Friday, April 18, 2014

Cheapskate Composting

This upright bin cost approximately $30
and fits in a small corner of my yard.
If you are curious about composting but are limited by the size of your outdoor space and don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on fancy rotating composting bins, I encourage you to get started now. There is so much plant material available to start you off on your composting journey with the spring garden clean up. Next year you can have your own nutrient rich soil to add to your garden or containers.

I live in a suburban area with limited lot sizes. There isn’t a great deal of space for expansive gardens and the virtually free compost piles. But I also know the benefits of composting. It is possible to make compost in a limited space on a limited budget.

It is the time of year for me to add good quality, nutrient rich organic material to my raised beds. With the wet weather that we get in the pacific northwest, essential nutrients can be washed away. While I do add some commercial fertilizer (mushroom and fish manure) to my soil, I like to add as much of my homemade compost to my garden. Not only am I saving money, I know exactly what has gone into my bins. 

Look at the gorgeous colour! 
I use upright compost containers from my city, which are perfect for limited space gardens and limited budgets. Many of the people who have garden plots in our local community gardens use these in their limited plots because they are so compact. They have an open bottom so beneficial microbes and critters can enter and help the composting process.

When I take the lid off I need to use gloves: too many spiders.

It really is easy. Layer alternating green and brown layers, water occasionally, create air holes and that’s it. To read more of my lazy composting method, read here.

Cleaning up leaves and magnolia blossoms
to add to my bin.

After approximately a year I open up a panel on the front side of the bin and start digging out the composted soil. The material closest to the top is from the fall clean up and isn’t ready to use. When I close the side panel I can push down the material from the top and begin adding new green and brown layers.

Next year's compost started!

From my one small bin this spring I have been able to use three wheel barrows of usable compost. 

After adding to my beds I still have this much
left over for my containers or to share with a neighbour.

It’s so easy to just throw grass cuttings all summer and leaves in the fall into the bin. Even if you don’t grow a vegetable garden, the compost can be sprinkled lightly onto lawns, used in flower planters, or shared with a neighbour or friend who doesn’t have access to yard space.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Good to the Last Drop

From the bean of Green Bean.

As my family's garbage output is now officially less than ten percent of the average American's, I feel like I can talk some serious trash. There are tons of ways to taper off your trash: compostditch disposablesmake your own, buy items with less packaging or better yet don't buy it at all. The list could go on and on but the simplest way is to stretch your resources. In other words, it ain't empty until it's empty.

Several weeks ago I lifted the lid on the bathroom waste can only to discover our toothpaste tube lounging amongst the spent tissue and cotton swabs. Sure, to the Muggle eye, that tube looked empty. I knew better. I rescued it from the waste bin and, squeezing and scrunching, happily brushed my teeth with its contents for another three weeks.

This is not my first attempt at stretching sorcery.  Take, for instance, the conditioner languishing in my shower.  That baby has been around since before the dawn of global warming. Like a miracle of biblical proportion, even though I add water every time I use it, the creamy consistency remains the same, the bottle just as full.

For other products, I forgo adding water and just use less. A capful of laundry detergent? Why? A 1/4 of a capful (and sometimes none) will get the job done. You don't really need to fill that little bowl full with dishwasher detergent - just a dash.

To what do I owe my mystical powers? Why, to my parents, of course. In the interest of frugality, we would often add a bit of water to a near empty ketchup bottle to use up the dregs. It worked like a charm - unless someone went overboard and the ketchup turned to tomato soup. That was not so tasty on the tater tots.  Similarly, swirl some water around an "empty" jam jar and you have a powerful popsicle.

So with the final warning to not be overly exuberant with water, I hereby bestow, on you, my powers of alchemy. Go forth and bewitch thy bottles, remembering the simple spell: reducing the refuse makes everything good to the last drop.

Monday, April 14, 2014

11 Reasons You Should Consider Beekeeping

In which The Parsimonious Princess tries to convince you to become a beekeeper. You know you want to...

This month marks the two-year anniversary of my husband and I becoming full-fledged beekeepers. I love telling people that I keep bees - some react with fascination, others think I'm nuts. There's this notion that beekeeping is complicated, scary, and even dangerous. Really, beekeeping is none of those things.  In fact, I'm convinced that just about anyone who cares enough about bees can become a beekeeper.

