Friday, April 17, 2015

Life Lessons From Gardening: There Are No Mistakes

Queen Composter is learning from life's little curve balls.

I love gardening for so many reasons, not least of which because of everything gardening has taught me. Anyone who has tried to grow something can tell you something that they have learned through the process. Some speak of the appreciation they have for nature, for being witness to the life around them. Others speak about the time spent outdoors and the meditative effect of daily tasks and chores. Then there is the satisfaction of growing one's own food and being intimately connected to the earth.

My favourite gardening lesson is also my favourite life lesson.

There are no mistakes in gardening, only learning experiences.

It is all a matter of perspective, really, as is most of life. Glass half empty or glass half full?

Sure there are posts and books about common newbie gardener mistakes, like not giving plants enough space, under or over fertilizing, or planting in the wrong location. I have read many of them, and when I started container gardening many years ago, and then gardening in my raised beds 5 years ago I did what I do when I start anything new: I read up on how to do it.

But gardening, like life, cannot always be anticipated perfectly, and sometimes things do not go as planned. Of course it feels like a mistake when the garden does not turn out the way you intended it. 

But there are no mistakes, only learning experiences.

An example is my backyard garden so far this season. I was very excited to plant asparagus for the first time this year because I love perennial plants that are plant once and go. I wouldn't be able to harvest any spears this year to allow the plants to establish themselves firmly in the soil, but oh the wait would be worth it for delicious, fresh homegrown spring asparagus. I read the information packet that came with the roots I ordered from a local seed company, did a quick search on the internet to read a little more and then I planted them quickly before heading off on a family vacation.

Asparagus crowns: the roots are the long dangly parts. You
maybe can see why I thought the part of the crowns in the
bottom of the photo were the beginning of the roots,
rather than the future spears. Basically this is upside down.

While away, I woke up one night in a sweat because it suddenly dawned on my that I had planted the roots upside down. A typical newbie mistake! After cursing my mistake and being upset that I would now have to wait two years for my own spears, I calmed down and vowed I would measure twice, cut once from now on, so to speak. 

My asparagus bed with nothing. 

When it came time to plant my potatoes, after properly chitting them (another lesson learned), I decided to fill the raised bed where I had planted the asparagus (in half of the bed). As I finished the planting I came upon two asparagus plants that had not rotted. Instead of leaving them, I decided to pull them up and have a peek. Lo and behold, a spear! I am crossing my fingers that these little plants survive so it isn't a complete bust (and it very well might be because I think I've still planted them incorrectly), but if it is I have learned what asparagus roots look like, what it looks like as it is growing, and that I should always ask questions at the gardening shop about how to plant when trying something new

Hooray, a little spear! Isn't it so cute (it's about an inch long).

But the story doesn't end there. 

Last year I tried growing potatoes in three grow bags to free up space in my limited raised beds. They appeared to do well, but I found they dried out too quickly, and I was disappointed in the yield compared to the three plants I had in my beds the year prior. This past weekend I decided to pull out the grow bags out of the back of the junk area of my yard to dump the remaining soil into my garden. Surprise! There are now three grow bags with potatoes growing in them. It's a good thing we love potatoes in my family, because hopefully we will have enough to last until the fall, and maybe some early season ones now as well. 

With each mistake, and each season, I am slowly learning which plants are hardy and can take abuse, and how much abuse (newbie gardener mistakes) each plant can take. 

The very neglected potatoes in the grow bags. 

So, there are no mistakes in gardening and in life, just learning experiences and happy surprises. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Spring Gardening in Atlantic Canada Will Have to Wait

EcoYogini dreams of spring...

For Yulemas this year my lovely hubby built raised planter beds (using only a handsaw and drill, he got a skilsaw for yulemas itself.... which he said would have been helpful BEFORE while building my presents!) and heirloom seed varietals. I was (am) excited: it will be our first vegetable garden!

Now is the time that we should be thinking about starting our seeds inside, at least some of them, so that as soon as the frost is gone we can start a-planting.

Except, you may not have heard but Atlantic Canada (specifically Nova Scotia and Prince-Edward Island provinces) have been buried under a spell of perpetual winter. Almost Narnia-esque, or Hoth-esque, depending on your preference. If you wanna see truly crazy pics pre-March storm in PEI- check out this Buzzfeed post (PEI is the little island province near Nova Scotia).

Just last week we got another 5 cm of snow.

The Snowpocolypse (or end of the world) happened on March 18th this year, where we got between 75-90cm of snow. In one day. Over the course of February and March the Halifax area got 278 cm.

