Changing the world one community garden at a time

June 5, 2011

“Green on McLean” changes the world

As I sit here writing this entry, I’m trying to come up with the right words for what happened last Monday at the corner of McLean and St. Louis in my little neck of the city. And I’m tempted to use words like “remarkable” and “gratifying” and “heart-warming” and even “miracle.” I know, I know, it’s a bit much. But then, most of you don’t know what it’s been like to live on this block for ten years. (For that information, read last week’s post at Past Shows on this website.)

Let me just say that the Green on McLean community garden got off to a spectacular start on Memorial Day. Despite a brutally hot day, about twenty-five neighborhood folks showed up to lay down cardboard, shovel mulch and soil, pick up debris, lay down lead-blocking fabric, remove junk trees and cut fallen branches, and generally work together to change the neighborhood for the better. Click here to see the YouTube slide show of the work day.

On my radio show last week, I said that I wanted to do nothing less than “change the world.” I qualified that statement, however, telling Seamus Ford and Amy Beltemacchi from Root Riot Urban Garden Network that by “world” I meant “my block.” I didn’t know who was going to show up to create this garden. But it turns out that I needn’t have worried. We got a steady stream of volunteers, including Seamus and friends of mine who don’t even live in the neighborhood.

After four hours of steady work, we had four 8×4 garden beds laid out and planted with tomatoes, cabbages, brussel sprouts, squash, cucumbers and even a few ornamental flowers. Several days later we added some onions. Swiss chard (Go Team Chard!) seeds and pole bean seedlings are ready to go. Given the ethnic makeup of my neighborhood, it’s almost a sin that there are no peppers planted yet. But we’ll get to them.

This Sunday, we will add two more planting beds. The lawn has been mowed. Two neighbors attacked the huge mulberry branch that fell into the empty lot months ago with chain saws. (Who knew that so many Chicagoans owned chainsaws?) One of the volunteers has promised to turn those wood blocks into benches for the garden. We can’t believe the number of people who stop and tell us how beautiful the garden is and then tell us that they want to come to a work day.

Not that everything is perfect. Since we need to water the garden, the Chicago Water Department gave us a wrench to use to open the hydrant across the street. Unfortunately, after a couple of days of running around the city to pick up permits and the wrench, we discovered that the hydrant had been fitted with a special lock. When we asked if we could have a key, the city told us that, instead, the Water Department was going to have to come out and change the lock. How long will that take? We don’t know. So, yesterday, we ran a length of three hoses from my house (five doors down and across the street) to the garden. Neighbors have volunteered their own water spigots for the garden’s use.

And if you thought that getting people to work together in a garden would immediately remediate the gang problem, guess again. While the gang bangers have not disrupted our work in the garden, and have even paid us compliments about our accomplishment, they seem to multiply in the June sun. Just the other day, I noticed a couple of police cars stopped in the street next to the garden. Several gang members were spread eagle against the cars. Of course, they will be detained for a few hours or a day and then be back on the street–probably our block. Ah, some things never change.

Some people ask us whether we’re going to fence in the garden. We don’t think so. The neighborhood children love the garden and we don’t want to keep them out. They help us plant and water–even if they have to use their squirt guns. It’s good karma. Does that mean nothing will ever be stolen or vandalized? Hey, I’m optimistic but I’m not insane. For now, we’re going to tempt fate and keep the garden open to everybody at any time.

All we know is that Green on McLean has already “changed the world.” People in our neighborhood are talking to each other, offering help and whatever–chainsaws and shovels and sweat equity–they are capable of providing. It’s a good feeling. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. We’re going to be rewarded with fresh, healthy vegetables in a couple of months. On the other hand, we’ve already been rewarded.

You know what? Even in a tough neighborhood life can be good.

Protecting our resources, Part I:
Help is on the way for Chicago’s “endangered” river

Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Josh Mogerman joined me to talk about how the Chicago River had become one of the “most endangered rivers” in the country, due to high levels of pollutants in the waterway. NRDC has been one of the chief supporters of disinfection, going so far as to join in a lawsuit to stop the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District from dumping raw sewage mixed with stormwater, as well as algae-fueling pollution, into the Chicago River system.

Lo and behold, I receive a message from NRDC on Tuesday:

The Metropolitan Water reclamation District and the Illinois Pollution control board made it clear today that a cleanup of the Chicago river is likely to commence quickly, just weeks after the U.S. EPA sent a letter demanding that water treatment plants end the practice of dumping undisinfected sewage into the Chicago River and adjoining waterways.

