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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

How community building happens without really trying

Cassandra West

Julie just found another herb marker.

It’s spring. It’s winter. They're both happening at once. Yes, we had multiple seasons in a few hours this morning, but that didn’t stop a hardy group from coming out to get started prepping Karen’s Garden for the growing season.

There were some emails late Friday on whether we should cancel because of the forecast. We decided to see who would show up.

Jeanette and David were there by 9 a.m. Then Julie and Bruce. Marsha. Jennifer. Donn. Then Allen and Corey from Berwyn. New Oak Parker Jewel, who didn’t get our emails, even came out. By 11 a.m., we had 13 people braving sudden microclimates that brought repeating waves of blowing snow, blustery winds and glorious sunshine. Around noon, everyone agreed they’d had enough.

By then, though, we’d made a lot of progress. Weeds had been pulled up. Trees pruned. Flagstones pried out of the soil to identify beds for later planting. Woody stems cut down. Garden statutes and decorative markers unburied. An herb garden uncovered and cleared.

Most of all new connections were forged. Several people realized they had been working alongside a neighbor who lived only a few blocks away. Or that their wives knew each other. Or that they had crossed paths before. The biggest realization: We all had something in common— we wanted to be there on this morning. And while we were building a community garden, we were strengthening our community.

It was a lovely morning.

Karen's Garden is a community garden organized by the Oak Park Area Edible Gardening Cooperative that's being developed on private property in Oak Park. If you live in Oak Park and want to become part of Karen’s Garden, send an email to

—Cassandra West

Danielle Nierenberg will speak at Chicago Botanic Garden on World Environment Day

Cassandra West

Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues, will give the keynote address, “The Food Scorecard: Local and Global,” during World Environment Day at the Chicago Botanic Garden on June 6.

The food activist and sustainable agriculture expert will share insights gleaned from two years spent meeting with farmers and farmers’ groups, scientists and researchers around the world about protecting the environment.

The two-year-old New York-based Food Tank is a 501(c)(3) that focuses “on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters.”

Nierenberg, who says our food system depends on a healthy environment, points to the fact that agriculture is responsible for much of the environmental degradation all over the world.

In a recent email to Food Tank followers, she wrote: “Beekeepers continue to lose 30 percent of honeybee colonies during an average winter likely because of pesticides and other agrochemicals. Soil degradation is occurring at staggering rates with soils being depleted 10 to 40 times faster than they are being replenished. And up to 100,000 plant varieties are currently endangered worldwide.”

A panel of local agriculture and food advocates will join Nierenberg: Angela Mason, the Garden’s associate vice president for urban agriculture and the Windy City Harvest program. Mason will discuss the indispensable role of training and education in creating a sustainable agriculture system in both urban and ex-urban environments. Other panelists include Jim Slama, founder of Family Farmed and the Good Food Business Accelerator; Kris Murray, director of the Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute at Kennedy King College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago; and Bobby Turner, regional vice president of purchasing and distribution for the Whole Foods Market Midwest Region. The presentation begins at 10:30 a.m. in the Alsdorf Auditorium.

The actual World Environment Day, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is Friday, June 5. This will be the Botanic Garden’s eighth annual World Environment Day celebration, designed to inspire environmental action with a full day of presentations, demonstrations and family activities from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

  • WGN-TV chief meteorologist Tom Skilling will questions about local weather trends and global climate change, and discuss action the Garden is taking to mitigate these risks.
  • Jacob Burns, curator of herbaceous perennials, will answer questions atop the Plant Science Center’s green roof garden, an ongoing research project evaluating the best plants for rooftops in the upper Midwest.
  • Nyree Zerega, Ph.D., will present her research on breadfruit, a non-traditional food crop with the potential to feed citizens in the world’s poorest countries.
  • Other researchers will present work on night time pollinators, monarch butterflies, wild land restoration, the ecology of urban rooftop gardens,and managing native prairies.
  • Garden horticulturist Lisa Hilgenberg will offer tips on growing vegetables the organic way.
  • Cleetus Friedman, executive chef of innovative Chicago eateries Fountainhead, the Bar on Buena and the Northman and a leader in Chicago’s green food movement will offer up ways to prepare fresh. Friedman will give cooking demonstrations at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden Demonstration. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Members of the sustainable agricultural community, such as Band Farmers: The Chicagoland CSA Coalition and the East Slope Farms CSA, will provide information on obtaining locally and sustainably grown produce, and supporting regional farmers.