If you can't visualize that, let me help you.
(in the heart of Snowmaggedon, our front yard. What you can't see is my black Yaris hatchback under the snow bank to the right of the weeping birch)
Shovelling a path just to get to the car.... 

My Yaris hatchback is buried under that...

Car snow archeology!

One path shovelled...

Almost there....

(Hours later- done. Where Andrew is standing, the snow on the road was actually about a foot less than what you see there... so there was no point in shovelling further until our street was plowed)

Currently, almost a month after Snowmaggedon, our entire yard is still completely covered under 3-4 feet of snow. At least the snow banks lining our (hand shovelled) driveway now only come up to my hips instead of my head.

Migrating birds who come for worms and bugs (such as Robins and Woodcocks) are starving. Andrew and I bought raspberries for our little Robin buddies.

All spring-like activities are a future dream. I am insanely jealous of all the other Boother's pics of dry, spring-esque photos. Why do I live in Atlantic Canada? (Oh right, it doesn't usually snow THIS MUCH).

So... my expectations for our first ever vegetable garden are this: we will grow something edible. Hah, that's it. I think that's reasonable, eh?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Container Gardening: Not Only for Those with Small Spaces

The Climate Crusader is getting her 2015 garden off the ground.

I admit it: I am a bit of a haphazard gardener. I grow things, and I try to make sure that my plants are happy, but I rarely prune and I don't spend nearly as much time weeding as I should. In spite of my lax attitude, I still become very upset when I lose plants to pests. It's very discouraging to nurture wee little green shoots from seed, go through the excitement of new growth, and then discover them all decimated by a bug.

If I were a master gardener I would probably do things like monitor soil pH, rotate crops and attract helpful insects. I am not a master gardener. My solution is a little easier. Although I do have a yard and several garden beds, I still opt to grow many things in containers.  Since I fill my containers with fresh compost every year, my plants are protected from many of the creepy crawlies that can cause problems. In past years I've grown peppers, herbs and flowers in containers. This year I'm growing potatoes, peas and salad greens.


I shared my patio potato planters on this site a couple of years ago. While I bought some commercial potato growing bags, you can also easily create DIY planters. I've seen people use garbage cans, garbage bags, wooden planters and burlap sacks. What I really like about this method is how easy the potato harvest is: just pour out the bag and pick out the potatoes. I typically add the soil from the potato crop to my raised beds.


This year I purchased some new bag-style patio planters that have built-in pockets where you can add canes for growing plants that need support, like beans, tomatoes and peas. For my first outing I'm growing peas in my planters. The reason is less to do with pests and more to do with practicality. I have had limited success with trying to build my own pea trellises, and creating a pea teepee in my garden uses a lot of space. Moving them into bags frees up space in my garden beds and simplifies the process.


Of all the veggies I've grown, lettuce is the one that has suffered the most at the hands of pests. I live in the Pacific Northwest where the climate is very damp, and we have a lot of woodlice. These bugs are actually beneficial when it comes to breaking down compost, but they have a taste for wee little lettuce sprouts. They can bit off tender shoots in one go, decimating an entire crop in one night. Fortunately lettuce does well in most any container, and my wee little greens are safe from bugs.

Do you do any container gardening? What are your favorite crops to grow this way?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Are Plastic Bag Bans Worth It?

Queen Composter thought the debate on plastic versus paper was over, but now she's not sure.

Recently my family and I were on holiday in Maui, Hawaii, and as soon as we went shopping I noticed that everyone was offering us paper bags for our items. Of course I just pulled out the small cloth shopping bags that I keep in every bag I own and used that. On the few occasions the items didn't fit in my smallish shopping bags, I returned the paper bags and just carried out my purchases in my hand rather than use a large paper bag.

After a few days of this I did a quick google search to discover that there is a ban on plastic shopping bags on the island. My initial reaction was yes! But then I remembered that I saw everyone walking out of stores with paper bags, not reusable bags. When I remarked on this, my oldest daughter commented that paper bags are probably better than plastic.

It may have been due to being spring break and the area was full of tourists who (unlike me) do not travel with their reusable shopping bags, so their only choice was to use paper bags. However, this is not the full story because we also went shopping in less touristy areas and there was still a predominance of paper bags.

This did not sit right with me. After all, as a reasonably environmentally aware person, I knew that the best choice should always be to use reusable shopping bags, rather than having to chose between paper or plastic bags.
I love the reuseable bags I purchased years ago, and they
fold up small enough to fit in any bag or purse so I always
have one or two on hand when needed, even on vacation.

