What to Grow If You Are a New Gardener

Ah, it’s finally spring in Chicago! Or at least the ground is thawing out.

What I mean to say is it's time to start thinking about your garden. Yes, even if you've never gardened before.

What should you grow if you are a new gardener? Well, in my opinion, you should try growing what you like to eat! I understand that can feel a bit daunting, so I’ve put together a specific things that you’ll probably be able to grow successfully even if you’ve never grown anything before!

Don't know what to plant as a first time gardener? Try your hand at hot peppers!

OK, let’s go:

Green Beans - If you like to eat green beans, then you are in luck, because green beans grow like hot cakes in the Midwest. Follow the directions on the seed packet and you should be good to go. They are very prolific and hard to mess up. Just make sure you select “bush” varieties. Pop those seeds in the ground after June 1st!

Green Onions - It's hard to throw off these plants. They are natural pest deterrents, and they just keep growing, even if you ignore them for a while. They are sometimes referred to as bunching onions. You can start onions pretty much any time after the ground is thawed out. Go wild!

Herbs - Basil is a common beginner suggestion, and I would go along with that, but you might want to get it as a seedling/start*. Herbs like mint and oregano will come back year after year and will spread like wild, so only plant them in places where they will have room to expand or where you can keep them contained (like a big bucket or pot). Cilantro likes cooler weather and will quickly go to seed in the heat, so now is the best time to plant it, I promise.

Peppers - Sweet peppers, hot peppers, you name it. If you buy a plant that has been started for you, rather than attempting to start peppers from seed, they are relatively easy to grow. They don't require staking or pruning. They love to produce over and over again once it gets hot, like August/September. Peppers like warm soil, so wait until the first of June to plant them outside.

Peas - Peas are super easy to grow, but they like cool weather only. So, we should be planting peas like now. Which is to say you can plant them anytime after the ground thaws.

Sugar snap peas are a snap to grow, and great treat in your spring garden.

Salad greens - Salad Greens - lettuce, spinach, arugula, that sort of thing - come up quickly in the spring and stay with us for a while. If you like salad, they can be a good way to start growing now and get some food on the table before summer crops like green beans and peppers even go in the ground. You can plant this stuff as soon as the ground is thawed.

Most importantly, plants like their space - you know how seed packets list a recommended distance between seeds? Those recommendations are there for a reason. Follow those directions and your plants will thank you. Even if your garden looks a little barren or super spaced out while plants are growing, when roots and leaves have room to expand, it makes for better fruits and prevents disease. Remember this when you are putting plants in the ground!

(If you are uncertain about how many of a certain plant should fit in a space, this handy dandy square foot garden planner is a good resource.)

Have questions? You've got access to an urban farmer and horticulturist right here! Feel free to shoot me an email at sustainablyqueer@gmail.com.

*Seedling/start: People use these terms interchangeably to refer to plants that have been started from seeds in a greenhouse and are ready to be transplanted into the garden. Starts can be bought at hardware stores, plants sales, or greenhouses to help you avoid the difficult process of growing your own at home. Plants that are not grown from seedlings are either grown directly from seed (like green beans) or cuttings (like some herbs, try it with oregano.)

 

How We Do Sustainable Living - Year Three

Two years ago, in April, Kristl and I decided that it would be a good idea to start a blog about the way we live. A lot has changed in two years. If you are feeling like you could never live a more sustainable life, like it's too expensive or time consuming, consider that it took us almost three years living together to start living the way you see us today. Sustainable living takes a little while to get used to. It's a transition! So, in honor of Earth Day, we give you How We Do Sustainable Living - Year Three! (For the 2013 installment, click here, and for 2014's version, click here.) Last year, we used a system of colors, bold lettering, and strike-throughs to communicate what we had changed. Let's be real, it confused all of us more than it was worth. This year we are going to start from scratch, but follow the same pattern. So, if you go back to previous years, you'll be able to follow our progress pretty easily. If you don't, you'll still get the picture.

Projects related to housekeeping:

  • Cleaning almost exclusively with products derived from white vinegar or Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap Baby Mild
  • Using rags instead of paper towels - When appropriate, which is most of the time except for when pets are involved
  • Buying post-consumer recycled paper products and recycled aluminum foil - We used to roast veggies on foil, but now we roast them on our Sil-Pat, which is easily cleaned and infinitely reusable, so we rarely use foil anymore.
  • Downsizing our apartment and purging in the process - We moved last summer and definitely got rid of furniture and lots of stuff we didn't need
  • Not buying anything we don't need, especially clothing, books, gadgets, etc
  • Trying to buy things with as little packaging as possible - The less you bring in, the less you have to recycle or trash
  • Still using the same homemade washable swiffer cloths, because they are totally reusable
  • Simplifying and organizing our stuff - We hired a personal organizer to work with us a couple times to streamline our stuff. Organizing and downsizing frees us from clutter and helps us focus on the things that matter.
  • Running full dishwasher and laundry loads to conserve water
  • Recycling, obviously - our building separates paper goods from containers, because we are a six-flat and have to contract our own recycling service. Thanks, Chicago.

