Monday, March 31, 2014

How to Be an Environmentalist without Being a Total Downer

cleans,earth,environments,globes,happy,nature,smiles,smiling,worlds


Why don't more people care about the environment?
Why aren't more people anxiously engaged in addressing climate change?
Why are so many good smart people seemingly indifferent to the looming catastrophes?

We greenies muse about these questions now and then. And sometimes thinking about the apathy of others gets us really discouraged and stuck in a feeling of hopelessness (what's the use?). Green Bean recently shared with me an interesting article that explains that the green movement has a major PR problem, and that the solution is to never say "earth" or "planet" or "environment," to focus on people (not polar bears), to enlist celebrities, and to repeat, repeat, repeat.

Recently I've been reading Daniel Goleman's book Focus about the nature of attention, and his discussion of attention has an enlightening explanation about why are paralyzed by climate change. He gives two very compelling reasons why we are very ill-equipped to address "our slow-motion mass suicide as human systems degrade the global systems that support life on this planet."

First is the fact that we can't perceive the threat with our senses and that it seems far off.  As one expert (Dr. Larry) in the book explains, "'I have to persuade you that there's an odorless, tasteless, invisible gas that's gathering in the heavens and capturing the sun's heat because of what man does in using fossil fuels. It's a heavy lift...The dimension of time is a huge problem -- if the pace of global warming were accelerated to a few years instead of over centuries, people would pay more attention. But it's like the national debt: I'll leave it to my grandchildren--I'm sure they'll think of some solution.'"

In addition, the topic of climate change is downright depressing! And the human mind does not like to dwell on the distressing: "Emotions, remember, guide our attention. And attention glides away from the unpleasant." Who wants to think about humanity's eventual demise due to our own failure to act? Not me! Even I find myself recoiling from the thought and redirecting my attention elsewhere. Goleman explains that he used to think that complete transparency about the negative impacts of our behaviors and purchases would encourage us to find better alternatives. But, he says, "I neglected a psychological fact. Negative focus leads to discouragement and disengagement."

I found this example, from Columbia's Elke Weber, particularly enlightening: "[Y]ou can get women's attention about getting breast exams by scaring them about what might happen if they don't get examined. This tactic captures attention in the short term, but because fear is a negative feeling, people will take just enough action to change their mood for the better -- then ignore it."

As Weber explains, "'Negative emotions are poor motivators,'" and for long-term change you need sustained action and a positive message. Goleman's book touts a shift from talking about negative eco-footprints to positive eco-handprints as a better source of sustained motivation. The website handprinter draws on LCA (life cycle analysis) data to tell you the sum total of all your good habits: your handprint. The key idea being to keep making improvements until your handprint is bigger than your footprint. Using the power of social media, you can inspire others to join with you on this path.

I checked out www.handprinter.org online as soon as I read about it in Focus. It has just shy of 2,000 FB fans so I think it's safe to say that it hasn't taken off (yet, hopefully). But it's an interesting concept.

I've been thinking about my own life and how I became more engaged in green issues, what worked to get me to pay attention. And thinking about what I can learn from that to help me be more strategic in my attempts to get others' attention. But that's the topic for another post. First I want to hear from you!

Here are the questions I pose to you, super readers: 

  • How did you develop a sustained interest in green issues? 
  • How can we talk about our green concerns and choices in a way that doesn't make others' eyes glaze over? 
  • How can we talk about climate change and other environmental issues in a way that engages the unengaged?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Agism, Guilt and Judgemental Cashier Ladies

EcoYogini shares on being judged....

Last week I bought apples. Not any ole apples, but ORGANIC apples. Honestly, I spent, it felt like, HOURS standing there debating whether I should actually purchase these exorbitantly expensive apples or settle for "Canadian" apples, or suck it up and have no apples until next weekend when we could get to the Farmer's Market.

Finally, I decided that my health needed fruit, I was buying non organic bananas cuz the organic bananas looked like shit so I would splurge and purchase three expensive organic honey crisps to last me until (this) weekend when I could get to the market.

