architecture and green building materials. On Saturday, November 20, there will be a half day tour called Growing Green Jobs in Urban Farming, which will take people to various urban agriculture sites in Chicago. These include The Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, a green business incubator that houses 14 green companies, including The Plant Chicago, which grows food using aquaponics, providing locally-raised tilapia to restaurants in the area, and the Growing Home Urban Farm and Job Training Center, which is the first certified organic farm in Chicago.

Saving heirloom varieties one bulb at a time

It’s been awhile since I’ve had Scott Kunst from Old House Gardens on the show, and this is the perfect time, while the ground is perfect for getting spring-blooming bulbs planted. Some people might think that I invite him to chat simply because his business is in Ann Arbor, where I went to college, but that’s only part of the reason.

What makes Old House Gardens unique among companies that sell bulbs is that they’re America’s only mail-order source devoted entirely to heirloom bulbs–many available nowhere else–and an international leader in the preservation of these plants.

One of the things that caught my eye on their website is their move towards urban farming. Basically, Scott had been looking for a cheap farm in the area on which to grow heirloom bulbs. But he was inspired by his friends at the Detroit-based Urban Farming to look no farther than some of the empty lots in Ann Arbor, where he is creating micro-farms that accomplish the same thing, though not all in one place. It’s truly a sign that our urban land haven’t even come close to realizing their full potential.

Last but not least…the world’s largest pumpkin!

I have covered pumpkin growing contests in Illinois in the past, but my friend Ann Molloy from Neptune’s Harvest Organic Fertilizer (a proud sponsor of The Mike Nowak Show) sent me a link to the world record largest pumpkin, grown this year by Chris Stevens of New Richmond, Wisconsin. And why did Ann send me that information? Because, apparently, Chris’s fertilizer of choice is Neptune’s Harvest and he’s even wearing his Neptune’s Harvest shirt in the photo taken with his prize pumpkin.

Geez. you can’t buy that kind of publicity!

Going to 2040, Living Downstream and Helping Hackmatack

October 17, 2010

Beyond Burnham: Go To 2040 is launched

You know you’re in the middle of a big deal when you walk into the room and not only are 800 people listening respectfully to a speaker, but that speaker happens to be Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. And then you see who else is on stage and among the dignitaries is Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Oh, and in the back of the room is a cadre of reporters, complete with a platform lined with cameras. Yep, that’s what I call a big deal.

We were all gathered under a tent last Wednesday, October 13, on the Harris Theater Rooftop Terrace at Millennium Park for the launch of Go To 2040, the first comprehensive plan for the Chicago region since Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett’s historic roadmap was created in 1909. Go To 2040 is the handiwork of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which was created in 2005 as the comprehensive regional planning organization for the northeastern Illinois counties of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, Lake, McHenry and Will. There was also business on this day, as the seven counties formally voted to adopt the plan.

To put this entire effort in perspective, imagine bringing 1,226 different units of government into a room to hammer out solutions to increasingly more difficult problems that affect the quality of life in our region. These problems include infrastructure, transportation, water quality, energy use, food systems, open space and more. The idea is for Go To 2040 to serve as a blueprint for coordinating public policies and maximizing increasingly scarce resources in the seven county area.

CMAP Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn was on my show last year, during their “Invent the Future” workshops, when more than 35,000 people weighed in on how they wanted to see the region develop. He is back today to talk about the hard work ahead, as the plan is rolled out, step by crucial step. It doesn’t hurt that the day after the Chicago event, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program awarded $4.25 million to CMAP to spur implementation of the new plan. That’s what I call a good start.

We’re all “Living Downstream”…and that’s not a good thing

I consider it my job to talk about the dangers of the chemicals that have been unleashed upon an unsuspecting American public in the past seventy years. But every now and then, I’m reminded of why I do this. A new documentary film that follows Illinois native Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. through her journey in dealing with a diagnosis with bladder cancer some thirty years ago hit me in the gut and reaffirmed my conviction that we need to speak out and hold the chemical manufacturers and users of these products accountable, no matter how reasonable they seem to be at first glance.