This morning a veto-proof majority of Commissioners for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicagoland (MWRD) said they would vote in favor of a policy position that supports disinfecting sewage dumped from their water treatment plants into the Chicago River, where the effluent makes up 70% of the waterway. Commissioners Michael Alvarez, Patricia Horton, Kathleen Therese Meany, Cynthia Santos, Debra Shore and Mariyana Spyropoulos said that they would vote in favor of the change. The vote was deferred and until the June 16 MWRD meeting.  Also, this afternoon, the Illinois Pollution Control Board, which has been the venue for a marathon legal battle over disinfection, issued a proposed decision that largely reinforces the policies put forth by USEPA. The Pollution Control Board will take public comments for a week before issuing their final decision on June 16.

Ah, the power of The Mike Nowak Show.

By the way, in case you didn’t get a look at the video of the post-apocalyptic Asian carp fighters on the Illinois River, you need to take a look at this.

Speaking of rivers, this year’s heavy rainfall in the Mississippi valley is going to have more consequences than just flooded towns and fields. It is also about to produce the largest “dead zone” ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. In case you don’t kinow what that is, a dead zone is where nutrients like nitrogen, fertilizer and even river silt dump into a body of water, causing massive algae blooms that suck most of the oxygen out of the water. That is causing even more problems for gulf fishermen, who haven’t exactly had an easy time of it in the past year.

By the way, we’re not the only country that creates dead zones in its bordering waters. Scientists say there are more than 400 dead zones worldwide. Which is just another reason to go easy on the lawn fertilizer. Four-step, Schmore-step, I say!

Protecting our resources, Part II:
Gun club gets the boot from Cook County Forest Preserves

Organizations like Friend of the Forest Preserves work hard every day to see that this precious and vulnerable land is restored, restocked, protected and preserved–along with its flora and fauna–for the education, pleasure, and recreation of the public. Sometimes, short-sighted policies and financial arrangements result in the degradation or neglect of these parcels.

But sometimes, the voice of the people is heard. That’s what happened this week when a request by the Blue Park Gun Club for a permit that would have allowed it to shoot onto forest preserve land was sent back to committee, where it will probably not be seen again. The land is located near Oak Forest in the Tinley Park Preserves.

FOTFP Executive Director Benjamin Cox reports that Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski (D-16th), who opposed the permit request, sent a strong letter to President Toni Preckwinkle urging a veto if the permit was approved by the board. She responded that she would, indeed, veto the measure, which seems to be the final nail in the coffin for the request. Cox is on the show this morning to report on how the phone calls, letters and messages probably made the difference. So I join Cox in congratulating all those folks who fought to protect that land.

Sustainable Food Fundamentals:
49th Ward farmers markets gear up for the season

The first question that has to be answered is how exactly to spell that phrase. Is it farmers market, farmer’s market, or even farmers’ market (all of which I have seen on the various Internets). For the sake of simplicity, I am going with choice #1: farmers market.

That being said, every year, more and more farmers markets appear around Chicago (and all over the country) each year, as consumers discover the myriad benefits of fresh, local food. As blogger Rob Gardner reported a few weeks ago on the show, The Local Beet has just unveiled its new, improved Farmer’s Market Locator. I tell you that because I can’t possible report on every market out there.

However, when something interesting pops up, like the Loyola Farmers Market, which opens on Monday, June 6, I’m your guy. Loyola University Chicago is unveiling the 49th Ward’s second farmers market (more on the other one in a second): the Loyola Farmers Market, at 6556 N. Sheridan Road, near the University’s Lake Shore Campus in the Rogers Park neighborhood.

What’s so interesting about this market is that it’s the first one in the area (please correct me if I’m wrong) that is sponsored by a university. Students in the University’s Solutions to Environmental Problems (STEP) class came up with the idea, in an effort to promote the benefits of locally grown food. The market will be managed by Gina Lettiere, coordinator of the University’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Policy (CUERP), and student assistants and volunteers.

Market hours are Mondays from 3 to 7 pm through October 17.

Meanwhile, it’s the second season for The Glenwood Sunday Market, which was voted the most popular farmers’ market in Illinois for 2010 in the America’s Farmland Trust farmers’ market contest. This market in the heart of Rogers Park  strives to be one the greenest markets in the City of Chicago, featuring organic and sustainably locally grown produce. They define locally grown as within 200 miles of Rogers Park.

And it’s definitely a city destination–you can step off the Red Line at Morse Avenue and walk down the stairs to the the intersection of Glenwood & Morse Avenue.It’s open every Sunday 9am -2pm  through October. (The Winter Market is located at 6956-58 N. Glenwood on second Sundays Nov.-May.)

