Monday, April 9, 2012

Vertical Farming in a City Near You!

I just read about 312 Aquaponics, a startup vertical farm in Chicago in the process of starting microgreen and tilapia operations. They are trying to get licensing issues worked out to get up and running and plan to be market-ready this summer. I'm so happy to see someone is actualizing the concepts presented by Dickson Despommier in his book "The Vertical Farm" for growing local food, repurposing defunct industrial properties, and creating jobs. It's a very interesting and exciting concept that will provide solutions to a variety of social and public problems. And it seems to be catching on.

Another urban aquaponics operation, Sweet Water Organics, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was operational in 2010 with the same type of business. They raise yellow perch, tilapia, and blue gill fish, vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and squash, plus mushrooms and greens such as lettuces, basil, watercress, swiss chard, and sprouts.

Dickson Despommier discusses both rescuing abandoned urban properties and building specifically-designed facilities for vertical farms. Growing food in urban facilities creates sustainable solutions with some very attractive advantages such as chemical-free food production and year-round growing operations free from the whims of mother nature. I hope to see more of these kinds of vertical farms in Illinois in the very near future. We can use some of the advantages of urban vertical farming in our state.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Love the Moon

photo courtesy of Schyler at en.wikipedia

When was the last time you were outside at night, looking up at the sky and contemplating the moon? I might glimpse the moon over a crowded horizon while driving at night, or notice a huge orange moon occasionally in the fall. But I am not regularly in tune with the moon. I didn’t even know that the moon has many names until I recently came across mention of the hunger moon in Dorian Winslow’s “The Curious Gardener” newsletter. The hunger moon is February’s full moon, so named by farmers and native peoples for the late winter month when food stores are emptying and gardens and outdoor sources are still frozen and unyielding. April’s moon is the egg moon, because hens start laying more eggs with the lengthening days of spring, unlike their winter egg yields which are lower because of less available daylight.

Even though I am a gardener and love to grow things, I don’t have a lot of interaction with the moon like farmers in ages past. They knew more about nature and her whims and the signs in the sky because they were more dependent on them. They also didn’t have the modern distractions that make our lives busy and keep us away from nature. No TVs, no cell phones, no computers, no automobiles, no modern appliances like refrigerators and air conditioning. They had to be in tune with nature and work within the framework of the seasons.

They loved their moons and gave them descriptive names with echoes of longing and hope, names like November’s snow moon, October’s blood moon (for the month when fattened animals were slaughtered before the coming winter), and January’s wolf moon, both for the fierce cold biting at their collars and the howling hungry wolves. I love that July’s moon was the wort moon (wort was what they called herbs), because herbs were harvested and dried for kitchen herbs and the medicinal herbal preparations they made in the fall.

This year’s egg moon, the April full moon, is Friday, April 6, with other lovely full moons appearing in the first week of the month until August, when the full moons start appearing around the last day of the month. This Friday night I plan to go outside and spend some time looking at the egg moon, wondering at its mysteries, powers and influence on our outer natural world and our inner emotional world. The moon draws sap in the trees and eggs from the chickens, pushes and pulls the waves in the oceans and seas, and stirs living things from their winter rest. That’s some powerful force of nature, baby! It makes me want to  be more in tune with the moon!

What kind of moon stirs you at the height of winter's cold or during spring's fresh breezes? A full moon? The skinny sliver of a moon? A bright moon in a clear night sky? The moon veiled with clouds? What's your favorite kind of moon?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Chicago Flower & Garden Show Notes

I went to the Chicago Flower & Garden Show at Navy Pier yesterday. I brought my digital camera and went prepared to capture as much as possible to plan my gardens and landscaping for this spring. There were a lot of beautiful and interesting garden and lawn and patio concepts on display, and a lot of gardening vendors and experts on hand participating in the show and events.

Show-goers received a light-up flower pin, their choice of orchids, mums, freesias, and some other flower I can't recall now. I chose these pink orchids.

The Show runs through the 18th, and offers workshops, demonstrations, beautiful and interesting exhibits, and many landscaping and horticulture industry vendors and suppliers. The Show hall is divided into an exhibit area and an area for those introducing and selling products. There were a lot of really cool yard and garden displays. The exhibits were big and bold, but I was surprised at the extent of (expensive and oversized) hard-scape exhibits versus actual plant materials.

