Thursday, May 28, 2009

Doing It Ourselves

Practitioners. That's the word Erik Knutzen uses to describe what we do.

It fits. Thanks to google, carefully crafted, intelligent, and passionate essays about the importance of [green, local food, sustainability, Factory Farming, global warming, community] are easier than ever to find. The trick is to put some of these ideas into practice. Big plans fall prey to lack of money or institutional power, small ideas seem to be completely useless in the face of huge problems.

That's where these simple planters come in. Made of readily available materials, they deliver real results with very little effort.

And they produce more than vegetables. There is something powerful in the simple act of growing a little bit of your own food.

Or, for that matter, planting a few flowers.

But back to the practical for a second.

We loved talking with Erik while he was in town and hope to make it out to L.A. sometime soon. Also, his visit was a chance to officially meet Martha Bayne, who wrote the Chicago Reader article about Earthboxes that started me down this path. And we all came together because Nance Klehm suggested we hold some SIP workshops while Erik was here promoting his book.

Thanks to all of them for providing inspiration.

We hope we're doing the same to some of the people who visit our site.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bees in the Breeze

You never know when your next urban adventure might begin. My nephew Marc (in blue) introduced us to his soccer pal and beekeeper Noam (in red), who came by to check our roof for its suitability as a hive location.

GreenRoofGrowers Art and Bruce joined us, as did Timah, a grad student from Purdue who drove up from Indiana to see some SIPs in action. Here they are, goofin' for the camera.

Noam liked the looks of the southwest corner of our roof, which catches the sunrise and warms the bees, revving them up for their day of foraging. He brought over the hive and set it up.

A little starter honey for the new residents...and a taste for us.

Art built a lovely pier out to the hive.
We were away when the bees checked in, but they're happily buzzing around their new home. I said hello to one drifting around the broccoli today. We should see more activity when the summer squash begin to bloom...which won't happen until I plant the seeds, will it?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Recap of the May 20th SIP Workshop

Last night, a small group gathered for a hands on workshop at Mr. and Ms. H2's urban hideaway.

She passed on these captioned photos.

Using the quarter-inch bit to drill the numerous air-circulation/root holes.

Bruce shows how to visualize the bottom of the top bucket by holding the set up to a light source. Mark bucket bottom and drill overflow hole about a half-inch down.

Packing the wicking cups (after slitting) with soil-less mix and then pouring water liberally on top to ensure sogginess before tamping down to eliminate air spaces.

Getting the "shower cap" on over Bruce's monster tomato starts was a challenge.


There are plenty of reasons to grow plants in these kinds of containers. I keep coming back to the fact(s?) that they're easy to use and they work: "more than double the yield of a conventional garden--using less water, less fertilizer and virtually no effort". They're a nice solution to some of the problems posed by challenging growing conditions on rooftops, balconies, and contaminated soil. I'll admit they're not perfect--all that plastic and added fertilizer--but they let you make the most of whatever you've got.

For the class, we used 5 gallon buckets; other small scale options include pop bottles and 18 gallon Rubbermaid™ totes.

You can make these planters out of almost any type of watertight container, that usually means plastic. Some plastics are ok, others you want to stay away from--short version, avoid #3, 6, and #7.

We used 1 cubic foot of Baccto Professional Planting Mix (available at Gethsemane Garden Center, $10 for 2 cubic feet) per planter. It's a mixture (by volume) of 85% sphagnum peat and 15% perlite, with some lime added to stabilize the pH between 5.5-6.5. You can buy other pre-bagged potting mixes as long as they don't have composted/decaying material, like soil, in them.
By introducing organic, decaying matter into the closed environment of the SIP, you allow for the growth of mold and you impede the flow of water from reservoir to plant. We'd encourage you to stick with the peat for the first year so you have something to base any further experiments on.
However........ Peat is a non-renewable resource. Coir is a terrific substitute, you can buy a compressed brick (it'll expand to 2 gallons when you add water) for $2.60 at Brew and Grow. We've found that a mix of 35% coir, 50% peat, and 15% perlite works well. We'd like to hear from anyone who has had good results growing in just coir and perlite.

Here's list of the tomato varieties planted by the group.

Everyone put 1 cup of Espoma Garden Lime (available at Home Depot) in the top 4" of potting mix of each bucket to ward off blossom end rot. That was followed by 2 cups of Espoma 3-4-6 Tomato-tone (from Gethsemane) in a ring on top of the mix in each planter.

These amounts are based, loosely, on the official Earthbox™ Planting Guide.

Thanks to all who attended, including Nance, Erik from Homegrown Evolution, and Martha. Nice job all around.

We're looking forward to another great group on Sat. May 30th, from 1-3 pm. Send us an email greenroofgrowers [at] gmail [dot] com by May 25th to reserve a spot. More details here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Food, Inc.

"You'll never look at dinner the same way again."

Since they don't allow the trailer to be embedded in blogs, you'll have to go to youtube to see it. In the meantime, here's a screenshot I snagged from The Bovine.

Coming this summer!

