Sunday, November 30, 2008

Michael Pollan+Bill Moyers=Grow Your Own

Anyone else watch Michael Pollan on Bill Moyers' NOW this week? If you missed it, click here.
One idea with real merit is for the president-elect to hire a White House chef who would source food from local farms.

And naturally we support turning at least five acres of the White House lawn (lawn? that's ridiculous...) into an organic farm.

A friend asked how our greens were doing upstairs, so here's an update. (Double-click photos for larger views.)

The sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) are growing beautifully. It's about 50 degrees F on the second floor (about 32 degrees F outside), an ideal temperature for cool-weather greens. I rotate the planters every few days to accommodate the single southern exposure light source.

Here's a close-up of one planter. We're getting a nice salad or stir-fry for two every other day. I'm amazed it's working, but then I still marvel at the power of a few minuscule seeds to deliver this much food. This after 50 years of growing stuff.

One issue with the Pollan/Moyers program: it took them a long time to get around to suggesting that people start a garden to grow their own food.

As you know if you read our blog, you don't need a turned-earth plot to do it. And you don't need a rooftop either--SIPs can be positioned anywhere on the ground where you have sun. Some people even put them in a wagon so they can be moved into the sun.

And as Bruce says, you can also view growing your own food as political act. Pollan and Moyers touched on that too.

At left is a view of one of the sub-irrigated pop-bottle planters seeded in October. It won't be long before it too becomes a windowsill salad generator.

I don't pretend that everyone can haul bucket planters inside and grow food in Chicago during the winter. But if you've got a window with strong light, these pop bottle planters are an amazing demonstration of sub-irrigation in action. For more on all things sub-irrigated, go to Bob Hyland's site Inside Urban Green and have a look around.

Finally, I reuse the small plastic Earthbound Farms boxes to hold our harvest. It's a good reminder of the $2.99 we save each time we cut and savor this beautiful food.

Conservatively, that's $9.00 per week plus the cost of transport, which in our case means giving the legs a good work-out on the stairs to the second floor.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Roof-Grown Greens and Tomatoes

It's November 23 in Chicago and nighttime temps are hovering around 20 degrees. Last week Bruce was taking down the last of his Russian red kale and chard and gave us a bag full. Steamed with a little extra virgin olive oil and the tag end of our tomatoes (green ones that have been ripening for a month), it's a magnificent lunch. I also chopped an added a little of the fringe-y fresh dill Bruce sent our way. You can't eat better than this.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Before the Snow Falls + Greens for Winter?

We're literally wrapping up the rooftop garden for winter. Art used foam core and a tarp (shown in process here) to keep moisture out of our SIPs during the winter months. In the spring we may be able to use clear plastic to turn this little run into a greenhouse.

What's inside?

Planters we drained and removed the plastic tops from over the past six weeks so they could dry out a bit. This spring, we'll remove the crusty old fertilizer ring and dump the planting mix into a larger container, pulling out the plant roots before using the soil to replant our SIPs.

Will there be greens?
In early October we planted the seeds below so they could get started before coming inside to grow on our second floor. It's unheated but the temps say in the 40s due to some heat escaping from the first floor. (Check out the broccoli and Brussels sprouts in the background--they're our last two plants on the roof and still thriving as of today.)

In the foreground, seeds starts for the fresh greens we hope will continue to feed us this winter.

Here's how we got the planters from roof down to second floor
Art loads a planter into the plastic milk carton (slash urban basketball hoop)
and attaches to the pulley...

...while I wait for it to drop.

The approach seems obvious now, but we spent some real time pondering the best way to lower the planters, which (drained of water but containing damp soil) weigh about 30 pounds each.

This is a sweet solution.

It lands on this old wheeled plastic cart...

...which I push into the south-facing room to offload.

Here's what's growing now
Renne's Garden stirfry mix, Lacinato kale, Swiss chard, and Russian red kale.
In the background, Bob Hyland's pop bottle planters seeded with everything just mentioned
plus arugula.

