August 7, 2016 – The Air We Breathe and the Insects That Fly In It

Kathleen Thompson and the Mold Report

If you’re someone who spends a lot of time outdoors, you’re probably very aware of any sensitivity you might have to weed, tree or grass pollen. You might not be so aware of one of the biggest problems during the growing season in the Midwest—mold. Starting in the spring and usually peaking the October, mold causes problems for a lot of people in the Chicagoland area, which is ranked third in the nation among the worst cities for mold allergies by Indoor Restore Environmental Services. (Their ratings use data from the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America and Quest Diagnostics.)

Mold can cause an allergic reaction that is very similar to that caused by pollen—sneezing, itching, runny nose, congestion and dry, scaling skin. Or it can go into the lungs and trigger an asthmatic reaction—difficulty getting a breath, a tight chest, coughing at night, possibly wheezing. One result of the latter symptoms is that you don’t get enough oxygen and may suffer from exhaustion, difficulty concentrating and drowsiness. If you have never been diagnosed with asthma, these symptoms can feel a lot like anxiety and depression.

Writer Kathleen Thompson–who just happens to be part of The Mike Nowak Show team– joins us to talk about how a sensitivity to mold can seriously reduce your enjoyment of gardening and other outdoor activities and why this year is particularly brutal. She’ll let you know how you can monitor mold activity at the National Allergy Bureau™ (NAB™) and what steps you can take to make life more livable.

Doug Taron and respect for insects

If it’s summer in the Midwest, it’s time to be obsessed by insects. A few weeks ago, I saw a story that Cecil Adams wrote in The Straight Dope called Why Are Humans So Afraid of Insects?  Good question, Cecil. Unfortunately, he wasn’t exactly able to answer it.

A couple of weeks later, there was this one in Triple Pundit: A Growing Crisis: Insects are Disappearing–And Fast. Hmm. That can’t be good news, unless you’re entomophobic. Look it up.

Then, just a couple of days ago, this one showed up in DNA Info Chicago: Giant Dragonfly Swarms Are Taking Over Chicago, But Don’t Be Afraid. Explain how to keep calm to all of the entomophobic people in your building.

SymmetryI took this photo in my garden a number of years ago, thinking it was an extremely exotic species. Now I realize that it’s just a green darner, one of the most common dragonflies in Chicago. Sigh…

Instinctively, I knew it was time to call upon the go-to guy for bug questions in Chicago–Doug Taron, curator of biology at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, who hasn’t been on my program for a couple of years, so he was overdue.  I’ve heard him called “The Butterfly Guy” but his reach is obviously much greater than that. In fact, I discovered from the DNA Info story that he’s an administrator with the International Migratory Dragonfly Partnership.

Well, I didn’t know that there was such a thing and I certainly didn’t know that certain dragonfly species–like monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)–have annual migrations. Well, maybe bi-annual migrations. Or not. It’s hard to know because we haven’t studied them as extensively as the monarch butterfly. Which makes me laugh because it wasn’t until the late 1970s that we even knew where monarchs overwintered in Mexico. We  haven’t exactly studied them with laser-like intensity either. At least not until they started to disappear.

Which brings us to a paper that Taron and some colleagues had published in 2015 about how we monitor monarch populations and what that means for interpreting their decline. They suggested that when and where you monitor monarch populations has a bearing on how you interpret the health of the species.

Wilmette Prairie 2Monarch on a butterfly weed (what else?) at
Wilmette Centennial Park Prairie

Well, that led to a rebuttal from another team of scientists, which led to a  “rebuttal of the rebuttal,” as Taron puts it, and more.  You can read the papers for yourself here, here, here and here.

Here’s the point. We’re still figuring out what’s happening to the monarch. We think they’re in decline but what we might be witnessing is a variability in numbers that has been happening for centuries. The loss of milkweed might be significant…but it might not be, either. That’s what scientists do. They suggest theories based on the best science available and then they punch each other a bit until the best theory wins.

Meanwhile, Doug points out that there are other species of butterfly out there–like the Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), which he is attempting to reintroduce to Bluff Spring Fen in western Cook County, after it disappeared about four years ago.

