Tag Archives: Community gardens

The real dirt on community gardening in Chicago, food waste composting and Farmer John’s KickStarter Campaign

January 27, 2013

Building a community for community gardeners

It has not been a great year for gardeners in the City of Chicago.

It didn’t help that we were blasted by heat and drought last summer…and given how odd the winter and spring were, going into the 2012 growing season, I don’t even want to speculate what will happen this year. However, all one has to do is look at how little moisture we have had in the fall and winter so far this time around to know that things could be dicey come time to plant in the spring.

In addition, some of the things that allowed gardeners to gather together to commiserate about their disappointments and celebrate their accomplishments have disappeared. I’m talking in particular about the Mayor’s Landscape Awards Program, which was last presented in 2011 and which awarded my community garden, Green on McLean, a third place prize that year. So, after 50 years of giving gardeners in the City a sense of pride, the program was quietly dropped by the Rahm Emanuel Administration.

This year, there is another casualty: The Green and Growing Fair. For 20 years, this event was sponsored by GreenNet, Chicago’s Urban Greening Network, and featured a variety of vendors, workshops, demonstrations, and family activities as a way of launching the gardening season in Chicago. Fortunately, the GreenNet website is still an excellent reference for people who want to start or connect with a community garden.

These two gaps in the opportunities for gardeners to expand their knowledge and connections are on top of the dismantling of the Chicago Department of the Environment at the beginning of 2012 and the downsizing of the Greencorps Chicago Program, Greencorps staff and graduates (now under the Chicago Department of Transportation…huh?) were a valuable resource for community gardeners throughout the city until last year. Here’s the way it reads on Greencorps page at the City of Chicago website:

We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the community gardeners who have worked tirelessly making their communities greener, healthier and safer.  Over the past 18 years, Greencorps Chicago staff and trainees have worked side-by-side with you, supporting your efforts while admiring your dedication, resilience, humor and cooking.  For 2013, due to reduced funding levels, Greencorps’ ability to support community gardens will be reduced.  With that in mind, we are planning a summit this winter with a variety of greening partners to develop a transition plan for this vital work.  Please check out the GreenNet’s Growing Forward effort at http://greennetchicago.org/growing-forward to stay involved.  Greencorps staff will also continue to work with community gardeners to assist in connecting them to organizations or other gardens in their area where resources may be available

In fact, I just attended the 2013 Greencorps graduation ceremony at Garfield Park Conservatory. It was sad to see that a class that had, in the past, numbered as high as 90 was down to 22 this year.

But gardeners are a resilient lot, and even as some good programs disappear, others rise up to take their places. Openlands, which already has its very successful TreeKeepers Program, is creating an interactive, hands-on class focusing on gardening without chemicals, using designs that depend on nature and not technology, conserving natural resources, and recruiting members who will use and “own” their garden.

It is called, not so surprisingly, GardenKeepers, and the goal is to teach its members how to organize and run a successful, long-lasting, community-managed allotment garden together with friends and neighbors. It doesn’t matter whether you already have an existing garden or you’re at the stage where you’re recruiting people and looking longingly at the empty lot on the end of the block.

GardenKeepers will be presented twice a year but, you should note, It is designed for groups, not individuals. A minimum of 4 people from each garden is suggested. The fee is $300 per garden ($75 per person in a group of 4) for the entire series of 6 classes. However, individuals may be able to attend horticulture-focused classes 3-6 if space allows.

The Spring 2013 course is taking reservations right now for classes that will held at the Garfield Park Conservatory. Here’s the schedule:

  1. February 16 – Getting Started
  2. February 23 – Special Event: Chicago Community Gardeners’ 1st Annual Planning Conference 
  3. March 2 – Creating a Sustainable Organization
  4. March 9 – Eco-Garden Design
  5. March 16 – Growing From the Ground Up
  6. March 23 – Plant Selection for a Healthy Garden
  7. March 30 – Containers, Hardscape, and Installation
  8. May 11 – Graduation Potluck

Now, about item #2, the Chicago Community Gardeners’ 1st Annual Planning Conference, or as my buddy and community garden worker Rob Kartholl (a.k.a. @Copedog on Twitter) likes to call it, The Big Commie Garden Conference. I kind of like that title, which means that powers-that-be will hate it.

