Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Technology for the Greater Green

Mindful Echo is finding the bright side.

Every so often we're lucky enough to find an event, a book, a group, or a product that combines some of our multiple passions. Although I'm not particularly tech-savvy in too many ways, I'm definitely a sucker for some good technology. Likewise, I know that my electronically-based pastimes can rarely coexist with my intention to live a green lifestyle. So I'm sure you can imagine how excited I get when I see research projects with applications that can undoubtedly help us all to live more eco-friendly lives.

It seems a team of researchers, along with the Halifax Regional Municipality, and the Dalhousie University Renewable Energy Storage Labratory, have developed possibly the coolest interactive map I've ever seen.

http://maps.halifax.ca/solarcity/solarmap.html

Complete with the universally-loved slidey thingy, the map demonstrates the amount of solar accessibility to the rooftops of homes and businesses in the region.

The practical application of this resource is great, particularly for individuals who are looking to make investments in solar panels, etc. for home use. I'm hoping that this data will be kept up-to-date for a time when I'm in a position to purchase a home. I'd like to think that access to sunlight for possible solar energy can be a part of the decision making process. I hope others will take advantage of this tool as well!

Do you have access to this type of resource in your community? Would a tool like this help with your green living investments and choices?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Surrogate Garden: the Farmers Market



So here's the deal. I don't have a garden. I drool a bit over all the garden photos on The Green Phone Booth and elsewhere. I even have a Pinterest Garden board. I do aspire to having a garden, but I just don't have the mental space, time, or energy to embark on this new endeavor just yet. (If you'd like to come plant stuff in my yard for me and tell me exactly what to do afterwards, just let me know!)

But you know what I've got? I've got the farmers market. And oh, how I love the farmers market. I shop at one, sometimes two farmers markets every Saturday and purchase at least 90% of my family's produce there (bananas being the major exception). I kind of like to think of the farmers market as my garden. My surrogate garden, if you will. So for the last few weeks, I've been annoying my children by whipping out my smart phone to take photos at the farmers market.

Are you ready? Here are some photos of my pride and joy: my local farmers markets.






 


 











The local farmers market: the next best thing to growing your own.


How often do you shop at the farmers market?
What are your favorite things to purchase there?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Freezing the Harvest

Queen Composter shares how she preserves the bounty of the season for the long winter ahead.

This is the time of year when the earth's bounty is overflowing. The harvest is in full swing and there is abundant fresh, local and often organically grown vegetables and fruit. Those of us who have kitchen gardens are faced with buckets full of tomatoes, beans, zucchinis, greens and herbs. If you don't have your own garden, it is easy to find local food at farmers markets and local farms. I am trying to bake as much zucchini bread as I can, but it is nice to have homegrown, or locally grown food in the winter months when most of our produce comes from far away.

Climate Crusader has written of easy food preserving methods, and I would like to share my favourite way to preserve the summer bounty for the long, wet, cold winter. 

I enjoy eating my easy refrigerator pickles and beets, but I have yet to delve properly into the world of canning (it's on my "to learn" list every year). This would be my best bet for saving the majority of my harvest, but every year the complications of life seem to get between me and my canning dreams. 

Freezing the Harvest

My preferred method of food preservation, by default, is freezing my food. This past spring we used up the last of my frozen zucchini just as I was preparing to put the new zucchini plants into my garden bed. I have learned that it is possible to freeze many vegetables and berries, it just takes a little preparation and time to do it properly.


Garlic

I would be hard pressed to think of a meal that I cook that doesn't begin with garlic, and it is a basic staple that I must have on hand. I don't like buying non-organic garlic because pesticides can concentrate in the parts of plants that grow in the soil, as opposed to the parts of plants that we eat that grow above the soil. I also don't like the high cost, or quality, of organically grown garlic that is available in the winter months. Ideally the best way to have organic garlic is to grow it yourself, as I enjoy doing (I want to be a garlic farmer when I grow up), but local garlic is abundant now as the harvest should be finished curing (drying out the garlic bulbs for storage and intensity of flavour). Check out your local farmers market or farms in your area for availability. Garlic can last for several months in a cool, dry location, but to get through the long winter I like to freeze some of my garlic. 