Here's a closer look at the pop-bottle planters. And here's how you make them yourself.

We're uncertain if the blast of southern light will be enough to keep our greens growing or if we'll need to add lighting. Stay tuned for more on the winter growing experiment.

And remember, summer tomatoes are just eight months away...

Friday, November 7, 2008


With a nod to Bruce, I cleaned up the rooftop garden and starting getting ready for winter. Since I still have some lettuce and spinach in a box, as well as a box of onions and herbs, I didn't get it all taken care of but I'm on my way. Like Bruce, I first emptied the water in my boxes. With mine, I just covered the top and put the box on its side to drain the water. Since we had some warm temps recently, I let the boxes air-out a bit before covering them with clear, 4mm, plastic tarps.

For my spinach/lettuce box, I wanted to see how long I could go into the season, so I built a low tunnel, using 9 gauge wire fastened to the wooden structures with wire tacks. I also put a thermometer under the tarp to see the temp differences.

The last thing I did was transfer a few herbs from the boxes to Pop Bottle SIPs, made famous by Bob Hyland ( We'll see how they do.

It's been a great growing season and we are working on some ideas for next year so stay tuned.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

For What It's Worth


More info. More images.

(above image via.)
Not Dark Yet

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Winding Down

If I could only put one thing under the heading of What I Learned On My Summer Vacation My Roof, it would be that Greens-- mesclun, lettuce, arugula, spinach, swiss chard, kale, and mustard/collard greens--are the best plants to put in SIPs. Best? Meaning they are easy to grow, produce large quantities over a long season, and while readily available at most markets, they're relatively expensive. As a cook/eater, the real reason to grow them is that they taste good and they're good for you.

I'm also growing broccoli and brussel sprouts. As a kid I hated both of them. Now I'll go out of my way to eat them if they taste good--a great recipe makes all the difference in the world.

When you grow the plants yourself, it's striking how big the leaves are compared what makes it into the produce section at the store. It seems a shame to waste all those greens, which are similar to kale and chard. One idea I came across is to toss the broccoli or brussel sprout leaves with pasta and cheese.

In keeping with the decidedly amateurish pedantic tone that I started with a few months ago, I'd like to pass on my steps for closing up shop for the winter.

Last fall I didn't do much, just cut down the dying plants and put them in the compost pile. Then I drained the containers, in what seems to have been an unnecessary effort, to keep them from cracking due to freezing/expanding water. Because I didn't cover the planters completely, rain and snow found its way into the reservoir where it mixed with the decaying roots to create a funky stew. On the plus side, none of the tubs cracked. Of course I only found this out in the spring.


This year I drained the tubs using a little hand siphon. The one shown here is normally used to transfer kerosene to a space heater.

Next was tearing off the old plastic bag, removing the old fertilizer strip, and digging out any large roots.

The last step was to cover the whole thing with a new plastic bag.

I'm hoping that all I'll have to do in the spring is take off the bag, add some new fertilizer, put the bag back over the planter, and after cutting small holes in it, drop in the seedlings.

That might be a little optimistic, but it's a plan.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Favorite Greens 2008: Renee's Stirfry Mix

Renne's Garden
Renee's Stirfry Mix
growing in sub-irrigated planters (SIPS)

If you want to grow a flavorful selection of greens, you can't do better than this. Especially easy to grow in a SIP, Renee's stirfry mix gives you red mustard, mizspoona, pac choi, and Asian red kale. It's a plain and spicy, multi-textured extravaganza.

Click on the photo to view a close-up of these nutrient-packed greens.

We've been cutting greens for salads and stir-fries for weeks. And I just planted some more seeds that will start outdoors but come inside this Chicago winter and live on our second floor, unheated but in the 40s due to a leaky first-floor ceiling.

We'll see if they grow inside and keep us in fresh greens this winter--that's the hope.