#Recycle your heart out May 2 in River Forest

Cassandra West

greenrecyclingsymbolWe've all got stuff we want to get rid of. Here's your chance to do it in a responsible way. If you live in the western suburbs of Chicago, bring your stuff to the Recycling Extravaganza at River Forest United Methodist Church on Sat., May 2 between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Click here to view the flier: Recycling Extravaganza 2015 Here's what you and bring:

ELECTRONICS: computers televisions radios VCRs-DVD players toasters

blenders electric coffee makers-microwaves vacuum cleaners (take out the dust collection bag)

monitors cell phones dial phones answering machines scanners printers keyboards

hard drives copiers cable boxes/modems circuit boards switches cameras, projectors

insulated wire/cable power supplies de-humidifiers air conditioners

SCRAP METAL: radiators metal lawn furniture metal hangers rusty swing sets

metal garbage cans metal garden tools water heaters metal railings metal pots and

pans gutters metal shovels metal shelving metal wagons metal pipes metal wheel

barrows metal chicken wire tomato cages auto radiators

BATTERIES: A-C-D-9 volt Ni Cad-Lithium button batteries car motorcycle sump

pump computer back up, boat lawn mower batteries rechargeable

MISCELLANEOUS: musical instruments keys rulers pencils crayons usable spiral

notebooks yarn rubber stamps buttons ink jet cartridges CFL bulbs (fluorescent tubes)

tattered and torn American Flags for proper retirement corks eye glasses hearing aid

propane & oxygen tanks fire extinguishers working & non-working bikes sewing machine

regular wheelchairs (non-electric) bike helmets bike baskets pet items leashes collars

crates blankets.







Native landscaping conference coming to Dominican Univ. May 17

Cassandra West

Native plants
Doug Tallamy
Doug Tallamy

Get ready, all you native plant and garden enthusiasts, your dreams are coming true. The “Living Landscapes Native Garden Conference and Native Plant Sale” takes over Dominican University’s Lund Auditorium from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, May 17. The conference is being put on by West Cook Wild Ones.

"If you enjoy spending time outside in your garden, you will enjoy it even more when you start choosing plants that are not only beautiful, but provide habitat for birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife," Pam Todd, president of West Cook Wild Ones, says. "If you’re not already a native plant enthusiast, you’ll become one after you see how it can bring your yard to life again.”

Doug Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home,” will be the conference's keynote speaker. He’s currently professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del. Tallamy has a vision to create a “Homegrown National Park” — a wildlife corridor of native plant habitat in backyards all over the country. He believes that's the best way to slow the rate of extinction of bird and butterfly populations. The urban garden may be the “the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S,” he says.

After Tallamy’s speech, seven expert-led workshops will offer more information and inspiration — and immerse you deeper into topics that range from rain gardens to stormwater management to butterflies, of course.

Other speakers include landscape architect Trish Beckjord of Midwest Groundcovers on designing beautiful native gardens; PhD candidate David Lowenstein on beneficial insects for food gardens; Illinois Native Plant Society President Christopher David Benda on rare plants of the Chicago region for the home garden; Possibility Place Owner Connor Shaw on landscaping with native shrubs and trees; Landscape Designer Julia Bunn on rain gardens; Monica Buckley and Denise Sandoval on playing host to butterflies and moths; and Pizzo Marketing Manager Grace Koehler on native plants for green roofs.

If you ordered plants online in advance during West Cook Wild Ones’ Annual Plant Sale, pick up your purchases at the conference. 

Also, you can attend the conference for free by signing up for a volunteer shift. If you are volunteering, be sure to check out the workshop descriptions, so that you are helping out at the session you would like to attend:

Of renewals, seed swaps and mapping urban gardens in Chicago

Cassandra West


It’s been a while since my last blog post. OK, yes I know. A long while. But the hiatus is over.

