Herbs, urban gardens and household batteries

January 22, 2012

Countdown to Decision Chicago! The Great Herb Debate

Mark your calendars, sharpen your debating skills and get your seed packets lined up. Sunday, February ,5 is the date of the inaugural Great Herb Debate. The ubiquitous Mr. Brown Thumb and I have concocted this scheme in honor of the One Seed Chicago 2012 competition…and because I want to hear somebody wax poetic about chamomile.

As you might already know, One Seed Chicago–a partnership between NeighborSpace and GreenNet–is an urban greening project. Folks vote for their favorite seed from among three chosen each January 1st. Regardless of which seed you vote for, you receive a packet of the winning seed just for participating in the competition.

This year’s choice is among basil, chamomile and cilantro. Mr. Brown Thumb and I are lining up surrogates who are willing to defend their candidates on my show. I hope to announce those names next week. However, any and everybody is welcome to voice an opinion before and during the debate via email, Twitter and Facebook. Send in those comments now. I’ll post them on the Decision Chicago page (click on the image on the left) as I receive them.

And I’m still waiting to be bribed to throw my support to one of the seeds. Sheesh. What does it take in Chicago (!) to get a decent gift to help throw an election? C’mon, Chicagoans! Our checkered reputation is at stake!

Learning about and growing urban gardens in Chicago

A couple of years ago, I was hoping to set up a community garden in my neighborhood. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but Openlands Community Outreach Coordinator Julie Samuels, who is a friend and colleague of mine, told me about a half-day seminar that Openlands was sponsoring to help neighborhood groups plan and and build community gardens.

My community garden didn’t happen for another year, but I was able to use many of the lessons I learned at that seminar to help start Green on McLean at the end of my block. Two years after that first class, the HomeGrown Chicago Network has expanded to a four-week course that focuses on

  • Finding and securing land,
  • Establishing a sustainable organizational structure,
  • Designing a garden and growing food organically, and
  • Building garden structures.

I’ll be talking with Julie today about the program, which begins on March 24. It also provides customized workshops for garden groups; offers a program manual; donates lumber, soil, seeds, and other materials; and encourages participants to share advice and seeds at the beginning of each growing season. The cost is $150, which will cover four people from your gardening organization for the four-week course.

But wait, there’s more! That’s not the only gardening program that Openlands sponsors. If you hurry, you can still register for Building Urban Gardens (BUGs), which begins January 28 (next Saturday) at Garfield Park Conservatory. Whether you’re working in a community garden or you just want to grow plants in your own backyard, here’s what you’ll learn in this six-week course, which covers

  • Planning and Designing Your Ecological/Organic Garden
  • The Basis of an Organic Garden: Healthy Soil and Composting
  • Vegetables for Your Beautiful, Edible Garden
  • Perennials and Herbs for Diversity and Flavor!
  • Insects and Weeds: A Place for Everything & Everything in its Place
  • Container and Raised Bed Gardening.

Once you finish the BUGs course, you can join a citywide corps of volunteer gardeners who care for community spaces throughout Chicago. Openlands thanks the Dr. Scholl Foundation for its support of this program.

For more information about the class and to register, please contact Julie Samuels via e-mail or by phone at 312-863-6256.

Coal pollutes Chicago air while batteries go back to the landfills

I received a message this week from my friend Qae-Dah Muhammad, who is with the Ashe Park Advisory Council & Garden Club. She wrote:

Yes it is true. No more recycling your dead batteries. I searched for this information until my eyes watered. Went into the South Shore Library and my tired eyes landed on the flyer sitting on the information rack. The Illinois EPA says that you can throw them in the regular trash.

She included a link that sent me to the City of Chicago website, where this appears:

As of January 1, 2012, Chicago’s Battery Recycling Program has been discontinued, including collections at Chicago Public Libraries. Rechargeable batteries can still be recycled at multiple locations throughout Chicago, such as the Household Chemicals and Computer Recycling Facility . Find additional locations at www.call2recycle.org .

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency recommends disposing of alkaline batteries with regular household trash. Alkaline batteries contain no hazardous waste and little recyclable materials. Previous environmental hazards associated with alkaline batteries were due to their mercury content.  The federal Battery Management Act of 1996 phased-out the use of mercury in alkaline batteries and today few, if any, alkaline batteries contain mercury.

My reaction could be categorized as WTF? I hadn’t heard about this at all and, as many of you know, I’m President of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. Oops. I called Mike Mitchell, Executive Director of the Illinois Recycling Association and he confirmed that the IEPA had made some kind of determination last year.

