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.