I look forward again to digging into the constantly germinating Chicago community gardening/urban farming/local foods scene and sharing what I discover/uncover.

As I look around, I see everything emerging — slowly — from a long winter. You know what that means. Yeah, we might we able to plant something outside soon. But in the meantime, seed swaps are happening all over. (The UIC Heritage Garden is holding its first ever seed swap Sunday, March 29, at the Hull-House Dining Hall, 800 S. Halsted Ave., Chicago.) Garden supply stores are building up their inventories. Community gardens are registering old and new members.

And, speaking of community gardens. They keep cropping up. And so do city farms and more backyard gardens. I mean people are really getting into this growing-themselves-some-food thing. Since I launched this blog in 2010, the growth in urban agriculture hasn’t let up. It does, in fact, seem to be exploding.

seed swap flier
seed swap flier

o see how much urban ag is thriving in our area, jump on over to the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project (CUAMP), which launched this month. The project had a soft rollout March 7 at the 3rd Annual Chicago Community Gardening Association Gathering held at West Town Academy. The official launch was March 21 at the Good Food Festival & Conference at UIC.

Since around the time this blog started, CUAMP has been mapping and taking an inventory of urban agriculture and community gardens in Chicago. Representatives from nonprofits, urban ag organizations and universities worked together to bring the map to fruition. It’s administered by three entities: NeighborSpace, Advocates for Urban Agriculture and DePaul University’s Steans Center.

At the latest count there are 786 growing sites on the list. You can download an Excel spreadsheet of all them here.

SeedingChicago is beyond happy to see this groundswell of passion for urban gardening, and CUAMP is a huge testament to how serious people are taking local agriculture. And taking it to new heights

CUAMP includes urban gardens and farms of every stripe. On the spreadsheet you can find ownership info, whether a garden produces food, whether it's locked, is a collective or allotment and where gets its water.

Whether you write about urban agriculture as I do, or just want to get out and visit some of the hundreds of gardening sites in Chicago, CUAMP has done us all a great service. And, I appreciate all the effort that has gone into producing this valuable resource.

Loyola to host Urban Food Symposium

Cassandra West


Food. It’s a topic that keeps expanding. And Loyola University Chicago will add to the national conversation on Saturday, September 7, when it hosts the Urban Food Symposium at its new Institute for Environmental Sustainability and Mundelein Center. Thought leaders from Chicago, the Midwest and across the nation will explore social justice, environmental and nutritional issues of food systems and offer innovative ways to approach local, alternative solutions. A municipal policy discussion will feature representatives from Chicago, San Francisco and Boston as well as presentations from more than 10 key players in the local food systems.

Among the speakers are Erika Allen (Growing Power), John Edel (The Plant), Kate Maehr (Chicago Food Depository), Bral Spight (Urban Ponics), Mei Ling Hui (Urban Forest and Urban Agriculture Coordinator, San Francisco Dept. of Environment) and Mari Gallagher. See the full list of speaker profiles. Check the calendar listing to the right for more details.

When nothing grew, soil became prime suspect

Cassandra West

front yard garden
After five weeks, the plants in our raised bed have barely grown. /Seeding Chicago
After five weeks, the plants in our raised bed have barely grown. /Seeding Chicago

Part 1

Installing a new raised bed always raises a gardener’s expectations and hopes for a productive season of vegetable growing. The fresh, woodsy scent of the cedar boards to build the bed, the earthy smell of fresh compost to fill it made me giddy with gardening glee on the June 1 morning that we unpacked our raised bed kit.

After we put down the weed blocker fabric on the old soil and assembled the bed, the truck from McAdam Landscaping arrived with our new soil— 1.5 cubic yards of topsoil and compost. Good stuff, I thought, because I’d specifically requested and was assured the compost we were getting was organic and chemical free.

It was all part of the plan—to have an organic vegetable garden—after having our soil tested and learning it had medium lead contamination.

