Monday, June 22, 2009

Skinny Beaks for a Skinny Garden

This short post is in response to Gina over at My Skinny Garden, and her query about birds' nests.

Though it confuses me, I do admire her honesty as a gardener when she says:

I'll be the first to admit that I don't know crap about birds. And when it comes right down to it, I don't really care for them.


Gina, you seem to have unbridled enthusiasm and ambition in the garden, you find all sorts of creative ways to grow things, and for goodness sakes, you have a "kitchen garden" complete with six raised beds! How can you be so flip when it comes to birds? You're nuts! Who else is going to eat the little bugs that seem to be living in your compost rich soil? Which other creature is going to gently till the soil as they pull up worms? Color me confused.

I am an unabashed supporter of all the birds that settle into the nooks and crannies of my family's garden each year. In fact, your post inspired me to photograph a few of them as they emerge from their nests, ready to eat all the things we don't want in the garden. At the entrance to the veggie garden, we have a structure that attracts nests under the eaves. At the moment it is home to two nests; one robin and one wren.

These are for you, Gina. You may have to look close to see the detail, but there are three little bug eating, soil tilling, seed distributing, poop leaving birds in this picture.

In the wine world, I often use a bird's sense of taste as an indication of balance in wine. There is a moment when the acid and fruit is perfectly balanced in a grape, making it delicious to eat. This of course in quite intentionally arranged by evolution. The acid and the fruit are balanced when the seed is ripe.

I talk to a lot of winemakers and ask them questions about wine and grape growing. Below is a video with Fred Scherrer talking about the life of a berry and what happens as it ripens through a growing season. I post it here because I think it's relevant to understanding a bird's view of ripening fruit, and becuase Fred's use of the word "vector" for an animal that will eat and then poop out a seed always makes me chuckle in its geekiness.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Rain Will Not Deter Honey Coop's Solstice Fete (nor backyard tomato growing)

Slow Food and the Chicago Honey Coop are pressing on with the Summer Solstice Party tonight! Be there, be wet, and embrace summer in the City.

Need more encouragement to get over to the party? Word is chocolatier Katherine-Ann is going to be there with a homeade strawberry-rhubarb pie for the potluck. Maybe if you send her a nice note, she'll bring a few extra truffles as well...she can be reached on her website, or via twitter @kachocolatier.
The rain has certainly taken it's toll on local farmers and now more than ever we hear at TomatoFest Chicago encourage you to "Get thee to a Farmer's Market!" I heard from Peter Klein at Seedling Fruit Farm that the storm knocked down some older apple trees at his Michigan orchard yesterday, and I know lots of folks have had a hard time getting out to plant.

On a smaller scale, I just received an udpate via Twitter that @baconfestchi (aka Seth Zurer) followed my advice and topped up the soil in his Black Cherry pot and gave his heirloom a few companions. Looking good Seth, now all you need is a compost tea watering before your fruit sets and you should be in great shape. May they go forth, prosper, and one day end up on a delicious homemade BLT.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Our first report from the fields of Chicago

This @CandidWines Slowfood Tomatofest Black Cherry Heirloom S... on Twitpic This Black Cherry Tomato is growing in Seth Zurer's backyard garden in Albany Park. Seth is a co-founder of BaconFest Chicago and will be a key partner in our BLT Fest later this summer. He bought the plant at the Uncommon Ground Plant Sale.

My suggestion to Seth is that he bring the level of the soil up to the top of the pot. The small leaves at the base can be stripped, and the small "hairs" at the base of the plant will grow into roots over the summer. I would look for a mix of potting soil and organic compost to give the plant a good slow feed.

I also encouraged Seth to consider planting either some herbs - basil, oregano or thyme - as companions, or perhaps a few carrots. It seems odd to grow carrots in a pot, but they really seem to love Tomatoes. (A fact I learned from a book on companion planting entitles "Carrots Love Tomatoes"). We tried it last year and had hands down the best carrot crop we ever have grown.

Whist I am doing some encouraging, I encourage you to go check out and to follow Seth on Twitter: @baconfestchi
Earlier today, Seth and I had a very productive lunch meeting at Hot Doug's, and I don't say that only because we both enjoyed a Foie Gras and Sauternes dog. The Chicago BaconFest team is going to be a huge ally in the spreading of love for heirloom tomatoes and heritage breed pigs come the fall.
They shall speak for generations about the @HotDougs Summit o... on Twitpic
R to L - Seth Zurer, Hot Doug himself, Damien Casten

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Honey Coop's Sweet Summer Solstice Party

