Super sowing, green banks and not-so-clean air

January 30, 2011

Stand by for “Super Sow Sunday”!

Last week, I talked about ordering and swapping seeds with the ubiquitous Mr. Brown Thumb, and Jessica Rinks from The Forest Park Community Garden. But this seems to be the week of big events in the seed world. First, there’s National Seed Swap Day, which is either January 29, 30 or 31st, depending on what you read (they need to take a vote).

Of course, we all know what most people will be doing next week, February 6. Why, planting seeds! It’s the second annual Super Sow Sunday on Twitter. The way you get involved is to type #supersowsunday into your search function (assuming you’re on Twitter), which will hook you up to all kinds of people who love to plant seeds and who aren’t particularly found of football.

The event goes from about 6:30 -8:30 p.m. ET–you know, basically during the football game. During that time tweeters will connect with hundreds of gardeners from across the world and share planting tips, how to sow, and what seeds were successfu. You’ll also be able to ask questions of seed representatives from around the country. Apparently, there will also be some big seed giveaways. So, if you hate the Green Bay Packers as much as most Chicagoans do, and don’t give a rip about the crop of new commercials, this is one way to stay entertained.

The only caveat I have is that it’s still a little early to be starting seeds in this neck of the world. But you can do something called winter sowing. It’s a method for planting seeds in containers now and putting them outside, so that they begin to sprout when nature gives them the right conditions. Our Little Acre blog site provides a step by step photo essay on one way to accomplish this.

What does it mean to be a “green” bank?

That’s what I’m going to ask Steve Sherman this morning. He just happens to be one of the founders of GreenChoice Bank, which calls itself the “the Midwest’s first green community bank… committed to taking care of its customers, its community, and its planet.” Sherman is also a LEED AP ( Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional), chief operating officer and director of the bank.

There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house to launch two GreenChoice Bank branch facilities, recently retrofitted and seeking LEED EBO&M (Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance) certification. Each building is nearly 100 years old. One is at 5225 W. 25th St. in Cicero (ceremony 10:30 a.m., Tuesday, Feb. 1) and the other at 838 S. State St. in Lockport (10:30 a.m., Tuesday, Feb. 8). However, the flagship LEED Platinum location hasn’t yet opened, as it is in the long-delayed Green Exchange at 2545 W. Diversey Avenue in Chicago.

Among the ways that GreenChoice positions itself apart from other banks, in their words:

  • Sustainable principles guide every aspect of the bank’s operations.
  • They focus on supporting the local community, fostering green collar jobs creation
    and growth, and improving the sustainable business economy.
  • They understand sustainability because they are involved with the sustainable business
  • Customers know that, when they bank with GreenChoice, their funds are being leveraged
    responsibly and invested back into the community.

It’s time to stop the “clean coal” movement in Illinois

It was almost by accident that the subject of two coal gasifications bills came up during my show last week. I can’t exactly remember how they came into the conversation, but when I mentioned SB 3388 (Leucadia) and SB 1927 (Power Holdings), which have already passed the Illinois General Assembly and are now sitting on Governor Pat Quinn’s desk, I received a phone call from Tom Sheperd, who lives in the southeast side neighborhood that will be affected by passage of the Leucadia law.

The story, basically, is that Leucadia National Corp. proposed a $3 billion coal gasification plant to be located on the south side of Chicago on the site of a coke facility that has sat unused for about a decade. The Chicago Tribune lays out the issue in an article called “Seeking Permission to Pollute.” One of the more controversial aspects of SB 3388 is that the bill would require natural gas utilities to enter into a thirty year contract for power from Leucadia, which could total 8% of the state’s energy from natural gas.

Power Holdings has proposed a coal gasification plant to be located in downstate Jefferson County. That bill would require the state’s natural gas utilities to enter into a ten year contract for power from its facility.  According to an Illinois Environmental Council bulletin, Crain’s Chicago says that the natural gas from these facilities would be sold at prices that are roughly double the current market price of natural gas.

This is on top of the environmental risk that both of these plants pose. Coal gasification is often promoted as “clean coal.” Yet, many environmental groups will tell you that there is no such thing as “clean coal.” One of those groups is the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club. Director Jack Darin says that Illinois Sierra Club has posted a petition on its website, urging Governor Quinn to veto both pieces of legislation. I’m talking to him about that on the show today.

Chicago’s Clean Power Ordinance put on hold…again.

