Prairies, rivers, veggies and bonsai

July 10, 2011

10,000 native wildflower plugs seeking a good time, er, home

That headline is just a tiny bit misleading. It implies that those native plants don’t have a place to be planted. They do, actually, and it’s at one of the great restoration projects of the 21st Century. If you are not familiar with Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, you should be. And If you believe in returning at least part of the prairie to “The Prairie State,” you might want to stop by next weekend and help put those plants in the ground.

Here’s the story. I received a message the other week from Allison Cisneros, Volunteer Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy at Midewin. She said that they had received a grant from the National Forest Foundation to purchase these plants. The problem, as you can see, is that there are 10,000 of them and they need to get in the ground quickly. Midewin relies on its volunteers to help with many projects, and they make a huge difference.

The planting dates are

Saturday, July 16
Sunday, July 17 (only if the July 16 date is rained out)
Monday, July 18
Tuesday, July 19

RSVP to Gemma Guenther at 815.423.2148 or

Work starts at 9am and ends at 2:30pm. Meet at the River Road Seedbeds/Trailhead (directions here). Allison says she’ll take a half-day if that’s all you can spare. Her goal is to get at least 50 people ages 7 and up.The plugs will be planted near the beginning of the Prairie Creek Woods Trail where they can be enjoyed by hundreds of visitors each year.

Midewin will provide tools, safety gear and water.  Remember to wear layers, field boots and a hat. Bring your own lunch if you plan to stay. After the workday, you can reward yourself by hopping on your bike or grabbing your binoculars to explore their trails or hike through a woodland or prairie restoration.

Last but not least, if you’re intererested in keeping up with what’s going on at Midewin, you can subscribe to the Meadowlark Newsletter.

Mike and Heather paddle the Chicago River…and live to tell the tale

It didn’t hurt that yesterday might have been a perfect summer day. Temps in the mid-eighties, brilliant sunshine, a little cooling breeze. And with that as confidence-builder, Heather and I lauched our canoe into the Chicago River and paddled from roughly Lane Tech High School to Dearborn and…um, the river.

Upon finishing the several-mile journey, I heard a couple of interesting reports. One was from Margaret Frisbie, Executive Director of Friends of the Chicago River, who was on my radio show last week. Her report? “I haven’t seen it that dirty in years.” Whoa. Another comment came from Jake Leinenkugel, whose company is behind Canoes for a Cause, which organized the “Friendly Float” event. Said Jake, “That river needs a lot of help.” Ouch.

And, you know what, they’re right.

After all, the Chicago River was recently called one of the “most endangered rivers” in the country, due to high levels of pollutants in the waterway. You might have heard me interview the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Josh Mogerman about their 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. Fortunately, after pressure from NGOs like NRDC and Friends of the Chicago River, as well a ruling from the U.S. EPA, which demanded more stringent pollution controls, the MWRD finally saw the light. Just how long a clean up will take is anybody’s guess at the moment–perhaps years–but it will happen…and not a moment too soon.

There are parts of the stretch we canoed that don’t seem too bad, but others that are covered in debris, scum, and dead fish. I even spotted a whole pinapple floating among the flotsam and jetsam of a major midwestern city. And, of course, much of the shoreline simply does not exist anymore. It has been replaced by iron pilings. Heather and I noticed one barge that looked as though it had been parked in its spot for half a century or more. We were warned before the trip that

“Should you fall in, do not ingest river water. If you do there is a chance that you will suffer an intestinal upset within the next 24 hours. Take a shower when you get home. Put antibacterial ointment on any open cuts.”

That pretty much put the fear of God into Heather and me. NO WAY were we going to risk capsizing.

I think it’s crucial that businesses like Leinenkugel’s to get on board with cleaning up the river. Leinie’s already has a history of protecting waterways in the Midwest, and now they’ve teamed with Friends of the Chicago River to create Canoes for a Cause, an online resource that encourages Chicagoans to join Leinenkugel’s in improving the Chicago River. For every new “like” on the Leinenkugel’s Facebook page, Leinenkugel’s and its partners will make a monetary donation to Friends of the Chicago River up to $15,000. But you can also donate to the cause individually via a Friends of the Chicago River donation link.

Jake is on the show today to say that the dealine for participating in this fundraising effort has been extended until the end of July, even though the original conclusion date was July 9. So get online, click the “Friend” button on the Leinie’s page and help leave the Chicago River for our children in better shape than we found it.