Projects related to self-care:

  • Using baking soda as shampoo - Works like a charm
  • Using homemade deodorant - We finally settled on a recipe we really like
  • Making homemade lotion/balm
  • Making homemade facial oil
  • Using Chinese medicine/chiropractic/massage/Reiki/nutritional supplements in addition to Western medicine to keep us healthy - It would be weird if we didn't use alternative medicine, Kristl is an acupuncturist, after all.
  • Using Oral Wellness HealThy Mouth Oil and EarthPaste to clean our teeth - No cavities and no added sweeteners.
  • Daily meditation practice, exercise, and reading - Healthy body, healthy brain.
  • Eating "Sustainable Whole Food Nutrition" for good health - See our blog about How We Eat
  • Using eco-friendly, reusable menstrual products 

Projects related to food:

  • Making at least one batch of bone broth in the pressure cooker per week - Gives the crock pot competition
  • Saving bacon fat and using it to cook other things - Butter and avocado oil tend to be our go-to fats these days, but bacon fat comes free with the bacon, so we totally use it.
  • Meal planning for the week, and buying groceries based off the plan - Helps us keep in our budget and limit food waste.
  • Planning large meals or doubling recipes that we can divide them out over 2-3 days so that we don't have to cook every day
  • We carbonate our own water with our Soda Stream and add lemon or lime to it - Our days of making syrups, infused liquors, and shrubs are pretty much over.
  • We definitely make mustard from scratch
  • We make our own mayo with the immersion blender - Keep an eye out for a video on that trick!
  • We cook 95% of our own meals - Try this at home, but remember, it took us a while to get to this point.
  • Participate in True Nature's meat and egg co-op  - $5/dozen for pastured eggs? Yes, please.
  • Participate in C&D Farm's meat co-op delivery - Part of a wedding gift that just keeps on giving
  • Buy produce from farmer's market or local farms in season
  • Buy local food and local products because we care about local business - See these posts for our restaurant and local products recommendations

Projects of the miscellaneous variety:

  • Not buying cable - It's really easy now, because one of the things we sold when we moved was our TV.
  • Making our own gifts - Much like Christmas 2013, we didn't spend too much on gifts for 2014. We would rather have good experiences with our friends and family than get things for and from them. When a gift is appropriate, we'll make it.
  • Feeding our cat and dog grain free/raw food
  • Using backyard (and maybe community garden) to grow food - We missed out on our old community garden plot this year, but not to worry, there are always locations to grow vegetables. Rachel has plenty of offers on the table and she's making plans.
  • Using mason jars for storage - We cut back on our random glass jar collection when we moved. Now we mostly use Mason jars and it does us just fine.
  • Worm composting - We didn't do the best job of worm composting on our own, but our current living situation pays someone to worm compost in the basement. So we totally take advantage of that service our building offers.
  • Budgeting with You Need A Budget (YNAB) - Our commitment to use YNAB keeps us on budget and honest about the money we have coming in and going out. Confused how this relates to sustainability? Sustainability is all about using resources wisely. Money is a resource, and if you are using your money wisely, that will allow you to use your other resources in a sustainable manner. (And if you use the link above, you save 10% off the purchase price!)
  • Donating to people and projects that are actively working to make the world a better place - If you want to play along, we have some suggestions
  • Working at home/within walking distance of home - This is a transition that has made the next point possible
  • Living CAR FREE - We sold our car almost two months ago, and have adjusted just fine. We use the CTA more, we signed up for Enterprise CarShare, and we just bought Rachel a new bike to help with the transition. However, day to day, unless we are getting a huge load of groceries or going way out of our neighborhood, we don't really notice the difference. The best part is we don't have to worry about parking, street cleaning, city stickers, insurance, etc.

There you have it, our lives in sustainability this year! There are probably things we do that we don't realize. We are in deep, folks!

Sustainable living, especially in the city or on a small budget, is not a competition. It's not about keeping up with anyone; every little bit counts. Tell us what you are doing to live the sustainable lifestyle! Comment below or on our Earth Day post on Facebook

How We Do Sustainable Living - Year Two

Hello friends and readers! We have just entered the second year of this blog and another year of concentrated sustainable queerness! Last year, shortly after starting our blog, we provided you with an introductory post about why and how we live sustainably and call ourselves Sustainably Queer.  We decided that as a means of looking back and celebrating our one year anniversary, it would be fun to revisit that post.  Please find a revised and annotated version of "How We Do" below! Spoiler alert: there have been some pretty big changes!

Note: This may go without saying, but new actions/changes are listed in bold, things we are no longer doing are crossed out, and notes are in green. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions.