Anyway, The Big Commie Garden Conference will be a day-long event at the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT) that attempts to bring together community gardeners all over the city to hobnob and discuss issues like water conservation, fundraising, sustainability of both the land and the people who work it, and more.

Julie Samuels, Community Garden Organizer for Openlands, returns to the show today to talk about GardenKeepers and The Big Commie Garden Conference. Copedog is also on hand to throw in a few comments.

By the way, Julie is the go-to person for registering for GardenKeepers. You can write her at jsamuels@openlands.org if you have questions, or just go to the GardenKeepers page for more information.

What is an “F-scrap” and what do we do with it?

Some statistics from Greenwaste.com to think about on a cold January day:

  • Did you know that we generate 21.5 million tons of food residuals annually? If this food waste were composted instead of being sent to landfills, the resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking more than two million cars off the road.
  • The Z-Best Composting Facility in Gilroy, processes 350 tons of food waste and yard clippings everyday into nutrient rich soil amendments to be used for agriculture and landscaping.
  • Almost any business can successfully divert food discards from landfills. Businesses with record-setting food diversion programs are recovering 50% to 100% of their food discards and reducing their overall solid waste by 33% to 85%.

Now, welcome to Illinois, where, until the passage of SB 99 a couple of years ago, we were in the dark ages regarding food waste–often called “F-scrap”–composting. It was very difficult and often prohibitively expensive to obtain a permit to compost food scrap commercially in Illinois because those facilities were considered “Pollution Control Facilities” under Illinois law.

While that bill made it somewhat easier for composting operations to succeed, as witnessed by this effort at Illinois State University and this pilot program in Highland Park, we still have a long way to go, especially where small operations are concerned.

Which is why it’s the upcoming Illinois Food Scrap Composting Seminar “Looking To the Future” in Lombard on Thursday, February 7, 2013 is such a good idea. The day-long seminar on composting of food scraps is open to just about anyone–businesses, schools, landscape services, greenhouses and others. Heck, even I’m going to be there.

It will cover the latest information on Illinois policies and legislation, markets and potential end uses for compost materials. Some of those topics include

  • how to establish and manage food scrap collection and composting programs
  • identifying end users and viable end markets for finished composted material
  • pertinent policy in Illinois regarding F-scrap compost operations
  • reports on results growing plants with compost material and lessons learned by those with established programs.

This event is made possible through a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity (DCEO) to the Illinois Recycling Association (IRA) who have worked with  SCARCE (School Composting and Recycling Conservation Education) and the Illinois Green Economy Network (IGEN) to develop and co-sponsor the seminar.

It’s not at all expensive for a day-long event. IRA members and college students get in for $30, while all others pay $40. But wait. There’s more! Cost includes lunch and seminar materials. A great deal.

You can Register online here or learn more at www.illinoisrecycles.org or 708-358-0058

I’m pleased to have SCARCE founder and executive director Kay McKeen back in the studio to talk about this event–and perhaps all of the other great things that SCARCE does, from book, ink jet and gym shoe rescues to cell phone and electronics recycling to providing information on how to properly dispose of medicines.

The Real Dirt on Farmer John’s KickStarter Campaign

If Roger Ebert is tweeting about you to his 800,000 followers, and posting for another 104,000 on Facebook, you know you’re doing something right. Here’s the Twitter message (which I have already retweeted): “We showed his film at Ebertfest. Now Farmer John is kickstarting. Here’s a video about this hero of organic farming. http://t.co/Yo7cczBl”.

If you follow that link, it will take you a KickStarter Campaign called Barns Are For People, Too, featuring the now-legendary Farmer John Peterson. He’s the guy who is behind Angelic Organics in Caledonia, Illinois, a farm that has been in his family for generations. That story was told in the 2005 documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which has received just about every award imaginable, and which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Last week, I received a notice from Tom Spaulding, Executive Director of Angelic Organics Learning Center, which arose out of Farmer John’s efforts and which I have often talked about on my radio show. He informed me of the KickStarter campaign, and I knew immediately that I was going to have to invite him and Farmer John to the show.

You should know, by the way, that I MC’d a fundraiser at the farm last fall, and Farmer John took me on a somewhat bumpy tour of the land in his Jeep. That was an experience in itself. Now I want to return the favor and help the good folks out there continue to teach new generations about the land and how to grow food sustainably.

