Julie Cross looks over a row of onions in her backyard garden in Oak Park. Cross' garden is on the Sugar Beet Edible Garden Tour.

The dog days of summer are what I have been waiting for since early April. It’s when I no longer have to daydream about the colors, smells and tastes of homegrown tomatoes. By then, I can grab my harvesting basket and head into the garden to pick that first big, juicy red, orange or yellow one.

Thickly sliced, and with a drizzle of olive oil and basil, that beefsteak is a meal in itself.

But tomatoes aren’t the only warm weather-act at play in my edible garden. Honestly, when I visit my buds in their private and public growing spaces, I am always reminded that for every square foot of gardening knowledge I gain, another green thumber is a yard or so ahead of me.

You see, with gardening it’s impossible to know it all. Especially with the range of new horticultural practices emerging nowadays, including permaculture, aeroponic gardening (e.g. tower gardens), vertical gardening — and the return of the old-fashioned notion of raising goats and chickens in urban and suburban backyards.

Months ago, when I heard that Sugar Beet Co-op was staging its 2nd Annual Edible Garden Tour on Saturday, July 27 in Oak Park, I was intrigued. Frankly, I knew it would be a great opportunity for me to answer the question of our times: “What the heck is permaculture, anyway?”

What composting and vermicomposting are I do know, and practice. As many Oak Park gardeners do, I also use rain barrels to conserve water.

So this Saturday, starting at 10 a.m., I’ll be expecting hundreds of other information-seeking gardeners just like me to be walking through 14 or so private and public demonstration “urban farms” … including mine.

Yep, my “Every Which Way and Up Sustainable Container Garden” is on the Edible Garden Tour this year. As a tease, take a virtual tour of my unconventional growing space, courtesy of Deb’s Big Backyard: youtube.com/watch?v=TxnRaqtH6gw.

Then learn more about what’s planned that day, or buy tickets in advance, via sugarbeetcoop.com/the-latest.php#garden-tour-2013.

“An edible garden can be anything from putting pots on a balcony, growing vegetables or fruit, to people digging up their front yards and growing vegetables there, which I think is just fabulous,” says Jill Cohen Niewoehner, the event’s chairwoman.

Her backyard was a tour highlight in 2012, and it is (and at that time was) bursting with a variety of fruit and vegetables she grows, including “mushroom logs.”

“I have a typical Oak Park backyard with a concrete parking space, so I didn’t want to take up that with a garden,” a blogger at MamaGrows.com told me. “So last year I put a lot of 5-gallon buckets, doubled up to be self-irrigated, and I was able to grow watermelons on my concrete pad, with a trellis.”

Reaching to the sun

In their fairly wooded neighborhood in the middle of town, Julie Olmsted Cross, with her spouse, Matthew Newville, makes extensive use of their property’s margins by growing sweet peas and heirloom tomatoes along their north property line. The vining plants are supported by a 40-foot-long by 8-foot-high trellis system using electrical conduit and polypropylene agricultural netting, which they purchased from a big box store and online, respectively.

“I’ve been experimenting with and expanding upon this ‘wall of food’ concept since moving to Oak Park in 1998,” explained Olmsted Cross, a physicist, and research scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont.

Her backyard is an atypical “kitchen garden” that includes standard as well as less usual Asian fruit and vegetables, in addition to other items “not part of the Western agricultural package,” she says.

Because of the ease of growing it, lately there has been a surplus of garlic.

“This is our third year of not having to buy any garlic the whole year, and we are able to replant from what we grow, so that is a cool thing. But we have reached garlic equilibrium,” she observes, wryly.

Out front are many pollinator-attracting perennials, specifically herbs and berries in curving beds, “reminiscent of topographical lines,” she says.

Both her front and back gardens hold plants specifically for — or to be shared with — birds, pollinators, and her 9-year-old daughter’s gaggle of neighborhood friends, who live “spitting distance from our house.”

“Out front, when the berries are ripe, we say to my daughter and her friends, ‘OK, girls, we have to eat as many as we can now, so help us out.’ And all of them will come over with my daughter and just raid the bushes,” she says, laughing.


A quick bike ride brings us to Mark Pelletier’s sustainable landscape. A certified permaculturist, he has created a “permanent horticulture” homestead designed to take care itself and their family.

Here, everyone pitches in — even the chickens, and not just with eggs.

“Their manure feeds the plants, and in the fall and winter, they do a lot of scratching and digging around when the garden is dormant to mix things up,” the Oak Park architect explains.

As visitors this Saturday take it all in, he’s hoping they’ll ask him questions about the hugleculture beds, the “Three Sisters” companion plantings and those worm tubes and “dynamic accumulators.”

“Our big objective as an organization is to empower and inspire people to choose local food, whether it is from a farmer, local food coop, or their own backyard,” says Cheryl Munoz, co-founder of Sugar Beet Co-op, who hosts another stop on the tour. “People need to realize they have a lot of power over this. So we want to show them the many ways this can be done and connect them with people in the community who are already doing it.”

If you go

  • Sugar Beet Co-op’s Edible Garden Tour
  • Saturday, July 27, starting at 10 a.m.
  • Spend the day learning about backyard agriculture. At peak growing season get a peek inside the edible gardens of your Oak Park neighbors. Master gardeners will be on-hand to answer questions and teach visitors about organic gardening, raised beds, successive planting and more. Cycling from garden to garden is encouraged. Refreshments will be available at each stop.
  • Buy tickets online or the day of the event at Green Home Experts.
  • Co-op members $10, general $12, Kids 12 and under free
  • Start the tour by checking in and getting your map at the following locations:
  • Green Home Experts – 811 South Blvd.
  • GreenLine Wheels – 105 S. Marion St.
  • Buzz Cafe – 905 S. Lombard Ave.

Coming to terms

Permaculture: the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems that have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.


Hugelkultur (or hugelculture): raised garden beds that grow a typical garden without irrigation or fertilization, have been demonstrated to work in deserts as well as backyards, use up rotting wood, twigs, branches and even whole trees that would otherwise go to the dump or be burned. Basically, it’s buried wood.

Hooked on tilapia farming

In the back room of his real estate office at 1009 Madison St., Frank DiFebo, broker/owner of Classic Properties, is operating two things you don’t normally see in a place of business: an aquaponic vegetable garden and a tilapia fish farm that sustainably support one another.


“I got into this by watching a couple of videos on YouTube,” explains DiFebo, one of the public garden stops on this year’s Sugar Beet Edible Garden Tour this weekend.


He purchased an 8-ounce container teaming with baby fish from a Wisconsin-based Internet source.


Currently, DiFebo has much more than a net full of edible tilapia in that tank, growing into someone’s future dinner.


Hydroponically, in a separate tank, are large tomato plants accompanied by basil. Fish water fertilizes the plants and the plants clean the water, which is then recycled back into the fish tank as fresh water.


“I’m also growing a lot of water hyacinths, which float in the water. They have incredible filtration qualities,” he says.


And they grow like, well, weeds.


“Every once in a while, I tear one off and throw it into the tank with the fish, and the tilapia go crazy because they are vegetarians. They don’t eat other fish.”


Currently, his fish farm consists of about 20 tilapia that could be tonight’s dinner. Another 70 fish are maturing, and DiFebo speculates there are about a thousand or so baby fish schooling in that 75-gallon tank.


But who’s counting?


Well he is, so he can explain to others the ins and outs of doing this.


“I am a wanderer, an explorer, an early adaptor and enjoy experimenting all sorts of things,” explains DiFebo, who also makes his own wine. “This caught my eye and everything took off from there. It’s hydraulic engineering, water management, and emerging stuff
like that.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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