Projects related to housekeeping:

  • Making orange infused vinegar for cleaning   - We decided that we don't mind the smell of vinegar enough to go through this process regularly, plus the one batch I made last year lasted almost an entire year. We may do this again, but it's not high on the list.
  • Woodworking with reclaimed wood - We took one class from the Rebuilding Exchange, but we haven't continued woodworking. We still have three unfinished table tops chilling in the basement, so hopefully eventually they will become tables, but who knows when.
  • Using rags instead of paper towels - We do this as much as possible, though we still haven't found a good substitute for paper towels for draining bacon (we're going to try some of these options soon).
  • Buying post-consumer recycled paper products and aluminum foil
  • Giving away two items for every one item we bring into the house - This is still the rule, but we've been scaling way back on our buying, so sometimes we give away things even without buying something new. A larger purge is planned for early summer, so we can put stuff away without feeling cluttered about it.
  • Trying to buy things with as little packaging as possible
  • Switched to wind powered electricity (it’s cheaper too!) - Still going strong!
  • Using homemade washable swiffer pads - Love these still!
  • Recycling basically everything we can - We are planning a "How to Effectively Recycle in Chicago" post at some point, there are tricks to it.
  • Leather-working with Chicago School of Shoemaking - You can check out our blog about the experience here. We're currently saving up to take Leatherwork 201, with the end goal being saving up enough to take the Beginning Shoemaking class because, really, what's more awesome and sustainable than being to make your own shoes?!
  • Large-scale refrigerator/freezer organization - Things got real about a week ago when we bought some Fridge Binz. Yes, we try to avoid bringing more plastic into our home, but we also try to avoid wasting food. We weighed the pros and cons and decided to go with the plastic bins for now, with the idea of switching to bamboo or metal sometime in the future, if we find something that fits our needs. 

Projects related to self care:

  • Using baking soda as shampoo - It took her years, but Kristl finally figured out a way to make this work for her hair. She's planning a post on it soon.
  • Making homemade deodorant - Rachel uses this exclusively, Kristl's pits are more delicate, so she's still searching for a recipe that her skin can handle.
  • Making homemade lotion/balm
  • Making homemade facial oil blend
  • Using Chinese medicine/natural healing home remedies instead of Western medicine cures - With the addition of epilepsy to her life, Rachel is now obligated to take a Western medication to control it, but otherwise, we are mostly reliant on acupuncture, chiropractic, and herbal medicine to keep us healthy.
  • Using OraWellness tooth oil instead of toothpaste
  • Receiving acupuncture/chiropractic/massage regularly for health and balance
  • Meditation practice - We both really could stand to meditate more often and for longer, but it's still helpful even in small doses!
  • Using eco-friendly, reusable menstrual products - We're planning a post about menstrual cups and cloth pads/liners in the next few months. 

Projects related to food:

  • Making stock with veggie scraps and chicken bones
  • Saving bacon fat and using it to cook other things (like sweet potatoes, yum!) - This isn't actually a new thing, we just forgot to include it on our initial list.
  • Making staples for the week (baked/boiled eggs, congee, etc) - We still do this, though the staples themselves have changed.  Recently, we've been making a lot of breakfast bars, and soups/stews that are good for eating over 3-4 days. 
  • Making bigger batches of the meals we create so we can freeze portions for when we aren't able to cook - This has saved us on many occasions! We can pull a container out of the freezer and have it for lunch or dinner instead of going out to eat or getting takeout. 
  • Making homemade drink syrups (to flavor carbonated water)
  • Infusing liquors (vanilla vodka and ginger vodka so far) - Rachel has infused vodka with all manner of things, including pineapple, blueberries and a specific spice blend to make it taste like gin.
  • Drinking vinegars, a.k.a. shrubs  - We love a good shrub, but we make so much kombucha now, making drinking vinegar also would be too much
  • Making our own kombucha - So much cheaper than buying it!  
  • Making ricotta, yogurt, mustard, cheez-its, etc from scratch - Again, the actual things we're making from scratch has changed, but we are still committed to buying as few packaged/processed foods as possible.
  • Canning, fermenting, and dehydrating food for long term preservation
  • We bought an upright freezer - We can keep more meat and veggies in the house and put up fruit and veggies from the summer without messing with as much canning. We now have more versatility in how we "preserve" produce.
  • Bringing lunch to work/school
  • Trying to eat locally sourced, humane and organic food as much as possible
  • Signing up for CSA and egg share  - We've changed our approach on this since Rachel is in farm school this year.  We will probably have some access to vegetables that we didn't have before and hopefully we will be able to grow more than we did last year.  The egg share we had last season has been restructured to only be offered to CSA members, so we are no longer getting a carton of eggs a week.  This is kind of a relief, as at one point last summer we had 4 dozen eggs in our fridge.
  • Joined a meat and egg co-op - True Nature Foods has a relationship with a local, pastured farm where the consumer pays $60 a year for membership and is then able to order/purchase a wide variety of meat products and eggs for a reduced price.  This makes eggs cheaper than our egg share and we only have to buy them when we need them. We are doing our best to only eat meat from local, pastured, humane farms.
  • Using all of an item if we buy it, e.g. whole chicken, eating beet greens and broccoli stems
  • Choosing to eat at restaurants that serve sustainably sourced food - This is a huge consideration especially where meat is concerned.  Every choice you make about where to spend your food dollars impacts how safely and sustainably food is produced, in general. Cheaper food is almost always cheap due to government subsidies or externalities (pollution, run-off, inhumane practices, lack of oversight, diminished workers' rights, etc), higher quality food is often more expensive because care was put into it's production and little harm was done to third parties (consumers, workers, animals). Not only do you vote with your money, you also farm with your money, by proxy.
  • Participating in community food events, like the Chicago Food Swap, Soup & Bread, Good Food Festival

