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Blog

Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Filtering by Tag: soil

Nothing better than food from your own garden

Cassandra West

By Nancy Traver CompostingSpring is getting on here in northern Illinois, and now is the time to get going on your garden. Your effort will pay off later when you’re enjoying the fresh lettuce, radishes and — much later — delicious tomatoes from your garden. There is nothing better than going into your yard, picking your dinner from the ground, cleaning it and enjoying the feast. And it requires so little labor, you have to wonder why more people don’t do it.

But that brings up the challenges in gardening. Here is what I hear from most of my friends: I don’t have good sun, I don’t have good soil, I don’t have time, I don’t like dirt, worms, weeds, etc. All valid concerns!

A lack of sunlight is a serious issue in our northern climate and short growing season. A couple of years ago, a friend decided to put in a vegetable garden and planted it between two houses. It never received any direct sunlight! I was amazed that anything actually sprouted. What came up from her garden were lanky, spindly, unhealthy looking cucumbers, small green tomatoes and very sketchy zucchini. She put the tomatoes on her windowsill to ripen and, when she tried eating them, they tasted like mush! Even worse than the cardboard variety you get in the grocery store. That was her last attempt at gardening.

In northern Illinois, you need at least 6 hours a day of direct sunlight to successfully grow a garden. I’m blessed with a backyard plot that receives full-day sun. Many of us don’t have that, however, with the older, beautiful shade trees in our yards. To get around this problem, I’ve seen many people in Evanston rent a community garden plot (cost: $37 per year!) or plant in their parking area alongside the street. Surprisingly, even though your crop of tasty tomatoes is highly visible to passersby, few people steal your yield. (I guess tomato theft is below most people.)

After you’ve found your way past the no-sunlight problem, there is the soil issue. Most gardeners in northern Illinois have too much clay in their soil. This must be broken up, but it’s easy to do. Go to any gardening center and buy bags of compost or manure. Manure is even cheaper than compost and it is wonderful for growing vegetables! Besides breaking up the clay in your soil, it will add vital nutrients. To grow vegetables, you have to enrich the soil every year. An even better way to improve your soil is to add compost from your kitchen, but you have to start making that before spring planting time. (Watch our composting video.) Simply shovel a layer of manure or compost on top of your planting area and then work it into your soil. Voila! You’re ready to plant.

Once your soil is prepared, the fun really begins. Plan your garden around what you like to eat. A friend recently was discussing this with me and said someone had urged her to grow lots of eggplant because it is a beautiful plant. The leaves are a delicate shade of purple, and the flowers are lavender. Only one problem: My friend hates eggplant! Instead, she planted chard (which I dislike), lettuce (and lots of it), green beans, snap peas and carrots. She has three children and those are the vegetables they like. Don’t let your produce go to waste: Pick the vegetables that appeal to you.

Early crops go in first: peas, lettuce, spinach and radishes. I call them my “winter crops” because it’s so cold in northern Illinois in April that it often feels like winter. These crops will sprout, however, despite the cold temps, rain and even snow. Spinach, especially, seems to like the cool weather. If you wait to plant till June, your spinach will not do well. It’s easily discouraged, it seems, by heat. All of these crops are planted by seed. You can also plant zucchini, squash, pumpkin and other vine plants by seed.

Some vegetables and herbs are best launched in your garden using small plants or seedlings. Go to any garden center and pick out healthy looking eggplant, tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, strawberries, etc. Other herbs such as rosemary and tarragon are also best to start with seedlings.

Some gardeners will tell you that the best-tasting tomatoes are the heirlooms. These include the Black Krim, Big Rainbow, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine and other types. While the heirlooms have some dazzling names and are growing in popularity, I’m still a fan of the hybrids. An especially good hybrid for northern Illinois is the Early Girl. Early Girls were developed to ripen in areas with limited summer heat like we have in northern Illinois. They are sweet and a bit crunchy compared to other tomatoes, which makes them perfect for tossing in salads and eating out of your hand with a sprinkle of salt. My sister is an heirloom fan and will plant only heirlooms in her garden. However, she enters her tomatoes in a taste contest every year and guess what wins: the hybrids every time. They are simply sweeter and have a higher sugar content. Go, Early Girl!!

