Friday, December 24, 2010

I'm Dreaming Of...

...Seattle's Pike Place Market
Being there always makes me smile. How could you not, with grown people throwing around whole fish? And rows and rows of flowers and vegetables? Thanks to our Seattle correspondent KK for this shot, taken last night.
Plus, I agree with Martha Bayne: why can't we have this in Chicago?

...Pesticide-free produce for all.
Thanks, Bruce, for link, describing a (to my mind) grim 12-year study on pesticide exposure and its effects in pregnant women and young children. To be certain nobody sprayed what you eat, grow your own.

...Magical bees, somehow warm in their hives on the roof, scheming to do this again next year.

...This photo, shot from an Amtrak window a couple Januarys ago as the sun was setting over Odessa WA. It feels like a painting.

To all a good night!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Winter Solstice Musings + Seed Savers Exchange

Pondering on this solstice the dreaming gardeners do mid-winter, it strikes me as a real-time definition of optimism. It's 18 degrees F outside, last year's growing season is behind us (good or bad, for this gardener it's always eye-popping in December to look at photos of ripe August produce), and anything is possible in the year ahead.

Like these lemon drop tomatoes, from Seed Savers Exchange (SSE),
another ultra-reliable seed source for us.
SSE says they'll grow even in cold-wet conditions. Will summer 2011 be like 2009, with exactly that, or more like this year, the blast furnace?

Seeds are an affordable indulgence. What else can you buy online for $2.75 plus shipping with so much inherent potential? Not saying seed orders don't quickly build into real money for many of us, but seeds never go to waste around here.

calls out to me from the new 2011 SSE selections.
Last year, Bruce and I made a real effort to use up all our old seeds. I cataloged what we had and many sprouted nicely after three years in their packets. We shared seeds with gardeners at the first-year Hermitage Triangle Community Garden and I tossed the oldest seeds into my own in-ground garden, where they did well. And Debbie shared her Franchi seeds with us.

Now we can feel righteous about buying fresh seed for the coming growing season.

Maybe Bruce and his friends at the in-ground community garden could use this gorgeous Frances Perry poppy in their perennial beds. Why not?

A few lunar eclipse links...
  • Homegrown Evolution has a good post on peat moss. I'm conflicted. After three years of growing in SIPs, it appears to be the very best medium. 
  • Fast Grow the Weeds talks about sorrel, a new crop for us last year immensely enjoyed for its citrus-like tang.
  • Feast your eyes on the tomato selection from SSE.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

She looks straight ahead not at he

Still cold in Chicago. Warm it up with...
One of the greatest hit singles jazz has ever known.
Some background here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Seed Shopping

Browsing seed catalogs is one of my favorite winter pastimes. Today I'm dreaming of Sun Gold tomatoes and I can't wait to grow Sugar Snap peas for a tasty stir-fry. There are many great seed companies out there, but my favorites last year were the Franchi brand seeds at Our family grew 6 types of their Italian heirloom tomatoes that included Maremmano, Cuor Di Bue, Principle Borghese, A Groppoli, S. Marzano, and Red Pear Sel. All were delicious, but I was most impressed with their Red Pear Sel, an unusually shaped medium-big size tomato with a lot of flavor, great in a salad and also as a sauce.

I've already done a little early seed shopping at and am excited to grow a few new things this year. Amstrdam Seasoning Celery is a beneficial insect plant that attracts the good insects, they eat the bad ones that prey on your nice vegetables. The package says it resembles a large flat leaf Italian parsley plant but has a strong celery flavor. I also bought some Alpine Strawberry seeds and we are hoping to pop a few fresh berries in some cereal or a shake.

If you are looking for something unusual to grow I'd suggest growing a Carosello Tondo Di Manduria which is an Italian cucumber/melon by Franchi, again at Last year I was given what I thought was one of those varieties by a nice gardener on a NeighborSpace community garden tour. Some grew very big and one even weighed over 4 lbs! I ate them like apples, they were sweet, and also in my salad with some dressing. I've read that the longer they remain on the vine the sweeter they get. Just think, harvest them early if you want cucumbers or harvest them later if you want a crispy sweet melon.

Happy seed shopping!

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Tonight in Chicago --
Very windy. Cloudy with chance of light snow in the evening...then partly cloudy after midnight. Areas of blowing snow through the night. Bitterly cold. Lows 4 to 8 (°F) above...except 11 to 15 downtown. Wind chills as low as 10 below to 20 below zero. Northwest winds 30 to 40 mph with gusts up to 45 mph at times until early morning decreasing to 20 to 30 mph with gusts up to 35 mph at times during the predawn hours. Chance of precipitation 40 percent. 
A good time to read Jack London's "To Build a Fire". 