Miscellaneous Projects:

  • Not buying cable
  • Homemade gifts - We didn't buy any Christmas presents in 2013.  We either created or re-gifted everything we gave out or we didn't give gifts at all.  It worked out perfectly.
  • Feeding our cat and dog grain free/raw pet food
  • Using community garden plot and backyard to grow food - We just got clearance from our landlord to use some of our backyard space to grow more things.  This is a very exciting development and we are still deciding how to make it functional and beautiful.
  • Reusing jars and bottles for all forms of storage
  • Worm composting - Worms and composting took a little bit of a hiatus over the winter.  They hung out in our basement because the "earthy" smell was a bit much for us in the apartment.  The basement was cold, given our wily winter, but I have seen signs of life, so hopefully worm composting will be back in order soon. 
  • Bugeting via You Need A Budget (YNAB) - With Rachel quitting her full-time job and Kristl going through an office relocation, we knew 2014 was going to be a different picture financially.  We took the pro-active approach and started zero-sum budgeting in December with a program called You Need A Budget.  Things have been going very well so far.  We have been able to save in advance for big bills (like car insurance) and put money away for upcoming big expenses (new car?).  It's pretty awesome. They offer a free trial, so you have no reason to try it out for a bit. Full disclosure, if you sign up using the link above and subscribe after your trial ends, we'll both get one month free - it's a win-win!
  • Tithing/giving to projects and people who are trying to make the world a better place in a sustainable way
  • Kristl is moving her practice to a location with-in walking distance of our house - This exciting for all kinds of reasons, but primarily because she will not need to use the car!

Well, that's about everything, it is a bit overwhelming, but we're managing ok on a day-to-day basis.  As always, feel free to check out anything we link to and ask us more questions about the products/processes.  We are always willing to write posts based on reader interest, so if there are specific topics you want to hear more about, please let us know in the comments below!

Thank you for all your support! Here's to the success of year one, and plenty of sustainable queerness to fill year two and beyond.

Aquaponics in a Nutshell

Tilapia enjoying a nice morning swim My new life as an urban farmer is off to an excellent start.  I am making friends and, everywhere I look in Chicago, there are Windy City Harvest graduates doing excellent things to improve the food system.  I am on a good track to make the difference I feel compelled to make.

When I tell people about my program, I usually mention the aquaponics system at WCH, because it is a bit of a buzzword, especially as marijuana becomes gradually more legal around the country.*  You can absolutely use aquaponics to grow pot, but that's not really why it was designed.  We had a lecture on aquaponics today, and it was incredibly illuminating, and I'm not just talking about grow lights (haha!).

The guy who designed and runs the aquaponic system at WCH is a very knowledgeable individual named Andy.  We are not formally trained in aquaponics as part of our certificate program, but he said that the same science behind horticulture follows through to aquaponics and he's totally willing to teach people the basics one-on-one as time allows.  So, I only know what Andy was able to squeeze into a 1.5 hour lecture, but I will do my best to regurgitate the main points below.

First, where does the word "aquaponics" come from?  Well, there was hydroponics, the growing of plants in nutrient solution without soil, and there was aquaculture, the raising of fish in pools for the sake of food.  Both of these systems of food production, while innovative and interesting to think about, are immensely wasteful.  Hydroponics doesn't really have a good solution for what to do with plant waste water, it's very costly to set up, and the systems are very susceptible to mold issues. Aquaculture is a big polluter; you are essentially setting up a cattle feed lot for fish. Aquaponics, however, uses the waste nutrients from the plants to nourish the fish, and the waste from the fish to feed the plants. The crucible for development in aquaponics was the Virgin Islands in the 1970's.  It is really something we can thank the hippies for.

It is a bit more complicated than that, and you do have to feed the fish, but the cycle is way more sustainable than keeping the two separate.  The water that starts in the system stays in the system.  The only waste is a little solid waste from the fish, but there are ways around that as well.  Thus, the number one advantage to an aquaponic system is water conservation.  In addition, you don't need soil, you minimize pollutants going into the ground water, and the systems are incredibly adaptable and scale-able. Andy gave us an example of a home sized system, with a 10 gallon tank for a couple fish and a plastic tub on top for the plants.  You could have fresh basil, mint, bok choy, and some types of lettuce year round with this type of set up.  The initial set-up cost would be around $50 and that would pay for itself in a winter or two.

