Tag Archives: urban gardening

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.

Acquiring seeds, cloning ancient trees and writing urban farming laws

January 23, 2011

The Gardener’s Anthem: “Oh, Say Can you Seed?”

I attend Mid-America Horticultural Trade Show (Mid-Am) each year for a number of reasons. First, it’s a great place to hobnob with my horticultural chums. Next, it’s a place to almost get away from winter. Unlike the Chicago Flower & Garden Show, MidAm is more about business and less about art and design, but there’s just enough green to cheer you up on a dreary January day. Finally, I always come up with at least a couple of good show segments just by wondering the aisles. This year is no exception.

Later, I’ll tell you about a family that is saving trees not by saving the actual tree but by preserving its genetic material. But let’s start with a regular on The Mike Nowak Show, Mr. Brown Thumb, who also writes on his Chicago Garden blog. If you’re a regular listener or reader of these pages, you know of his involvement in the One Seed Chicago campaign to annoint a vegetable seed as Chicago’s favorite for 2011. (And if you’re not familiar with that, you obviously skipped my home page to get here. Go back and take a look at the heated campaign, complete with mudslinging and goofy videos.)

It turns out that Mr. Brown Thumb’s interest in seeds goes well beyond that. He is also the co-founder of #SeedChat on Twitter, a live chat that takes place every Wednesday night at 8pm on Twitter. Gardeners from all over come together to talk about everything related to gardening with seeds. Search for #SeedChat on Twitter to join in. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that MBT does some work for Renee’s Garden but, as you can see, he has his eye on many other companies, like Botanical Interests, Seed Library, Kitazawa Seed Company, the D. Landreth Seed Company, Seed Savers Exchange, Seed of Change and others.

Here are some suggestions from MrBrownThumb that he says will help you when deciding who to order seeds from.

  • Partner with a friend or member of your garden club. You don’t need every seed in a seed pack, unless you have a lot of space to garden, so split a seed pack with a friend.
  • Hit the gardening forums like GardenWeb.com and DavesGarden.com and search for coupons.
  • Check the Facebook page and website/blog of your favorite seed company and see if they’ve posted coupons. Some may be offering free shipping or a small discount for ordering seeds this month.
  • If you don’t like giving out your personal information, check the local independent garden centers and nurseries. They’ll stock seeds from the smaller seed sellers who specialize in rare and heirloom seeds. Buying seeds in your community will save you on shipping and handling, which can sometimes cost you more than the price of a couple of seed packs. Plus, you’re supporting local businesses.

Or you can skip the ordering process all together and swap seeds with your fellow gardeners in person. Seed swapping is a great way to meet other gardeners, share seeds from your garden and get introduced to flowers and vegetables you may not have grown before. On February 12, 2011 the Lurie Garden is hosting a Seed Savers Swap at the Chicago Cultural Center from 10am-Noon. Lurie Garden staff and MrBrownThumb will be on hand to share tips on planting and seed germination. Visit LurieGarden.org and click on “Fall and Winter Adult Programs” to learn more.

The Forest Park Community Garden has also just announced their second annual seed swap on February 27. FPCG President Jessica Rinks (also known as @snappyjdog for you Twitter fans) says that the event will be from 1 to 4pm at the Park District of Forest Park, 7501 Harrison Street in Forest Park.

Here are links to some companies that you might want to consider ordering from:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Botanical Interests online
Bountiful Gardens
Comstock Seeds
D. Landreth Seed Company
Fedco Seeds

Hudson Valley Seed Library

J. L. Hudson, Seedsman
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Kitazawa Seed Company
Renee’s Garden
Seed Savers Exchange
Seeds of Change
Select Seeds
Territorial Seed Company
Terroir Seeds (home of Underwood Gardens)
The Cook’s Garden

Last but certainly not least, if you’re concerned that a seed company might be selling genetically modified (GM) seeds, you can see if they signed the Safe Seed Pledge, a list compiled by the Council for Responsible Genetics.

Saving the world’s greatest trees by passing on their genes

I wrote earlier that I often find interesting ideas for show segments at MidAm and, boy, did I stumble across one this week. The photo on the left pictures what I call “Team Archangel.” And they may very well be angels of one kind or another. Who knows for sure? All I know is that I have a lot of respect for people who are trying to preserve and propagate the true remaining giants on our planet.

Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is located in Traverse City, Michigan in my home state. The organization isn’t even three years old yet, but its mission is stunningly ambitious: to collect, reproduce, reforest and archive old-growth trees using the best, most important genetic specimens that remain in the world. If you’re wondering what that means, it means that they find the oldest and the largest trees in existence and clone them using traditional agricultural methods–collecting tissue and cuttings. They then plant them wherever they can, so that the genes from these great–sometimes iconic specimens–will carry on in some way, even after the great trees are gone.

The patriarch of the group is David Milarch, who founded Archangel as a successor to his first not-for-profit organization, Champion Tree Project International. I’ve seen him on the videos on the website and I’ve talked to him in person and I can tell you that he’s a salty, irreverent visionary. I’m going to keep my finger on the panic button when I talk to him on my show…though I’m not really worried that he’ll say something that will get me in trouble. He is joined by son Jared Milarch, who you can also see on the website videos.

This is a great cause and I’m delighted that I met these terrific people. If you can, log onto their site and contribute to the continuing life of the world’s greatest living things.

Good Growing: New laws for new ways of farming in the city

Whether you understand it or not (and many people do not), the various city departments have much to say about what you can grow within the city limits and what you can or cannot do with those commodities.

