Friday, May 30, 2014

Poisoning Paradise: Are Your Plants Killing Bees?

From the bean of Green Bean.

UPDATE: I'm thrilled to report that the native plant grower, Suncrest Nursery - a big operation - has announced that it will stop the use of neonictinoids. They did this as a result of my communication with them, which I then shared with my native plant listserve.  The resulting hubbub on the listserve - with people calling and writing them, including nursery owners - convinced Suncrest to stop using neonic pesticides.  Never think you cannot make a difference! 

Last summer, Friends of the Earth came out of with a mind-blowing report that over 50% of "bee-friendly" plants sold by big box stores - Home Depot, Lowes, Orchard Supply Hardware - were pre-treated with neonics, systemic pesticides that stay in the plant and get into surrounding soil and water.  All of this is done with no label or other warning to those of us trying to attract, oh I don't know, bees with our newly purchased "bee-friendly" plants.  What the hey!?

As much as this report upset me and as much a I shared it on social media, I knew that I was okay.  I buy my plants at a small, independent nursery, thank you!  Moreover, many of my newer plants are natives.  So, all good, you know!

Until I visited that same local nursery last week.  Russian sage caught my eye.  Nowhere near native but my dad had some and it was blooming like crazy when nothing else was.  Score one - or two - for the pollinators because I grabbed not one, but two plants.

Then I headed to the native plant section.  I was so happy to see how it has grown over the years.  It now takes up several tables.  Winning!!  I really didn't need anything but I did spy a ceanothus and there is that bare spot and I have been wanting to add another one so, okay, twist my arm.  I buy the native plant as well.

I chat it up with the woman at the register, load my plants in the car and head home.  And then it hits me.

Might these plants be pre-treated with bee-killing plants?  These very plants which I am planting to attract bees, native pollinators, birds.  Might I be poisoning them?  Even though I bought them from locally owned nursery?

I don't even think about the native plant.  I mean seriously.  What native plant nursery would use such products.  It's like, totally antithetical to native plants.  Yeah?

The grower for the Russian Sage, though, is clearly printed on the pots.  Monrovia.  I start to hyperventilate - kind of.  I look them up on the Internet.  Nothing re Monrovia and neonicotinoids.  Nothing re Monrovia and neonics.  Finally, I hit on Monrovia and pesticides.  But wouldn't you know it?  They are a happy, green nursery, see.  I mean, they got this Sustainability Certificate so, like, awesome.  My Russian sages and I are all good.

Just to be safe, though, I send them an email and tuck the plants in an out of the way spot.  A week later, Monrovia has not responded so I send another email.

In the meantime, I have planted my native plant.  Watered it.  Felt great about it.  Then I start to wonder.  Would a native plant nursery pre-treat their plants with bee-killing pesticides too?  So I shoot that grower an email asking.

On the same day, I get my answer from both Monrovia and the native plant grower.  A big ole YES to both!  Both nurseries use neonic pesticides sometimes.  Monrovia doesn't think it is a problem because, the science is, like, unsettled.  Plus, mites are bad.  The native plant nursery wishes they didn't use neonictinoids but they are mindful of the issue.  Mindful, see?  Like yoga.

Except I am not feeling the mindfulness now.  I yank the ceanothus out of the ground.  I return my plants back to the nursery with a print out of the Friends of the Earth retail letter and the emails from the two growers.  Then, I share the native plant nursery's emailed response with my local Native Plant group.  Several members are landscapers and a couple own nurseries that stock plants from this grower.  They all get on the phone to their contacts at the grower, delving into the insecticide issue and expressing their displeasure.  Guess what!?  The native plant nursery responds and is working with group members on alternatives.  The Native Plant list is now abuzz with discussion on protecting bees, eliminating pesticides and calling out growers who use systemic pesticides.


ALL plants sold at ANY nursery - unless certified organic or otherwise labeled that untreated - may be poisoning your backyard paradise.  Even if you buy them at your favorite independent, locally owned nursery.

When buying plants ask questions.  Contact the grower (often nurseries are unaware of the issue but growers know if they use neonics or not).  Voice your disapproval.  Seek out neonic-free plants (here and here).  Grow from untreated seed or propagate from a friend.  Buy organic (which is hard to find beyond edibles).  Return treated plants.

Make some noise and save some pollinators!

Feel free to let Monrovia know how you feel by contacting them here.   To see actual responses from the Monrovia nursery -cut and pasted onto a post in my blog because I'm so not a techy, please see here.

Monday, May 26, 2014

DIY "Suet" Bird Feed Block!

EcoYogini shares her latest adventure in bird nerding: suet making....

Since moving into a house with a yard, Andrew and I have become ridiculous bird nerds. We count the different birds who visit our feeders, devise devious plans to thwart Mr Squirrel (while never following through cuz we can't *actually* be that cruel) and excitedly text pictures of new birds at the feeders to each other so neither of us misses a bird opportunity.

Concurrently, Andrew and I have been pouring the bacon fat from the pan into glass jars in order to avoid damaging our sewage systems. This is mostly the result of being a napkin and papertowel free home. And you know, trying to decrease *some* of the fat we ingest (hah).

