John Wagner's Gardening Story and Tips 



At a young age, Mr. Wagner knew he wanted to either work with agriculture or sell shoes because both of these lines of work provide people with something that they will always need: footwear and food. 
Story Collected by Karl Novak 

Name: John Wagner
Relationship: A friend from UIC Grounds Crew

PARTICIPATING in the Heritage Garden internship program has shown me that fostering relationships with different groups is absolutely essential for the planning and development of a new organization.  A group that the Heritage Garden student task force found to be particularly helpful in aiding us over the summer has been the UIC Grounds department.  UIC Grounds have many interests closely aligned with the Heritage Garden’s goals, so their assistance has been very beneficial towards completing our work. In particular, the Grounds department has helped the Heritage Garden with watering plants, providing tools, and collecting materials for storage. I, along with my fellow interns and student leaders, realize that without the assistance from UIC Grounds, our internship program would not have been as successful or impactful to our UIC community.

In the 3rd week of the summer internship program, Obehi and I were transplanting flowers and vegetables from the garden on Halsted and Taylor to replant at our satellite garden sites.  John Wagner, a member of the UIC Grounds department, approached us to find out more about our work.  After mentioning that we were interns for the new Heritage Garden program, John was very friendly and open to providing us with useful gardening tips and sustainable practices. Both Obehi and I were eager to ask him several questions relating to gardening (mostly about transplanting methods and organic pesticides).  We conversed with John about half an hour sharing information we all had learned by working in the garden.  After that first meeting, our team talked with John Wagner again several times throughout the summer and his information has always been bountiful and valuable.  Towards the end of the summer internship program, I arranged a time to meet with John to collect stories that relate to promoting sustainability and environmentally friendly practices.

John Wagner is a passionate gardener whose interest was ignited by his grandfather, who also tended to a mostly vegetable garden. At a young age, Mr. Wagner knew he wanted to either work with agriculture or sell shoes because both of these lines of work provide people with something that they will always need: footwear and food.  Since then, John has taken it upon himself to learn good gardening techniques.  He reads Jerry Baker’s work, a master gardener and writer, to learn more tips to employ when growing plants.  It is obvious that John knows a lot about gardening and he is kind to share the good information with the UIC Heritage Garden.  Some of his creative and sustainable tips and techniques include:

-       Using an expired vehicle tire for a raised bed: drill 4 holes into the bottom of the tire and fill the raised bed with sand (for root growth and drainage), peat moss, and dirt. To further root growth, add a tablespoon of Epsom salt per plant and mix with soil.

-       Using retired plastic jugs as temporary pots for plants: this is particularly easy to fill with soil by using the bottle neck with a funnel to pour in earth. When filled, cut off the bottle neck top to the bottle and drill holes in the bottom for drainage.

-       Recycling wooden crates as a way to grow potatoes: in this way you can continually fill the crate with manure and potting soil – each new set of leaves will develop roots and eventually grow into a potato.

-       Organic pesticide using hot pepper spray: chop 3 Habanero peppers, 3 heads of garlic, and 1 medium sized onion. Purée the pieces and strain the liquid out overnight. Add a ¼ cup of water to the liquid and let sit a day. You can put this in a sprayer bottle and spray your plants with it 2 times monthly as preventative maintenance for insect pests. Add a small amount of soap to get the pesticide to stick to the leaves if necessary.

-       Organic ant control: if you have a black ant problem in your garden, sprinkle cornmeal. If there are red ants, use cinnamon instead.

-       Using PVC pipe as a watering system: drill holes along the length of the PVC pipe and bury the PVC into the ground next to a plant’s root system. This way, watering will go directly to the roots where the plants need them, rather than on the soil where it encourages insects or will be evaporated by the sun.

-       Mixing shredded newspaper with the soil: the ink from the newspaper runs into the soil and actually brings in worms. Worms are good for soil aeration and creating tunnels for rainwater to travel through near roots.

