Green conferences, smart water collection and crafty coyotes

February 19, 2012

MELA celebrates 10 years of making green greener

It was ten years ago that organic landscape designer Connie Cunningham pretty much grabbed me by the lapels and said, “We need to start an ecological landscaping organization!” As I gently removed what remained of my collar from her surprisingly strong grip, I asked why. She told me that too many landscapers and their companies did not understand that, in many ways, the so-called “green industry” was not particularly sustainable.

When I said that the two of us should call a few of our colleagues and see if they were interested in such a group, she said, “You’re the media guy! You make the calls!” As you can probably guess, nobody says no to Connie Cunningham. Thus was born the Midwest Ecological Landscaping Association (or MELA to its friends, enemies and uninterested parties alike.)

For almost half of that time, the fledgling not-for-profit organization lived on my various laptop computers–including the one that crashed. Mercifully, I was able to recover the files, thanks to a brilliant but emotionally unstable computer geek (long story–buy me a beer if you want ever want to hear it.)

Having me at the helm of an organization with such an imporant mission might seem to be less than desireable. But one of the things we did absolutely right was to start putting together annual conferences that brought together like-minded people to learn from sustainability experts and to discuss where the movement was going.

Fast forward to this year and the MELA 10th Annual Conference 2012 – Balance: Natural Systems and the Built Environment, Thursday, February 23 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. at University Center of Lake County at The College of Lake County, 1200 University Center Drive, Grayslake, IL. MELA Executive Director Carol Becker and board member Amy Beltemacchi stop by the new WCPT studios to talk about this milestone conference in the history of an organization that seems to be doing very well…now that I’m not part of the day to day operations.

Whether you’re a landscape designer, a contractor, a grower, a supplier, you work for a nursery, you’re an educator, or you’re just interested in how you can become more sustainabile in your own backyard, you should sign up for the conference here. Among the tracks in the conference are

  • Ecology and Land Health
  • Built Environment and Resources
  • Local Food and Productive Landscapes
  • Business Growth and Tech Roll-Out

Click here for a complete conference schedule.

Who’ll catch the rain?

Speaking of sustainability and making the most of our resources, did you know that 31 billion gallons of rain falls every year on Chicago’s roofs? And that capturing only half of it would supply enough water for over 200,000 people?

These and other fascinating statistics are part of a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called Capturing Rainwater from Rooftops. In it, the NRDC looks at capturing rain water as a “green infrastructure” practice in the U.S. that could supply millions of gallons of water for non-potable uses such as yard watering and toilet flushing. The study also notes that such capture would reduce runoff pollution and lower energy costs associated with treating and delivering water to millions of households.

I have long been aware that we in America abuse this precious resource (including me, to be sure.) Water demand in the United States is among the highest in the world, averaging 100 to 165 gallons per person per day—or as much as 4 times more than in some European countries (now why is that not surprising?)

More facts from the report :

  • 270 billion gallons of water are used each week to water 23 million acres of lawn(!) in the United States, at a cost of $40 billion annually
  • Every day, 6 billion gallons of drinking water daily–or more than 2 trillion each year—is flushed directly down the toilet, and along with it the money and energy used to treat and deliver the water.
  • The average cost of water in the United States is $3.53 per 1,000 gallons,7 ranging from $0.94 to $8.50 per 1,000 gallons. One cent can buy anywhere from 1.2 to 10.6 gallons of tap water. By comparison, a 20-ounce bottle of water selling for $1.50 costs the equivalent of $9,600 for 1,000 gallons—2,700 times the average cost of tap water.
  • A consequence of the underpricing of water is that water service as a public utility is frequently undervalued. A Government Accountability Office survey of utilities found that user fees and other funding sources do not generate enough revenue to cover the full cost of providing service in 29 percent of water utilities.

One of the co-authors of the study is Noah Garrison, lead author of the report and NRDC water policy analyst, who appears on the program this morning. He and his fellow researchers suggest capturing rooftop rainwater as a simple, cost-effective way to practice sustainability. The benefits include

  • Inexpensive, on-site supply of water that can be used for outdoor non-potable uses with little, if any, treatment, or for a variety of additional uses including potable supply with appropriately higher levels of treatment
  • Reduced (or no) energy and economic costs associated with treating and delivering potable water to end users because capture systems often use low-volume, non-pressurized, gravity fed systems or require only the use of a low power pump for supply
  • Reduced strain on existing water supply sources
  • Reduced runoff that would otherwise contribute to stormwater flows, a leading cause of surface water pollution and urban flooding

As climate change begins to be felt on a great scale across America and, indeed, across the globe, the water security of millions will depend on developing new laws and technologies to meet the challenge. Collecting free water from our own rooftops is a practical and seemingly effecient start. The time to begin is now.

