Saturday, April 30, 2011

Planting Dwarf Tomatoes April 29

Yesterday I planted the two dwarf tomatoes Debbie gave us during our seed swap in early February. See them in their yogurt cup?

They thrived in the portable microgarden they've been growing in.

I planted them in these Eezy Grow sub-irrigated planters, which are shallower than the 5-gallon bucket SIPs. We'll see how they do.

It's early to be planting tomatoes in Chicago. They'll stay in the unheated greenhouse for now, out of the gusty winds that would snap them in half.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

More Transplanting, More Growth

Last Friday Bruce and I transplanted a lot of tomatoes and eggplant out of their tiny homes and into larger ones.

A scant month from now they'll be hardening off outside in preparation for planting.

Bruce started some rosemary from seed and some from mother plant cuttings, with rooting hormone.

The basil and pepper transplants from ten days ago are thriving. Seed-starting offers the chance to try a vast selection of varieties you'd never see for sale.

Carl keeps a watchful eye on it all...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Chicken Coop Update

I finished putting the shingle siding on yesterday.  I have about half of the 11 doors and windows installed.  Here I'm pointing at one of the mortises I made to receive a door hinge.

Here, two of the coops six vents are latched in the up position to allow for fresh air.

The nesting box.  You flip the door down and reach in to gather the eggs.

The eight hens are 11 weeks old and getting crowded in their relatively tiny brooder.  I underestimated the amount of work to build the coop/run; a contributing factor has been the cold wet spring.  It's been stressful, not only for the pullets.  Here you can see them picking at dandelions which they gobble up like spaghetti.

I still need to build and install the remaining doors and windows.  Then frame the walls of the run, set a roof on those walls, and finally raccoon proof the whole thing.

When it warms up I can lay linoleum tile on the coop floor, then install the lights and put in roosts.  Make and install the feeder and waterer.  I'm sure there's more I'm forgetting.  Point is there's still a lot more to do. Maybe another 40-50 hours of work.

The Tobacco Experiment

We're giving it a try, in three locations: Bruce's rooftop rubbermaid SIPs, our rooftop 5-gal bucket SIPs, and my brother's in-ground organic garden.

Wisconsin Seedleaf, Havanna, and Silk Leaf seed starts.

Also, hah.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Leafy Spring Greens 2011: Three Ways of Growing

Celebrating spring greens grown in Chicago using three approaches here at the urban ranch:

On the roof in 5-gal bucket SIPs  These get full April sun and are already producing steadily. They'll truly come into their own in May when the sun spends more time on them.

2  On our south-facing windowsill in portable microgardens  These mini-SIPs get a bit more April sun and warmth than the planters on the roof, owing to their location facing full-south and being lower than roof height. Currently they're producing most heavily of the three locations (note the tuft of miner's lettuce in foreground--delectable).

3  In a (beautiful birthday gift) cedar raised bed built by Art. The bed is positioned to use the maximum light available in our courtyard--maybe 4 hours of full sun in summer--and these greens are planted in 20 years worth of composted soil. Notably, they require lots of washing before eating because of soil splash when it rains (mulching will help limit this). Another water-saving/time-sparing benefit to SIP growing.

One advantage here: these greens should continue producing well into the hot summer months without going to seed because of their relatively shady location. Might build a low tunnel over this baby for next spring.
    Also seeding this bed with a backlog of diverse radish and carrot varieties, something I don't devote any precious rooftop space to.

    We're struck by the variation in productivity of the three methods/locations. It's a good reminder to explore growing in places you might not have considered.

    We're crazy for spring greens and I'm harvesting every day. In addition to flavor, every bowl is an antioxidant powerhouse. Imagine the amount of food we could grow in a semi-organized way via projects like this one

    Here's a lovely read on the transformative nature of growing by El at Fast Grow the Weeds.

    Sunday, April 24, 2011

    Making SIPs for Earth Day

    Yesterday The Singing Seed (Little Green Girl and I) were asked to host a SIP making workshop for kids at an Earth Day celebration in Broadview, IL. We gladly agreed. Kara presented pictures of our garden and we co-taught the SIP class. We love teaching families and kids how to garden and eat healthier!

    After sharing our presentation we had a food tasting with some Buttercrunch lettuce with a side of yummy balsamic vinegar dressing. The kids gobbled up their samples and some asked for another, we then made our SIPs and planted the same lettuce seedling. We think the kids really enjoyed the workshop, they looked excited to go home with their very own little garden!

    Sometimes it's hard to determine how complex or simple the content taught in a kids workshop should be, but we could tell that the kids really got into making their own SIPs!

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011

    The Perfect Kale Shake

    Little Green Girl doesn't really like eating leafy green vegetables so I was pleasantly surprised to see that she liked our homegrown Kale in her shake. They say it takes 10-15 attempts to potentially get your kid to eat a vegetable so consuming it in a shake makes me just as happy!

    If you are as crazy about Kale as I am, you might want to know about Diana Dyer. She's is a registered dietitian, multiple time cancer survivor, avid gardener, and blogger at
    So hail to Kale any which way you eat or drink it!

    Little Green Girl Kale Shake

    4 Young Kale leaves (Lacinato type)
    1 1/2 Cups of milk
    1 Tablespoon of Ovaltine
    1/2 Cup of frozen or fresh fruit

    Blend together and enjoy!

    This perfect Kale shake high in antioxidants, vitamin A, C and K.


    Our salad table with more Kale seedlings and Amish Deer
    Tongue lettuce in the last bed.

    Can't wait to make Kale chips. A little olive oil, salt and pepper
    and roasted in the oven till crisp.