It’s hard to imagine why, even as “clean coal” plants are proposed for the city’s southeast side, two major contributors of life-shortening pollutants continue unabated in Pilsen and Little Village. I’m speaking, of course, of the Fisk and Crawford coal-fire power plants that are an embarrassment to Chicago, as long as it wants to be considered the “Greenest City in America.”

Last year, 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore introduced the Clean Power Ordinance in an effort to force those plants to reduce their emissions or shut down permanently. The measure, which is co-sponsored by 16 aldermen, was referred jointly to the City Council’s Committee on Health, now chaired by Ald. James Balcer and the Committee on Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities, chaired by Ald. Virginia Rugai. Last week I received a message from the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, comprising more than 50 health, community, environmental and business groups, stating that Ald. Balcer would be holding a hearing on the Clean Power Ordinance on February 14 at 10:00 a.m.

Not so fast.

On Friday, word came that that the hearing would be delayed indefinitely. Since a majority vote of the joint committee is needed for the legislation to advance to a vote by the full City Council, this makes the legislation dead in the water.

It’s doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the Daley administration has put the heat on aldermen to make sure that nothing happens for the remainder of Hizzoner’s term. “I know the Administration would like us to just go away,” says Ald. Moore, “but the health and well-being of Chicago residents and the future health of our children and grandchildren are at stake.”

So now what? Moore says that he intends to go through with the hearing on the 14th, even if it’s unofficial. He will invite allies of the proposed ordinance to attend, as well as members of the Chicago Clean Power Coalition and citizens who are simply concerned about air quality in the city.

Meanwhile, there are mayoral and aldermanic races to be run, and Alderman Moore is having a fundraiser next Tuesday evening, February 1 at Uncommon Ground Restaurant on Devon Avenue. It’s called Greener Together: A Benefit to Re-Elect Joe Moore and I wiil be there to support this champion of environmental causes in Chicago. Even if you don’t live in the “Fightin’ 49th” Ward, consider making a contribution to a man who is working hard to make our city’s air clean.

Acquiring seeds, cloning ancient trees and writing urban farming laws

January 23, 2011

The Gardener’s Anthem: “Oh, Say Can you Seed?”

I attend Mid-America Horticultural Trade Show (Mid-Am) each year for a number of reasons. First, it’s a great place to hobnob with my horticultural chums. Next, it’s a place to almost get away from winter. Unlike the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, MidAm is more about business and less about art and design, but there’s just enough green to cheer you up on a dreary January day. Finally, I always come up with at least a couple of good show segments just by wondering the aisles. This year is no exception.

Later, I’ll tell you about a family that is saving trees not by saving the actual tree but by preserving its genetic material. But let’s start with a regular on The Mike Nowak Show, Mr. Brown Thumb, who also writes on his Chicago Garden blog. If you’re a regular listener or reader of these pages, you know of his involvement in the One Seed Chicago campaign to annoint a vegetable seed as Chicago’s favorite for 2011. (And if you’re not familiar with that, you obviously skipped my home page to get here. Go back and take a look at the heated campaign, complete with mudslinging and goofy videos.)

It turns out that Mr. Brown Thumb’s interest in seeds goes well beyond that. He is also the co-founder of #SeedChat on Twitter, a live chat that takes place every Wednesday night at 8pm on Twitter. Gardeners from all over come together to talk about everything related to gardening with seeds. Search for #SeedChat on Twitter to join in. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that MBT does some work for Renee’s Garden but, as you can see, he has his eye on many other companies, like Botanical Interests, Seed Library, Kitazawa Seed Company, the D. Landreth Seed Company, Seed Savers Exchange, Seed of Change and others.

Here are some suggestions from MrBrownThumb that he says will help you when deciding who to order seeds from.

  • Partner with a friend or member of your garden club. You don’t need every seed in a seed pack, unless you have a lot of space to garden, so split a seed pack with a friend.
  • Hit the gardening forums like and and search for coupons.
  • Check the Facebook page and website/blog of your favorite seed company and see if they’ve posted coupons. Some may be offering free shipping or a small discount for ordering seeds this month.
  • If you don’t like giving out your personal information, check the local independent garden centers and nurseries. They’ll stock seeds from the smaller seed sellers who specialize in rare and heirloom seeds. Buying seeds in your community will save you on shipping and handling, which can sometimes cost you more than the price of a couple of seed packs. Plus, you’re supporting local businesses.