Chicago TomatoFest's host, partner, and supplier of delicious local honey The Chicago Honey Coop is throwing a Sweet Summer Solstice party this Friday night, June 19th. Few organizations in Chicago have done as much with so little to promote urban agriculture, good food, and a vibrant local community than the Honey Coop. The Solstice Party, being thrown in conjunction with Slow Food Chicago, has as a goal to raise $10,000 that they will use to begin raising their very own honey bee queens, which will in turn make the coop a more sustainable local venture. At present, the Coop buys queens from folks in the southwest where the climate is warmer and the bees winter over without dying in the Chicago cold. This money will go towards keeping the colony alive and healthy here in Chicago, avoiding the annual costs of transport and repurchase of the queens.
From the Coop's blog: Only $15 per person ($10 for Co-op and Slow Food members). Bring a dish to share and a chair to sit on. We'll also be holding a raffle with great prizes including a private tour of the City Hall rooftop garden and beehives, a dinner for 2 at Brasserie Jo, a Joe Breezer Itzy folding bicycle, organic/biodynamic wine from Candid Wines and more. Reservations are required. Find out more here - Slow Food Chicago
Sadly, it does not look like anyone from Candid Wines can be at the event as Friday night is the same night as our fundraiser with Chicago Public Radio's Sound Opinions team and Clandestino. We'll be having a great time pairing wine and food with five decades of Chicago music. If you are interested in that event, details on the menu are here. To buy a ticket, visit the Sound Opinions page.

Monday, June 15, 2009

How we stake tomatoes

A visit to the Scherrer Vineyard in the California's Alexander Valley a few year's back provided the inspiration for my current trellising system. Pictured at right is octogenarian grape grower Ed Scherrer's trellising system. Ed treats tomatoes like vines, saying "they want to grow up, so let them".

His trellis is a fairly simply tacked together wood and metal fence of sorts. There are a few keys to its success:

1) Each stake is firmly anchored into the ground (buried roughly 8-12 inches). As the vines become heavy with fruit and thick with leaves, they risk toppling the 'fence' under their weight, and can act as sails, catching lots of wind. Deeply planted stakes help to solve this problem.

2) The cross bars are firmly attached, but the work they do in supporting the plants is minimal. The plant is directed back in towards the fence with a long string tied to one end and woven through the fence as the plants grow. Having multiple levels of garden string that begin near the base is key. Waiting to tie the plants to the fence once they are too big creates pressure that can cut the stem. As they grow, this means a new string once every ten days to 2 weeks.

3) The fact that the plants grow up means that the fruit is exposed to wind, which helps prevent rot after a rain, and of course avoids contact with the soil.

Here are the fences we have built and used for the past three years. Next year, they will need to be replaced.

We move them into a new bed each year in the interest of crop rotation, and because it allows us to scope out the ideal spot. We are fortunate to have good room in our raised beds and we can experiment with a north / south vs. east / west alingment. This picture is north / south, and it appears to be doing quite well.

One other development this year is the addition of metal labels for each plant. We have a habit of either losing tags or having the marker wear off over time. Using a home labeler, my folks made metal labels this year that are attached to the wood in the fence above each plant.

This might be the best new addtion to the garden this year.

Whapsipi what?

Wapsipinicon: Tomato, River, and History lesson.

When there was still snow on the ground and TomatoFest seemed as far off as outdoor bike rides, I selected the Wapsipinicon Peach from the Baker Creek Seed catalogue as one of the few experimental tomatoes to grow this year. Selecting a reasonable amount of new breeds to try is one of the greatest challenges I face during the seed buying process. Each new plant might be the best I have ever grown, or maybe, even though someone else had great success, it might be a bust in our climate. In order to find out, I have to cede the garden space of at least one tried and true variety, which must be akin to the feeling a gambler has when doubling down at the Black Jack table. No one ever seems to understand the anguish this causes me.

The Wapsipinicon Peach made the cut for a number of reasons. First, it is a "peach" tomato, which means it looks and feels a bit like a peach; fuzzy and light orange, yellow. Diversity of flavor, texture and color is important to me. Second, it looked like many people have had great success with the variety, calling it a "favorite peach" and "great addition" to their collection. Reading with my blinders on, I completely ignored the references to where the tomato is from and focused only on flavor and color.

With this backgroung in mind, I almost fell off my bike this weekend at the Tour of the Mississippi River Valley (Tomrv) when I crossed the Wapsipinicon River, a tributary of the Mississippi. In less than two pedal strokes, I went from thoughts of cadence, mph, my right knee, and nutrition, to thoughts of peach tomatoes, and the hopes that I have that this variety will prove to be an annual member of the garden. offers this brief description of the "Wapsie" as well as an interesting collection of old photos.

The Wapsipinicon River (locally known as the Wapsie) is a tributary of the Mississippi River, approximately 225 miles long, in northeastern Iowa in the United States. It drains a rural farming region of rolling hills and bluffs north of Waterloo and Cedar Rapids.

