3rd Anniversary Show: Coal (burning) plants, wicked bugs, rabbit poo and Sustainable Food Fundamentals

April 24, 2011

“The Mike Nowak Show”: Three years and still kickin’. Thanks!

Who’da thunk it? That three years and 156 shows later, I’d still be turning on a microphone at Chicago’s Progressive Talk every Sunday. Of course, the starting hour has changed a couple of times, as has my producer, not to mention the length of the program, but the boat is still relatively without leaks and I’m looking forward to doing this for a long, long time.

Thanks to everybody who has made my show possible: Newswebradio Company, which owns Chicago’s Progressive Talk; Harvey Wells, who first hired me; Joe McArdle, who shepherded me through the first few tricky months; producers John Uher and Heather Frey; the beautiful Kathleen Thompson, who is my sweetie and webmaster (go wherever you want with that); my first class meteorologist Rick DiMaio; Intrepid Green Reporter Leah Pietrusiak, who helps behind the scenes with much of the ad copy; my fabulous advertisers; and last, but certainly not least, all of the people who listen to the show, whether regularly or not. My heartfelt thanks to ALL OF YOU!

Coal power plays hardball at Chicago City Council

Last week I talked to Lan Richard from the Eco-Justic Collaborative about Thursday’s City Council hearing about the Clean Power Ordinance introduced by, 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore to force the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired plants to reduce or clean up their emissions or shut down permanently. The measure was introduced a year ago but had been consistently denied a hearing. However, with 26 co-sponsors now supporting the measure, retiring Alderman Virginia Rugai, chair of the Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities Committee finally agreed–in the eleventh hour of the Daley Administration–to hear discussion, and possibly bring the ordinance up for a vote.

Lan and the more than 50 organizations that comprise the Chicago Clean Power Coalition were savvy enough to know that, in Chicago politics, very little happens without some kind of shenanigans. The idea was to encourage Chicago citizens who want cleaner air to show up at City Hall to voice their support. Furthermore, to encourage the aldermen who had co-sponsored the ordinance, a website called “WHERE’S MY WALDERMAN?” was set up, where folks could keep tabs on the whereabouts of aldermen during the hearing.

Three days after Thursday’s hearing, environmentalists are still trying to get the license of the truck that hit them.

Midwest Generation, which owns the two plants, got there early with hundreds of its workers that it bused in from all parts of the state and quickly grabbed most of the seats in the council chamber, effectly excluding all others from participating in the hearing.

Lan Richart was one of the few environmentalists who got into the room and he sent me his observations of the proceedings:

MWG representatives testified that the Fisk power plant has 65 employees, 13 of whom are Chicago residents. The Crawford plant has 120 employees, but they did not know how many were Chicago residents.

Alderman Rugai…refused to set a hearing until the very last week of the administration, then opened the hearing by saying the committee would not be taking a vote, because the issue warranted a great deal of study and consideration.

MWG pulled out all stops. Despite all of this, the Coalition widened public understanding of its message, got excellent press coverage and maintained momentum that will assure that the issue will be addressed by the new administration. We walked away having learned a few lessons about chicago politics, but even more determined to see this through. I think that that is the real message.

Lan’s wife Pam Richart, also of the Eco-Justic Collaborative, is on the show today with a look back at how things went down at City Hall.

Amy Stewart is baaaaack…with “Wicked Bugs”

It was last November when I last had author Amy Stewart on my show. At that time, she regaled–and terrified–Heather and me with tales of plants that are poisonous, hallucinogenic or otherwise harmful. That was the subject of her book Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. Of course, Heather immediately wanted a copy, which is now part of her bathroom decorations. And if you thought that knowing about plants that could kill and maim you was enough to keep you awake nights, you ain’t heard nothing yet.

Amy is back, with her latest book, Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects. I haven’t slept in months, since I read her first book, and I’m preparing for a sleepless decade. Before I get into the gory details, here’s a short passage from Amy’s book that should give you pause:

To date, over one million species of insects have been described worldwide. It is estimated that there are ten quintillion insects alive on the planet right now, which means that for each one of us, there are two hundred million of them.