The delivery truck dumped the topsoil/compost in the alley, and my neighbor and I filled the bed with it, mixing it evenly across the bed. We then planted several healthy tomato plants that I’d started from seed in late February. I’d nurtured those babies, given them lots of good light and hardened them off with care. They were ready to be on their own. Into the new bed they went, along with the peppers, basil, cucumbers, parsley and several lettuce varieties.

A cucumber, left, and broccoli plant that aren't growing. /Seeding Chicago
A cucumber, left, and broccoli plant that aren't growing. /Seeding Chicago

After a week in a backyard location that had always gotten lots of sun, the plants looked liked they were settling in, but they weren’t looking as happy as they should have been. They must still be adjusting, I thought. Then a week later, they still didn’t seem too happy—nor were they growing—although plants in another garden I keep were showing noticeable growth after about two weeks in their bed.

This cherry tomato plant is starting to fruit. /Seeding Chicago
This cherry tomato plant is starting to fruit. /Seeding Chicago

By week three and after several days of good hard rain that was making plants in my other garden grow like mad, the plants in my condo bed were about the size they were when first planted.

But this was fresh compost, a natural fertilizer, I reasoned, based on what I’d been learning about growing food.

So I decided—reluctantly—to apply store-bought but organic fertilizer around the plants. That should get them going.

But none got bigger. Not even weeds were coming up in this soil.

Ding, ding. Something was wrong. Why were my plants of similar origin growing and thriving with the same sun and watering conditions in another bed but not this one?

It had to be the soil. Could the compost have herbicide residue? “Herbicides—weed killers that remain active even after going through a composting process—means the compost could contain chemicals harmful to plants, according to an article I recently read in Organic Gardening magazine.

So, I called McAdam to let them know about the situation. The owner told me that fresh compost could still be decomposing and the first-year yield from the garden might be low. But, he did say he would come out to see what was going on.

And later that day, he paid a visit. He maintained that the compost from his company wasn’t the problem. It’s made onsite, was at least six months old and came from untreated organic matter.

He looked at the stunted plants and advised that I apply a fertilizer. After some repeated mentions of “nitrogen,” he further advised cultivating the soil. It needs some “air in oxygen in there,” he said.

The next day in an email, he wrote, “I have a Bat Guano fertilizer at the garden center that is 10% nitrogen and another fertilizer that is 15% nitrogen though this is not organic.”

Now mind you, I put three tomato plants in the soil (with the lead in it) outside of the bed, and they’re growing like weeds—all without fertilizer.

In the meantime, McAdam has shared the laboratory test results of its compost sample. I plan to compare those to my own test results.

The answer, my friends, is in that soil. And, I plan to get to the root of this problem.

Stay tuned.

Chicago's South Shore gets a farmers market

Cassandra West

Farmers market
South Shore Farmers Market
South Shore Farmers Market

With the Chicago skyline as a backdrop and the lakeshore at its doorstep, the city’s newest outdoor produce stand—South Shore Farmers Market at Rainbow Beach Park—opens on Sunday, June 23.

South Shore Farmers Market joins other city-run farmers markets that provide urban residents easy access to fresh and locally harvested produce. The market is a collaboration between the Ashe Park and Rainbow Beach Park Advisory Councils.

“We’re definitely a food desert and everybody’s looking for a place to get fresh food,” says Marion Brown, a South Shore resident and member of the Rainbow Park Advisory Council who co-chairs the team behind the market.

The South Shore market will bring the number of city-run South Side farmers markets to three, although city officials tend to count the Bridgeport farmers market among its “South Side” operations. The other South Side farmers markets are in Pullman (Wednesdays, 111th and Cottage Grove) and Beverly (Sundays, 95th and Longwood).

Chicago’s official farmers market season kicked off on May 16 and runs through the end of October.

Unlike most farmers markets in the city that get their produce from Michigan and Indiana farmers, the South Shore Farmers Market will source its vegetables from urban farmers and even container gardeners, Brown says.

It will be located on Chicago Park District property and operated by the City of Chicago. Hours of operation are 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays through Aug. 25. Depending on how well the market is received, it may extend it season beyond that date, Brown says.

