How a garden can make a difference

September 19, 2010

It’s nice to be proud of your friends. At this moment, I couldn’t be prouder of my friends in the Midwest Ecological Landcaping Association (MELA). I have to start with the disclaimer that I am one of the founders of the organization. That being said, however, I didn’t have a whole lot to do with what they accomplished this summer. Beth Botts tells the story in a blog post and the Chicago Tribune does likewise here.

The story of the O’Keeffe School Victory Garden starts with a ten year old boy named Troy Law, who was murdered in 2006. His fellow students at O’Keeffe Elementary School at, 6940 S. Merrill Avenue in Chicago, were determined to plant a “tree” in his name at a small neighborhood garden a half block south of the school. The plant they chose was not really a tree, but a burning bush, in honor of Troy’s favorite color, red. It was even dug out by vandals at one point, though enough roots remained and the shrub grew back. That could have been interpreted as a sign that the garden was meant to be.

On the other hand, gardens don’t happen by themselves. The plot became neglected, as they do in urban environments. Believe me, I’ve seen that happen in my own neighborhood. And yet, when the right people get involved, amazing things can happen. The not-for-profit organization NeighborSpace owns the land where the garden is situated, and its executive director Ben Helphand connected with MELA about reviving the garden.

But it wasn’t just about putting plants in the ground. Anybody can do that. MELA is about finding more earth-friendly ways to create landscapes. In fact, the O’Keeffe School Victory Garden is part of MELA’s Sustainability in Action initiative. And there were weeds…lots of weeds. In many cases, somebody would whip out the Roundup and that would be that. In this case, however, MELA had people like Lynn Bement, the Organic Garden Coach; Pam Wirtz of Grace Landscaping, Grace Koehler from Pizzo & Associates; and MELA executive director Carol Becker involved. Do you think they were going to reach for the chemicals just because it was easy? No way.

The school kids learned that you can renovate a garden by pulling the weeds and covering them with cardboard and mulch (that’s a lesson for you adults, too.) They also learned that you can recycle and reuse things like stones and lumber to create beautiful spaces. I’m proud to say that wood from the WCPT Ultimate Backyard Makeover is well on its way to becoming benches for the garden, mainly thanks to the hard work of Ron Cowgill from Mighty House, who tore down the deck in the Bolingbrook backyard and made sure it got delivered to Chicago’s south side.

I’m honored to have O’Keeffe Elementary School science teacher Emily Kenny and neighborhood resident Thresa Conley on the show this morning, along with MELA Executive Director Carol Becker. In fact, here’s part of the confirmation letter I received from Emily:

We appreciate the vision that you have for starting an organization like MELA. MELA brought hope to the South Shore community.  No matter how ugly things get with all of the street violence. Every now and then, the beauty of man kind rears its maginificent head, and people, like the MELA family, appear to perform small miracles that impact individuals and communities.

Whoa. I think I need a tissue. And while I’m sniffling, if you’re in need of a landscaper who is as likely to care about our environment as their bottom line, you should go to MELA’s Community page and see if there’s somebody near you.

Now is THE time to see Lurie Garden in Millennium Park.

Well, pretty much any time of the year is the right time to visit this magificent jewel on Chicago’s downtown lakefront. But the reason I’m talking about the Lurie Garden today is to introduce Jennifer Davit, its new chief horticulturist. Of course, she’s been on the job since since March 15, but she hasn’t been on my show since then, and that makes all the difference.

Davit comes to Chicago by way of the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami, Florida. But this is really a trip home for Davit, who grew up in the Chicago area. She has more than 12 years of horticulture experience in private and public gardens, though it’s hard to imagine a more challenging–or rewarding–job than tending this four-season masterpiece. Jennifer Davit is in studio to tell us what to look for in the fall Lurie Garden. Whatever it is, I can guarantee it’s spectacular.

Is Romeoville oil spill behind regional gas price spikes? Why?

Here we go again. Another day, another oil spill. You would think that the 250,000 gallon Enbridge Energy spill that happened beneath a warehouse complex in suburban Romeoville on September 9 and continued for four days would be considered aonce-in-a-lifetime occurrence in the Midwest. Except that we went through this a month ago in Michigan! And while the good news is that the Obama Administration may be able to pass stricter rules for pipeline companies, there are still too many unanswered questions.

Among them:

I’m happy to have the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Josh Mogerman back on the show to help me address these questions. For instance, regarding the spike in regional gasoline prices, he wrote to me:

There is a very big difference in oil futures and gas prices. Gas prices changed the day after the spill. And jumped locally by 15 cents/gallon in just a couple days in Chicagoland. There was no disruption at local refineries at the time. We have historic petroleum reserves nationally. There is no doubt that a long closure of lines 6A and 6B will have an impact on gas prices. And not too far down the line, since there has already been a disruption from the Michigan spill that was putting extra oil into the IL line. But nothing about Romeoville impacted gas production that week. There was no reason for gas prices to jump—the gas at your typical station had already been produced and delivered. Certainly futures jumped—lots of speculation and it makes sense, but that impacts gas prices in the future…

Should be an interesting conversation.

Next Saturday, Adopt-a-Beach and help the Great Lakes

If you think that there’s not much you can personally do to keep our Great Lakes healthy, you haven’t been paying attention. On Saturday, September 25, volunteers in four states will be out in force on the beaches of the Lake Michigan to help clear litter and debris. The effort is courtesy of the Alliance for the Great Lakes and it’s their 20th anniversary event.

The numbers are impressive. Since 1991, some 61,300 volunteers have removed more than 152 tons of debris from Great Lakes shorelines.

This fall there will be at least 235 scheduled cleanups in four states:  Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. Anyone interested in joining a cleanup is encouraged to check this website for a nearby event, or register to lead their own. Dates and times may vary depending upon location.