Friday, December 10, 2010

So Danco Samba

This Friday's musical interlude brought to you by rooftop vegetables.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Seed Sources for 2011: Hudson Valley Seeds

Last year we did go on about Hudson Valley Seeds. Not only did their seeds grow strong and true for us here in Chicago, but the artist-produced packaging seems a perfect merging of beautiful regional vegetables and regional artists too.

Civil Eats just put up a nice interview with the proprietors, who say that choosing "artwork over photographs for our seeds packs...communicates what's important about seeds--that they come with stories."

Do they ever. Bruce started our greens seeds from Hudson Valley indoors early in 2010 and we planted out on St Patrick's Day. We particularly enjoyed the braising greens. Picked in their infancy, they provided endless salads (never did get around to braising them).

...and also the deep green tatsoi, shown here thriving on Bruce's roof.

Somehow I missed this October NYT story on Hudson Valley Seeds. On this wintry day you might enjoy thinking about the seed collection and packaging taking place there. We'll be renewing our membership this year. It's almost too good to be true: for $20,  choose ten seed packs from about 130 heirloom varieties.

We let our tatsoi go to seed this summer, harvested it, and replanted this fall. It's thriving right now upstairs in our unheated (but not freezing) second floor. Art has since hung lights over this SIP line-up, and we'll return the lights to Bruce in a scant couple months so he can start the cycle of seed-starting all over again, getting our spring crop up to size for planting out in March.

For indoor growing this winter, we're using these commercially available SIPs, because the slow-growing indoor crop requires less potting medium and water than our two-bucket SIPs.

HVS is here. Click in the left-hand column to review seed types.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chicago: 22 Degrees, Low of 14 Tonight

A frigid close to 2010. Starting to think about seeds for 2011...

What would I give to head to the roof and pick one of these?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Vanishing of the Bees

One thing our Italian honeybees (Apis mellifera legustica) and I have in common: a passion for summer basil. Our bright yellow friends flock to our south-facing front window boxes all summer, but especially when the basil blooms. 
This summer I harvested a boatload of basil and tried making these chopped-basil-with-a-touch-of-olive-oil cubes for freezing and using later.

Meh. Something about frozen basil misses the very pungent point. Fresh basil is a luxury I allow myself year round.

 Bruce tipped us to this. Haven't seen it yet but looks provocative...
"Filming across the US, in Europe, Australia and Asia, this documentary examines the alarming disappearance of honeybees and the greater meaning it holds about the relationship between mankind and mother earth. As scientists puzzle over the cause, organic beekeepers indicate alternative reasons for this tragic loss. Conflicting options abound and after years of research, a definitive answer has not been found to this harrowing mystery."

Vanishing of the Bees - Trailer from Bee The Change on Vimeo.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Making Kimchi

Took us a while to coordinate the ingredient buy, but Bruce went to Joong Boo Market (aka Chicago Food Corp) and got a monster Korean radish and shelf items (pepper flakes, sweet rice flour, fish sauce) and I found organic napa cabbage at Stanley's, where we do most of our hunting and gathering.

And we set to making kimchi.

We broadly followed this energetic woman's instructions (minus the squid) with fine results...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Making the Most of the Internet

"The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."


As the above URLs will undoubtedly change as they are shut down, you can find the latest updates on Wikileaks Twitter feed..

Here's why Wikileaks, who haven't done anything illegal (much less been charged with anything), matters.


I'm still growing food on my roof, though my blog posts have dropped off in the past few months.  We're already getting ready to expand our seed starting group next February, so stay tuned.


My friend Blake and I have been working on setting up a hobby machine shop in my garage. I hope to turn out stuff like this:

Blake + His Greektown Sculpture

Blake made this amazing sculpture out of steel rods.   I'm still learning how to manipulate metal, having him around to provide instruction and support has been invaluable. 

I'm really looking forward to the new year.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Squash Candles for Thanksgiving

Here's a squash-melon cross that produced prolifically in our in-ground garden. These babies must be hardy, because they didn't get much light.

Art used a spade bit on his drill, marked to the depth of the tea candle insert, to cut these out. Nice job!

They'll grace our family Thanksgiving table along with whatever's pretty out in the yard--rose hips, English ivy, sage, and yellow maple leaves.