It didn’t help much when I saw this article on Mother Nature Network earlier this week. If that isn’t enough to send your reaching for the Raid, here’s more:

  • Female praying mantids are notorious for biting the heads off of their mates during copulation. However, that particularly un-ladylike behavior is also exhibited by fireflies, golden-orbed weavers, crab spiders and more.
  • Speaking of the dainty sex, the “fact” that the bite of a black widow spider is almost always fatal is a myth. And regardless of whether you think you’ve seen a brown recluse spider, let alone been bitten by one, you probably haven’t. They get blamed for a lot.
  • If you’ve spent most of your life in northern climes, as I have, you might not be aware that you can scorpions glow under ultraviolet light, making them easy to spot next to your Jimmy Hendrix poster. Scorpion stings are rarely fatal–expect in children. Fortunately, there is a new antivenin called Anascorp, which is saving lives. In case you haven’t figured it out, there’s a reason I stay in northern climes.
  • After Columbus’s second trip to the New World and his establishment of a colony on Hispaniola, it’s likely that his crew found it necessary to cut off some of their toes because of infestations of the chigoe flea.
  • Over half a million English drivers have had a car accident caused by the distraction of a bug in the car. Please don’t do that study in the United States. I don’t want to know.
  • The Colorado potato beetle is so devasting that in World War II the Germans believed that Americans were dropping the beetles from planes as a form of aerial agricultural warfare.
  • Some ant facts: Fire ants are not just feared for their sting. Their chewing ability has disabled traffic lights, shorted out air conditioners and even imperiled the now-defunct super-collider project in Texas. The bullet ant gets its name from the unfortunate fact that its bite feels like a gunshot. And entomologists believe that the population of Argentine ants that extends from San Diego into northern California is one giant supercolony of genetically similar ants. Have a nice day!

By the way, if the name Amy Stewart seems familiar, she is part of the Garden Rant crowd. The last time one of the gals dropped into the studio, Twitter Nation went berserk. I can hardly wait to see what happens this time. By the way, Amy is in studio, which means she’s in town for a bunch of appearances. You can catch her at

Monday, April 25, 2011 7 pm
Anderson’s Bookshop
Naperville, IL

Tuesday, April 26, 2011 5:30 pm
Boerner Botanical Gardens
Milwaukee, WI

Wednesday, April 27, 2011 6 pm
Overture Center for the Arts
A special event with artist Briony Morrow-Cribbs
Madison, WI

Thursday, April 28, 2011 7 PM
Morton Arboretum
Lisle, IL

Answering the “rabbit poo” question

Last week, listener Hannah called to ask if it was okay to use rabbit droppings as a fertilizer without composting them first. I did a little searching and came up with some information from Cornell University. I advise reading the whole post, but here’s a quote from the article:

Manures differ from each other because of their source, their age, how they were stored (piled, spread, turned over or not), and the animal bedding material, which may be mixed in. For that reason it is difficult to provide precise guidance about how long manure should be aged before use, or how much to use.

Composting is the safest way to make the most of manure’s nutritional potential – if the logistics of making and hauling compost are viable. For direct use in the garden, first aging manure for 6 months is a good rule of thumb. Many farmers and gardeners spread fresh manure in the fall or winter, and till or turn it in at spring planting time.

Farm animal manures provide NPK – nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Generally, cow and horse manures are more readily available than other kinds of animal manures. For nutrient analysis of manure from eight kinds of farm animals, as well as other kinds of organic matter, refer to Cornell’s Eco-Gardening Factsheet #8, A Guide to the Nutrient Value of Organic Materials.

Some more information that might be useful is this from Plantea.com:

No matter what kind of manure you use, use it as a soil amendment, not a mulch. In other words, don’t put raw manure directly on garden soils. Raw manure generally releases nitrogen compounds and ammonia which can burn plant roots, young plants and interfere with seed germination. In fact, it’s recommended that all animal manure should be aged for at least 6 months. Many gardeners spread fresh manure in the fall and turn it in to the top 6 inches of soil a month before spring planting.

A better treatment is to hot-compost manure before applying it to the garden. Hot composting, where the pile reaches at least 150 degrees F) helps to reduce the probability of passing dangerous pathogens on to people who handle the manure or eat food grown with manure compost.

While the chance of contamination is slim, severe sickness and even death may occur if contaminated produce is eaten. To be safe, either compost your manure or apply it in the fall after harvest. Wash up after handling manure and don’t forget to rinse the vegetables and fruit well before you eat them–always a good idea whether your use manure or not.

I hope this helps.

Welcome to Sustainable Food Fundamentals:
How the USDA supports local food and local farms

Here are a few facts that might interest you.

  • The number of farmers markets has more than tripled in the past 15 years and there are now more than 6,100 around the country
  • In 1986 there were two community supported agriculture operations, today there are over 4,000
  • There are farm to school programs in 48 states, totaling more than 2,200 and up from two in 1996
  • All 50 states in the U.S. have agricultural branding programs, such as “Jersey Fresh” or “Simply Kansas”
  • As Governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack started one of the first food policy councils. Today there are over 100 food policy councils
  • And the National Restaurant Association surveyed “locally sourced meats and seafood” and “locally grown produce” as the top two trends for 2011 .