I know there is this entire movement trying to impress upon Nova Scotians that buying local and organic is not actually more expensive.... but it is. Andrew and I don't make boatloads of money, but we do have boatloads of debt (all "good" but debt nonetheless) so we need to be careful about our grocery choices while keeping somewhat healthy. It's a tricky balance that often results in some Kraft Dinner once or twice a week (Kraft Mac&Cheese for the Americans peeps).

While at the checkout we make a bit of small talk with the cashier. Honestly, we always make small talk with the cashier. Well, not like weird creepy customers, but mostly we make eye contact and smile which results in the cashier saying stuff to us. To which we answer. It's all very Maritime-y (and probably "small town" ish even in a city like Halifax).

Then the cashier scans the apples. And says something... which I missed and had to say "pardon me?"... to which she repeated loudly: "These better be good apples" in a disgusted voice.

Honestly, at this point I thought she was referring to the fact that they seemed to have a few bumps on them. And I said "yeah I know, eh?" (ps- Canadians don't say "eh" after every statement. Please note that "eh" is really only a "right?" confirmation replacement. And not every Canadian says "eh". Personally, I acquired "hey/eh" while living in Montreal and spending every waking hour with my best friend (ex) who's from BC who uses it).

Back to the apples. The cashier then repeated "No, I mean these apples better taste amazing considering just how expensive they are"+ the.most.judgemental.look.ever. It was like I was looking at my MOTHER, the way she was looking at me and JUDGING my apple purchase. I had no idea how to respond. I mean, how do you respond to that without telling the lady she's being a judgemental d-bag? I think I smiled sheepishly and just said something about "oh yeah, those organic apples ya know". To which she made another disapproving comment about just how expensive they were and we moved on.

But I left there feeling like crap and a little stupid about my choice. Part of it is the embarrassment of being fortunate enough to have the money to buy organic produce. Cuz they WERE really expensive. I do think part of my psychological makeup is influenced from growing up in an uber blue collar, practical, we didn't have a ton of money and scoffing at those other fancy schmancy people who did, family. Honestly, I feel a bit guilty even though we aren't at all in a great financial place.

Another part was the agism. It's not like I'm that young anymore, but often older women tend to treat me as if I am a silly child. Part of that is my bubbly, not so serious personality. Part of that might be because I don't have children of my own. It's annoying as hell though.

And finally... I hate being judged for my environmental choices. Yes they cost more, but Andrew and I make sacrifices and educated decisions about where we spend our money. Stop judging us.

And those apples are effing DELICIOUS.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Earth Hour: Is it Slacktivism?

For better or for worse, Mindful Echo will be switching off the lights at 8:30pm on Saturday, March 29th, 2014.

What is Earth Hour?

Earth Hour is a worldwide grassroots movement uniting people to protect the planet, and is organised by WWF. Engaging a massive mainstream community on a broad range of environmental issues, Earth Hour was famously started as a lights-off event in Sydney, Australia in 2007. Since then it has grown to engage more than 7000 cities and towns worldwide, and the one-hour event continues to remain the key driver of the now larger movement. 

Earth Hour aims to encourage an interconnected global community to share the opportunities and challenges of creating a sustainable world. (source: earthhour.org) 

How can I participate? 

Although Earth Hour originated as simply turning off the lights for an hour, the cause itself seems to have expanded to be more all-encompassing of the WWF mandate. A quick look at their website provides plenty of links to various crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding campaigns, as well as a feature to view how the event is taking place in your own country.




Criticism: Is Earth Hour "slacktivism?"

Slacktivism is a term with which I've only recently become familiar. Essentially, it means that the participant in a cause is doing so with minimal effort and contributing even less impact for the cause. While I love me a good portmanteau, slacktivists can be detrimental to an important cause as their primary motivation for participation is the "feel good" feeling.

Earth Hour has been criticized as being a slacktivist campaign, but after careful refection, I don't think it would qualify as such for the following reasons:

1. Participants do have to make a sacrifice, albeit small, to contribute to the cause. Yes, it's only an hour, but I'll be the first to admit that--at least when I'm indoors--I'm actively consuming power either by way of my phone, computer, television, x-box, lights, etc.

2. The ease of participation in this particular campaign makes it accessible to a wide range of individuals regardless of their age or level of ability. In general, when accessibility is a barrier for participation in any type of event, it detracts from the effectiveness. (Read how to adapt Earth Hour for your wee ones here.)

