September 3, 2015

The Magic of Minerals

By Jonas Phillips, Co-founder, Green Generations, Inc.

Throughout history, minerals have played a critical role in the development of living things. Without them, life could not exist. Volcanic eruptions have scattered valuable minerals from deep within the Earth for millions of years while wind, rainfall, and rivers helped redistribute them to areas around the globe. Glaciers also played a major role throughout the Ice Age by pulverizing rock and blending it into the Earth’s soil. This has been nature’s way of replenishing itself. However, over-farming, erosion, and other factors have resulted in a significant reduction in these valuable essential and beneficial minerals over the past few centuries.

Impact on Human Health

Because of mineral depletion, the important nutrients needed to maintain optimal health are not nearly as available as they once were. A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that between 1950 and 1999, the amounts of calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and vitamin C have decreased considerably in 43 varieties of fruits and vegetables. The study also concluded that this decline could be linked to farming practices which favor large growth over nutrition [1].

Minerals are the building blocks of health and are present in virtually all of the cells in the body to help ensure that our internal systems function effectively and efficiently. Minerals assist the body in building new tissues, balancing pH, releasing energy from food, and regulating a variety of other body processes. If minerals are significantly depleted or no longer available in the soil that is used to grow our food, plants, and ultimately those consuming the plants, will be lacking these minerals as well.

Nutrients & Minerals

Many growers are quite effective at adding nutrients to their soil. Composting and cover crops play an important role in a healthy soil program. However, growers often times either overlook a critical component of the equation which is proper remineralization, or inadvertently categorize it with adding minerals such as lime that are primarily utilized to balance pH levels in soil.

According to an 1999 study published by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services [2], sixteen nutrients are considered “essential” to plant development, and six of those are minerals – boron, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. There are dozens of additional beneficial elements utilized in very small amounts that are nonetheless key contributors to plant and soil health. If the proper minerals do not exist in the soil, plants cannot achieve their full potential. In the case of edibles, this lack of minerals translates to lower nutrient-density.

Benefits of Remineralized Soil

The good news is that even the most depleted soils can be re-mineralized to become fertile and produce an abundance of healthy, nutrient-dense food. Plants produce vitamins, amino acids, and varying amounts of fatty acids if they are grown in soils containing abundant minerals. Microorganisms, which also play an important role in healthy soil, feed on minerals and organic matter to create humus, humic acid, potassium, phosphorus, nitrogen, and other trace elements. Remineralization helps promote the symbiotic relationship that exists between plants and the microorganisms in the soil.

Remineralizing Your Soil

There are a variety of minerals available to help amend and remineralize your soil. Some of these are also commonly referred to as “rock dusts”. Unlike traditional fertilizers, many rock dusts cannot be metabolized by plants in their current form. The microorganisms in the soil process the minerals and makes them available to plants in a usable fashion (similar to how worms help turn compost into natural plant fertilizer). The plants take what they need when they need it and the rest remains in the soil until depleted.

AUA Article Image

This waterfall cascading over a rock outcropping is one example of how minerals are naturally redistributed into the Earth’s soil. If you don’t have a waterfall nearby, you may want to consider other remineralization techniques.

Minerals can be applied to the soil at any time throughout the year. The most common applications occur during spring planting and bed preparation or fall bed clean-up. A winter application, on the other hand, will utilize the snow melt and rainfall to help naturally work the minerals into the soil for the spring growing season. A summer application will begin providing benefits to your late-season harvest or fall flowers and blooms. Remineralizing the soils of indoor plants is also a good practice as the root systems are much more limited in terms of space, microorganism in the soil, and available nutrients. Yards and turfs can also benefit from minerals by helping improve root development, reducing compaction, and improving drought tolerance to help create a healthier lawn and soil structure. With lawns, an excellent time to apply minerals is immediately after an aeration or just prior to laying new sod. For more established lawns, a simple top-dress works just fine.

If you haven’t already, try digging a little deeper into soil remineralization to see how it can benefit your soil, plants, and life above and below the soil’s surface.

[1] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss
[2] http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/pdffiles/essnutr.pdf

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August 14, 2015

A New Day for Composting in Chicago

Photo by Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune

Photo by Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune

After working with the Mayor’s office, the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC), the Chicago Food Policy Action Council (CFPAC), and many other stakeholders for more than two years, AUA is pleased to announce that composting in Chicago has made a big leap forward. The City Council recently passed amendments to Chicago’s composting ordinance that will finally allow community gardens and urban farms to accept and compost food scraps and other organic waste generated offsite. The amendments will also make it much easier for nonprofits to start community composting centers.

Until now, Chicago farms and community gardens weren’t permitted to take kitchen scraps or yard waste from their neighbors or accept larger quantities of organic waste from nearby businesses. Steep permitting fees made establishing and maintaining full-fledged composting facilities in the city almost impossible. As a result, the prospect of generating enough compost to meet the growing demand of Chicago’s gardeners and farmers was little more than a pipe dream, and city dwellers – especially those with little to no land – found themselves with limited options for keeping easily compostable materials out of the waste stream.

With the recent passage of Chicago’s new composting rules, these obstacles have largely been removed while still doing much to address legitimate concerns about odor and rodent problems. We look forward to seeing a growing number of community gardens and urban farms that are able to produce all of the compost they need, and we’re optimistic that our vision for a composting center in each Chicago neighborhood can be achieved over the coming years.