Individual home-sized aquaponic set-up

There are challenges to this type of system, as there are with anything.  It takes a bit of an engineering mind to build out a system to begin with, and evidently sometimes you don't know if you are doing something wrong until basically the whole system fails.  I mean, pretty much any science/trade/field has critical points of failure, but in this case, you could lose a lot of time and money if the system you put together has a critical flaw.

Once your system is set up, you become the grandmaster of tedious balance of pH and nutrients.  Andy showed us a really lovely chart that lists the 10 most essential nutrients for plants and the pH at which they are most available to the plants in solution.  It is in the slightly left of neutral range of 6.5 to 7 pH.  Any more acidic and things start to die.  I didn't take great notes on the actual processes and chemical conversions that are going on, but the basic cycle is as follows: feed fish, fish exhale ammonia through gills, ammonia is consumed by nitrosomous bacteria which turn it into nitrites, which nitrobacter bacteria eat and turn into nitrates which are the lovely nitrogen rich compounds that make plants super happy. Most systems do produce some waste at this point, which can be composted. However, at WCH they have an intermediary bed system, which has different plants in coconut coir for aeration, sitting in puffed shale that has red composting worms living in it. The worms feast on the extra bacteria and waste from the fish, so the system itself has basically no solid waste.  The other boon to this approach is these shale composing beds can support more intense root systems. So you can grow tomatoes, hot peppers, peas, and so on, making the whole system more profitable and/or delicious, depending on your perspective.

So, basically, that's aquaponics in a nutshell.  If you have a flair for tinkering with pipes and fish and plants, it might be a good hobby for you.  Some folks who do aquaponics grow enough fish to sell them to processing companies, but it's mostly tilapia, and the vast majority of tilapia are being grown way more cheaply in other countries in polluted waters. Andy says that WCH is planning on moving from tilapia to koi, mostly because they don't grow enough fish to keep a regular distributor.  Koi can be sold for way more money as ornamental fish once they outgrow our aquaponics system.

See more pictures below and let me know if you have other questions about aquaponics.  I'm soon to learn all about soil science, so I will have a better idea of what specific types of plants need in their soil at an elemental level.  Exciting stuff!

Basil growing in the floating beds

Cucumbers growing in the media beds, fed by the worms

Sump and pump directly below the media beds

* I honestly know nothing about marijuana, having never touched the stuff, but you do you, friends!

Sustainably Queer Urban Agriculture: A New Chapter for Rachel

Image We are still doing our best to get back to a regular posting schedule, but sometimes life happens and it's very unpredictable  At the moment, no one is really banging down our door asking for MORE POSTS IMMEDIATELY (although we could probably use some additional external motivation), but we honestly do have a list of possible posts about a yard long.

We're not trying to make excuses over here, but part of the reason our whole life is in flux is that I (Rachel) have recently started an intensive 9-month program in Sustainable Urban Agriculture! It is a program called Windy City Harvest, put on through a partnership between the Chicago Botanic Garden and Daley College of the Chicago City Colleges. The classes themselves take place (for the most part) at the Arturo Velazquez Institute, a.k.a. the West Side Technical Institute. This is the program's 7th year in existence and I am more than thrilled to be a part of it. (A lot of the exciting ventures focusing on local food in Chicago were started by or employ WCH graduates, and the recently opened Eataly enterprise hired 6 graduates at the end of last year!)

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The 9-month program starts with a spring semester with intensive classroom work (learning about stuff like greenhouse propagation, botany, soil science, and systemic environmental issues) and actual farming work in the AVI greenhouse and Rodeo farm near campus. The WCH staff runs 6-7 different farm sites in the city, and part of our job as students is to prepare seedlings for those farms and assist in transplanting. All this is to say, I've already been actively involved in prepping a farm for the growing season, and it is VERY HANDS ON. (Who knew soil blocking would be so labor intensive?!! Who knows what soil blocking is besides other farmer-y types and Kristl who has been helping me study?!)

We finish the spring semester at the end of May and immediately transition into a three-month paid internship at a farm somewhere in the city (or at the Chicago Botanic Garden). This is where the rubber hits the road and you get that serious, full-time, daily experience of being a farmer. Previous sites have included City Farm (from which Rick Bayless gets a lot of his vegetables) and the rooftop garden at Uncommon Ground on Devon.

Hopefully, I will graduate in October with a full growing season of experience, a final project in the form of a full farm plan, the concrete beginnings of a business plan, and a bright, burgeoning love of all things Urban Agriculture (I already have this). So far, Kristl has called me a nerd about 1,000,000 times and has been incredibly supportive of my quest to learn how to grow all the food for the rest of our lives. (Ideally, I would be able to at least significantly reduce our fruit and vegetable budget.)