It rises in northern Mitchell County near the Minnesota border. It flows generally southeast across rural Chickasaw, Bremer, Fayette, and Buchanan counties, past Independence and Anamosa. Along its lower 25 miles it turns east, forming the boundary between Clinton and Scott counties. It joins the Mississippi from the west approximately 10 miles southwest of Clinton.
The name of the river in the Ojibwe language is Waabizipinikaan-ziibi (river abundant in swan-potatoes), on account of the large quantity of arrowheads or wild artichokes, known as "swan-potatoes", once found near its banks. Severe flooding on the river in 1993, as part of the larger floods in region, caused widespread damage to the surrounding cropland.
So I unintentionally purchased, planted and then sold all sorts of plants named after a river that is in turn named after a wild artichoke. Too cool. I'll be playing with recipe ideas for artichokes and Wapsipincon Peach Tomatoes and would love to hear from those of you who purhased a plant. I am thinking of grilling the artichokes to match the sweetness of the tomato. Perhaps some sort of BLA sandwich? (Bacon, Wapsie Peach, and Artichoke). Sounds like it would need a really good foccacia, maybe with some black olives. Or perhaps a quick fresh pasta with Artichokes, olives and Wapsies? How about artichokes with a roasted Waspie mayonaise for dipping? The possibilities seem endless. Let me know what you come up with...

An update from the Barras

Following a terrific visit from Martha and Charlie Barra during which they were more than happy to support my non-traditional schemes (not many winery owners come to Chicago in order to sell tomatoes), I just recieved this update from Martha in Mendocino:

Here's a funny one for you. After seeing Damien's brother's (and parents') gardens, Charlie came home really jazzed. So, Saturday we had three employees here working in the yard. He planted four more really huge tomato plants, beet seeds, squash, etc., all just in case someone from Chicago came to visit!

I am not sure Charlie needs much inspiration to grow anything, but we sure appreciated his help last weekend chipping branches and mulching out in the Western Suburbs. Martha and Charlie will keep us posted with pictures of their garden and tomatoes as the plants grow. With luck, I, or someone from Candid, will make it out to Mendocino this summer for a closer look as well. Amazing, the power of TomatoFest, no?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Uncommon Tomato Sale

(L to R) Greg Powell, Candid Wines, Martha and Charlie Barra, Barra of Mendocino

Close to 150 more heirloom tomato plants found their ways into the hands of Chicago area gardeners, chefs, and community garden organizers at our Uncommon Plant sale on Friday, June 5th. Special guest Farmers Charlie and Martha Barra joined us to offer insights and experience, and $400 was raised for Slow Food.

We had a few plants that remained unsold at the end of the night, and they were donated to a community garden group on the North side, to the gardeners at Uncommon Ground's rooftop garden on Devon, and finally to a few local friends who were willing to trade smoked brisket and good wine for a plant or two.

Now that the plants are sold, the real work begins. As your tomatoes grow, please send questions, comments and pics. We'd love to share the experience of growing tomatoes across Chicagoland, and we look forward to tasting the fruit of your labor at TomatoFest at The Honey Coop in September.

All of the pictures in this post come from Mr BrownThumb. Before our first sale this year, I had never met Mr. BrownThumb, but his blogs, his advice, and his photos have rapidly become an important part of Tomato Fest. Check out his good work at the link posted above.
Stay tuned! The best is truly yet to come. We are planning for our Heirloom BLT fest in August at Chicago's best restaurants, as well as TomatoFest itself.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Buy a plant, meet a legend in Organic farming!

We are thrilled to announce that organic farmer and pioneer Charlie Barra from Mendocino, California will be helping to sell Tomato Plants at Uncommon Ground on Devon this Friday night. In addition to offering thoughts on keeping your tomatoes alive, we'll be sampling the wines he grows as well.

Charlie Barra's (right) first crop was in 1945 when he was just as a junior in High School! Today, the family owns and farms 200 acres of certified organic vineyards in Mendocino and was one of the earliest adopters of organics in the region. His family produces wines made from organically grown grapes under the Girasole and Barra labels (proudly distributed by our company, Candid Wines in IL).
We will have the Girasole Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir available to taste. Please stick around for the Uncommon Ground Friday Farmer's Market that will be happening all around us. Bring a sac and a few extra dollars to take advantage of this terrific new addition to the Chicago Farmer's market landscape. There will be fresh produce, live music, and an all around good vibe.
Those of you who attended TomatoFest 2008 will remember that along with Goose Island, Girasole was the adult beverage sponsor of the evening. We are thrilled that the timing worked our for Charlie and Martha's visit as we get plants in the ground this year.
As a reminder the sale starts at 4:00. If our experience last time is any indication, those of you with your sites on a specific variety should arrive early!

Monday, June 1, 2009

No Sale at Green City Market this week

Slow Food will have a table at the Green City Market this week, but they will not be selling plants. If you are looking for a plant, you'll have to meet us at Uncommon Ground on Devon on Friday afternoon. We will have all of the plants at Uncommon and will look to sell them all on Friday.

Again - no sale at Green City Market this week, but lots of plants at Uncommon Ground on Devon on Friday!