I had in my mind a vague idea that I could make my own "suet" birder feeder blocks with the bacon fat and for weeks talked about it but never followed through. Until the past weekend. Within a day of putting in the block our DIY bacon fat "suet" bird feeders were devoured. Although it was probably mostly Mr Squirrel, we did see chickadees and crows mow down on the block. Success!

(Quick note on the fact that we used bacon fat instead of suet. Suet is actually a part of pig fat and is actually better for birds since it has much less salt. After some research, it would appear the salt may not be so great for animals.... but a few sites felt that mixed in with other ingredients it should be just fine. My thought? We have bacon fat available and this is a way to reuse everything from our cooking. If you don't feel comfortable using bacon fat, or you don't eat bacon (good for you!) you can purchase suet from your local butcher).

Despite the fact that melting the bacon fat was a little gross, the entire process for making the block feeders was ridiculously easy and took virtually no time at all. PLUS, they freeze easily, so can keep for long periods of time.

DIY Block Bird Feeders: (recipe from David Suzuki)
1 cup of suet/vegetable shortening (or bacon fat)
1 cup of unsalted natural peanut butter (this is even MORE important if you're using bacon fat, the less salt otherwise you can add as possible, the better)
4 cups of bird seed (or dried fruit/legumes/grains)
1 cup of flour


  1. Melt the fat into a small saucepan. (If you're using bacon fat, your kitchen will smell like delicious bacon, be forewarned.) 
  2. In a large bowl add the peanut butter, flour and bird seed. Mix together.
  3. Pour the fat into the bowl and mix together
  4. Spread mixture into a tin (I used a 9x9 cake pan so I could cut it into four blocks, but you could use muffin tins or bread loaf pans)
  5. Allow to cool (I placed mine in the fridge to avoid cat damage)
  6. Cut into blocks, using a spatula remove blocks.
  7. Place in a wire cage suet feeder (or mesh bag)
  8. For storage: freeze

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Unpaving Paradise: How to Start a Wildlife Garden

From the bean of Green Bean.

I make my home on the San Francisco Peninsula - on the crust of Silicon Valley.  Here, where orchards and oak trees once mingled, houses shoulder together, the occasional hedge and obligatory fence dividing the land.

We bought our current home four years ago - lured by the large empty yard full of possibility.  The "back 40" boasted a few neglected fruit trees - fig, apple and prune.  The side yard was a patchwork of juniper trees and English ivy and the front yard was overly manicured, cookie cutter greenery.

I embraced the blank slate, but bemoaned the lack of life in my new home.  Pollinators were few and far between. Occasionally, a sole scrub jay would stop by the property and rats ran rampant in the ivy but, otherwise, the only life here was ours.  It was lonely.

Four years later, we have had nearly 40 different species of birds visit our yard.  About 2/3s of those are regular visitors and at least four species of birds - Juncos, chickadees, titmice and wrens - nested in our backyard just this year.

Chickadees had a brood of 4 babies whose rubber duckie-like squeaks filled the backyard.

Opening up my garden to wildlife has been enjoyable, enriching and makes just the smallest dent in habitat loss animals are experiencing though out the globe.  It was neither expensive nor time-consuming. Yet this transformation worth every cent and hour spent.  Family from rural areas visit and are awed by the variety and number of birds our yard hosts.  My sons and husband have turned into ardent bird watchers. And my blood pressure drops every time I step outside to a chorus of birdsong.

If you are at all interested in bringing more birds, pollinators or other beneficial insects into your yard, follow any one or more of these steps to unpave paradise:

1) Just Add Water.  We have far more birds come to our birdbaths than to our two feeders or elsewhere in the yard.  Last weekend, we came home a hawk in one of the birdbaths.  In this packed suburban neighborhood, we've had orioles and grosbeaks, warblers, Spotted Towhees and woodpeckers.  Everybody loves a good drink or bath.

Resident finches have a party in the birdbath.

There are only a few rules about water for wildlife.  Keep it clean and keep it full.  An overhanging tree or tall shrub that the birds can fly up is much appreciated.  Place at least one of your birdbaths within view from a common room in the house.  That way you can enjoy all the activity! 

Migrating robins find a watering hole.

2) Let Fallen Leaves Lie (or Bring Them In).  Refraining from raking leaves out of the beds and/or adding leaves collected from elsewhere into the beds was one of the most effective ways we have boosted the biodiversity of our yard.  Not to mention that it was free!!!  

A Varied Thrush visited our garden for the first time this year. It spent much of its time
digging through 3 years worth of leaf litter.

Leaves add mulch and nutrients to the soil.  Bugs help decompose the leaves.  And the birds scavenge the leaf litter, looking for tasty morsels.  The only problem with leaf litter is that I cannot seem to get enough of it! 

Leaves used instead of traditional mulch in this native garden (not mine).

3) Assess Your Existing Plants and Trees.  You don't need to rip everything out of your yard to make it more wildlife friendly.  Look around to see if wildlife are using any of the plants you currently have. For instance, we opted to keep four unsightly Hollywood juniper trees.  They are not native but they are evergreen and mature. They provide privacy from the neighbors, nesting space for the birds (I think there is a goldfinch nest up there), and juniper berries. I never realized the last one until a flock of cedar waxwings descended on the trees this spring.  Similarly, camellias offer little wildlife value in general but they are evergreen and provide cover.

