Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Plastic on the cold frames

Our cold frames have donned their winter coats and are keeping toasty. Today, with the help of some willing volunteers and my intern Breanna, the row cover fabric that was covering them has been replaced with a thick plastic. The plastic will help keep temperatures inside the tunnels a good 10 degrees warmer, ensuring a good growing environment. We chose today to put on the plastic when the forecast called for -10 to -20 temperatures tonite. Yikes. Bundle up everyone, here comes the deep chill.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

First snow of the year

Ahhh...the true onset of winter has come, snow flurries are twirling around outside. As much as winter makes us grumble and forces us to take cover under many layers of wool, I love it. I love the down time. The warm stews and hearty breads, casseroles and hot tea. Lots of hot tea. It's the best time of year for baking. Which means that breads and cookies and pies all get made often, with the residual benefit of heating the house. I love watching quiet snow. It's meditative and reminds me to take my time when completing tasks. And I love blizzards. Which help remind me that sometimes to you just have stay inside and take advantage of all the benefits of home.

Maybe it is because I was raised in the mountains of Colorado, where winter starts in September and doesn't end until June, and where snow coming 3 feet deep over night qualifies as a reason to rejoice. (And where the Fourth of July parade is commonly snowed upon.) Whatever the reason, I think snow is fantastic.

Needless to say winter is here and the farm is feeling the chill. I had two great volunteers today who helped me mulch the rooftop beds with hay (generously donated by Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse!). And they helped finish mulching the downstairs beds too, with wood chips. We mulched our cold frames, now that temperatures are reaching below freezing (28 degrees tonight!) and the lettuces will soon need a plastic cover instead of the row fabric that is over them now.

I hope all of you are loving the seasons as much as I am. I know it's hard in Chicago when everyone gets all miserable over a little cold weather, but take the time to enjoy the season with warm activities and hot tea.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


We still have FREE MULCH available in the Uncommon Ground parking lot. Come with buckets or wheelbarrows and take some to cover your ground for the winter!

Waiting for the freeze

I hope that all of you are finishing with raking leaves and prepping your beds for winter. I hope that as we come to the very end of the growing season that you, like me, are evaluating all the great and wonderfuls that happened this summer, along with all the things we can do better next year.

I am in the process of inputting all the data from the summer, taking a hard look at how our intern and volunteer programs worked and starting to dream about what to plant next year.

If you have volunteered with us, I thank you deeply. We cannot do the work without you, whether it is shoveling compost or mulch or helping to build our cold frames. I am so grateful for all of those that came with smiles to help us make the farm this year. I am looking for feedback for how your experience at the farm was, and am very open to any ideas or suggestions you may have for me.

If you have the chance come by and see our cold frames that are at ground level. Take a peek underneath them, they are getting green and gorgeous under that row cover fabric!!

Thanks again for all your hard work and I hope to see you next season!!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Prepping for winter growing

We are getting our selves ready for the winter at the farm these days. Taking out all the growth from this summer (those amazing corn stalks and leafy tomato plants), turning under the last of the lettuce leftovers into the soil and building cold frames for some winter planting. We had a great team of volunteers this past week, who helped us construct 2 cold frames on our ground level beds. The day we built them was cold and very much an autumn afternoon, but we managed to build both cold frames in record time. The cover will provide some added warmth for our garlic, onions, spinach, kale and chard, as we move swiftly into the winter season. We will be starting our cold frames with a cover of row cloth, a fabric that lets light and air and water through, but still provides a blanket of warmth, and then we will move into plastic sheeting when the weather gets real cold. As usual, this is an experiment, so I'll keep you up to date with how the results turn out.

Thankfully for us the weather this week is warmer, in the 60's!, and is providing us with perfect cover cropping days! We will be spreading a cover crop mix of vetch, winter rye and a few other cold hardy varietals in all of our ground level and rooftop beds. I am hoping this helps to fix some of the nitrogen loss from this season and that we are able to build healthy soil for next year. The cover crop mix we are using is from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, it's their Soil Builder Mix. I have had great success with their products, and I am looking forward to the tall grains fortifying our soil throughout the winter.