In the meantime, there is work to be done. AUA will continue collaborating with our organizational partners, the Department of Public Health, growers across the city, and other stakeholders to ensure that implementation of these new rules is smooth and successful. We’ll be holding meetings and events to collect feedback and educate people about what the new rules do and don’t allow. For now, we hope that you’ll take a look at the overview and FAQ we’ve been developing. For a more detailed and technical look at the new rules, the actual ordinance can be viewed here.

Tune in to WBEZ’s Morning Shift at 9am this Monday (August 17) to hear AUA Director Billy Burdett and IEC Executive Director Jen Walling discuss the new compost ordinance!

July 16, 2015

AUA Summer 2015 Newsletter

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Click here to read the full newsletter. 

While the tomatoes and peppers might be ripening a little slower than they normally do at this time of the year, Summer is here and more food is growing in Chicago than ever before.

And we’re getting ready to celebrate how far along Chicago’s urban agriculture movement has come with our first-ever Grown in Chicago: Summer Soiree & Showcase! Boasting a gourmet dinner from Big Delicious Planet (named Greenest Caterer in America by the Green Restaurant Association) that features Chicago-grown ingredients, an open bar featuring local and regional libations, an urban agriculture showcase featuring Chicago gardens and farms in a farmers market setting along with 5 major urban ag funding resources to connect with, live music from some of Chicago’s finest jazz musicians, an incredible urban ag/local food-focused silent auction, and even some pretty sweet gift bags, the event will take place at an at an amazing urban farm and raise funds for AUA’s work. This is seriously something you don’t want to miss.

In this edition of AUA’s E-Newsletter you’ll also find:
  • A close look at this issue’s featured urban agriculture project, the Peterson Garden Project
  • The 3rd installment of our series celebrating 2015, the International Year of Soils: The Magic of Minerals
  • A featured post from AUA’s blog about gardening on a budget
  • Easy steps to get your garden or farm on the Chicago Urban Agriculture Mapping Project
  • A recap of our successful Spring Gathering last April
  • A report on our Bugs, Bees, & Biodiversity Urban Agriculture Field day
  • The latest from our Working Groups, which have a great deal of progress to report on

Click here to read more.

Huge thanks to all of the wonderful Connections Working Group members and other volunteers for contributing to this e-newsletter!
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July 14, 2015

Gardening on a Budget: 5 Ways to Stretch Your Dollar

By Kathlee Freeman

The benefits of gardening are huge, including increased time spent outdoors, fresh fruits and vegetables, connections with neighbors and the community, and a way to relax and unwind. However, as they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch (even if it’s grown). Here are some things to consider that will save you time and money on your next gardening project.

1. Plan ahead. Like any project, planning ahead for costs can help avoid a lot of headache and overspending down the road. Consider not only the cost of the plants or seeds, but other expenses. Will you need to purchase soil? Will you need any containers? What about structures to keep animals out? What will it cost to water your garden? All of these can sneak up on an unsuspecting gardener, leaving them with a bigger bill than anticipated. Here is a great list to get you started!

2. Start small! Once you get the gardening bug, it’s hard to stop. A few tomato plants can turn into grand plans quickly. But, if this is your first season, start small and build up. A few containers or a small plot can take time to maintain, especially if you’re still learning. Also, some plants are much easier to grow than others. Take your time and learn what works best for you garden before you invest a ton of money in supplies and plants.

Egg Carton Garden

Recycled egg cartons are a great option for seed starting. (Image via Flicker User min.dy)

 3. Use recycled containers to start your seeds. This tip will get you looking at your trash in a new way. Everything from egg cartons to folded newspapers can be used as seedling containers. It’s also a great way to prevent more trash from winding up in landfills.

 4. Swap, borrow, or split costs. There are some things that you will have to shell out money for. Equipment like tillers, spades, soil, and seeds or plants are necessary, but don’t always come cheap. To save costs, consider going in on the items with a friend or, for equipment, borrowing. You can always offer a portion of your harvest in exchange for borrowing supplies. In the same vein, instead of buying new seeds, save them from season to season. Looking for something new? Trade seeds with a friend. If you’re in short supply of someone to swap with, the Chicago Botanical Gardens, Chicago Community Gardener’s Association, Peterson Garden Project, and the Southside Organic Gardeners Seed Swap all host annual seed swaps. Also, don’t forget about seed libraries and the Great Perennial Divide, where you can snag some great seeds and plants for free.

5. Compost. Composting is a great way to reduce greenhouse gases and trash by converting waste into fertilizer, all while saving money. If you’ve never composted before, there are a few upfront costs and things to consider before you get started. You’ll need the actual compost bin (you can make one yourself or buy one) and you should choose the location of the bin carefully. If you would like to learn more about composting, check out the Garfield Park Conservatory, where free weekly composting demonstrations are held on Saturdays through September.

Keep these tips in mind and you will be sure to save a few bucks. Happy planting!

Kathlee FreemanKathlee Freeman is an advocate for just food systems and sustainable agriculture. In addition to working in nonprofit development and marketing, she is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Food Tank: The Food Think Tank. She received her undergraduate degree from DePaul University and is currently pursuing her graduate degree at the University of Missouri – Columbia.