Category Archives: gardening

Chicago Garden Tour

I was in Chicago twice over the past couple of weeks, once on a visit for a few days and then passing through O’Hare Airport with an hour to kill between flights.  Both times I saw the face of the New Garden, fascinating and not always beautiful, but intensely uplifting.

Aquaponic Arugula bed, watered from tilapia tanks, at The Plant

Two weeks ago my son & I had enough time together to spend a Saturday afternoon touring The Plant, a vertical urban farm on the south side at 47th and Ashland.  It is in the middle of the old Stockyards of fame, housed in a 93,000 square foot concrete former meat packing plant.  The interior of this building had been kept at below freezing for over 100 years — imagine that! — and on that chilly April day it seemed to have retained much of its coldness.

A completely visionary and masterful project,  The Plant is midway in its plan to become totally functional by 2015.  I will quote their “About” page here as they can explain things better than I:

What is The Plant? A Farm for the Future.
From its beginnings as a 93,500 s.f. meatpacking facility, The Plant is being repurposed into a net-zero energy vertical farm and food business operation. A complex and highly interrelated system, one-third of The Plant will hold aquaponic growing systems and the other two-thirds will incubate sustainable food businesses by offering low rent, low energy costs, and (eventually) a licensed shared kitchen. The Plant will create 125 jobs in Chicago’s economically distressed Back of the Yards neighborhood – but, remarkably, these jobs will require no fossil fuel use. Instead, The Plant will install a renewable energy system that will eventually divert over 10,000 tons of food waste from landfills each year to meet all of its heat and power needs.

Aeroponic  Garden in Terminal 2 at O’Hare Airport
I had been told by a friend that another urban miracle — or at least, curiosity — had opened at O’Hare Airport last fall, so when I was changing planes there last week I had time to go find it in terminal 2 at the rotunda, where several wings converge.  This garden has been dubbed “Aeroponic”, no doubt in reference to its location, and it was a bright (really bright) and uplifting place to spend an hour — comfortable armchairs around a glowing, cordoned off growing area of 26 tubular columns with plants inserted regularly along their length and water flowing throughout a piped in, closed system.  Not sure about the nutrient source, but the plants grown were to be used at some of the more elite restaurants at the airport (sadly, none of which were close to my gate) such as Rick Bayless’ Frontera outpost there.

Having just visited the grubby, hardworking, and not for profit vision of The Plant 10 days before, this seemed definitely upscale and glam.  Without the tilapia nutrient feed loop, I couldn’t figure out what is feeding those plants: one of the criticisms of hydroponic farming is the expensive nutrients which must be pumped into the water, hence making it less sustainable than the newly coined “aquaponic” culture used at The Plant.

But I can say that the visit was uplifting for me, and provided the sweet frisson of seeing airplanes out the big windows while sitting and watching lettuce grow.

the relevance of the Victorian Kitchen Garden

Over the last six months I have been doing a lot of reading on fairly hair-raising topics concerning the end of oil and climate change.  I take these things seriously though I admit to a kind of hyper-excitement about the direness of all of the predictions.  I have spent the last several months pondering how my art could make any difference at all in these critical times.  How will we survive at all?  I wonder.  What good can art even serve?  Will making more stuff even begin to address the stuff problem that has gotten us here?

The home making part of me has fared better: ah! resourcefulness! self-sufficiency! local food! frugality! victory gardens!  I am inspired by the issues to hand.

And life is so lovely: there is always some serendipity that reminds me of what Jung referred to as the collective unconscious, what others think of as karma or our simple interconnectedness.  So it happened that a couple of weeks ago my partner in ribbon, Edith Minne of Renaissance Ribbons, mentioned to me that she had been watching an old BBC TV series about the Victorian Kitchen Garden, did I know it?  I wrote back that I had used a book, based on an 80’s TV show, The Victorian Kitchen Garden, by Jennifer Davies, as the extensive resource for my series, the English Kitchen Garden, which I wove in the late 80’s.  Yes, that was the series.

The English Walled Garden, 1989, hand woven tapestry

She sent me the link, and I have been able to patch it together on youTube.  What a wonder it has been for me!

It is such a slow and gentle kind of program, dated even by the time of its making, let alone its subject.  A leisurely conversation between two gardeners, lingering shots of beautiful and unusual produce.  But the reality here: the goal of the kitchen garden was, of course, to provide food for the house.  If it was a big house, it needed a big garden.  Little question of anyone of relying upon imported food: one ate what was grown at home.  If one were very rich, and had at hand 14 gardeners, glass houses, and acres of land to till, one could have pineapples brought to table, melons, bananas even.  So what? a trip to the supermarket will get us all that — brought in from Costa Rica or Mexico, whenever we want (at the cost of oil and our climate) — but this was all grown in chilly, grey, rainy old England.  The hunger to impress, to have a variety of stimulating and exotic foods was theirs, as it is ours, but the ingenuity required to perform all of this magic without today’s comforts of ready electricity and plumbing is simply breathtaking.

