Make Your Bed – Part I

My muscles ache. I feel a heavy tiredness within my body, and an excitement of what lies ahead.

That’s right. I am setting up my garden.

Over the last few weekends, I have built my garden beds. Two weekends ago, I built my wooden raised beds. I went to the hardware store (kids in tow), purchased lumber, and the nice guy at the store cut it for me on the spot. Then we had a flash snow storm. Undaunted, I built two wood frames in my sunroom, and as the snow fell all around me, I switched back and forth from feeling crazy for building a garden when there is a foot of snow outside, and excited that I was pushing through with this project, despite the weather. My son helped – he handed me the screws as I needed them.

When they were done I felt pretty proud of myself. I had dreamed up this idea back in December, and here I was, making it happen. I did it all by self. I drilled, I fastened, I built. 

Here they are, propped up waiting for the snow to melt.

The weekend before that, I got busy making 6 large container beds that can sit on my patio. My patio receives the best sun, so containers I must have. These are self-watering, a premise I had not heard of until I found the Urban Organic Gardener – he grows food on his balcony in home-made containers. Intrigued, I read The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible and Fresh Food From Small Spaces and they both explained how to build containers yourself and both told tales of all the great food you can grow. In some ways they preferred a container garden to an earth garden, as the soil warms up earlier in the spring, the water is easier to control, and the plants are easier to reach. You can make them yourself or buy them. There are commercial self-watering containers available, such as the Earth Box, which some farmers even use. There are also basic pots available at garden centres that have the self-watering feature. It is the new thing!

To make my containers, I got the largest bin I could find, cut down edges of the lid so that it would fit inside the bin to create a false bottom, cut two large holes in the lid, and then inserted a small colander under each hole. I also placed 3″ pots upside down in each corner, to help hold up the false bottom. The idea is that the reservoir below is filled with water, and the water seeps into the colanders that are filled with soil, and then wicks up through the soil in the colander and then into the container. So how do you get water into the false bottom? Well you can either make a hole in the bin near the bottom, or you can insert a pipe that is watered from above. I decided on the pipe, as it would be easier to water and would not interfere with the reservoir size.

Sounds great right? Well it turns out that cutting the plastic lid is pretty hard. I used industrial cutting snips with no avail. Total bust. So I decided to try sawing it, and that worked better, although it was slow going. In the end, I sawed 5 of them, and my husband (through some Tom Sawyer trickery) sawed one. I went through two blades on a hack saw.

My son also “helped” with these. I would not let him operate the saw, but I let him help me cut the pipe, tandem style, back and forth. He liked that. Then at one point he took my marker and drew a picture of me cutting all my boxes:

Yes, I am a builder mama. The garden beds are built.

Next stop… dirt.

Stay tuned for Part II!

Plant Babies

A few months ago I thought it would be a good idea to try to eat more locally grown foods. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how big an impact my food footprint has on my total carbon footprint. As we know, most food in the grocery store is flown in from all over the world. For me, it is very difficult to find even a few items produced locally, let alone in my province. Realizing this, I started shopping at the Farmer’s Market, where I could buy my food from the very farmer who grew it. I later did some research, and found a local dairy supplier, wine supplier, beer supplier, and most importantly (yes – even more important than the beer and wine) a local flour supplier. Eating local feels really good, it feels like I am helping farmers, the food is fresher, and yes, it tastes better.

As I continued on thinking about local food, I realized that because I live in a northern climate, it would be impossible to eat locally year round, without some careful planning, preserving and storage. Food available summer must be preserved for winter. You can freeze it, can it, dehydrate it or put it in a root cellar. I was inspired by people living here, in my cold city, who grow enough food in their backyards to last them all winter. This can be done. People do this. Maybe I can do it too?

So I decided to grow a vegetable garden. Not just a few tomatoes, but a whole big garden, with potatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, beets, lettuce, cucumber, squash, beans and peas. I want to grow enough tomatoes to preserve tomato sauce all winter, enough onions that will last through the winter, and a pile of carrots that will get me through at least until fall. I want to freeze some peas and beans, I want to store some potatoes and beets, and I want to eat fresh salads all summer. Can I do it?

Well it starts with these guys:

They are officially one month old today – my assortment of tomatoes and peppers. It is exciting to watch them change day by day, how some varieties started out slow but have now surged ahead, and how I am able to now discern differences in the foliage in the varieties, being able to pick out a variety from a line up, even at this young age. When I first transplanted them from their little pods to their pots, they looked so grown up, standing tall all by themselves. I am proud of my plant babies.