You might be even more interested to know that those facts come from a United States Department of Agriculture website called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2). Yes, the USDA is a huge organization, with a budget of $25 billion dollars, give or take a few billion. And while they oversee agencies like The Farm Service Agency, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Food and Nutrition Service, and even the Forest Service, the USDA is also supporting local farmers. Bet you didn’t know that, huh?

That’s why I’m pleased to have Alan Shannon, who is the Director of Midwest Region Public Affairs for the USDA Food & Nutrition Service Midwest. One of things I’ll ask him about is the Peoples Garden Initiative, which challenges USDA employees to establish People’s Gardens at USDA facilities worldwide or help communities create gardens.

And I’m happy to have Pearl Valley Organix as a sponsory for Sustainable Food Fundamentals. They produce HEALTHY GRO™ products for your lawn and garden, as well as Pearl Valley Eggs. And they do it in a way that is sustainable, turning their chicken manure into several OMRI listed fertilizers, and even recycling their waste water on site at the Pearl Valley Farm.

The Pearl Valley people were kind enough to give me a tour of their facility, about 150 miles northwest of Chicago near Pearl City, Illinois. I was astonished by the cleanliness of the the place (I swear you could have lunch on the floor of the egg-packing building). I was even more impressed by the way founder Dave Thompson approaches his business. It’s about health, and it’s about science. It’s also about respect for their neighbors and for the planet. Dave’s goal all along has been to produce eggs that are the best on the market by keeping chickens in a healthy, humane way, while taking pains not to despoil the land.

He has succeeded admirably. I challenge you to crack open a Pearl Valley egg next to a traditionally raised egg and tell me what you see. It will be no contest. As for their fertilizers, I’m just starting to use them. I’ll keep you posted on this website and on Chicago’s Progressive Talk. Meanwhile, if you want to know more about Dave and Pearl valley, check out this article that appeared in USA Today.

Earth Day and lots, lots more

April 17, 2011

Poo Free Parks™ is coming to Elmhurst

I just can’t seem to stop talking about dog poo. Perhaps I need to talk to my shrink about that. But it’s not entirely my fault. Dog poo stories keep dropping in my lap…so to speak. Like this one about a business called Poo Free Parks ® , the brainchild of a guy named Bill Airy in Denver, Colorado. He figured that most people who walk their dogs in public parks would be more likely to clean up after their pets if there were a way to make it a little easier.

And just like that, he created a business that supplies, installs and maintains Earth-Friendly Pet Poo Bag Dispensers providing free Pet Poo Bags to dog owners. Not only that, but the service is set up to provide public education as well as waste bags. The dispensers are made of 100% recycled aluminum and the bags themselves are biodegradable. Even better, the program is designed to be administered at no cost to the public by giving businesses the opportunity to sponsor dispensers and bags.

But the best thing on the Poo Free Parks ® website is this nugget:

The American Pet association estimates that this country’s seventy-one million pet dogs produce over 4.4 billion pounds of waste per year. That’s enough to cover 900 football fields with 12 inches of dog waste!

See? I TOLD you dog poo was an important story.

Madam Editor stops by to plug a great benefit

Many of you know that I write a column–and an occasional article–for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine. The person who holds the blue pencil over my works of genius is Carolyn Ulrich, who is the editor of the magazine. Once a year or so, I bring her onto the radio show to let her plug an event, which earns me a little leverage for the next time she sends me an email starting with “Did you really mean to say…?” FYI, no writer likes being corrected.

It does help that she usually wants me to say something good about Growing Home, which helps homeless and disadvantaged folks gain employment through learning about organic agriculture. What I really mean to say is that they grow stuff–in the city and out of it–and 100% of the proceeds from their sales of organic produce are used to improve their training program and pay for upkeep of their farm sites.

Growing Home is holding its 9th Annual Benefit on Thursday, April 28 in Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center. It all starts about 5:30 p.m. The keynote this year is being provided by some guy named Bill Kurtis. I’ll do a little research and see who he is. Also, the event will honor Kathy Dickhut, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development, for her long-time support of Growing Home, and the groundwork she has helped to lay for urban agriculture in Chicago.

Dinner will be provided by some of Chicago’s best chefs. Vegetarian appetizersare courtesy of Chef David Rosenthall of Inspiration Kitchens . Meat and vegetarian entrees will be presented by Chef Paul Virant of Vie. Dessert will be served by local social enterprise Sweet Miss Giving’s. And, of course, there is the silent auction, where you can bid on all kinds of goodies.