An Anna's hummingbird enjoys the existing bottlebrush bush in January, when little else is in bloom.

Bewick's wrens and other small birds use the non-native blackberry for safety and scouting.
4) Plant Natives.  Native plants and local wildlife have co-evolved together for thousands of years. Insects eat the plants (actually a good thing!). Parents feed the insects to their baby birds. And the cycle continues. 

A just-fledged Dark eyed Junco.

The good news is that you do not need to plant all natives all right now!  I've underplanted our junipers and camellias with evergreen natives.  When the natives are big enough, I'll remove the non-natives. 

Another tactic is to focus on certain beds.  I have left the Home Depot-ish front yard mostly intact - replacing only two beds with natives.  As they grow and I save up money, I will redo the rest.  Same goes for the side yard.  We pulled out the ivy and replaced it with slowly natives and a couple of wildlife-friendly non-natives as time and money permitted.

Deer enjoy the shade of the existing Japanese maples and mostly leave the newly planted natives alone.

A Grosbeak uses the Hawthorne as cover before dipping into the birdbath.

5) Be Patient.  All the bird nests in our yard this year are along a single fence wall.  It might be the exposure but I have had the birdhouses up there for years though without a single taker. More likely, the burgeoning hedge of native shrubs - planted three years ago - are finally big enough to offer real cover.  

The titmice nested in this birdhouse, covered by native Ceanothus. 

6) Put In a Wildflower Meadow.  Wildflowers answer the impatient gardener's prayers.  Packages of seeds sown in the fall provide cover in winter, bloom in spring and reseed themselves for next year's meadow.  Beneficial insects overwinter, pollinators buzz, and birds handle the clean up - of bugs and seed heads left to dry.  

A Junco perches on some Clarkia wildflowers that reseeded from last year's seed packet.

I often plant wildflowers in out of the way spaces with no irrigation.  I let rain do the watering and don't bother to clean up in the spring. Another option that worked well for me was to plant wildflowers as a cover crop to my pumpkin/bean patch.  As the wildflowers are dying, it is time to tuck in the squash seeds.  Cheap and effective!

7) Keep Cats Out of the Garden.  Before I realized the ecological impact of outdoor cats, I let my kitty wander.  I thought he spent his time sunning himself until I saw him efficiently catch a bird that had dropped into the birdbath.  Apparently, the average outdoor cat kills over a dozen birds a year - most of which the owner does not see.  After the birdbath incident, my outdoor cat became an indoor cat.  I worried less about him getting hit by a car, stuck under the house when we had work done (it did happen!), eaten by a mountain lion, and so on.  We have two bird feeders on our property - both placed by windows.  Our two cats enjoy - but do not participate in - the activity.  Everyone has adjusted and is happy - especially the birds.

8) Kick Out Chemicals.  Last, but certainly not least, you cannot have a wildlife garden without ditching pesticides and herbicides.  Using those in a garden eliminates baby bird food, endangers pollinators and is simply not necessary.  I do see insect damage - regularly - on my native plants.  That is a good sign. It means that something is using them.  Knock on wood but I have never had a native plant killed by insect damage. They work hand in hand, it seems, the plant growing too fast for the nibbles to do real damage.  

We have paved too much of our land. Broken it into parcels.  Set up strip malls and parking lots. Habitat loss is number one cause of species decline but we can stem that loss.  We need to stop further development.  We also need to start replacing what has been lost.  We need to stitch back together a patchwork to give the insects, the birds, the small mammals a toehold on this changing planet.  I recently read that 5 yards in a city block is a sufficient pollinator corridor.  That - and the transformation of my own garden - gives me hope.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Confessions of a Mediocre Gardener

The Climate Crusader is making her peace with crop failures in her vegetable garden.

Every year I plant a vegetable garden, and every year it follows the same story arc:
  1. My seed catalogue arrives, and I'm filled with excitement over all the possibilities. What will I grow this year?
  2. After much deliberation I place my order. My overriding emotion at this point is anticipation.
  3. The seeds arrive, and then the day comes when it's time to start them. Mood: hopeful.
  4. The first sprouts poke through the dirt, and I experience awe at the tiny miracle of wee little plants.
  5. I start hardening off my little seedlings, and plant my first seeds outside. I am once again hopeful, and dreaming of the harvest.
  6. The first sprouts poke through the dirt outdoors, and there's more awe.
  7. A week or two later, I notice that many of the seedlings I started inside and planted in my garden have missing leaves, and many of the sprouts from the seeds I direct-sowed have disappeared altogether. I feel murderous rage towards the creature that ate them, and despair that all my hard work was for naught.
  8. I take measures to protect my wee plants against slugs and bugs, and re-sow where I can. I am resolute.
  9. Some of my plants pull through! I will have some vegetables after all! I am still angry at the garden pests, but I am no longer filled with despair.
  10. The first veggies are ready for harvest, and I am happy once again. The lost crops are forgotten amidst the amazing tastes of fresh produce, and my feelings of accomplishment.
Right now, I am mired in step 7. All of the quinoa I planted? Gone. Most of the Brussels sprouts, too. Half of my broccoli plants were eaten, and more than half of my amaranth. I spent the afternoon poring over natural pest management tips. I also used a rock to squash a slug that had the misfortune of crossing my path. I'm not particularly proud of it, but the murderous rage was strong in me. That slug ate my baby plants.

