Tomato Talk With John Taylor...

Dr. John Taylor is well-known to the PGP communities at Global Gardens and Hello!Howard (and almost 20 gardens and urban farms throughout Chicago), where he ran a research project in 2014 to study tomato cultivars in urban growing conditions. John is interested in more than the best tomato to grow in your backyard or community garden plot, however. As an agroecologist, former Chicago resident, and longtime gardener, he’s always been curious about what other people grow and do in their gardens and why. He has done research to map food production in the city down to the level of the residential lot, revealing that the area of backyard and vacant lot home gardens in Chicago far exceeds that of community gardens and farms combined! And because of Google Earth, he didn’t even have to prowl through alleys, peering over fences. All humor aside, however, this finding inspired a ground-level study with Dr. Sarah Taylor Lovell that looked at the social and ecological dynamics of the home food gardens of African American, Chinese-origin, and Mexican-origin households on the city’s south side. Drs. Taylor and Lovell recently published preliminary findings from this study in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems John sends us this report on the study: For this project, we interviewed gardeners, inventoried the food and ornamental plants growing on their lots, and analyzed the chemical and physical properties of garden soils. We found that some gardens appear to produce substantial amounts of food for the household and the larger community. Migrant gardeners in our study conserved food plants with roots in the developing world, or the “Global South.” They imported these plants from their countries of origin and shared seeds and cuttings with friends, relatives, neighbors, and even university researchers. For me,...

Advice for New Gardeners...

As part of her fieldwork among PGP gardeners, Sarah R. Taylor, our research partner from Northwestern University, asked participants with at least 1-2 years’ experience to offer advice to new gardeners just starting out. Here are the top 5 responses, summed up in easy-to-digest bites: 1. Have fun! Whether you’re the meticulous planning type or a spontaneous free spirit, don’t let your first garden plot intimidate you. Achieving maximum production doesn’t have to be your primary goal, especially your first season. 2. Plant what you like to eat. Your favorite veggies will taste wonderful when they come from your own garden, so plant plenty of the things you love to eat and cook. You’ll find the experience deeply rewarding. 3. Experiment. Consider trying something new or unfamiliar. You may find that you actually like certain veggies that you normally associate with bland store-bought varieties, which are often cultivated for qualities other than flavor. 4. Grow from seeds. Growing from seeds is actually much easier than you might think, and it’s cheaper, too! Plants grown indoors may lack the hardiness to survive outside or may suffer from the shock of being transplanted. 5. Prepare to fail, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes we make mistakes; sometimes there are conditions (such as weather, insects) that are simply out of our control. Don’t get discouraged: there are plenty of great resources...

The “Long Arm” of the Community Gardener...

As gardeners, we all take a degree of pleasure and pride in our plots and their produce.  We are attuned to the forces of nature at work in our bits of urban habitat.  We talk about our gardens and what we see; we bend the ear of our friends, our family, and random folk.  Our enthusiasm for our slice of urban nature spreads our ideas about environmental stewardship beyond the boundary of the garden itself. Cindy Anderson, a PhD student in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, aims to capture how, and how far, we carry our messages about the garden into the broader community.  Nearly 20 PGP gardeners across five gardens have agreed to document, via GPS-enabled photo, their “interactions” related to the garden. These interactions range from conversations about monster zucchini plants to homegrown dinner with lettuce from the family plot.  Cindy collects the photos and then interviews gardeners about the people and places in them.  Ultimately, she intends to map the locations and themes of these garden-related interactions to see how far the long arm of the gardener reaches. This project is a pilot study for Cindy’s dissertation research and has already been an enormous help to her work.  If you’re at your plot and see a couple of gardeners talking and peering at photos on a computer, please stop and say hello.   Cindy is always happy to discuss her garden and her...

Toward Windy City Tomatoes...

Even if you started gardening only this year, you’ve probably already discovered that urban gardeners and farmers face a number of unique challenges, from uncertain water supplies to soil of widely varying quality. These challenges could be addressed through plant selection and breeding, but no existing programs focus on urban production.  Most trials of vegetable varieties are conducted in rural environments, and a few corporate conglomerates increasingly dominate their development. (Photo by Kate Kasserman) As part of his doctoral program, John Taylor is working with community partners, including the Peterson Garden Project, to develop a plant selection and breeding program that specifically addresses urban growers’ needs.  The goal of the program is to identify existing varieties that are highly productive in urban environments and eventually to breed new varieties — the Windy City tomato? — that are even more productive, flavorful, and disease-resistant. The program is kicking off this year with the most popular vegetable/fruit in the United States: the tomato.  A total of 21 gardens and farms in the city and suburbs, including the Global Garden and Hello! Howard, are hosting trials of five hybrid and five open-pollinated varieties.  At each site, volunteers are acting as co-researchers, caring for the plants and collecting data on their performance.  All production from the Grow2Give beds will be donated to local food pantries. (Photo by Kate Kasserman) Follow John’s progress by visiting the beds at the Global Garden and Hello! Howard or visit www.facebook.com/ChicagoTomato.  If you’d like to become a co-researcher for the project, sign up through the PGP volunteer...

Gardening for Stress Relief...

Have you ever wondered whether gardening can help with everyday stress? Stress is a known risk factor for preventable chronic disease and plagues many of us living in a noisy, hectic urban environment.  During the 2013 gardening season, our research partner from Northwestern University, Sarah R. Taylor, worked with 75 women across 3 PGP gardens to learn more about how gardening affects health and well-being, including stress levels.  Results from her surveys and interviews suggest that community gardeners do experience stress relief over the course of the season, but Sarah also went a step further and collected hair samples. (Yoga In The Garden with Bloom Yoga Studio – another way gardeners were reducing stress in 2013) Why hair?  Believe it or not, hair contains a hormone called cortisol, which is a known biological marker for stress.  When you’re stressed, your body produces more of this hormone to help you get through a difficult day.  If you’re constantly stressed out, however, the hormone begins to have detrimental effects on your body. Gardening may be one way to reduce stress, and thus cortisol levels, over time. By measuring cortisol in hair, Sarah hopes to find biological evidence for the stress-reducing effects of gardening. Sarah recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to send the hair samples she collected to a high-tech lab for analysis. We’re excited to see whether the results from the hair samples are consistent with the results from her surveys and interviews. Stay tuned for more news about this study and other research projects happening right now in PGP...

What You Can Compost From Your Garden Plot by Keith Hendrix...

Traditionally compostables come from your kitchen like leftovers and vegetable ends, rinds and husks, but you can also compost a great deal directly from your garden plot. From the plot you can compost plant roots, stalks, stems, vines and leaves. You can definitely compost pulled weeds and over-ripe vegetables. The simple process is taking home a pail or bag of compostables when you water and harvest instead of tossing them in the trash or alley dumpsters. Cut the large items down to size with your trowel or snippers. Make better use of kitchen scraps and vegetables by adding them to your garden plot compostables at home. Your home compost stream will be satisfactorily balanced by the brown, drier items from your plot. You can even dry out your plot compostables for a few days before taking them home. Avoid composting blighted, moldy or diseased plant matter. Gather plot detritus, weeds or leaves into your pail. Chemical pesticide treated compostables are not desirable and should also be avoided, but you can add bugs if you know they are not coated in un-natural pesticides. Don’t have a composter at home? Perhaps there is a shared compost bin at a local school, ecology center or friend’s house on your way home from the garden? But now is a good time to buy a composter if you are a Chicago resident. See the Chicago Sustainable Backyard’s program website for a $50 rebate and compost information: http://www.sustainablebackyards.org Contact me for questions at:...

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