I'm buying more of these seeds for next year, that's for sure.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Financial Argument for Planting a Garden (in SIPs)

With most of our retirement portfolios worth about sixty percent of what they were two months ago, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of “boot strapping” both in the corporate sector and at home. People will hold off large expenditures and start watching what they spend on everyday items, like, most appropriately here, food.

People will weigh food costs against quality; which may impact the commercial supply chain. The big box grocers will be running sales on produce that don’t seem possible until you realize the direct correlation between cost and quality. The niche markets, focused on organic or higher quality produce may suffer, since their food is often more expensive to grow. The farmers may feel a pinch as well with their commercial buyers but also the farmers markets and CSAs since spending four or five dollars a pound for tomatoes may seem like a luxury to some people.

Please take a breath and gather some perspective. High quality, locally sourced, organic food is probably much better for your health than the high volume, commercially grown, low quality produce alternative. What is your health worth to you (please factor in rising health care costs before answering)? Some people believe that since the “good stuff” has more concentrated flavor, a person is more likely not to overeat or need as much of it. Maybe less is more?

This seems like the perfect time to start planning your own garden. You’ll reap the benefits of locally grown, high quality, organic produce for next spring, summer, and fall. Perhaps, you’ll be enterprising and think about canning and freezing for next winter.

Gardens can seem expensive – turning a yard into a serviceable, organic garden takes a lot of hard work, tools, and time. Let alone watering everyday and weeding and fighting off insects.

Yes, the “traditional way” can be difficult but I use SIPs (Sub-Irrigated Planters) in my rooftop garden that I feel paid for itself this year alone. Friends and family are surprised to see the yields and the ease of use. I use the commercial Earthbox planters but you can make your own (plenty of options on this site alone). Besides for the initial set-up (fill with potting mix, fertilize and plant your crop), all there is left is daily watering. That will be taken care of next season with an automatic watering system from Earthbox but you can build your own as well from instructions on our site. There is very little weeding and watching for pests (I sprayed organic solutions for about a week this past year). The most labor intensive thing you may have to do is build trellises and supports for all of your plants.

To give you an idea of why I feel good about my garden investment this year, here’s an example. I planted four boxes of tomatoes (actually five but the last box was a late season addition of donated heirlooms tomatoes – I want to keep this fair). My investment for the boxes was $34 each (I bought twelve at once). I figure the potting mix and fertilizer cost another $12 per box and starter plants were about five bucks each (two per box). That’s about $224.00 for tomatoes this year!

But wait. Some claim that they can get yields of 40lbs of tomatoes per box per season. I didn’t count but I would estimate that, on average, I was pulling about 5-10lbs of tomatoes per week since mid July (I’m still pulling 5 lbs a week in mid October). If we take an average of two pounds of tomatoes per box per week for 13 weeks, it’s about 26lbs of tomatoes per box, per season (a conservative estimate) or 104 pounds of tomatoes. At my local organic grocer, organic tomatoes cost about $4 per pound in season. At the farmers markets, they average about $3 per pound. That’s $300-$400 if I were to purchase my yield and quality at the store or market. That’s a significant savings and don’t even get me started on my lettuce! On top of the cost difference, I have the pleasure of walking upstairs to pick my “fresh off the vine” tomato for my BLT. I will track the costs better next year. This year was my “R&D” phase to see if growing vegetables on my roof was possible.

I feel that we’ll see a significant grassroots movement back to vegetable gardening. In order to do that, especially in an urban setting, people will need information resources. Our goal is to supply them here. Before next spring (planting season), we will be offering information on how to plan your garden along with tips we’ve learned along the way. We’ll try to include local suppliers of materials and cost-effective tips. If you have any ideas, please feel free to forward them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

More on Melons

If you read our post Melon Mania, you know this was our first try growing melons in the recycled bucket sub-irrigated planters (SIPs--for info on how to make one, click here).

In the picture above, you'll see they grew happily, resisting the powdery mildew that decimated our summer squash and lemon cukes. What a fun, easy crop.

We kept the water reservoirs filled and the melons kept coming.