Here are eleven reasons why you should consider beekeeping:

I'll just get this one of the way: one of the best reasons to keep bees is for the honey! This past fall, we got our first honey harvest (we didn't get enough our first year since we had such dry conditions in 2012). You know that difference between a store-bought tomato vs. a homegrown one? Same goes for honey. I've never tasted better honey in my life! I remember eating it the first time, honeycomb and all, and feeling such a sense of awe and gratitude for those bees. Sadly, we are on our last jar of the liquid gold. Our September honey extraction can't come soon enough! (You can read all about our honey extraction experience here.)

2.  Having beehives helps your garden grow....and your neighbor's garden, too. 
Having tens of thousands of honeybees living in your backyard means lots of pollinators for your garden. Our beehives are actually located in my parents' yard (since our city banned beehives up until last year) and I asked my my mom if she noticed a significant increase in her garden's production. She told me that of everything in her yard, her raspberry bushes have benefited the most -- she had more berries on them than in years past, thanks to the bees. I'm practically begging my in-laws to let me and my husband put a couple hives in their yard since they have a bunch of fruit trees; I'm sure their yields would be even better if we could get more pollinators there! (Note to self: forward this post to hesitant father-in-law...)

3. Beekeeping is a great way to be self-sufficient.
Keeping bees is a wonderful way to be self-sufficient because honey is a great replacement for processed sugar. There are some start-up costs that come with beekeeping, but it's a worthwhile investment. If I remember correctly, we spent about $350 when got started -- that price included our two hives (with three deep boxes each), two beekeeping jackets and hats/veils, gloves, a hive tool, a smoker, and, of course, the bees (that price doesn't include the class I took, but that didn't cost much, either).  After a few honey harvests, the hives will pay for themselves. The only real expenses after the initial start-up costs are for mite treatments (all-natural) and any supplemental feeding that may be necessary. Another self-sufficiency facet:  in terms of food storage, you can't beat the shelf life of honey, because it lasts forever. Archaeologists have found honey from the ancient Egyptians that can still be eaten today.

4. It takes very little effort and time to keep bees. 
Do you have a dog or cat? You spend more time taking care of that pet than you would a couple of beehives. Even in the peak summer months when my husband and I do regular inspections, we probably spend less than an hour a month taking care of them. Seriously. The less you bother the bees, the better. All they really need is a short-and-sweet inspection every 10 days or so. The only time-consuming part of beekeeping is the honey extraction, but that part also happens to be a lot of fun.

5. Honey is good for your health.
Honey has been used for centuries for health and medicinal uses. Honey contains flavonoids that have been shown to reduce the risk of some cancers and heart disease. Honey is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal because the bees add an enzyme that makes hydrogen peroxide in the honey. For this reason, honey is actually a great treatment for wounds. I love adding honey to hot water and lemon when I have a cold, cough, or sore throat. Honey is actually as effective, studies have shown, as cough syrup. Another health benefit of honey is with allergy symptoms. Although there are no conclusive studies, many scientists believe as you ingest the pollen spores in honey in small amounts at a time, your body gets used to them and your allergic response to them diminishes. (One other medical sidenote: Did you know that scientists have found that bee venom can kill HIV? How crazy/cool is that?!)

One caveat: to get many of the health and medicinal benefits, you need to use raw, unprocessed (and local, particularly in terms of helping with allergies) honey. Most of the honey at the grocery store won't cut it. That's where beekeeping comes in: you can't get honey that is more local and raw than the honey that comes from your backyard.

6. Educational opportunities abound! 
Bees are completely fascinating. There are so many interesting aspects to bees and honey - I could go on and on about all the cool things I've learned about them.  What I love is how much my boys have learned about bees in the process, too. My seven-year-old can tell you how you can differentiate the female workers from the male drones (one way: boy bees don't have stingers), how they function in the colony, and how honey is made (that same seven-year-old thinks it's hilarious to tell people that honey is "bee throw-up".). One time we even had a homeschooling family do a little field trip to our hives, where we let the nine-year-old suit up and help with an inspection. My kids and their cousins (since the beehives are at my parents' house, they are familiar with the hives) aren't afraid of bees anymore; they know how to keep a careful distance and how to move around them. They've even grown to enjoy getting close enough to watch the little bees at work on the flowers and vegetables in the yard!

7. Keeping bees gives you more control over your food and what is in it.
Did you know that most of the honey found in grocery stores isn't actually honey? The honey found in stores is frequently "ultra-filtered", meaning that the pollen is completely removed. Without the pollen, the honey can't be tested to see if it came from a safe and legitimate source. Removing the pollen removes the evidence, in a manner of speaking, so that unsafe and unhealthy practices are hard to trace back to the beekeepers. Often, honey from foreign countries (particularly China) not only have traces of illegal antibiotics in it, but also are diluted high fructose corn syrup and/or other illegal sweeteners. Yuck. (For more information on this subject, along with a list of brands of pollen-free honey, you can read here.) That's one of the main reasons I keep bees, garden, raise chickens, and cook from scratch -- I like knowing where my food comes from and what is in it.