The KickStarter is all about completing the work of transforming the old dairy barn and corn crib into community spaces, as Farmer John says, “filled with light and vibrant colors and breathtaking views of the Midwestern prairie.” He says he has about half the work done and he needs $150,000 to finish the project. Yeah, that’s a lot of loot, but who told you that running a farm and not-for-profit organization was cheap?

I will be making a contribution. I hope you do, too.

Wild Things 2013 Conference is next Saturday

Just a reminder that the fifth biennial Wild Things 2013 Conference happens next Saturday, February 2 at the UIC. This wonderful event, featuring about 90 different sessions, is organized by Audubon Chicago Region in cooperation with the Habitat Project, the Volunteer Stewardship Network, and Chicago Wilderness through funding from the USDA Forest Service and US Fish & Wildlife Service. It also doesn’t hurt that organizations like the Chicago Park District, The Field Museum, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and Openlands are involved.

The keynote speakers will be Doug Tallamy, who continues to preach the gospel of biodiversity, and Joel S. Brown, who speaks on how urban species might be evolving. Here are the abstracts of their talks.

While online registration is now closed, I don’t think anybody is going to mind if you walk in the door thirsty for knowledge about our natural areas and their inhabitants. It’s only $40, or $25 if you’re a student. The full schedule is here.

Food justice…today and 50 years from now

January 13, 2013

Food Justice: KAM Isaiah Israel walks the walk.

It’s fashionable these days to talk a lot of smack about “urban agriculture,” “local food,” “sustainability” and more. But if you want to meet people who really walk the walk, you should set aside a few hours next weekend and pay a visit to KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Hyde Park. Of course, you’ll have to say hello to the Secret Service agents, who keep an eye on President Barack Obama’s Chicago home, which is right across the street. But I digress.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, January 18-20, KAMII presents its fourth annual MLK Food Justice and Sustainability Weekend Program, in celebration of the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. This year’s event is titled “Shmita: Food Security and Sustainable Design in the Sabbatical Year and Beyond” and it promises to be a dynamic and inspiring weekend. By the way, it is all free and open to the public.

The Saturday program should especially interesting, as it will be a hands-on Community Design Workshop. Expert growers and planners will, with input from the audience and community partners, lay out a half-acre urban farm for a South Side site, with the design goal being sustainable food security. The workshop leader will be Robert Nevel, architect and chair of KAM Isaiah Israel ‘s Social Justice Committee. Designers will be Kitt Healy, farmer relations and outreach coordinator for Green City Market and farm manager of the K.A.M. Food Justice and Sustainability Program; Mitch Yaciw, farm manager at Unity Gardens; Michael Thompson, farm manager of Chicago Honey Co-op; Ken Dunn, founder and director of Resource Center and Elan Margulies, director of Pushing the Envelope Farm.

What’s fascinating about the “South Side site” is that it is still undisclosed. Hmm. perhaps I can get a scoop on my radio show this morning. I’ll be joined by Robert Nevel, who has been on the program repeatedly, and congregation member Gloria Needlman, who last stopped by in 2010.

While the MLK weekend is great, remember what I said about the KAMII folks “walking the walk?” Really, the most impressive aspect of their social justice work is their garden and the gardens they have helped to build in the community. They started their own garden in 2009 and began donating the produce to area food shelters and hot meal programs. In 2011, they expanded to include a garden at Kenwood United Church of Christ.

In 2012, they reached out to the Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer on nearby Dorchester Avenue in their continuing mission to transform congregational lawns into food producing gardens. You can see the fruits of their labor on the left.

Here is some of the other work they do, from the KAMII website:

  • Three times a week during the growing season, workers from the congregation and the community tend and harvest KAMII’s three gardens–the Star Garden, the South 1080 (along Hyde Park Boulevard), and the Apple Tree Garden. Before the growing season, workers prepare the earth, plants seeds, tend seedlings indoors, and prepare for harvest.  After harvest, workers put the garden to bed and prepare for the next year.
  • With our White Rock Gleaning Program, the garden workers collect and distribute otherwise unharvested food from three community gardens.
  • Our Crop Mob Constructions transform congregational lawns into food producing gardens. With grant money from One Nation Chicago Fund at The Chicago Community Trust, we have constructed a 1,000 sq. ft. food-producing garden at Kenwood United Church of Christ, just outside the soup kitchen where we delivered much of our 2010 harvest.
  • In the summer of 2011, we began our Food Justice and Sustainability Young Leadership Summer Program, in which high school students from around the city gathered on Sundays to attend seminars about food justice and sustainable land use and urban farming, and to help tend our three gardens.
  • The bimah decorations for the High Holidays are harvested and arranged by members of the Social Justice Committee.  The flowers and produce come from our KAMII gardens that the committee tends.  All of the produce was donated to local soup kitchens after each service.

