Category Archives: vacant lots

massive update

i haven’t written anything since november.

and yet i welcome several new subscribers – surprising given the infrequency.  welcome new subscribers – i hope you enjoy and will provide feedback.

it’s not because nothing has been happening, quite the contrary.  we have been going full steam for the last few months – and it’s only this last weekend that we reached a point at which we could take anything resembling a break.  considering that s threw her back out and have been having to do child care and adult care for the last day or so it’s not really much of a break.

we have been steady working on this house and the yard since we bought the house, but have really stepped up our efforts once we learned that our son had elevated lead levels.

nothing drastic, but cause for alarm. things appear to be under control now, but we have had to take major measures to get them under control.  i’ll likely write more about lead, testing, and dealing with it, later, but in the meantime i’m just gonna update ya’ll on what projects we have done in order to get lead under control.

first was the stripping of paint in areas where encapsulation wouldn’t work.  namely the threshold of the front door.  next was encapsulation – woodwork in the pantry and kitchen had to be encapsulated and then painted to match the other woodwork.  i also encapsulated a couple of walls in the pantry.  they still haven’t been painted yet as i still have some plaster work to do on other walls before we paint the whole pantry.  the hallway leading down to the basement needed to be encapsulated as well, and then painted.

speaking of the basement, as though lead weren’t an issue enough we found out that we had fraying asbestos tile on the floor of the basement.  we paid some one certified to remove it.


my lungs just seemed worth the cost.  what i didn’t think about was all the glue aka mastic that would be left over.  it was a huge pain to get off – taking me weeks of weekends and nights to get it up.  i’m thankful to the following podcast for getting me though it: serial, 99% invisible, radiolab, snap judgement, the champs, and invisibilia.

at least as much time has been spent moving things around the basement, as we had to clear everything out when they removed the tile, and then we had to move it to remove the mastic.  i think that’s what made s throw out her back.

we are now putting the basement back together, and i’m really happy with the way it’s turning out.  it’s making more sense and taking into account how we need to access and use the space.  my favorite part is that we have moved the chest freezer and canning supplies closer to the stairs so when cooking you can quickly pop down to the basement and grab some items out of the larder. larder

in addition to encapsulation and stripping, another strategy for dealing with the lead has been removal.  the back door casing was covered in chipping lead paint, and the door was super drafty so we replaced it.  i could have replaced it myself – but i knew it was going to be serious pain – and i had plenty of other projects to work on, so i also paid someone certified to do that as well.  he told me it would take him a morning.  as expected – it was a bigger pain than expected – it took him until 6 at night.  no more draft! i still need to replace the molding – and since the original was cover in lead paint i bought new stuff – but couldn’t find anything that would match the original, but i think it still looks ok.  door1door2

in the process of replacing the door and molding, we damaged some plaster and realized that much of it was pulling away for the lath.  we wanted to save as much as we could, but some was just to far gone to repair. s and i spent new years eve watching youtube videos on plaster repair and new years day doing plaster repair – we know how to party.  we were really impressed with the ease of use of big wally’s plaster magic – as well as the youtube videos they have to learn how to use the product.  door3

the other major repair project was to put a floating floor down in one of the bedrooms.  it had been painted with lead paint on the floor, and rather than try and remove the paint, we decide the simplest thing would be put a new floating floor over top of it.  i’m impressed with how quickly it went together.  one long day plus a couple hours the next day and we were done, and s is very happy with the result.  super big thanks to my brother in law david for his help. floor

at the farm, the biggest event of the fall for me was starting mushrooms.  i’ve been missing growing mushrooms since i left the farm i trained at over 12 years ago.  i’ve tried to convince folks a number of times to take on the task of growing mushrooms – but it’s never really caught on.  this fall we had a crew from radical mycology come out and lead a beginners workshop on mushroom growing. radicalmycology

we caught the bug pretty hard and harvested all fall and will be starting up a crop of oyster mushrooms again in the spring.  mushrooms

a bit simpler – but equally exciting to those of us obsessed with cycling nutrients – we built new compost sifters.  this is the third iteration of sifters we have been working on – and the big improvement is using slit steel rather than chicken wire.  sifter1

the steel comes from one of my favorite places in detroit: federal pipe and steel. this place is a museum of a hardware store, full of oddball items i can’t find anywhere else.  the staff know just about everything – though they don’t really let on unless you ask.  and the cashiers all seem to be punx.  if you visit you shouldn’t miss out on marcus burger.  it’s the real detroit deal.