Method:
  • Peel as many garlic cloves as you wish
  • Chop the cloves into small pieces. I mince mine in a food processor.
  • Add enough oil to the chopped garlic to cover it. I add olive oil to the garlic in the food processor and give it an extra pulse or two.
  • Section the garlic and oil mixture into ice cube trays and freeze. I try to make each cube be equal to what I would use in a typical meal for ease.
  • When the cubes are frozen, pop them out of the ice tray and store in a freezer safe container.


Herbs

I will use a similar method for preserving my fresh herbs. I don't dry my herbs because I don't have a food dehydrator (in a mad downsizing phase I gave mine away and I've regretted it ever since) and I personally find the long method of hanging the herbs doesn't preserve the flavour as well. 
My basil is almost ready to bolt so I need to harvest it soon.
Of course I will let some go to seed for seed saving.

Method:
  • Clean and pat dry the herbs.
  • Chop the herbs as finely as you desire.
  • In a bowl mix the herbs with the oil of your choice (I use olive oil).
  • Section the herb and oil mixture into an ice cube tray. Again, try to make each cube be equivalent to the amount you would want to season a meal.
  • When the cubes are frozen, pop them out of the ice tray and store in a freezer safe container. 

* I use the above method for pesto, which I often have huge amounts of earlier in the summer when I harvest my garlic scapes.  If you have never tried garlic scapes, the flower stem of hard neck garlic, I highly recommend it. I prefer scape pesto to regular garlic pesto because it has a more mellow flavour than garlic clove pesto. 


Vegetables

If you have to buy a zucchini in the summer you don't have friends. I haven't resorted to the ding-dong-ditch method of giving away my zucchinis yet, but in previous years I have come close. While my zucchinis aren't as plentiful this year as in previous years, it has been a banner year for my beans and I have more than I am able to eat. For these and other vegetables it is easy to blanch them then freeze for a locavore winter meal.

Blanching Method:

  • Wash and cut the vegetables into a desirable size. For example, I like wedges for my zucchinis.
  • Bring water to a rolling boil. 
  • Immerse the vegetables in the boiling water. Leave in for a few minutes (check blanching times for various vegetables here).
  • Remove and strain water from the vegetables.
  • Immediately place vegetables in ice water to halt the cooking process.
  • Pat the vegetables dry (to avoid freezer burn) and place on a baking sheet, ensuring the pieces are not touching (so that they do not freeze together into a block), and place in the freezer.
  • When the vegetables are frozen, remove from the baking sheet and place in a freezer safe container. 


I have a bit of a kale addiction and always grow too much. It is an excellent cold weather crop and as a result I don't need to preserve kale until well into late fall. I wait until around the first few frosts and then harvest as much as I can and freeze it.


Direct Freezing Method (Kale):

  • Wash and completely dry the kale.
  • Chop into very small pieces. I use a food processor.
  • Lay the kale in a thin layer on a baking sheet and place in the freezer. If it has been done properly, the kale should should crumble easily once frozen.
  • When it is frozen, place in a freezer safe container. 


Berries

My local area has numerous strawberry and blueberry farms and we like to buy large quantities at the end of the season when the berries aren't as pretty too look at but are more reasonable. I like using the frozen berries for baking or smoothies so less than perfect berries are ideal.

Method:

  • Gently rinse the berries to remove any dirt and remove any stems.. Cut off any blemishes or bruises (from strawberries).
  • Place berries on a baking sheet, ensuring they do not touch (so that they do not freeze together into a block). Place the sheet in the freezer.
  • When the berries are frozen, remove from the baking sheet and place in a freezer safe container. 


Monday, August 18, 2014

Greening Back to School

The Climate Crusader is getting ready to send her kids back to school sustainably.

When I logged into Instagram this morning, I saw that for many children in the United States, today was the first day back at school. Where I live on the West Coast of Canada, kids will be heading back to class the day after Labour Day in a couple of weeks. (We hope - as Queen Composter mentioned, there is an ongoing labour dispute that may or may not be resolved in time.) Regardless of whether your kids are already back in class or whether you have a few more weeks of summer vacation to look forward to, there can be no denying that preparations for back to school are in full swing. Today I'm thinking about how to go green when going back to school.


