Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rain, Rain, and SNOW

Well this week has been rain and more rain. We have had some thunderstorms and now I hear that tonight and possibly tomorrow we might see some snow. Well after our 80 degree days I thought for sure that our chances of snow were gone, but I guess I was wrong.

Well we will see if we actually get to burn the prairie this Friday. With all of this rain it may be just a little too wet.

Here is wishing for slightly warmer weather.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


I came to school yesterday and found my Passiflora caerulea or Passion flower in full bloom. I rceived this plant as a gift from Five Crows last fall. This plant has really taken a shine to my classroom and has begun to climb up the wall and across my upper windowsill. This was a beautiful welcome back.

The Passiflora genus is found throughout the world and on almost every continent. In fact there is even a native species, Passiflora incarnata. It was known to the Chorokee as the ocee. And can be found growing along the Ocee River bank. This particular species is very important to a few different larval species of butterflies such as the Zebra longwing and the gulf fritilari.

The range of the Passiflora incarnata or the Purple Passion Flower.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Whoops! But alls well that eats well

Well I was on Spring Break all last week and I enjoyed the free time to work in my yard and on gardening. However in my rush to leave on Friday I guess I forgot to put the timer on my grow cart. So in other words my radishes that are in a SIP received 24 hours of light from Friday to well today. When I came in the radishes seemed to be much larger than what they were. I am not sure if this is due to just not seeing them for the course of one week or the additional fact that they had 24 hour daylight.

Nonetheless we actually have some radishes that were just large enough to eat. Three students volunteered to harvest one of them and then slice it and eat it. All three agreed that the radish was very good. One student even said that she normally doesn't like radishes, but she enjoyed that one.

Hallelujah to the power of growing it yourself.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

What's Happening

Well yesterday morning we had a long slow drizzle that I am sure was just what the plants needed. I can't wait to see some green life sprouting in my freshly turned soil. Down in the basement broccoli has started to sprout (4 in all). Still no peppers though.

Naomi is going to reseed those pots since the seeds we used are several years old. Also we are still waiting on the corn and the cucumbers, but we planted those just last week.

Happy Easter and I hope everyone had a good Passover and Seder

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Grayslake Farmers Market Begins Again

This morning in the drizzling rain Naomi and I ventured to downtown Grayslake to once again stroll through the booths. I felt a giddy sense of spring as I went from one vendor to another. It felt good to say hi and see people again.

Of course tomorrow is Easter and I saw many people purchasing eggs. One couple purchased ten dozen farm fresh eggs from one vendor. Naomi and I bought cheese, bread, juice, and got my CSA share.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Beautiful Days

The past two days have been simply gorgeous here in the Chicago area. So wonderful that today Naomi and I took our little seedling out for an hour so they could get a little fresh air and some overcast sunlight. Also we planted the carrots (multi colored variety) and the snap peas. It has been in the low 80's the past two days, but tomorrow its supposed to drop by 20 degrees. However it will still be a respectable 60 something.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Burn Baby Burn

Yesterday, Naomi and I burnt our small little patch of prairie next to our deck. Now for any of you who do not know, prairie burns are a necessary part of the prairie life cycle. It helps to keep out woody plants and non natives. However do to the smallness and location of this patch of prairie we had to do things a bit different. First we cut down all of the plants and laid them onto the ground. Then we thoroughly wetted down the deck and the side of the house. Then we started the fire with only a match, not drip torches. Then we stood by hose in hand and let the patch burn. We doused with the hose every once in awhile just to stop the fire from burning too hot and scorching the prairie plant roots. Who are normally under the earth and far enough away from the quick moving fire of a normal prairie burn.

No pictures unfortunately but next week I will burning a large patch of prairie next to the school I work at with my students. I will be sure to take pictures of this one.