Living Downstream is based on her book, first published in 1997, which has now been released in a second edition by Da Capo Press. Steingraber is a biologist who was born and raised in Pekin, Illinois. What sets this film apart from other recent environmental films–many of them excellent–is the personal nature of the the message. As both a scientist and cancer survivor, Steingraber is in a unique position to see how our rampant and often unexamined use of industrial and horticultural chemicals–like PCBs and atrazine–has left a legacy of pain and uncertainty in countless lives.

I’m privileged to have both Steingraber and film director Chanda Chevannes of The People’s Picture Company (The PPC) on the show this morning. They’re in the middle of the Illinois Screening tour, which includes these stops:

  • Sunday Oct. 17, 1:00 p.m., Normal Theater. Learn more about the VIP event here .
  • Sunday Oct. 17, 7:00 p.m., Hoogland Center for the Arts , Springfield
    Advance tickets available online, in person, and by phone from Hoogland Center for the Arts (217) 523-2787. Any remaining tickets will be available at the box office one hour before the screening.
  • Monday Oct. 18, 7:00 p.m., Peoria Theater , Peoria. Advance tickets available online, in person, or by phone from the Peoria Theater . Any remaining tickets will be available at the box office one hour before the screening.
  • Sandra Steingraber will also be giving a public lecture at the Hansen Student Center of Illinois Wesleyan University on Monday October 18 at 12 noon.
  • Tuesday Oct. 19, 7:00 p.m., Museum of Contemporary Art , Chicago
    Advance tickets available online or by phone from Brown Paper Tickets , or in person at Women and Children First bookstore. Any remaining tickets available at the museum theater thirty minutes before the screening.

The screenings are co-presented by The Land Connection & Pesticide Action Network North America. Screenings will be followed by a Q&A session with Sandra Steingraber and Chanda Chevannes and a book signing with Sandra Steingraber.

You can help Hackmatack become a National Wildlife Refuge

In 2003 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Wildlife Refuge System celebrated its 100 th anniversary, Audubon Magazine boasted that “a wildlife refuge is located within an hour’s drive of every major metropolitan area”.

The problem for the nearly 10 million people in the Chicago area is that Audubon got it wrong. The closest refuges— Horicon National Wildlife Refuge located in Mayville, Wisconsin and the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Savannah, Illinois, are both 150 miles from downtown Chicago. I don’t know how fast you drive, but I don’t think I can get to either place in an hour.

Meanwhile, a group of concerned and environmentally informed citizens in northeastern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin began working to create a national wildlife refuge in several counties along the Wisconsin and Illinois border not far from both Milwaukee and Chicago. The refuge was to be called Hackmatack (from an Algonquin word for the tamarack tree). They called themselves Friends of Hackmatack and began lobbying the USFWS to consider the establishment of the refuge.

Cindy Skrukrud is one of those friends, and she’s pleased to say that their efforts have paid off…so far. In April of this year, the USFWS announced its intention to conduct a study to determine if the establishment of a national wildlife refuge would be appropriate. It identified a 350,000 acre study area which includes land in McHenry and Lake counties in Illinois and Walworth, Kenosha and Racine counties in Wisconsin.

Here’s where you come in. The USFWS has established a website to provide the public with information about the study process, and where you can ask a question or make a comment.. In addition, there are public hearings planned for this week. The Illinois hearings have passed but two open house events are scheduled for this week in Wisconsin:

  • Wednesday, Oct. 20, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Bristol Municipal Building, 19801 83rd Street, Bristol, Wisconsin
  • Thursday, Oct. 21, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the City of Lake Geneva City Hall, 626 Geneva Street, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

If you believe in this worthy cause, you might want to add your two–or even four–cents’ worth to the conversation.