Are coyotes really wily? Find out at WPPC’s seminar

I had the privilege of speaking at the Wildflower Preservation and Propagation Committee’s annual “Tending the Earth” seminar several years ago. They haven’t invited me back, but I’m sure they have very good reasons. If you’ve ever listened to my radio show, you know what I’m talking about.This year, the good folks at WPPC in McHenry County are presenting their 20th annual Natural Landscaping Seminar on Saturday, February 25, and, as always, it looks as though it’s going to be a great event.

The one talk that caught my eye is “Coyotes: Learn the Facts, and Dispel the Myths,” which will be presented by Chris Anchor, Cook County Forest Preserve District Field Biologist. I tracked him down the other day (much like a coyote) and he told me to take a look at a very cool site called The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project.

If you visit it, you will learn that coyotes, which have been called the “ghosts of the plains”, have now also become ghosts of the cities…including Chicago. The Cook County Coyote Project is a comprehensive study of coyotes in Chicago metropolitan areas. Its researchers work with various agencies to capture, collar, and monitor coyotes in order to understand how they live in urban areas as well as interact with other wildlife and domestic animals. Among their findings:

  • As a top predator, coyotes are performing an important role in the Chicago region. Increasing evidence indicates that coyotes assist with controlling deer, rodents and Canada goose populations.
  • Most coyotes are feeding on typical prey items, such as rodents and rabbits, and generally avoid trash. However, wildlife feeding will eventually habituate some coyotes, leading to conflicts.
  • Coyotes are exposed to a wide range of diseases; however, to date none of them pose a serious human health risk. In general, the coyote population appears to be relatively healthy.
  • espite the importance of natural habitat for coyotes, some individuals are capable of maintaining territories in portions of the landscape with minimal or no natural areas and elevated human activity.

Which means that even if you can’t see them, they can see you. Isn’t that comforting? Chris Anchor joins me on today’s show to talk about these mysterious predators.

Also joining me is the WPPC’s Nancy Gonsiorek, who highlights the other speakers at this year’s conference. She notes that the WPPC is celebrating its own homeowner mentoring program, “100 Natural Yards: Bringing Nature Home to McHenry County.”  If that isn’t enough for you, educators can earn 6.25 CPDU continuing education credit hours for attending the program.

The seminar is at McHenry County College Conference Center, from 8:15 to 3:45.  Cost is $30 in advance or $35 at the door, and includes lunch.  For downloadable registration, agenda,  and more information, click here.  Additional questions? Call Nancy Gonsiorek at 815.455-9462.

Growing Power’s 10th Anniversary in Chicago

Another event that is happening on the same day as the WPPC seminar is a workshop and networking event that celebrates Growing Power‘s 10-year anniversary of food justice work in Chicago. The event is on Saturday, February 25th at their new Chicago Growing Power headquarters: Iron Street Urban Farm, a formerly abandoned, 7-acre industrial building on the Chicago River.

There will be a hands-on aquaponics workshop at the event, on closed-loop natural systems that grow fish and plants together, as well as tours of the Iron Street Farm ever hour, To cap it off, there’s a happy hour, where and appetizers from our compost partners will be served.

Here’s the schedule:

Saturday, February 25th, 1:00-6:00pm
Growing Power’s Iron Street Farm – 3333 S. Iron Street, Chicago, IL 60608
Cost:     $10 for a Tour
$15 for Happy Hour
$20 for Tour + Happy Hour
$75 for Aquaponics Workshop + Tour (1:00pm-5:00pm)
$80 for Aquaponics Workshop + Tour + Happy Hour

To purchase tickets ahead of time, visit Brown Paper Tickets. Also check out the event Facebook page.

The sciences of bonsai and ecological restoration

February 12, 2012

Dan Kosta and the Art of Bonsai

Ever since I’ve known Dan Kosta, he’s been trying to convince me to work with bonsai. I can say honestly that I have given it a shot a couple of times…and managed to kill both plants. Of course, that’s not his fault. Dan knows what he’s doing, having been a horticulturist for 35 years. Heck, he even got his B.S. in Horticulture from Western Illinois University. My degree was in pinball. You can see how that worked out.