this new sifter can accommodate two, count em, two wheelbarrows at once.  i think the slit steel will last a lot longer than the chicken wire – but only time will tell.  i’m happy with them.

on the homegrown front, we have been eating out of the hoop house all winter- at first mostly arugula, but for the last month only spinach and kale.  the big lesson is to plant more kale next fall.  i love having it, but it grows really slow in the winter.  spinach continues to be the workhorse of the winter hoop house – cold, dry, doesn’t seem to faze it, we have had great harvests all winter.harvest

i was hoping for a milder winter, and the temps have been slightly warmer, and snow a little lighter, but we still have been dumped on, almost 20 inches last week alone.


still we prepare for the growing season.  we have already started tomatoes (perhaps a post about them soon)  and sweet potatoes are started on the window sill.


likely way too early, but we all have our methods of trying to stave off cabin fever, mine is starting plants for the next season.

what’s going on with you?


spring on the prairie

i’m not inclined to celebrate the urban prairie.  the stories behind the prairies are all sad ones; full of forecloses, drug wars, failed urban renewal projects, burned down housed, job loss, and insurance company redlining.  so while i don’t want to celebrate the wide open space, i do see their beauty, especially this time of year when the grass is lush and green and has yet to turn brown.  especially this time of year before the city has given it one of its two lousy mowings of the year.  with the huge thunder heads climbing in to the atmosphere last week and creating dramatic contrast of light and dark, it made for great times for exploring.

that is all.

urban ecology bounty of the vacant lot part 2

i feel like i should get postings about classes i facilitate up faster, but it just doesn’t seem to take priority, especially when you have exciting stuff like visiting eliot coleman etc.

i’m part of this group called urban ecology which seeks to expose folks to the ecology all around them in the urban setting.  with that i mind we are hosting the second workshops i call “the bounty of the vacant lot”.  we look for edibles and medicinals as well as those plants that are especially popular with bees and other insects, but we also take some time to think about why the plants we see are what’s growing in the city.

come and join us as we explore the vacant lots, gardens and alleys around earthworks urban farm.  thursday august 12th 6pm to 8pm, we meet at 1264 meldrum, in detroit.  more info can be found here.

elderberries in bloom

the compost pile doesn’t smell good at all. a giant mass of rotten clementines that is buried deep inside of it is constantly emitting its fetid juice.  combine this with the pockets of putrid brew waste and you have a pretty funky smell.  we have learned a lot about working with brew waste in the less than a year we have been picking it up from the brewery, and one of the most important lessons is that you have to mix it really well with leaves or other carbon sources.  if you don’t mix it well it just sits and stinks.  too bad we have a whole lot we didn’t mix well that now we have to uncover and mix, and has been sitting and rotting.

as though i knew how stinky the compost pile would be – we had the great foresight to plant flowers on the berm which have great smells – starting with the roses which are just finishing up and are setting nice hips, and now starting with the elder flowers which are starting to smell absolutely amazing.  it helps to cover up the smell, like a giant incense stick.

elder flowers

elder is better known for its berries – which are certainly awesome – but the elder flowers are also useful.  i’ve got some big plans for the elder flowers this year – fried flowers, elder flower infused mead, and elder cordial.  of course the only thing better in my mind than cultivated food is wild food, and while out on a walk of the neighborhood last night i found a stand of wild elder flowers that i was able to gather from.  i’ll keep you posted.  though posts maybe a while as i need to get a new camera – as mine finally died.  if anyone could recommend a good camera that would be very helpful.


we used to have two tractors; a massey ferguson 365 and a 6n ford.  i spent more time fixing them than i did using them.  while i was actually pretty fascinated to learn more about tractor maintenance and mechanics, the reality was i just didn’t have the time to be tooling on them, and i’d failed to find anyone that felt like being the farm’s official tractor mechanic.

so when someone approached me about donating the tractors to a farm museum i was a little intrigued, and the deal seemed pretty good.  i donate the tractors to the farm museum where folks can check them out every weekend who care about such things, and then they would keep them maintained and fixed and would bring them down for me to use when i needed.  it was a win win.