These plants sadly didn't make it

Gardening, for me, is an exercise in patience and letting go of the outcome. It's something that I have to re-learn every year. I can't get too attached to any particular seed I plant. I have to look at each failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. Did I put the plants out too early? Did I not water as often as I should? Did I water too much? How could I have better protected my plants? Each time something goes wrong, there's a lesson to be learned. It's a hard lesson, though.

Today is Victoria Day in Canada, which is traditionally a day for gardening. It's unfortunate that I'm currently at step 7, but maybe it's also fitting. After all, gardening is an exercise in connecting with the planet. It doesn't always go smoothly. You need to be aware of the rhythms of nature, of what works in your particular garden, of when to reap and when to sow. And even still, things can go wrong. Weather can be unpredictable. Crops can fail.

My garden is a mixed bag, because Mother Nature has a mind of her own. On balance, though, she knows what she's doing. If we can learn to follow her lead, in the end we'll make it to step 10, when the first bite of fresh carrot helps us forget all of our failures.

How do you handle crop failures? I could use tips and moral support!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Egg Shells for Tomatoes

Queen Composter shares how she uses egg shells in her garden.

As my Green Phone Booth name suggests, I love composting. But there is one item that I never put into my backyard compost bin; egg shells

We save every single egg shell that we generate and now I have a fairly sizable bag. I have read many blog posts on the multiple uses of egg shells, such as growing seedlings in them, and using for a calcium boost in smoothies. I use them in two particular ways for gardening.
  1. I crush egg shells and scatter them around my young plants to protect them from snails and slugs.
  2. I grind them up and use them as a calcium supplement for my tomato plants.

Tomatoes are prone to a problem known as blossom end rot, which is when the bottom on the tomato, where the blossom was originally, begins to rot. This is due to a calcium deficiency, which eggs shells can alleviate.

Tomatoes with blossom end rot resulting from
calcium deficiency. Image source link

Last year I grew my own tomatoes from seed, but to guarantee homegrown tomatoes, I bought some plants to supplement what I grew. My tomatoes from seeds produced fewer tomatoes because I started them late, but they did not suffer from blossom end rot as my store bought tomato plants did. The main difference was that I added egg shells to my own plants.

I grind egg shells up in to a powder-like consistency using a mortar and pestle. Some people use coffee grinders to obtain a very find powder, but I enjoy the low tech method of grinding by hand.

When I transplant my new tomato plants as young seedlings, I add some of the egg shell powder to the soil before I add the plants. It is important to have the egg shell powder in the soil near the roots.

When it comes time to transplant these young tomatoes into larger pots I will repeat this process and add more egg shell powder. 

There are commercial fertilizer mixtures that add calcium to the soil, but I love this cheap and easy method. I know what I am putting in my soil and it is free of synthetic fertilizers. 

My bag of egg shells is quite large, so I would love to learn more ideas for using them. Do you have any to share?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Recycled and Reused Renovations

T'is the season for home repairs for Mindful Echo.

I love my flat. It's in a great neighbourhood and it's the perfect size for my tiny, furry family. One of my few complaints, however, is that the former homeowner took a few too many shortcuts with her home upkeep. Mostly the issues aren't apparent to the naked eye, for which I'm grateful. However, whenever I do take a closer look at the man behind the curtain, I'm often met with the disappointing fact that the materials used were cheap or just wrong, or that the labour was done improperly, or sometimes it's just that the place/item was poorly cared for.

Thus, over the past two years, I've been slowly making upgrades to the space. I do what I can personally with painting, decor, and basic electrical, but always, ALWAYS turn to a professional for the big, important stuff. One of the challenges that I've been facing is that I want the updates to my home to be location-appropriate as much as modern, and perhaps even more so.  While not historic itself per se, my building is fairly old and is part of a historic Halifax neighbourhood. (Any guesses which one?)

The good news is that being location-appropriate actually ties in super well to my other challenge, which is to make upgrades in as many environmentally gentle ways as possible. My favourite solution to both of these issues is to source used, vintage, and recycled materials as much as possible. This weekend I checked out an awesome local option for this type of endeavour: the architectural salvage store, Renovators Resource. They were a veritable goldmine of rescued materials and I left the store filled with ideas for upcoming projects.

Other great options for rescuing salvaged materials for your renovations might include neighbourhood thrift stores, Habitat for Humanity stores, and - with summer coming - the weekend yard sales are always a good place for treasure hunting.

Any other great places for renovation gems?

Monday, May 12, 2014

High and Dry: Why the Clothesline Deserves a Comeback

In which the Parsimonious Princess waxes nostalgic and sings the praises of line drying clothes. 