3. The action of the event is clearly linked to the cause itself. Recently, I posted in my own blog about the Facebook Bare-Face Selfie challenge that has been going around. When my FB feed filled up with the au natural faces of my friends, I had no idea that it was motivated by a campaign to raise awareness about cancer. Further to the point, I'm still not clear how wearing or not wearing makeup is linked to cancer awareness.

I think it's clear how turning off your power is connected to awareness about our power usage. I also think that the cause has a well-articulated mandate and easy-to-navigate website that limits the potential for details to be lost in translation.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to participate in Earth Hour, it's important to think critically about our impacts on the environment, how we can reduce them, and how we can help others do the same.

Here are a few others who have raised valid questions regarding Earth Hour:
http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2010/03/forget-earth-hour-and-do-something-useful-instead/
http://www.alive.com/articles/view/23434/go_beyond_earth_hour
http://www.thecommentator.com/article/3080/the_misery_of_earth_hour

Be aware. Be critical. Be deliberate.


Monday, March 24, 2014

One small win for momkind

Going Green Mama celebrates the baby steps.

My son's science project made me cringe.

"This easy balloon experiment is sure to be a 'bang.'" it said. The kindergarteners were learning about the scientific process, and were supposed to track how long helium could stay in a mylar and rubber balloon.

Yes, fun for kids. Not so fun for the world.

You see, we're on a limited supply of helium in this world. Not quite gasping for this gas yet, but in 25 years or so the world could run out of this resource. And that's a big deal if you've ever needed an MRI, for one thing. (Yes, there are other uses, but this hits closest to home!) In fact, we've even had conversations in the hospital I work at: Is it right to use helium balloons for events - or even sell them in the gift shop for patients - if this is the case? Are we unnecessarily depleting the supply?

And can't we teach the kids some other way?

I finally broke down and posed the question to the teachers over email: Could they change the project for future years? And within two hours - on a weekend, no less - I got the response: They would.

Will 100 helium balloons a year make a difference in the world's supply? Yes, in a small way. But teaching our kids to use our resources more wisely is a better lesson to learn.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Kitchen Scraps Garden

Queen Composter shares a quick and inexpensive way to grow food from compost scraps.

It may be hard to think about starting a summer vegetable garden when the weather outside feels decidedly more like winter than the first days of spring. I live in the pacific northwest and am making plans to begin my indoor seedlings in the next week or so, but I realize that this is just a dream for some
 
Celery grows well in containers, making it ideal
for small space gardening.
For those of us who are itching to get their hands dirty there is a quick and easy way to begin a garden inside that can transfer to a container garden outside, on a patio or larger garden. Even if you don’t have a green thumb or desire to grow a backyard garden, there is an easy way to grow some food in containers.

Place the cut end of the celery in a bowl with
water and watch it begin to grow.
I enjoy growing food from kitchen scraps, and my favourite is celery because of how easy it is to start. Each winter I buy celery from the grocery store and save the cut ends of the plant to begin a new plant. I start my celery inside and when the weather warms up I put it outside in a larger pot. Last year I received many compliments on my flavourful and aromatic celery.

After a few days the inner stalks are beginning to grow.
Begin with the cut ends of the celery. Place it in a small, shallow bowl of water, in a bright, sunny location. Really, that’s it! Over the next few days the inner part of the cut end will begin to grow up, and the outside will begin to brown and rot, feeding the new celery growth.

A couple of weeks growth. Be sure to change the water
every few days.
When the leaves grow, it’s time to plant your new celery in soil in a pot. It’s so easy my children can do it. In fact, it is a great hands on learning activity for preschool and school-aged children.

This plant is very ready for soil.
We now have four plants growing, but even two plants would be enough to provide celery through the summer, because we cut what we need and don’t feel the need to finish up what is in our fridge.

With enough sunlight this will continue to grow.
Transfer it to a larger container, or even into
a garden bed.
There are many other vegetables that can be grown from kitchen scraps, such as onions, avocados, sweet potatoes and yams, ginger, green onions and scallions, lettuce and leeks. 


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Save a Species with a Simple Seed

From the bean of Green Bean.