This is what we know about plastic shopping bags:

  • made from non-renewable resource
  •  carbon footprint in their production and recycling 
  • not recyclable in curb side pickups
  • harmful to wildlife, who may get tangled in or choked by the bags, or who may ingest them
  • take hundreds, if not thousands of years to breakdown in landfills
"Biodegradable" plastic bags, made from a mix of plastic and corn, have their own set of issues and are not a panacea for the environment.

However, I learned that paper shopping bags are no better than plastic, and in some cases may be worse than plastic:
  • cannot be made from recycled paper because of durability (although this may be changing as technology improves recycled paper products)  
  • is often is made from virgin wood, which is leading to clear cutting, habitat loss and deforestation (which is a huge problem in my home province)
  • consumes huge amounts of energy and water in both their production and  recycling (more than plastic bags)
  • cannot be easily reused because they tear easily (and in fact in many cases I saw doubling of paper bags in the store)
  • does not break down as easily as one would think in landfills 
Many of the paper bags I saw being used
were doubled up, as this is (see the two
handles) because they tear so easily, especially
when they get wet.

I also found some interesting infographics comparing plastic bag use and reuseable shopping bags (single use, versus multiple use) here

The plastic bag ban started to feel like environmental lip service and greenwashing. People get to pat themselves on the back that they are doing something for the environment, but it is just replacing one problem for another. 

So I ask readers who may live in areas with plastic bag bans: do you feel the ban encourages more people to use reusable shopping bags? Or is paper making a comeback? 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Why Are We Afraid To Talk About Climate Change?

From the bean of Green Bean.

I live in Silicon Valley.  You would be hard pressed to find a more environmentally aware region.  We have the highest percentage of hybrid and electric vehicles in the country.  Plastic bags are banned and cities compost our food waste.  Most restaurants boast farm to fork credentials and more people "go solar" every day.

In Palo Alto - Electric vehicles, bikes, and compost cans.

Even here, though, people hesitate to talk about climate change.  Most Californians consider climate change a serious threat.  (It is hard to ignore with all the brown lawns and bare ski slopes!)  But we don't talk about climate change.  We talk around climate change.

"What a beautiful day!"

"Yes, too beautiful, don't you think? It's only March!"


"We went to the beach this weekend."

"How was it?"

"Nice.  Really warm.  Too warm.  It's weird."

We all know what the other person is getting at.  Yet we cannot seem to form the words.  To connect today's dry spell with a new future.  To wonder, aloud, what our children's lives will be like?  Whether retiring to Tahoe might not be a great idea after all?  What will be left of our beautiful state if the drought drags on for another 10 years?

San Mateo County in spring time is a sight to behold! With only two rain 
storms this winter, however, the hills won't stay green long. 

Every now and then, I speak the words with people other than close friends.  I verbally connect the dots.  There is not disagreement.  Just discomfort.  Talking about climate change makes it real and real climate change is scary beyond words.

Climate change is not something that we can continue to ignore, though.  It is happening whether we want to think about it or not.  So how do we talk about it when it is so uncomfortable?  How do we keep the conversation going?  Do you talk about climate change regularly?  With close friends?  Acquaintances?  The guy at the check out line?  What tips can you share?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Looking Up: Breaking the Smartphone Habit

EcoYogini shares her recent technology addiction woes...

My hubby and I are part of the iphone club, and have been for about two years now. Our iphones are our first ever smart phones (prior to that we owned two pretty dumb phones for a few years).

I like technology. I like social media (yay Twitter!). I am definitely not a luddite.

But there's just something about constantly being glued to our smartphones that makes me uncomfortable. I suppose I'm already critical due to my job (children do not learn language from screens, please please no screen time before the age of 2yrs and limit before 5yrs! Rant over), but in the past few months three separate situations have forced me to take a closer look on how I use my smartphone. How WE use our smartphones.

Situation 1: Driving.
Driving while using/holding/looking at your smartphone is illegal in Nova Scotia. And people are finally getting ticketed. Honestly, I'm glad. I look over at a red light and I see all these people looking down. I KNOW you're not looking at your crotch dude. Distracted driving, of which cell phone use makes up a large part, is becoming the highest cause of car accidents in our country. It's serious business, and the evidence is out- it DOES cause accidents and deaths.

It was when I had to consciously coach myself to get through driving without checking that text or answering the phone that I realized that there was a problem. If I intellectually agree that smartphone use and driving is not cool, why was it so hard for me to resist that urge?