Above is the Ha Ogen. My nephew couldn't believe these 4-pounders were able to hang on by an apparent thread, but nature knows her business.

The Ha Ogen interior, sweet as sugar with exceptional flavor. We'll grow them again in 2009.

Below are the Renee's Garden Icebox Watermelon/Rainbow Sherbet. This is the only hybrid we grew in 2008, and we'll replant it next summer. Luscious fruit.

The melons never climbed high enough to claim "Hanging Melons of Division Street" status, but you can see below the Ha Ogen started on its way. We have some ideas for next year.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Holding on to Summer

Well, October is knocking at our door in Chicago which means a few things are certain - it's getting cooler, trees are changing, and our summer vegetables are being replaced by pumpkin and squash.

Not so fast. Our first frost should hit around mid to late October so that means we still may see a few more tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, not to mention the lettuce and spinach I planted a few weeks ago.

The picture above is what I pulled out of the garden this past Saturday (the 27th). The tomatoes are a little smaller and the plants are on their downward spiral but I'm eating everything that comes out of my 150 square foot urban roof top garden.

I'm trying to stretch the seasons without the use of greenhouses - just good old fashioned timing and luck. Let's hope our weather holds out a few more weeks so I can enjoy my spinach and lettuce.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Wasted Opportunity

Lately, the SIP (sub-irrigated container) seems to have gotten some nice publicity. It’s much deserved, in my opinion, since I use the commercial Earthbox variety with great success. I’m hopeful that the praise continues and more people can enjoy growing their own vegetables.

Some notable chefs here in Chicago have also jumped on the bandwagon and have used Earthboxes in their restaurant gardens. These gardens have been well publicized and likewise the chefs have reaped some well deserved “feel good benefits” as well.

So you can imagine my shock when I visited one of the restaurants to find three poor Earthboxes unused and sitting filled with mulch in the peak time of growing season. I won’t name the restaurant because it’s not fair to call attention to something without knowing the whole story. I gain nothing by calling attention to this individual or the restaurant, since I really enjoy the food there. All I know is that this particular restaurant gets some nice publicity on a non-profit website that states, “Fresh organic produce harvested right on the premises can now be used for fresh menu additions, food bank donations, and delicious gifts. Both of these restaurants are not-to-be-missed in the Chicago restaurant community, so check out their new gardens as you sit down for dinner!”

I’d like the photos to serve as a reminder. Although SIPs are much easier than tending an in-ground garden, it’s still work that takes time and dedication. It requires changing part of the way you spend your time and some of the ways you think. To use an old expression, “you reap what you sow”.

If you look at the picture hard enough, you’ll see a pathetic in-ground tomato plant. Imagine what that same plant would look like in the Earthbox!

On the other hand, if this restaurant isn’t planning on using their Earthboxes, I’d be glad to take them off of its hands and grow some real life vegetables in these things.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Bigger Picture

Since I’ve started my garden, many people have asked, why are you doing this? There are farmer’s markets, CSAs, independent and chain grocers at your disposal, why did you choose to grow your own vegetables, let alone, research on how to grow them on your rooftop?

I’ve thought about this quite a bit. At first, my response, was, “what’s it matter to you what I do or why I do it?” Then it evolved to: “why wouldn’t I do it, doesn’t it just makes sense?”

The more I think about it the more I feel that there was this idea of relearning about food - where it comes from, how it grows, and how to grow it. Then I started thinking about how can I, a Chicagoan with zero farmable land, grow my own food? Now, I find myself thinking about how to extend the seasons here in Chicago, the best times to rotate plants, where to procure my materials, and how to spread the word.

It’s a “back to basics” thing for me. Why do I do it? Simply, because I can. You can too and it’s not only good for you, it can potentially be good for your community, your environment and other communities and environments around the world. That’s the bigger picture.