I was also surprised to see people there trying to sell sleep number beds, pillows, and other things unrelated to gardening, such as gutter covers. And a couple of the Show sponsors were totally unrelated, including Chevy and Humana, which was a little odd. Some of the vendors selling things were annoying, hawking their products as people walked through the aisles. There was one vendor who rather rudely said "No pictures allowed" when I approached her space with the camera out. Sorry you can't see the great yard and garden decorations she made from stone and steel because I couldn't take a picture.   

One of my favorite exhibits was this chicken coop. I've been thinking about backyard chickens for a while now and just loved this set up. I could totally see this in my backyard with a little flock of hens eating bugs and weeds in my garden and laying healthy, fresh eggs for my family.

Another favorite was this really cool idea for arbor and gazebo lighting. Mason jars hung with jute cord with tea lights inside looks like an attractive and easy outdoor lighting option. Maybe I would use larger candles for more light, and you'd have to have the extra long matches or a long lighter to light them. One display had mason jars with the lids on them and corded electric lights inside. Not sure how that would work. Do the cords plug into an outlet or do they have to be wired into an electrical source? More work but a more permanent lighting option. There wasn't anyone around to ask when we were at this exhibit.

This display was very interesting. It looks like a good setup for growing and harvesting wheat grass for a continuous harvest. I bought a bag of wheat grass seed about a month ago but haven't planted it yet, trying to figure out the best way to grow it for juicing. This looks better than a stainless steel rack with shallow trays in the kitchen.

These gorgeous sculptures by Bruce Niemi were in the center of the show. I wish I had one in my garden. They are striking, with names like "Encompassed" and "Spatial Harmony." The sculptor was trained at Northern Illinois University and by his sculptor father, and has his work everywhere, including Vernon Hills, Illinois, the town next to mine. You can see more of his work at

We bought this great fountain kit for $32.50, $45 off the regular price as a Show special, from Aquascape Water Gardening. They had three different kinds of rocks to choose from. My husband has been thinking of making a fountain like this for some time now, but here it is all in one neat package ready for assembly for a little more than the price of the pump! It was a great deal, and they were selling them like hotcakes.

The Show was nice, and Navy Pier has more than enough to keep anyone occupied and entertained, but I was a little disappointed at the lack of "wow" factor and some of the annoyances. I was looking for more sustainable gardening products like solar and wind power kits, more technology, more herbs, and just more I guess. I was hoping for cool new ideas and tools and unique and affordable concepts.

Other sights at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show:
This wind power turbine with solar panels was in the local green connect display with a sign that said Ava Power, but no further information, such as pricing, availability, energy generating capacity - all things I was interested to know. I'd like one of these setups in my garden, or maybe a couple of them.

These were fabulous! But could the average gardener afford them?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Natural Hand Sanitizer

Thanks to Shoshanna at Bulk Herb Store for her herbal hand sanitizer recipe. Steeping orange and lemon peel and eucalyptus leaves in apple cider vinegar produces a simple, natural liquid to use in a small spray bottle for quick hand and surface sanitizing. Commercial hand sanitizers contain chemical ingredients such as isopropanol, ethanol, n-propanol, or povidone-iodine, polyacrylic acid, glycerine, propylene glycol, benzalkonium chloride, and triclosan. Alcohol is the main germ and pathogen-killing agent and other chemicals are used for different purposes. For example, propylene glycol is an absorbing agent, seeping quickly and deeply through skin right into the fatty tissues and blood vessels.

Rick Smith talks a LOT about triclosan in "Slow Death By Rubber Duck," and advises us to stop using antibacterial products because the chemicals in them get into our biosystems and accumulate in measurable amounts in urine and blood. Triclosan is a hormone disruptor in humans and animals, and is suspected of being responsible for amphibian die-off worldwide. I don't know about you, but I don't want to put anything on my kids' skin, or mine for that matter, that will be absorbed into my blood and bodily fluids and interfere with reproductive development and hormonal balances.

Besides making a tasty hot or cold tea, lemon balm has antibacterial properties.