Next week we put our garlic and onions into the raised beds, so stay tuned for some how-to photos!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

October showers bring November flowers? Why spring has arrived again.

It is rainy. Big surprise there. But it almost feels like spring showers to me today. Maybe it's just the peas, radishes and lettuces we have growing on the roof right now. That's right, we have new rounds of peas shooting up and lots of radishes and even some pac choi. The weather is perfect for them, so I figure why not! Last year we got a pretty good fall harvest of peas and this year is looking good so far.

It has only started to feel like fall because the leaves are gracing us with their gorgeous yellows and reds, apples are all over the farmers markets and we had to take out all the dying sunflowers. I love fall though, with it's crisp mornings and showers of leaves. This fall is falling in suit with the summer and continues to be rainy, but I feel that is almost appropriate. The grey weather is forcing me to stay indoors, make hot apple cider, can this seasons best produce and dehydrate the rest, stocking up for the cold winter ahead.

We are hosting a few volunteer days this month, if you'd like to join us please email me at

Refreshments will be provided. Come for part or all of the workday!
Our farm needs help with late season and overwinter growing! We will be constructing
new cold frames to cover some of our planting beds at ground level. These
cold frames will help to extend the growing season into the winter. Techniques for
building a cold frame will be covered, as well as the knowledge behind
how to use a cold frame in your own backyard. Come help us and learn
how to grow in a Chicago winter outdoors!

Refreshments will be provided. Come for part or all of the workday!
We will be planting in the hoop houses at ground level for early winter salad greens.
We will also be planting garlic in our other raised beds at ground level. This workday includes
a primer on winter growing, both covered and uncovered, and will help you know what to
get started now for next springs harvest!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

And there goes September...

Sorry for the delay in posting, September seems to have passed me by.

Lucky for us this month showed some warmer temperatures, still cool in the evenings, but nice and consistently warm during the days. This has provided us with over 100 pounds of tomatoes this month alone!! I finally breathed a sigh of relief that we are actually going to get a decent harvest this year, of something. I thought I would share some photos of what we have been harvesting lately, including yard long pole beans (their as long as my arm!), striped roman tomatoes, daikon radishes, and our lovely intern Shantell hugging our Bantam corn harvest!

We celebrated this month with our Harvest Party on September 18th, if you didn't make it you should come next year! It was a blast! Live music from 4-10pm, a farmers market, roasting pigs and beer! What more could one ask for in a Friday evening? It marked the kick-off for the World Music Festival, which occurs at several venues throughout town. If you have the chance to catch some of the acts, it's well worth it.

Stay tuned for a call for volunteers! As we move in the fall we will be building hoop houses over our ground level beds. We will also be planting garlic, onions and spinach soon and will need extra hands!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The shift of seasons

It is cold, again.

I woke up this morning and felt, for the first time this season, the fall chill in the air, enough to make me not want to leave the warmth of my bed. For real, what is up with the early fall, or the entire lack of summer. I feel like summer took a summer vacation this year.

The squash is not happy about the down turn in temperature. Neither are the beans or the corn or the tomatoes. The squash has shriveled it's gorgeous large leaves and hasn't recovered. The fruit of the plant is also looking sad, and I fear now that my forecast of a great squash harvest is going to fail. I fear too that the tomatoes will not rebound from another cold snap, they are taking forever to turn red, yellow or purple, given the varietal.

Tomatoes are one of my most favorite things on Earth, ever. And more than disliking the slow uptake of summer, I dislike a summer without tomatoes. How can this even be called summer without a rich harvest of tomatoes? Err. It is like going without raspberries or corn on the 4th of July or without mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. Sometimes I think about how our climate is shifting and that we are being slowly (or in this summers case, drastically quickly) moved into a shift of what our seasons mean to us. Will we continue to have the late summer harvest of sweet corn, or the large, hot sun indulging, pumpkins that sit and wait for Halloween to come? Or, will that now happen in August because the hot weather only lasts for a few weeks and the fall starts sooner?