Throughout my childhood, we had a clothesline. It was just out the back door of the house, right past the laundry room. In many ways, the clothesline almost seemed like an extension of the house, like an outdoor adjacent room.  I can clearly remember my mom always hanging out the laundry. I loved to play in the damp rows of clean towels, cloth diapers, jeans, and sheets as they billowed in the breeze.  And, to this day, one of my very favorite smells is clean sheets that have been dried on a clothesline; when you lay down to sleep on them the smell is heavenly. If the sun has a smell, that has to be it.  When my family  moved away from the house with the conveniently-placed clothesline, my mom used the clothesline less and less for everyday laundry, though she still used it for sheets and pillowcases.

Despite all my pleasant memories of having a clothesline, I'd never given much thought to having one of my own until a few years ago ago when I got really interested in cleaning naturally. I remember reading books about green cleaning and being amazed/horrified by all the things in dryer sheets.  A ton of chemicals are used make laundry static-free (you can find a list of the ingredients here). I wanted to use a clothesline just to avoid the toxins in dryer sheets! (Sidenote: even if you use your dryer, you don't need dryer sheets or chemical softeners -- vinegar does the trick!)

I've also since learned that dryers are a major energy-using appliance. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the clothes dryer alone uses up around six percent of your home's energy usage. Of all household appliances, the clothes dryer comes in at #2 for using the most energy; the refrigerator comes in at number one. Isn't it interesting though, that, unlike the refrigerator that is on 24/7, the dryer ranks so high even though it is only used in spurts, just a few times a week? I've read that running a clothes dryer is the equivalent of turning on 225 CFL lightbulbs for an hour. And that's for an appliance that we don't have to use.

Let me repeat that. You don't have to use a dryer.

Turns out, when you leave North America, the dryer becomes less and less of a necessity for people. In one article I read, 85% of American households have a dryer; in the UK, only 57%. When you hit mainland Europe, the percentages go even lower. Italy has the lowest percentage -- it's reported that only 5% of homes own a dryer. Around the world, this is the case. The clothes dryer is really a luxury appliance.

There are so many benefits to using a clothesline: they're inexpensive, they save you money on your energy bills, they help your clothes last longer, the sun bleaches out stains better than almost anything, and line-dried clothes smell so fresh and clean.

So why don't more people use a clothesline? Why have they become a thing of the past for  so many Americans?

I have a few speculations why they aren't popular here, along with some solutions.

Problem #1: Air-dried clothes are stiff and rough, not nearly as soft as clothes from the dryer.
When I mentioned that I wanted to use a clothesline to my husband, he groaned and told me about how much he hated how stiff his clothes were from the clothesline when he was a kid. This can be a definite drawback, but it isn't without a solution.
Solution: One way to get soft line-dried clothes is to tumble them in the dryer on the cool/fluff setting for 5-10 minutes before hanging the laundry. Sure, you're using the dryer, but since the heat element isn't on, it doesn't use much energy. I line-dried cloth diapers and kept them soft using this method. (For the side-by-side comparisons, you can read more about it on a post I wrote here.) If you don't have a dryer or you don't want to use it, vinegar goes a long way in helping clothes stay soft, too; it's a great natural fabric softener. (You can find more tips about using vinegar in the laundry here and here.). A third solution: just get used to the stiffness of air-dried clothes. It's really not that bad and goes away after you wear the clothes for a while
Upside: Even if your clothes are rough (which, if you use my methods mentioned above, they won't really be), the fresh, sunny smell of laundry dried outside totally makes up for it.

Problem #2: Clotheslines aren't as convenient as a clothes dryer.
That's totally true. That's the reason I don't line dry all of my laundry. Let's face it: it is more convenient to just toss wet laundry into the dryer instead of hauling it out and hanging it on the line. But you know what? It's not that inconvenient. It really doesn't take a lot of time to hang up a load of laundry -- and it's actually kind of enjoyable on a sunny summer day.
Solution: If you're reading this blog, you know that being eco-friendly sometimes takes some forethought and a little extra work at times. Take plastic bags at the grocery store: they're certainly more convenient, but it is really that hard to take your own? Same goes for hanging laundry: when you weigh the pros and cons, it becomes a trade-off that you're willing to make.
Upside: I've found that line-drying actually makes folding clothes more convenient since I fold my laundry as I remove it from the clothesline. It's much less daunting than a mountain of laundry that tumbles out of the dryer.

Problem #3: Clotheslines aren't allowed due to homeowner associations or community restrictions.
This is a legitimate problem that many people face because some homeowners associations (HOAs) think that clotheslines affect the look, perceptions, and aesthetic feel of the community. Some HOAs will even threaten legal action for people who violate the rules and use a clothesline outdoors.
Solution: One solution is to dry your clothes indoors on retractable clotheslines and drying racks. But if you want all the benefits of air-drying outside (like the fresh smell and the stain-fighting power of the sun) but your HOA won't allow it, speak up! One resource/ally: Project Laundry List, where you can find resources and help. Enough people have spoken in favor of having clotheslines that my home state of Utah, along with Florida, Maine, Vermont, Colorado, and Hawaii, have passed laws that actually restrict housing authorities from banning clotheslines.
Upside: Since I live on the corner of my neighborhood, everyone pretty much sees what's going on in my yard. I can't tell you how many nice comments and compliments I've gotten on my clothesline; people have even called my retractable clothesline, laden with clothes, "cute". I tell you, there's a sort of happy nostalgia to clotheslines that people like.