These guys were just recently started. Here we have parsley, mint, basil, oregano and lettuce:

So far, so good. However, I have a secret fear of failure in this venture. How can I grow food for myself? Doesn’t it require some kind of magical skill? I started this process knowing absolutely nothing, and here I am a couple of months later growing 48 seedlings… Can I even pull this off?

I really hope so. I really want to grow an actual real garden, to feed my family, to feed myself, to feed my soul.

Grow, little plant babies.  Grow.

Dirt!

I watched the film Dirt! last week. Many of us don’t really consider dirt, and when we do, we look down upon it. We don’t like it when we are “dirty” or when other people treat us like “dirt”. Dirt is the lowest of the low.

But in reality, there is nothing more important that dirt, as it is the cradle of life here on Earth. We need high quality dirt, or soil, to grow food. Without any dirt, we could not grow any food, and without any food … well you get the picture.

Many of us think that dirt is limitless. This is not true. Not all areas of the Earth have dirt, and some areas that have it, only have a few inches. This dirt took a long, long time to develop. Once it is gone, it will take a long, long time to develop more. Poor countries that don’t have dirt, or have lost their dirt, do not have an effective way to feed their people. So they go hungry, or migrate to areas where there is dirt. These migrations can cause conflicts among those who do not want to give up their dirt to newcomers. Countries that have dirt, even poorer countries, have a way to feed themselves and enjoy much higher food security.

Here in the West, we are paving over a lot of our dirt. Cities continue to sprawl, roads continue to be built, and less and less land is available for farming. But here we don’t notice the impact that this has on our food supply; it does not impact where our next meal is coming from. We just go and buy our food at the grocery store, much of it imported from other countries.

But wait a minute. We know that we are using almost all the arable land on this planet to grow food. Is the land attributed to feeding us, land that is way off in other countries, poor countries even, now not available to feed the local people that live there? Does our requirement for the next mall, the next suburban development, trump another country’s ability to feed its people?

Map of world percentage arable land.

% of Arable Land by Country - Image via Wikipedia

  So given how important dirt is – how are we treating it? Not very well I am afraid. A lot of our dirt has been lost due to conventional farming practices. When a farmer tills a dry field on a windy day, a lot of the dirt is taken up by the wind, blown into the sky, never to return. Dirt is also lost due to irresponsible irrigation practices that allow dirt to wash away into our streams and lakes and oceans, never to be used again. When we tear down a forest on a mountain, the dirt that remains can very quickly be washed away, without the network of trees and roots and plants to sustain it. On top of all of that, much of the dirt that we do have remaining is subjected to a host of chemical additives, such as fertilizer and pesticides. Unfortunately, nitrogen in fertilizer isn’t even completely absorbed by the plants – up to 70% of it gets carried away to lakes and oceans, creating algae blooms and reducing the oxygen content in the water. Fish stocks decline, aquatic life suffers. This is what has directly caused the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is estimated now to be the size of New Jersey.

We also add pesticides of course, as we don’t want those pesky pests eating up our crops. But pesticides kill more than just the pests; they also kill beneficial bugs and organisms that provide some of the life giving properties of the soil.

On top of all this, we plant vast mono-cultures of single crops. This ensures that the same nutrients are continuously drained from the soil, decreasing its health. Mono-cultures also invite more and more pests, as they provide a limitless feeding ground. So, we add more and more pesticides.

The result? We now have less dirt. We have dirt that is not nearly as healthy as it was 2 generations ago. We are using almost all of the arable land on Earth, yet continue to sprawl our cities, growing out instead of up. We buy food from a world away, perhaps impacting the food security of the local people of that country. We don’t know where our food comes from, and we don’t know about the importance of dirt

We are treating dirt, well – like “dirt”.

Alternatively, organic farming cherishes the dirt. It is all about dirt! Everything begins and ends with the quality of the dirt. Dirt that has been farmed organically has much more life within it, holds much more water, and releases its nutrients much more slowly – just how the plants like it. Organic dirt also holds much more carbon. If we all farmed organically, just think of the carbon sink we could create! Organic farming could contribute to reducing the carbon from the sky, which we so desperately need right now.

As for managing pests, that can be done organically as well. Instead of applying chemicals, there are several other natural alternatives:

  1. Grow strong, healthy plants in strong, healthy dirt, so that they are more able to naturally defend off pests
  2. Plant companion plants that deter pests (like marigolds and onions around your vegetable patch)
  3. Rotate plants every season to mix it up and confuse pests
  4. Introduce pest predators, such as ladybugs, into the mix
  5. Watch over and care for your plants, noticing early when there is a pest problem, so that action can be taken

So the next time you see a pile of dirt, do not scoff. Be happy and thankful for it!