As always, Sustainable Food Fundamentals is sponsored by Pearl Valley Organix. They produce HEALTHY GRO™ products for your lawn and garden, as well as Pearl Valley Eggs. And they do it in a way that is sustainable, turning their chicken manure into several OMRI listed fertilizers, and even recycling their waste water on site at the Pearl Valley Farm. I’m proud to have them as a sponsor on The Mike Nowak Show.

Illinois legislators wrap up and go home (for now)

Last week, I reported on how the immediate future of Illinois Extension might be linked to the expansion of casinos in Illinois. While lobbyists and supporters of agricultural and horticultural programs worked to get the agricultural bill passed, at least some of that might be funded through gaming revenues.

Pam Weber from Extension Partners wrote at the end of hte week:

The Department of Agriculture’s budget was in House Bill 124 (HB124), and contained the amounts that Extension Partners had supported: County Board Match $10,800,000 – Youth Educator $994,700 – Cook County $2,749,200

That was a clear victory, because the Cook County provision had almost been cut completely, which would have wiped out a lot of good urban Extension programs. The problem, as I explained last week, is that those expenditures are tied to passage of a gambling bill, as Weber explains.

A huge expansion in gaming passed the House on Monday and in the Senate Tuesday afternoon.  Senate Bill 744 (SB744) with House Amendments provides for five additional casinos, slots at horse tracks, expanded gaming stations at existing casinos, money for depressed areas, money for the horse racing industry, money for foreclosure prevention, money for agriculture related programs including Soil and Water Districts, County Fairs, U of I Extension, forestry and historic sites.  The sponsors also assured their colleagues that extra money would be available for education as well.  I would caution that while the recipients of these funds are giddy right now, these funds will not be forth coming for some time.

I, for one, am not giddy about relying on gambling for any state revenues. Nor is Governor Pat Quinn. Nor is 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar. Nor is Congressman Mike Quigley or Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer. I know that these decisions are not easy, and anybody who listens to my show or reads my posts knows how important I think Illinois Extension is, but I also believe that gambling preys upon the people who can least afford it–even those who would benefit from Extension. I wish that there had been another way to fund these vital programs. I will hold my nose and hope for the best. Final words from Pam Weber:

[T]he… measures that have gone to the Governor await an unknown fate.  The budget is not his, and with his pen he can make numerous adjustments to the numbers or totally veto the budget. The Governor’s response to the budget could have us back in Springfield in June. The buzz around the Capitol in the waning hours was “special session”!

Get ready for another “Hosta Happening”

The good folks at Rich’s Foxwillow Pines are getting ready for another “Hosta Happening” next Saturday, June 11 at their location at 11618 McConnell Road in Woodstock. Even though Rich’s place specializes in rare and unusual conifers, they hold a couple of these events each year to benefit the Heifer International Foundation.This event goes from 9am to 4pm.

Once again, you can say hello to 93-year-old “Hosta Queen” Margaret Eyre, who has not actually been dividing the plants this year, but directed the volunteers who did the work and will be around as the good will ambassador. The Hosta Happening has several hundred varieties of hostas for sale–all at $5.00 a pop! Among the highlights:

  • 12:30 p.m. – CEO of Heifer Foundation, Domingo Barrios, will discuss Heifer Foundation gifts in endowments, wills, trusts, and estate planning.
  • 1:30 pm – Mark Zilis of Q&Z Nursery in Rochelle, Illinois will give a talk on ‘Hostas of Distinction’. Mark will also have his newest book for sale: The Hostapedia: An Encyclopedia of Hostas by Mark Zilis. This new book describes every hosta that Mark has encountered over the past 30 years.

For more information, call 815-338-7442 or write to

My thanks to Spring Bluff Nursery for their hospitality

Thanks to Tim and Ken Norris and the whole staff at Spring Bluff Nursery in Sugar Grove for being such great hosts yesterday. The heat and humidity were stiflingt, so I was glad that I was able to present my talk in air conditioned comfort. If you haven’t been out to this lovely, secluded gem in beautiful Kane County, you need to plan a field trip.

The 1800s farm house is the most prominent feature on the property, but there are also lovely display gardens and even a community garden that provides fresh produce for people in the area. There are a number of events coming up, among them, Photographing Your Garden, led by Donnell Collins, photojournalist & Waubonsee Community College instructor. It’s a seminar on how to get the most from your digital camera…in your garden,, of course. Saturday, June 25, 11am-1pm – Cost $35. Register and pay in advance.

The other one is Girls’ Night Out! on July 21.It’san evening of great plant sales (beginning at 3:00
pm) and a fun night for the ladies! Gourmet tastings and a free perennial with registration begin at 6:00. No charge, but bring canned food item donations.