By now, you have probably heard of the dramatic decline in Monarch butterflies.  For millennia, Monarchs have made a yearly trek from Canada to Mexico and along the California coast.  Over the past decade, the number of butterflies migrating has plummeted.  This past winter reached an all time low of an estimated "33 million monarchs compared to the peak of 1 billion in 1996."

The main reason we are waving good-bye to the butterfly migration is habitat loss - or, more specifically, loss of milkweed, the only plant on which Monarchs lay eggs and which Monarch caterpillars eat. East of the Rocky Mountains, herbicide-resistant crops are largely to blame.  West of the Rocky Mountains (a mostly separate migration), urban sprawl has chewed up the milkweed.

This is an issue which needs to be addressed nationally, state-wide, on county and city levels.  There are petitions to be signed (please DO sign!) and highway departments to be lobbied (please get involved!).  But there is more you can do …

You can help save the Monarch butterfly just by growing milkweed.  In your home garden, community garden plot or church courtyard.  In your school garden or on a 4H farm.  Let's save our Monarch butterflies and, while we are at it, our other native butterflies and pollinators.  They are all in trouble due to habitat loss.

My greenhouse is currently home to over 100 milkweed starts. I have two more packets of seeds on the kitchen counter.  But my garden is only so big.

Some of the milkweed starts in my greenhouse
That is why a friend started a project called Milkweed for Monarchs.  She has distributed milkweed seeds to several local youth organizations.  Two weeks ago, she and I visited a local 4H farm to talk about the Monarch butterfly decline. Then, we rolled up our sleeves and planted 60 milkweed seeds with some pretty darn skilled young gardeners. In early April, I will make a similar presentation to a local girl scout troop - only I am giving them starts (instead of seeds) which they will plant milkweed in their home gardens.

The basket of goodies I took to the 4H meeting; egg carton used for starting seeds
But we need your help.  Are you interested in planting Milkweed for Monarchs?  Do you know of a group or organization that would like to join this effort to save an iconic migration?  Please check out my friend's website.  For each person or group planting milkweed, she will add a butterfly.  Let's cover that map (and re-cover our continent) in brilliant black and orange.

Milkweed for Monarchs Project
Let's get together and save a species with a simple milkweed seed.

*Shared on Tuesday Garden Party!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Flowers that Look Good and Feel Good

The Climate Crusader is wondering whether her love of cut flowers is taking a toll on the planet.

This past summer one of my favourite vendors at my local farmers' market started selling her own locally-grown gerbera daisies. They were beautiful, and colourful, and I bought some. Every time I looked at the vase full of flowers in my living room I smiled. Recently, when I was at the grocery store I saw some gerberas and, remembering how much I enjoyed having them in the house last summer, bought them. When those gerberas died, I bought some tulips. Then I started wondering - is there anything I should know about buying cut flowers?

It turns out that those flowers that look so sunny and cheerful in buckets outside the grocery store might not exactly have a sunny and cheerful past. While it's true that we don't eat flowers, many of the same issues that arise when buying flowers are the same as the issues when buying food. Specifically, most of the flowers bought and sold in North America are shipped long distance and grown using pesticides. As well, many flowers (especially during the winter months) are sourced from tropical countries in the developing world where workers often receive low pay and work long hours in unsafe conditions.


One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the bouquet on your table - and to make sure the flowers were grown sustainably - is to go local. Your local farmers' market, farmstands, your own garden and even wildflowers growing on the side of the road can be great sources of local flowers. What if you want a flower that doesn't grow locally to you, though? And what if you want flowers out of season? I live in Canada, so I can understand why you might want fresh blooms in winter as a pick-me-up.

When you're buying flowers - just like when you're buying food - ask questions. Some local florists specialize in sustainable flowers, sourcing organic and fair trade flowers both locally and internationally. You may also be able to find florists that use biodegradable and sustainable cellophane and bows. Some grocery chains like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's also offer blooms you can feel better about buying. There are also sustainable online florists, so that you can get green flowers wherever you live.

The bottom line anytime you're trying to make greener choices is to be mindful. We might not always make perfect choices, but the more we can do to educate ourselves and think about what we're buying, whether it's flowers, food, clothing or something else, the better off we'll be.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Refacing Kitchen Cabinets Instead of Buying New: Before and After!