For the past 13 years, Dan has worked at Vern Goers Greenhouse in Hinsdale, Illinois. You might be familiar with him as a regular contributor to The Mike Nowak Show. In fact, after last week’s One Seed Chicago 2012 Great Herb Debate, he wrote to me with his own thoughts about herbs:

Basil, cilantro, and rosemary are the top selling herbs at our greenhouse. Cilantro is the one that generates the most complaints because it very quickly runs to seed, even as a small plant. Customers are interested in the foliage and not coriander seed. This tendency to go to seed quickly seemingly cannot be stopped or delayed. Chamomile isn’t popular with our customers. We sell less than 50 per year. The only complaint I get for basil is too many to choose from. Since there are culinary, insect repellent, and decorative types we carry a large selection. Among the culinary types as wel,l there are the traditional sweet, large leaved wrapping types, spicy or hot types, and variously flavored varieties.

Of the three I would have to choose basil, as it’s versatile in both the kitchen and the landscape, easy for anyone to grow, colorful, and a couple can even be grown successfully on a windowsill.

But back to bonsai. All you need to know about Dan’s passion for the craft is to know that his email address is “snipologist.” His backyard is basically a miniature arboretum, filled with bonsai of all shapes, sizes and genera. It’s not surprising that Dan has captured prizes like the Award of Merit in the Mid-America Bonsai Expedition at the Chicago Botanic Gardens for his 100+ year-old Ponderosa Pine. I didn’t realize Dan was that old.

Dan has some practical advice if you think you’d like to take the plunge and start or buy a bonsai plant:

You do not need to study under a Japanese sensei (master teacher) in order to learn the practice. It is a pastime that can easily be learned by anyone who has a working knowledge of regular gardening. Also there are now many resources such as clubs, books, magazines, and classes that can help the novice to learn the basics quickly.
Like any living plant bonsai have certain requirements The three most important are water, light, and minerals. Proper watering is crucial to the success of any plant. Mistakes in watering are known to kill more potted and garden plants than any other factor. Since the trees are grown in relatively small containers, and in well-drained soil, the trees can need to be watered frequently, sometimes daily. The bonsai grower needs to check the soil on a regular basis. If the soil is found to be dry the tree should be given a thorough watering. When the trees are outdoors in the summer they will likely need daily watering.
Proper light is often not a problem outdoors. Simply place the trees in a sunny location and they will be fine. Tropicals that are kept indoors should be kept close to a sunny window. Usually within two feet of the window is considered optimum. A position in the middle of the room, against a wall, or under a skylight in the ceiling will not provide adequate light.
The trees should be fertilized whenever they are in active growth. This is generally the spring and summer months. Do not exceed the amount recommended on the package. Personally I prefer to use the fertilizer at one-half strength and apply it every two weeks, rather than full strength once a month.
Placing the tree in the proper location is also important. If your tree is a type that is hardy as a landscape plant, such as a pine, maple, juniper, etc., it is what is called an outdoor bonsai. This means the tree must be kept outdoors year-round, including the winter months. Such a tree can be brought indoors for a couple of days every month or so during the spring and summer but must otherwise be kept outside. These are the traditional types of bonsai. Tropical trees such as ficus, schefflera, podocarpus, and Fukien tea can be grown indoors year-round or kept indoors in winter and outdoors in summer. This is a relatively new type of bonsai, begun in the early 1950’s, and is still not fully accepted by some bonsai masters.

If you want to learn more, Dan is teaching a class called The Art of Bonsai on Saturday, February 18 from 10 to 11am at Vern Goers Greenhouse, 5620 S. Oak St. in Hinsdale. The class is FREE, but Vern Goers asks that you sign up for a spot by calling them at 630-323-1085 or sending an email to You can click here to see the Vern Goers Winter Newsletter, which includes not only information about the bonsai class, but some great stuff about inside plants.

