February 26, 2015

#AUAFrostyPhoto Contest

With the days already getting longer, growers all over Chicago are looking forward to starting up again in spring. Send us a picture of what your growing space looks like under the ice or how you are preparing for the thaw.

Send your submissions to info@auachicago.org or tweet to us at @AUAChicago with the hastag ‪#‎AUAFrostyPhoto‬.


Frosty Photo


The submission with the most “Favorites” on Twitter will be declared the winner, so be sure to vote and retweet! The deadline for submitting your photos is February 28th, with voting concluding March 13th.

The winner of the #AUAFrostyPhoto Contest will receive 2 12-oz. jars of honey generously donated by the Chicago Honey Coop. A perfect addition to a warm cup of tea for the chilly winter days that remain!


The winner of the #AUAFrostyPhoto Contest will receive 2 jars of honey from the Chicago Honey Coop!




February 19, 2015

No Weeds in Our Yards

How Chicago’s landscaping ordinance can result in big fines and what AUA is doing to help

By Rachel Schipull

Setting the scene

We have all driven by that one house, or know of that one empty lot.  We all know one neighbor that we wish would really keep their lawn a little neater or, at least, use their space differently. There is a certain expectation when you live in community with others, especially in a large community like Chicago, that there will be a level of decorum in the way one’s property is kept. This is not only for the beauty of the neighborhood, but for safety as well. In fact, the City’s Streets and Sanitation’s website gives us a whole list of reasons for keeping vegetation under control: “High weeds can conceal illegal activities, obscure dangerous debris, harbor rodents, serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and West Nile Virus and contribute to allergies and breathing difficulties.” Although this encapsulates possible danger, it does leave the flavor of fear mongering in your mouth; the vast majority of vegetation—especially native grasses—increase drainage in the soil. Tall grasses do not attract mosquitos, shallow, stagnant pools do.


Milkweed is a weed right? Or is it a vital habitat and source of food for the Monarch butterfly?

“Weeds” can mean so many different things to different people. For most people, the definition of a “weed” is as simple as a plant growing where you don’t want it to be growing. For a city inspector, it is technically any non-woody vegetation over 10” tall. The list of weeds for a well-informed naturalist or ecologist may be limited to poisonous plants like poison ivy and invasive species. Most homeowners stick to growing turf, hedges, trees, and designated flower or vegetable gardens, and as long as they keep their lawns cut and their heads down, they don’t have to worry too much about the City’s weed ordinance.

But the seas are changing. There is an increased interest in native plants, attracting pollinators, creating yards that look less like the 1950’s suburban ideal and look more like a place birds, bees, and humans can breathe comfortably without chemicals or aggressive mowing. Local landscaping powerhouses, like Christy Webber, are getting into the market too, selling sedges, native grasses, and other native plants to their customers. This may sound awesome, but those same customers are the ones who are being cited by the city for growing weeds on their property. Weeds? Or native plants? Is the current ordinance too broad or are those enforcing it uniformed? It may be a combination of both.

A cause for action

The “Rules and Regulations for Weed Control” is a three-page document, written in unfriendly legal jargon, adopted in 2008. The meat of this document comes down to the right of the City to fine people if they don’t manage their weeds.  If you want to know how to define “weeds,” this is what the City supplies: “‘Weed’ or ‘weeds’ means vegetation that is not managed or maintained by the person who owns or controls the property on which all such vegetation is located and which, on average, exceeds ten inches in height.”  Well, that seems to simplify an entire kingdom of life down into some really uncertain terms.

It is just this definition that has caused several prominent Chicago home gardeners to be slapped with fines in the $600-700 range, for growing completely native and, in fact, award-winning gardens. Anyone can be charged for growing whatever an inspector considers to be out of line as long as it exceeds the height of ten inches and is not “managed and maintained.” If your neighbor thinks your hedges are hiding a rat’s nest, they can call Streets and Sanitation to come inspect your property. If the City cites you and you disagree with the citation, you must show up in court to fight the citation, and pay the court costs. There is currently no grace period, no re-inspection, and no first abuse warning. If you have “weeds,” you either pay the fine or go to court, where your chances may not be a whole lot better with a judge.

