Category Archives: Seed

Spring Planting for 2012 Rooftop Gardening

With weather returning closer to average for April, I’m relieved I didn’t do any premature direct sowing back when the temps hit the 80s (other than spinach that likes cool temps). As recently as last week Chicagoland has received freeze warnings. This coming week looks to be quite warm, but it’s still too early to plant many varieties outside due to nighttime temps still dipping into the 30s and 40s. Even if the cold temperatures don’t kill the seeds/seedlings, it can stunt growth and cause poor performance later in the season.

Potatoes planted in March are thriving on the rooftop- they can handle cool night temps. Turns out, potatoes make great container plants.

Yesterday I sowed several seed varieties indoors. Competing with the high winds on the rooftop and lack of space indoors made growing from seed a challenge last year. Without much space indoors to accommodate proper lighting, it’s difficult to grow hardy seedlings that can then handle the hardening-off transition to outdoors. If we don’t get hurricane force winds and marble hail like we did last year in Chicago (literally) then I may have more success than I did last year.

Strawberries are also great container plants that thrive in the midwest, and despite the harsh conditions on a rooftop. With them getting an early start this year, it looks like we'll have our first crop in May.

Here are the seed varieties I planted yesterday along with the varieties I’ve added to the calendar for direct sowing in May & June:

Late April seeding for June transplants:

  • Cantaloupe (seed saving from an organic store-bought melon)
  • Tomato (Atkinson, heirloom)
  • Green Peppers (California Wonder, freebie seeds)
  • Green Pepper (Big Dipper, freebie seeds)
  • Eggplant (Tiger, Thai hybrid)
  • Eggplant (Chinese long)
  • Sweet Peppers (Shishito)

Plastic produce "clamshells" (left) make good countertop sprouting containers and come with lids to keep seeds warm and moist for quick germination.

Seeds for direct sowing this week:

  • Extra Dwarf Pak Choi, bok choi
  • Pai Tsai, bok choi
  • Tasoi Savoy, bok choi
  • Cucumber Lemon (heirloom)

Seeds for direct sowing when night time temps remain a bit warmer:

  • Malabar spinach
  • Green beans
  • Acorn squash

We’re planning to supplement these seeds with seedlings from a local nursery that sells heirloom organics… especially if the wind mows down my young ones!

Choose Heirloom or Choose Monsanto?

Without jumping too deeply into the political fray, I just want to share a few links that will help home gardeners choose their seed supplier this year. This is particularly timely, with a gigantic class-action lawsuit pending against Monsanto by a collective of farmers and the wild popularity of the movie Food, Inc.

If you want to avoid genetically modified seed varieties while supporting sustainable options like organics and heirlooms, then here is a link that lists which seed companies are owned by or sell Monsanto/Seminis seeds: That link also shares alternative sources for non-Monsanto seeds.

[Note: Seminis is a child company of Monsanto and according to Wikipedia is “the largest developer, grower and marketer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world.”]

In addition, the Council for Responsible Genetics lists seed companies that have signed the 2012 Safe Seed Pledge.

Make your own pledge to stay informed and make your vote (money) count when you make purchases this year. While it may be fun and nostalgic to thumb through the annual Burpee, Jung or Park Seed catalogs, just know that they are all supplied by Monsanto.

Now, hopefully nobody wearing a black suit knocks on my door this week…

[UPDATE] Not 5 hours after I published this post, did the New York federal court toss out the lawsuit against Monsanto. Back to the drawing board.

Planting Fall Crops in Chicago and the Great Lakes Region

Well, the strawberries are loving the late summer heat and putting out some serious runners and fruit. This week I pulled up some ugly looking squash plants that were starting to die back. That gave me space in a few planter boxes for fall crops, including some deep red chard seedlings. I hope to squeeze out every last drop of warmth from the season and harvest right through first frost.

Courtesy of

Mid to late August and even into early September is a good time to plant early harvest vegetables in the Great Lakes region. Some crops will mature before first frost while others can withstand light frost and be productive through October. Chicago can expect an average first frost around October 14th, which is a week later than much of Illinois due to our position on the lake and micro-climates caused by the urban heat effect. That gives us plenty of time to plant veggies with 50 to 55 days maturity.