Take the Garlic Mustard Challenge

Cathy McGlynn is back on the program today to talk about fighting one of the most pernicious invaders in America: garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Cathy is Coordinator of the Northeast Illinois Invasive Plant Partnership (NIIPP) , which works to prevent and control new and current plant invasions and raise public awareness concerning the threat posed by invasive plants. May is Illinois Invasive Species Awareness Month, but NIIPP is getting a head start by participating in the United States Forest Service’s Garlic Mustard Challenge. Garlic mustard grows in the understory of forests and woodlands and displaces native plants and perhaps the best way of combatting it is to pull it out by hand.

Cities, agencies and organizations are all pulling together (get it?) to participate in the Illinois version of the Garlic Mustard Challenge. Click onto the link to find out where you can volunteer between now and the end of May to help eradicate this particularly nasty plant. Believe me, you’ll be getting some pretty good exercise, too.

Play “Where’s My Walderman?”(#chicoal) at Chicago City Council

Could it be possible that the Clean Power Ordinance might actually come to a vote in the Chicago City Council this week? Well, if you know anything about Chicago politics, you probably don’t want to hold your breath. You might turn blue.

To back up a little bit, 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore introduced the ordinance last year, an effort to force the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired plants to reduce their emissions or shut down permanently. The measure, which in early February was co-sponsored by 16 aldermen, now has 26 aldermen on board as co-sponsors.

Do the math. There are 50 aldermen. If you need half of 50 to pass a law, and 26 aldermen have already signed on as co-sponsors…uh…50 minus 26 equals…end of story, right? But like I said, you need to understand Chicago politics. You can go to the Chicago Clean Power Coalition website to see that a committee hearing on the Clean Power Ordinance will be held this Thursday, April 21. So all it has to do is pass out of committee and onto the floor for a vote. Right?

That’s where Lan Richard and the Eco-Justic Collaborative come into the picture. Lan says that all kinds of goofy (and I mean that in the way I mean “corrupt”) things can happen to thwart the passage of good legislation–especially in Chicago. Aldermen have a way of “disappearing” just before important votes. Which is why the Eco-Justice Collaborative and the Chicago Clean Power Coalition will be keeping tabs on ALL aldermen with a program they call “WHERE’S MY WALDERMAN?”

They will be utilizing the internet and Twitter (which is the Internet, too, but let’s not quibble) , in an attempt to keep track of aldermen and get some questions answered. If an alderman leaves the room at vote time, here’s what they say they’ll do:

We’ll embarrass them with tweets as we search for them in the restroom, under the chair, down the drain or wherever. These tweets will be captured on a dynamic website, which will include their photo if present OR a “Waldo” photo with a big MISSING if they are not. Sleeping? Hiding behind Mayor Daley? Playing games on a smart phone? In the restroom? If missing …. we’ll poke fun and take note for posterity.

I know I’ll be Tweeting on Thursday. If you do, too, remember to use the hashtag #chicoal. If you don’t Tweet and you don’t know what a hashtag is, don’t worry. On the day of the hearing Eco-Justice will reveal a website where they will be posting the committee proceedings in real time. Encourage friends and family to watch! They’ll also post a second hashtag to use for each alderman the day of the hearing. You can then use TWO hashtags: “#chicoal” to direct all tweets to the website and a second hashtag comment on specific aldermen.

See? Good, clean fun. I can hardly wait.

Good Growing: Working towards zoning to help urban farming

If you think policy can be difficult when it comes to clean air, just try to figure out the laws regarding urban farming. The problem is that the very concept of urban farming is so new that many legislators and city administrators are having a hard time wrapping their heads around it. And, yup, that’s exactly the story in Chicago.

Angelic Organic Learning Center‘s Martha Boyd is also a member of a group called Advocates for Urban Agriculture, which has been tackling this issue. They have a special urgency because the Chicago City Council is considering a new ordinance that would affect the legal circumstances and permitted practices of urban agriculture in Chicago. AUA prepared a collection of responses to frequently asked questions and concerns in an effort to help make sense of the ordinance and clarify its potential implications for urban ag practice in Chicago. You can get plenty of background information at this AUA web page.

If a lot of it seems dense and indecipherable, well, that’s the way city government works…or not. Martha and I will continue to try to unravel some of the mystery of all of this on today’s show.

You got questions? We got answers.

April 10, 2011

The fastest talking woman in horticulture returns!

