Category Archives: garden

Winter Sowing: Finding Containers

My gardening season begins in the alleys, scavenging for milk jugs. They become the mini-greenhouses for winter sowing: aka plant them and mostly forget about them until it’s time to transplant.*

imag0184I had to walk my bike towards the end of this harvest. Dexter is impressed! Also, in contradiction of everything below, I couldn’t pass up the giant cake platter.

You can start seeds in pretty much any food grade item that holds soil and lets in light—even ziplock bags. Last year, I experimented with 2-liter soda bottles, cake boxes, strawberry clam-shells, commercial vats of cooking oil. . .my yard was a riot of shapes and colors.

That’s one of the reasons I am now sticking with lightweight, translucent, plastic, gallon (LTPG**) containers. The consistency is soothing to my eyes. They sit quietly, unassuming, not competing with spring’s first acts. I also find they are the easiest for me to set up and manage.imag0065That large container of kale. . .so tempting for planting kale seeds. Would not even need to relabel. But no! I resisted.

Labeling: This is always a hot topic on the winter sowing facebook page. You need something that will not fade over time. I’ve settled on grease pencils. Since I bought a pack of 10, I am committed for the long haul. However, they work best on slightly textured, slightly colored surfaces. They do not grip clear plastic well, and whatever dim marks manage to stick are hard to read.

imag0179These cheap, bought in bulk, grease pencils are great for labeling, but I have to hack at the paper. Neighbors, let me know if you want a few so I can justify trying another brand.

Cutting: The thin walls yield easily to my crude methods for prepping the jugs. I just bore the bottom corners with scissors, and pinch a corner sidewall to start a cut. Hard slippery plastic repels scissors. But since I tend to be too impatient to dig up a better tool, I stab and hack away. This not only takes too long, it makes me worried that I am going to need to dig up the band aids.

Soil: The smaller containers dry out more quickly and the larger ones use more soil than necessary. When they are the same style, they tend to need water at the same time, not just because the amount of soil tends to be the same, but so does the surface area and light level.

imag0178When the widgets are the same, the assembly line runs more smoothly, or something like that.

When I started looking for jugs last month, I vowed to only have eyes for LTPGs. In fact, I was going to avoid LTPG’s with the sidewall divets common to milk jugs. Even better, why not avoid milk jugs in general, since they reach peek reek so quickly? (I wonder why folks tend to keep caps on the empties.)

Within the first few blocks, I realized I could not build my garden on gallons of distilled baby water and orange drink. The pickings were slim for milk jugs as well. I think it is partly related to gentrification, and partly because the recycling trucks seem to be on the prowl more frequently.imag0112

Divets make it harder to tape the jugs. More on that later. Also–gross! Do you see the dried milk in the handle? This one required some vigorous shaking and rinsing.

So, I am back to grabbing whatever LTPG’s I can find. My bike can easily carry six, and I enjoy straining capacity. Carrying by hand used to be hard, until I picked up this tip from another winter sower: use string or a broom handle. For unplanned alley jaunts, I just look for a pole or a stick. This also helps me root around at the bottom of bins. . .because I can’t afford to pass any containers up!

imag0205Bent the end of this strip of metal I found near the garbage, and went fishing!

It ends up working out since small batches are easier to manage anyway. There’s a limit to how many milk jugs I can rinse out at once, especially when they are bulging with fumes!

* (I already wrote a bit about how to set the containers up. Instructions are also at the milk jug page of
**I couldn’t think of a clever acronym. LTPG sounds kind of like Lit Pig. Pigs like garbage. Gardening lights me up. So, LTPG it is!

PS: Some of the Dwarf Siberian kale, planted 2/8,  is already popping.

Alley Findings

The recycling bins in our alley used to overflow with empty gallons of milk, water, and juice–perfect containers for starting plants. Yesterday’s four block search yielded only four, all from one house. Instead, I found plenty of cans of La Croix and craft beer–indicator species of a gentrifying (ied!) neighborhood.

The original intent of this post was to offer tips on what to look for in a winter sowing container. But sometimes we find more than we expected when lifting a lid. The stats tell us that families are being displaced from Logan Square. Longtime Latino residents are leaving, and white folks are moving in or maybe it’s more accurate to say it the other way around. The alleys show the changes. We’ve gone from distilled water for babies to fancy soda water for people who like to say pamplemousse.

It’s a serious, heart aching, complex issue, and my family is part of the tangled web.