No text, tweet, facebook update or call is that urgent that it can't wait until I get to where I'm going (or, on long trips, that I can't pull over). It took a few weeks, and I still repeat the "no text is urgent" mantra, but the urge to answer is almost nil.

Situation 2: After Work
Months ago I decided that when at home I did not need to have my phone attached to my hand/hip all evening. There is something about being available 24/7 via text that irks me. So, when I get home I generally put my phone on the kitchen counter and that's where it "lives" for the night. I might grab it to tweet a few things here and there, or answer a text if I feel like it, but it has a "home". Just like our landlines used to. A simple strategy, but it works. (During work it's on vibrate and gets checked only a few times. Because I'm at work, working).

As a result I spend less time interacting with games/social media/texts on my phone and more time connecting with my family.

Unfortunately, simple modelling wasn't enough for my husband. A few weeks ago my hubby and I had to sit down and have "the talk". I started noticing that every time I looked over he was looking down at his phone. While we were getting supper ready together, eating supper, watching tv, chatting about our day, playing boardgames, even buying groceries. When did his phone become this full time attachment to his body?

When I baldly said that I almost never saw him anymore without looking at his phone, he was surprised. It had just become second nature that he doesn't even realize just how much screen time he's using. His phone constantly buzzes with notifications, which like a pavlov dog, he's become trained to respond with automaticity and without conscious thought: buzz=check phone.

He's been trying to leave his phone away from his person in the evenings, instead of keeping it in his pocket. He's shut off most of his notifications. We're recognizing that simply will power and good intentions aren't enough. We need to pre-emptively modify our environment to maximally support the desired behaviour. It hasn't been overnight, but it's been improving.

Situation 3: Technology in the bedroom.
I am a firm believer of no TV in the bedroom. I've read enough research that clearly shows the best sleep is when you shut off the tv for at least 30min before bedtime. I also apply this to non-tv screen time. I don't read emails, answer texts or check blogs before bed. Doing so makes your body tense and stimulates cognitive functioning (all no-nos for getting ready for sleep).

For months now I have been trying to get my husband to charge his cell phone downstairs. Currently, like most people, he charges it right next to the bed. His reason? "It's my clock!". Except, we have an alarm clock on my side of the bed and I am always the one that wakes up first. The reality is that from the moment he wakes up he's checking  twitter, facebook and his games while still in bed.

Recently there's been some research indicating that the different notifications during the night, even if they don't make a noise, will disrupt your sleep patterns. You don't wake up fully, but when your phone lights up (even just a bit), it alters your sleep wave patterns and brings you up from a deeper sleep. The blue light in the screen disrupts melatonin production.

So yes, he puts his phone on "sleep" mode after a certain hour... but really it just means that the first thing he does while still in bed each morning is check his phone, it follows him as he stumbles to the bathroom, takes a shower and decides on what to wear while. I come up to find him staring down at his phone while still in his bath towel.

Last night he charged his phone in the master bathroom. This weekend we are buying him an alarm clock.

All this because I look around while at restaurants, coffee shops, parks, walking down the street and all I see are people looking down instead of at each other. In order to care about our planet I am a firm believer that we need to CONNECT with it... and each other...and we can't truly do that while glued do our smartphones, looking down.

How do you use your smartphone? Have you found it challenging to put it aside? Do you have tips or tricks you use?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Let's See Some Identification, Please

Mindful Echo is an ENVIRONMENTALIST.

A while back, when I was updating my blog and Twitter profiles, I decided to include "environmentalist" in my bios. At the time though, typing the word did give me pause. Am I an environmentalist? I mean, it's not my profession; I didn't study it in school. Am I even allowed to use this term?

It's easy enough to say I'm into green living, eco-friendly, sustainable living, and so on, and so on. All those adjectives become a bit cumbersome though. I like that environmentalist is succinct and encompasses all the other terms.

To cover my bases, I did a bit of searching to see how others were using the term. I was relieved to discover that, with my beliefs and practices, I could, indeed, claim environmentalist as an identity! came to my rescue with their second definition:

The Encyclopaedia Britannica provides a thorough and in-depth explanation of the discipline, where I am also able to see myself:
Of course, everyone's go-to reference these days, Wikipedia, needs to be included in this list:

After this quick web research I decided I felt good about labelling myself as an environmentalist. I still continue to qualify it as just an "everyday environmentalist" in casual conversation and add in some other descriptions for clarity sake.

I encourage other green-living folks to stand up and shout out if you too are living green. Identify!

So tell me, how do you identify yourself in the context of eco-conscious, sustainable, environmentally-friendly living?


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