8.  The bees need our help!
In the winter of 2012-2013, the US lost approximately 33% of its bee colonies, which is double the acceptable natural amount. Colony Collapse Disorder is big concern -- and, frankly, still a bit of a mystery. There are a lot of factors that could play into the problem: neonicotinoids (a particular pesticide known to kill bees), stress from being transported to various locations, bees being fed corn syrup so they'll produce more honey, among many other reasons. It's a systemic problem that will need the help of responsible beekeepers to right many of the wrongs that have been happening since Colony Collapse Disorder began showing up in the 1980s. There are lots of ways to help the bees and it can be done one hive at a time.

9. We need the bees!
Maybe you've read the quote that many ascribe to Albert Einstein (though it's uncertain if he really said it): "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live." If we don't have bees to pollinate, we lose a big chunk of our food supply. For instance, 90% of apples, cherries, and oranges are pollinated by bees; 100% of almonds are pollinated by bees. Even beef and dairy would be affected since much of the alfalfa cows eat is pollinated by bees. Last year, a Whole Foods store in Rhode Island showed exactly what the produce section of the grocery store would look like without bees -- it's depressing, to say the least.  Even one hive can help our bee populations by creating a healthy ecosystem for them, one in which they can thrive.

10. The world needs more responsible beekeepers.
We live in a world where many people value quantity over quality, that the ends justify the means. This past fall, many beekeepers in my state had the disappointment of harvesting red honey. This happened because one beekeeper with a large commercial operation was feeding his bees a cheap candy-cane byproduct. Bees from around the area found the source, took it back to their hives, and the result was honey turned red by the artificial colors. Not only did it make the honey taste terrible, but it also made the honey possibly contain higher levels of lead because of the food coloring. Even worse, the red dye has affected the bees' genetics and brood production (brood refers to the various stages of development of baby bees). That's just one example; there are many more instances throughout the world today of bad and irresponsible beekeeping practices. The world needs more beekeepers who respect the honeybee and treat them well.

11. Beekeeping is fun!
Sure, I've been stung a few times. That first year when we didn't get a honey harvest was a huge bummer. Sometimes it takes every ounce of control I have to not freak out when the bees get agitated and start diving toward my face.  But, overall, I love being a beekeeper. I love watching the bees at work in my parents' garden. I love lifting the lid off the hive and seeing them busy in each of their jobs. I marvel at the thousands of perfect little hexagons in the honeycomb. I get a surge of excitement during inspections when I can spot the tiny eggs in the honeycomb -- I've even witnessed a few bee-births, when they come out of their little enclosures for the first time. I love scraping off chunks of comb that are dripping with honey and then sharing it with everyone at the house. And extracting the honey is exhilarating, that mixture of excitement, awe, and gratitude.

Who would have thought that I could grow to love an insect as much as I love those honeybees! They truly are a wonder in this world of ours.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Information Overload

Mindful Echo is overwhelmed.

I'm really lucky. I have a circle of friends and acquaintances who care about stuff. Like, really, REALLY care. Whether the "stuff" in question is about education, the arts, social justice, feminism, health, local business, politics, animals, the environment, or beyond, these friends actively engage in supporting their causes and spreading the word.

I love checking my email, Facebook, or Twitter and sharing in their passions. I love having an awareness of important issues. I love celebrating our successes. I love knowing that I'm not the only one who is angry. I'm reassured that, ideologically, I'm not alone.

It's great, but it can be a lot to take in. When I rely only on the information that is being presented at me in this way, it can also mean that I lose a lot of important issues in the shuffle of things. My strategy for this is to have a handful of "informers" that I turn to on a regular basis to check in on issues that I care about. This flips the dilemma in such a way that it gives me the power and control over what I'm interested in consuming. I'm still very much interested in all that is being "shared" with me, of course, but I don't *rely* on casual shares to stay informed.

When it comes to issues on the ENVIRONMENT, some of my go-to sites are:

Mother Nature Network: Improve Your World

With a goal of providing the most accurate and up-to-date news and information available, we cover the broadest scope of environmental news and social responsibility issues on the internet. And, we do so in a way that is engaging and easy-to-understand. As opposed to scientists, activists or experts—MNN is designed for the rest of us—everyday people who simply want to make our world better.