EcoYogini talks refacing kitchen cabinets...

The one thing I wanted to change immediately when we bought the house was the paint colours.

Oh, everyone kept telling us not to rush, it didn't have to be all perfect before we moved in...but. We had three weeks of being able to live in our apartment between when we took possession of the house and when the mortgage came out. So why not?
(not paint, but the view from clearing off my car one morning before work)

Now, don't get me wrong, the colours weren't awful. All the rooms were green except for three mustard yellows. Very country-esque which seemed to suit the previous owners very well. It just wasn't "us".

So we decided on painting every.single.room... and it soon became apparent that I love greys and purples. We went from a green house to a grey house. Ah well. Surprisingly I learned a few things about painting:
- low VOC paint is ridiculously easy to find.
- the darker the tint, the more VOCs will be present, even in low-VOC paint
- I suck at avoiding the ceilings
- paint is expensive
- you can actually smell the difference with low-VOC paint- hardly any paint smell at all!

(our walls in the process from green to grey, along with sprayed banisters!)

While we were painting like crazy people, we also decided to have the kitchen cabinets and banister professionally sprayed.

Honestly, my father (and several other people) asked if we were crazy, painting "beautiful" oak cabinets that were in such good shape. My response- exactly! They will paint over beautifully since they're in such great condition :)

We considered (ok I considered) doing the painting ourselves, but after hiring professionals I am SO glad we didn't. It would have turned out awful (mostly because I don't have the skill or patience).

(Before spray- what you can't imagine is that the walls were green... we had painted them before the professional painters came)


(The kitchen tonight- lived in, new energy efficient appliances- Andrew is installing the range hood tomorrow... crossing my fingers! and a more funky feel!)

Now it's like we have a brand new kitchen at the fraction of the cost, without any cabinet waste or the energy footprint of having new cabinets made (or purchased). We went with a fabulous local company, Gallagher Paint & Paper (the link takes you to their blog post w pics of our kitchen!) It was quite intensive of a process, they plastic'd off the entire house (both floors) to protect the walls and floors. I'm glad we weren't living here, it would have been messy.
(grainy night photos of our plastic'd off light fixture and entry to kitchen!)

Every evening we would finish work, eat a quick supper in the city and drive out to take a peak at the progress in the evenings. I almost felt like I was in a weird reality home improvement tv show... The primer was a bit strong smelling (not as eco-friendly, but we didn't have much choice there) but the other coats were all low-VOC and hardly off gassed at all. Further, all the paper and plastic used were recycled (since it's the law here in NS, and I saw all his clear recycling bags in our dining room :) ).

Now our kitchen truly feels like "us" and is perfect for all our future Maritime Kitchen Parties :)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Pipeline Edition


Mindful Echo is struggling to stay informed about all the impacts and implications of pipeline development in Canada and the USA. Click the images to view the stories to which they belong.


http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/natural-gas-pipeline-explodes-near-otterburne-man-1.2510873

Natural gas pipeline explodes near Otterburne, Man.

 

 

http://business.financialpost.com/2013/12/26/keystone-northern-gateway-why-2014-will-be-year-of-big-decisions-for-canadian-oil-and-gas/?__lsa=cade-b176

Keystone, Northern Gateway: Why 2014 will be year of big decisions for Canadian oil and gas

 

 


http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/02/20/pipeline_battles_loom_in_canada_in_if_keystone_stalled.html

Pipeline battles loom in Canada if Keystone stalled

 

 

http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/02/19/stephen-harper-meets-transcanada-reps-in-mexico-as-he-gets-ready-to-lobby-barack-obama-on-keystone-xl-pipeline/

Stephen Harper meets TransCanada reps in Mexico as he gets ready to lobby Barack Obama on Keystone XL pipeline

 


http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/pipeline-rupture-report-raises-questions-about-transcanada-inspections-1.2521959

Pipeline rupture report raises questions about TransCanada inspections

 

 

http://www.popularresistance.org/while-u-s-waits-on-kxl-decision-a-new-tar-sands-pipeline-just-got-approved/

  And the most recent scary news :

While U.S. Waits On KXL Decision, A New Tar Sands Pipeline Just Got Approved

 

 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Truth, Justice, and Cleaning with Vinegar

In which Heather, The Parsimonious Princess, introduces herself -- and shares a quick gardening tip.