If you have an unavoidable need to sanitize things in your home and family(listen up Howie Mandel), do it without chemical-laden products that may kill germs but in the process, harm our external and internal environments. Try a batch of Shoshanna's recipe, or experiment with your own custom blends using vodka, aloe gel, and essential oils such as eucalyptus, lavender, lemongrass, peppermint, cinnamon, clove or tea tree oil. Use fresh herbs if you prefer. When you have perfected your homemade batch, be sure to put it in a glass spray bottle, not a plastic one that will just leach chemicals into your natural sanitizer!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Feral Nurdles and Toxic Soup

Captain Charles Moore, sailor, sea captain, ocean pollution researcher, citizen activist, author of “Plastic Ocean,”  urges us to refuse to participate in the relentless toxic pollution of our oceans with plastics. He has worked tirelessly and passionately since 1997 to study the plastic debris choking our oceans and poisoning the watery depths that are an integral part of our earth’s biosystems.  He and his associates have found the oceans to be contaminated with plastic particles that create a toxic soup ingested by the largest and smallest creatures, with devastating consequences.

Feral Nurdles
Do you know what nurdles are? What could feral nurdles be? I had never heard of nurdles before reading “Plastic Ocean.” They are tiny, pre-production plastic pellets from which almost all plastic products are made, kind of like flour is to bread, nurdles are to plastic products, a main ingredient. Feral nurdles are nurdles that have escaped the factory production process or the transportation process through sloppy or non-existent handling processes and accidents such as spills from shipping or trucking collisions. Why does Captain Moore talk about nurdles, feral or otherwise? Because they are in our oceans, when they shouldn’t be, and because of their makeup, they attract toxins from the water they are in, drawing them and holding them, as well as releasing them. They are embedded in the silt, are saturated with harmful algal spores that cause choking algal blooms and kill sea life (as well as human life), and are ingested by marine life. And because they are plastic, they aren’t edible and they don’t biodegrade – ever. International Pellet Watch studies and reports on these preproduction plastic pellets. Nurdles – sounds like a Dr. Seuss term, but it turns out they are not amusing or clever, just deadly.

Toxic Soup
Captain Moore discusses the toxic soup that has taken over large parts of our world’s oceans because of plastic pollution. More alarming even than the visible floating plastic trash seen from the deck of a sailing ship are the tiny plastic pieces, many as old as 50 years, that swirl now in our oceans’ depths, the result of the breaking up of plastic garbage such as toys, packaging, utensils and shipping gear. These tiny plastic particles attract and adsorb toxic substances such as PCB’s, pesticides and BPA, persistent organic pollutants, as well as releasing the toxins during their watery journey, especially where they are aggregated in large quantities. I don’t want to swim anywhere near the toxic soup areas of our oceans, or eat any seafood exposed to toxic soup at any point in its lifecycle. The toxins in plastics and pesticides wreak havoc on the human body and physiology, adversely affecting normal development, reproductive processes and normal cell functions.  That expensive coastal beach vacation? Better research the water pollution in the area before paying good money to be exposed to a toxic environment.

The absolute lawlessness on the world’s oceans which has led to the high levels of pollutants and contaminants, with devastating effects on wildlife, is outrageous. Captain Moore explains in very easy terms in “Plastic Ocean” how environmental laws have failed to protect our oceans and marine wildlife. He also discusses at some length the history of plastics and the timelines of plastic pollution of our oceans. Shockingly and sadly, he outlines how marine wildlife ingest plastic debris in our oceans, mistaking it for similar looking natural food such as squid, fish eggs and plankton. He talks about how albatross parents feed plastic bottle caps to their hungry chicks, how whales and other large sea animals die agonizing deaths from guts filled and blocked with plastic bags and fishing gear like nets and lines, and how the tiniest sea creatures are inundated with inedible and toxic plastic bits.

What Can You Do?
What can you do right now to stop polluting our oceans? Read “Plastic Ocean,” copyright 2011. Check out and learn how to purge your lifestyle of polluting, toxic plastics. REFUSE to buy or use any more plastic. Buy locally as much as possible to reduce the amount of packaging you discard. Help Captain Moore and his colleagues and associates hold everyone accountable for their plastic footprint and protect our oceans, part of our world’s living biosystem.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Free is Green - Get Your Free On

In our fragile 2011/2012 economy, free is quickly becoming king. Despite all the holiday hoopla and Black Friday hype, Americans aren’t spending as freely as we used to. Major retailers that we were used to seeing have gone poof, with more following suit every month. Prices are rising for groceries, services and gas, people are losing their jobs and their homes, and financial and economic experts are predicting doomsday. What’s an average, hard-working American supposed to do?