Seem lofty? Sure it does but if you think about it, it’s pretty simple. It’s the old, “give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach a man to fish…” If you learn to grow food for you and your family, and then share the knowledge with other families in your community or around the world, you can change the lives of other people. One organization that is linking this knowledge with technology is The Growing Connection. They aim to engage “people a network of committed individuals - in an elegant solution to one of man’s fundamental challenges.”

“The Growing Connection (TGC) is a grassroots project developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) supported by a progressive coalition of private and public sector partners.” They see the opportunity to use the recent agricultural technology, also known as SIPs (or Earthboxes, in this case) as the medium to grow vegetables in poor economic or climate conditions. Then, they use the knowledge gained to bridge communities and countries together via the internet. It’s people sharing their experience with other people for a greater good. You can view a video here.

One thing that struck me is how they gather people from the academic setting, neighborhood children, and technology professionals together for this cause. Teaching children and communicating in our information age, has all come together. The bigger picture is starting to become clear.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Grilled Vegetable Terrine

Made of grilled vegetables, goat cheese, and vinaigrette, it's an elegant way to use what you've grown. And tastes even better than it looks.

If you've never made a terrine, this is a good place for a home cook with, say, intermediate kitchen skills to start. It uses late summer vegetables, ones that your SIPs are starting to deliver. It's also a very flexible recipe. The basic technique can be used with several different combinations of vegetables.

Before I get to the terrine, I'd like to point out that there are countless recipes, and sites devoted to them, that you could use to prepare your vegetables. With good ingredients, simple is better; a plate of sliced heirloom tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, sherry vinegar, basil, salt and pepper. Add a few slices of No-Knead Bread , some good cheese and a bottle of wine and it's a meal.

If you want some more ideas, I've found two of Mark Bittman's cookbooks to be helpful--Best Recipes in the World and How to Cook Everything - Vegetarian.

Grilled Vegetable Terrine

Adapted from Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie and this recipe on Epicurious.

2 eggplant (roughly 2 pounds), peeled and sliced lengthwise into 1/4" slices

2 zucchini (roughly 1 pound), sliced lengthwise into 1/4" slices

2 yellow squash (roughly 1 pound), sliced lengthwise into 1/4" slices

Olive oil to brush on the above prior to grilling, (or broiling)
Salt and pepper

2 or 3 sweet peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and cut into strips
4 or 5 oven dried tomatoes, (click here for more on this technique), or sun-dried tomatoes

8 oz. goat cheese, softened to room temp.

1/2 c. of your favorite vinaigrette
1 1/2 Tablespoons water
1 teaspoon powdered gelatin

A narrow terrine pan, 10"x3"x3". If you have a different size you'll need to adjust the quantity of your ingredients. Also, any mold wider than three inches might cause the finished product to sag in the middle.

Mandoline, optional but makes things a lot easier
Plastic wrap
Pastry brush
Piece of cardboard cut to fit the top of the terrine pan
2 one pound cans, used to weigh down the terrine while it sets overnight

It takes about an hour of prep time, plus it needs to chill overnight

Yield: 8 to 10 appetizer portions

Slice the first three vegetables as uniformly as you can, a mandoline works best. Brush with oil, season with salt and pepper. Grill over medium heat until tender, turning just once so you get nice grill marks. Transfer to a plate to cool.

Before you start putting the terrine together, taste each of the components. If you don't like anything, change it now. It won't magically improve after being refrigerated overnight in a mold.

Put the water in a saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Once the gelatin is absorbed (blooms), put the pan over low heat until it's dissolved. Add it to 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette and keep it warm so it doesn't start to set up while you assemble the terrine. Putting the cup of vinaigrette into a slightly larger bowl of warm water does the trick.

Line the terrine with plastic wrap. You want enough overhang, (about 3 inches, on the long sides) so you can fold it over on the top of the finished terrine. Wetting the inside of the mold before you put in the plastic will make the plastic stick in the corners. Put a layer of eggplant slices in the mold first. Put them in crosswise, with the end of each piece starting at the centerline of the bottom of the mold and running up, and over, the side by an inch or two.

