Saturday, September 1, 2012

I'll be on the Mike Nowak Show tomorrow

Here are some links to things that I may or may not get around to mentioning on the Mike Nowak Show Sunday, Sept. 2. But if I do, here they are.

Apple growing and picking
Kuipers Family Farm, Maple Park
Midwest Fruit Explorers, a backyard fruit growing club that will have its Fall harvest Festival in October at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
The Indiana Nut & Fruit Growers Association, a group of fruit and nut enthusiasts in Indiana.
Backyard Fruits from the University of Illinois Extension.
Apples & More, University of Illinois Extension site with growing advice and list of you-pick farms.
Pick Your Own, a list of you-pick farms.

Green events in Evanston
Green Arts Show, Evanston, Sept. 7-21
Evanston Green Living Festival, Sept. 29

Misc. garden-, conservation- and plant-related events

Illinois Mycological Society Show and Sale, Sept. 2, Chicago Botanic garden, Glencoe
    (A story I once had fun writing about mushrooms)

Douglas Tallamy, author of "Bringing Nature Home," speaks Oct. 20 in Bolingbrook at the invitation of the DuPage County chapter of The Wild Ones. Free, but you have to register.

Garfield Park Conservatory Harvest Days Celebration, Sept. 8 and 9

Openlands Water Trailkeepers Des Plaines River Cleanup Day, Northbrook and Deerfield, Sept. 15


It's been a busy summer, during which I have shamefully neglected many things, including this blog. As penance, I have to spend the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend filling in for Mike Nowak on his gardening-and-greening radio show, the Mike Nowak Show, from 9 to 11 a.m. tomorrow, Sept. 2. The show airs on WCPT, 820 AM and 99.9 FM south, 92.5 FM west and 92.7 FM north. Heather Frey, formerly the show's producer, will return to co-host.

Of course the big garden issue this summer has been the drought. Recent rains, including the remnants of Hurricane Isaac, may have taken the edge off, but that doesn't mean we can forget about the effects of the blisteringly hot and dismally dry summer, especially for trees and shrubs. Doris Taylor, who runs the plant clinic at The Morton Arboretum, will be with us to talk about how we can help trees, especially, recover and how to care for them through the fall. (Full disclosure: I'm about to start a new job as a writer at the arboretum. I'll still be freelancing and speaking on the side; learn more at

We'll also hear about the Green Arts Show starting next week in Evanston. Ideas about sustainability and the environment provide both ideas and materials for the artists in this show – last year the big hit was a portrait made from salvaged plastic bottle caps. Peter Athans and Anne Berkeley will be in the studio to give us the highlights.

Apple-picking time has come a little soon this year, another gift of our extreme weather. Fruit crops took a big hit from that bizarre week of 80-degree days in March and the survivors are ripening early. We'll hear about the state of the apple crop from Wade Kuipers, whose family has a farm and you-pick orchard in Maple Park, out west of Aurora.

Sitting in for the goofing-off Rick DiMaio to deliver the gardener's weather report will be Patrick Skach, who contributes climate data for the National Weather Service and the College of DuPage Meteorology Department. 

What about Mike? He's out West, doing some filming for his TV show, Dig In Chicago, in Denver and hiking in the Dakota badlands and I don't know here else. He will be back, no doubt snakebit and sunburned, next week.

If you have a comment or a garden question during this week's show, please call in while we're on the air at 773-838-9278 (773-838-WCPT for those who like to get cute with phone numbers). Or you can tweet at @mikenow or to me at @chicagogardener. I'm especially looking for apple memories and ideas from listeners. Apples are strongly associated in my mind with the change of seasons -- at least they were, back when fruit had seasons and apples weren't shipped in from Chile in June. We would pick apples every fall when I was young; my mother was fond of piling all the kids in the station wagon several times a year for rambling fruit and vegetable foraging expeditions all over northern Indiana and southern Michigan. There used to be a lot more family-owned orchards and fruit and vegetable stands where you could buy or pick many different varieties of not only apples but plums, peaches, nectarines and pears.  

