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.