Through his work at Bickerdike, one of Chicago’s strongest community development corporations, Michael has helped preserve and construct scores of affordable housing units within blocks of our home. We can see the solar panels from one of his award-winning projects from our kitchen window.


Peer into our kitchen window (and recycling bin), however, and you will see another part of the story. We took an affordable unit off the market when we duplexed the 1st and 2nd floors of our 3-flat. We strive to keep the 3rd floor rent stable and below the booming market rates, but our tenants have tended to be single people without children. Even if all have a low income, affordability looks different to three roommates pooling rent than a family with three children.

This is not guilty hand-wringing. There are so many variables and I’m being simplistic and broadbrushing. For example, I know white folks aren’t the only ones buying La Croix at Armitage Produce. For more nuanced and action-forward information, check out the Logan Square Neighborhood Association which, like Bickerdike, does terrific housing and education work with the goal of preserving the ethnic and economic diversity of Logan Square.

Back to the alley: During a recent hunt, I saw a grizzled man with a granny cart rifling through our recycling. “Looking for cans. . . ” he said, somewhat sheepishly. I always feel a little awkward too, when I’m caught looking in someone’s garbage. I walked to my neighbor’s bin, turned around, and smiled conspiratorially: “I’m looking for plastic jugs to start seeds.” He grinned back. “I love the plants.”

Garbage to garden. It’s a small, simple act that brings joy to me and the neighbors and  energizes me to take on harder, more complicated work related to the neighborhood. Dirty hands keep the sleeves rolled up!

imag0038Guilty as charged. Lots of cans in our bin for him to take.

The Sort of Right Stuff

Today I did some unplanned rage gardening.

Sometimes our washing machine decides a load is “too heavy” or “unbalanced” and shuts down in mid-cycle, after half the clothes are soaked. Picture young child sitting down at a corner two blocks from home and simply refusing to go any farther.

For some reason, this glitch (the washing machine one) only happens to me, which is good, because I am the only one in the building who knows the convoluted, contorted, coddling steps for fixing it. This afternoon, a 5 minute trip to the basement to shovel in load #5 turned into a 90 minute fit of winter sowing while I babysat the washing machine’s efforts to chew through load #4 in three separate dainty cycles.

dampbasementThe bad news: I had to drain the washing machine a few times today and our basement drain isn’t at the lowest point. The good news: I bought soil last fall, just for a day like today.

The basement is a mess, a dis-ah-ster as #45 might say. But I am mighty grateful to have it. And if I can’t find what I need in the chaos, something else will do.

I had two stockpiled cranberry juice bottles plus the 4 milk jugs from two days ago. I rinsed those out yesterday. They still kind of stank, but at least not  in a knee buckling way (foreshadowing of the pros and cons of milk jugs). While waiting to see if load 3a would work, I started prepping them for planting.

Drainage: I learned to winter sow from Karen. She heats a fork on a stove burner and gently presses it a few times on the bottom of the jugs, sort of like poking a pie crust. It’s kind of gentle and brutal at the same time. Since I work in the basement (sans burner), I use a razor blade to make little slits. I couldn’t find a razor blade today and I wasn’t going upstairs to look (can’t leave the washer untended), so I just stabbed the bottom corners with scissors. Not the safest choice, but very satisfying.

Cutting the jugs in half: I used to be meticulous about cutting the jugs, measuring the height of the cut, tracing a line to follow. Now I just eyeball it. Winter sowing is forgiving. Once the jugs were flopping open, I rinsed them again. The machine clicked off, ready for load 3b. Next up: adding soil.

carefulcutting)wintersowing.jpgFile photo from more fastidious days. Saving thoughts on what works and when for winter sowing for later.

Adding soil: Fortunately, I stockpiled big bags of potting soil last fall.I dragged one over to the sink and ripped it open. It was suspiciously damp, despite having been untouched since October and being in the high land area of the basement. Can soil go bad? Maybe, but the smell was not knee buckling so I carried on.

Filled the bottom half of each jug about 2/3rds high with soil. Found some old dish pans. Put them in the utility sink (so grateful for a double utility sink!) Filled them with about 2 inches of water. Placed jugs in pans to dampen the soil from the bottom up. Also a good test of the hack job I did on drainage.

imag7516Another file photo, showing the “watering from the bottom” method.

10 mins left on the cycle. Do I dare keep going? Next step is seeds. But my seeds are a jumbled mess outdoors. But wait! They are still in their little bags, categorized by type: kales, lettuces, spinaches, tomatoes, herbs, flowers, and crap that will never thrive  (looking at you carrots, supposedly one of the easiest veges to grow).