Keep in mind that the first layer you put down is going to be the "top" of the finished terrine, so put the pieces down with very little overlap. And that you're going to be serving a cross section of whatever you put inside the mold.

Lightly brush the eggplant with vinaigrette. You might have enough eggplant to put down two layers, overlap the joints where possible. After each layer brush with vinaigrette, it's the glue that holds the whole thing together. Repeat with the zucchini and yellow squash, remembering to put vinaigrette between each. Lay the strips of pepper in the mold and brush with vinaigrette. Gently press the goat cheese into the mold, creating an even layer and brush it with vinaigrette. Lay the tomatoes on top of the cheese, again brushing with vinaigrette. Fold the eggplant and squash flaps on top of the tomatoes, brush the top with the remaining vinaigrette. Pull the plastic up over the top and seal the terrine. Push down on the finished terrine using a little bit of pressure. You want to eliminate any voids and create a fairly solid block of vegetables. Put the cardboard cutout on top of the plastic you just sealed. Refrigerate overnight with the two weights on top.

Take it out of the fridge about a half hour before serving. Flip it over on to a cutting board, remove the plastic, turn it right side up (what was the bottom of the mold is the finished top of the terrine) and cut it into 1/2" slices. You'll get a clean slice if you use a thin bladed knife and pull it toward you with a long stroke rather than sawing back and forth. Clean off the knife in a tall glass of hot water as needed. Serve each piece with a little of the reserved vinaigrette on the side.

Try this recipe using different vegetables: carrots, mushrooms, leeks, onions, or fennel. Or boil, and shock in an ice water bath, some chard or kale to use as the outer layer instead of eggplant. You can play around with whatever combinations taste and look good. I wonder if I could make it a truly vegetarian dish by substituting agar for the gelatin? I bet someone at Ideas in Food or Playing with Fire and Water could tell me.

Rulhman's Charcuterie is discussed here on eGullet. Now that you're familiar with the basic technique, put it to use by making other terrines and pat├ęs.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Why We Grow in Sub Irrigated Planters (SIPs)

August 6 harvest
I could never grow this in my relatively large Chicago courtyard with composted soil.
There's no sun there.

Tomato Caspian Pink
Victory Seeds

Up on the roof, tucked into a SIP
plants have everything they need:
sun, organic fertilizer, and water

Eggplant Black Beauty
Victory Seeds

Not everything goes as expected. We lost three SIPs with black beauty eggplants due to nefarious factors still unidentified. But one recycled bucket planter keeps on producing.

Crop failures: 3 eggplant + one Abe Lincoln tomato
It happens. Gardening teaches patience.
Don't give up.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Melon Mania

Back in May, neighbor Bruce and I went up to Gethesemane Garden Center in Chicago to get some plant starts. We ended up at the seed racks. I'm a sucker for watercolor depictions, and picked up these two.

"Why not try melons?" Bruce asked. Why not indeed.

We direct-seeded the Renee's Garden Icebox Watermelon (rainbow sherbet colors, enough to make any gardener weak in the knees) and Botanical Interests Ha Ogen ("if you have room...for only one melon, Ha Ogen should be your first choice") into some of the yellow buckets in the new run of ten on the roof. My idea was that they'd crawl up and hang off the short trellis Art had built, but soon it was clear the Renee's watermelon plants wanted more attachments, more places to twine onto.

So Art installed a piece of the hard grid we got at an auction way back.

And the melons liked it. Here's a fetal melon with its flowered hat intact. Is there a more charming fruit to grow?

Back to the structure. You can see from photos that these melon babies are just getting started.

It was time for dramatic measures. So Art installed a PVC arch, after which he decided we needed a second arch so they could be tied together for structural integrity. Here's Art screwing in the flagpole holder for the second arch.

And the final framework for what will become The Hanging Melons of Division Street

As of August 1, the melons are thriving. These are the Renee's watermelons, which like the hard grid. The Ha Ogen seem better at climbing the arch. We'll keep you updated.

Aug 6, 2008