A New Direction for Sustainably Queer

Hello Dedicated SQ Readers! Thank you for your patience in the past months as Rachel has been joyfully toiling through her program in Urban Agriculture and Kristl has been setting up her own fabulous acupuncture storefront in Edgewater. Due to this "construction" period, the writing here on SQ has been a little light. You have learned a lot about us, for sure, but there has not been a lot of meat to our posts.

Kristl and Rachel in Florance

Hopefully, as we are swinging into the holiday season and beyond we will be able to change that up for you a little bit. We are looking into a much needed facelift for the blog (because to be honest, we haven't really spent any time on this at all), as well as a few focus topics that are near and dear to our hearts. We will be giving you more cooking posts (because who doesn't love a good cooking post!?) and more posts about green living opportunities and events happening around the city of Chicago. We hope to also have interviews with movers and shakers in the queer, sustainable, and sustainably queer community that you should know (oooooh interviews!). It's going to be cool and hopefully it will be something you will want to share with your friends.

We will, however, be saying adios to our popular feature Nine on the Ninth, love it though you may (insert sad sounds here). We have done ten of those features, and we don't really want to have too much of a good thing. However, as a means of saying goodbye, we will be putting out an homage to Nine on the Ninth (and Oprah) and deliver to you with plenty of time for the holidays a list of Ninety-Nine Things We Like, which are sustainable or queer or, hey, sustainably queer which may also help fill out your shopping list a little bit, or just make your life a little bit easier. So, keep an eye out for that soon. It'll be in digestible chunks, don't worry!

Other than that, Rachel will be writing (unrelated but also awesome) some posts for the Advocates for Urban Agriculture's blog.  AUA is the main organization that works for the rights of farmers, growers, and locally sourced products in Chicago.  It's exciting for her to start to work with these fine folks and do the hard work of making sure that the public at large will make sure they are heard.  We will probably link to Rachel's AUA posts on our Facebook page, for your perusal.  (You may not think that you care about Chicago's weeding ordinance, but if you have a single family home, you very well may, or if you care about the welfare of small farms in the city, their ability to keep up with simple perimeter weeding may impact their ability to stay open or avoid heavy fines.)

That about does it for the planned changes around here. If there's anything specific you'd like us to write about, please let us know. We're definitely open to suggestions!

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: 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!