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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Tag: garden

How does your garden grow: Make your own compost

Cassandra West


Composting was long sort of a mystery to me. Making soil? Your own dirt? I didn’t get it. Even after driving to Milwaukee and taking a tour of Will Allen’s big composting enterprise, Growing Power, I was still wondering what was the big deal about dirt and worms.

Then my friend Nancy told me about her “black gold.” That’s what she calls the rich compost mixture she and her family create in their backyard from the food scraps, paper waste, garden clippings and dead leaves they collect through the seasons. When spring comes, she taps into her black gold to fertilize her vegetable garden. And her tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, peas all grow stronger because of it.

Last spring, I paid a visit to Nancy’s garden just as she was getting ready to spread the wealth of her compost pile. An hour in her back yard and suddenly composting made sense.

In this video, she explains it all.

In thick of winter, seed swap season heats up

Cassandra West

The snow may keep coming down here in Chicago, but we know the growing season is coming, too. To help gardeners get ready, communities and organizations are hosting seed swaps this month. In the last few years, seed swaps have become popular in the U.S., and they’re growing trend in the U.K., where Seedy Sunday — UK's largest seed swap — took place Feb. 6 (also known as Super Bowl Sunday for many here).

“Seedy Sunday has blazed the trail for UK seed swaps over the past decade: it is the must-be-there event for seed swappers, conservers, developers and newcomers,” the event’s website says. “It exudes innovation, creativity and common sense. It shows up the idiocy of draconian seed laws and the Gene Giants’ restrictive practices: in this warming world we need to exchange more diversity of uncontaminated plants to secure future food. Seedy Sunday builds solidarity among all of us who respect our collective rights to save, sow, swap and sell seeds grown in our gardens and farms: it gives strength to seed law busters.”

If you’re in Chicago, though, and searching for a hard-to-find vegetable or flower seed, check out two upcoming seed swaps. Urban farmers and gardeners can exchange seeds of different varieties to enrich their gardens with more diversity.

Saturday, Feb. 12, from 10 a.m. till 12 p.m., Lurie Garden is hosting a seed swap on the first floor Garland Room of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Experienced seed savers/swappers and curious newbies are invited. Lurie Garden staff who will be on hand to provide seeds and tips for planting and germination. Representatives from One Seed Chicago also will be on hand for those who want to cast vote for one of this year’s seed choices. NeighorSpace has donated some seeds for the swap. So, even if you don't have seeds to swap you will not leave empty-handed. RSVP by calling the Lurie Garden at 312.742.8497 Space is limited.

Here are some tips for packaging seed saved in your garden to swap: *Package seeds in paper coin envelopes or plastic baggies. *Label seed packs with botanical and common name. *Five seed-per pack minimum for larger and common seeds. *Thirty seed-per pack minimum for smaller seeds. If you don't have small coin envelopes or want to buy little plastic baggies, you can use junk mail envelopes to hold your seeds.

On Sunday, Feb. 27 from 1 to 4 p.m., the Forest Park Community Garden Seed Swap & Seed Starting Demonstration will take place at the Park District of Forest Park, 7501 Harrison St. An RSVP is required because space is limited. Master gardener Debbie Kong will lead the seed starting demonstration. If you know of other seed swaps in the Chicago area, drop us a note and we'll help you spread the seeds, uh, the word.

Building an 'intentional community' around permaculture

Cassandra West

Estelle Carol at the composting pile in her yard. (Photo by Cassandra West)

As the local food movement grows, Chicago-area residents are developing more imaginative and creative ways to embrace it and make it work for them. Oak Park resident Estelle Carol is one of those people. An artist and designer, she wants to create an “intentional community” that revolves around transforming her suburban yard into a food producing urban garden by partnering with serious gardeners with knowledge of permaculture.

The gardeners Estelle seek can be a family or an unrelated group who are willing to take a long-term lease on the first-floor unit of the two-flat Estelle owns with her husband, Bob Simpson.