I grew up in southwest Colorado, way up in the mountains (10,000 feet above sea level), in a tiny ski town called Crested Butte. It snows there from the end of September through early June (and several times it snowed on the 4th of July's parade). The summer happens in July and lasts, maybe, into early August, the fall happens in late August, leaves fall off the trees in September and then it goes back to winter. We, according to the locals, have 3 seasons; winter, summer and mud season. And even there the harvest of raspberries came in strong, the tomatoes ripened nicely in late July and the pumpkins were popping in October, despite the calculated snowfall that would always happen on Halloween night. So, I think if we are to suffer the shift of shorter summers being the norm then we may be able to make it work, we just have to adapt. Luckily we are quite adept at doing just that. I will plant more radishes, carrots, lettuces, kales, onions and garlic in the next few weeks, gearing us up for that early autumn growing season, even though it's the first day of September.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sweet Corn, Gardeners Supply, and Slow Food

This week has been an exciting and very busy one. The Bantam Sweet Corn is reaching new heights, towering high above the squash plants underneath them. So it made me start to think, "When do we pick these lovely ears of corn?" and more importantly, "How do we preserve all this corn for use later in the winter?".

After some research I found that you should pick corn when the silk turns dark and starts to shrivel, preferably first thing in the morning. The kernels should be bright, plump, and milky, if they are watery let them be, they're not ready yet! Usually it takes about 20 days for the ear to ripen, from when the silk starts to appear. To harvest, snap off the ears by hand with a quick, firm, downward push; then twist and pull. Corn is at its prime eating quality for only 72 hours before becoming overmature. (Info found on Pick Your Own Veg, )

When it comes to preserving I found great info on the Gardener's Supply blog, written by the staff-owners of the company, one of which is Kathy LaLiberte. Kathy came to visit us this week, along with Cindy (also from Gardeners Supply) and Kathy's husband Henry. What a fantastic group of people, we had wonderful conversations and got all geeky about all things urban farming. It was great to hear their enthusiasm and ideas for what we could do better for the farm, different applications of some of their products and to hear all about their interesting seeds from their own personal gardens. (For those of you who may not know, our raised beds were built with corner brackets from Gardener's Supply) Back to the question at hand though, you can find some great info about corn preservation, written by Kathy, here

We had the pleasure of having Kathy and Henry return again in the evening on Tuesday to join us for the Slow Food benefit dinner that we held. The dinner went very well, with cocktail hour on the rooftop farm and then a great pork dinner made with Slagel Family Farms pork that our kitchen staff helped slaughter the week before. Overall it was a fantastic garden geek day and a lovely evening full of cucumber agua fresca and super fresh local foods. If you don't know about the Slow Food Organization, please visit the local chapter's website here,

Happy corn picking!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Red Corn Husks and Purple Beans

We are finally in the hot humid Chicago summer we all know and (rarely) love. But it is so good for all those edibles!

This week we have had huge growth at the farm...the squash and pumpkin blossoms have been prolific and the bees are doing their job well, pollinating like crazy. The corn is so high that it now has the tendency to strike emotions along the lines of, "wow, nature is so incredible" and "us humans sure are small on an earthly scale". Not only are the stalks super tall, but the Bantam Sweet Corn is producing lovely red husk hairs! So striking in a sea of green foliage.

The beans have started producing from their well established vines; Cascade Giant Pole, Purple Podded Snap and Haricot Vert are a few of the varieties that you will find on our menu these days. We have had a special this week that featured our Italian Relleno Sweet Peppers, which also have been growing fast!

Update on the blight from a few weeks ago: We are holding it at bay (thank goodness), by trimming back any infected leaves and fruit and then spraying them down with Serenade copper spray. We have been able to stave the spreading of it at least. The copper spray is organic, but is still a fungicide so it's best not to eat the tomatoes without washing them off first. The spray is available at some of the local garden centers, if you know your plants are at the beginning stages of blight, catch it before it spreads! If you think your plants are infected but aren't quite sure, please feel free to email me photos and I'll take a look to see if it is indeed blight.

Happy Harvesting!!