Five Ways to Green Back to School

  1.  Make an Inventory of What You Already Have - Reducing your consumption is a great way to go green. At back to school time that means buying only what you need, and nothing more. Inventory your kids' wardrobes and school supplies. If you already have an abundance of scissors, rulers, sneakers and long-sleeved shirts, there's no reason to buy more. You'll save money and spare the planet by using what you already have whenever possible.
  2. Plan Green Transportation - At the beginning of the school year, think about how you can make your trips between home and school more sustainable. Can you walk, cycle or take transit? If none of that works, how about carpooling? If you can trade off the driving with other parents you'll save time, reduce your carbon emissions and save money on gas.
  3. Buy Second Hand - Where possible, consider buying second hand. Water bottles, lunch boxes, backpacks, clothes and shoes are often available at thrift stores for a fraction of the cost. Plus, you're re-using something that someone else is finished with, which is always a green choice.
  4. Help Lost Items Find  Their Way Home - Kids have a way of losing things. That's just life. However, if you make sure that everything is labelled you increase the odds that it will be returned to you. If your school has a lost and found, stop by periodically and look through the items. You may be surprised to discover a sweater or hat you hadn't even realized was missing languishing there in the bin. If lost items can find their way home you're reducing your consumption and saving money.
  5. Reusables Rock - When you're shopping for back to school, look for reusable items wherever possible. When you opt for reusable food containers, water bottles, stainless steel straws or drawstring bags to hold spare clothes, you're reducing the amount of trash your kids produce. When you consider how much trash can come out of a single school lunch, you can see what a difference reusables make.
What about you - what are your green back to school tips?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nature Heals

Queen Composter has been feeling blue.

I have struggled with blogging for the past few weeks, with little desire and seemingly little time to do so, which is ironic given that I am on summer vacation. I have also been trying on post ideas and tossing them to the side because they didn't grab me. I have even forgotten to post when I have made commitments to do so, which makes me feel guilty. But I now have something that I think I am ready to share, and it is going to be hard for me, so please be kind.


I have been depressed for many weeks now. Thankfully I have not struggled with depression for many years, or a lifetime, as some people do. I am no expert on depression and in the past I have struggled to empathize with people who are depressed. You know, like just focus on the positive, stop dwelling on the negative in your life. I do understand that it is not this simplistic.


For many reasons my life this summer has been a perfect storm for depression. Professionally I am struggling because I am involved in a prolonged labour dispute (that escalated to full strike in June) that shows no end. This has triggered monetary stress, which in turn has triggered a whole variety of other stresses. Then there are cyclical reasons for my low mood (what woman hasn't experienced this?). The cherry on top is that my left hip has been inflamed and extremely painful since June (hmm, coincidence?) which has caused my lower back to go out. Anyone who has ever experienced chronic pain can tell you the effect that it can have on mood. Of course, the pain has slowed me down and I have not enjoyed as many long walks and bike rides as I had hoped I would. Thankfully my hip and back are improving (but that is another story).


Also playing into this, I believe, is that I may be spending less time outside than I should in the last couple of weeks. My middle daughter was stung quite badly at the beginning of the summer and it has been a struggle to get her to spend any length of time outdoors, which caused us to cancel our summer camping trip. Also, because it is so hot out during the day (we have had an unusually hot and dry summer here in the pacific northwest), we have been seeking cooler locations, usually indoors during the warmest times of the day. 


But I know that Mother Nature is the greatest medicine, and I have a treatment plan. 



Spend Time Outdoors


There are numerous studies singing the praises of time outdoors, and I know this to be true. I am continuing my participation in the 30 X 30 Nature Challenge from the month of May to spend at least 30 minutes in nature each day. This is an easy one because I have a veggie garden that requires my time each day. But I need to do more trips to the ocean (my happy place) and forests or wooded areas. The Japanese have a word for time amongst trees, shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing". 

At one my my local Happy Places, Garry Point in Steveston, BC

Spend Time Playing in Soil


Scientists have discovered that a bacteria in soil, mycobacterium vaccae, has a similar affect on our bodies as antidepressant drugs, and that by breathing in soil particles and digging in soil with bare hands helps the bacteria enter our system and have a calming effect on our systems. Mid summer I don't have as much need to play in soil but now that I'm preparing my fall and winter garden and harvesting the fruits of my labour, I am getting dirty again. I always feel rejuvenated after a gardening session, and now that the weather is beginning to cool down I can spend more time in soil.

I have logged many hours digging in my garden to grow
beautiful sunflowers.