Market planners are trying to keep vendor fees reasonable. They’ve started a market collective that allows smaller growers to pool their resources to reduce the expense of participating in the market and reduce the amount of produce needed to sell, Qae-Dah Muhammad, vendor manager, says. The weekly fee to sell at the market is $15 and all vendors must have insurance.

Primarily an agricultural market, South Shore Farmers Market also will offer products by local bakers and specialty food producers; live plant, flowers and herb growers, plus food-related products and services. The market plans to work with local food pantries and encourage its vendors to donate any unsold products that would otherwise spoil.

With this market, customers can expect more than fresh produce and healthier fare than is generally available to Southeast Chicago residents. The group that envisioned the market wants to educate the community about healthy food, cooking/eating, food production and growing edible gardens. They also want to bring attention to one their community’s underutilized resources: city parks.

One Earth Film Fest serves up food films

Cassandra West

960-Indian food-Holi

Food is on the menu at this weekend’s One Earth Film Festival. Three films, “Ingredients," “Food Patriots” and “Soul Food Junkies,” will take up issues related to the dark side of the food industry, the growing food justice movement and how activists, farmers and plenty of fed-up people are fighting back against a broken and unhealthy food system.

Last we heard, plenty of tickets are still available to the festival, which starts Friday, March 1 and continues through Sunday, March 3 in locations around Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. The second-year festival will extend beyond its suburban roots this year with the screening of “Soul Food Junkies,” taking place March 3 at Saint Martin’s Episcopal Church, 5700 W. Midway Park, in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood

Urban farm to provide “job training and fresh vegetables”

Cassandra West

A new 2.6-acre urban farm will be located on this tract of land in East Garfield Park. /Seeding Chicago photo

The ground breaking today was merely symbolic, but Chicago’s newest urban farm will be a reality in the next few months. That’s when Chicago FarmWorks begins producing food on a 2.6-acre site located along side the Metra/Union-Pacific railroad tracks in the East Garfield Park neighborhood.

Heartland Human Care Services, Inc. — a division of the anti-poverty organization Heartland Alliance — is one of several agencies behind Chicago FarmWorks. Heartland estimates that 24,000 pounds of produce will be grown in the first year. The farm also expects to create 90 transitional jobs in the first three years that will allow hard-to-employ people to get training and eventually full-time jobs.

“This is no ordinary farm,” said David Sinski, Heartland Human Care Services executive director. “This land will produce more than just fresh vegetables for Chicago families. It also will create jobs for those who are overcoming barriers to employment.” It will also give neighborhood children “a better understanding of agriculture and healthy eating.”

Chicago FarmWorks is being developed in partnership with Heartland Alliance, the City of Chicago, Wilbur Wright College, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, NeighborSpace and West Humboldt Park Development Council. When Chicago FarmWorks becomes fully operational, it will provide produce directly to the Greater Chicago Food Depository at wholesale prices. The farm also will grow flowers in hoop houses for sale to floral retailers at wholesale rates to create a more financially sustainable project.

“We have worked with Greater Chicago Food Depository to identify the vegetables most needed for local food pantries,” said Dave Snyder, Chicago FarmWorks manager. During the winter, the farm will produce cabbage, carrots, radishes and onions. Seedlings are already growing in a green house space that Christy Webber Landscapes has donated. Sweet potatoes, beets, cucumbers, beans, spinach, summer squash and peppers are planned for spring.

“Urban farms benefit communities in a variety of ways,” said Ben Helphand, executive director of NeighborSpace. “The rows of food growing on what had been vacant lots provides a beautiful inspiration to the neighborhood. It also provides very real job training and fresh vegetables."

Chicago FarmWorks hopes it can be catalyst to spur other economic development in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, where unemployment hovers around 35 percent.

Food+Justice=Democracy meets in Minneapolis Sept. 24-26

Cassandra West

Word cloud made with WordItOut

We're at the Food+Justice=Democracy conference sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis this week. Today started with an elder blessing by poet/activist/organizer Louis Alemayehu reading a beautiful poem reminding us that "The Holy Land is all the Earth." The first panel of the day, "African American Ways of Knowing land" is going on now with presentations by Professor Rose Brewer of the University of Minnesota and Malik Yakini, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Community Fellow. We'll be back with more posts later...