Get your free on, of course! When I was growing up, the free stuff consisted of hand-me-downs from neighbors and relatives with kids a little older than me and my brothers and sister, and maybe the occasional garbage-day, side-of-the-road treasure.  Where once searching for free stuff was the domain of the down-on-their-luck, now the free economy is vast and varied. It’s almost chic. Find free stuff on Craig’s List, sign up for Free Cycle and get free stuff in your neighborhood, and find free stores at  If you’re brave and bold, join the freeganism movement and forage for food discarded by grocery and restaurant retailers.  Dumpster diving is a frequent activity of the moneyless, including students, homeless and newly graduated newlyweds, and yields furniture, appliances, and varied home goods such as cooking utensils, lamps and artwork. Clothing exchange parties are great opportunities to score “new” clothes while cleaning out your closets, a win-win for everyone.

Participating in the free economy allows you to get things you and your family need while saving your hard-earned money, and encourages everyone to waste less, reuse and share. Free is good. Free is fun. Free is green.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Green Reading - LOVE This Book!

I LOVE "The Country Almanac of Housekeeping Techniques That Save You Money!" Folk wisdom for keeping your home clean, green and homey is just the ticket for busy modern home managers like me to connect with folk wisdom for natural and inexpensive ways to take care of your home, yard, garden and family. This book is chock full of recipes for natural, chemical-free cleaning solutions, herbal insect repellents, ways to maintain your home without expensive equipment or toxic materials, and ideas and instructions for a multitude of homemade and handmade items. This is a book for the kitchen shelf or the workbench in the garage, a handy reference book you'll use all year long. It's also a great book to use with kids. They'll love helping mom or dad make nontoxic paint, collect and use rainwater, and make sandals from rubber tires. This is a great book to have on hand and it would make a fabulous stocking stuffer or Christmas present. Read a lot of this penny but priceless wisdom with Look Inside at

Friday, December 2, 2011

Finally Friday - Green Your Weekend

The work week is over for most of us, but now the weekend starts. Sometimes weekends are busier and more stressful than the five days that come before them. Try to carve out a little "green" time for yourself in these two and a half days. Check out your favorite houseplant and give it some tender loving care by repotting it in a new container with some fresh potting soil and misting it. Or try green crafting and clip a few boughs from your evergreens, tie them together with wire and add a red bow and jingle bells for a front door holiday decoration.  You could check out your local forest preserve or botanical garden for a weekend adventurette. Plan a little green this weekend, take three deep breaths and recharge yourself. You'll be greener before you know it!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Healthy Shots - Boost and Strengthen Your Biosystems

I recently did some research for an article about herbs for runners. Since my two sons are both runners, competing in track and field and cross country running at their high school, and my husband has just started running, I was interested in finding natural substances that would help them during this strenuous physical activity. One piece of information I came across was a blurb from a runner about cayenne pepper. This runner takes a teaspoon of cayenne pepper in a glass of water every day.

Cayenne has some amazing health benefits, and I was surprised to learn that it can stop a heart attack in 30 seconds. It has also been shown in clinical studies to kill cancer cells. Wow! The University of Cincinnati is studying cayenne's effects on cardiovascular health and healing. Cayenne clears and opens blood vessels and veins, ridding them of plaques and build up that can cause strokes and heart problems. It clears bad cholesterol. It stimulates the circulation and breathing systems, promoting clearer, deeper breathing which in turn provides oxygenation of all your bodily systems, a very important benefit while running. This kind of health benefit is not only valuable to runners though. As a female who has three close female relatives with a history of heart problems, I need to be doing things now to protect and strengthen my heart to avoid problems later that my mother and aunts are facing. I do not want to have strokes, heart attacks, arteriosclerosis or congestive heart failure in my future.