this past week some of the guys from the farm museum brought the 365 back down along with another tractor to do some tilling, not only at work but also at the georgia street garden, and my friend will’s place.  did i really need them to till the 4 lots i had them till?  no i could have done it with a rototiller, but it was quick, took one less thing off the list, and they did a great job.  and you should see the glee on their faces, big kids on big toys.

the ferguson on the right


the area closet to the greenhouse was nothing but stones – either from a driveway or parking lot.  we tried to pick up the biggest ones, but it was obvious that below the stones – were more stones.  they had asked the apprentices to pick up all the stones so they could run the tiller though it again, and you can see us all picking them up half heartedly in the photo, but i just couldn’t ask folks to pick up all those stones, just too much work, and when would it end?

i’m thinking sheet composting on that area is the way to go, and it can be planted next year.  folks from the field of our dreams mobile market are  planning to use one section to grow produce for their market, the rest will be for more community garden plots.

bounty of the vacant lot – the workshop

a few other folks and myself have started this new skill share group – urban ecology detroit – a space for folks to share info on ecology in the most broad meaning of the word.  we have a facebook page which you can join here. or you can get on the email list if you are that sort – urbanecologydetroit (dot) gmail (dot) com

what is technically the third urban ecology workshop – but only the second as a collective of folks is coming up.  it’s an exploration of the bounty of the vacant lot, working to identify edible and medical plants as well as those that are forage sources for bees, beneficial insects , and other critters.

it takes place may 2nd, at 1pm to 3pm – we meet at hope takes root garden which is located on wabash, between temple and perry, in north corktown detroit.  the fee for this is 5 dollars plus to support the ongoing efforts of urban ecology detroit – but we are not gonna turn you away if you don’t have the cash.

look forward to seeing you all.

pruning fruit trees in vacant lots for dave

warning i’m just telling you now this is  a long one.

today marks the 2 year anniversary of my good friend dave kujawa’s death.  he was one of my favorite people, one of those people i most looked up to, a person who inspired me.  he had an amazing spirit and warmth about him, his hugs always made me feel loved and welcomed, and i always felt he had time for me.  which was surprising because dave had a lot on his plate – forming the infoshop and show space idle kids, booking shows, working on his house, working full-time, planting gardens, caring for his young son.  we worked on projects together, danced at shows and late night parties, had tons of deep conversation around the fire, cooked food not bombs together, and talked about plans for the new world – the one that would be free and just and beautiful for all people.

i remember dave mentioning in the past him having some mental conditions, and i had always wondered if it might be bipolar.  he had that intensity about him that reminded me of others i have know who have suffered from this condition.  a few weeks before he went into the hospital i had drinks with him and remember him sketching out for me on napkins and place mats grandiose plans for the neighborhood we both lived in.  i was a little worried then, but i didn’t say anything.  a couple of days before he went into the hospital i visited him again, he had invited me over for dinner because he and his partner were celebrating their engagement, he was throwing a little party with a couple of close friends.  when i arrived it didn’t look like a party at all, and dave was not entertaining but in the basement.  he had holed himself up, and explained to me all the projects he was working on, how he had it figured out, how it all made sense, how it was all connected.  the diagrams he showed me looked like little more than the scribblings of a 5-year-old – over and over again he had written about how he was his grandfather.  i hoped he was just really stoned, but i knew better.

when i saw his partner k later upstairs i looked deeply into her eyes and asked her if everything was ok.  she said yes, that dave hadn’t been sleeping much but everything was ok.  i put my trust in her.  but then things got a little stranger, when i asked her about the party she said she didn’t know anything about it, and no they were not engaged or anything.  i left feeling the massive weight in the house.

a few days later i found out dave had been institutionalized, and there was much confusion as he made phone calls claiming that he had been tricked and force against his will to enter the hospital.  later when everything was sorted out, it was obvious that dave was suffering from a manic episode.  i found myself reflecting back on the last month or so, thinking of all clues i had had, of all the chances to say something, but i figured his partner k could handle it.  i thought back to even to a bit further in the month when ironically he had been to an icarus project workshop, how he didn’t seem to be able to sit still and kept speaking out of turn like a little child.  i found him sitting outside latter laughing at his cell phone.  he told me he was saving messages from friends and would listen to them and laugh and laugh and laugh.  it turned out dave had  never even told k about his illness.  she had no idea what to look for, she was completely caught off guard.

i visited dave in the hospital a few times.  visiting hours were very limited and only 2 people could go at a time , and lots of people wanted to see him.  he lost interest in talking pretty soon so i didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him.  mostly he wanted to see k.