Popeye the Sailor Man

Well today is a beautiful day here in the Chi-town area. Temperatures reaching the 60's and sunny. It seemed like the perfect day to work in the garden. I added compost to each of the raised beds and turned the soil over with my pitchfork. Then I planted some spinach seeds. I seeded an area about 2 feet wide by about 3 feet long. More than enough spinach for this first round of growing. I will try to get in a late crop as well this year, but more on that later in the year.

Spinach is a great cold weather crop. It can be planted in early April (I know its not April yet but it is spring break) and then again in early fall. When the rest of the garden is brown this little patch of green just helps me to get revved up for May.

On another note, many of my friends will tell you I am not a big leafy eater, however the leafy greens I do like include spinach. There is something about a spinach salad with any type of vinaigrette dressing that is just so refreshing.

Well hope to see some sprouters in 8 to 10 days.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Last of the flats planted

Today Naomi planted the last two flats with Broccoli, two kinds of popcorn, and cucumbers. All of them were new varieties. The broccoli was a variety called Romanesco, which is supposed to have superb flavor and texture. We bought two varieties of heirloom popcorn; 2 inch strawberry popcorn and Tom Thumb popcorn. The last seed planted was double yield cucumbers, which are supposed to be prolific producers and excellent for pickling.We also reseeded a couple of the pots that did not sprout.

So that finalizes the seeds that we planted indoors. Tomorrow we will put sow some spinach seeds outside so that we can get an earlier spinach crop. Later this week we will plant some carrots and peas. The garden is coming together.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Real Dirt on Farmer John-Review

This past Friday night Naomi, a friend, and myself went to the Byron Colby Barn to watch the movie The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which is a personal documentary or an autobiopic (is that even a genre). John Peterson is a farmer, artist, eccentric visionary who lives just outside of Rockford, IL. The film documents John's personal struggles from the deaths of his uncle and father, losing his farm in the 80's, and his hard fought rebirth back into farming. John faced prejudice, vicious rumors, and more from his rural neighbors. One gets a detailed look and feel of what rural America was like during the 80's for anyone who broke away from the norm of society.

In 1990 John Peterson returned back to what was left of his family farm. There he began farming again with the help of family and friends. However, with his return John brought a farming method that he had witnessed during his time in Mexico. A natural system that didn't degrade or sterilize the land, an organic way of farming. In the next few years John was taken by the writings of Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher and visionary from Austria, and began to introduce biodynamic farming to Angelic Organics in 1993. In that same year Angelic Organics became a Community Supported Agriculture or CSA farm. Angelic Organics has slowly grown and is now one of the largest CSAs in the United States with over 1400 families participating as shareholders.

All in all this is an entertaining and uplifting movie that shows us how one individual with the help of others can create a small food revolution in the heart of middle America.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

They are Sprouting

Well not to long ago I wrote about constructing the seed rack. I installed the shop lights put in plant florescent lights, planted the seeds, and then nothing. Unfortunately the basement was too cold and the lights, just not enough heat. So Naomi ordered some seedling heat mats from Horticulture Source. Then in almost no time at all we had some of our first sprouts, tiny basil sprouts.

Then came the onions and the gourds. The gourds seemed to explode out of the ground. In the morning there was not even a hint of action and then by the afternoon they towered above the dirt.

Next our tomato seeds sprouted which gave me a bit of relief. I had seed saved a couple of varieties from last year. One variety happened to be an heirloom of Naomi's aunt Nancy and the others were some heirloom tomatoes that I picked up at a farmers market in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Story of Stuff

Slightly off topic but it was on my mind...

Over the course of this year my classroom has been learning about sustainability. They have done many lesson led by Naomi our Environmental Educator. One lesson revolved around the online movie The Story of Stuff. I found this movie enlightening, hilarious, and educational. It does a very nice job of taking a complicated issue and breaking it down into very understandable parts. Many of my students were very affected by this movie and its sister movie the Story of Bottled Water, which is another very large issue. In fact a group of my students are taking on the issue of bottled water as their service learning project.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Prairie Crossing Barn Movie Night

This Friday, 7:30 March 26th at the Byron Colby Barn, we'll show the critically acclaimed film, THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN. For close to a century, a great American epic has been played out in the tiny town of Caledonia, Illinois, about 75 miles west of Chicago. THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN tells the story of one man, his farm and his family—a story that parallels the history of American farming. But Farmer John is no laconic, Grant Wood-type with a scowl and a pitchfork. Equal parts performance artist, writer and farmer, John Peterson has been known to switch out of his overalls into leopard latex or a purple-feathered boa.