With a constituency limited to anyone who eats, "Food, Inc." is a civilized horror movie for the socially conscious, the nutritionally curious and the hungry. Yes, it has a deceptively cheery palette, but helmer Robert Kenner's doc -- which does for the supermarket what "Jaws" did for the beach -- marches straight into the dark side of cutthroat agri-business, corporatized meat and the greedy manipulation of both genetics and the law. Doc biz may be in the doldrums, but "Food, Inc." is so aesthetically polished and politically urgent, theatrical play seems a no-brainer, though it won't do much for popcorn sales.


Featuring interviews with such experts as Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto) along with forward thinking social entrepreneurs like Stonyfield's Gary Hirshberg and Polyface Farms' Joel Salatin, Food, Inc. reveals surprising—and often shocking truths—about what we eat, how it's produced, who we have become as a nation and where we are going from here.

Opens June 12, 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Heirloom Seedling Update

We started our planning in February, I was putting seeds into potting mix not long after. I've been growing--335 seedlings to be exact--for 3 months and my body's telling me it's the middle of July.

H2 came over and took some great pics.

I barely have room in my seedling light rack to fit all the plants shown in the pictures above; an additional 160 seedlings have either been planted on one of our roofs or transferred to H2's rooftop greenhouse.

Coming up with a seed starting schedule that works off of our average last frost date and makes the most of our limited light rack space has been a challenge. It was a great learning experience; if you have the chance to do this with a few people you know, I'd encourage you to give it a shot.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Potato Box - An Experiment

I have a small strip of land that gets 6 hours of sun a day. It's the perfect spot to try growing potatoes. Vertically. In a box.

I got the idea from this article in the Seattle Times. The hook is that you can grow a lot of potatoes in a tiny space; just what I need.
Greg Lutovsky, who has been growing potatoes as a business since 1993, says you can grow 100 pounds of potatoes in 4 square feet. All it takes is some lumber, seed potatoes and careful attention to watering.
The story was enough to get me started, but it's a little short on practical advice. For that I turned to Sinfonian, who meticulously documented his potato-in-a-box efforts last year.

The idea is to pile up soil around the growing potato vine, adding more soil--and boards to the side of the box--as the vines get taller. Potatoes will grow between the seed piece and the above ground plant.

When the plants start flowering, after about 100 days, you can remove a board or two from the bottom and fish out a couple of potatoes. Or you can wait until frost kills the plant in the fall and harvest them all at once. There are plenty of sites that explain how to store potatoes. With a bit of luck, I'll be doing that this fall.

If you want to grow vertically, there are several alternatives to choose from: grow bags, wire cages, stacked tires, large containers. All had drawbacks, so I chose to make my 3'x3' bin out of cedar fencing boards and southern yellow pine. I gave all the pieces a coat of linseed oil, hoping that this will protect the wood from rotting.

I bought, and then chitted, 3 pounds of Inca Gold seed potatoes from Ronniger Potato Farm. Inca Gold are late season potatoes, an important detail for this type of growing. According to Sinfonian, early season varieties only set fruit once, making them bad candidates for potato towers. You'll end up with a few at the bottom of the box and that's it.

I just planted my seed potatoes today. As they grow, I'll add more cedar boards to the sides of my box and cover them with dirt.

I'm following the same method of piling up soil around a growing vine--but with sunchokes-- in SIPs on my roof. I think you could do the same with potatoes.

[8.26.09, update on potato box]

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Welcome Chicago Magazine Readers

In the May edition of Chicago Magazine, there's a nice article on urban gardening, "Salad Days". I want to publicly thank author Karin Sullivan for including my rooftop garden in her story. When we met last year and she told me she was thinking of writing a short piece on growing food in city gardens--and wanted to showcase one of our rooftop gardens--I was pretty excited about the prospect of other people learning about what we're doing.

I have to say that I’ve learned a lot from Bruce and Heidi (my fellow Green Roof Growers) over the past year. Their roof gardens are much more involved – and larger – than mine but I think Karin wanted to show that someone with very little knowledge (like me!) could have success in a very limited time. I hope that came through in the article.

Whenever they see the garden, people seem to ask me the same questions. Here are answers to the most common ones:

I grow in Earthboxes; a basic one costs about $30 on the EB website.

I used Miracle Grow organic potting mix with Foxfarm’s organic fertilizer last year and am re-using the same potting mix in this year’s garden.

Last year, I used starter plants purchased at both Gethsemane and Home Depot. This year, all of the starts are grown from seed (thanks much Bruce).

The Earthboxes (as well as all sub-irrigated planters – aka SIPs) will use less water than conventional gardening since nothing is wasted.
"Our maintenance-free, award-winning, high-tech growing system controls soil conditions, eliminates guesswork and more than doubles the yield of a conventional garden- with less fertilizer, less water and virtually no effort."
One of the major upgrades I’m adding this year is an automatic watering system so I can go out of town without worrying that my plants will suffer.

My rooftop was built for decking and can carry the weight of the boxes (about 50 lb each). Before you put anything on any roof, please consult with a structural engineer or other building professional to confirm that your structure can handle it.
Our site has a lot of information that can get you started. I’ll also be posting some updates to this year’s garden as time goes on. If you need anything else or have any ideas, please feel free to post a reply to one of the posts here. Thanks for stopping by.

[I changed the posting date from April 14th to May 6th so it stays "stuck" at the top of the site for a while. - B.]