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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Fencing is Fun, Teaching it to Kids . . . Well

That’s fun too. Last week I spent a few days helping at a camp put on by Lincoln Square Fencing Club, and the kids weren’t the only ones having fun. Plus it did so much for my ego to show off to 8 year olds.

Most of the students were new, but they caught on really quick. The sport requires patience, and concentration; which, surprisingly, the kids were able to keep – most of the time. We did take breaks often, and played games that improved skills but weren’t exclusive to fencing. Little did the kids know that the speed and tactics they use for steal the bacon also improves their skills on the fencing strip. {Evil Laugh} And maybe, just maybe, the skills they gain at camp will translate to other areas other their lives, like school. {Even More Evil Laugh}

I know that sounds pretentious, but as I was completely worn out one day I began thinking about why I was there. Although it was fun, most of the time, and there is a lot of self-importance with teaching, there was another reason I was helping. It hit me suddenly: I was learning and problem solving. When showing a skill, I had to do it correctly and explain it properly, which got me to think about and fix the little oddities that crept into my fencing.

Even just watching the kids learn was enlightening. Kids think and learn in so many different ways, and have varied levels of attention. So we needed to teach the same skills in different ways; doing rote drills for some, while turning the skill into a game for others. Each child had different abilities and tendencies, it was a challenge to find their individual capabilities and translate that to effective fencing technique. It was fantastic to learn multiple ways to both teach and learn.CKIqQe1UMAAUTx7

We had a lot of fun too. Most days started with a fun game or just finding ways to warm up our bodies while being goofy. It was sickeningly cute to watch the two smallest girls running around during dodgeball . . . while holding hands. As the morning progressed we would move onto a fencing drill or game. It was always fun to beat up on the little kids. Most of the kids would be intimidated by me before the drill started. But it was great to watch them try the action, and realize that with a little effort they could beat a big guy like me. Even lunch was fun; I would get to listen to what all the kids are talking about, which for kids at fencing camp is hacking. Now mind you 10 year olds don’t really know how to hack, but they do know how to change posts on Wikipedia, and they are proud of it. Let’s hope they grow more of an interest in fencing than actual hacking.

Overall we learned a lot and had a ton of fun. And I get to do it again in a few weeks. Quite often we underestimate children, but with a little freedom to try they can figure out most things life has to offer – and do so in a way we adults never would have thought of.

Gone Glamping!

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take a little break and head to the Catskill Mountains in New York. Here I am helping my Aunt and Uncle as they create a glamping site.

Not sure what glamping is? Me either. Just about all I know is it stands for glamorous camping. So we’re going to create a slightly upscale camping area so that folks can come enjoy nature, even if they need more luxuries, like beds.

The glamping spot is in a beautiful somewhat secluded area. It is located atop a small chasm, with a trail leading to a large creek below.

So far we have built a deck for a large cabin tent. The tent will use some repurposed material, and we are considering other sustainable designs.  Such as rainwater collectors, and solar water heaters for washing. When building the trail to the creek, we will create it in a way that reduces erosion. And we are thinking to reuse other materials: using an old tub for a shower or broken ice-box to store food.

Trees are great at absorbing carbon and greenhouse gasses, when they are alive, but once dead they release gasses back into the atmosphere. We will leave some dead trees to decay and become habitat for bugs and slugs and the like, but a few we will use for building material. This way the wood will serve a purpose as it decays, and we won’t have to cut down as many living trees.


We hope to have the area open next spring. I know that the guests will enjoy glamping, and it will make them remember that there are some beautiful natural areas in this world.

Twenty New Beds For Clarendon Park

Clarendon Park is now home to a great community garden to go with a great group of gardeners.

It was a tiring day, but we built very quickly and got everything finished as planned. Overall the garden has added greatly to the park. Residents are now able to grow their own food, and know that it was grown in a healthy, sustainable way. Hopefully it will also raise awareness to good foods and local agriculture within park visitors.

I enjoyed working with the whole group, and I look forward to the delicious foods being grown. I know I will see some of the folks again; at the garden, and other community events.

The beds were built using a Hugelkultur design basis. The beds are 12 inches tall above the ground. The bottom 4 inches are mulch, with a mixture of soil and compost filling the rest of the way. The mulch on the bottom will decompose over the next few years adding nutrients to the soil. A foot of soil is very heavy and is easily compacted; the mulch will also help keep the soil drained. I’ll talk more about Hugelkultur in a future post.

In the next few months a fence will be placed, and there may be some sitting areas and a compost bin.

We saw yesterday a great community created by the garden.

More can be seen at their blog

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