After almost losing the farm in the 80’s John turned his enterprise into an organic operation, naming the farm Angelic Organics. He was soon invited to become a community supported agriculture (CSA) farmer: “I realized that my whole life had been about community—enabling people, bringing them to the farm, working and playing together, sharing the farm experience.” The story of Angelic Organics’ success as a CSA farm over the last 15 years is the final delight of THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN.

Better than Popcorn!!!! Beginning this week, we will have Organic Farm Fresh eggs from the Learning Farm to sell at the movie.

Why Choose Organic

Well there has been a lot of debate of why someone should choose organic over conventional produce. Many people talk about the nutrition benefits or lack thereof in organic produce when compared to that of conventional. Now this is a hard thing to measure scientifically, since to do it adequately one would have to change only one variable. Variations in soil, irrigation methods, climate, and many other factors change the outcome. However, for me its not as much about nutrition as a lifestyle choice. I want the decisions I make to have the smallest impact I can make. So when I choose organic produce at the store it is an environmental choice more than a health choice. I do not buy much food at the grocery store. In fact one of the house rules is to buy produce that is in season and as locally as you possibly can. For this past winter Naomi and I have used produce that we froze or canned last year. We are beginning to run out of some and still going strong on others.

Article about the Choice

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Local Means Knowing Seasonality

Many of my students do not seem to have a full grasp on what crops can grow here in Chicago and when they are fresh. I have many students that believe that the bananas that they buy at the store in December were grown just down the road. This year and next year I am beginning to develop a Unit that will address some of these concerns. But for everyone who is not in my classroom and for those students who read this here is a helpful guide produced by the City of Chicago.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Yellow Tail

Every morning on my way to work I pass by the Lake County Farm Bureau, which has displayed the add "Don't Buy Yellow Tail Wine!" Now I haven't bought any Yellow Tail wine, but to be honest I really haven't ever bought any wine from this company in a very long time. However, just this week I was wondering what has Yellow Tail done to basically raise the hackles of the Farm Bureau. Is it because it is in Australia and there are many more US wineries that are deserving of our money, or maybe its because they practice unfair labor laws or grow their grapes in third world countries effectively skirting the law.

Well the reason behind this major boycott is; they gave $100,000 to the Humane Society of the United States to help with spaying and neutering programs. This is the dastardly act that has brought about the ire of the Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau states that the Humane Society is part of a group of lobbyists how create unwieldy animal welfare laws that hurts livestock farmers. I can understand this to a point and I am wondering how Nick Janovski, my meat CSA farmer, feels about this donation. Is he upset by it and will this ruin his buisness?

But in the end, I am a bit skeptical about this protest, since I know that CAFO's and the Farm Bureau are very, very friendly. Quite frankly, I am cynical of the Farm Bureau; who walks hand in hand with large corporations that help to destroy small family farms and our environment.

So even though I haven't bought Yellow Tail wine in quite some time, maybe the next time I am at the store I might just buy a bottle or two and do a little toast to Bob Barker.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Building a Seed Germination Rack

Well its been some time since I last blogged, but Spring is here (kind of) so its gardening time. Since the last time I blogged I have won a gardening grant for my classroom from Welch's and the National Gardening Association. I also built a seed germination rack last Saturday.

The seed rack was my solution to what has been for the last two years is a makeshift paint can/ shop light system. I wanted to update the system and make it possible to start more seedlings without taking up the entire floor of the guest bedroom.

I found a couple of prototypes from green roof growers and tiny farm blog and then adapted them to meet my needs and design aesthetics.