Thursday, August 6, 2009


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The heat is on

It is warm and muggy!! I know this isn't always something to quite so ecstatic about, but when you have gone through the coldest summer in decades, hot and muggy feels so good. The funny thing that I have noticed is that everyone is complaining. I guess you truly can't win. If it's cool out it's too cool and if it's hot out it's too hot. For us humans the cool breezy May-like summer we have been having is a blessing. But for farmers, and consequently all the food we enjoy everyday, the cool weather has been torture. It has come with the evidence of diseases that strike only when wet and cool and the slow take of warm weather veggies, like squash and tomatoes. I have hope that this year will be a long, moderate season, allowing us to dine on squash well through October.

The advantage to the sudden heat is that the cantaloupe are going crazy and so are the Italian Trombetta di Albenga Summer Squash. They are both taking over their respective beds, and starting to flower! (I promise I will post pictures soon!!) We have new ears of corn starting to form and the beans are flowering in bunches.

We have been planting out the beds like mad lately, adding new varieties of lettuce (Mascara and Sweet Valentine!) and new varieties of carrots and radishes too. I think that the addition of squash on the roof is going to prove to be a nice wind barrier, they are not minding the fact that I have them tied to the trellis system. I also love the shade they create and am planting all those new lettuces underneath their broad leaves. Just the answer to the dessert environment of the rooftop farm. As soon as the beans get a little taller on some of the other beds I'll be planting more head lettuces underneath them!

Recently I ordered some new seeds, hoping to transfer parts of the ground level beds into winter growing spaces. This year we'll try a few onions, garlic, kale, cabbages, rutabaga, turnips and parsnips down there to see how they fare come December and January. These beds are right against the building, so they should get some residual heat off the building, regulating the temperature in the soil a little more than we can upstairs. We will still be putting cold frames on some of the beds on the rooftop too, to see what we can grow throughout the winter season. Always an experiment, always fun! Let me know if you have any good winter growing tips for us!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Warm summer afternoons

It's finally warming up a bit! We have had consistent temperatures of 80 during the day and 60 at night, bringing our plants out of their shells and into bloom. Summer sort of feels like it might be here, now that it is the last day of July. So, to honor the herb harvests that we have been having and to celebrate the luxury of drinking cool cocktails on warm summer afternoons, today I am sharing a few new drinks from the restaurant. Most of these delicious concoctions were created by Christopher Becerra, our fearless bar-leader extraordinaire. All of them are using ingredients grown here on our farm or are from farms near-by, and all are made with domestic liquors, making these equally as great for the environment as they are for your tastebuds!

The Famous Uncommon Bloody Mary, complete with fresh chive bouquet.

Agua Fresca, the summers best drink, so deliciously sweet and refreshing, with a nasturtium blossom cut from the garden. This one can be spiked with Thatchers Cucumber Liqueur or Thatchers Elderflower Liqueur, both delicious and organic from Temperance, MI.

The Treetini, seasonally changing but always supporting the planting of new trees (for each drink purchased a tree is planted!) This season's is a Market Berry version, made with Organic Rain Vodka and Organic Veev Liquor, garnished with a nasturtium blossom.

The Blue Moon, incredibly perfect in every way, I could drink a gallon of these. Cap Rock Vodka, with a housemade blueberry and purple basil syrup and a fresh purple basil, blueberry, and peach muddle in the bottom. So good.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blessing and the Blight

A few photos and notes strickly about the farm this week!

Most of the tomato plants are looking so good, so tall and so full of flowers. However, one of them is starting to take on a few characteristics of a fungal disease called Tomato Blight. This disease affects the lower leaves, giving them a yellow color dotted with black spots. If you start to see this on your plants, try to catch it while it is just beginning. You can spray the plants with an organic fungicide if you catch it quick, and that will hopefully end the spread of it to your other tomato (or potato plants). Otherwise you need to tear out the infected plants, put them into plastic bags and throw them away. The preferred method of riding your farm from blight is to burn the plants, but farming in the city doesn't allow us to do this.