One favorite dessert in my family is a simple, moist, fruity apple cake, almost more apples than cake, that was one of the first things I learned to bake. Since it can be mixed up in a large bowl by a small child with a wooden spoon (as long as a grownup dices the apples and handles the oven part), it has long been a gateway recipe in my family.

My mother, Lee Botts, has a vivid memory of learning to make apple cake in the middle of a huge dust storm in Oklahoma in 1936 or 1937 (drought summers are not a new thing), stirring it in a bowl with a wooden spoon, with sheets covering the windows and dust blowing in under the kitchen door. We think my great-grandmother probably brought the recipe when the family moved from Missouri to homestead in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th Century.

The recipe has changed a bit: We no longer peel the apples – the bits of peel add flavor and color and maybe even some vitamins -- and we've reduced the sugar.

Use firm, not-too-sweet, flavorful apples, not candy-sweet 'Red Delicious' or mushy 'Macintosh.' I use 'Jonathan' apples whenever I can get them. Jonathans are my favorite all-purpose apples for their perfectly crisp texture and intense flavor, bright and spicy and not too sweet, but they are not the best keepers. Sometimes I use a mix of apple varieties.

It's a good idea to make this in a heatproof glass pan if you're not going to eat it all right away, because if you make it in a metal pan and it sits a while, the acid in the apples will cause both the pan and the cake to discolor.

The recipe  doubles just fine in a 9-by-13-inch pan. I've also been known to bake it in paper-lined muffin tins, like cupcakes; that's a good way to take it to the office or for potlucks. Also good for breakfast.

Apple cake
From Lee Botts and her Rutledge family forebears

Preparation time: 45 minutes
Baking time: About 30 to 40 minutes
Yield: One 9-inch-square cake pan

1 cup flour
1 teaspoon each: baking soda, ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon each: freshly grated nutmeg, salt
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter, softened
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups unpeeled, cored, diced apples

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and salt in a bowl; set aside. Beat sugar and butter with a mixer on medium speed (or use a wooden spoon and a large bowl) until creamy. Add the egg and beat until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla.

2. Add 1/4 cup of the dry ingredients to the mixture, beating just until mixed. Repeat with remaining dry ingredients. Stir in the apples. The batter will be quite thick. Spread the batter in a buttered 9-inch-square pan. Bake until cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 to 40 minutes, usually, depending on your oven. Cool in pan on a rack. Cut in square or rectangular pieces to serve.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Scant on space? try container tomatoes

had a story in the Chicago Tribune today about growing tomatoes in containers. That's how I grow all mine. I don't have enough ground-level sunny space for vegetables, so I grow tomatoes in pots on the third- and fourth-floor porches.

It would be easier if I really had full sun, but there's a roof over the porch and railings that cast shadows, so my personal situation is even more complicated than I mentioned in this story. I do a talk called "Vegetables Anywhere" in which I go into it in more detail.

I just checked my tomato seedlings and they're ready to plant. Whoo-hoo! I'll wait till it cools off, though. Did a full day of gardening in the heat yesterday and felt like I would die. In May I'm not ready for 85-degree gardening. I'm not too cool with it in July, either, comes to that.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

See you on the radio tomorrow

While you are preparing (or waiting for someone else to prepare) the Mother's Day brunch, you might as well turn on the radio. I'll be co-hosting the Mike Nowak Show on WCPT 820-AM from 9 to 11 a.m.

If you're taking your annual Mother's Day trip to the garden center, listen on the car radio, and don't forget to wear your shin guards and football pads. (Also, take cardboard boxes so you can minimize the plastic trays, etc., you have to take home with your plants.)

Mike and I will be talking about gardening, taking gardening questions, etc., and also discussing the latest University of Illinois Extension funding crisis, and checking in with Rick DiMaio about weather for gardeners. The call-in number is 773-763-9278 or you can Tweet Mike at @mikenow or me at @chicagogardener.

The show can also be heard, to varying degrees in various places, at FM 92.5, 92.7 and 99.9. For those of you who don't bother with anything as primitive as a radio, the show streams live at the WCPT website.

See you there and happy Mother's Day. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cook County Extension needs your help telling its story to fight new funding threat

Once again, the University of Illinois Extension is facing a huge funding cut. This time, it's in Cook County. And I'm told the basic problem is not that Cook County Board commissioners have it in for the Extension; it's that they have no clue what the Extension is or what it does.