Let me perfectly clear: I am not against using the clothes dryer. Not at all. I use it throughout the winter months and I use it year-round for my towels, in particular. Some days are busier than others and sometimes the weather outside doesn't cooperate. But imagine the difference if everyone air-dried even just one load of laundry a week. I'm a huge believer that little actions add up.

And one more reason the clothesline deserves a comeback: I believe they're good for your soul. Seriously. I love standing outside, in the fresh and sunny weather, hanging up laundry. As I do my laundry, I watch my kids playing in the yard, I hear birds in the trees, I feel the breeze. and when I have to hang each article of clothing, one by one, I can't help but think of the person who wore that item of clothing. My seven-year-old's soccer jersey. My three-year-old's denim overalls. My husband's funny t-shirts. You don't get those same moments of reflection and gratitude when you shove clothes into the dryer. Hanging clothes outside is a simple act, but I love it because it makes me slow down.

Spring is full swing and summer is on our doorstep. Now is a perfect time to go all old-school and get a clothesline. When you get a whiff of the sweet-smell of your clothes, you'll be glad you did.

Friday, May 9, 2014

How I Took My Hearing for Granted, and How Losing it Affects my Connection with Nature

EcoYogini shares a loss and how that had a surprising impact on her eco-life...

Something I never thought would impact my connection with nature: my ability to hear.

I say this because I never actually thought I'd have trouble with my hearing. I'm a musician. I sing, play the piano (classically for a while), play the guitar and spent my teenage years listening to stupidly loud music (ok still do that), sang in a band and eventually worked as a bartender. Honestly, my noise exposure was about typical for most teenage, early twenties experience.

Concurrently, I grew up loving the sound of all sorts of wild life, especially bird calls. My dad is a bird nerd- and that definitely shows in me. One of my favourite parts of our new house is our ability to have different bird feeders. One of my favourite memories growing up is sitting on our cottage deck at dusk and listening to the loon, night birds, peepers, bull frogs... and the ringing in my ears.

I don't remember a time when I didn't have some sort of ringing in my ears. Especially when everything else got really quiet. I just assumed that this was a normal part of the hearing experience.

Until my first year in my masters. As part of a master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology you have to complete a minor in Audiology. Which involves practicing basic hearing tests on your fellow students. It quickly became clear that most early twenties people do not in fact have a ringing in their ears that complete masks a few frequencies. 
(My audiogram looks kinda like this one. Normal hearing for lower to mid frequencies then a huge DIP into it needing to be louder for 4000-6000Hz followed by a return to normal hearing)

At the age of 23 I was diagnosed with a bilateral, sensorineural mild to moderate (it is now strictly moderate) high frequency notched hearing loss with tinnitus. Sounds scary? It's cuz it is. It's permanent hearing loss in a pattern perfectly matched to noise induced hearing loss. What that means exactly is that for about two frequencies (or sound pitches) it needs to be pretty loud of me to hear them. Otherwise I can't tell the sound apart from the high pitch squeal, the tinnitus, that is always in my ear. (for more info on Tinnitus, ringing/noise in your ear, check out this link).

Ok ok. So beyond this being a "The more you know" commercial for hearing protection (wear those ear plugs at concerts kids!), what does this have to do with the environment?

A month ago the peepers (or tweet tweets as we used to call them) came out at our new house. While we were sitting in the living room with the windows closed Andrew looked at me and said: "Wow! Listen to those peepers! They sure are loud!"
I couldn't hear anything beyond the ringing in my ears. He had to open the windows before I heard them.

Not a week later we were lying in bed one Saturday morning and he exclaimed: "I love waking up to the sound of birds singing outside"
Again, nothing.

This past week I've been participating in David Suzuki's 30x30 Challenge to spend at least 30 minutes every day in Nature. Most of my 30minutes have been meditative: finding a quiet moment to sit and observe. To be present with what I sense: smell, see, feel, hear. 


Now I am super aware of how I will never enjoy what others enjoy as a "quiet moment in nature". I'm always competing with the ringing in my ears to enjoy the natural sounds around me. I also know I may be missing a whole world of natural sound-life without even being aware... and there is no way of truly knowing what it is I may be missing.

It makes me sad that such an important part of my life, my enjoyment of nature, has been dampened because of my loss of hearing. It's also sad that it won't be getting any better and I have to mentally prepare for the eventuality of further hearing loss as I get older.

So. I gather each and every sound, hold it close to my heart and weave together my sounds of nature memories. So I can treasure them later.

May is Speech and Hearing Month: check out your National Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology websites for tips on language/sound disorders/development, literacy, hearing protection and disorders, stuttering and much much more!
Canada: SAC/OAC

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Eight Almost Free and Utterly Thoughtful Gifts from the Garden

Green Bean ponders gardening for gold.

Eco-Novice posted a quote on Facebook last week which got me thinking.

Growing food is like growing your own money.
- Ron Finley

Ron Finley is on to something. You can save oodles of money by consuming your own produce.  You can also trade or sell it.  But why stop there?  Turn your garden into a gift giving paradise and save even more dough.