Or you can skip the ordering process all together and swap seeds with your fellow gardeners in person. Seed swapping is a great way to meet other gardeners, share seeds from your garden and get introduced to flowers and vegetables you may not have grown before. On February 12, 2011 the Lurie Garden is hosting a Seed Savers Swap at the Chicago Cultural Center from 10am-Noon. Lurie Garden staff and MrBrownThumb will be on hand to share tips on planting and seed germination. Visit and click on “Fall and Winter Adult Programs” to learn more.

The Forest Park Community Garden has also just announced their second annual seed swap on February 27. FPCG President Jessica Rinks (also known as @snappyjdog for you Twitter fans) says that the event will be from 1 to 4pm at the Park District of Forest Park, 7501 Harrison Street in Forest Park.

Here are links to some companies that you might want to consider ordering from:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Botanical Interests online
Bountiful Gardens
Comstock Seeds
D. Landreth Seed Company
Fedco Seeds

Hudson Valley Seed Library

J. L. Hudson, Seedsman
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Kitazawa Seed Company
Renee’s Garden
Seed Savers Exchange
Seeds of Change
Select Seeds
Territorial Seed Company
Terroir Seeds (home of Underwood Gardens)
The Cook’s Garden

Last but certainly not least, if you’re concerned that a seed company might be selling genetically modified (GM) seeds, you can see if they signed the Safe Seed Pledge, a list compiled by the Council for Responsible Genetics.

Saving the world’s greatest trees by passing on their genes

I wrote earlier that I often find interesting ideas for show segments at MidAm and, boy, did I stumble across one this week. The photo on the left pictures what I call “Team Archangel.” And they may very well be angels of one kind or another. Who knows for sure? All I know is that I have a lot of respect for people who are trying to preserve and propagate the true remaining giants on our planet.

Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is located in Traverse City, Michigan in my home state. The organization isn’t even three years old yet, but its mission is stunningly ambitious: to collect, reproduce, reforest and archive old-growth trees using the best, most important genetic specimens that remain in the world. If you’re wondering what that means, it means that they find the oldest and the largest trees in existence and clone them using traditional agricultural methods–collecting tissue and cuttings. They then plant them wherever they can, so that the genes from these great–sometimes iconic specimens–will carry on in some way, even after the great trees are gone.

The patriarch of the group is David Milarch, who founded Archangel as a successor to his first not-for-profit organization, Champion Tree Project International. I’ve seen him on the videos on the website and I’ve talked to him in person and I can tell you that he’s a salty, irreverent visionary. I’m going to keep my finger on the panic button when I talk to him on my show…though I’m not really worried that he’ll say something that will get me in trouble. He is joined by son Jared Milarch, who you can also see on the website videos.

This is a great cause and I’m delighted that I met these terrific people. If you can, log onto their site and contribute to the continuing life of the world’s greatest living things.

Good Growing: New laws for new ways of farming in the city

Whether you understand it or not (and many people do not), the various city departments have much to say about what you can grow within the city limits and what you can or cannot do with those commodities.

Martha Boyd from Angelic Organics Learning Center is once again on the show to talk about an upcoming City of Chicago Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning (DZP) meeting that will consider an ordinance proposing changes to Chicago’s zoning laws. This could have a serious effect on urban agriculture and community gardening for years to come. DZP sought out and received input from members of the Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA) steering committee. The proposed zoning ordinance has been introduced to the Council and will soon be heard by the Zoning committee, most likely on January 27 at 10:00 a.m. At least it’s on the committee calendar at the Chicago City Clerk’s website. You know how those things go.

Martha and I will chat far too briefly about this on my show today. So if you have an interest in whether Chicago residents will be able to grow food and under what circumstances, I advise you to take a look at an AUA article posted this week called “Urban Agriculture Zoning in Chicago: Navigating the Rules” as well as a story by Nevin Cohen that looks at food policies in several major U.S. cities on a blog called Urban Food Policy. We have a long way to go and it’s a complex subject. I hope the right people are paying attention.

Flowers, Vegetables, CSAs and Sustainability in a Challenging Economy

January 16, 2011

Connor Shaw and the state of the horticultural industry

Talking to Connor Shaw is always an adventure, and not just because he knows so much about native plants. He’s been the proprietor of Possibility Place Nursery in Monee, Illinois since 1978 and he’s one of the straightest shooters in the business. Of course, some people might call that being a loose cannon. I call it good radio.