If there ever was a time for all those who have ever been helped by the Extension in Chicago and beyond to step up and explain why it is useful and valuable, now is the time.  

I've been a University of Illinois Master Gardener in the Cook County unit since 2005, one among hundreds. I know there are no volunteers who have contributed more to community gardens, school gardens, urban greening, local food, educating gardeners, promoting sustainability in gardening and using gardening to teach kids who may never have played on grass about nature and science than the Master Gardeners. There is no end to the energy, invention, enthusiasm, curiosity and desire to help people that I see both in my fellow Master Gardeners and in the dedicated educators and other University of Illinois Extension staff who support their efforts.

And the Master Gardeners are just one of the programs through which the Extension delivers the knowledge of the University of Illinois into communities. Extension programs educate inner-city families about nutrition to fight the obesity epidemic. They help teachers make science come alive for grade-school students. They help homeowners fight bedbugs. In the state's largest city, they are addressing urban problems. 

But many people don't know that. In the Chicago area, if people have heard about the Extension at all, they may have some dim sense that it has something to do with farmers or 4-H. It seems like a vestige of the agricultural past. In a time when county staffers and commissioners are trying to close to close an estimated $427 million shortfall in the county budget, they see funding for what they think is an anachronism as an expendable frill. 

So board president Toni Preckwinkle is planning to eliminate Cook County's entire $411,000 contribution to the Extension budget. Since state and federal matching funds and grants are based on local funding, Cook County Extension director Willene Buffett estimates that this would end up costing more than $740,000, or about 65 percent of the Extension budget in Cook County. It could end Extension programs in the county. "How can you say that the largest populated county in the state will not have an Extension program? How can you say that?" asks Buffet.

These are tough times. Cook County truly is under terrific financial stress, caused not just by the recession but by decades of patronage, payroll padding, corruption and incompetence. Preckwinkle has proposed a severe budget that includes eliminating upwards of 1,000 county jobs and many other cuts. She has an awful mess to straighten out and I understand that it requires difficult choices in core areas including health care, policing and law enforcement. I understand that when her budget-cutters came across a $411,000 line item for Account 298-521310 in Department 49 that was simply labeled "special or cooperative programs," it seemed like a superfluous line item they could afford to get rid of. But that line is the Cook County Extension that has been serving Chicago and its suburbs since 1914.

The Extension might be able to withstand a cut in county finding, but if this line item is eliminated altogether, I'm told, it will be difficult if not impossible to restore it.

Buffett says part of the problem is the total changeover in county administration, as well as major changes in the membership of the County Board. The new people simply have no clue about the Extension and have other things on their minds.

The staffs of George Dunne and the John Strogers, father and son, were less than admirable in many respects. But they did grasp the value of the Extension, and they supported Cook County's contribution to its funding -- just as counties contribute to their local Extension offices all over the state and the nation. 

Since Preckwinkle's reform administration took over in 2010, Buffet says, she's been unable to get a meeting with anyone to acquaint them with the Extension and all the good work it does. At her request, Preckwinkle appointed two commissioners, Robert Steele and Bridget Gainer, to the Extension's Cook County advisory council. But neither commissioner has ever attended a meeting.  

So now, the friends of Cook County Extension need to step up and clue these people in. If you know how much concrete good the Master Gardeners and other Cook County Extension programs do in the communities you know, write to the County Board -- to Preckwinkle, Gainer and Steele, and to your own commissioner as well. Tell them how the Extension is important to you, your community or your organization. Tell them if educators or Master Gardeners have come to your school or your institution to help. Tell them how you learned about composting or got help setting up a community garden. Tell them how the Extension identifies pests that could cause significant economic harm to the landscape and landscape businesses. Tell them how Extension training programs support landscape and horticulture businesses and help reduce pesticide dangers and pollution. Tell them how it would affect you or your organization if Extension programs were eliminated. Ask them to give the good work of the Extension in Cook County fair weight as they consider what to save.