They are impressive, and it’s my honor to welcome them back to the show.

A 50 Year Plan for Surviving Climate Change

Sometimes a radio show segment is just so in tune with current events that you might think that I’m actually putting some thought into booking guests. No, really!

Take this past week:

All of that in ONE WEEK!!

That last bullet point in particular is a perfect lead in to my second hour guest, Blake Davis. He is Adjunct Professor of Sustainability and Urban Agriculture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I first got to know him when he gave me a private tour of The Plant on Chicago’s south side, and then appeared on the show to talk about this remarkable look into the future of sustainable technology.

But about a month ago, show contributor Sarah Batka told me about a talk he had given at the Great Lakes Bioneers Chicago gathering in November called “A 50-year Survival Plan for Climate Change.” In fact, she couldn’t stop talking about it. So what could I do but invite him back to the show to talk about that very issue?

Here’s what Blake Davis himself has to say about it:

“Ordinary people want to know if they need to worry about climate change, yet.  What is the “canary in the coal mine” that will warn them that it is time to do something immediately.  Is it the melting of the arctic ice, a series of extremely hot summers or cold winters or an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes?  And the answer is….the collapse of the economy.

Nature has several hundred million years of experience in dealing with adversity, modern economies less than 300.  Our economy and our way of life is built on ever-increasing use of energy and an expansion of economic output of at least 2% a year…..forever.  Neither of these preconditions are possible as we approach the carrying-capacity of the earth.

The next 50 years will present insurmountable challenges for our society and culture.  Where we live, what we do for work and even how we raise our children will be radically different than they are now.  The government and business are committed to a course of action which will exacerbate the problem of climate change and cause tremendous blow-back for the average citizen.  Unless we want to participate in an elaborate “duck-and-cover” drill, we must all take immediate personal action to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.

A 50-year Survival Plan for Climate Change takes our current knowledge of climate change and forecasts what it will mean for average people over the next 50 years.  It will allow you and your community to start working on surviving the challenges of a less stable and less abundant future.”

Whoa. I’d tune in, if I were you.

Bringing Nature to DuPage County

October 14, 2012

Welcome to “Home Grown National Park”

Has it really been four years since author Doug Tallamy was on my show? He and I were both pretty flabbergasted when we realized that was indeed the case. Regardless of how long it’s been, I’m thrilled to have him back.

In fact, I might ask him to write me a check. That’s because Tallamy is the author of a book that I have been promoting ever since I got my hands on it: Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. He is also Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, where he has written more than 65 research articles and has taught insect taxonomy, behavioral ecology, and other subjects.

He will be in town next Saturday to speak to the Greater DuPage Chapter of Wild Ones. They teamed with the Illinois Native Plant Society, Forest Preserve District DuPage County, The Conservation Foundation, Sierra Club – River Prairie Group and Forest Preserve District of Will County to make this appearance happen. However, if you’re thinking about attending the talk, you can pretty much forget about it, because all of the seats have been reserved. If you feel like taking a chance, walk-ins will be seated without advanced reservation only if seats are available 15 minutes after the start of the event. It will be held at the Holiday Inn, 205 Remington Boulevard in Bolingbrook.

If you miss this event, never fear. If you’re near Bloomington, Illinois, tomorrow, October 15, he will be making a presentation for the Wild Ones Illinois Prairie Chapter. That will be at 7:00 pm at Heartland Community College, Astroth Community Education Center Auditorium. Professor Tallamy will also be appearing at the Wild Things 2013 Conference on Saturday, February 2, 2013 at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

So why is Tallamy’s book such a big deal and why has it sold more than 45,000 copies? (It was updated and expanded in 2009.) It’s because he offers an entirely new way of looking at why native plants are important. Tallamy explains in his book that when we use “alien” plants in our landscapes–that is to say, plants that come from other continents–we are failing to provide nourishment for our own native insects. Why? Because insects have spent tens of millions of years evolving with the plants around them and are either incapable of or not interested in consuming the alien species. As a result, birds, amphibians, lizards, fish and mammals who rely on insect populations to thrive have less food and see their populations decline.

