All posts by Mike Nowak

May 1, 2016 – Another Bad Day at Starved Rock; the Downsized Veggie Garden

Another Bad Day at Starved Rock

It was in December of 2011–more than four years ago–that I became aware of an environmental threat to the lives of people living in LaSalle County, Illinois.  First, the LaSalle County board gave permission to a company called Mississippi Sand LLC to dig an open pit sand mine adjacent to the crown jewel of the Illinois State Park system–Starved Rock.

Why in this particular location? Well, the silica sand mined in the region is sometimes describe as the “perfect” sand for hydraulic fracturing, or, as it has become known, fracking.  And that has led to companies eager to get into the “frac sand rush” descending on the county and transforming farmland to frac-land.

Frac sand mine LaSalle






It has had an effect on the quality of life in those communities along the banks of the Illinois River. When the wind blows even moderately, the frac sand particles sting any exposed flesh, making even simple trips outdoors more like running gauntlets.

How do I know? I was given a tour of the frac sand mines by the locals a couple of years ago. I’ve experienced it myself.

Not surprisingly, in 2012 the Illinois DNR opted to facilitate mining interests rather than protect the natural areas in and around Starved Rock, and issued permits to Mississippi Sand. It was at that point that three environmental groups–the Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network and Openlands–sued the State of Illinois, claiming that IDNR failed to adequately review Mississippi Sand’s plan to reclaim the area when the mining operations cease, and that the decision was out of compliance with the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act.

It was at that point that the case pretty much dropped out of sight. Some of the locals confided in me that they held little hope for a decision that would favor preserving the character of LaSalle county as a farming and tourist area. After all, other frac sand mines were springing up like Creeping Charlie in a compacted lawn–this part of Illinois was already under assault and a victory over Mississippi Sand might simply be symbolic, not substantive.

Fast forward to the Good Food Festival this year, where I ran into Albert Ettinger, a lawyer who has represented environmental organizations since the 1980s and who was one of the counsel representing Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network and Openlands in the Starved Rock case. I asked him how the case was proceeding.

“We lost,” he said in his particularly dry manner.

I was stunned. I hadn’t seen or heard anything in any media outlets anywhere. So, I arranged for Ettinger to be on the show tomorrow and began searching the Intertubes. Somebody must have covered the story. But the best I could do is find reports from 2014–two years ago.

About the only good news in all of this is from The Mike Nowak Show contributor Ashley Williams, who notes that the downturn in oil prices has led to a commensurate slowdown in frac sand mining in LaSalle County.  But while things are quieter right now, that could change with the availability of oil worldwide.

I welcome attorney Albert Ettinger and Cindy Skrukrud, Clean Water Program Director for the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club to the program to talk about why this lawsuit failed, why there doesn’t seem to have been any coverage of it, and what’s in store for natural areas in the State of Illinois as a result.

The Downsized Veggie Garden

You say you want to start growing your own vegetables? You say you’ve never done it before? You say that you have limited space–perhaps just a patio or a balcony?

Have I got a book for you!

Longtime gardening buddy Kate Copsey has written a marvelous Downsized Veggiebook called The Downsized Veggie Garden for people who are space challenged. In under 200 pages, she teaches you how to evaluate your gardening area, pick containers, fill them with soil, choose seeds and/or starter plants and grow almost anything in a small space.

This book is going to be especially helpful to gardening novices, who are daunted by the very idea of growing things. Copsey clearly and methodically explains how to set up your own “home farm,” whether it’s in a small yard, on a porch or even indoors (yes, there are veggies that can be grown inside!)

The book is accompanies by hundreds of helpful photos, as well as suggested plots for your gardens, and season-by-season descriptions of plants and their characteristics.

This is a book that you will turn to over and over again and which would make a great gift for that gardening friend or relative.

Call in with your gardening questions–312-985-7834. Or do the same on Facebook (like the show while you’re there!) or Twitter.


April 24, 2016 – Watching our water, native plants in your own backyard

I have never thought that my life was particularly interesting–at least not worthy of writing about. After the past year and a half, I’m beginning to reassess that view. And when I finally pen my memoirs, you’ll hear in graphic detail about my rendezvous with our medical system, which happened in the past couple of weeks. But that’s for the future.

Chicago Farm Report

For now, Peggy Malecki, intrepid publisher of Natural Awakenings Chicago Magazine, is back in studio to assist with hosting duties. Also back with another Chicago Farm Report is Patrick Barry.