Public outcry has helped save Extension funding before -- for example, a year ago when the state legislature was planning to eliminate the special Cook County Initiative funding that recognized the fact that Cook County serves many millions more people than Extension units Downstate. That state funding was cut from $5 million to $2.1 million, and it's always on a razor's edge, but so far, it hasn't been eliminated.

When you write, be sure to include your name and, if appropriate, your organization's name and letterhead. Send your letter by e-mail or fax if you can, because the horsetrading over the budget is going on right now. Cook County commissioners need to hear right away that there are people who aren't farmers -- people right in Chicago and its suburbs -- who value the Extension and its work. The website of the Extension Partners can provide supporting information.

Write soon, if you can; the next county board meeting is May 14. But the budget process will go on after that, so hearing from you after May 14 will help too.

Send your message to:

Toni Preckwinkle, President, Cook County Board
118 N. Clark St., Room. 537
Chicago, IL 60602
Phone: (312) 603-6400
Fax:  (312) 603-4397
Commissioner Robert Steele
3936 W. Roosevelt Rd., 1st Floor
Chicago, IL 60624
Phone: (773) 722-0140
Fax: (773) 722-0145

Commissioner Bridget Gainer
5533 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60640
Phone: (773) 561-1010
Fax: (773) 561-1025

To find your local county commissioner's name and address, click here.

I'll be co-hosting the Mike Nowak show this Sunday on WCPT 820-AM from 9 to 11 a.m. and we'll be talking about the Extension funding issue (and other gardening stuff). Call in with questions about the Extension (or gardening). The call-in number is 773-763-WCPT (9278), or Tweet Mike at @mikenow. (I'm @chicagogardener.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Earth Day present: A new garden TV show

As if a planet that has not (yet) been entirely consumed by environmental catastrophe were not enough, we have more goodies coming this Earth Day Weekend. April 21 will see the debut of "Dig In Chicago," a new locally-produced cable TV show hosted by my buddy Mike Nowak of WCPT radio fame, along with Jennifer Brennan.

I haven't seen the show so I don't know whether it's going to be any good. Oh, who am I kidding? I'm sure it will be a riot, and it might incidentally even contain some useful gardening information.

Mike is never not entertaining, whether he's proselytizing for natural lawn care, singing goofy Christmas carol parodies, teaching community gardeners or voluably arguing for completely wrongheaded opinions. Jennifer, who is the education manager at Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, is absolutely irrepressible as well as a font of gardening wisdom. There also will be cooking segments with local chefs.

They've been frantically shooting all over the Chicago area for weeks, in between Mike's Sunday morning radio shows.

The TV show will be seen at 10 a.m. Saturdays on Channel 102 on Comcast's Xfinity cable TV system. For those who don't have Comcast, all segments also will be posted on the show's website and YouTube channel, with links from its Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Here's a story about the show on the Chicagoland Radio and Media blog.   

Growing greener in an age of climate change

Next Saturday, the day before Earth Day, I'll be delivering the keynote address at the Spring Celebration of Share the Harvest, a project of Grace Seeds Ministry in which south and south suburban churches and their neighbors grow food for donation to food pantries.

Linda Wygant, who is organizing the event and who knows me as a fellow Master Gardener, asked me to talk on "Growing Green in a Changing Climate." She was inspired, no doubt, by articles I've written recently for the Chicago Tribune on the new USDA climate zone map and on suggestions for changing gardening practices to cope with climate change.

But as I've been mulling over the talk, I've been thinking about climate change not just in literal terms. Yes, the climate in changing, and over the next couple of decades the long-term increase in average temperatures is likely not just to make our growing seasons longer and allow the gamblers among us to try more tender perennials, but create more violent storms and more frequent droughts, foster more invasive species and insects, and cost us some much-loved native species -- without relieving us of the volatility that is the chief characteristic of Midwestern weather. 

I also think there's a change in the climate of opinion. Sure, there are still knotheads out there, but most reasonable people have come to agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that human beings are contributing to it. And I like to think that more people are sharing an awareness of their responsibilities to reduce that contribution and the help deal with the unavoidable effects. that requires making some choices in our own back yards that are not just about our own enjoyment but about the unseen effects out garden choices have on our communities and the natural areas around us.