Blight can be a scary disease for farmers. It has the ability to wipe out entire fields of crops within hours, leaving the farmer without any product. Harvest Moon Farms experienced a small amount of blight this past week, but caught it with the organic fungicide spray, thankfully. Some farmers in New York haven't been so lucky. Whole farms worth of tomatoes have been wiped out by it recently, driving the price of tomatoes way up and leaving some farmers with nothing for the season. The blight that is taking out tomatoes in New York is the same type that caused the Irish Potato Famine, and this strain can transfer from tomato to potato as well. This article from the New York Times goes into more detail, it leaves me heartbroken:

On the upside, we have a surprise pumpkin patch growing along the side of our parking lot, which I am super excited about! It planted itself out of compost of last years Halloween pumpkins and Harvest Festival cornstalk decorations. We have some healthy corn surrounded by burgeoning pumpkin blossoms, all looking very healthy. It has inspired us to plant more squash there and we are hoping it trails along the parking lot, leaving us this years supply of pumpkins for our carving contest!

Lastly, I love in the morning when the cantaloupe leaves are wearing a necklace of dew drops. For those of you who don't wake up with the sun, here is a photo of one of our Charentais Cantaloupe plants doing just that. Enjoy.

Bennie and the Jets

A quick walk through the past two weeks...
On July 11th, the Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, arrived to dedicate our farm as the First Certified Organic Rooftop Farm in the country! The day was full of excitement and speeches, including one from Alderman O'Connor, Helen Cameron, Steve from MOSA, and the Mayor himself. During his speech the Mayor announced that we need more urban agriculture sites in the city and in the country and that the amount of beekeeping being done in urban areas should increase as well. He went on to say that the need for more organic farms is great and that he hopes that more and more people are able to grow their own food organically, however small the amount may be. This is a great stride for organic agriculture, bringing to light the need for all participants in growing to do so with conscious moves for the environment and thier own health. We were glad to have the Mayor with us to cut our appropriately green ribbon and officially mark us as the first certified organic rooftop farm!

Last Friday during our Farmer's Market we had the pleasure of hosting Rusted Root, who played outdoors to a large crowd of fans. They sounded fantastic and were a blast to hang out with up on the farm! As the band is touring across the country they are trying to play as many farmer's markets as possible to promote the idea of local, fresh produce and the importance in supporting your local farmers. I love that. Way to do good with your celebrity status. The adventures of an urban farm director became wilder as I drove the band back to their hotel downtown, all while giving an impromtu tour of the city and having all of us sing at the top of our lungs to Elton John and Journey. Never a dull moment...

The last two weeks have been quite the rush of time, but all with great moments tucked in between. Luckily this past Sunday I was able to calm down, sleep in past 5am and make brunch for a couple of close friends. After prepping all the ingredients I realized that every single one of them came from Harvest Moon Farms (our resident Farmer at our Friday Farmer's Market). Even the eggs involved in the Baked Huevos Rancheros that I made came from Jenny. I wanted to take a minute to say thank you to Jenny and her staff for working so hard to produce such tasty and beautiful goods. Is it strange to feel pride in eating? I think not. When the food you are eating is fresh, healthy and you know the hands that planted and cared for it, I think that there is a lot to proud of.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dear Rain God, Please stop the rain.

The rain will not stop, which means everything is water logged and tired from processing so much water. It's rough being a newly formed bean and having to weather the storms of a Chicago summer. Whew.

On the upside though we harvested our very first tomato!! It was a small and perfectly ripe Oregon Spring Tomato and tasted amazing. We will definitely be keeping that on our list for planting next year. The bush it came off of is producing flowers and fruit like crazy, despite the chilly temperatures that have been drifting through here, which means that soon you will see rooftop tomatoes gracing the menu at the restaurant. So exciting!

The arugula is loving being covered by the new row cover fabric, it's proving to be very helpful in keeping the harsh sun and beating rain from taking out the fresh little sprouts. I am also using the row covers on our new carrots, beets, and radishes, hoping it will speed along their growth. Due to the weather being in flux constantly with high and low temperatures some of our earlier planted tomatoes failed miserably, and we had to take them out of the planters and compost them. (This is where I cry.) In their place we planted some heirloom summer squash, a green Italian long neck variety and an Early Prolific variety that is yellow. We also planted some Tigger Melons, which according to the package are striped with yellow and neon red! Then we decided that we would try a few smaller varieties of pumpkins (Jack Be Little and Lil' Pump'ke'mon) and try to trellis them. I am hoping that I get a chance to make little hammocks for them to sit in as they grow, like they do in Japan. I think that is super cute and creative and I'll probably make them just to see them all relaxing in their slings. Around all the squash we planted three different varietals of bush beans: Three Color, Haricot Vert and Roc d'Or, all look delicious, but we'll see what the results are next month.