Practice Mindfulness


As David Suzuki has shared, we are literally the air we breathe, and so when I am outside I try to find a quiet spot and time to breathe, or meditate. Even people who don't know who to meditate, or don't want to meditate, can calm themselves with a few deep, mindful breaths. Scientists have proven what yoga practitioners have known for centuries, that breathing techniques calm the brain and reduce stress and anxiety. Have you ever had your blood pressure taken before and after taking relaxing, deep breaths? Relaxing breaths are even more helpful when paired with mindfulness, or being fully present with each breath, while pushing aside or letting go of other thoughts. For a while this will feel very uncomfortable and most people will only be able calm their mind for minutes, but over time the ability to relax for longer periods will improve. I even use mindful breathing with my class of elementary students using the Mind Up program. *

Combining mindfulness and time outdoors.


I know that for severe depression professional help is required, and I am not saying that this is all that is required to deal with depression, just that it has worked for me in the past and I am trying it again.


Have you ever experienced low periods or depression? How have you dealt with it?



*Disclaimer:  I have not received any money or other benefits to share about the Mind Up program. I was trained by my school district and have used the program in my own class for one year. I am sharing it because I like the program and have seen the benefits of using it.




Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Food Miles vs Nostalgia

Mindful Echo feels guilty...but it might be worth it.

Forgive me bloggers, for I have sinned. I have forsaken my adherence to the rules of buying local and made a purchase that travelled no less than 1,895km (or 1177.5 miles). And you know what? I hardly regret it.

As much as I love living in Nova Scotia and am so grateful for the easy access I have to locally sourced, delicious food, I still sometimes miss the produce of my youth.



I grew up on the Niagara Peninsula: an area known for it's ideal conditions for the production of such deliciousness as grapes, cherries, and peaches. Summertime country roads were covered in fruit stands and I have fond memories of stopping to pick up the freshest baskets of fruit and cobs of corn.

It wasn't until I moved to Halifax that I started to really notice a difference in the price and availability of some of my favourites. Corn-on-the-cob, a summertime staple of my childhood, is often priced at $5 for 5 cobs at my usual grocery store. (Is it just me or is that not insanity?) What's worse is that it's usually found on trays of styrofoam,wrapped in plastic, and partially shucked.

COME ON, PEOPLE. Corn literally comes naturally PRE-WRAPPED already. Can someone explain to me the logic here?


When I spotted a basket of peaches yesterday, grown on the farmland of my former community neighbours, I couldn't resist.

And let me tell you: these peaches don't taste at all of regret. Instead, they taste like summertime. They taste like childhood. They taste delicious.



Monday, August 11, 2014

My Vermicomposting Venture

In which the Parsimonious Princess tells you about how worms eat her garbage.



Add having a worm composting bin to the list of things I never imagined I would ever do. It's right up there with cloth diapering, raising chickens, and beekeeping. I can't even tell you how many times it makes me think of that part in Dumb & Dumber when Lloyd pitches his idea for a worm farm business. I remember how disgusting that sounded back when I watched it in high school. Who would have thought that someday I'd have a small sort of worm farm? Weird.

Anyway...

I'm not entirely sure where I first learned about vermicomposting (aka, worm composting; vermis is the latin word for worms). I've had a regular compost bin the nine years I've lived in my house (the compost heap was one of the first things I did with my yard) and I'm always glad when I see worms in it. Not until last year, though, did I have a whole compost area devoted to worms.

Last year, I started seeing pins on Pinterest about worm composting and I was intrigued. I read about people keeping bins in their small apartments or under the sink in their kitchens. I saw plans for tall worm compost bins that looked kind of like beehives. It seemed like a great idea to have worms eat food scraps and junk mail to help your garden, but it seemed a bit overwhelming, too.

That was until I saw this pin about making a vermicomposting bin out of storage containers. It seemed so easy and doable! I highly recommend checking out her post (especially the really cute video with author's four-year-old son explaining how it works) -- there you can find the step-by-step instructions on how to make a worm bin. (My bin cost about $12 make, much cheaper than the $100 composters you can buy on Amazon and at other places and it took about 15-20 minutes to make.)

In this post, I'm going to share how to start vermicomposting and some insights to how it's working for us. Keep in mind, I've only done this for about a year and I'm still pretty new to this whole process and am by no means a worm expert (yes, they do exist). That said, it's been pretty simple thus far.

Filling the Worm Composter

First things first -- you need worms.