One of the primary goals of the program is to take folks with unclear career paths or a desire to improve the food system but no related skills (that's me!) and prepare them for full-time work in urban agriculture. So, a big part of the final portion of the program, after the internship, is focused on helping participants explore what that looks like for them. As you may have guessed (since I have a Masters in Education and collaborate on this blog about sustainability), my goal is to educate people about food and how to grow it. I want to find ways to teach people how to grow their own food in whatever spaces they have and become more self-sustaining in an urban environment. (I recently read a statistic that said most major cities would completely run out of food in about three days if they lost access to their usual food supplies. We need to have a back-up plan.)

My career path could take many different forms, from individual gardening consulting, to starting a small education-focused urban farm where adults could take growing workshops. Hopefully, I would be able to take my passion for food out on the streets and give people the power to impact where their next meal is coming from.  I am personally inspired by the common proverb, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."  It seems cliche, but even a good cliche packs a philosophical punch now and then.  What good does it do for my neighbors/friends/community/city for me to know how to farm and grow delicious food when others cannot? In so many economic models, it's not wise business practice to share your secrets and your essential professional knowledge, but there is so much to lose by not sharing that knowledge when it comes to food.  The food system we have now cannot be sustained, and this queer aims to be one of the few with the know-how to pick up the pieces when it does fall apart.

Regardless of how I proceed professionally, all our friends (and readers) are welcome to contact me with questions about WCH and my experiences. If you are already planning to grow your own food and want some (almost!) expert advice, I should be able to provide it, if not for 2014, definitely for 2015 and beyond. I'm just really freaking excited about increasing food literacy and food sovereignty in Chicago, and if that excites you too, let's make a more sustainable city together!

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Garden Update: The Wrapup

Here's a quick garden conclusion for those of you who were watching our garden posts this year! (Want to catch up? Check out our previous posts: Garden Update: The Setup! and Garden Update: July!) Our giant kale plant, that just kept on giving.

Our first season of community gardening has drawn to a close. Weather usually dictates the end of growing season, but with our community plot we had to have everything cleared out by November 4th. Conveniently, most of our garden had finished producing by that time.

We attempted a fall planting of beets, radishes, and kale, but only one lonely radish and a few tiny beet plants came up. I'm not sure why the seeds were so reluctant to sprout, but it could have been a water issue. We were not so present in the garden towards the end of the summer and into fall. If I had done an August garden update, it would have been focused on how our tomato plants were producing (quite well for being fairly inactive most of the summer), and how giant our kale plants were getting. Striped beetles completely destroyed our cucumber plants, and did their best to eat the corn as well (or maybe they were living in the corn and dining on the cukes, didn't matter, they were everywhere).

We harvested some very sweet and tiny beets in August as well. They were golf ball-sized at the largest, but they were so sweet with an essential beety-ness. I am now determined to figure out how to grow larger beets. Broccoli was a big disappointment, in that it didn't make a nice pretty head - it just kind of bloomed willy-nilly for 2 months and we mostly plucked tiny bits of it and ate it in the garden. We could have eaten the stems, but by the time November rolled around, I was a little burnt out on broccoli stems, not gonna lie.

A couple of our tomato plants persisted in putting out tomatoes until mid October, which we much appreciated. Most surprising, however, was the strawberry plant, which just kept blooming and fruiting all the way until we had to clear out the plot. I ate a strawberry in November! No one in the Midwest expects to be able to grow strawberries in November!

We also had calendula flowers blooming all through the summer and well into the fall. Calendula is a type of marigold whose flowers have anti-inflammatory properties and can be infused into creams and balms to help with healing of minor wounds. It is also sometimes used as a substitute for saffron and a yellow dye. We are planning to use it in some homemade skin creams to help with irritation and redness.

Rachel embracing the entire chard harvest before we processed it.

The last two crops we harvested were swiss chard and potatoes. I planted the chard in June, and it took most of the summer to get to a size where it would be satisfying to eat. The variety I chose to grow was called spinach chard, so it was completely green and had a spinach-like flavor. We harvested it all at once about mid-October and steamed it, then portioned it out and stuck it in the freezer for adding to soups later on this winter. I find the blanche-and-freeze method much more palatable for straight up vegetables than going through all the trouble to preserve them through pressure canning.

Potatoes were kind of a last minute crop for us, and we didn't use starter potatoes that were meant for growing. We just used some older organic potatoes that were starting to sprout in the pantry because sometimes you simply have to use what you've got. We did originally plant seed potatoes, but the container they were in didn't drain well enough, so they ended up rotting. Our second attempt at growing potatoes made a very nice plant above ground, but they never bloomed. (Some sources I encountered said you should harvest the potatoes after they bloom, and some said after the vines die, which is what I did in this case.) We got probably about a pound of potatoes total - tiny and adorable potatoes. Next year, we are going to focus on production, and hopefully make some good meals out of our potato experiments.

Our meager potato harvest.