Back in 2009, when I first coronated myself as The Parsimonious Princess and started my blog about saving money and frugal living, I would have been a little surprised at the idea that I would someday contribute to a blog about environmentalism and eco-friendliness. Then again, I would have been surprised by a lot of things I've ended up doing in the last five years, like cloth diapering, beekeeping, raising chickens, and composting with worms, to name a few.

The reason why I would have been surprised is this: I never set out with the intent to be eco-friendly when I began writing about my frugal lifestyle. Granted, I've always carried an appreciation for the beauty of the earth and feel compelled to be a good steward of it. Even with those convictions, I would have never considered myself an environmentalist. I mean, aren't those types of people the hemp-clad hippies that chain themselves to trees?

But as I continued on my frugal journey, I realized more and more that the most frugal way of living also happened, in most cases, to be the most environmentally friendly, too. Realizing that my interpretation of frugality and simple living also begets a green, eco-friendly lifestyle has made my money-saving endeavors even more interesting and exciting. I've come to learn that living frugally helps me live responsibly and sustainably; it gives me the financial freedom to make choices I feel are best for not only myself and my family, but the planet as well.

And now here I am, so excited to be a part of The Green Phone Booth and to claim eco-hero status once a month. I think I'm going to like hanging out here.

So why The Parsimonious Princess? I picked the name years ago for two reasons -- 1) the English major in me can't resist alliteration and 2) I am convinced that one can live frugally but still live well. Maybe not like royalty, but in a way that is fullfilling, interesting, engaging, and even exhilarating at times. I strongly believe that frugality and an eco-friendly lifestyle can go hand in hand. Want to save trees? Use less paper and more cloth! Troubled by the practices of the food industry? Grow and raise your food! Wary of chemicals in cleaners? Make your cleaners! I'm a big believer that little actions add up, in both financial and eco-friendly ways; it's the little things that can end up making some of the biggest differences.

Most days you'll find me in my home in Utah, being Mom to two awesome (and, might I add, handsome) boys and wife to my best friend (also handsome and the artist I commissioned for my super-hero picture). I take care of a cat, three chickens, and thousands of Italian honeybees. I am a bookworm to the core -I read fiction, non-fiction, anything. I love to cook/bake from scratch, canning makes me kind of giddy, and I've dabbled in homemade dairy. I love gardening and the inherent miracle of it all. (PS - are you saving your milk jugs for seed-starting yet? That was my first post on this blog!) An aspiring homesteader, I enjoy learning about self-sufficiency and making the most of what I have. I get an odd sort of pleasure out of making my own cleaning concoctions and I have an ardent love for vinegar (sigh...what can't it do?).  I also knit and sew but not nearly as well or as often as I'd like to.

In short, I love learning, experimenting, and creating and I am so glad I get to share some of my insights here at The Green Phone Booth.

And now for that quick gardening tip...

Now is the time to start planning your garden, whether you're plotting out a quarter-acre homestead or a windowsill herb garden.  If you're anything like me, you've amassed a fair share of seeds. Problem is, seeds are viable for only so long, depending on what type of plant the seed is for and how old they are. One easy way to tell if your seeds from seasons past are still good: wrap ten seeds in a damp paper towel or cloth and stick them in a zipper bag or glass jar (do not seal the bag or jar all the way). Be sure to label your bags/jars so you know which seeds are which. Put the bags/jars in a sunny location, making sure that the paper towel/cloth stays damp.

After a few days, if the seeds are still viable they should start sprouting. Some take longer than others, so give them about a week. If 9-10 seeds sprout, plant your seeds as the packet instructions direct. If only 8 sprout, you've got a pretty good chance they'll still work out. If only 6-7 sprout,  you may want to sow more seeds than directed as a back-up. If you get five or less seeds sprouting, buy new seeds.  (For more complete step-by-step instructions, you can check out my post about it here.)