Worm composting requires a certain type of worm: red wiggler worms. You can't just go dig around in your yard or go to the fishing bait section and pick up a bunch of earthworms. From what I've read, these specific worms thrive on eating bacteria-laden and rotten food. Getting a pound or two of red wiggler worms is easy. There are lots of places online where you can order them -- even Amazon has listings for worms. I ordered mine from Wiser Worm Farm (nope, I'm not getting paid in worms to mention them here -- I'd just read a lot of good reviews about them and ordered from them). I got a pound of worms for $27, shipping included.

Once you've got the bin and the worms, it's time to put those little wiggly guys to work!


First, add some shredded up newspaper. I've been using grocery ads that come in the mail, along with my son's book order forms he gets from school (that is, after I'm done spending too much money ordering from them...ahem).


Next, add some dirt. The worms need the grit to help them digest.  As you can see, my oldest son and his cousins got in on all the wormy action and they took turns adding the dirt to the bin. (A worm bin is a great educational tool, I think. Since we made ours, my son loves to peek and show his neighborhood friends all the worms at work.)


Next, we added some food scraps I'd been collecting for the last couple days (more on what and what not to feed worms later).


Now you can introduce your worms to their new home. Once I dumped them in, the kids started naming them. In our worm bin, there's a little red wiggler named Charles and another named Sammy. It didn't take long for the kids to.realize that it's hard to come up with 500 names.


We poured a little water over the newspaper-scraps-dirt mixture and worms. To top it all off, we added a wet piece of cardboard (to keep the light out from the ventilation holes). Put the lid on and the worms are ready to get to work!

Maintaining Your Worm Bin
Once you've got them in the bin, now the fun part comes (I can't believe I said it's fun, but it kind of is). It's absolutely fascinating to watch them at work turning scraps in rich compost. What's great about vermicomposting is that it requires next to no work -- the main thing you have to do is make sure to keep them fed and moist.

There are a few guidelines on feeding worms -- there are foods they can and can't eat. The way I keep it straight is to think of them as a bunch of wiggly little vegans, because worms can't eat dairy or meat. Unlike vegans, though, they also don't eat oils or citrus.

What do worms eat? They like fruits and vegetables, breads and grains, eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds (including the filter. We don't drink coffee at our house, but I've heard that worms love coffee grounds), and shredded newspaper.


I've read that it's best to feed the worms food that's already starting to rot a little. This is where my compost pail comes in. Until just recently, I used this pail to hold kitchen scraps before taking them to the compost pile in the yard; now I use it exclusively for worm food. Since this pail can hold the stinkiest, most rotten stuff in it and you can't smell anything when the lid is closed, I let the scraps for the worms sit in there for a day or two and then dump it into the worm bin.


Other things to keep in mind when taking care of worms:
  • Keep the bin's contents damp, but not soaking wet. I keep a spray bottle filled with water next to the bin and give it a few sprays when things are looking dry in the bin.
  • I also have an old hand rake next to the bin to stir things around when I add new food for them. This also helps with ventilation so things don't get too compacted.
  • Don't keep your worm bin somewhere that's too hot or cold. You don't want it to be somewhere where it gets colder than 35 degrees or hotter than around 80. I keep mine in the garage (hence all the random stuff piled around the bin in the picture above).
  • Like with a regular compost pile, the worm composter doesn't stink if you're doing it right. If it stinks, that's when some troubleshooting is needed (maybe it's too wet, there's too much food, etc.). When I open my worm bin, it has a sort of pleasant, earthy smell. I say this not to brag but instead to point out how not-hard keeping a worm bin is.
Just as I'm fascinated by my compost pile outside, I find myself looking at the worm bin the same way. It's incredible to see a little sort of eco-system at work. 

I love being able to use the castings in my garden. Last fall, I didn't get around to harvesting the worm castings and my first batch of worms died during the winter (it was even too cold in the garage), so in the spring I dumped out the castings into two of my garden boxes and raked it all into the soil. I can't be 100% sure if the castings are the reason, but I've always struggled to grow really great greens in my garden (like Swiss chard, kale, lettuce, etc). This year, I have a bumper crop. With my new batch of worms, I'm hoping to do a proper harvest and make some worm poop compost tea with the castings to add to my garden beds. (Yep. Add "making worm poop tea" to that list of things I never thought I'd do, too.)

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