[Update: You’re going to get a lot more out of this by actually listening to the broadcast, which is now in podcast form. The show was a lot of fun and we answered a fair number of questions. Here’s the link: http://www.mikenowak.net/podcasts/?p=episode&name=2011-04-10_20110410_20110410_mn_full_show.mp3]

I’m talking, of course, about my friend Jennifer Brennan, horticulture information specialist from The Chalet in Wilmette. She says she’s bringing the breakfast sandwiches this morning. Fine with me. She’s also bringing her prodigious horticultural knowledge, and the two of us plan to talk gardening and answer questions for two hours.

You might recognize Jennifer from her morning appearances on ABC7 Chicago with Tracy Butler, the Morning News weather anchor. In her 16 years at Chalet, she founded and has grown Chalet’s Education Series to 80 sessions per year which reach:

• 3,000 adult learners annually
• 700 children annually
• 500 people at off-site programs

Even more impressive, because the courses are content-rich and science-based,they are used by Master Gardeners for certifiable course work. And they are free. Heck, I’m impressed. Here are some of the upcoming events at The Chalet. Check their website for more information.


$40.00 fee and pre-registration required, please call 847-256-0561 x250, 255 or 225)

Apr. 30: GARDEN FAIRE 2011 (Saturday) KEY-NOTE SPEAKERS :

10 to 11AM Renee Shephard ( Renee’s Garden )- “EASY GARDENS FOR BUSY PEOPLE”
1 to  2PM Nicholas Staddon ( Monrovia) – “NEW PLANTS AND TRENDS”

10 to 11AM Renee Shepherd (Renee’s Garden)- “GOURMET GARDENING”
1 to  2PM Nicholas Staddon (Monrovia)- “LATEST CONTAINER IDEAS”


May 6:   20-30 minute mini-lecture- “VEGETABLE GARDENING SIMPLIFIED”
May 13: 20-30 minute mini-lecture- “HOW TO PLANT TREES & SHRUBS”
May 20: 20-30 minute mini-lecture- “THE BEST ROSE ADVICE”
May 27: 20-30 minute mini-lecture- “CONTAINER GARDENING HOW-TO’S”

Speaking of great garden information…

You’ll remember that Wally Schmidtke, the garden guru at Pesche’s, recently sent me a number of links to websites that had great information about mulching practices. One of the things he alerted me to is something called “cannon fungus.” You might not recognize it from its name but it’s possible that you’ve encountered it in the garden. Here’s how the North Carolina State University website describes Sphaerobolus stellatus:

The fruiting bodies of this fungus are 1-3 mm (0.04-0.12 inches) broad, roundish in shape and off-white to a buff or orange-buff color. At maturity the fruiting body splits in a star-like pattern exposing a dark brown, roundish “cannon” or “egg” (termed a peridiole) that is 1-2 mm (0.04-0.08 inches) broad and contains the spores of the fungus. This structure is forcibly ejected or shot from the fruiting body, hence the name “cannon” fungus. This fungus is also called the “sphere thrower” and the “artillery fungus”. The “egg” which may be ejected up to 14 feet from the fruiting body has an oily or sticky surface that enables it to adhere to most surfaces it encounters. Once stuck to a surface the “egg” dries to a disk shape and adheres tenaciously. Removal of the “egg” often leaves an oily stain or discoloration on the surface. Fruiting body development is correlated with high moisture and temperatures in the 70s and low 80s degrees F (10-20 degrees C). A change in temperature to 90 degrees F will stimulate ejection of the “egg” from the fruting body. The fungus also is phototrophic and the “egg” is shot toward a light source.

Ohio State University says that it’s just one of a number of fungi that you’re likely to find in mulches and composts. But the best way to understand cannon fungus is to watch it on YouTube.

However, there’s also the always-reliably gross “dog vomit fungus,” courtesy of Penn State University. Ain’t gardening fun?

“Deja Blue All Over Again”: A call to action

If you caught last week’s show, you know that 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack and I talked about the reported plan by the Daley Administration to privatize the Blue Cart Recycling Program before he leaves office. The alderman and I happen to be pretty much on the same page about this one, which is to say that we don’t think much of the plan. In fact, at the Chicago Recycling Coalition (I am president of the all-volunteer organization), we are calling it “Deja Blue All Over Again,” in honor of the late-but-not-lamented Blue Bag Program.

It’s possible that the Daley Administration will attempt to push through this ill-advised privatization measure in the next few days. If you live in Chicago, I urge you to go to the CRC website to educate yourself about this issue. CRC has posted a sample letter that you can send to your alderman, Mayor Richard M. Daley, Commissioner Thomas G. Byrne of the Department of Streets & Sanitation, and/or Commissioner Suzanne Malec-McKenna of the Department of Environment..