Trust me, seed testing is good for your soul -- it's wonderful to see new life emerging after the long winter months, even if it's in the form of little seeds wrapped in a towel. As Henry David Thoreau said, "I have great faith in a seed. Convince me you have a seed there, I am prepared to expect wonders." 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Pollinator Possibilities: Mason Bees

Are you interested in being a beekeeper, but are intimidated or aren't sure about the commitment? Or are you wondering about native pollinator species? Queen Composter is learning about mason bees.

With all of the doom and gloom surrounding honey bees and the threat to our food system, I was surprised and delighted to learn about a North American native bee, mason bees.  There are dedicated people who help and nurture mason bees year after year. In fact, I learned about them this year during a biweekly gardening session with a local chef and gardening advocate at my school. I was inspired by what I learned to attempt to nurture mason bees in my own backyard this year.

So why mason bees? What is so special about them?

Mason bees are solitary, do not live in hives, and have no worker bees or queen bees.  As such they have a very unique life cycle. In March and April, when temperatures begin to warm up and the trees begin to flower, the males begin to emerge from their cocoons. They wait nearby until the females emerge, then mate and die. The females then spend the rest of their time collecting pollen and nectar, which they use to make little pollen beds for the eggs they lay. They will create their nests in narrow holes or tubes. Once they have laid an egg, they block the tube with mud (hence “mason” bees) and prepare another pollen bed for another egg, then create another mud wall. The first eggs laid in a hole or tube are female, and the eggs laid closer to the opening of the hole are male. Isn’t that amazing that they can choose whether to lay a male or female egg? When the female has laid all her eggs she too dies, at the end of spring or early summer.

Through the summer the eggs hatch into larvae, which eat the pollen and nectar beds. The larvae develop into pupae, which in turn spin a cocoon to develop into bees. Over the winter the bees hiberate inside their cocoons, waiting until the temperature warms up enough for them to emerge, thereby starting the whole cycle again.

The first thing that sold me on mason bees is that they do not sting.  In fact, you may have seen a mason bee without realizing it as they appear more like a fly than a bee. 

Mason bee cocoons: the two larger ones are female.
The second thing that I really like about mason bees is that we can have an active part in caring for and nurturing them. In the fall, when the bees are in their cocoons, it is time to take them out of their holes, clean them off, and put them in the refridgerator to keep them at a constant temperature until the weather warms up in the spring and it is time to put them outside. Mason bees are susceptible to pollen mites, and many people suggest washing and drying the cocoons to get rid of the pests, which is possible because the cocoons are waterproof. While there is some work involved with mason bees, there is much less than is required with honey bees as there is no hive to maintain and monitor.

I also like that mason bees are a good supplement to honey bees in terms of the pollination that they are able to achieve. In fact mason bees are better pollinators, per bee, than honey bees.
Stacking nesting trays that interlock and open to remove the cocoons.

There are some drawbacks to mason bees. First and foremost, they do not produce honey. There will be no liquid gold for me at the end of the season. They are vulnerable to predators like birds and wasps. Because they emerge in early spring and have a short active part of their life cycle, they will not help pollinate my vegetable garden in the summer. They are great for pollinating fruit trees like plums and apples. Unfortunately I have no plum trees and only one small apple tree in my yard which is usually thoroughly picked through by birds by the time I get to it. I do hope they will be some help pollinating my early peas and broad beans. Because their range is smaller than honey bees (only a few houses) I do not know how successful I will be with my mason bees.
 
A high-rise house for nesting trays.
This year the people at the garden shop where I purchased my mason bees suggested that I start with only a dozen bees to see how they do in my yard. I have high hopes for the little cocoons in my fridge. As the temperature in my area, the pacific northwest, is starting to warm up now (we had a very unusual snowfall a week ago), I am looking forward to putting my mason bee babies, I mean cocoons, outside to begin their cycle, within the next few weeks.


Wish my bee babies good luck!



Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Reuse It Like a Rock Star - Grocery Edition.

From the bean of Green Bean.

You've got a clutch of canvas shopping bags.  You pack a mean waste-free lunch.  You want to reuse but also to avoid being featured on an episode of Hoarders.  You, my friend, are ready for the next level.  You are ready to reuse it like a rock star!