    Growing Food Connects Neighbors

    Sunday was one of those days that took on the rhythm of growing and the connections it fosters

    Here's an example. New friend Brad (below) saw this blog and said: I want to do that. Lacking tools, he emailed Bruce to see if he'd share some for drilling out a few SIPs. Brad wasn't sure where Bruce lived but gave it a shot.

    And it turns out they live a scant five blocks apart. Here's Bruce and Brad, with his newly produced five-gallon SIPs (buckets secured from Whole Foods), standing in front of the partly shingled chicken coop.

    I met Brad when I arrived to start transplanting the 200+ seedlings that needed to go into larger pots, among them a diverse selection of basil (below), pepper, and eggplant.

    He generously volunteered to assist (muchas gracias), and we quickly established a groove, forking up seedlings, labeling grow cups, and re-establishing plants for their final four-week stint under the indoor grow lights. Click this photo to see a trio of extra-vital pepper seedlings, thanks to Bruce planting three seeds for every one requested.

    He hedged his bets and as a result we have many extras to share.

    In the middle of this, other friend Brad (who blogged this week about his expansive SIP-laden rooftop), stopped by to say hello with own his tiny sprout in tow. (Is GRG being taken over by Brads? We can only hope.)

    Talk turned to SIP growing, a hot pepper called Lucifer's Dream (thanks for the seeds, Debbie), seedling sharing, new-friend Brad's southern-exposure deck, old-friend Brad's rooftop cold frames. And homebrew, a project both Brads are immersed in.

    Is there a summer tomato-tasting, homebrew toasting in our future? Most excellently, yes.

    In this way and many others, 
    growing food not only infects us but connects us.

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    Portable Microgardens Thriving on Chicago Windowsill

    Last night it snowed and the cool-weather greens--mustard, bok choy, tatsoi, miner's lettuce, wrinkled crinkled crumpled cress, and lettuces--couldn't be happier.

    These mini-SIPs/portable microgardens are sitting on our south-facing windowsill getting all the light, wind, and and other weather Chicago can throw at 'em. And they are thriving.

    It's incredibly easy to assemble and plant one of these little grow boxes. Step-by-step right here.

    If you have another minute, head over to flickr and have a look at the Greenscaper Bob's Brooklyn Urban Garden site survey.  So many south-facing spaces, so little food...

    Sunday, April 17, 2011

    Signs of Spring

    The expansion continues... 16 new SIPs are built (for a total of 24), and all but 7 are now loaded with Baccto Pro potting mix. Later today I'll pick up the rest of the potting mix and fill the remaining SIPs. I'll add the fertilizer just before I plant each container.

    I finally planted the greens that Bruce started for me. 6 kale, 3 chard, and 4 Asian greens. The chard took a beating last night (they were not under a cold frame). There was ice on the tops of my cold frames this morning - apparently from the wind chill.
    The salad mix seeds I started under a cold frame on the 6th have been doing very well. I'll eat the baby greens and thin the container back to a few plants that will be allowed to fully mature.
    The roots are showing up... Radishes on the right, barely visible beets on the left. The carrots have not popped through, and are off the image to the left.
    I also started some tomatoes under a cold frame:
    and some beans:

    The cold frame is keep the soil temp 10-12 degrees warmer than the soil without protection. I'm excited to see how these tomatoes and beans do compared to the transplants I'll be getting from Bruce next month.

    In this set of rectangular boxes I've seeded Sweet Annie, Korean Licorice Mint, and Bachelor Buttons. I'll add jasmine scented Aztec Nicotiana in a couple weeks (the instructions were clear not to seed it before the danger of last frost). All will grow 2-6' tall, and are useful as medicinals, edibles, or teas, etc.
    On the 5th, 26 All Blue seed potatoes were potted in these containers:
    Nothing showing yet...

    Though Spring is certainly showing in the lilacs. We can't wait for these to bloom.

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    Spring Cleaning Your Sub Irrigated Planters (SIPs)

    In the back of my mind after four summers of growing vegetables in our sub irrigated planters (we began in 2007), I've wondered about the integrity of the potting mix. Could pathogens survive winter and affect the plants in subsequent years?
    Aug 2008

    Earthbox says you can re-use potting mix for five growing seasons. We remove the mix from all our SIPs each fall and dry it out in the sun. The SIPs themselves get a swipe with a stiff brush...

    ...but stubborn attachments remain.

    I was inspired after reading this post at Love Apple Farm (on growing potatoes in containers) to disinfect all our SIPs. I used their approach: a 10-to-1 water to bleach solution. If you click through, you'll see a happy worker twirling a potato bucket in its dilute bleach bath. 

    If life were so easy.

    I spent parts of the last three days on the roof, scrubbing away every last scrap of anything that was attached to our grow buckets. Art set me up with a nice hot-water hose run from the laundry room (because our last frost date is May 15, we don't have the full watering set-up on the roof going yet) and a mortar mixing tub. 

    On the first day, I used rubber gloves and all kinds of bleach water got in and and made my hands raw.  On the second day, I used packing tape to seal the gloves where they met the skin on my arms (nice look, Pippi). 

    Better, but today Art came home with these babies. Exceptional gloves.

    I scrubbed everything, including the fill tubes, and let the sun do the drying.

    In the middle of all this, Bruce emailed to say: as long as you're bleach-washing...we need 200 clean grower cups to transplant the eggplant, tomato, and peppers into. I was all over it. Disinfecting and reusing these cups year after year is a way to keep plastic out of the waste stream.

    There they are. I'm glad it's done.

    I'm still not sure about pathogens in potting mix. Love Apple Farm uses fresh mix every year to grow its container potatoes. That would be a deal-breaker for us. Let's hope all this bleach scrubbing leads to a glorious season of clean growing.