What’s the easiest, most forgiving, cold hearty thing I can start? Kale! Also, so conforming to stereotype!

Adding seeds: Eureka moment. I decide to label the containers before adding seeds and to label them upside down, bird’s eye view. Grabbed a grease pencil (they were stashed with the seeds. . . maybe I am more organized than I think), and declared my intention on top of the milk jugs. But grease pencils don’t work well on smooth, clear plastic, so I didn’t label the other two (foreshadowing of pro and cons of hard, clear, smooth plastic).

The machine clicked off, ready for load 3c. Do I keep going? I only meant to be down here for 5 minutes. But my hands are already dirty so. . .

Sprinkle the Lacinato kale from Bakers Creek in the aptly labeled container, which I have moved to a lunch tray on the washer (another random basement find). Massage the seeds into the soil a bit. Sprinkle some more soil  on top. Hack a gentle watering can by poking a few holes in a plastic cup with a nail. Sprinkle some water on top. Find a warped roll of pink dollar store “duct tape.” Tape container shut, which is actually the most annoying part of winter sowing, esp when using milk jugs which have strange circular divots on the sides. A story for another day.


Repeat with the Lacinato kale from Botanical Interests, the Dwarf Siberian Kale, and Red Winter Kale. Plant calendula in one of the clear bottles, and a zinnia on the other. Label with a black sharpie, knowing it might fade in the sun. (I’ll remember, right?)

Click, load 3b is done. Place the jugs back in the dish pans of standing water for a last soak. Move the laundry along.

They are all now nestled along the fence outside. All laundry frustration is long gone.

Never too Early to Garden (zone 5)

It was not night this morning at 7am. Not only had the sun started rising, we could actually see and feel it. (Been lots of cloud cover lately. Reflecting the current political weather? Naw, we all know human actions don’t influence climate.)

When Michael noted the trend towards earlier daybreak, I snapped back, “Yeah, until Daylight Saving Time plunges us back into dark mornings.”*

I am at peak grumpiness this time of the year. The chill has settled into my bones, and the short days shorten my fuse. I know I am not alone.imag0041Mystery bulb, 02/06/2017. Go, go, go, little one. If you can make it, so can we!

My solution is simple: run, write, and garden. Overcoming inertia is not simple. But after 4 days of wearing my running clothes, I finally hit the road yesterday. And there is enough pop left in my brain today to write. . . and start gardening!

I’ve never had the patience or consistency to start plants indoors. Checking the water every day, changing pots, exposing the pampered seedlings to the elements little by little. . .so many opportunities for total system failure. With the exception of tossing out lettuce seeds in March and hoping for the best, gardening season didn’t really start for me until after Mother’s Day, with my wallet open for hardy transplants.

imag0044I didn’t organize or bring in my seeds last fall. Oops? Or–they are already winterized!

A few years ago, Karen introduced me to Winter Sowing. You plant seeds in jugs, place them outside, ignore, and then rejoice a few months later at the abundance of transplant- ready seedlings. You can keep your hands in the dirt pretty much all winter long. Ok, it’s a little more complicated than that, but not much. I’ve been meaning to document this process for my friends, since I talk it up so much. And because writing and gardening are 2 of my keys to beating the winter blues. . . here we go. I hope some of you will join me. I’ve got lots of seeds to share (though no guarantee they will take, see above).

Step One: Find Containers

Oops, this post was going to be about dumpster diving for containers, but then I started preambling, so that’s next. In the meantime, here is the site that started it all:

*March 12, so turns out we still have a few weeks.

When Life Gives You Rats


I should make this brief,* because at least 20 plants are waiting in buckets of water to be transplanted to. . . not sure yet.** This is an invitation for friends to grab some of the phlox, goldenrod, aster, joe pye, hyssop and penstemon that have been lighting up the raised bed in our back yard for the last five or so years.***

Last night twilight slipped into the firefly hour while I pried deep roots from the tangle of plants I’ve been meaning to divide for the last few years. I tried to avoid stepping on the bed, but sometimes side angle shoveling can’t do the job. Then I  balanced on the narrow wooden edge with one foot while the other stomped down the blade. Anything to avoid both feet on the soil.
Rat burrow, upper left. Hence, balancing on edge of bed, far left.