Wheat grass juice is another healthy resource that provides concentrated nutrients including iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium, amino acids, chlorophyll and vitamins A, C and E. Although the Mayo Clinic says that there aren't any studies to support claims that wheat grass juice protects against cancer, boosts immunity, improves digestion or rids the body of toxins, the Clinic acknowledges wheat grass's nutritional benefits as a green food. Chlorophyll's molecular structure is similar to the hemoglobin in human blood which may make it compatible with blood processes. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reports that small studies of wheat grass juice indicate that it may alleviate colitis and reduce toxic effects of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients.

With such powerful natural health attributes, I looked at how I could incorporate cayenne and wheat grass juice into my family's health and nutrition. We start every day with a small glass of orange juice with breakfast for a little extra vitamin C and fiber, so it's a natural extension of that to add a wheat grass juice shot and a cayenne shot. Now we each drink 3 ounces of wheat grass juice and 6 ounces of water with 1 teaspoon of ground cayenne along with our orange juice for an extra boost. I add a few ounces of mango nectar to the wheat grass juice to make it more palatable, although it doesn't taste bad taken straight. The cayenne has to be blended in the water with a fork or it just sits on the surface of the water. We down the cayenne water first, not that it tastes bad, but it does have a slight burn to it, so drinking the other juices after the cayenne really minimizes that.

My husband and sons needed a little convincing that drinking green juice and water with hot pepper powder was a good idea. When I explained the health benefits, they agreed to try it, and the first time we all took the shots together, they were surprised and pleased that the taste wasn't bad at all. It's a small addition to our daily health and nutrition routine that will pay big dividends now and in the future.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Finally Friday – Make Some Sleep Sachets

photo courtesy of off2riorob/wikimedia commons

Another week is done. What challenges and stresses did you face in the past five days? Are you looking forward to the next couple of days or are they as overscheduled as the week you just survived? Do you worry about getting to sleep tonight? Have you had problems sleeping before? If you are restless at bedtime or just can’t get the restorative sleep you need, consider making some sleep sachets.

If you grow lavender, you have a fresh, organic source for a natural sleep aid. If you don’t grow lavender, you can get it from growers like River Oak Lavender and  Local Harvest. The scent of lavender’s essential oil increases slow-wave sleep, the deep sleep that slows the heartbeat and muscles, helping the brain organize memory.

Research shows that lavender also relieves anxiety, depression and fatigue, and has antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic and antiviral properties. Freshly cut or chopped lavender flowers and leaves release the plant’s essential oils. Lavender essential oil contains camphor, eucalyptol (also known as cineole) and pinenes. It has sedative and antidepressant properties that act on the brain when inhaled, its molecules absorbed by nasal mucus and scent receptors and affecting the olfactory area of the brain and acting on the limbic and endocrine systems that control memory and emotion. 

With basic sewing skills, a few simple supplies and fresh lavender, you can make lavender sleep sachets to help you sleep better naturally, calm you down and help you think clearly.

Fresh lavender
Organic cotton, muslin or cheesecloth
Needle and thread
Silk ribbon
Dry rice or buckwheat hulls

Make sure the fresh lavender is not wet, damp or moldy before using it. Cut it into small one-inch pieces.

Cut the cloth into 15-inch by 5-inch sections. To make a sachet, fold a section of cloth in half on the long side, fold down 1 inch of each open edge, and sew the 6 ½ inch sides, leaving the open 5-inch side unsewn.  You will have a little cloth bag. Turn it inside out so the stitches are on the inside.

Fill the bag half way with lavender pieces and rice or buckwheat hulls.

Use a long length of ribbon to tie the bag closed.

Place the sleep sachet inside your pillowcase before you go to sleep.  

You can use sprigs of fresh lavender without making sachets. Slightly crush leaves and flowers before putting a sprig in your pillowcase before sleep.

Make a lavender spray to spritz sheets and pillowcases before sleep by adding chopped fresh lavender to boiling water and steeping it for 15 minutes. Strain the plant material and put the lavender water into a spray bottle.

Use lavender essential oil in a diffuser in your bedroom a few minutes before sleep to scent the area.

Did you know fresh lavender repels stinging insects and animals such as bees, ants and scorpions? A traditional use for lavender was as a strewing herb, strewn in corners and on windowsills, to rid homes of pests.