Letters to Leaders: Green Party Debate

Pic for WikiProject Political parties and poli...

Image via Wikipedia

So, for those that don’t know, there is a federal election underway here in Canada.

About 5 years ago, I decided that I would vote based on my number one issue of concern – the environment. I knew that other issues were important (healthcare, education, economy) but were not in as dire a state of mismanagement. We depend on the environment for our very life, yet we are not acting as responsible stewards. Something has to be done about climate change; there is no way around it. Why doesn’t this issue dominate election coverage? It just doesn’t, and I don’t get it.

So in every type of election for the last 5 years or so, I put my voice and my vote down for the environment. Most of the time, this means voting for the Green Party. In most (all) cases, I knew that the person I voted for did not have a chance to win, but I wanted my vote to count towards this issue. I wanted the people in power to take note of the percentage of votes they are losing to the Green Party and to the issue of the environment.

In the last federal election I voted for a party that I had never voted for before – the NDP. The candidate was by far, the best representative towards my number one issue – the environment. She had a good chance to win. She had experience in environmental law and protection, ran her platform as a defender of the environment, and offered up a voice of opposition against the pollution from the oil sands. So, I voted for Linda Duncan and she won, and is currently the only Member of Parliament in Alberta that is not Conservative. She has been very active in defending the environment over the last 3 years.

So here we are again – election time. There are candidate signs popping up in my neighbourhood. Election ads are underway, election coverage dominates the news. Who do I vote for, how do I get involved and how can I further my number one goal – action on climate change?

I will be voting for Linda Duncan again, and she has a reasonable shot to win. I want to support her, and really believe in her message of transitioning to a clean economy, cleaning up the oil sands and ending fossil fuel subsidies. My hope is that she can continue to pressure the government on issues that they would otherwise not consider, and that this will result in more action on climate change.

I also support the Green Party though, and was dismayed to hear that the leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May, will not be allowed to take part in the Leader’s Debate on April 12. She participated in the debate in the last election, and received almost 1 million votes. Polls indicate that she currently holds between 8-10% of votes today.

Therefore, as part of my Letters to Leaders series, I emailed the three main networks in Canada – CBC, CTV and Global – indicating my disappointment that she is not allowed to take part:

April 4, 2011

To whom it may concern:

I am disappointed that Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, will not be allowed to take part in the upcoming leaders debate. I think that this is the wrong decision, and that it would be in your network’s best interests to allow her to debate for the following reasons:

1) She represents over 1 million Canadians who voted for her in the last election. Based on the percentage of Canadians who actually vote, this is a significant percentage. Excluding her excludes the voices of all of these Canadians. This is not democratic.

2) She brings a fresh, new perspective that an increasing number of Canadians identify with – environmental stewardship and protection. Few can argue that the environment is the root of all life, from which everything else is possible. It is imperative that the voices of Canadians who speak up for the environment are heard.

3) She represents the future. The future that my children and future grandchildren will inherit must certainly include a clean, green economy. Action of on climate change is required now, to avoid a catastrophe for future generations. Excluding Elizabeth May excludes the voices of Canada’s children, Canada’s future.

Many Canadians who do not identify with Elizabeth May’s message still agree that she should be allowed to debate. Most agree that her inclusion would make for a more interesting, livelier debate. In addition, she will be the only woman in the debate, offering a different perspective than the four other men.

Please switch your position and invite Elizabeth May to the debate. Please recognize that she represents a large number of Canadians, as well as future generations of Canadians. Please keep democracy alive in Canada.

Sincerely,

Sherry

If you would like to add your voice to allow Elizabeth May to debate, you can:

  1. Email CBC (ombudsman@cbc.ca), CTV (programming@ctv.ca), Global (viewercontact.globalnational@globaltv.com) and CBC Radio (ombudsman@radio-canada.ca) and voice your concern
  2. Participate in this poll by CBC
  3. Go to http://demanddemocraticdebates.ca to sign the petition
  4. Go here for even more good ideas

It is a great feeling, participating in democracy in a bigger way than just stepping up to the ballot box. It feels good to have a voice!