One of the visible signs of that is the growth in interest in growing our own food. It has lead to an upsurge of community gardening but also to an upsurge of programs like Share the Harvest, which after just three years now has 18 raised beds at Mt. Zion Lutheran Church in Oak Lawn and donates food to several food pantries. Sharing food with our neighbors is an aspect of understanding that we share our gardens with our communities and with the natural world.

I'll be speaking at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 21, at Mt. Zion Lutheran Church, 10400 S. Kostner Ave., Oak Lawn. My talk will be followed by mini-workshops on beekeeping, composting, choosing plants for our new climate zone designation, and crop succession and interplanting to get the greatest harvest from a small space. There will even be a simple lunch, and it's all free and open to everyone.

It's an event-packed Earth Day Weekend this year, but I hope to see some eager, generous or simply curious gardeners. For vegetable gardening beginners, there's no better way to learn than to volunteer with experienced gardeners.   

For more information on the event, call Grace Seeds Ministry at 773-495-7865 or email

(And thanks to WCPT 820-AM, where I am a sometime guest on Mike Nowak's greening-and-gardening radio show, for promoting the event.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Oh, no! Another sunny spring day!

A doomed magnolia blossom

Only a perverse gardener, I guess, could be appalled at the weather guy's prediction of yet another March day of record-breaking warmth. But I'm dreading it.

In Chicago, as in most of the East and Midwest, it's more like July than March, with a five-day string of record temperatures in the 80s. Monday's dip down to 78 was a brief respite; it's supposed to be back up toward 83 Tuesday. All over my neighborhood today I saw shorts and flip-flops and sappy grins and flowers.

So why am I so distressed? What's not to like about magnolias, forsythias, daffodils, scilla, weeping cherries, redbuds, even crab apples bursting into bloom? Because they're not due for another month or more, that's why. We're spending all the blooms of April and the early part of May in a few hot days in March. And then what will we do for the rest of the spring?

Last year, after a winter that I remember fondly for almost constant snow cover,  we had a lovely, long, cool, moist spring that kept a splendid tapestry of bloom going for many weeks. This year, I fear the whole spring is about to dry up and blow away.   
It's not just us. According to this Washington Post story, it was 94 Sunday in South Dakota and International Falls, Minn., has set records in 9 out of the last 10 days.

Is this the coming of global warming doom? No, it's a weather fluctuation caused by a stationary cold front in the west. As I explained a few days ago in a story in the Chicago Tribune about how gardeners can adapt, climate change doesn't guarantee warmer weather. But it does mean that there will be an overall tendency toward more extreme weather events -- and this awful March sunshine certainly qualifies.   
Bloodroot blooming too soon
As a general rule, I expect native plants, evolved for the unexpected, to be less faked out by crazy Midwestern weather swings than imported species from more orderly climates. And sure enough, the Mediterranean daffodils -- all of them, early, mid- and now late-season varieties -- have been blooming like fools for 10 days now. But this heat has pushed even native plants to lose their heads. In 2011, my bloodroot and sharp-lobed hepatica bloomed in the second week of April. This year, the hepatica was in bloom on March 12 and the bloodroot by March 19. The Virginia bluebells, which normally bloom with the daffodils in April and May, aren't flowering yet, but they're 6 or 7 inches out of the ground.

Which brings me to another worry: Everything's out of whack. Things that are supposed to bloom at the same time aren't. Where will the bees get pollen if all the spring flowers are gone too soon? What about all the native insects whose hatching and feeding is precisely coordinated to plants flowering and leafing out? Sandhill cranes are migrating early, and I've been seeing all sorts of unexpected bids. What are they finding to eat, I wonder? 

And how will it end? The weather guy promises thunderstorms Thursday (and at least where I live, we need the rain. I had the sprinklers out Sunday for some shrubs I had planted last fall). Behind the front is a sharp drop -- down to 30 at night by the weekend. Which is pretty normal, for March, actually. But it's going to be hell on those magnolias.

I, personally, will be relieved, not just because I sleep better when it's cool but because a return to normal might salvage some spring. Maybe it will even get cool enough for my lettuce seeds to germinate.