The Vinery, 1989, hand woven tapestry

This takes me back to my work, then & now, as it were.  In 1988 or so, I witnessed what remained of an English walled vegetable garden at Holkham Park, in Norfolk, England, in the dead of winter.  It was glorious:  patterns of trained fruit trees etched on pink brick walls in the low and golden December sunlight; bluish glassed houses and cold frames with sheltered vines and fruit trees, rectalinear patterns of quiescent gardens awaiting spring.  I took photos and flew home inspired.  I took up the Victorian Kitchen Garden book for reference.

Cold Frames & Fruit Trees, 1989, hand woven tapestry

I look back at that work now, after watching these sweet programs, and wonder at the relevance. Here it is.  I have been reading — and ranting — about year round gardening (per Elliot Coleman’s Four Season Farm, for example).  I have been chivvying up our reluctant gardeners here in the mildest southern Indiana climate to try growing vegetables all winter.  I have been working hard to convince people that our farmer’s market is worth building and worth shopping at.  So I look back at my old tapestries and think,”yes, there is an answer, and I have known it for many years”.

The Root Cellar, 1989, hand woven tapestry

All photos and artwork copyright Laura Foster Nicholson, 1989-2012.

more about writing!

In early January I wrote about my resolution to write more, and draw more, this year, and here it is nearly April, and no posts since!  Shame on me. It has been a massive case of writer’s and artist’s block, I am afraid.

Do you ever have those  times when your head is aflame with ideas, but you can’t seem to get them on paper before they are gone?  The last 3 months have been that for me.  So many exciting things going on here!  I have been working toward making our local Farmer’s Market more stable and bigger.  I have been making “green” household textile items, which I am still not ready to publish but which have given me great pleasure to make.  From time to time I pluck up the courage to learn a bit more about Adobe Illustrator — I make all of my designs in Photoshop right now and am sorely feeling the need to be able to do vector-based designs.  But all of this learning and experimentation is too raw to show and hence I stammer about even talking about it.  I will post one thing now, since I am so happy about our Farmer’s Market development (I don’t mean to take total credit for it as it has been toddling along for years, it just needs to grow). 

Local Tastes Better towel, copyright Laura Foster Nicholson 2011

If you like this towel you can get one for yourself here
(You will need to order it on 54″ wide fabric) 

cheering color

One of the few things still blooming in the garden are the marigolds, which I do love.  Something about their peculiar scent, but also the color.  I am not a yellow person per se, though all of my preferred colors are yellow-based and yellow is the first toner color to run out on my printer…

But this morning I began ruthlessly harvesting all the bright yellow blooms as I am going to try natural dyeing once again.  I have been using a few more dye processes in my weaving lately, and had thought it would be nice to use natural dyes from my land rather than acid dyes from a bottle.  What tipped the scales for me was Dominique Cardon‘s lecture last week at the Textile Society of America conference.  Her talk was titled Natural Dyes: Our Global Heritage of Colors (she gave a site seminar and a natural dye workshop as well, neither of which I was able to attend) and she spoke compellingly of the role of natural dyes both as traditional pollutants and as a way to bring textiles in to a new greener industrial process.   Of course just because a dye is plant based, does not mean it is safe to ingest; the effluent from dyeing has long been a serious environmental problem, largely because of the metal salts used as mordants.  As industry looks toward reinvesting in the old technologies and finds mordants that are safer (alum, for one that I know about) the question also comes out about overuse of plant materials– for example, brazilwood which is now very scarce.  The answer has been to example industrial processes involving agricultural products and lumber by products to find new dyestuffs that  are actually by products of other industries.  All fascinating.

So I have denuded the plants of their brilliant plumage — they may yet bloom once more after this heavy deadheading — and now am spreading the blossoms out to dry on a screen in the warm October sunshine.  I would much prefer to throw them in a pot and boil them up now — I like this process as it is another form of cooking, after all — but I have a heavy workload in the studio right now that can’t be derailed by a new investigation.  So I hope that the yellow from dried blossoms will be as good as from fresh.

visiting Beta Verde

I am happily in North Carolina today visitng my dear friend Margaret Norfleet Neff, who, with her daughter Salem, hosts Beta Verde, an energetic & unique enterprise in growing , cooking & sharing slow food.