To say it hasn’t been the best couple of years in the horticultural business is something akin to saying that the Chicago Cubs are in a bit of a World Series slump. Industry icons Park Seed and Jackson & Perkins filed for bankruptcy last year. We have seen a number of garden centers close in and around Chicago. Some are hanging on by their fingernails. One person in the industry told me that his business is off by 90% in the past two years. I don’t know, frankly, how some companies stay afloat at all.

The latest development comes from industry giant Monrovia, which is being pressured by its banks to raise $20 million in revenues by the end of this month. Monrovia put out an S.O.S. to its customers–meaning independent garden centers–urging them to step up and purchase inventory, warning that they might be forced to sell to box stores, which they have not done to this point, if they could not generate the sales. In response, a group of 75 garden retailers pledged their support and agreed to purchase more Monrovia product. That has caused people like Garden Rant‘s Amy Stewart to wonder whether it’s time to develop a new business paradigm.

This is also the week for the Mid-America Horticultural Trade Show (Mid-Am) at Navy Pier. I’m sure that, as a small business owner, and former board member of Mid-Am, Connor Shaw will have a few interesting things to say about where the horticultural industry goes from here. Hey, we might even get around to talking about native plants. You never know.

[Update: Industry friends J.R. Rizzi of Rizzi’s Flower Garden in Plainfield and Dan Kosta of Vern Goers Greenhouse in Hinsdale called to offer their opinions. Rizzi said that when everybody in the world is selling plants, the garden centers lose. That prompted Dan to write this to me:

“I think J. R. Rizzi was correct about the dilution of the
market. Back when I was a kid (and dinosaurs roamed the earth) the independant garden centers and mail order businesses were the only places to get plants. Now there are also plants at all the big box stores, many grocery stores, some hardware stores, as well as mail order and internet sources.

Let’s hope that things get better soon while there is still something left.”

Could be a rough year.]

“Living Off (and With) the Land” at the Morton Arboretum

While the idea of sustainability has taken off in the last decade, there are people who have been practicing this concept for decades. Three of those folks are Ron and Vicki Nowicki and Bill and Rebecca Wilson. Ron and Vicki have been growing ornamentals and edibles in their Downers Grove yard for thirty years, while creating landscaping businesses like The Land Office, which focuses on Landscape design and construction with an ecological conscience, and Liberty Gardens, which helps people weave sustainable, organic food into their garden designs.

In fact, Ron and Vicki have been described as “the poster children for Suburban Permaculture Design.” Who said that? Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture, an organization dedicated to supporting the transition of our society “from a culture of consumption into a culture of creation,” in their own words. Located in downstate Stelle, Illinois, Midwest Permaculture’s goals are to “teach people to grow food just about anywhere, repair environmentally damaged lands, design lovely and long lasting green-buildings, produce the power they need, run successful, people-oriented businesses doing work they love, and live meaningful and authentic lives while building genuine community.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Ron and Bill have teamed up to present a seminar called “Living Off (and With) the Land,” on Saturday, January 22 at the Morton Arboretum. The workshop takes you through the basics of permaculture and how it is applied to the home landscape.
Students will learn fundamental principles of ecological landscape design and get practical recommendations from two of the best in the business.

Megan Dunning, Manager of Community Education and Outreach at the Morton Arboretum, says that this seminar represents a new direction of sustainability education at the Arb, called the Eco-Friendly Gardening Workshop series, geared towards home gardeners.

Good Growing: Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm

We’ll get to Cedar Valley in just a moment. First, though, I want to do a follow up to Mr. Brown Thumb‘s visit to the show last week. He talked about this year’s version of One Seed Chicago, the annual vote to determine the most popular seed in town. This year’s candidates are eggplant, radish and Swiss chard, with voting going on until April 1.

As you know if you have seen my home page today, I’ve thrown the full weight of Mike Nowak LLC behind getting Swiss chard elected as “seed of the year” (or whateve they’re calling it.) For those people who think that backing Swiss chard (which isn’t from Switzerland, anyway) is anti-American, I say phhhhhhhhht!

And now onto today’s guest, Beth Osmund from Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, Illinois. I’ve talked in the past about CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) but mostly focused on vegetables. However, for those of us who enjoy being omnivores but who worry about how that meat is being raised and processed, there are farms like Cedar Valley. In their own words, ” We raise our and animals in ways that nurture and respect nature’s systems.” Cedar Valley is an old-fashioned family farm on the banks of Indian Creek, where Jody and Beth Osmund returned a few years ago to become sustainable farmers and raise their sons: Richard, Duncan and Jack.

Once again, my thanks to the great folks at Angelic Organics Learning Center for setting up this interview.