-       Creating calcium fertilizer supplement for tomatoes: Tomatoes flourish with calcium, and two ways to provide this includes dissolving TUMS in water and watering the tomatoes with the solution as well as crushing up eggshells and mixing with the soil near tomatoes.

Mr. Wagner has become a good friend over the course of our summer internship and we cannot thank him enough for all of the excellent aid and advice he has provided. I believe it is important to foster relationships the UIC community has between departments and organizations on the individual level. In this way, it is easier to exchange ideas and make progress for all of our goals by collectively pooling our resources and talents together.

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Donna Currie's Gardening Story 


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In 2001, Donna Currie was awarded the “best butterfly garden in the Chicagoland area” from the Chicago Tribune, and uses flowers such as milkweed, veronica, and catmint to attract different butterflies.
Story collected by Karl Novak

Name: Donna Currie
Relationship: My Neighbor’s Sister

AFTER my family had moved into our new home, we were joined by our new neighbors who took the house across the street about a year later.  The new family immediately became good family friends of ours and we continue to enjoy each other’s company to this day.  I noticed my neighbor’s garden across the street and asked the mother of the family if I may interview her about the garden, but she suggested I interview her sister, Donna Currie, about her garden instead since she was a passionate gardener. After scheduling a time to meet, I visited Mrs. Currie’s house in Prospect Heights to collect stories and view her garden.  The garden encompassed her entire house and looked amazing. It was obvious that the landscape was carefully tended and the placement of different plants was thoughtfully planned.

            We first started outside in the back of her house where aloe, basil, cilantro and other useful plants (for practical medicines and cooking herbs) were grown.  Ornamental flowers such as hibiscus, stella d’oros, coneflowers, black-eyed susans, geraniums, daisies, liatris among others made the garden look colorful, bright and inviting. In addition to the ornamental flowers and herbs grown in the garden, Mrs. Currie also grows vegetables and fruits to provide delicious, home-grown food used in her recipes. She mentioned how her yard has two apple trees that produce sweet apples every other year and when they fruit, their family picks them for apple cranberry bread before the local wildlife can get to them.  Geese, squirrels, deer, and even groundhogs gather around the apple trees to check for remainders after the leftover apples had fallen.

            After I saw the apple trees, I noticed a very tall evergreen and I asked Mrs. Currie about it.  She was excited to tell me that it was a redwood – specifically a Golden Metasequoia.  I was amazed! Previously, I had believed that the redwoods were specific to their native area in Northern California and could not survive elsewhere, but evidence to the contrary was growing right in front of me.  Mrs. Currie explained that she purchased it for fun from a pine and fir vendor called “Rich’s Fox Willow Farm” in Woodstock. Growing the redwood in her backyard inspired a few of her neighbors to do the same, and so now there is a small section of Prospect Heights with very large redwood trees!

            Mrs. Currie’s father first sparked his daughter’s interest in gardening at a very young age. He grew milkweed to show his family the monarch butterfly and their different stages of growth and transformation.  Donna Currie recollected how fun it was to see the butterflies lay eggs under the leaves (to prevent birds from eating them) and watch the eggs hatch into tiny larvae, then eventually grow into caterpillars.  Mrs. Currie continued this tradition in her garden and has consequently planted many flowers to attract butterflies.  In 2001, Donna Currie was awarded the “best butterfly garden in the Chicagoland area” from the Chicago Tribune, and uses flowers such as milkweed, veronica, and catmint to attract different butterflies. Mrs. Currie also likes to attract birds to her garden and creates bird feeders out of large pine cones from her evergreen trees. She covers the cones in sticky honey and then rolls them in bird seed. The finished feeders are then hung from branches on her trees and she watches as the birds arrive for a tasty treat. A cup plant in the garden also collects rain water near the stem that the birds often bathe in.  Mrs. Currie has created a lovely garden for viewing as well as an animal friendly space that invites local wildlife to interact with the garden, promoting the diversity of the space. It was a pleasure to collect this story from her and also to view her beautiful garden.

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