Thursday, January 21, 2016

Landscape history the car wash.

I suspect there are quite a few people who, when they learn of my occupation, imagine that I am spending my days in forests and meadows, surrounded by the glories of nature. Yes, I sometimes do have those moments, but the majority of my time is spent working in locales that are far more familiar to any of us who lives in urbanized places.  During this past week my travels brought me to possibly one of the most unlikely places I’d expect to get a lesson in landscape history: a car wash.

I was asked to do perform a tree inventory for the parcel of land the car wash occupied. The lot was surrounded by very busy, high volume roadways. The purpose of the inventory was to help assess the existing conditions there - a part of the permitting process.  When I arrived on the site I expected a run-of-the-mill survey of species that one encounters all the time in such built up places.  And while it was true the car wash trees were types that were (mostly) common this particular assemblage provided a remarkable miniature study of local urban forestry issues that any tree geek would appreciate.

There are times when one can divine a landscape’s history by looking at what is growing there. The car wash landscape - I’m guessing - was planted in the 1970’s or 80’s.  The older trees were all in the 10-20 inch diameter range, and like species were all pretty much the same size, which likely equates to age in this case.

There was a group of leggy Austrian pines growing too close together, planted too near the neighbor’s building that had all been limbed up out of necessity.  When they went in they were probably cute, but they were thin now, their crowns stunted.  On the other side of the lot were a line of Green ash trees that were all in the 14-17 inch diameter range. They were all decimated by Emerald ah borer, and the only living thing on them now were suckers - slender branches that the tree shoots out in a final desperate attempt to survive. One could see that, in their day, these had made up a really nice row of trees. 

There were other normally reliable species such as crabapples, hackberries, and maples that were in various stages of decline.  One could see the usual signs of a tired landscape: insect infestation, poor management (pruning, etc). It is a car wash, after all, not a public garden.  Of the planted trees, the handful of hackberries seemed the most durable, but even they had witches brooms - signs of distress that I’m guessing may been a symptom of air pollution and/or salt spray damage. 

Of all the trees on the site the ones that seemed the most vigorous were the handful of White poplar trees. This is a species that is normally seen as invasive and even somewhat weedy. Nurseries don’t grow them. The poplars that grew here actually were pretty happy in this otherwise harsh setting - along roadways that, according to IDOT, carry over 60,000 cars per day. Perhaps these are the urban trees of the future?

Possibly the most interesting find for me was the sight of a battered, nearly dead, Russian olive tree hidden in a neglected corner of the lot, on the edge of drainage ditch. Russian olives are a species that was once promoted as one that would attract wildlife. They could still be seen around Chicago pretty regularly in the 1980’s, but even then they were fading fast.  Another introduction that was a bad idea, they either became invasive in places, or unreliable in others (i.e. Chicago).  I see them now rarely, maybe once a year. 

This car wash - of all places - would be a great field visit stop for my plant ID students. It’s all here on display: good and bad planting choices; invasive plant and insect species; all knitted together on a landscape that is likely going to be wiped clean and started anew. It’s good to remember that these trees, when installed decades ago, would have been seen as a pretty solid and durable choices. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this otherwise anonymous landscape.

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Winter's Ramble....

One thing that social media can do is bring together those who can share mutual interests.  And so it was last weekend when five otherwise bright people defied the winter cold  - even by Chicago standards - for a January hike along Lake Michigan.

Our merry band kicked off what will hopefully be monthly excursions to explore the natural world that sometimes seems hidden in our urbanized world. I thought that our leaders made a splendid choice for an inaugural trek, as the dramatic Lake Michigan shoreline is anything but hidden from a visual standpoint. We met at midday at the north end of Lake Shore Drive and headed south.

Totem pole :: Chicago (2016)

Cold cold cold cold cold.  So we shoved off - moving briskly. There seemed to be general agreement that the bright sunshine and the wind at our backs made for an overall lovely day.  One flock of gulls were tucked into snow covered sand - which was an odd sight that I had never seen before. The scene also included about ten pigeons who were foraging over the sand demonstrating that we were at least as clever and hardy as these avian neighbors.

Sun, surf, sand, snow, seagulls :: Chicago (2016)

Sun, surf, sand, snow, seagulls :: Chicago (2016)

The lake itself was choppy, and when we walked further south waves the color of weak cocoa were breaking over the concrete seawalls. Spindly plants that grew out of the fissures in the concrete were covered in new ice. We followed the path south, and soon we were upon Montrose Harbor where there were quite a few dogs (and their humans) cavorting on the dog beach.   We trundled through the dune lands around the Magic Hedge, and as we made our way around the harbor we spotted Buffleheads and Mergansers sharing the waters with the Canada Geese.

Chicago (2016)

The shoreline gradually swept away and the skyline of the city came into full view. There were times when I felt like we were exploring an alien world, but soon we would pass by various sculptures, giving us clues as to makeup of the civilization buzzing across the Outer Drive. 

Amidst frozen ripples :: Chicago (2016)


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

When life gives you sleet.....