This week we are readying ourselves for the Dedication and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony that will occur on Saturday morning. The mayor is set to arrive at 11:15 and will dedicate our rooftop farm! I wish we could make this open to the public, but the response would be so great that we wouldn't be able to fit that many people on the roof! There will be pictures and video that I will post here next week, so stay tuned to see the ribbon get cut.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Vote for our Farmers Market!

From June 19th to September 17th, visit and to vote for Uncommon Ground as your favorite farmers market!

Direct link:

Big cash prizes for farmers markets and individual voters. Cast your vote today and throughout the summer and win big money for yourself and your community! When you vote - as thousands of people have since the contest launched last Friday - you may write a short review of your farmers market, which you can choose to have posted on Local Harvest.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Let the sun shine in

The past day and a half were sunny, now we're back to grey skies and hovering rain clouds. However, the corn took full advantage of the rays yesterday and is now 4 inches tall! And we have Oregon Spring Tomatoes coming in strong. The Golden Sweet Peas are blooming, giving us some color on the rooftop farm. It's like Spring is finally here! Wait, isn't it supposed to be summer. Hmmmm...

Yeah for Urban Agriculture!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Two new articles about us...exciting!

These two articles came out today...just thought I'd share!

Metromix called yesterday about this article, they had no idea what was going on, so it was nice to talk with the writer, Lisa, about all things rooftop.

This one is from Mr. Brown Thumb at the Chicago Garden...another fantastic garden blog!

Thanks for keeping us in mind for all your green and gardening adventures!

This garden goes to 11!

One of my favorite scenes from a movie is out of Spinal Tap (yes I know this dates me). It's where they are standing by the food table and one of them says, while inspecting the food, "Look, look at these olives. This one has a little friend, but in this one there's nobody home! And look at these little sandwiches. I mean, how do they get the meat on there? You just have to keep folding and folding and folding, I don't think it ever ends." I feel that way about the rain these days, it just keeps raining and raining and raining. And I'm convinced it may never stop.

As a result, our season is behind by at least 2 weeks. Our radishes and beets that we planted in early May are failing miserably. The ones we succession planted last week are, however, doing marvelously. They think it's spring, even though it should be summer. I suppose I should be glad that they are growing well, but I am instead very frustrated. We now have to replant whole beds of arugula, carrots, beets, carrots and even some tomatoes. Errr. The beans and peas though, they love it. So up they grow, they're even starting to flower! And our corn is popping up. A beautiful circle of Bantam Gold. I love spring. Even if it's supposed be summer.

This post comes with a few extraneous photos from the neighborhood around us. The peonies were just too gorgeous, I had to take some up close shots of them.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

First Friday Farmer's Market

The first Friday Farmer's Market was a complete success!!!

We had 20 vendors who were all wonderful and had amazing goods to offer. Slow Food held a heirloom tomato sale and they had some beautiful plants, including Thai Pink Egg Tomatoes, who knew there was such a thing. We had beautiful jewelry from Nomadic Ant, great bags from Malia Designs, clothing from Kiitchipan, and gorgeous food from Delightful Pastries, Harvest Moon Farm, Mint Creek Farm, and Seedling Farm. Goose Island and Koval Distillery were there to give out tasty samples of Matilda beer and Rosehip Liqueur (my favorite). Green Box was there to sell their fantastic planter boxes with City Farm compost included, a really great way to garden in alternative spaces (rooftop/fire escape/patio). We had several other community vendors there to get the word out about all the fantastic work they are doing too. Overall the day was beautiful and it was a pleasure to see everyone shopping from these local businesses and enjoying the honky tonk music to the fullest.

Come every Friday for fun and good local food and music, 4-8pm!
We also give rooftop tours throughout the evening, so it's always a great time to see what we are working on up there.
Thank you so much to our vendors and our shoppers!