So I did some searching on both the Illinois Evironmental Protection Agency site and the EPA site. Nothing. Zip. Nada. If they are changing the rules regarding the disposal of household batteries, they are certainly keeping it quiet.

I am determined to find out what’s going on. I hope to contact the IEPA this week to get more information. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, Meteorologist Rick DiMaio wrote today to tell me about this front page story in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune: Coal plants dominate list of Chicago’s biggest polluters. Ya think? Michael Hawthorne writes:

No other polluter comes close to the 4.2 million metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide churned into the atmosphere by the two coal plants in 2010, according to a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency database that for the first time allows people to compare major industrial sources of greenhouse gases

That’s why it is so important for the Chicago City Council to finally pass the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance, reintroduced in late July 2011 by Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) and Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward). Considering that the ordinance has 35 co-sponsors, one wonders why it hasn’t been passed yet. It would require that the Fisk and Crawford coal plants reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50% and particulate matter by 90%.

Perhaps it’s time for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to step up and protect Chicago citizens from the ravages of these two ancient power plants, which continue to do more harm than good.

Bad Day at Starved Rock

January 15, 2012

A message from LaSalle County: “Piss on Starved Rock.”

Those of you who follow my Facebook or Twitter posts already know that last Thursday’s meeting of the LaSalle County Board did not go well for supporters of Starved Rock State Park. In a 20 to 6 vote, board members voted to Mississippi Sand LLC to create an open pit sand mine on what is now a slightly more than 300 acre farm adjacent to Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Illinois.

According to a number of accounts, the two hundred or so people crowded into the Ottawa Knights of Columbus Hall were evenly split on the issue. However, my sources, who were also at the meeting, report that the sentiments ran decidedly against approval of the sand mine. This, despite the presence of union workers, who are hoping to see the sand mining jobs brought to the county.

What is undeniable is that it is an emotional issue on both sides. One of the people I interviewed on my show last week was told by a high-ranking LaSalle County Democratic official and union leader, “Piss on Starved Rock.” Nice. This is what happenswhen the old “jobs v. the environment” meme is trotted out. It doesn’t help when the Chicago Tribune reinforces this tired, discredited concept in the headline “Sand mine proposal near Starved Rock pits company against environmentalists.” Oh, and by the way, Trib and Sun-Times, thanks for getting on board with this story the day before the vote. Well played.

Even a last-minute plea from Lt. Governor Sheila Simon to delay the vote until more study could be done failed to budge the board members from their laser-like focus on approving the 90-foot deep pit outside the eastern entrance to the jewel of the Illinois State Park System. LaSalle County Board member Rick Scott, who appears on the show this morning, introduced a motion to postpone the vote, but it was defeated handily. His concern was that people who own property next to the proposed mining site have had very little time to present their side to policy makers in the county.

Also on the program this morning is Cindy Skrukrud, Clean Water Advocate for the Illinois Sierra Club, who has had her hands full lately trying to prevent a coal strip mine from being approved near Canton in Fulton County. John McKee, President of the Starved Rock Audubon Society, who joined me last week, also stops by. The focus now shifts to agencies like the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), which is not only responsible for natural areas like Starved Rock but is charged with regulating the mining industry. Some people, like McKee, are concerned over what has been a deafening silence so far from DNR.

Among other places to look for help might be the Illinois EPA, the Lt. Governor’s office (how does Ms. Simon feel about being summarily ignored at the LaSalle County board meeting?), the Governor’s office (any comment, Mr. Quinn?) and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (ditto, Mr. Durbin).

This story is a long way from over…but Thursday’s action in LaSalle County just made saving Starved Rock State a lot harder.

Winter arrives…a month late. How are plants holding up?

Well, we knew it wouldn’t last forever. In fact, I’m one of those people who was actually happy to finally see some snow. But a lot of folks are concerned–and rightly so–with how their outdoor plants will react to getting faked out by warm weather and then whupped upside the head by Mother Nature.

Never fear: Cindy Baker, Manager of Horticultural Services at the Chicago Botanic Garden, is here to tell you what–or what NOT–to do. She should know her stuff. After all, she has been at the Garden for 24 years and she supervises more than100 acres there, including the Berm garden along the Edens Expressway. And if you can keep plants alive along an expressway, you must know what you’re doing.