Although I have been canning plenty this summer, as usual Margaret & Salem’s energy puts me in the amateur category.  Tomorrow they are taking the pickles & jams they have put up this summer to Winston-Salem’s Krankie’s Farmer’s Market to sell — and what a sight their labor is to behold!  They have a room filled with boxes of gallon, quart, pint, half pint, and itty bitty jams of the most fascinating pickles and jams I have beheld.  I will have to hit the stove again when I get home!  Not to mention the loom — I adore making tapestries of bottled preserves.


I still wonder at the transformation that continues to manifest itself in my life.  After moving to this rural community 4 years ago, we revelled in the garden and it has grown (thanks far more to Ben’s efforts than my own: I am the harvester-cook, not the digger-planter) to a satisfyingly grand scale. But the “back 40”, as I like to call the wild portion of our 1.4 acres beyond the vegetable garden, has slowly gotten out of control.  The first two years we hired in someone to disc & plant it for us, so we had beautiful buckwheat one summer with sunflowers mixed in, then winter wheat the following spring.  But that was expensive and somewhat unpredictable as we depended upon our neighbors with farming equipment to do this for us.  So we gave up the last couple of years and watched it go to weeds.

Last week Ben took the plunge and, after doing his typically meticulous research, bought a secondhand 1950 Ford tractor — beautifully maintained and restored — and several huge attachments including a bush hog.  Who would have thought how utterly exciting I would find this addition!   It means we can now begin to truly shape the land, take control of our own property and make something really wonderful.  I can even imagine learning how to drive it myself.  It is so beautifully simple and straightforward!  It all makes clear sense.  And it is so beautiful.  I drove in yesterday from a week away and saw it sitting in the drive next to Ben’s Subaru and was jsut thrilled. You might remember my earlier posts about tractor ribbons and the tractor parade, so to have a sweet machine of our own like this is fabulous.

This morning in a short space of time Ben jumped on it and bush-hogged (what a word) the weeds in back, and though it is scruffy and ugly at the moment it is now a ripe slate for our visions.  Ben wants to build a labyrinth suitable for riding horses in (something he has been working toward with his sister Cordelia , for the Labyrinth Society Gathering this fall).  I would love to see a field of lavender out there some day. We are this much closer to those visions now.

I should note that Ben is particularly in his element here — a lifelong connection satisfied.  His family was in the farm machinery business as Nicholson’s of Newark, for a century, winning gold medals at the Great Exhibition for their innovative equipment.  Ben was raised in the expectation that he would take over the business, but in the 1970’s the business went under in the dire British economy and Ben went on to architecture school instead.  I hope he will mount the Nicholson’s tractor seat (which currently hangs over the front door) on his new baby.

lavender harvest

For years, I lived in Chicago, where I could not find a lavender variety which could withstand the winter. I have always loved lavender; I have made tapestries about it, filled sachets with it, kept it in my pocket to sniff at odd times. It is highly soothing, as well as cheering.

So now that we live in Southern Indiana — zone 7, I think! — we have been able to plant lavender in abundance. So far it just edges the porch, but I would love to see a field of it beyond the vegetable garden. For the last 3 nights I have been harvesting it, so that it will have a chance at a second flowering. The Provence Lavender came first, with 4 fat bunches; then the English lavender, (which Ben declares to be the finest scent, but then he is nationalistic to a fault), and tonight, the Grosso lavender. It might be the best.

The house is full of its scent; bunches are hanging from a line above the dining table to dry. It is sublime.

(The tapestry shown is called “Lavender” from 2003.)

kitchen ideas

I love making things from out of the garden, and so often these processes have later made their way into my artwork. The last few days have been inspired — first the harvest of our first successful broad beans (also known as fava beans) which have provided several delicious meals so far.
The plants are very architectural, and very different from runner beans or green beans we normally grow. I spent the other morning drawing the plant and the beans, and know this will work its way into a tapestry or a printed textile.
Then last night we went out on a country road where Ben had spotted masses of elderberry bushes growing. The flowers were at peak, and we both are very into a lovely syrup made from them called Elderflower Cordial. This isn’t alcoholic — though you might choose to mix it with gin! — you mix it with fizzy water and ice. It is a big hit with guests who prefer not to drink alcohol. So we picked 60 large umbels, as directed, and boiled a sugar syrup with 3 liters of water and loads of sugar & sliced lemons. Now this mixture is steeping for a few days, then we will strain it & bottle it. Ben looked at the contents of the pot and announced “Now that looks like the beginnings of a tapestry!”.