The rats are back. They have been burrowing in the bed like they did some years ago, maybe it was five years ago, because that’s when I replaced the vegetable garden with the perennials I pulled last night. We won the previous battle with copious amounts of poison and chicken wire, with some rat zapper traps for good measure. Let me tell you, there is something horrifying about finding a dead rat so big that it couldn’t get its full body into the zapper (shuddering at the memory). I’ve got more war stories about that era, but the plants are waiting, and it is going to be hot this weekend so I need to get them in water now, and I have other paid job type work to do.


This time around, I’m looking into the feral cat program through Tree House. I have heard great things about it being a long term solution to rats and critters–not so much by killing them but by scaring them away. But I am also looking at this as a chance to rethink the garden layout in general. We’ve had years to collect data on how we use it and how we wish it worked better. The trees have grown so much that our mostly sunny space has become mostly shady. Maybe it’s time to give into the shade and add a privacy screen so we don’t have to look at the alley fence I am always complaining about (doesn’t mean I’ll stop planting along it).

So now I am a little excited for change. Input on our garden design reboot is most welcome. Now, it’s time to keep rebooting the rats out of here!!
*my version of brief 🙂
**some along the fence, of course
***Here’s something I wrote four July’s ago about this spot. I’m so grateful I am not depressed anymore, and for the friends who keep coming for for dinner, rats be damned. Garden Half Full

This fence is my fence, this fence is your fence. . . .

IMAG4125Repetitious whiny pants alert: If you don’t want to hear me vent again about parkway pillaging, stop now.


No one is making me dig my heart into a slab of clay at the corner of Kimball and McLean. When someone yanks out an allium bulb, or the City piles it with construction debris, I keep mantras running through my head: Give freely. It’s about the process. Practice letting go. This is public space. This land is my land, this land is your land.

But sometimes, these self-soothing thoughts are interrupted by drunk 20-somethings in quasi-edgy clothes, swaying down Kimball, shrieking with glee as they rip off the tops of cup plants.

This evening, I did a bit of weeding in “El Jardin de McLean.” I was wrapping up and taking pictures of new blooms and surprise patches of color when four young adults stumbled across McLean.

IMAG4056They are loud. They approach the fence. I figure they are going to check things out. Lots of people do. No. They are tearing the heads off the cup plants, which actually takes some effort. The stalk is fibrous, like celery; it’s a stringy, uneven mess if you try to break it apart by hand. Maybe their biceps are booze-powered.

By the time I make it around the corner, they are about 10 yards away. “What are you doing??!!” I yell. They look back at me with no shame. Instead, they start running in a conspiratorial way, like they have been busted by the dorky principal in a Disney sitcom for something they don’t really think is all that wrong. They continue to grab at plants and toss flowers on the ground. “What the fuck is WRONG with you??!!” I continue. As they scurry into the dusk, I send my final volley with an extra dose of disgust: “What kind of people ARE you?”

IMAG4053At least the woman with the shiny red vintage cruiser sort of apologized earlier this week for taking scissors to the rattle snake master and blazing stars—plants like tulips that don’t produce many blooms. One and done and all that.

My neighbor Joe buzzed my apartment. “Gin, I think someone is cutting the flowers!” He is protective of the garden, as are all the neighbors.

No time to grab keys or put on shoes. I hastily propped doors open so I would not get locked out and padded down the block in bare feet and PJ’s. “What are you doing?” A young woman who was stooped over the coneflowers with liatrus leaves in one hand and scissors in the other looked up calmly.

“Oh, I press flowers, and make decorations. . .I’m sorry. . . .”IMAG4055

But it wasn’t a robust apology, and she kept trying to explain about the pressed flowers thing and I wanted to scream “then grow your own damn flowers!!!” but instead just explained that the garden takes a lot of work and that the native plants help the soil and the butterflies, blah, blah, blah. . .and we left it at that.

Last night I noticed that half of the nodding onions have been beheaded. Cleanly. Every other one. Sort of like someone was trying to be inconspicuous and moderately thoughtful. I also noticed some butterfly weed has been snipped. Those blooms would likely only be of interest to a flower presser. It reminded me of a time I was broken into and it took me a few days to discover all the things that had been taken. The biggest blow was my great-uncle’s Zeiss Icon SLR camera, something I prized dearly.

But I survived, and these plants will survive, or they won’t, and it won’t really matter that much. This is not “my land,” it is our land. Who am I to say what should be in these forgotten strips of soil? And it does look raggedy right now.

As I stared down the block, I gut-checked. Should I quit, just give up?? Nah. . . just keep planting. Next time I am going to say: “Hey, when are you free to help weed?”