Tone: Thoughtful, thought-provoking, inspiring


 Behold the geep! Rare goat-sheep hybrid born in Ireland

The Council of Canadians 

Founded in 1985, the Council of Canadians is Canada’s leading social action organization, mobilizing a network of 60 chapters across the country. Through our campaigns we advocate for clean water, fair trade, green energy, public health care, and a vibrant democracy. We educate and empower people to hold our governments and corporations accountable.

Tone: Emphasis on advocacy and access to involvement


 Energy East pipeline is all risk and no reward for Kenora residents : See Act Inspire 

ecoSanity's focus: The clear, present, accelerating global emergency of the climate (energy / population / democracy / justice) crisis and the unprecedented threat posed RIGHT NOW to the survival of most life THIS century. ecoSanity advocates for EMERGENCY worldwide mobilization at EMERGENCY (world war-time, survival or mass extinction, transwarp) speed to restore our rapidly destabilizing global climate to the safe balance that allowed us to evolve.

Tone: Urgent, crises, emergency


Greenland Ice Sheet Melt and the Global Climate EMERGENCY

  David Suzuki Foundation: Solutions are in our nature

We collaborate with Canadians from all walks of life, including government and business, to conserve our environment and find solutions that will create a sustainable Canada through science-based research, education and policy work.

Our mission is to protect the diversity of nature and our quality of life, now and for the future.
Our vision is that within a generation, Canadians act on the understanding that we are all interconnected and interdependent with nature.

Tone: Hopeful, provides clear ways for readers to take action, however simple it may be


You can help bring back monarch butterflies


If you're interested in engaging further on some of the issues discussed here on The Green Phone Booth or to be updated on postings, be sure to follow @greenphonebooth on Twitter. You can also follow some of our contributors (links to their Twitters in the sidebar) and myself @echoesofmymind

Monday, April 7, 2014

Environmentalism That is More Than a Slogan

The Climate Crusader realizes she has more work to do at home to make her environmentalism more than a family slogan.

Yesterday evening my family attended a family dinner at my in-laws' house, about 45 minutes by car from our home. By the time we got home at 8:00pm my five-year-old was asleep in his car seat, and I did my best to get him dressed in pajamas and into bed without disturbing him. As I kissed him goodnight, however, his eyes snapped open and he pointed out that we hadn't brushed his teeth. He glared and me and said, "Not brushing your teeth is bad for the earth."

Oral hygiene is important, of course, but it's not really an environmental issue. I think my son has absorbed the explanations I give about why our family makes certain choices, and concluded that saying something is 'bad for the earth' is a way of condemning it in general. Therefore, pulling out the phrase around tooth brushing is a way to get me to act. The kid is only five and it was late, so last night I just took him to brush his teeth and didn't get into long explanations. It made me think, however, about how my kids are absorbing my environmentalism.

There are a lot of things that we do in our family that my children don't regard as exceptional. When I was a kid recycling and municipal composting were unheard of. Almost everybody used toxic cleaners without a second thought. Reusable shopping bags and reusable water bottles were not commonplace. There wasn't a lot of awareness about the dangers of some cosmetic products, and organic food wasn't anywhere to be seen at most grocery stores. We threw batteries and lightbulbs into the trash without a second thought.

Environmental crusader in training?
I personally think that the fact we have much greater environmental awareness today than we did 30 years ago is a good thing. How could it not be? At the same time, I sometimes feel discouraged because while we are more environmentally aware, we also consume a lot more. Computers, tablets, cell phones and iPods were either rare or hadn't been invented yet in the 1980s. Disposable fashion wasn't a thing, and neither were plastic water bottles. There were fewer consumer goods to buy, and people bought less. I don't mean to paint an overly-rosy picture, but it would be untrue to say that we have made progress on all fronts, environmentally speaking.

My own kids take a lot of environmental action for granted, but the fact is that we need more than that. It's important to take these little steps for the earth, but we need to do more. We need to do not just the easy thing, but the difficult thing. We need our children to build on the progress we've made, rather than taking it for granted and maintaining the same level of environmentalism (and consumerism). We need to take steps to raise little environmentalists, and make sure that they understand why we're doing what we're doing.

Clearly, I have a little work to do with my own family, because the explanation 'it's bad for the earth' isn't cutting it. I want to make sure that my children understand environmentalism is more than a slogan. We all need to care enough to make a difference in the world. I want to do my best to share that with my children.

Have you ever heard a kid make an environmental connection that surprised you? How do you make sure environmentalism is more than a slogan in your family?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Coming Out of the Darkness

Queen Composter has struggled with eco pessimism and has come out the other side. 