Welcoming back restoration ecologist Jack Pizzo

It’s always a pleasure to have Jack Pizzo on the program. In the almost 24 years since he started Pizzo Ecological Restoration, it has become one of the premiere companies in its field. Here’s an example of the kind of science that Jack brings to his business:

Stewardship is the term used for maintenance of a natural area. Would you install a landscape and not maintain it? Of course not. If you are going to restore a natural area, don’t do so without a stewardship plan. Natural areas are low maintenance landscapes, not no maintenance landscapes. Stewardship is not so much about making native plants grow: it is more about making invasive species not grow. We work in stewardship under the tenet of Competitive Release. Take the Emerald Ash Borer for example. The borer is such a big problem because nothing eats it here, so nothing can control it. When it was introduced there was nothing to affect its growth, therefore it has a competitive advantage over native insects in expanding its territory. With effective stewardship, we kill the invasive plants so that the native plants have the competitive release on-site. With competitive release our native plants are given the opportunity to beat out the invasive species and destroy its ability to take hold. A stewardship process goes on forever but costs typically drop with time if done right.

One of the questions that Jack and I have debated in the past few years is how to sell ecological restoration during a downturn in the economy. Well, maybe the answer is to show homeowners how smart “landscaping” can help solve common problems like

Flooding – Install plants that assist with infiltration

Geese – Get rid of the lawn and rely on native planting

Increasing habitat – Plant “gardens” that are actually habitat for wildlife

High Maintenance Costs – Native plants, once established, are less expensive than tradition plantings to install and maintain

Drought and Flood – Native plants evolved here and have survived over the millennia under these conditions…why wouldn’t you use them?

I have no real idea of where this conversation will go. Should be fun. And if you want to see some of Pizzo’s plant selections, click here.

The Great Herb Debate

February 5, 2012

Which side are you on? The Great Herb Debate” is here!

[Update: Audio of “Decision Chicago! The Great Herb Debate” is now posted here. ]

Are you strapped in? Ready to rumble? “Decision Chicago! The Great Herb Debate” is finally here on The Mike Nowak Show.

Today’s debate is part of the One Seed Chicago 2012 vote to determine which of three herbs will be the plant of the year. Here are the teams, the people who will be speaking for each herb, and a short statement about the plant.

#TeamBasil is represented by Anthony Todd (@FoodieAnthony), who is food and drink editor for Chicagoist. His statement on Basil:

“I’m Italian, so I was practically born with a sprig of basil in one hand and a tomato in the other.   It’s the tastiest, most useful herb I know, and you should vote for Basil for One Seed Chicago.

Unlike my colleagues, I’m not a gardening expert; in fact, I’m something of a novice.  I have tried to grow herbs in my windows and on my porch countless times, and the I have the skeletons of thyme, lemon verbena and, yes, cilantro plants to show for it.  But Basil has never let me down.  It’s almost laughably easy to grow – and it lasts forever.  Most people have never seen a full-grown basil plant, just the babies at the store.  They can grow to be the size of a small bush!

Basil originally came from India (and is prominent in Indian cuisine) but most Americans identify it with Italy.   Pasta sauce would just be red goo without it, and pesto would be nothing but pine nuts soaking in olive oil.   I dry it, freeze it, and put it in my canned goods so I can use it all year round.

Basil comes in many varieties, each of which is a little different.  Purple basil, licorice basil, lemon basil, thai basil.  Once you’ve grown one, you’ll want to try the whole rainbow of options.  Is it healthy?  It might help fight arthritis and other inflammatory diseases.  Plus, basil essential oil can repel mosquitos.  What’s not to love?”

#TeamChamomile, is represented by Linda Tyson (@ssgardengirl), who blogs as Garden Girl. Her statement:

“I chose chamomile for it’s pretty, daisy-like little blooms.  I’ve never grown it, but would like to give it a try in the garden.  I buy, and use chamomile tea often.

Chamomile is an aromatic plant, and makes a good companion for vegetables in the brassica family. It’s said to enhance their flavor, discourage cabbage worms, host hoverflies and wasps, and to accumulate minerals such as calcium, potassium and sulfur in the soil.

The January, 2005 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published a study showing chamomile tea is an immune system booster, and helps relieve muscle spasms and cramps.  Other studies have shown it provides relief from anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia, soothes the digestive tract, and can be  helpful for relieving migraine headaches.

As a compress, chamomile can help relieve under-eye circles and other skin discolorations, and the tea is an effective treatment for mild cuts and burns.  It may also be beneficial for hair and scalp as a rinse, and is sometimes included in chemical-free shampoos, conditioners, and skin-care products.