Vegetables that can be planted now include greens such as chard, collard, kale, spinach as well as lettuces. When it comes to radish, peas, beans, beets, broccoli and cabbage, look for early maturing varieties and plant now. In the northern Great Lakes it may be too late for some of these crops, so check a frost chart for your area to determine how many days you have left in the growing season.

Here are some charts that will help:

First and Last Frost Dates For All States: Victory Seed Co.

The Fall Vegetable Garden (PDF): Purdue University Extension

Illinois First Fall Frost Chart: University of Illinois

Stupice Tomatoes and How I Picked Them

I arrived home from Portland, OR last night to find this beautiful crop of tomatoes all lined up on my living room floor. No, that’s a lie. I put them there just now for dramatic effect:

These are heirloom Stupice tomatoes that I started from seeds purchased from Seed Savers Exchange (where Prez Obama visited last week, I might add). They are early, prolific, consistent and highly flavorful. For an excellent article about picking vegetable varieties, including Stupice, check out Growing Taste. Those folks do the research and taste tests to take the guess work out of which plants to choose.

Some of the tomatoes I picked had cracks or splits in the skin. So, I found this helpful description about tomato splitting over at the Veggie Gardener blog. With the intense heat on the rooftop it can be tricky to provide consistent watering, but I’m getting the hang of the micro-irrigation and I’m on my second battery operated hose timer. Oh, and while I’m thinking about it, I should mention I haven’t used ANY pesticide this year. Fingers crossed.

Lessons for next year… although, not exhaustive of all lessons I’ve learned:

  • Better arrangement of Earthboxes and irrigation drippers from early on in the season = consistent irrigation and less back pain.
  • More plant variety = fewer eggplants. We’ve tried every eggplant dish save for babaganouj and moussaka. Who knew they’d be so productive.
  • Later transplanting = fewer heartaches.
  • Cool it on the eggplant!

Update re: New Urban Grower Chicago Store

Just a quick update this morning before heading out to Taste of Chicago. I was contacted yesterday by the folks at the new Urban Grower store on North Ave. They will not be having their grand opening until mid July. If you marked June 28th on your calendar, scratch that and check their website for updates. They are only having a soft opening this week. Hey, can we get in on that?

Here’s my completely unsolicited wish list for their rooftop supply stock. Anybody care to add anything?

  • Happy Frog potting mix
  • Fox Farm granular fertilizers
  • Regional native seeds
  • Micro irrigation supplies
  • Cold frame kits
  • Vermicomposters

Hope you don’t mind that our gardening fantasies are running wild at your expense, UGC. It’s just that those of us in Wicker Park are thrilled to have an alternative to that gigantic orange store right down the road from you. Best wishes on your GRAND opening!

Here’s what’s growing June 20, 2011

The ridiculous spring winds that ravished the first batch of seedlings seem to be calming as Summer arrives… and that would be tomorrow. The second planting is very hardy, blooming, and in some cases, fruiting. Adequate rain and heat have actually made for a nice final few weeks of Spring. Here’s a peek…






The end of an otherwise cloudy day on “Juneteenth”








The first Opalkas, now about 1″ long.








Not entirely convinced this is a “dwarf” variety of gray peas.








Kind of a sad little Ozark crop this year, but they had a rough spring.








Cilantro from seed in a matter of weeks. I hereby endorse this as another wind-friendly crop that can endure abuse.






The cuke, zucchini and squash plants have been nothing to write home about, but all tomatoes (Stupice, Kellogg’s Breakfast and Opalka) are now thick stemmed and blooming.

Early Rooftop Harvest of 2011

Portland, OR was beautiful as always. My intention was to post some panoramic pictures of the International Rose Test Garden, but their roses did not bloom in time for the Rose Festival. They’ve had strange weather this year, just like Chicago.

And just when I thought all hope was lost on my rooftop, I came back from Portland to find edible vegetables. Despite the wind, despite the 60 degree change in temperature over a 48-hour period, everything survived and without my attention. Is that like “a watched pot never boils”?