Proposing an updated ordinance

This presents a gloomy outlook for the ecologically-minded home landscaper in Chicago. Sure, you own your property and you are free to plant whatever you like.  You can keep bees and provide them beautiful wildflowers as sustenance, but beware the neighbor that calls you in for suspected “concealing illegal activities” with those clumps of aster and bee balm.  Furthermore, urban agriculture is growing in Chicago. There are many city lots filled with vegetables, fruits, but also cover crops to improve soil fertility. Cover crops are a vital part of promoting a healthy soil biome and making sure that nutrients are consistently available to cash crops year after year.  They also look like “weeds,” especially considering oats, grasses, and some types of clover can get quite tall, depending on the time of year they are planted.  Under the current ordinance, the City is free to fine the farmer for growing legitimate soil-enhancing crops, and is legally able to mow or spray neonicotinoids to destroy them, in addition to citing and fining the farmer. Mowing or spraying, whether on a farm or a vacant lot, can do a lot of damage to our natural biodiversity in Chicago, but under the current ordinance, there’s only so much we can do to protect it.

Thus, Advocates for Urban Agriculture (AUA) is working together with concerned Chicago residents and property owners, many of whom have been fined, to craft a new ordinance. This document is completely different from the brief and uninformative ordinance that is currently in effect. AUA’s Advocacy Working Group comprised of staff, AUA members, and community members, have created a working document that references functional weed ordinances from other Midwestern cities, such as Madison, WI, Green Bay, WI, Eden Prairie, MN, and Cincinnati, OH.

The document has been in the works for several months, and while it continues to be improved upon, I went to their meeting in December and I was very impressed with the level of intention going into the process. The main strength of this document, versus the current ordinance, is that it seeks to define everything. There is no room for grey area between a rose bush “weed” and a poison ivy “weed”; there is a distinction made between turf grass and prairie grass. Finally, there is great work going into defining what people should be fined for, such as what exactly Chicago should consider to be “noxious weeds”, “exotic weeds”, or “invasive plants” and the issue of unmanaged plant growth.

With unmanaged plant growth, the working group is proposing that the City have system of citations and appeals for these issues similar to their system for parking violations. This would require the city to act quicker and give property owners timely feedback, in this case, hopefully with photo evidence of the offence. This would give the owner a number of days to fix the problem or face the fine. The goal is not to create additional work for the city inspectors, but rather make it make the ordinance strong enough and smart enough that people were not being wrongly accused in the first place. Ideally, there would be the opportunity to provide education for inspectors, but that’s not the priority for now.

Prepared to move forward

As is the case with much advocacy work, the people are ready, but the government is not. AUA has cultivated allies in aldermanic offices, but the City Council is had made it clear they cannot move forward with a new ordinance yet due to pending court cases.  The goal of the Advocacy Working Group is to have a finished document ready to present when the City is able to move forward.

There are certainly situations in which the City should be able to cite residences for unmanaged plant growth and dangerous plants, but the current ordinance gets in the way of biodiversity in Chicago. We need a new weed ordinance in Chicago. If you are interested in having a voice in this conversation, you can contact AUA at info@auachicago.org to learn how to get more involved.  


RSchipullRachel is a recent graduate of the Chicago Botanic Garden and Daley College’s Windy City Harvest certificate program in Urban Agriculture. Prior to agriculture, Rachel worked in higher education, career counseling, and did some writing on the side. She currently lives in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood with her partner, cat, and dog. She has great hope for the future of agriculture, food justice, and nutrition education in Chicago. Follow Rachel’s personal blog at http://sustainablyqueer.com/




AUA welcomes blog contributions from Chicago’s diverse urban agriculture community, including AUA members and non-members alike. Since AUA is a coalition of individuals, organizations and businesses that strives to represent the broad interests of it constituency in a democratic and transparent manner, it is important to note that the views expressed on the AUA Blog do not necessarily represent those officially endorsed by AUA. 

February 10, 2015

AUA Winter 2015 Newsletter: Upcoming Events, Project Profile & More!

Click here to read AUA’s Winter Newsletter.