And he cares about moths, too, including a stem-boring moth called Papaipema cerina, which doesn’t seem to have a common name, which is just sad. Anyway, he may or may not have successfully introduced it to Bluff Spring Fen in the early 1990s, as its numbers were dwindling in northeastern Illinois and in other parts of the U.S. as well. Now he’s trying to determine whether the moth has survived there for almost 25 years.

Doug is also excited about the Regal Fritillary being listed as one of 12 so-called “priority species” in this region by Chicago Wilderness. Monarchs are also on that list, and it’s something else we’ll talk about this morning.

July 31, 2016 – Veggies and Bonsai and Fruits (oh, my!)

The return of the snipologist

I received an email last night from my friend Dan Kosta from Vern Goers Greenhouse in Hinsdale, Illinois.  The time stamp on the message said “10:45 p.m.” and Dan said he had just finished “working on my trees for the show.”

When he says “trees” he’s not talking about big trees or even small DansBonsai400trees. He’s talking about tabletop trees–in other words, bonsai. And the “show” to which he refers is the Annual Show presented by the Prairie State Bonsai Society on August 6 & 7 at the Morton Arboretum. For bonsai people like Dan, it’s a big deal. No wonder he’s out after dark, pruning and wiring his babies.

If you’ve ever listened to The Mike Nowak Show (which you can do every Sunday morning at 9am on or later in the week at, you know that Dan is passionate about bonsai. And he has opinions to match his passion:

…many people don’t know that true bonsai is very different from the little plants surrounded by glued-on gravel sold at the home centers.  If they come to our show they will see the genuine article.  Its like the Elvis on black velvet vs. true art. We will have a tree display, vendors, demos, and workshops going on.

Bonsai in America is also finding its own identity which is not exactly the same as Japanese bonsai.  This happened in Europe in the past decade or so and they are now the most innovative bonsai artists anywhere.  Of course there is a battle between the purist establishment and the innovators.

If you’re interested a discipline that combines science, art, patience and, yes, passion, the Prairie State Bonsai Show is from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 6 and Sunday, August 7 in the Sycamore Room at the Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle, IL 60532.

 AUA is having a soiree!

If you’re a fan of local food in Chicago, you should know about an organization called Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA).  In their own words,

AUA is a coalition of individuals, organizations and businesses working to support and expand sustainable agriculture in the Chicago area, from home- and community-based growing to market gardens and small farms.

Allow me to give you a small sample of the kind of work they’re doing:

Billy BurdettBilly Burdett explaining Chicago’s new composting ordinance at the 2016 Chicago Community Gardeners Association (CCGA) conference.

In fact, Billy Burdett, executive director of AUA, stops by today to talk about their various initiatives but particularly the upcoming event, which features a hyperlocal night market and showcase of Chicago urban farms and gardens, featuring diverse projects from around the city.  There will also be live music, local beer and beverages, and a silent auction. It all happens between 6 and 9pm.

Managing 50,000 vegetables at the Chicago Botanic Garden

This is the time of year when you discover whether you knew what you were doing when you planted your veggies in your garden or your mind was elsewhere–perhaps on the dwarf planet Pluto. If things have gone well, you’re harvesting tomatoes and squash and beans and peppers and maybe even melons and more exotic edibles.

Now imagine if you’re not just in charge of 50,000 vegetable plants, but people pay to see them. Yoikes! That’s the job of Lisa Hilgenberg, Horticulturist at the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Lisa HilgenbergLisa Hilgenberg at a Chicago bloggers luncheon at CBG earlier this year. On the left is LaManda Joy from the Peterson Garden Project, and on the right, Craig LeHoullier, author of Epic Tomatoes.

She comes by it honestly–her father works Century Farms in Minnesota that have been in the family for 135 years! At CBG, Lisa employs USDA organic protocol and standards for managing the four-acre Fruit and Vegetable Garden following. She leads a crew of 4 and a team of 35 horticulture volunteers while curating and interpreting a collection of 600 edible plants, two orchards and an apiary, plus designing and installing large seasonal annual displays.

Today we’re going to talk about how to keep your own veggie garden going strong, including the trend of edible landscaping, which is emerging as a significant trend a in the farm/home to table movement. We’ll also discuss organic growing techniques as part of a broader systematic approach to sustainable practices.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the “tomato-palooza” at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden on Saturday and Sunday, Garden GemsAugust 27 and 28 from 11am to 4pm. The real name is Heirloom Tomato Weekend, and it features tips on growing and cooking with tomatoes, as well saving seeds, and advice about tomato problems. There are also tours of the tomatoes growing on the grounds and  hands-on games and activities for the entire family.