The micro-irrigation drip system I bought from Green Thumb Garden Center worked perfectly. I was plenty nervous to leave a faucet running on the rooftop for a week unattended, but between the anti-siphon attachment and the automatic watering timer, it all seemed to run smoothly. Simple set up too- approximately 45 minutes to run the entire system throughout my planters.

There were about 6 green beans ready for harvest. Hey, I didn’t say A LOT of edible vegetables… I had only planted a few beans as an afterthought. The real beauties were the Pai-Tsai, otherwise known as white-stemmed Chinese cabbage or “choy”. The original seeds were not organic but they were grown organically in an EarthBox. I’m letting one plant go to seed and here is what I harvested on 6/12/11:







Here’s What’s Growing 6/2/11

I haven’t been posting much about the rooftop situation out of pure shame and embarrassment. I was mislead by a few nice days in mid-May to think I could plan my SIPs. Then the weather got weird; warm season veggies got too cold and otherwise hardy veggies were shredded by high winds.

Three tomatoes survived and now have stems that could survive a hurricane. Most of the pak choi survived (pictured below). Peas did great.  The rest of the vacancies were replaced this week by heirlooms I bought at Gethsemene Gardens or leftover seedlings I kept indoors. Tomorrow I’m heading to Portland, OR for a week so these babies better learn to get along without me.

Here’s a look at what’s up:




pak choi






SIPs well-staked and bamboo-d




Micro-irrigation kit in place for my upcoming week out-of-town





Very hardy and prolific Dwarf Gray peas





First meal of indoor-grown baby Asian greens



I have a couple hundred amaranth seedlings I’m not quite sure what to do with. Lots of pho’ I guess.




Not bad for an $8 rose bush from English Gardens in Royal Oak, MI, eh?

Unconventional planters and trays

When my seeding and sprouting turned into a major operation last week, I needed all the containers and space I could find to accommodate them. Yesterday I needed somewhere to put my fiber pots where they wouldn’t blow away in the wind when I start hardening them off outside. Here’s the solution: an inexpensive shoe rack from Ikea. Perfect fit!

I even have a boot tray that fits under the shoe rack perfectly to catch drips. If I can just remember where I put it!

As for seed trays, the “clam shells” or plastic tubs that salad greens are sold in work perfectly. They all have lids to keep in moisture and warmth during germination, they let in optimal sunlight, and are reusable. Perfect for sprouting are germinating seeds that don’t mind being transplanted. I keep a baby green mix going at all times in a large clam shell and just cut what I need.

This clam shell happens to be growing Asian mesclun greens from Renee’s Garden Seeds.

Looking for other planter ideas? One of my favorite sources for inspiration is Urban Gardens. Check out the amazingly creative planter ideas!

Finally, an update on the Japanese Shishito pepper seeds I ordered from Kitazawa Seed Co. As  you can see they are thriving and the germination rate is quite high. So far only 1 out of 11 hasn’t sprouted. Have you ever had Shishitos? Look for them in Japanese restaurants where they are often flash fried in oil and garlic. Very mild, tons of smoky flavor, and a much more exciting appetizer than the standard edamame. Japanese grocers usually carry them.

Worldwide Permaculture Network

The Permaculture Institute defines permaculture as: “…an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor. It teaches us how build natural homes, grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build communities and much more.”

Permaculture is a way of life that can be adopted by virtually anyone, anywhere. In developed cultures we certainly have access to the knowledge and the means to implement these strategies, however big or small, from the smallest apartment patio or backyard garden up to the largest corporation rooftop or agricultural production. In developing nations, permaculture design can mean new or improved sustainable ways of living that are mutually beneficial with their environment.

There are many challenges and threats to our relationship with our environment, but I believe permaculturists are optimists. And despite the dismal headline news, there is a lot of good in the world. The goal of the Worldwide Permaculture Network to map the growing network of permaculture projects so we can all visualize just how much change is occurring. And of course to teach us all how we can adopt permaculture into our own lives. This new Network was just officially launched and anybody can sign up for free – make your place on the map.