Laundry Time

It has been a while since I wrote about laundry. One of my first green changes was to stop using my dryer. I figured that it took a lot of energy to roll that big drum thousands of times to dry each load, as well as to heat the thing up so that it was blowing a steady stream of hot air all the while. I thought about my big five appliances that sucked up electricity in my house – fridge, oven, dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer – and decided that forgoing the use of the dryer was by far the easiest and most practical.

So I have been air drying all our clothes for about 4 months now. I have learned some things along the way, and changed it up a bit, so I thought I would share my experiences:

The first change I made was to switch from just air drying clothes, to air drying everything – towels, cloths, sheets, blankets – you name it. Most of it is no problem and I can’t even tell that it has been air-dried. The towels are a different story. Let’s just say that we don’t have fluffy soft towels in our house anymore. Ours are a bit more – crunchy. When I started this process, I would put the towels in the dryer to “fluff up” after they are already dry, but now I just don’t bother. The benefit of crunchy towels is that they are super easy to fold (think straight as a board) and also, they are super absorbent when you are getting out the shower. They also may or may not have additional exfoliating properties…

The second change has to do with how I to hang the clothes to dry. At first I would just take them straight out of the washer and hang them on the rack. However I found that some things, especially 100% woven cotton items, would come out wrinkly. So now I lay each shirt out on top of my washer, still wet, and smooth it out a bit, then put the next one on top of it, smooth that one out, and then the next one – and so I go, layering and smoothing, layering and smoothing, until the entire load is smoothed out, with all the items stacked up on top of each other like this (these are kids clothes):

Once I am done stacking and smoothing, I hang them on the dry rack. When they are dry, they are so nice and smooth – it is like I actually ironed them (which is something I never, ever do). They are nicer than if they had just spent 1 hour in the dryer. There are no wrinkles, not even on the wrinkle-culprit items. Folding is really fast, since the garment is straight, smooth and ready to go.

The third change is the laundry soap I use. As part of my Nothing New challenge, I wanted to force myself to attempt to make some homemade cleaners from ingredients I can understand, with the hopes that I would be shielding my family and the environment from harmful chemicals, as well as reducing the amount of plastic container garbage I generate. I tried making dishwasher soap and liquid dish soap, with disastrous results. But my laundry soap making was a resounding success.

Google indicated that making powdered soap was the way to go, as the homemade liquid stuff was difficult to manage, required large plastic buckets, and came out really gloppy. The powdered soap is easily mixed, stores easily in small containers, and is easy to use. So I tried Tipnut’s recipe #4, and later, her recipe #9. Here is the review:

Recipe #4
2 cups finely grated bar Soap (I used Sunlight soap)
1 cup Washing Soda
1 cup Borax
 – Mix together, store in airtight container and use 2 tablespoons per load

Since it contains more borax overall, there is more whitening power for your whites. However, it is not as colour fast for your darks – so the odd white sock mixed into a dark load will come out looking more dingy than I would have otherwise noticed. However in general, I have not noticed any colours or darks fading, in fact I think there is less fading, since the clothes are not being tumbled around in a dryer for an hour, wearing out by rubbing against all the other clothes.

Recipe #9
3 parts Borax
2 parts Baking Soda
2 parts Washing Soda
2 parts finely grated Bar soap (I used Sunlight)
 – Mix together, store in airtight container and use 1/8 cup per load

Since it contains less borax, it has less whitening power. However, the baking soda is very good at softening, which is a bonus for air dried clothes.

So now I use Recipe #4 for my whites, and Recipe #9 for everything else. I would say it cleans just about as good. Some stains get missed – perhaps one item out of 5 loads per week I will be disappointed with, which is not bad at all.

The fourth and most important change is my attitude towards doing laundry. I used to not enjoy it. I used to fold 5 loads a week, sitting on the floor in front of the TV, slightly annoyed that I had to do this chore. Now I do all the hanging and folding downstairs in the laundry room. I am away from everything that is going on in the house; I am alone with my thoughts. I have a new-found appreciation for the clothes we purchase, wear, wash and maintain. I  try to be mindful of that as I am handling the clothes, smoothing them so that they will dry nicely, keep their shape, last a long time… I find this peaceful. If I am feeling anxious or upset about something, 10 minutes downstairs smoothing wet clothes and hanging them up is just what I need to get centred again. I am not sure why – perhaps now this work has more purpose than it had before, and therefore is more rewarding than the same work was without that purpose.  Whatever the reason – I find it more therapeutic.

Overall, the laundry process does take a bit longer, but I make up some of the time with fast and easy folding. Overall it is more enjoyable than my previous method. I don’t think I will ever go back.

How about you – any laundry tips to share?