As I said, there is nothing more satisfying than picking your dinner out of your backyard plot. You are feeding yourself, your family, and you are saving the planet by not driving your gas-guzzling car to the grocery store and buying food that has been trucked in from distant locations and displayed in plastic bags. So get with it and start gardening!

How does your garden grow: Make your own compost

Cassandra West

compost

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.

This is what fresh looks like

Cassandra West

Freshly harvested red potatoes.

Those of us who are first-time urban farmers are always amazed at what we get from the soil. We go into this food-growing venture hopeful, expectant and not quite knowing what our efforts — and the Earth — will yield. So anything we harvest is a pleasure and a reward. I picked my first pepper recently and then the smallest onion I've ever seen. They were both beautiful to hold and behold. And I knew why. They both came from my garden.

This, I suspect, is how it will go throughout the growing season as I pull more food from my raised bed in Oak Park's new community garden, audaciously named Root Riot.

But what really made me appreciate the wonders of growing my own food was seeing Madiem Kawa dig a handful of red potatoes from her South Side garden. Kawa is also president of the Washington Park Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing greenspace in Washington Park (on Chicago's South Side) by preserving wildlife habitat and promoting beautification, environmental education, and cultural programs for the public.

Those potatoes, I just have to say, were sublime. Talk about looking good enough to eat. As I stood there gazing at them in Madiem's outstretched hand, I wanted to rinse them off, brush them with a little olive oil, wrap them in foil and roast them over a charcoal fire — and enjoy all the freshness of summer and what we can produce with a combination of hope, good soil and faith in our own ability as urban farmers.

Crops on the corner: Hull-House farm a model for local production

Cassandra West

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hi_FO6vG8zk&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0&color1=0x234900&color2=0x4e9e00&hd=1]Standing inside a fenced-in space on the UIC campus, you can see Chicago's tallest building, the Willis Tower (formerly Sears), a black soaring tube of steel and glass pitched stately against a cloudless sky. Cars, buses and trucks whiz by this barren patch on the corner of Taylor and Halsted streets in a city always on the move. All around, city life runs at its breakneck pace, people on foot and in cars preoccupied and on their way to somewhere. Few take time to notice the incongruity set on this quarter-acre green space in the landmark neighborhood where the world's most famous settlement house once stood: an urban farm at the beginning of its growing season.

We're at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum Urban Farm, a half block from the museum and famous dining hall that now hosts a re-imagined soup kitchen, which pays homage to the city's socially conscious past--and present. The farm, a model for local food production, also supplies heirloom crops for "Re-Thinking Soup," a public and communal event where Chicagoans gather to eat healthy, nutritious soup and have "fresh, organic conversation about social, cultural, economic and environmental food issues."

It's mid-April and the farm is springing to life. Farmer Ryan and volunteers prepare the soil, combining rich, dark compost with straw and horse manure. They're setting up raised beds on the farm's eastern edge and planting the farm's first crops: potatoes, herbs and greens. Inside the portable hoop house and brick-and-glass greenhouse, tiny pepper and cabbage seedlings are starting to grow. The stage is being set for the new growing season. Soon, whether you notice or not, food will grow where many of us least expect to see it.

Over the coming months, Seeding Chicago will drop in regularly on the Hull-House Museum urban farm to bring you fresh updates on what's new and growing. We hope our reports will satisfy your hunger to understand the challenges and rewards of growing food in the city.

Looking for Chicago-area urban ag experts, speakers

Cassandra West

Chicago community garden in Woodlawn 2009 Seeding Chicago wants to know who are the urban agriculture experts out there. Can you write or speak about various topics in urban farming? Can you discuss soil preparation and testing, growing and harvesting techniques, composting, garden design, pest control, irrigation practices or any other topics related to growing food in the city? If so, let us know who you are. We're compiling a list of speakers and experts we can feature in upcoming posts. And, we want to make a resource list available to our readers, so they'll know where to turn and whom to trust when they have gardening questions. Send name and contact info to: seedingchicago@newmediaaccess.com

Thanks!

"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!