when he got out i visited him a few times, he came over for dinner, i stopped by to see him, but i had to force myself to do it.  it was more like talking with the shell of my friend.  the person i loved wasn’t even there.  he didn’t want to take the meds, didn’t want to go to therapy, and i can’t say that i blame him.  i just wanted my friend back, and there seemed no easy solution.  i was basically avoiding him, because i couldn’t stand the situation.

and then early on the morning of march 23rd, my friend m knocked on my front door.  i thought it strange because m is hardly a morning person and i was up and getting ready for work.  s answered the door and i could see m’s silhouette in the door.  i could feel something was wrong, and then the news was broken to me.  dave had shot himself the afternoon before.

i don’t really remember much about those days after words.  i remember going to belle isle – staring out into the expanse of gray water, watching the ice flow by, a few sea gulls resting on floating blocks of ice.  i remember hugs, an endless line of hugs, it almost never felt like i was not embracing someone.  and my shoulder wet with so many tears.  we went over to dave’s house for a potluck, and i remember toasting him, and walking back home, hardly able to see the sidewalk, the tears streaming out of my eyes so much.  i remember his service, one unlike anything he would want.  i remember the anger and frustration i felt.  i remember the guilt of not having spent enough time with him, because i was too scared to deal with him in his state.  our house became like a bunk house for those that couldn’t stand the thought of being alone.  while it might appear we were doing them a favor by providing a place for them to stay, i was comforted to have more of my community around.

this morning while thinking about dave, i realized i couldn’t really quite remember what his voice sounded like.  it was strange because i think i had thought i was always remember it, and i found it a little more difficult to remember his face.  i guess that’s how people start to fade from ones memory, and i’m not sure if there is anyway to hold on to that.

for the past couple of years a may day bike ride to belle isle has been the form of celebration of dave’s life, it usually ends in total drunkenness, and a big hot mess of  a bonfire.  while i recognize this was a part of dave’s personality, he was certainly down to have a good time, and could get pretty sloppy from time to time, but he was also one of the hardest working people i ever met.  with that in mind, i recommended something in his honor i thought he would like best: a workday.

but not just any old workday, something dave would particularly like – something in his community, something to serve the better good, and something a bit ridiculous  and so it is after over 1100 words that i finally get to the reason for this post – pruning trees in the vacant lots of north corktown.

there are many fruit trees in the city on vacant lots, many of them long neglected, and they can serve as an excellent source of free fresh food, and even better if well pruned.

pruning the apple

we had just started pruning this guy when this picture was snapped.  as you can see it needs a ton of help, and it doesn’t really help that it was pruned into a pretty strange form to begin with.  we could only do so much and so we began with pruning out dead would and then opening it up some.

close to the end of pruning the first apple

we took out a ton of wood, but there is still lots of work to do over the coming year to do in order to get it into a better form.  eventually i’d like to prune it to be lower, but don’t want to take off those major trunks all at once.  still it looks a lot better and i think we will have more to work with next year.

apple tree a vacant lot behind brother natures place

next up was a tree in a lot behind brother nature’s spot.  you can see one of his high tunnels, row cover and various piles of dirt from projects he is working on in the back ground.  this tree has been kept in good shape but is right next to a siberian elm which one of these days i will take out.  mostly we just trimmed out the dead wood and some water sprouts.

after that we uncovered a pear by cutting down a tree of heaven that was blocking it on all sides

the apricot tree

finally we trimmed up this apricot tree.  this one is among my favorites, i love fresh apricots.  they are wonderful to eat out of hand, good for drying, and make a wonderful mead.  the apricot mead i have in the fermenter right now has fruit from this tree.  there is something wonderfully satisfying about caring for a long neglected tree, in a way that pruning a tree that has been cared for every year never does.  i find myself asking questions about this tree, who planted it, what were they thinking when they put it there, what were their hopes and dreams for the tree, why did they abandon it.  i can almost hear the tree thanking me, after so many years of being neglected, i never thought anyone would come back.  i never thought anyone would care for me again.  but you did, and i thank you.

and i thank you dave, for everything you did in your 30 short years.  thank you for your friendship, your inspiration, your spirit and your passion.  i miss you so much, i only hope that i can inspire a couple of people to make the world a better place in the way that you were able to with everyone you touched.  i love you.