We've all seen Fresh Eggs signs on country roads but I took this photo in my densely populated suburb.

I am grateful to so many people in my life. Friends who pitched in when I was sick. Teachers who went the extra mile with one of my boys. Neighbors who brought in the trash cans while we were out of town. Often, a nice note is sufficient to thank these people. But I cannot help it.  I like to do a bit more. Theoretically, that bit more could be a Starbucks gift card or a box of chocolates.  Instead, I give gifts from the garden. They mean more and cost less.

The key to gifting garden goodies is to know your audience. Don't give greens to a friend who never cooks or seeds to an apartment dweller.  Otherwise, almost anyone would would appreciate one of following garden gifts:

Tie your produce up with a bow.  Rainbow chard is particularly amenable to being trussed up with a salvaged ribbon.  Collards and kale come in a close second but even a head of lettuce or a crisp paper bag of fava beans look lovely.  Give fruit in a saved basket or a pumpkin as is. Not much is more beautiful than an heirloom pumpkin.

Herbal bouquets are another great gift for foodie friends. Bonus: herbs are inexpensive to grow. Most of mine are perennials, purchased them years ago. Others, like basil, are a cinch to start from seed.  Still others - parsley and chamomile - happily reseed themselves throughout the garden if you let them go to seed.  (Birds and pollinators will thank you as well!)  Poke in a few edible flowers - borage, calendula or nasturtium - for color.  I often accompany my herbal bouquets with a handwritten note identifying the herbs.

Chamomile reseeded from a previous year's garden. 

For non-chef friends, a flower bouquet is an old-fashioned gesture of gratitude and goodwill.  When planting, go for flowers that readily reseed and do not be quick to deadhead.  Free flowers for next year!  As you pull together your bunch of blooms, do not omit flowering herbs, carrots or bolted greens.  Those items offer structure and interest in a bouquet - and were headed for the compost or chicken coop anyway!

 Note the flower of parsley in the back.  Bolted lettuce works just as well.

Share a cup of tea.  I stole this idea from a friend who made loose leaf tea for her kids' teachers. Dry chamomile, lemon balm, rose hips or mint leaves - all of which grow like weeds in my yard. Give the dried leaves and flowers in saved glass jars, neatly labeled, along with a thrifted, fancy tea cup.

Dried chamomile flowers for tea.

Jam and other canned goods.  If you have mature fruit trees in your garden, chances are that you have more fruit than you can - or want to - consume. As sacrilegious as this sounds, no one in my family enjoys figs. Our home, however, came with a healthy, abundant fig tree. Hence, the jars of fig jam that I bestow from time to time. Apple butter is just as well received and also from our prodigious apple tree. Stick with smaller jars and a pretty label. It is the gesture, right? We are not looking to feed our friends for the rest of the year.

Dried fruits and herbs are another wonderful gift. When drying herbs, apples, persimmons or whatnot, tuck a few inside of a pretty jar or wax paper bag and give them to some deserving friend.

Photograph your bounty.  Snap pictures of blooms, birds, butterflies and turn those into one of a kind note cards. I love taking my camera into the garden. It forces me to slow down and really study at all the garden's visitors.

Finally, give the gift that keeps on giving: seeds and plants. Many annual flowers and some vegetables (beans, pumpkins) are a piece of cake to save.  Stored in a jar or decorated paper envelope (let your kids do the decorating if it is for one of their teachers), they are a lovely gift for someone who gardens - or wants to.

Plants - either propagated or from rhizomes dug up in spring - are equally wonderful gifts. If you save your nursery pots, the container is free as well as the plant!  Berries, lemon balm, mint and mallow all wend themselves throughout my garden and are easy to pop into a pot and water until the plant is well established and primed for gifting.

You are already doing a lot of work in your garden. Time to put your garden work for you!

This post is part of the Tuesday Garden Party over at Oregon Cottage and the Homestead Barn Hop.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Five Ways to Green Your Celebration

Is it possible to have fun and protect the earth at the same time? The Climate Crusader says yes.

Today, as you are no doubt aware, is Cinco de Mayo. It also happens to be my birthday. This has me thinking about celebrating.

When you think about environmentalists, parties probably aren't the first image that pops into your mind. However, those of us who are making an effort to live sustainably still like to have a good time. The question is how to celebrate in a mindful way. This isn't about taking all the fun out of your party. It's about making sure that your birthday doesn't cost the planet any more than is absolutely necessary. Here are my four tips for greening your celebration while you keep the good times rolling.

Four Tips for Greening Your Celebration

1. Choose Organic Alcoholic Beverages

When you buy organic, you know that the the products that are going into the beverage you're sipping are free from chemical residues from fertilizers and pesticides. I, for one, don't want to sip weed killer along with my glass of chardonnay. It's not just you who benefits, though. Organic farming keeps those same chemicals out of the air and water, protecting farmers, farm workers, plants, animals and insects. And as more and more people go organic, great organic beer, wine and spirits are getting easier to come by.

2. Think Reusable and Compostable

If you can, choose reusable dishes and decorations for your celebration. You can always ask a friend to bring over some cutlery and plates if you don't have enough. If the idea of having to wash the dishes will strip all the fun out of your party, look for compostable party gear. Paper plates and cups and wooden cutlery will all readily biodegrade if you compost them, so that your party doesn't leave a lasting impact in the form of plastic that sits in the landfill forever.