Look at the landscapes around you and you might get some understanding of what I’m talking about. Plants like Norway Maples, Bradford Pears, privet, oriental bittersweet, burning bush, English ivy, Japanese maple and even daylilies are not native to North America, and are not valuable food sources for insects.

So individual land owners really play a huge role in maintaining insect populations. Tallamy says that the way you landcape your yard is going to determine how much life you have in your yard.

For instance, he has been studying Carolina chickadees on his own property as a way of determining how much food is needed to support certain foodwebs. From personal observation, he has determined that to feed a chickadee from hatching to the point where they can leave the nest, it takes 4800 caterpillars.

Should I let that sink in? 4800 caterpillars to bring one chickadee clutch (around six eggs) to independence–and a chickadee weighs 1/3 ounce! A chickadee takes about sixteen days to leave from the nest. If you do the math, that’s an average of 300 caterpillars per day, or one every three minutes! Not only that, but the chickadees generall forage within 50 meters of the nest (that’s about 164 feet, in case you don’t have your handy “convert meters to feet” tool handy).

The point here is that if you have a lawn–which some people consider a “biological desert”–you’re probably not providing enough habitat for even one chickadee chick to survive.

So Tallamy has hatched an idea called “Home Grown National Park.” He posits that if we all convereted 50% of our lawns to biological corridors, we would create 20,000,000 acres of viable habitat–more than three times the size of Denali National Park in Alaska. As you can see, he’s not talking about abandoning “traditional” landscaping altogether–just making room for wildlife other than your neighbor’s teenage son.

Meanwhile, Tallamy wants people to get on board with his citizen science project to determine exactly which birds are eating which insects. If you take photos of your prized backyard birds–especially if they’re in the process of eating insects–consider sending them to Doug Tallamy at dtallamy@udel.edu. Tallamy would like to establish a website based on those photos that would help entomologists determine the feeding habits of birds.

This week’s items of interest

  • Here’s a short note from friend of the show Jessica Rinks (a.k.a. SnappyJDog):

The Forest Park Community Garden (which I am involved in) is having a fundraiser on Sunday October 21st from 2 to 5pm. We’ve tried to think outside the box as far as fundraisers go so we’ll be having an apple pie bake-off being held at Molly Malone’s pub in Forest Park and will also include a silent auction (Troy-bilt snowblower, bulls opening game tickets, for example) and door / raffle prizes. We need pie baker contestants and we need people to buy tickets to attend the event (and we’re always delighted to accept more raffle/silent auction item donations). Proceeds from the event will go to help us pay for garden maintenance for 2013.

  • The City of Durango, Colorado is in the middle of a battle about using pesticides on its public lands. It led to parents canceling yesterday’s entire slate of youth soccer games because the playing fields had been sprayed with synthetic chemicals. You go, Durango!
  • Who likes organic and non-GMO foods? Rich and powerful people, that’s who.
  • Don’t forget that Green Town Highland Park, a zero waste, carbon neutral event, is later this week, October 18-19 at The Art Center in Downtown Highland Park, Illinois.
  • CitiesAlive: 10th Annual Green Roof and Wall Conference, is being held from October 17 to 20 in Chicago. And why not? The Windy City has more completed green roof projects than any North American city.
  • The Southeast Environmental Task Force and Friends of the Parks invite you to explore the Millennium Resrve/Calumet Core on their Open Spaces/Green Places Tour on Saturday, October 20.
  • Cermak Road in Chicago seems an unlikely place to show off green technology, yet Grist reports that the The Cermak/Blue Island Sustainable Street Scape is blazing a green trail.
  • Hubboy, just when you thought it was safe to raise chickens in the city, there’s a new concern…lead in eggs.
  • Tweet of the week from @MaryAnn DeSantis. Who knew that LBJ was capable of such a statement?
  • And, for you astronomy fans, how about a planet that contains a thick layer of diamonds? You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Actually, you can but this appears to be the real deal.