Drill (assorted drill bits and tools)
wood screws
3/8" carriage bolts washers and nuts
(6) 2x4's 8 foot long
3 sheets of plywood 2' x 4'
Cross braces
6 shop lights
12 plant lights
Jack chain
and S hooks

1. start by cutting 4 6 foot long 2x4's

2. take the 2 foot 2x4's and lay them on the ground with two of your 6 foot boards like so:

3. Repeat step two

4. add the four foot boards by first measuring out where you want the shelves and mark it. I made my shelves at 24" and 48".
5. Lay the four foot sections and clamp them like so

Then drill the holes for the four carriage bolts

6. Count sink each hole with a 1/2" counter sink (Note: counter sink the 6 foot board and the four foot board should go inside the rectangle. In picture it is opposite because I don't always do things the easy way the first time around)

7. Attach all four foot 2x4's to the inside of the rectangle.

8. screw on the plywood sheets to each level including one to be a top

Optional Steps if you want to keep pets out of the plants especially cats

9.. Place rack on side and then roll out 30" by 84" screen onto side. It is good to have a second person to help with this step, so the screen stays taut. Use a staple gun to attach the screen to the side of the rack. Then do the other side in the same fashion.

10. Attach the cross braces to give the rack more support. Four sided objects tend to shift from side to side. Cross braces stop this shifting motion by creating a more sound shape the triangle.

11 (Optional Screen step) Attack a front screen that is 48" x 84" to the top plywood sheet with the staple gun and then attach adhesive Velcro to posts and the screen to have a secure fit.

12. Install shop lights with eye hooks (I spaced them out at about 10" and 13" onto the plywood sheets and also the 2 foot 2x4 for the top rack only), Then use the jack chain and the s hooks to affix the shop lights

After you have installed all six lights to the three shelves you are basically done with construction. However I do have some helpful tips and suggestions.

Suggestion/tip: Pre-drill all holes it will make putting screws and eye hooks in much easier.

Suggestion/tip: If it is going in the basement (like mine) then purchase heating mats for the seed trays or germination may never actually begin.

Suggestion/tip: When doing this kind of project take your time never get in too much a hurry that you don't think two steps ahead of where you are at.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Local Foods Movie Series at the Byron Colby Barn Continues

Last November Mike Sands showed the movie Fresh! and the event was a big success for all who came. Well this event is continuing for at least two additional nights. This Friday, January 15, is the film HOMEGROWN and Feburary 24th is the acclaimed film King Corn and the short sequel Big River.

The Byron Colby Barn is located at 1561 Jones Point Road in Grayslake IL.

All movies are FREE!

On Friday, 7:30 January 15th, we'll show a 52 minute video by Robert McFalls entitled HOMEGROWN. HOMEGROWN follows the Dervaes family who run a small organic farm in the heart of urban Pasadena, California. While "living off the grid", they harvest over 6,000 pounds of produce on less than a quarter of an acre, make their own bio diesel, power their computers with the help of solar panels, and maintain a website that gets 4,000 hits a day. The film is an intimate human portrait of what it's like to live like "Little House on the Prairie" in the 21st Century. HOMEGROWN is ultimately a family story. It's about what lead them to where they are today, what changed them and what keeps them together. Perhaps by learning of their journey to a sustainable life style, we might be inspired to take our own first steps. To see a trailer go to

On Wednesday, 7:30 February 24th, we'll show the acclaimed KING CORN followed by their short sequel BIG RIVER. KING CORN is a feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation. In KING CORN, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat—and how we farm.BIG RIVER picks up where the 2006 film KING CORN left off - in the banks of the Mississippi River. Where KING CORN was a light-hearted look at our industrial food system through the lens of two wide-eyed Yale graduates (Curt Ellis and his partner-in-crime Ian Cheney) cultivating a single acre of corn in Iowa, BIG RIVER is a harsh reality check, examining the impact industrial farming has on the Mississippi River. For trailers go to and

There will be discussion leaders and door prizes at both events.