Enjoy the day, whatever you do.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tour de Hive

Good video. A highlight for me was the hive with a window. Read more here.
...the Tour de Hive offers for those who wish to participate in this free event, the opportunity to see working bee hives in a cluster of Portland neighborhoods, and to ask questions of their hosts to learn more about the bees, and urban beekeeping opportunities.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Support the Garden Party

It's voting day, and in honor of that I want to link to this post from Feral Scholar that Bruce sent me months ago.
"Every member of the Garden Party has one membership requirement. S/He must garden."
After six weeks on the road, we returned home to find a minor bounty on our roof.  Autumn tomatoes always taste the sweetest to me...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Coming Oct 5th: Urban Forage in Chicago's Gold Coast

Friday night I helped our friend Nance Klehm process about 75 pounds of pears--that she had foraged the day before--into cider.  I don't think you'll take home anywhere near what I did after my work, but thought our readers would like to know about an urban forage that Nance is leading on October 5th from 5-7pm, starting at the Graham Foundation, 4 West Burton Place, in Chicago.  I've lived here over 20 years and until prompted by this event, had no idea that Burton Place is a tiny little street near State and North Avenues, just south of Lincoln Park.

It's being sponsored by The Graham Foundation, who is paying Nance for her time, making it free for the public.  Space is limited and you'll need to register by following this link.

On Tuesday, October 5, 2010, Nance Klehm will lead a small group on a two hour Urbanforage of Chicago’s Gold Coast. On this informal guided walk throughthe spontaneous and cultivated vegetation of the urbanscape, participants will learn to identify plants, hear their botanical histories and stories of their use by animals and humans, and share antidotes of specific experiences with these plants.The Urbanforage will begin in the garden of the Graham Foundation’s Madlener House, where participants are invited to sample an herbal beverage made by the artist. Space is limited, reservations are required.

Nance Klehm began leading Urbanforages in 2006 in suburbs and cities including; Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, New York and Mexico City.
She is an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, permacultural grower, consultant, speaker, and teacher. She is respected internationally for her work on land politics and growing for fertility. She has lectured at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the University of Cincinnati, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. She has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and Dartington College in the United Kingdom. She writes a regular column for Arthur magazine and was included in the books Radical Homemakers (by Shannon Hayes), Participatory Autonomy (edited by Rick Gribenas), and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements (by Sandor Katz).

Nance Klehm’s work as an urban forager was featured in the exhibition, Actions: What You Can Do With the City, which was on view at the Graham Foundation October 16, 2009 – March 13, 2010.

This event is presented in conjunction with Chicago Artist’s Month.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Travel SIPs (aka Portable Microgarden): An Experiment

Can you find the fill tubes in my travel SIPs?

We're hitting the road and I want to see if we can get our daily greens from a couple of quickly made travel SIPs. Is it obsessive to want all the nutrients of New Zealand spinach, chard, collards, tatsoi, and cress while we wander the wilderness?

I don't think so.

For guidance, I asked Bob Hyland at Inside Urban Green, whose sub-irrigated window box + salad bar SIP concepts intrigue me for next spring. He coined the term "portable microgarden" and it's truly descriptive.

I already had these years-old Earthbound farm spinach boxes, and I found a sturdy brown plastic carrier that will allow me to lift them in and out of our camper easily (you don't need a carrier unless you want to move around a couple of these at once).

The guys at the tire shop provided the plastic drink bottles, which I made vent holes in, for water and air (mine might be a little large, but as with most SIPs it doesn't really matter). Then, two larger holes for the fill tube and the overflow.

The soldering iron I used made it easy to line up/melt the overflow hole on the container right in line with the exit tube. Below are my results. On the right I centered the bottle and it's a bit unstable (see the fill tube tipping to the right?). On my second attempt, at left, I nestled the bottle into the corner instead so it stays in position.

Once I packed these with damp potting mix, though, it didn't seem to matter.

Next I turned to the cool-weather greens I'd started a few weeks back in some of our bucket SIPs. Here are some nice-looking young collards, perfect for transplanting into the travel SIPs.
Happily, Bruce and Chef Art had popped up to the roof, where I was working, for a surprise visit. As we thought about the new travel SIP they suggested I dig down and lift a chunk of soil, root, and plant, transferring the whole handful to the travel SIP.

Good plan.

I top-watered these babies (for the trip I have a funnel that fits into the fill tube) and left them out in the nice overcast day to settle in. As we travel, they'll move with us, inside on road days and outdoors in the cool sun when we pause. And I'll clip clip clip for greens.

Quick-ref instructions, courtesy of Inside Urban Green:
1. Poke some small holes around the circumference of the bottle for air and water circulation (like the perforations in the corrugated drain pipe).
2. Add a piece of plastic tubing for a fill tube (or use something recyclable from the trash).
3. Make an overflow drain hole in the box and connect it to the bottle with a piece of (clear) plastic tubing.