The irrepressible Bill Aldrich

If it weren’t for Bill Aldrich, I wouldn’t be torturing people in Chicagoland Gardening Magazine. I don’t mean that I’m torturing the people who write for the magazine. I mean it’s possible that I’m torturing people who read it. And you can blame Bill Alrich, who, some eight and a half years ago, hired me to write my column.

He also started Chicagoland Gardening Magazine, and is the author of a number of books. Here’s what has to say about Bill.

WILLIAM ALDRICH is publisher of Chicagoland Gardening, a magazine he founded in 1995 to provide regionally focused gardening information. He is a certified Master Gardener and has been a garden writer for more than 20 years, mostly with the Chicago Tribune. Bill, a past-president of the Garden Writers Association, has written six Lone Pine gardening books designed for Midwest gardeners.

More recently, Bill has been Seminar coordinator at Chicago Flower & Garden Show. I like to have him stop by my show from time to time, if only because he always has interesting things to say about horticulture and the people who practice it.

Bonsai and gardening tips for the week…from Dan Kosta

If you listen to my show long enough you will hear a phone call from Dan Kosta. Dan works at Vern Goers Greenhouse in Hinsdale and, I am happy to say, is a friend fo the show. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from correcting me when I get something wrong, or just offering what is usually excellent gardening advice.

He is also a serious collector of bonsai and a member of the Prairie State Bonsai Society. He’s here today to talk about Prairie State’s annual show at the Morton Arboretum on July 16 & 17. . Hours are 10am – 6pm on Saturday and 10am – 4pm on Sunday. There will be bonsai demonstrations, workshops, vendors, and a display of members’ trees. The show is free but you must pay for admission to the Arboretum. The show is located in the Arboretum visitor’s center. You can register for workshops 630-719-2468 or

Dan says this a great event for anyone who wants to learn more about the art of bonsai as well as those who are experienced in growing bonsai, or just curious of what bonsai all about. Of course, he will be making a presentation himself–a workshop on Dawn Redwood trees on Saturday morning and another demonstration on Sunday.

Okay, that’s the bonsai stuff. Dan has also written to me lately about other matters, including the hail storm that hit the squash plants in the Green on McLean community garden on my block. His advice, per the subject line of his email, is to “toss the squash.” Here’s why.

Rip out the damaged squash. Do not save them. Replant seed. This is when I always plant my squash seed and this is not just because I am crazy. The squash borer female is out in June laying her eggs. By the first of July she is gone (aka dead) and so you avoid getting borers. This is something I got from the extension service a few years ago and it works. You will still get plenty and no borers killing the vines. I have even told this to customers and it works for them. The warm soil will make the seeds germinate quickly and the vines grow fast as well.

He also commented on other plants:

One of my customers said he has plenty of flowers on his tomatoes but only 2 fruits. Most flowers fall off. I am guessing a pollination problem, lack of bees. There have been other unusual problems brought in as well. Apple scab seems to be big this year and lots of verticillium problems on tomatoes, especially heirloom types. Just another one of our usual strange years.

He added this in another email:

More garden problems are being brought in. One woman brought in a bunch of aphids of a real pretty red color. Don’t recall seeing that color aphids before. A lot of leaves that have torn themselves up as well. That’s due to fluctuating temperatures. Its an easy one to spot if you know what to look for.

Since Dan has so much good information for me, I am happy to say that I was able to return the favor. You might recall that last week I had Robert Nevel of KAM Isaiah Israel on the show. While he was in the studio, he happened to mention that his cucumbers were not growing up to expectations. I commented that we had experienced the same thing on McLean. LaManda Joy, who was also on the show, confirmed our complaint.

And then, this week, Kathleen and friend Mac stopped in at the Green City Market in Lincoln Park. They just happened to mention the cucumber problem to an organic farmer…who immediately knew what they were talking about. We’re embarrassed that we didn’t get this farmer’s name, because her advice makes lots of sense.

She said that she was experiencing the same problem on her farm. She blamed it on the cool weather that occurred while the cucumbers should have been growing vines. The temperatures caused the vines to be slow in developing. Then, suddenly, hot weather hit, which sent a signal to the plants to start producing fruit. The problem was that because the plants were so small, there was no way that they could sustain fruit growth.

The farmer said that she hit her plants with a a double dose of nitrogen-rich fish emulsion, to immediately stimulate plant growth. She suggests that it should be done a week later, to insure that the plants get up to speed. It makes sense to me, and I suspect that it will work on other cucurbits and perhaps even other plants that have been lagging because of our inconsistent weather. If you happen to try this approach, drop me a line and let me know how your veggies respond.