He will be reporting on something called the “Whole Foods Effect”: when small, local producers face the daunting task of ramping up Farm stormproduction to meet the needs of large grocery chains.  He’s also looking at eighteen local sustainable farmers who were awarded 2016 grants from the nonprofit Frontera Farmer Foundation, which was started in 2003 by Rick and Deann Bayless and the staffs of the well-known Chicago restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.The capital-development grants, worth $12,000 or less, help farmers buy necessary supplies and equipment to expand operations and improve the flow of good food in the Midwest.Barry wants to call attention to the deadline of the Food to Market Challenge, which will award $500,000 to a team that can design an innovative solution to re-conceive supply chain practices that limit scale of the local food market in the Chicago region. That deadline is Tuesday.

We might even touch some more on local plant sales that are happening all over the area, even thought that was covered in some depth last week by Peggy and Sarah Batka.

Stopping water privatization

Next up is Jessica Fujan, senior Midwest organizer for Food & Water Watch. She warns that

In the past four sessions, the Illinois legislature has sponsored bills that would challenge our rights to defend our water or force ratepayers to foot the bill for risky acquisitions. Food & Water Watch has fought many successful battles at the state and local level, and is now taking the fight to Congress. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that our utilities need more than $700 billion to address infrastructure needs over the next 20 years.

I can think of few things more dangerous than putting our public safe waterwater supplies in the hands of for-profit companies.  lThink healthcare industry, and you know what I’m talking about. But in this era of concern about lead in our water systems, you will see the fear mongers–who stand to profit from our fears–rise up and make their pitches.

Fujan says that you can sign this petition to ask your lawmakers to keep our water supplies controlled by democratically elected (more or less) municipalities and water boards.

Using native plants in your own backyard

I’m pleased to welcome a new sponsor to The Mike Nowak Show, though you’ve already been hearing their ads for the past few weeks. Natural Communities Native Plants, in their own words,

Offering retail native plant sales with simple online ordering & delivery, and sales at green events throughout the growing season. Providing a impressive selection of fairly priced woodland, wetland, and prairie plants, shrubs, and trees native to the Chicago region and Greater Midwest. We sell plants both individually, and at bulk discount rates with convenient local pick up on Rt. 25 in Batavia, IL and at green events throughout the season.

Owner/Principal Ecologist  Nick Fuller notes that while their are a number of native plant suppliers in the Chicago region, it can be difficult to purchase those plants retail. He understands that many homeowners create their gardens piecemeal–even when it comes to 20150416_122806natives–so he wants to offer gardeners an opportunity to purchase plants on a smaller scale.

He’s joined by an old friend of mine, Keith Nowakowski, landscape architect in Illinois and author of Native Plants in the Home Landscape, for the Upper Midwest. He’s also author of the blog Sustaining Beauty. He works to create native plantings around residences that meet the needs of those particular spaces.

With Nick and Keith in studio we will attempt to demystify using native plants in the home landscape, offering tips and techniques about growing the best that the Midwest has had to offer for thousands of years.

By the way, Keith says that if folks are looking specifically for natives, they can go to the Native Plant Sales page of the Illinois Native Plant Society.

2016 Spring Plant Sales!

AsarumCanadenseWildGinger_largeWest Cook Wild Ones Native Plant Sale
Pre-order by 4/15, Pickup and day-of sale will be May 14th, 11 am to 3 pm
Euclid Methodist Church, 405 S. Euclid Avenue, Oak Park, IL 60302
Plants supplied by Possibility Place Nursery

Schaumburg Garden Club Native Plant Sale & Backyard for Nature Fair
Pre-order by 4/15, pick up and day of sale Sunday, May 1st
Spring Valley Nature Center, 1111 E. Schaumburg Rd, 
Schaumburg, IL 60193

Oak Park Conservatory Plant Sale
Friday, April 29 from 2:00 – 7:00 for FOPCON members only, 
Saturday, April 30 from 8:00 – 4:00
Sunday, May 1 from 12:00 – 3:00.
615 Garfield St., Oak Park IL
Prices $4 - $15

Western Springs Garden Club Plant Sale
Saturday, May 7, 8:00 am -12 noon
Tower Green, 914 Hillgrove Avenue, Western Springs, IL 60558
Contact: Sue Schierholtz 708-246-2076 

Peterson Garden Project Cool Crop Seedling Sale
April 22-23, 10 am – 4 pm
5035 N. Broadway, Chicago

Peterson Garden Project Warm Season Seedling Sale
May 6: 12 noon – 4 pm
May 7: 10 am – 4 pm
May 8: 10 am – 4 pm
5035 N. Broadway, Chicago

Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse Plant Sale
May 14th and 15th, 10am - 2pm
Kilbourn Park - 3501 North Kilbourn Avenue Greenhouse, Chicago, IL 60641
150 varieties of organically-grown vegetable, herb, and flower seedlings. A wide variety of open-pollinated and heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, herbs, greens and onions. This year will feature many new plants selected for city gardening in small spaces and containers. 
Also Available: Perennials and other plants donated by volunteers of the Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse, organic compost, and light snacks. In addition, a cookbook compiled by the Friends of Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse will be available for purchase..
Plant Prices $2.00 to $5.00 CASH ONLY
Antioch Garden Club Plant Sale Sat, May 14, 10am-1pm. Rain or shine. Perennials, annuals, trees.  Proceeds go to Antioch Community. Williams Park Pavilion, 714 Main St, Antioch. 847-395-8902.
Naperville Community Garden Club Plant Sale Sat., May 7, 7:30 am – 1 pm Ron Ory Community Garden Plots, 811 S West St, Naperville  A wide variety of plants are available for your garden and Mother's Day. Featured plants include locally grown high quality Proven Winners, hundreds of member garden perennial plants, including collectible and hard to find varieties. Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance Seedling Sale Saturday, May 7, 11am-2pm (10-11am early member access) Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N Central Park Ave, Chicago Come shop for seedlings that have been lovingly raised in the Alliance Greenhouse by our amazing Plant Propagation volunteers! There will be a variety of brassicas, warm season crops, herbs, and flowers.  Rolling Meadows Hometown Plant & Craft Sale Saturday, May 14, 9:00a to 2:00p.  William Ahrens Bldg, 3200 Central Road, Rolling Meadows Morton Arboretum Plant Sale  Friday, April 29 to Sunday, May 1, 2016 Arboretum’s Visitor Center, off Illinois Route 53 just north of Interstate Highway 88 in Lisle. Members only: Friday, April 29, 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Saturday, April 30, 9:00 a.m. to noon (Members, bring your membership card.) Open to the public: Saturday, April 30, noon to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday, May 1, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (Nonmembers must pay $14 adult, $12 senior admission.) More than 100,000 plants, including hundreds of species and varieties of trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, ferns, vegetables, and herbs Save the Prairie Society Native Plant Sale June 26, 1 – 3 pm Prairie House Lawn, 11225 Constitution Drive, Westchester, IL 60154 For More info: 708-354-5512 Chicago Lights Urban Farm Plant Sale Saturdays, May 7 and 14, 10:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m. Urban Farm, 444 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL  Plants for sale will include lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, onions, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, parsley, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, melons, cabbage, broccoli, zinnias, nasturtiums, and more. Cash, check, and credit cards are accepted.  Lurie Garden Plant Sale  June 4 @ 10:00 am - 2:00 pm Lurie Garden, 280 E. Monroe, Chicago, IL 60601  Spring is a perfect time for planting! The Lurie Garden Spring Festival & Plant Sale will offer a variety of perennials and grasses to provide interest throughout the seasons, as well as food and shelter for local fauna. All proceeds support Lurie Garden public programs and mission. Please bring your own bags or boxes to transport your plants.  Phone: 312-228-1004  Bloomingdale Garden Club Plant Sale Fri May 13, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm Sat May 14, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm  Bloomingdale Park District Maintenance Building, 259 Springfield Drive, Bloomingdale, IL Geraniums in many hues, flats of 48 plants, 10” hanging baskets, vegetables and herbs, accent plants, grasses, Tuts, and specialty annuals and Proven Winners/Proven Selections We also will have perennials from our gardens available on the days of the Sale. Raffle for a new potting bench. Wheaton Native Plant Sale  Sat April 30, 8:30 am – 12 noon Wheaton Public Works Building, 821 W Liberty Drive, Wheaton, IL 60187 Trees $20.00; Shrubs $15 for 3 or 5 gallons; Forbs, Grasses & Ferns $5 for gallons, quarts and pints; $2.00 for plugs List of plants available at Cash or Check only.  Elmhurst Green Garden Fair  Saturday May 21, 9:00 am – 1 pm parking lot of the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 235 South Kenilworth, Elmhurst.  Pick up organic vegetable and herb seedlings, pre-ordered from Sweet Home Organics at by April 28th.  Preorder Food Scrap Amended Compost by May 10th. Bloomingfest – West Chicago  Saturday May 21, 9 am – 3 pm Main Street in the historic downtown district of West Chicago Conserve Lake County Native Plant Sale Over 150 Varieties of native perennials, trees and shrubs, grown locally.  Order online thru 4/25 and pick up May 12 – 14 Conserve Lake County office at Almond Marsh. 32492 No. Almond Rd. in Grayslake