Weeks 5 & 6: Alliterated Plants

mysterybulb_beforeafterMichael missed our dog while we were on vacation. I missed him too, but confess to missing the garden a little bit more. The landscape changes quickly this time of the year, working longer days, fueled by stronger light. April showers *and* solar powers make May flowers. While I was gone, bleeding hearts peeked, wild geranium puffed, apple buds expanded, raspberry leaves exploded, and daffodils popped. No complaints though; the trip south to St. Louis was a lovely prelude to the next stages of our spring. And, the Rattlesnake Master, which I feared had been destroyed, proudly welcomed me home with two babies. Perseverance! These pictures aren’t great, but they help me remember what is coming up when.


Week Four: Winter Redux

No warm up in sight
This year, I am planting peas
Touching the earth helpswelcome
Late March in Chicago. On Friday, while resisting the lure of the thermostat’s up button, I invited friends to compose brrrkus about this soul chilling, mood numbing time of the year–see end of post.  I’ve also carried on with the gardening. Each seed planted is a down payment on greener, warmer days. Miguel direct sowed a riot of spinach and lettuce near the apple tree.
I set up a container of arugula and radishes on our porch, and planted peas along the fence for the first time.
Tested the viability of some old beet (below) and spinach seeds by laying them in a sunny spot, swaddled in  damp paper towels and a plastic bag.
Added ten more jugs of flower and vege seeds, inc the beets and spinach, to the “winter sowing” collection I started on January 23rd.

weekfour_stackMore brrrkus
Tantalizing sun,

Is it possibly warm out?
Nope, that snow’s still there.

First day of 40
Kids would not put on jackets
Now 40 feels cold


sunshine spills from sky
my breath steams in the cold air
cold toes, warm heart, smiles


Spring’s tease. Deep blue sky
Brown branch, tinge of green, but cold
A beautiful day.


In five short months,
We’ll yearn for sweater weather.
Trying for perspective.

Buds in the garden
Asparagus for dinner
Dammit it is spring


Week 2: Breathing Room

wpid-imag1954.jpgEvery fall, I vow to borrow Karen’s leaf shredder to create fluffy, nutritious mulch for all my garden beds. Every fall, time speeds up. Before a late season rain, I end up frantically dumping out bags of leaves scavenged from the alley; everything needs to be tucked in tightly so the neighbors don’t complain about the leaves they just raked blowing back into their yards. This means that, every spring, I have to pry off slimy blankets to make it easier for little plants to emerge. I’m not sure if these annual rituals do any good, but they are pleasant bookends to the growing season.

First snowdrop! I’m excited about this addition to the early spring chorus.
The parkway is also buried by a bunch of construction debris. Not sure what to do about that yet. Current strategy is to ignore.
The tiny shoots from last week have bloomed.
This part of the front parkway is not the best showcase for tulips; I love the bright tips against this rock more than the flowers.
Urban mulch includes garbage.
Love a plant that emerges early and blooms late. Can’t believe I’m spacing its name.
Until next week. . . .

Week 1: Return of the Living Undead

first crocus sightingLast Thursday, friends started sharing links to giddy five day forecasts, crowding out the pictures of home thermometers registering single digits. “The thaw is coming, the thaw is coming!” Tom Skilling was Paul Revere; social media the horse. I was unmoved. Barring a true heatwave, the shellacked snow pack would melt slowly—a good thing for the soil, watershed, and sewers, but a bummer for those counting the days until the flowers return. And it’s hard for me to get excited about 40 degree weather.bug's tulipsThe arctic grip did loosen Friday afternoon, as promised, and I grudgingly admitted that a sunny 45 is indeed better than a windy 15. But I was still moping about the bulbs, couldn’t imagine anything green emerging from the long buried muck for at least a few days–and that was assuming the “warm up” would hold.

Less than 24 hours later, I was jumping up and down on the sunny corner of Kimball and McLean. “Miguel! Miguel!!!! Look!! Crocuses!!!” We had to bend and squint to see the pointy green fingernails clawing towards the sun.  I ran around, searching for more in the narrow sliver of earth now visible between the sidewalk’s edge and still formidable pile of snow. Nothing, but no matter. A day later, I spied the orange tulips that honor (and draw nutrients from) Bug, Miguel’s beloved goldfish.  The earth has opened, I am giddy, and the show has just begun. tulipsneartreegoalpostswaitingforsnowdrops

I planted snowdrops for the first time last fall, excited for something to bloom before the crocuses. Do I remove the snow to see what is below, or wait it out?