The overflow drain hole is a primitive valve that determines the capacity of the reservoir depending on how high you install it in the reservoir.

Click here for a step-by-step on how to plant your personal microgarden.

Monday, August 30, 2010

August Roof Farm: Her Ups, Her Downs are Second Nature to Me Now

Inspired by Mrs Homegrown and her post The glass is half full--even if it's full of greywater, it's time for a reckoning.

Summer 2010 was the antithesis of Summer 2009, the latter cool, rainy, and overcast. This year's Chicago growing season can best be described as a blast furnace. Could it be that we need to think about lightly shading plants to shield them from the sun?

We did have some nice harvests in July.

Check out the black funk on these black velvet tomatoes. Click to enlarge.
Seriously sad to cut down the plant, since it produced early and often this summer. We picked every one of the last beautiful fruits, which had no signs of disease.

And then we removed the old fertilizer, added some new, and seeded the tomato SIP with collards. There, that's better.
Our tomatoes started producing nearly two weeks early this year, but didn't have the stay power of other more moderate weather years.

I wonder if the heat stressed them so badly that it set them up for disease, because we surely have a lot of funky looking tomato foliage. Interestingly, I visited Bruce's roof garden (six blocks away) and his greenery is suffering from the same plant-destroying whatever. Further, my brother the in-ground organic gardener in suburban Chicago told me his heirloom tomatoes did not do well at all.

Still, there were some productive periods. I brought in a few pounds of produce every other day, enough to keep us happily fed (one of these years I'll start recording the weight like these folks do).

The eggplant listada, from Seed Savers, was a robust producer, and nicely disease resistant.

So was this Franchi tomato start from Debbie, a sort of Christmas tree loaded with flavorful small tomatoes.
The Peppers Santa Fe Grande, another Seed Savers selection, always do well, and this year's heat didn't faze them.
Here's a real downer. The Armenian cukes that Art built a new trellis for were devastated by powdery mildew, despite being planted in late June. One lonely cuke...

This year we also planted summer squash in late June, trying to outwit the powdery mildew. I seeded some mustard alongside in one of our adopted earthboxes.
But not so pic to see the powdery mildew in all its glory today (one nice squash too).

We grew a melon called Golden Midget this year. I don't think the foliage is supposed to be golden though. Mildew again?
Still, we got a beautiful melon, sweet as can be.

Here's a pepper I planted very late--mid-July maybe--since it didn't get planted in May-June. I have no idea what it is (Bruce, any help?). Looks like a yellow banana type. This is planted in the Canadian SIP sold by our big-box Menard's store for $5.

And here's a self-harvested Mickey Lee melon. I found it cracked on the roof on morning after it apparently cut loose from its vine on the melon trellis one windy night.

Pried it open to reveal a gorgeous interior, sweet enough for dessert.

You can always hope for more, better, and less disease, but this day's gathering looks bountiful.

A fun upside to summer: Our new growing pals and co-bloggers Debbie and her Little Green Girl Kara visited the roof. Here Kara tries one of the purple tomatillos (or is she just faking it?).

They generously brought us The World's Tiniest Tomato! (in addition to a bounty of others) from their garden.

Debbie's heat-tolerant lettuce seeds are flourishing on the roof...

And remember Brooke and Amy, who came this spring to learn about SIPs and help me try the new wicking fabric method? Their rooster spur peppers (left) loved this summer's extreme heat.

More good news: in September they'll be showing a group of children at the Fremont Public Library District, where they are librarians, how to make Bob Hyland's pop bottle planters. Each participant will plant a young lettuce plant and also direct-seed some of the cool-weather greens seeds saved from our roof. Way to go, you two!

Most-fascinating-plant-to-grow-for-the-first-time award goes to...okra. Beautiful hibiscus-like flowers and noble fruit. This plant is about 7 feet tall.
Remember the Olive Garden salad bowl SIP? This one's still growing salad, using seeds we harvested from plants started by Bruce in February, set out in March, and gone to seed last month. Nice mustard greens and wrinkled crinkled crumpled cress.
We also direct-seeded some SIPs that had run their course. The tatsoi and collard seeds sprang to life, though it took several attempts because the heat on the roof dried out the soil the first few times.

Growing food is filled with uncertainty: you can't control the weather or pests or spores that move invisibly on the breeze. There are ups, there are downs. On balance, though, it still seems remarkable that we can eat so well from the roof of a building in downtown Chicago.

If the title of this post stumps you...listen: