Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Planting maps for selected beds.

Bed 8 contains seedlings from a number of varieties for which we could not determine the varieties when we saved seeds last year. Hint for new gardeners: do not depend on plastic labels left exposed to the elements as a way to keep track of what you plant—especially after the plants have grown unruly in late summer.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

june 18 2011: garden site map

june 18, 2011: maintenance

June 18 marked the start of a transition in the garden. Most of the beds have been planted, but—other than radishes and herbs—nothing is ready for harvesting. The focus of our work shifts from establishing the garden to maintaining it.

Our small group worked steadily all morning. Some of us weeded. We have a minor problem in the dodecahedron bed with bindweed, a pernicious member of the Morning Glory family. Left unchecked, bindweed will wrap itself around the other plants in a bed, eventually killing them. It is particularly difficult to eradicate because of the deep root system that it establishes.

harvesting chamomile
While some struggled with bindweed, others watered. Susan led a group in harvesting chamomile flowers from the patches that sprung up in the back of the garden. We mowed down the taller grasses in the back using a weed whip. We trained pea tendrils along trellises. We replanted squash seeds and mulched beds with straw. We sifted compost taken from one of our larger bins and used it to mound our row of potato plants.

We did manage a small harvest of greens, herbs, flowers, and garlic and onion scapes. Our yield is still small enough to fit into a single bag strapped to the back of a bike.



When I lived in a small town in northern Benin as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I remember the period of a month or so in late spring, between the time when the last of the stored harvest of the prior year ran out and when the new harvests from the current year started to appear in the markets. It was a lean time of expensive canned food or buggy flour. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to subsist solely on the produce of our garden.

The last task in the garden was to remove a large branch from one of our plum trees. Our original motivation in pruning was to improve the health of the tree; however, we discovered that the removal of the branch allowed for more sunlight to reach some of the mounds in this year’s squash bed (20).

chamomile flowers

Saturday, June 18, 2011

june 11 2011: packing problems

On the morning of June 11, I approached the day’s plan with some anxiety. Entire beds were empty, their rows of earlier sown seeds stillborn, victims of poor watering and unseasonable chill. We seemed to be behind schedule. I voiced my concern to Dave, who diagnosed me with having the early season anxieties that beset almost all gardeners, even professional ones such as he. He thought that we had planned well enough, and then recommended that I coordinate the day’s planting of seedlings.

When I reviewed the flats that were arranged in the shade of the plum trees, I understood the reason for Dave’s confidence. There were at least two full flats of kale, three flats of peppers, a flat of basil, and another donation of tomato starts from Slow Food Chicago.

I started to lay out seed pots in the empty beds. As I have been doing with tomato starts, I arranged the pots of pepper and kale plants in a triangular grid pattern in the beds. Matrice and Ian next transplanted the starts to the beds and watered them in.

This year, we avoided mixing sweet and hot varieties of peppers. Most of our nearly four beds of peppers are of sweet varieties: Chocolate; Red and Orange Bell; Beaver Dam; and Bullnose. The hot varieties that we planted should be sufficient, though. We have a half-bed of rare Rooster Spurs, as well as a half-dozen Fatali peppers—with a heat rating range of 125,000-350,000, the sixth hottest pepper in the Periodic Table of Scoville Units.

We soon filled empty beds of stillborn spinach and mustard with kale and peppers. We wound up with a few stray pots of each. We also still had the tomatoes and basil to plant. I had a new anxiety: where to put the rest of our seedlings. Our packing problem was complicated by the need to respect the growing habits of the current occupants of beds. It would not, for example, make sense to plant kale starts in the dodecahedron bed, where they would be overtaken by the butternut squash.

We planted the remainder of the kale plants next to our bunching onions. The Fatalis went between rows of radishes and turnips in this year’s beet bed (14). We planted a tomato start in each space in the dodecahedron bed where a planting of Bloomsdale spinach had failed to germinate. We stuck a few tomatoes in large pots that we arranged at the feet of raised beds.

When we had finished, almost every bed in the garden had been planted. We kept a small section of bed 14 open for sweet potato slips that Dave Short is growing in his kitchen.

While we fit seedlings into available nooks, Dave made the first delivery of the season to Vital Bridges: radishes and herbs. When he returned, he and Annie removed flowers from the radish plants and weeded.

After all of the seedlings were in, we started to put up fences. Thinking that we were out of fencing, John and I went to the nearby Ace Hardware and purchased what turned out to be two surprisingly expensive lengths of chicken wire. It didn’t help that I later found two rolls of wire hidden in the ferns behind the shed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

june 4 2011: generosity

Saturday, June 4, started hot and bright, and got hotter and brighter. As I biked to the garden along the lakeshore bike path, I sensed the gathering storm of aggressive and irritable hedonism that characterizes Chicago summers: the tramp stamp-flashing, backward baseball cap-wearing, street-meat-eating, sweaty and verdant fecundity of it all.

tending the potato row
In the garden, volunteers, including many from Chicago Cares, were already on the verge of swooning in the heat when I arrived. We kept a minor bucket brigade going, repeatedly filling our small filtering pitcher from the garden hose so that people could stay hydrated.

We found mysterious gifts in the shade of the plum trees. In addition to flats of pepper and basil starts whose orange “Ginko OG” labels revealed their origin in the seedlings that we started at the Kilbourn Organic Greenhouse, there was a flat filled with sturdy starts of varieties of tomatoes that were new to us. We later learned that these seedlings, almost all of heirloom varieties, were donations from Slow Food Chicago. Thanks in advance to Slow Food Chicago for the purple, blond, and peach tomatoes that we should start harvesting in a couple of months.

We busied ourselves with planting. We planted basil seedlings and sowed marigold and sunflower seeds between our new tomato starts. We also filled a bed with rows of beet seeds that had been soaked in water the night before.

The weather has been unsuitable for spinach: unseasonably cold, then brutally hot. Our bed of spinach was almost empty, with only a few spiky and bitter growths that I thought were spinach plants that had bolted really hard. I learned later that these plants were, in fact, dandelions. Spinach will have to wait until late summer.

We cut our day short because of the heat. A group of us then traveled to the Back of the Yards neighborhood to visit The Plant—an aquaponic/vertical garden/industrial repurposing/green incubator/wicked cool idea of tremendous scale. The Plant’s Director, John Edel, gave us a special tour, walking us around the property and conjuring visions of offices, kitchens, breweries, fisheries, and gardens from the piles of twisted industrial rubble and asphalted parking lots that currently exist at the former Peer Foods Building.

pepper seedlings