Martha Boyd from Angelic Organics Learning Center is once again on the show to talk about an upcoming City of Chicago Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning (DZP) meeting that will consider an ordinance proposing changes to Chicago’s zoning laws. This could have a serious effect on urban agriculture and community gardening for years to come. DZP sought out and received input from members of the Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA) steering committee. The proposed zoning ordinance has been introduced to the Council and will soon be heard by the Zoning committee, most likely on January 27 at 10:00 a.m. At least it’s on the committee calendar at the Chicago City Clerk’s website. You know how those things go.

Martha and I will chat far too briefly about this on my show today. So if you have an interest in whether Chicago residents will be able to grow food and under what circumstances, I advise you to take a look at an AUA article posted this week called “Urban Agriculture Zoning in Chicago: Navigating the Rules” as well as a story by Nevin Cohen that looks at food policies in several major U.S. cities on a blog called Urban Food Policy. We have a long way to go and it’s a complex subject. I hope the right people are paying attention.

In Praise of Recycling, Gardening, Green Building and Chickens

November 14, 2010

America Recycles Day is November 15…make the most of it

Like Christmas, America Recycles Day comes around only once a year. Geez, I hope that most of you recycle a little more often than that. But it is our annual reminder of how important indivdual and group recycling efforts are. ARD hasn’t been celebrated all that long–since 1997. And, of course, I have a stake in recycling because I’m the president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition. In case you’re wondering, I don’t make a dime for holding that position. In fact, I generally lose money. But I digress.

Statewide, the recycling mission is being furthered by the Illinois Recycling Association. I’m pleased to have IRA Executive Director Mike Mitchell back in the studio to talk about the various ways our neighbors, friends, employees and customers can get involved in local recycling programs. One way is a new effort called the Dell Reconnect Program. Consumers can drop off any brand of used computer and technology equipment at participating Goodwill donation centers located across Illinois, not to mention the rest of the U.S. and parts of Canada.

Meanwhile, the IRA website is chock full of helpful links and videos about recycling and ways that average citizens can reduce their consumption of wasteful products and packaging. Among the most interesting are RECYCLING WORKS: A Toolkit for Reducing Waste in the Workplace (pdf) and the Virtual Tour Videos of of various recycling facilities across Illinois.

The 2010 Chicago Gardener of the Year:
The Joy Garden at Northside College Preparatory High School

I was pleased to be part of the final Mayor Daley’s Landscape Awards Ceremony last week at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. It’s the final, not because the city will no longer be presenting gardening awards (I hope), but because Richard M. Daley has decided not to run for re-election and there will be a different mayor next year.

It appears to me that, especially when it comes to recent environmental events, Hizzoner is taking a bit of a victory lap. He is warmly received and is obviously enjoying the accolades that are coming his way. Of course, Chicago still doesn’t have anything resembling an effective recycling system, and the city is still in a fiscal hole, but I can understand why gardeners and envrionmental types are getting a little weepy about the thought of not having Richie Daley around to promote the green agenda. But I digress…again.

As I have for the past umpteen years, I’m talking to the Chicago Gardener of the Year on my radio show. And, as occasionally happens, the winner is not a single person but a group of people. This time, it’s the folks who are responsible for the Joy Garden at Northside College Preparatory High School at 5501 N Kedzie Avenue. Two of those people are Nick Petty and Mike Repkin, who were designers and project coordinators for the garden.

Interestingly, the Joy Garden is just part of a larger Master Plan for NCPHS being developed by Urban Habitat Chicago. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Mike Repkin and other UHC members were on this show at the end of September. Small world, eh?

Others who are likely to be in-studio on Sunday morning are Bathsheeba Birman, Student parent and President of Urban Wildlife Coalition UWC; Lee Bouchard, Urban Habitat Chicago UHC executive director; Mike Coy, NSPHS Teacher; and students Luis Mesa, Edgar Ortege and Ariel Basora. I don’t know exactly who will show up. Hey, we don’t have room for them anyway!

Get ready for a week of Greenbuild 2010

As I reported several weeks ago, Greenbuild 2010, returns to Chicago November 17-19 at Chicago’s McCormick Place West. In case you didn’t know, Greenbuild, presented by the U.S. Green Building Council, is the world’s largest conference and expo dedicated to green building. Thousands of building professionals from all over the world come together at Greenbuild for three days of outstanding educational sessions, renowned speakers, green building tours, special seminars, and networking events.

However, It’s nice to see that the expo doesn’t just feature architecture and green building materials. On Saturday, November 20, there will be a half day tour called Growing Green Jobs in Urban Farming, which will take people to various urban agriculture sites in Chicago. These include The Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, a green business incubator that houses 14 green companies, including The Plant Chicago, which grows food using aquaponics, providing locally-raised tilapia to restaurants in the area, and the Growing Home Urban Farm and Job Training Center, which is the first certified organic farm in Chicago.

Of course, this is a five-day event, and there’s more on the docket than I can possibly talk about in one short radio segment. I’ll leave that to Lois Vitt Sale, Chair of the GreenBuild Chicago Host Committee. She’ll tell us about the speakers, including General Colin L. Powell, who is the keynote speaker on Wednesday, November 17 at 8:30 a.m. There are also educational sessions and more events than you’ll have time to attend.

Good Growing: The chickens are back! (Did they ever go away?)

The Good Growing correspondent this week is Martha Boyd, who is the program director for the Chicago Urban Initiative of the Angelic Organics Learning Center. She’s reporting on the growing popularity of raising chickens in and around Chicago. Is this a fad? Or a lasting contribution to the urban agriculture culture?

Here are some recent developments and events. Judge for yourself.

I still think that anything to do with chickens is funny. But it might just be good for us, too.