One more thing. Lisa will give us a sneak preview of a brand new exhibit at CBG. the Regenstein Learning Campus. They describe it as a “seven-acre hub for plant-based community and civic engagement, intergenerational learning, hands-on coursework, and health and wellness activities.” Okay.

Anyway, they fling open the gates on Saturday, September 10 and Sunday, September 11 from 10am to 4pm. I’m even told that I will learn about something called “nature play.”  Now I’m scared.


July 24, 2016 – LIVE from Christy Webber Farm & Garden!

Let me just start by saying that any day you have Christy Webber on your radio show, it’s a good day.

In the interest of full disclosure, Christy and I are not only friends, but she has been an advertiser and supporter of The Mike Nowak Show. She is not currently a sponsor but that’s pretty irrelevant (see first paragraph, above). A few years ago, she and I actually co-hosted a broadcast of the annual Chicago Pride Parade on Progresso Radio. I know why she was there, I’m not so sure why I was.

Christy Webber and CoMike, Christy, Annmaria and Jessica Zeiger in Millennium Park
a couple of years ago

She also happens to run a multi-million dollar business called Christy Webber Landscapes. What you need to know about that company is that it has been sucking up businesses the way an amobea absorbs its food. For instance, in the last seven years, they have acquired RR Landscape Supply and Kinsella Landscape and picked up Grand Street Gardens, which was re-branded as the Christy Webber Landscapes Farm & Garden Center.

And if you’re paying attention, that’s where we’re broadcasting from on this Sunday morning.  Peggy Malecki from Natural Awakenings Chicago will again be co-hosting the program, and we’re pretty psyched to be on site and we hope that some of you will drop by and perhaps buy a plant or two…even in the middle of summer!

Christy Webber joins us for the first hour. Among the projects that her company is working on, we  might discuss

  • UIC Applied Health Sciences Garden: Raised beds where UIC will be teaching their Dieticians and their Nutrition students how to grow vegetables and how those vegetables and herbs will impact the health of their students. Stump MikeThis was the sign the last time Mike appeared at
    Christy Webber Farm & Garden. Like shooting fish in a barrel.
  • Clarendon Hills Education Garden: City of Clarendon Hills and Westmont are in the design phase of an educational garden they will both share. It will include an apiary, a permaculture forest garden, hugelkultur beds, regular raised beds and a rainwater harvesting system.
  • 16th Street MLK District Garden: A community garden in North Lawndale located on 16h Street and Ridgeway. This garden is located on 3 city lots. Half of the garden is a production garden that has hugelkultur beds instead of traditional raised beds, the other half is planted as a permaculture forest garden, it uses espaliered fruit trees rows of raspberries, hazelnuts and other fruiting shrubs inside of boxes, instead of fences, and it is used as a place to hold peace circles and where the police/corporate/public/residents gather to promote community trust, and it has a youth urban ag program with After School Matters, and Gardeneers. It is also a training ground for TR4IM’s initiative which is a program that reduces trauma incidents in an 8-block area.

We might talk about all or none of the above. That’s the beauty of live radio.

But we will talk to Eugene Shockey Funkey (did he make up his own name?), who is Co-Founder and COO of Metropolitan Farms. Their mission is to grow fresh food in the city where it is eaten. Okay, gotcha.

They happen to do it aquaponically  with no synthetic pesticides/fertilizers, hormones or antibiotics. In the City of Chicago. Double gotcha.

Finally, we bring in Annamaria Leon, who has also been on my program in the past. She is a permaculturist who believes that her  methods are

a way to effectively impact food security in every neighborhood no matter where you live and how much land / space you have.  When done well, Annamaria Leonpermaculture systems have the potential to benefit every living organism to create perennial abundance. In the long term, workload will decrease and yields increase beyond what was initially expected.  At that point, it is no longer about survival. It becomes about living a life you love and being surrounded by beauty, grace, and ease.

Message received. I think you should tune in to Que4 Radio on Sunday at 9am CDT.