One Seed Chicago update: Nope, no decision yet

For those of you who are wondering which seed I have decided to favor in the One Seed Chicago 2012 competition, I’m still deciding. The choice is among basil, chamomile and cilantro, and I’m still waiting to be bribed to throw my support to one of them. In the event that nobody wants to bribe me, I will make a sudden, petulant decision, then throw my entire media empire behind one of the seeds.

On the other hand, somebody suggested to me on Twitter that I should have a debate on the show among the three contestant and then declare a winner. Hmm. It certainly would be a lot less stupid than the continuing reality show that are the Republican presidential debates.

Perhaps chamomile will have an “oops” moment. Could be fun.

New studios, social justice and Starved Rock

January 8, 2012

New studios! And a new call-in number: 773-763-9278

I need a new introduction to my radio show. The one that talks about being midway between Zacatacos and Paco’s Tacos is now obsolete. As of January 7, Chicago’s Progressive Talk is now on the north side of town…which means that I will get a lot of grief from my south side friends. By the way, we have a whole slew of new phone numbers, so if you’re a regular listener, you might want to keep this link handy.

And while we’re not exactly in a glass bubble on Michigan Avenue, we are now housed in pretty-much state of the art digs at our new location on Milwaukee Avenue, midway between Lido Banquets and Andy’s Deli & Mikolajczyk Sausage Shop, which is a lot harder to pronounce, especially if your Polish is as bad as mine.

And on this first day in the new studio, I have the honor of not only doing my own show, but filling in for Mike Sanders, host of Our Town. It’s a little complicated, but in a nutshell, Mike also serves as engineer on Sunday mornings. And since we’re in a new studio with new equipment, we thought it would be a good idea to keep Mike as undistracted as possible by things like, oh, a show and guests and phone calls and that sort of thing. So Mike will be playing technical geek while I’m on the air. Works for me.

I’ll be joined by Mike’s co-host, Julia Shu, who has promised to read one of her famous lists of the interesting, the odd and the ridiculous. And, in a kind of Self-Help Sunday reunion, Ron Cowgill of Mighty House has promised to stop by and chat about green home improvements. And even though we have barely experienced winter in Chicago, I want to talk to him about keeping your walks and driveways free of ice and snow. Our very own Beth Botts wrote about this in Chicagoland Gardening Magazine. And recently, I saw another article by the Chicago Botanic Garden‘s Tim Johnson in the Chicago Tribune.

But what really intrigued me was a product that Ron mentioned on his Saturday show called Propellant 49. The website looks like it was put together by a high school graphics student on a five minute deadline. Sorry, but look at it yourself. And it doesn’t help that NOWHERE on the site can I find the active–or even ANY–listed ingredient. Hmm. We’ll chat about that, too. I hope you tune in.

KAM Isaiah Israel puts food–and social justice–on the table

It was two years ago that I first met Robert Nevel, architect and chair of KAM Isaiah Israel‘s Social Justice Committee. I’m not exactly sure how he discovered my show, but he was eager to tell me about the Hyde Park congregation’s food justice and sustainability program, including their gardens, education advocacy programs, interfaith outreach, and young leadership summer program. Mostly, he wanted to promote their first Martin Luther King, Jr. Social Justice Weekend, featuring respected speakers and seminars on food justice, urban farming and the environment.

Fast forward to 2012 and the third annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Social Justice Weekend.Nevel and his colleagues have long since earned my utmost respect. I’ve watched the garden at their congregation expand and mature, and I’ve seen them spread the gospel, so to speak, of growing your own. They have, with their harvests and their White Rock Gleaning program, delivered thousands of pounds of fresh produce to local soup kitchens and shelters, even dragging me along to help.

So it’s a pleasure to have Robert Nevel back on the show today, along with Doriane C. Miller, M.D., Director of the Center for Community Health and Vitality at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Dr. Miller is presenting the keynote address on Friday evening, January 13, “Health and Food Justice: Observations from the South Side.” Here’s what the entire weekend looks like:

Friday, January 13: 

8:00 PM:  Shabbat Service
9:00 PM:  Lecture: “Health and Food Justice:  Observations from the South Side”

Saturday, January 14: 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Panel Discussion: “From Plant to Plate – Distribution of Locally Grown Food”

Sunday, January 15: 11:00 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

Workshops:  “From Plant to Plate – Practical Learning” - 18 Workshops and Presentations with Lunch and Cooking Demonstrations at Noon

All events are free and open to the public  Pre-Registration is strongly recommended for the Sunday workshops, as class space is limited.  You can RSVP for workshops here.

