Earth Day; Fantastic Day

Earth Day Photo

Like many people, on Saturday we celebrated Earth Day by working hard to better our local environment. We celebrated with an inaugural event at Clarendon Park; our local park, and where I came into a garden plot since dating my girlfriend, Angie. Since we were already coordinating the garden Angie and I decided to join our friend Chelsea to organize the Earth Day festivities.

Great Results for the First Year

This being the first year we had Earth Day at Clarendon we weren’t sure exactly how many folks would come. We planned a number of activities revolving around cleaning and maintaining the park and garden. If we had five volunteers I was prepared to call the event a success, as 9 am came and I saw close to 40 people my excitement grew. I knew we would have a great day and I was not wrong; we met new friends as we picked up litter, cleaned benches and the bocce ball court, prepared garden beds, and turned compost.

Earth Day 1704Along with the volunteer activities, we engaged kids by letting them make recycled planters and plant seeds in them. We wanted kids to think about how they could reuse what they might think is trash, and we wanted to encourage them to grow their own plants. In the prior weeks, we collected up soup cans, yogurt containers, and other packaging items we could use as planter pots. On Saturday we let the kids decorate the pots with crayons, markers, and scratch paper; we then filled the pots with soil, and the kids picked out a few seeds they liked to plant.

Kids Recycled PlanterAs they worked on their project the kids learned about what their plants need to grow. Older kids were encouraged to read the seed packets and think about how different plants need different conditions to thrive: sunlight or shade, space requirements, and special planting or thinning considerations.

Composting Lessons Learned

After the volunteers were organized I focused on working with a group that was turning the compost bins for the garden. There are two large bins where material had been collected by the gardeners for more than a year. I was hoping we would find some good compost in the bins, we did, but it was too hard to separate from material which was still decomposing. If we had turned the compost once or twice previously I’m sure we would have had some good compost to put on the beds.

Compost TurningWhen tossing and spreading the compost we added much needed air into the mixture and loosened packed material, which will speed up decomposition. I was happily surprised that we didn’t find much material that was not compostable. But, I did notice some things the gardeners could easily do to speed up the process. From the smell alone I knew we had too much of the green, recently dead material, compared to the amount of brown material. I also saw that much of the material hadn’t even started to decompose, we found complete newspapers intact and folded at the bottom of the pile. By simply separating the pages I’m sure the paper would have been decomposed, and if it was torn it would have composted faster.

I am happy we got the compost turned Saturday, and I am proud with the group for getting dirty and smelly to get all of the compost turned over.

Clarendon Park Garden Compost Bins

I am always invigorated by the passion and excitement of volunteers working together to improve our community. Thanks to Gethsemane for donating seeds, and Northern Fork for donating snacks and coffee. Most importantly thanks to all of the community members and my new friends for making Earth Day awesome. I’m ready for the next community event!

River Day Fun v2

So we had another fun day, picked up a ton (well more than that actually) of garbage, saw some ducklings, and made new friends. We had about 45 volunteers at our site north of 18th St; joining hundreds of other volunteers all along the riverbank.

Even though we had to pick up some garbage that was left from last year it didn’t dampen the spirits of the volunteers. I realized this is a big reason I enjoy serving; working with people we just met, we each inspire and motivate one another to do the hard jobs that are important; while often we would find the work mundane or dirty or difficult, we all have great fun as a group.

New Lessons From Garden Camp

Last week and this I am challenging the kids to think about the produce they eat. As part I asked them to list the steps that it takes to get any particular vegetable to their homes.

Coming into this project I wanted to emphasize the amount of resources that are used to grow our food and get them to us. I wanted us to think about how much oil we use to grow and transport the crops.

Of course most of the farm machines use oil, but we also transport our crops farther than we really should. In the U.S. almost all of our produce, other than corn, comes from California; most of the oranges sold in Florida for example. Huh? Let’s take citrus grown in a region that is experiencing a huge drought and transport it to a place known as “The Citrus State.” That makes no sense at all!

Some of the steps we came up with were applying water, pesticides, and fertilizers. I want the kids to understand that even though it is obvious, it isn’t so simple. The applications do use resources. However, cleaning and pumping water uses resources beyond just the water. Pesticides and fertilizers are made from chemicals, industrial waste, and petroleum, all of which can easily run-off into our waterways. We learned that often one action has many branching impacts.

The kids also came up with some creative answers, which led to talk about other issues. One part of getting the produce home from the store was placing it in plastic bags. This allowed the kids to fill each other in on the new bag ban in Chicago. Starting in August bags were banned from many stores. This is great; except for the fact that it only bans bags at larger and chain stores, not restaurants or small shops. It also only bans bags that are thinner than a certain amount. So what did the stores decide to do? Give out thicker bags, what a horrible loophole to find.