All in all, I would say that the gardening season was a great success. We had fun and were able to eat fresh food. Next year I am going to focus on planting for three seasons and I will do my best not to plant on the day a big storm is supposed to come through. Every experience with gardening and farming is a learning experience, no matter the scale you are working on. So, I'm going to take the lessons I learned this year and use them to improve my little garden plot next year!

Back where we started.

We got word from PGP that the lease for Vedgewater (which is on a plot that Loyola owns) was renewed for another year! This means we will be able to keep our same plot, which is really exciting because we've been adding eggshells and worm castings to it periodically to enhance the soil quality. While we talked about applying for an additional plot to increase our growing space, we decided not to because we don't want to be greedy. Peterson Garden Project wants to make organic gardening accessible to as many people as possible and we don't want to hinder that goal in any way. We are going to see if our landlord will be open to us doing some minor planting in the backyard. Hopefully, the college kids who live in the same building will not be too excited about breaking beer bottles amongst our tomato plants. At the very least, we can start some raspberry bushes back in the corner and have a few tasty morsels for years to come.

We'd love to hear what you grew this year? Any major successes or failures? Surprise crops? Hit us up in the comments or send us an e-mail!

Garden Update: July 2013

Garden as of July 8th, 2013
Garden as of July 8th, 2013

Welcome back to the "Garden Update" segment, I hope you are excited, because we are! A lot has happened in the garden since the middle of June. We went on a vacation and left our garden in the hands of a friend and any folks willing to water over at Vedgewater. There are bright yellow paint sticks with the words "Water if Dry" written on them. This is an indicator that the plotholders are out of town and their water may need some love.  

We've been blessed with a good strong crop of green beans and a delightful team of kale plants. The kale is a Russian variety, and the leaves are coming out to be larger than your hand. The green beans are just getting started, and I'm pretty sure we will see a second flowering from them before they are done. We've eaten at least a couple dozen green beans each and I've been throwing them into stir fries and pastas for extra green crunch.

First picking of green beans!
First picking of green beans!

We have a couple square feet of beets which are not getting terribly large, but we pulled one for tasting last week and it was the sweetest beet you could imagine. It was slightly smaller than a ping pong ball, but totally worth growing for the flavor. I will probably pull the beets in the next week or so to make room for a fall planting. I had planted some little beets in and amongst the spring beets, but they were shaded too much and haven't done a lot. Hopefully, I can make some room for fall beets which will give us a little more sustenance going into the winter times.

Baby beets, almost ready to eat!
Baby beets, almost ready to eat!

Our tomato plants are really coming along, even the ones I thought were goners. We also recently discovered that our broccoli plants, which seemed basically worthless up to this point, are trying to flower. I'm pretty excited about the prospect of broccoli florets, but it's nice to know that if we never get traditional looking broccoli, we can still eat the leaves and the stem. Yum!

We have cucumbers, corn, peppers, and eggplant starting to bloom as well. It's a bit late for many of these plants, but for our first year out, we're pretty proud of what our little plants are doing. The cucumbers have taken quite a hit from the recent heat wave. Even when we water more than once a day, they are looking a bit wilted and sad. We had a couple days last week, when it was really hot, that it was pretty touch and go for a few of our plants. Some things really do not like heat. To help with keeping the ground cool and retaining water, we mulched with cocoa shells. I do not recommend cocoa shells to anyone who has dogs or has a garden frequented by dogs, as they can be dangerous to dogs (It's basically like feeding chocolate to your dog, if the dog tries to eat them off the ground). However, Peterson Garden Project does not allow dogs in their gardens, so we were able to try out cocoa shells for mulch. It seems to be going ok, but even with the mulch, the bed dries out pretty quickly. I'm looking forward to more rain and some slightly cooler weather.

These berries are better than candy.
These berries are better than candy.

The biggest surprise for me in this garden has been our volunteer strawberry plant. It has re-bloomed twice and continues to produce the sweetest and tangiest strawberries I have ever eaten. We were pleased to see that the previous owners of the plot had planted strawberries the year before, because strawberry plants do better after their first year. We have harvested a berry or two every couple days from this plant and the trend seems to be continuing. The heat did get to the strawberry plant a bit too, some of the berries appeared to be almost cooked on the bush, but I think this is mostly a lesson to think about how to provide shade for plants in a shade-less garden. Next year, I will probably add in a bit more infrastructure and plan my planting to have larger plants protect more delicate plants. In the meantime, we will continue to live and learn with the garden, and hopefully I'll be back in August with some gratuitous tomato porn.  Tomatoes are comin'!

Garden Update: The Setup!