Camomile is drought-tolerant once established, and will grow in full to part sun.  Camomile tea can help prevent damping off of seedlings, Because of its antibacterial and antifungal properties, chamomile tea can be used to treat fungal diseases including black spot and powdery mildew.”

#TeamCilantro is represented by Jessica Rinks (@SnappyJDog) a regular contributer to this show who is a blogger for and President of the Forest Park Community Garden. Here’s her statement:

“Multicultural appeal and easy to grow!  You should vote for Cilantro!

Coriandrum sativum , commonly known as either coriander or cilantro, is an ancient herb native to southern Europe and the Middle East.  Coriander is mentioned in the Old Testament and coriander seeds were recovered from King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.  Historically the leaves, seeds, and essential oils were used for various medicinal, religious, and culinary purposes.

The herb was brought to the Americas by European explorers and was eventually popularized as a culinary herb particularly in Mexican cuisine.  However, cilantro’s utility goes far beyond just salsa.   Worldwide, cilantro is used in many cuisines including Indian, Chinese, and southeastern Asian cultures.

Cilantro is an easy herb to grow in a home garden, as it can be directly sown into your garden plot (no need to start indoors under lights) and grows quickly (harvest leaves in as little as 6 weeks and seeds in 9 weeks after sowing). It works well as a container plant too.  Cilantro can tolerate cooler temperatures, so you can sow seeds a few weeks prior to last spring frost to get a head start.   Also, it is very easy to save seeds from cilantro to replant in your garden.  Cilantro seeds will not cross-pollinate with any other of your garden crops.  Also, cilantro will often self-seed on its own.  Cilantro plants are also good garden neighbors as it is thought to repel undesirable insects such as aphids and to attract beneficial pollinators.

All in all, cilantro’s ease of culture and breadth of use make it the best  choice for One Seed Chicago.”

I will moderate the debate, since I have not decided which seed I will support…yet. In addition, I will have a true herb expert on board–Sal Gilbertie, co-author of Herb Gardening from the Ground Up: Everything You Need to Know about Growing Your Favorite Herbs. Gilbertie is the third generation owner/proprietor of Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens located in Westport, Connecticut. Established in 1922, Gilbertie’s is the largest herb grower and supplier in the United States today.

My thanks to Mr. Brown Thumb, who helped to pull this debate together. I understand that he will be working Twitter and Facebook this morning during festivities. Don’t forget to go to One Seed Chicago 2012 to cast your vote.

Fighting for a clean, healthy environment in an election year

Who said this?

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years…Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.”

A) An oil and gas industry lobbyist
B) The current President of the United States

If the quote sounded familiar to you, it might be because you watched President Barack Obama‘s State of the Union Address, where he made the above statement (I removed the phrase “and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy” because I didn’t want to give away the answer.) He also said that he will direct his administration to open more than 75% of the nation’s potential offshore oil and gas resources for development, and indicated that nuclear energy and so-called “clean” coal are on his list.

This had organizations like Food & Water Watch scratching their heads. I guess that’s environmental politics in an election year. But Environment Illinois Program Director Max Muller says it’s important to remember tha,t at the same time, the Obama Administration has been moving ahead with a number of rules required under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to protect public health and the environment. The Bush administration put these on hold, creating a backlog of rules that the Obama administration has been making progress on. These Include:

But make no mistake. If enviros have problems with some of Obama’s decisions, they need only look at what Republicans would do if they regained the White House. They are already incuding hundreds of anti-environmental riders and amendments in budget bills.

And, much like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline threatens to rise out of its oily bathtub and grab America by the throat. It might be attached to a transportation funding bill that would, among other things, open the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as well as the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, while cutting all funding for biking and walking safety and stifling environmental review for transportation projects.

Gotta admire the consistency of those Republicans. It’s the consistency of oil, I think.

Of course, there are always local environmental issues to be concerned about. For instance:

  • “Clean Coal” in Illinois (the Tenaska bill). The State House will be voting on this soon and Environment Illinois is strongly opposed.

Max Muller stops by the new WCPT studios this morning to discuss all of the above…and possibly more. So much environmental degradation, so little time, eh?

What does climate change look like?

Meteorologist Rick DiMaio and I often discuss climate change when he does his weather segment on my show. I don’t think I’ve seen it brought into starker terms than on this post I found on Daily Kos. Please read and be prepared to discuss on my show Sunday morning.