Still working to save Starved Rock State Park

When I first reported on this story on December 18, the LaSalle County zoning board of appeals had just approved a sand-mining operation on a 350 acre parcel of what is now farm land just south of the town of Ottawa. The problem is that the land is adjacent to one of the most visited natural areas in Illinois, Starved Rock State Park.

The vote was unanimous, despite the fact that so many people turned out to the meeting that it had to be moved to a larger location and then held over two days. In the wake of that meeting, I interviewed Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club, which urged people to write to the LaSalle County Board and tell them to reject the zoning board’s decision. A couple of local residents, geologist Mike Phillips and city planner Debbie Burns, echoed that sentiment, citing damage that an open pit sand mine could do to wetlands and to the quality of the experience for visitors to Starved Rock. The good news: Jack Darin tells me that 6,000 people have taken action this week at this site.

One would hope that the average county board member, after receiving 6,000 requests, might get the idea that people feel passionately about an issue. Still, the prognosis might not be that good for a happy environmental ending. My sources have told me that they expect the full board to rubber stamp the zoning board’s vote, regardless of the growing controvery surrounding this decision. Even though this part of Illinois, and north into Wisconsin, are prime areas to mine silica that is used in fracking, more and more citizens and environmental groups are challenging the industry’s argument that the mining work has minimal impact on surrounding lands.

With the full board’s vote scheduled for Thursday, January 12, LaSalle county residents have started to organize opposition to the proposed Mississippi Sand LLC operation. A number of those people are joining me on the show today: John McKee, President of the the Starved Rock Audubon Society; Daphne Mitchell of the Illinois River Coordinating Council; Joseph Standing Bear from Midwest Soarring Foundation; Merlin Calhoun, whose LaSalle county property is in the firing line of the proposed sand mine; Tracy Fox, activist and technical writer, who reportedly spoke eloquently but futilely at the zoning board meeting; Katie Dumke Troccoli, who is helping to organize a rally against the decision tomorrow in Ottawa; and perhaps more.

As I dig deeper and deeper into this issue, I have a number of questions, some of which I hope can be answered on this morning’s program:

  • I have been told that, in Illinois, once the zoning board votes, it is a done deal. Really? Then why bother with a vote of the full board?
  • I have also been told that the County Board fears being sued by Mississippi Sand, should it rule against the company. Again, I ask: Really? On what grounds? Exercising its municipal rights and duties?
  • There is a deal currently being considered for a sand mine in Utica, too. That operation would be north of the Illinois River, whereas Starved Rock is south of the river. How many other operations are being considered and how many ecologically sensitive areas would they affect?
  • How will archeologically important and sacred indigenous areas be affected? Perhaps Joseph Standing Bear will have some answers.
  • Apparently, there have been no permits yet requested for the operation, perhaps because it hasn’t been officially approved. Is this significant?
  • Lt. Governor Sheila Simon’s chief of staff Deirdre “DK” Hirner will reportedly be at Thursday’s board meeting. Does this mean that the Governor’s office plans to get involved in this controvesy?
  • How many jobs will be created by this operation? The numbers I keep hearing are 38 or 39. Is that right? Ransoming the future of the “jewel” of the Illinois State Park system for 39 jobs? What about the jobs in the park that will be lost if key parts of that land are degraded and people start staying away?
  • Finally, where is the money trail? My sources tell me that the county stands to make very little money on this deal. I’m told that the taxes raised on this parcel will be insignificant. So how is the county benefitting? Who’s making the money?

As I mentioned earlier, there is a rally Sunday at 2:00 p.m. at Jordan Block (Main and LaSalle St) in downtown Ottawa. Concerned citizens are being asked to ring signs, candles, and solidarity to the event. More information, including a map, is available on the event Facebook page.

One Seed Chicago update: Mike is still deciding

For those of you who are wondering which seed I have decided to favor in the One Seed Chicago 2012 competition, I’m still deciding. The choice is among basil, chamomile and cilantro, and I’m still waiting to be bribed to throw my support to one of them. In the event that nobody wants to bribe me, I will make a sudden, petulant decision, then throw my entire media empire behind one of the seeds.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And don’t forget to recycle your holiday trees and lights

I have no idea what Chi-Town Cheapskate is, but I give them kudos for putting together a one-stop shopping guide to recycling not just Christmas trees, but the lights, too. So in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I’m posting the link to their recycling article, mainly because, unlike most of the stories I’ve seen, they also include suburban locations. Good on you, Chi-Town Cheapskate, whatever you are.