3. Choose a Few Signature Dishes and Drinks

Keeping things simple will make your party easier and more affordable. It will also reduce the amount of waste that you produce, and the amount of resources you consume. Pick a theme and serve a few signature dishes and one or two signature drinks alongside it. By going minimal you can choose what you're serving thoughtfully, and reduce the amount of time you have to spend preparing. Your celebration is going to be more fun for everyone if they can actually celebrate with you, because you're not stuck slaving away in the kitchen trying to feed an army with a wide variety of dishes.

4. Keep it Local

When you're shopping for your party, think local. By choosing locally-grown food, and locally-produced party supplies, you're reducing the carbon footprint of your party. You're also making it easier to ask questions and find out exactly how everything was created. Finally, you're supporting your local economy and building your local community. Getting in touch with the fabulous folks who are making amazing reusable cloth party banners, baking the best cakes or crafting to-die-for cheese is a great way to celebrate yourself and the place you call home.

What about you - how do you green your celebrations?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Eco Rock Star In The House!

Queen Composter (sort of) met her eco hero!

While I have always had crunchy tendencies, it was becoming a parent that pushed me into living a more eco conscious life. But the seeds for my beliefs and actions were sown in my childhood, with a mother who wanted to make healthy meals for us (I often had carob chips for a recess "treat" instead of chocolate to cut down on sugar), and a grandmother with an amazing green thumb. Both of these women also instilled in me a hoarder-like need to repurpose everything before "upcycling" was a thing, which is why today I have a closet full of glass milk jugs, toilet paper rolls, egg shells and old sheets.

David Suzuki speaking at the Youth REaDY Summit
I also remember watching a seminal Canadian television show, "The Nature of Things" with David Suzuki growing up. I felt a small personal connection to him because a family friend was one of his graduate students when he was a professor of genetics at the local university. It isn't surprising that my parents' friend went on to be a pioneer of organic farming in Australia. 

Through his tv show, David Suzuki taught us about the wonders of nature, the delicate balance between species, how this impacts the health of the environment, and why we should care. He is an advocate for getting people out into nature to inspire environmentalism. He developed his love of nature by spending time with his father fishing and camping around the Vancouver area before they were sent to internment camps during World War Two (one of many black marks in Canadian history).

I have continued to be inspired by David Suzuki throughout my life, and in recent years I have been following his foundation, The David Suzuki Foundation. Through the organization I have found inspiration for living an eco lifestyle, an education guide for connecting students with nature that I have used with my own class, and daily tips that I can use to green my life. This month I am participating in the foundation's 30 x 30 challenge to spend 30 minutes outdoors for 30 days in the month of May.
Musqueam Nation elder
chanting a welcome.

To say I was excited to finally see David Suzuki speak at a public event is a gross understatement! This past weekend I attended the REaDY Summit, a youth led Earth Day event to promote environmental sustainability, and David Suzuki was the keynote speaker (last year his daughter was the keynote). The theme was "We Are the Fraser", referring to the importance of our local river to the health of the region.

After an emotional welcoming ceremony by an elder from the Musqueam First Nation, there was an electric buzz in the air as David Suzuki took to the stage. His talk once again highlighted why he has been an inspiration for generations. 

Some Key Points from David Suzuki's Message:
Learning why we still need scientific
study of nature at a session with a local
biologist: the local sandpiper population
eats biofilm, a snot-like green smoothie
that we do not yet understand.
  • We are big air sacks, and without healthy air we are not healthy. We are connected to those around us as we breathe in their air and they breathe in ours. We receive this healthy air from the plants and trees around us. Oxygen circulates around our body, delivering the nutrients that we need to live. We are all one. 

  • We are made of water and without healthy water we are not healthy. We are connected to the environment, to nature, by the water that fills our body.

  • The forests are the Earth's lungs. They breathe in our carbon dioxide and breathe out the oxygen we need to live. We need forests to live just as we need our own lungs to live.
Oolichan, once the centre of the Grease Trail
in British Columbia.

  • The rivers are the Earth's circulatory system. They deliver essential nutrients for plant and animals to live. We need healthy river systems. An iconic example of this is the salmon, but he also shared the example of the oolichan, an oily fish that was once the centre of British Colunbia's First Nations economy

  • Politicians necessarily have short term goals due to the nature of our political system. They want to be reelected and look to their current, aging, electorate for votes. Environmental issues are complex and require long term planning.

  • Our aging population, who largely controls the political system, has the least to gain from environmental issues. Their time is waning. We must look to our youth. (I wholeheartedly agree!)

  • Our youth, who will have no political power through their vote for some years to come, have the most to gain from environmental sustainability. They are often natural environmentalists and understand the basic message of a healthy Earth best. They must be encouraged to have their voices heard. They must push their parents to become eco activists.

I brought my oldest daughter to the event because I want her to be moved as I was. It was important for her to hear an iconic Canadian and environmentalist say that the things we do in our home, and the values we have as a family are important and good. I left the event feeling renewed and inspired.

Have you ever met your hero?


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