Some people build snowmen, but I took a little break from chopping through layers of frozen sleet to build the only inukshuk on the block - to add to our holiday displays:

Cook County, IL :: 2015

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mark Your Calendars

Monday, December 21, 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My Conflicted Harvest


It’s a hell of a thing when we live in a world where we have to erect fences to keep the vegetables safe from....I'm not sure who.This was among my initial thoughts as I pulled up to the urban garden that had been built on the site that used to be occupied by the Robert Taylor Homes. I toured the site along with my grad school classmates, and I’d been looking forward to the visit as I’ve also occasionally taught a lot of the concepts of urban gardening to my students.  The reasons that many (myself included, from time to time) have advocated for urban farming – gardening, really – are numerous. You have possibly heard of many of them. They’ll include:

  • City people (especially the little kids) don’t know where their food comes from, and this is wrong.…
  • There’s going to be something like 9 billion people on Earth by 2050, and we’ll need more food to feed them.  Urban gardens will help feed them..
  • Many people have crappy diets, and they eat a lot of junk food. The concerns are that this will lead these folks to serious health problems in their future. “Urban” gardens will also help to mitigate this issue. (I’m left wondering what sort of gardens will develop in rural areas – where the diets are often equally crappy, yet land for growing veggies is all over the place)….
  • We need to develop local food networks in order reduce the need and costs associated with shipping food all over the place – and to facilitate the previous points. I guess there is some logic to this, as cities are certainly where all the people are….
  • Urban gardens – as a practice – will foster a new generation of urban farm businesses that will grow food that people want. They will also provide jobs to people in areas where employment options are often very thin….
  • Because there are these things called food deserts in the poorer parts of our cities. (Again, I’m left wondering what sort of food options will develop in rural areas – where grocery stores are often spread out across vast distances too. At least there is lots of vacant land if someone wants to build one)….
  • Oh, and, many of these above listed goals must be sustainable over the long haul….
  • Lastly, and most importantly, (in my mind anyway) is that urban gardens have the potential to get food into the hands of low income people that could really use it….
I’d arrived with a hopeful and positive outlook on what I was going to see and learn, but when I drove away my thoughts were far more mixed. 


The gardens we toured are managed by the Chicago Botanic Gardens, as part of their Windy City Harvest program.  This particular site – it should be pointed out – is not open to just anyone who walks in.  The raised bed gardens are tended by those who have completed their training program first. Afterwards, these graduates are then allocated space to grow crops for a two year period.  Many use this facility as a sort of business incubator, providing food and floral crops for farmers markets and the like. I pray that I’m wrong, but my sense was that the people tending the beds that day were from everywhere but the adjacent neighborhoods.

This property was once the site of the Robert Taylor Homes, and is now, according to our hosts, leased for 100 years by a developer. These gardens were safe for anther few years, but the issue of property ownership is one of the uncomfortable realities of many community gardens. They'll often exist only as long as there is a benevolent land owner that lets them scratch around the soil until they can sort out what to do with the site.  

The way these gardens were constructed was a model of impermanence. All the planting beds were raised, built over the existing grade – the remnants of demolished housing towers. The hoop houses, the requisite compost bins, and tool shed could all be dismantled, hauled off, or bulldozed in a day by a competent contractor. The garden operation will be sustainable until someone wants build a shopping center,or townhouses, and then that will be that. One can only hope the development will have a grocery store where people can buy some food.


On of the admirable goals of this operation was the plan to deliver crops to those in the city who get assistance to buy food.  Residents could obtain vouchers to exchange for produce sold at local farmers markets. We were told that, unfortunately, this program was under-utilized for what sounded like a number of bureaucratic structural reasons. Also, it seemed that simply getting to a farmers market isn’t as easy as one might hope.  Inspired, I asked why people couldn’t simply exchange vouchers for produce directly from that facility.  I later realized that much of what was grown there was said to be delivered and sold at farmers markets in tonier locales such as Hyde Park, Rogers Park, and so on.

During the course of our visit there was an implication that there was tension between the gardens and the neighbors. Hard to imagine why there would be resentment when a bunch of high minded outsiders come into town and get to garden in lovely plots (built for them for free) all of it protected by a substantial chain link fence. During the tour, I picked up that one of the garden businesses was named “garden anarchy” – or such like. Yeah! Stick it to the man! How easy it is to proclaim anarchism (over craft beer, I’m betting) when the whole shebang is subsidized by the largesse of a developer and wealthy donors.  Heaven forbid that a real anarchist should take a pair of bolt cutters to that fence.  


Okay, so maybe it’s me who has the problem.  And, okay, maybe all of our goals (see Part I) aren’t exactly being met – but isn’t that still better than doing nothing?  How can I complain about a garden rising from the ashes of a failed housing project? Aren't the people working there trying to make a difference?  Am I a little jealous that I’m not a self-proclaimed garden anarchist? 

I recall once reading about how urban gardens facilitate gentrification. When I’ve mentioned this to colleagues I’ve gotten either hostile or muddled responses.  However, when I see stories like this – this connection may not be all that imaginary. I can understand why local residents might view the sight of hipsters tending beds of kale as a harbinger of hard times ahead. 

Taking all of these things together, I’m just not sure what the purpose of these urban gardens is. I don’t think they are the most effective long term solution to the very real problems of food and hunger in the world.  Perhaps they are best at getting people out, in the sun, and talking to one another. During our tour, everyone seemed happy to be there. The summer vegetables were fat and gleaming. Freshly harvested carrots, too stunted for sale, were washed and shared among the visitors. A Red-tailed hawk, swooped and perched for his audience on a nearby power pole. On such a lovely day, inside the fence, the optimism was real, and the gardens were lovely.