One of the more, um, original thoughts came from the middle school boys. They determined that the last step was to flush our waste. While this is perhaps a topic we don’t talk about, it is an issue that we should consider, and this original idea gave us an obvious reason to do so. The amount of water that is cleaned, just so we can use it in the toilet is amazing. According to the EPA toilets account for 40% of indoor home water use. This led to a whole water cycle talk.

It is funny how a conversation about gardening winds up leading to talking about plastic, and human waste. This is why I love community work: I always find new issues to learn and teach, and how we are all interconnected with our actions.

A Rant About Diversity in the Garden

Last week we mostly maintained the vegetables that were planted before camp began. We were pruning, stringing up tomatoes, and weeding. I am trying to teach the kids how to care for the garden in a way that is environmentally sustainable, and why this is the better way to garden. It’s funny that many of the kids first think to throw the weeds in the trash; they don’t realize that they have. Showing that the weeds are useful helps motivate the kids to do the work that needs to be done. I feel that many kids will do the hard work that is needed if they know why.

One of the lessons I am trying to impress is that we don’t have as many options of vegetables and flavors as we think. Often factory farms use seed from large companies. Most of these seeds have been modified to increase yield or color or flavor or some other characteristic that is appealing to farmers or consumers. This has resulted in the loss of diversity of vegetable types, and a seed that produces sterile seed in its vegetable. Over the past 100 years we have lost over 95% of vegetable varieties. The graph below, from National Geographic, shows the diversity we used to have. I almost cry at the thought of the many flavors we will never get to taste.


Many farmers take pride in saving the seed from their best vegetables, and passing that seed on through the generations. But when the seed gets cross pollinated with a GMO seed from a nearby farm and the fruit becomes sterile, or the farmer gets sued by the big seed company, the farmer has no choice but to buy new seeds from the big company. And his or her variety of vegetable that has been grown for 150 years is lost forever.

Now the new seed doesn’t just grow on its own. Each seed will only grow with a specific fertilizer, and are prone to specific pests, so they need specific pesticides. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides pollute our land and water both as they are being made and being applied. 55% of the US waterways are in poor condition for aquatic life, according to the EPA; if they are poor for animals they have to be worse for humans. Also, chemical fertilizers actually deplete the soil of nutrients; after the harvest all the nutrients are gone, and new fertilizer must be added. It would take many years and lots of organic fertilizer to make land self-sustainable again. So, now the farmer has to rely on the big seed company to provide seed, which they can’t save, and has no choice in what fertilizers and pesticides he or she uses. The farmers no longer have any choice for their businesses, and we have no choice of fruit or vegetable variety.

While we are becoming more aware of the lack of variety and the health impacts of factory farming, choice is not always available. Low income areas have fewer grocery stores and farmers markets. The stores that are in these areas have less choice in produce. When someone wants to have vegetables that have been grown in a healthy way they have to travel farther and pay more than at their local store. Extra time and money is not always available to people who are working two jobs to provide the basics for their families. By teaching the kids how to grow their own food we can provide them with choice. They will have the skills, and hopefully be inspired to grow their own vegetables.

You can help too; just buy organic and heirloom vegetables. By buying better we support farmers that are fighting back against the big seed and farm corporations that care only about profit. As the responsible farm businesses grow the price of good food becomes cheaper and more readily available to all.

I am really enjoying the camp garden program; not only am I helping to provide fresh, diverse, organic food to people who don’t usually get it, but I am also able to talk about one of my biggest passions: organic, sustainable agriculture. This is a key to solving our global food crisis in a healthy way. Plus, it just tastes better.

Gardening at Camp

The past two Thursdays I have been helping with a youth program in Chicago Lawn. They have a garden for their food pantry, and throughout the summer I will be having the kids maintain the garden, and teach them about local food, health, sustainable living and all that stuff.

These kids are really smart, and many have grown their own vegetables; they just don’t know why. So, we will have fun working together, learning about why and how to grow vegetables in healthy, sustainable way. There are already some vegetables planted. They were planted by Rosa, a volunteer at the food pantry and the organizer of the program. She does so much work for the community, and is always so happy; she is a real inspiration to me.

This week we mostly thinned some flowers that were growing in the vegetables beds and planted them around the church. Then we added some good organic manure to the beds and added some seed for late season crops, lettuce and squash. Also, we have started a compost pile, and over the next few weeks we will build a proper system. The vegetables that have been planted need some maintenance, so we will focus on that next week.

We were lucky to get seed donations from Charles Hart Seed Co. ( who provided us with non-GE seed for many vegetables, and Gary Ibsen’s TomatoFest ( provided us with great heirloom tomato varieties. My mouth waters with the thought of tasting the vegetables.

The kids get real excited about the planting, but are not big fans of weeding, so I will have to think of ways to motivate them. It is always fun seeing how the kids interact, trying to get the other kids to do the boring tasks. One thing I learned this week is that dude is making a comeback. “Dude, get the compost for this bed.” “I mixed the soil for the other bed, you do it dude.” I hope all the dudes get to love gardening . . . even the more monotonous tasks.

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