Intentional communities are not a new concept. They’re much like housing cooperatives. In the ’60s, they might have been called communes, but the central idea is a living arrangement where people strive together with a common vision.

“We’re doing it better than a commune,” Estelle says of her idea. “We’re doing it better than we did — my generation [from the ’60s]. I want to place it within a larger community that already exists.”

Estelle’s vision has at its core permaculture — a method that uses the interconnections of healthy eco-system as the model, she says. “If done correctly, permaculture allows gardeners to produce larger yields with less labor and money.”

Once the community is formed, it will research the best methods to create a model garden from which other urban and suburban homeowners can emulate or learn. Along the way, Estelle wants to document the community’s experiences on film. She’s looking to partner with a documentary film producer familiar with the cinema verité style. She also wants to provide an opportunity for young videographers and producers and expand on the collaborative business model she and her husband have developed for their communication and marketing firm, WebTrax Studio.

Estelle says she and Bob are “open to lots of different ways to combine food plants, decorative plants, outdoor people spaces and energy efficient living.” They especially welcome “cutting-edge permaculture ideas.”

Right now, the couple are “baby gardeners,” she says. “We have a little bit of knowledge.” What they do have in abundance is space — a huge 3-bedroom apartment with two full baths. What they are offering is “a wonderful opportunity for people wanting to start a sustainable garden design and consulting business” from which all can reap the benefits.

That’s the intention.

For more information, contact Estelle at 708.386.7197 or at

How to build community

Cassandra West

What does it take to build a community? Mostly a little effort by all of us. Check out the list here for ideas--or come up with your own. We borrowed most of this list from a poster we got from Chicagoan Naomi Davis, founder of Blacks in Green. Turn off your TV Leave your house Know your neighbor Greet people Look up when you’re walking Plant flowers Use your public library Play together Buy from local merchants and farmers Share what you have Talk to children in your neighborhood Support neighborhood schools Fix it even if you didn’t break it Garden together Pick up litter Read stories aloud Dance in the street Talk to the mail carrier Help carry something heavy Barter for your goods Start a tradition Ask a question Hire young people for odd jobs Organize a block party Bake extra and share Ask for help when you need it Open your shades Sing together Take back the night Listen before you react to anger Mediate a conflict Seek to understand Learn from new and uncomfortable angles Know that no one is silent though many are not heard Work to change that

"Dirt! The Movie" screens @ Chicago Cultural Center

Cassandra West

"DIRT! The Movie" explores the wonders of the soil and tells the story of Earth's most valuable and underappreciated source of fertility.

Chicago Community Cinema will present a screening of "Dirt!" 2 p.m. Saturday, March 20 Chicago Cultural Center 78 E. Washington St. In the Claudia Cassidy Theater

We hope you will come out and join us in viewing this enlightening documentary, which brings to life the environmental, economic, social and political impact of soil around the world. Find out how industrial farming, mining and urban development have led us toward cataclysmic droughts, starvation, floods and climate change.

Narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis, "DIRT! The Movie" shares the stories of experts from around the world who study the beauty and power of soil, which is made from the same elements as the stars, plants and animals, and us.

The movie teaches: "When humans arrived 2 million years ago, everything changed for dirt. And from that moment on, the fate of dirt and humans has been intimately linked."

Dirt is part of everything we eat, drink and breathe--and that's why we should stop treating it like, well...dirt. "DIRT!" is more than a movie. It's a call to action.

Following the film, some of Chicago's most innovative ecologists/gardeners/recyclers will share ideas on composting methods and gardening techniques for city dwellers and talk about ways to transform our urban landscape. The Community Cinema guests are: Ken Dunn, Resource Center Orrin Williams,Center For Urban Transformation Pete Leki and Jordan Rivera, Waters Elementary School Nancy Klehm, Spontaneous Vegetation Moderator: Erin Kennedy, SCARCE

See you there!