Please pass on this information to any colleague or you think would be interested or onto your own blog. The screenings are free and open to all!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: A Book Review

Over winter break I had time to read quite a few books. One of the books that I was able to finish was Joel Salatin's Holy Cows and Hog Heaven. This book is a buyers guide to farm fresh food that empowers consumers to take matters into their own hands. After reading this book I have a new-found understanding for what local farmers have to do and the hurdles they have to jump through.

The book kicks off with a foreword from the food reform guru himself, Michael Pollan. Michael briefly explains that while doing research for his book Omnivore's Dilemma he came across Polyface Farms. He decided to order some beef from Joel and have it shipped to him in New York. The following conversation is a result of that desire.

"Sure come by the farm any time."

Michael then explained that he lived in Connecticut, so maybe instead he could ship a rib eye or two.

"Sorry but we only sell locally."

Michael then misinterpreted this statement as meaning he wasn't set up for shipping.

"No I don't think you understand. We have a policy here of never shipping food more than fifty miles from the farm. I have a problem with Fed-Exing meat clear across the country..."

This sentiment easily sums up Polyface farms -- local, dedicated, and honest. The book also includes some great stories and anecdotes on the FDA and some of its idiotic policy, Monsanto and its goal to copyright every gene in our food system, and lastly corporate farming.

So in conclusion I recommend this book to anyone who eats. Remember, we can't wait for the government or big corporations to save us. We have to be the change that we seek.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Farmville Update

What Does Farmville Mean for Farmers?


Stop caring about your virtual farm and start caring about real ones.

The sun always shines. Pink cows produce strawberry milk. Soybeans take two days to grow and ripen. Something is not right. It’s too clean. Nothing smells. Coffee bean grows next to squash. Millions of first-time farmers plant new crops every week. And—finally!—people pull out their wallets to support local agriculture. Welcome to Farmville.

Farmville has become a viral internet trend since its launch as a Facebook application this summer. It has now grown to 70 million users, making it the number one application on the social networking site. Players sign up and get fields, infrastructure, and cash. They’re tasked with creating bigger, better, and richer farms. The game is a rehash of the addictive Tamagotchi pet toy of the early 1990s, but instead of feeding a little “animal,” you’re caring for a digital homestead with insatiable livestock and crops that need regular clicking and attention.

The virtual farm provides an odd mashup of social networking with back-to-the-land fantasies. Farmville offers no real sustenance, but its emphasis on cooperation, strategy, and creation represent a culturally significant development in the often violent world of gaming. It’s a simulation with less stimulation, a sort of virtual country calm that transports us somewhere else for a minute or an hour. In doing so, the game taps deep into the American psyche, and the longing for an idyllic agrarian past. “People just want to get back to something simpler,” one tech writer told NPR.

While using new media to express old agrarian values may seem paradoxical, Yi-Fu Tuan points out in his book Topophilia that the romantic appreciation of nature in literature has always arisen from wealth, privilege, and the urban advancement of society, which distances us from a gentle, unselfconscious involvement with the physical world. Farmville is just the latest iteration of the theme.

But Farmville’s farms don’t actually mirror reality. In Farmville, farmers can get high returns. Seeds mature at impossible rates. It’s a place without slaughtering. There’s little of the harsh reality that Americans value food only enough to spend 10 percent of their income on it. If you had any doubts, know that Farmville is complete fantasy.

In 2004, Eleanor Agnew wrote a memoir, Back From the Land, about her homesteading experience. After being lured by the idealism of living in nature and trying to live off the land, she eventually moved back to the city. Life in the country was tough. She spent an exorbitant amount of time making ketchup. Her marriage disintegrated. “Liking the idea was not enough,” she writes. Liking just the idea of farming has little potential to transform the world; Farmville’s online community of artificial soybean farmers won’t improve our food system. To do that we need real farming, and that's not a game. It’s time to support actual small farmers and stop playing around.

Article taken from following website