Lately I have been feeling a bit down about my efforts (and struggles) to live a more eco conscious life. For each change I have tried to make into habit, I see five more behaviours that are questionable, or down right “bad” from a green point of view. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite, preaching ways to be kinder on the Earth.

Then I read the news and feel even more depressed. In Canada it appears our government is at war with scientists. Oil pipelines might be pushed through without thorough study. Closer to home, my provincial government is trying push through changes to parks and agricultural land to open them up to economic development. Never mind the images in the news of dangerous pollution in Asia from uninhibited industrial growth.

It is easy to get down about making a difference for the environment. Green Bean recently shared her thoughts about keeping hope alive in the face of pessimism and Eco Novice posed questions about how to promote environmental issues when there is such apathy from the general public.

I was beginning to think that perhaps it doesn’t really matter if I use a plastic shopping bag on the rare occasion I forget to bring cloth bags, if I drive a minivan, or if I buy something with a huge carbon footprint because, well, I just want it. Reusable energy is too expensive to implement for the average homeowner, and I’m tired of wearing extra layers to keep warm in my own home. I’m tired of worrying about the ingredients in my food, the packaging it comes in, and how and where it was grown. I look around me and I don’t see other worrying about this. It’s all doom and gloom anyway, isn’t it? The climate change deniers are winning, aren’t they?

After some soul searching, I have come to the realization that it is time to stop worrying about things I cannot change. Sure, I can sign petitions and even go to protests, but I have grown weary of political activism. I have decided that for me, trying to make a difference with my generation, and the generations before me, is futile and upsetting. There are too many vested interests, too many people worried about the economy and taxes, too many adults worried about “adult things”. Instead, I am going to focus my energies on those younger than me, who can see things and adjust to doing things in new ways before adult responsibilities enter their lives.

Now the changes I’m trying to make don’t feel futile anymore. Modeling is one of the most powerful teaching methods, and I am affecting change with my own children. This was brought to mind recently when I was out with my youngest, who had messy hands, and she asked for a cloth to wipe her hands. It was noted by another person that she didn’t ask for paper towel or a napkin, because at home we use cloths to wipe up messes on the floor or on our hands. Hopefully she will never buy single use items for use in her own home. My daughters often remark that the produce we buy in the stores in the winter does not taste as good as our own vegetables that we grow in the summer, and I hope that this translates into them buying local produce or growing their own food when they leave home.
Students cleaning up our school garden, preparing it for spring planting. 

This year I have committed to work with an extracurricular eco team at my school. We have worked hard to change attitudes toward the waste produced and the amount of energy used at school. I am seeing the change in my students when they remind me to use less paper towel in the class and when they remind me to turn off half the lights when it is bright out.
One day's garbage on display for my school's eco team assembly.

I have to believe that the next generations will make a difference. I hope that I can be a part of the difference they make. 

Do you ever feel fatigued with living an environmentally conscious life?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

My Big Fat Pollinator Garden

From the bean of Green Bean.

March in California was sandwiched by rainstorms. Not enough to quench California's overwhelming thirst but enough to bring my garden to life.

Last fall, I skipped planting fava beans in their traditional patch.  Instead, I stuffed the bare soil with California native seeds.  All winter, I tugged out oxalises but let the cheeseweed grow.  Hey, its a butterfly larvae plant!

One sunny day, armed with a camera and a telephoto lens, I tiptoed through the flowers. You see, if you walk past the flowers without looking - really looking - you will miss it.  Sure, you may hear the hum.  See the flit.  But you'll miss the quick creep of a red ladybug.

The intricate designs on the blue skipper that floats from flower to flower.

The orange knees of a busy bumble bee.

The helicopter whir of a hoverfly.

Or the discovery of a golden bumble bee.  (It is a male Valley carpenter bee.  Several of his buddies came to court as well.)

How do you plant a pollinator garden? Ditch the pesticides.

Embrace volunteers (borage and wild radish can be friends!).

Plant native wildflowers.

Let flowers bloom where they may (most of the poppies are growing in the gravel path).

My pollinator garden made everyone happy.  Me.  The bees.

My fava beans (stuck in a raised bed with a bumper crop on the way).  My apple and pear trees, their blossoms ravaged by pollinators who swarmed the borage and poppies at their feet.  My citrus trees bursting into bloom at the same time as the lupine and Chinese houses. 

Yep. You can't help but be happy in my big fat pollinator garden.

This post is part of the Tuesday Garden Party.  Come visit for more gardening inspiration.


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