If you have been following us on Instagram, you know we have a lovely 4’x8’ garden plot in Peterson Garden Project’s Vedgewater garden. Vedgewater is at the corner of Broadway and Magnolia and has ~180 plots. The land is on rent from Loyola, and this is their second year in operation. I’m hoping--pretty securely because I’ve seen several groups from Loyola working in the garden--that PGP’s lease on the space will be renewed. This is the closest community garden to our house and it’s almost like having a backyard garden. I started my garden planning back in March. I knew I would be growing things this year, because it was the first time in four years I would not be picking up and moving somewhere else. I got a huge stack of urban/small space/container gardening books out of the library. My favorite of all was definitely Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail. Briefly, because this was not meant to be a book review post, this book is great because it goes through prepping a raised bed or container garden, the pests you might encounter, and the natural fertilizers you can use. Plus, it has plant-by-plant breakdowns of what you need to know to raise them. It’s super informative, and while I read it cover to cover once, I wanted to reference it so many times after returning it to the library that I just went and bought it.

 Check out our seedlings!

Check out our seedlings!

Armed with knowledge, I set about the process of buying seeds and starting seedlings. I got seeds from three sources. First, I found organic heirloom seeds from Kenyon Organics on Etsy. I bought eggplant, cucumber, kale, chard, peppers, broccoli, basil, and three different types of tomatoes. Around the last week of March, I planted tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and broccoli from seed indoors. I used toilet paper rolls as seedling packs, and filled them with organic seeding soil. I had also purchased a seedling pot maker from Burpee, and used that when I ran out of toilet paper rolls. The toilet paper rolls seemed like an awesome idea; it was re-purposing, biodegradable, and about the right size. However, all the toilet paper rolls developed mold on the outside. They also started to unwind, which made watering difficult because the water would just pour out the top. I recommend the pot maker or just saving the containers from store bought seedlings, which is what I will mostly use next year. Kristl has an Ott lamp for crafting which I used as a makeshift grow light. I wasn’t growing that much, so it was the perfect size.

Back to the story... The peppers and eggplants never came up. The tomatoes all sprouted and grew pretty well, as did the broccoli. We went to the orientation before April 22, when the gardens opened. We got a garden plot assigned to us. We were ready. Peterson Garden Project had a giant plant sale the weekend of Mother’s Day. We bought two more tomatoes, four cucumbers, two eggplants, and three pepper plants. I also got two kinds of lettuce and arugula for our porch plant boxes.

 Look at that fresh garden

Look at that fresh garden

It was starting to get warm, so I began to get antsy about planting, even though most of my sources were saying to wait until after Memorial day for transplants. I got Kristl and all the seedlings outside to the garden one evening mid May, and we put everything we had in the ground. Later that evening, there was a huge storm, and it really knocked our plants around. Only two tomatoes and two peppers survived from that initial planting. Our plot belonged to someone else last year, so there were strawberries, oregano, and parsley which were wholly unfazed, but it was back to the start for almost everything we planted. Lesson learned.

Luckily, the farm we have our CSA through--Angelic Organics--sent us an email offering free seedlings out at the farm. I also learned that the Bonnie plants sold at Home Depot are raised organically and they have heirloom varieties. I purchased some organic bush bean, beet, and lettuce seeds from Burpee, and calendula (a flower used to speed healing for burns and cuts) from Seed Savers Exchange. We came home from the CSA farm with beets, corn, green onions, and a couple small tomatoes. We grabbed some kale seedlings from Whole Foods, broccoli from Matty K's on Lincoln, and eggplant, tomatoes, and a jalapeno from Home Depot.

By the first of June, we had planted almost everything except the hot weather plants (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes). I took a beginner class from PGP, and they said to try not to plant those types of plants until it’s good and hot or they won’t thrive. So, I didn't put them in until June 10th.  At the moment, I feel like things are going pretty well. All the plants look relatively healthy and all the seeds I have planted have come up. The strawberries have already given us six impossibly delicious, plump berries. We have had enough kale to serve as a vegetable at dinner, and we've been sprinkling fresh oregano into lots of things.

 Our little deck garden really grows

Our little deck garden really grows

The lettuces on the porch are going wild! Kristl had a poached egg and arugula sandwich on her sourdough bread and it looked delicious. The real question now is how these hot weather plants will deal with the persistently cool temperatures. We have had some really discouraging moments so far in this growing season, but the best advice I probably got at my beginner’s class was not to get emotionally attached to the vegetables. If they die because of weather or some hungry critter, that is out of my hands. My job is to make sure they are fed, watered and protected from weeds. If they don't make it, I can always plow them under and start over with something new.

Going forward, I will try to give you a garden update every 2-3 weeks. I want you to keep up with the mistakes and victories I am having on the agricultural front. I’m trying to be conscious of mistakes I may be making. I’m not trying to come off as a master gardener (although I would very much like to become one someday). I’m just an amateur trying to grow some food to fill my kitchen. Hopefully, I will learn some tricks to make the produce produced outweigh the cost of seeds, seedlings, and supplies. And hopefully, it will get into the 80's for a couple months so our big yield, hot weather crops will have a fighting chance!

Until next time, happy growing! And eating!

 Everything's lookin' good!

Everything's lookin' good!