In this edition of AUA’s E-Newsletter you’ll find:
  • Upcoming meetings and events, including this year’s Winter Gathering – the 3rd Annual Urban Livestock Expo!
  • A close look at this issue’s featured urban agriculture project, the Chicago Honey Co-op
  • The first installment of soil-related articles and resources that AUA will be bringing you throughout 2015, the International Year of Soils
  • The announcement of a new Winter Photo Contest
  • AUA’s Fall Gathering Report
  • The latest from our Advocacy, Connections and Resources Working Groups
February 9, 2015

Starting A Worm Bin Indoors

By Stephen Ulman

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils, so AUA will be bringing you soil-related resources throughout the year. To start off this winter right, consider creating a worm bin in your home. 

Right now is a great time to start a worm bin. The depths of the winter doldrums may be upon us, but deep beneath the blankets of snow and frozen soil, life goes on. Soil-building is a year round activity, and by employing the help of some industrious little worms called red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) you can create rich organic compost called vermicast that is great for new seedlings or amending existing pots and beds.

Best of all, a worm bin doesn’t have to take up much room and kits are readily available. Worm bins come in many shapes and sizes, but they all have a few things in common. Worms like it dark and moist, but not too wet. They are voracious eaters and can consume a variety of organic materials. If you have cardboard and vegetable scraps, you can make a worm bin.

A discreet home composting system complete with a tight fitting lid and ventilation holes.

A discreet home composting system complete with a tight fitting lid and ventilation holes.

Your bin should either have drainage holes, or you must be vigilant that it does not get too wet. A secure fitting lid is also necessary to reign in any wanderlust your new pets may have. Determining the size of your bin depends on how much waste you and your household produces, and how much vermicast you want to create. A worm can eat half its body weight daily. So, if you have a pound of worms, you will need to supply half a pound of food a day to your worms. Fortunately, worms are not picky eaters. They will eat just about anything organic, including cardboard, newspaper, and cotton t-shirts. These items take a while to break down, so they are useful as bedding for your worm bin.

For a new bin, you will want to make a nice spongy layer of soaked paper or cardboard (or both) that has been wrung out and ripped into strips or pieces. Adding some outdoor soil will introduce both beneficial microbes and some grit to aid the worms’ digestion. Next, bury in the bedding a variety of food as some things break down faster than others. Coffee grounds, for example, will be quickly consumed. If you add whole fruits or vegetables, make sure to puncture the skin or cut them into smaller pieces, otherwise the worms will not be able to penetrate them until they further decompose. Now, add your worms and cover them with more bedding or a damp piece of cloth to create a barrier that will help retain moisture and keep out flies.

Do not feed your worms any meat, dairy, oils, or pet feces. This is a health risk because your bin will not get hot enough to kill potentially dangerous pathogens. Also avoid adding too many citrus rinds or spicy peppers because they contain compounds that are natural pesticides. Once these break down, however, your worms will voraciously consume them.

Observation is essential for maintaining a worm bin. Check in on your new friends every couple of days to make sure conditions are favorable. Refrain from adding water or food if things look too wet or there are many uneaten scraps. Your worms will eventually reach a stable population relative to the size of your bin and availability of food.

On average, a worm bin takes about 90 days before it is ready to harvest, which will be just in time for spring planting if you get started now. Obviously, a smaller bin will require harvesting sooner than a larger one. If you notice a spike in the number of escape attempts, it may be time to harvest. There are several methods, but the goal is to separate the worms from their castings. I like to harvest my bin a little at a time, picking out worms and undigested food and putting them back in the bin.

If you’re ready to put worms to work for you, check out these resources that can explain things more in depth.

“Composting with Worms,” Oregon State University: ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/23949/em9034.pdf

“Herman the Worm,” University of Illinois Extengion:  urbanext.illinois.edu/worms/

Nature’s Little Recyclers Mini Worm Bins: nlrworms.com/nlr/MiniBin.html

AUA welcomes blog contributions from Chicago’s diverse urban agriculture community, including AUA members and non-members alike. Since AUA is a coalition of individuals, organizations and businesses that strives to represent the broad interests of it constituency in a democratic and transparent manner, it is important to note that the views expressed on the AUA Blog do not necessarily represent those officially endorsed by AUA.