Archive for April, 2013

April 29, 2013

Move 200 miles west and take a little of Chicago with you…

Dahinda, IL: A pack of cucumber seeds, which had an ad for a local insurance agent as part of the label, and summers spent on several cousins’ Wisconsin dairy farms sprouted an interest in growing food that has not diminished. The seeds were sent to my Dad as junk mail. He gave them to me and showed me how to plant them. I was about 10 at the time and was growing up in Franklin Park, out near O’Hare. The garden that I started that year, 1975, grew in size over the years to encompass most of our back yard. My interest in growing food was bolstered by the many gardening and back-to-the-land books that were popular back then and by TV shows like Crockett’s Victory Garden.

Photos courtesy of

I wasn’t alone in Franklin Park in my gardening interests. Many of the homes in town were owned by Italians, Mexicans and members of other immigrant groups who also had huge gardens and each of whom had their own tastes and varieties of vegetables they liked to grow. Grown in the dark rich soil of Franklin Park were many varieties of peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, chard, cultivated types of dandelion, and believe it or not, figs that were certainly not available at the local Kmart garden department. As my gardening experience grew I got to know many of these gardeners and they shared both their expertise and, more importantly, seeds for these vegetables that helped expand my world view.

I later started a career, met my wife Julie, moved to Northbrook, and still gardened growing the varieties and the knowledge gleaned from all of the like-minded people that I met in Franklin Park. Later my wife and I moved to a 22-acre farm in Dahinda, Illinois near Galesburg. The current local food movement was ramping up and wanting to be involved, we started farming and selling our produce locally. Although we love living in Dahinda, I felt a connection to the Chicago Area and wanted a way to bring a part of it out here with me. What better way than to grow the old vegetable varieties that I grew way back in the day Franklin Park!

Among these old varieties that I still grow is the Italian cucumber/melon. Extremely popular among the Italian gardeners of Franklin Park the cucumber/melon is commonly known as an “Italian cucumber.” It comes in many shapes from round to long but the most popular seems to be one that is about 4 inches long. It is covered with downy fuzz that comes off when washed. It has a mild cucumber taste and can be used in salads or can be pickled. Plant the seeds as you would any other cucumber, but I wouldn’t plant them until the soil has warmed and the temperature has been above 80 for several days. The people I knew who grew this carried the seeds over from Italy and saved them from year-to-year, however, they are available from several seed companies including Seeds from Italy.

Ital Cuke
Italian Cucumber/Melon
Photo courtesy of Seeds from Italy

Another hometown gardening memory is tomatillos. There are many varieties and this is a commonly found item in many gardens these days. A variety highly touted by many Mexican friends in Franklin Park, is a type known as the “Mexican Strain.” This larger, heavy yielding variety is not as tart as others and makes a great salsa verde. It can also be used in other dishes like authentic chili con carne. The seed should be started indoors, 8 or so weeks before the last frost. The plants are grown similar to tomatoes but are more delicate than tomato plants. Again, my friend’s seeds were brought from Mexico and saved from year-to-year, but they are also available from Territorial Seed Company.

I would be remiss in my boyhood gardening memories if I did not mention two, very Chicago, varieties of pepper. These are the Melrose And the Chicago Sport pepper. Before the O’Hare area was built up it was one of the greatest vegetable growing regions in the country. Around the turn of the 20th century, many Italian immigrants were buying farms in the Near Western Suburbs of Chicago from the German families that had originally settled the land.

These new farmers began many of the truck farms that supplied South Water Market back in the day and include people like Tom Naples, who’s farm stand for many years was a fixture on North Avenue, westof Chicago. One of the peppers grown in the area was the Melrose, named after Melrose Park. It is an Italian thin-skinned type frying pepper that is great on sandwiches, in stir fries, and stuffed. I grow this variety in Dahinda from seed received from a man from Melrose Park. His grandfather bred a larger- than-normal strain and his family has saved the seed ever since. The seeds for the Melrose are available from many seed companies such as Baker Creek and the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and the plants can be found in many Chicago area garden centers. They should be started indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost and set out when the danger of frost is past.

Melrose Pepper
Photo courtesy of Southern Exposure

The Chicago Sport pepper is famous as the pepper used on Chicago style hot dogs. They are easily grown from plants started 6 to 8 weeks, indoors, before the last frost. The raw peppers are somewhat hot and great used in any dish where one would like to pump up the heat. Left to ripen, they can be dried and used that way for their heat-enhancing properties. Dried sport peppers can also be ground to make pepper flakes. These can be used on pizzas and other dishes that call for dried pepper flakes. But to use them on Chicago style hot dogs they should be pickled. Once I gave some sport peppers to a neighbor who promptly put them on a hot dog, not realizing that they are much hotter when raw. She was not pleased with the results! The seeds for the sport pepper can be found through many seed companies and the plants can be found at many Chicago area garden centers.

Although the seeds and plants for the vegetable varieties I mentioned above are available from many commercial sources, the best source of course, is to find a person who grows a variety handed down and saved from year-to-year. They will create a connection to the past, the community, and to the world.

Seeds from Italy:
Territorial Seed Company:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed:
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange:

This was also posted at The Local Beet: Chicago

April 25, 2013

A farmer’s perspective 4/25/2013

Dahinda, IL: It has been cold and rainy all spring. It seems that winter does not want to give up! I have not plated much yet. A couple of rows of potatoes and a few tomatoes in the hoop house. The hoop house took a battering over the winter. The windows that I put up on each end last year, to replace parts blown down during the previous winter, were all blown out by the wind. Even the plexiglas windows in the storm door on the west end!

On April 23rd we brought 4 hogs that were raised over the winter to the Elmwood locker in Elmwood, Illinois. These will be processed for several people who wanted farm fresh pork. My neighbor helped out and provided the stock trailer, and his truck, to transport them. Since my truck gets stuck in wet grass we decided not to use it! It was, of course, rainy and cold and we were knee-deep in mud trying to get the hogs into the stock trailer. They ran in all directions except in the direction of the ramp we set up so they could get into the trailer. Chasing them around was not made any easier by the fact that my feet sank down two feet into very thick mud every where I stepped. I almost lost a boot several times. Eventually they figured out where to go and away they went!

April 25, 2013

Lenny the Llama ?-2013

It has been a tough week on the farm. We lost the patriarch of our farm, Lenny the Llama. Lenny came to us 5 years ago from a woman who rescued him. The previous owner had bought him at a sale barn and had let him roam free in the woods behind his house. That was until he figured out that Lenny was chasing the deer away and planned on shooting him! The woman, who lives in Princeville, IL, took Lenny off his hands for $100 but could not keep him. She place an ad to sell him in the local paper and Julie and I answered it. She said that her family almost called Lenny “Obama the Llama.” This was right after Obama first announced that he was running for President.

Lenny had, over the years, protected our goats and later, the other llamas that we got. He also assisted in the birth of one of the llamas! We have no idea how old he was or what he died from. He was ill over the winter but seemed to be coming out of it. The vet did not know what she could do for him and thought that he was getting better. He was eating and did seem, in his last few days, to be better. He had a heat stroke a few years ago that weakened him but for some reason, also made him less timid toward people. Possibly in this contributed to his passing, I don’t know. He was a stoic and gentle creature that will be missed!