Serial re-users know that the key to reusing is making it somebody else's problem. Personally, you can reuse a number of items - yogurt tubs, egg cartons, milk jugs - but at some point, your home is saturated and it is time to send your stuff back to whence it came - the grocery store or farmers' market!

9 items that can be returned to the grocery store or farmers' market for reuse:



1) Glass Milk Bottles: Many grocery stores now offer milk in glass bottles. Ours comes from a local organic farm so double win! You pay a deposit of $1 or so when you buy the milk but you get that money back when you return the empty milk bottle.

2) Glass Jars or Ceramic Crocks for Yogurt: Some grocery stores now offer yogurt in returnable glass jars or ceramic crocks. Like the milk bottles, these require a deposit up front that is returned when you return the container.

3) Glass Jars from Preserves: I have a few favorite farmers' market vendors with killer salsa or kimchee. They will happily take their jars back for reuse. Sometimes they will also offer a credit on future purchases.

4) Glass Honey Jars: Every beekeeper that I know will give you a credit on future purchases when you return your glass (not plastic!) honey jars.  The credit, in my experience, ranges from $.50 to $1.

5) Plastic Berry Baskets: Our favorite berry farmers happily take back clean plastic strawberry baskets (the green ones).  You can try the paper blackberry baskets but those will only work if they are spotless.  Otherwise, toss them in the compost.

6) Egg Cartons:  No farmer I have encountered will turn down clean egg cartons!  I have seen people return ones to the original vendor as well return store-bought cartons.

7) Small Plastic Bags: I like to buy flowers at the farmers' market. It is good for the pollinators and pretties up the house. My favorite flower farmer told me that people bring her the plastic bags newspapers come in which she uses for wrapping wet flower stems.

8) Seed Trays or Nursery Pots: Every spring, our farmers' market bustles with herb and vegetable starts.  Remember to return those trays and pots for the grower to reuse.

9) Wine Corks: Whole Foods and other grocery outlets (check the link) have wine cork collection barrels for ReCork, an organization that turns natural wine corks into new products.

A System to Organize Your Reusables:

To truly rock your reuse, you have to devise a system to make it happen or all those good intentions, like your reusables, end up in the recycle. In my early years of reuse, I would get frustrated with the clutter and end up recycling items that could have been reused. I also would repeatedly forget my shopping bags and other items that could be returned to the appropriate vendor for reuse.  As I perfected organizational systems, I've seen my reuse skyrocket and my trash and recycle plummet.  Here's my system:

I keep a container in the trunk of my car for my reusable bags.  It started out as a tacky plastic tub but I nabbed this vintage cheese box at an estate sale.  It is large enough to house my shopping bags as well as all the items that go back to the grocery store or farmers' market for reuse.


I have found that if I do not keep my produce bags separate, I will forget them.  Now, I keep produce and bulk bin bags in a separate, smaller basket - also in the back of my trunk.

After every shopping trip, I put the bags back in the correct place.  When the milk runs out or the berry basket is empty, I stash them in my cheese box instead of letting them clutter up the counter. That way, whenever I hit the grocery store or farmers' market, I have everything I need.

What other items do you return for reuse?  How do you manage your reusables?  Are you ready for rock star status?

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Sucker for Snack Food

The Climate Crusader is contemplating her love of all things snack food.
 
I have a confession: I love snack foods. If something comes in a brightly-colored crinkly bag, I find it appetizing. I know it's not all that good for me, and I know all that plastic packaging and shipping isn't good for the planet. I do try to opt for 'real' food most of the time - that is, food that my great-grandmother would have recognized. I also try to eat local. I still succumb to the lure of snack food more frequently than I would like, however. There, I said it.

One of the ways I try to assuage my feelings of guilt over my snack food habit is by choosing 'greener' options. That is, I go for the snack foods in the natural foods aisle of the grocery store, with labels proclaiming that they're 'organic', 'all-natural' and 'GMO free'. I like to think that my kids and I are exposed to fewer nasty ingredients, and that I'm supporting a business that's trying to do better. How much of a difference does it really make, though, to choose what I affectionately call my hippie snack foods?

Just because a food is organic or all-natural doesn't mean that it is automatically good for you. You can buy organic, fair trade sugar, for instance. It might be better for the earth and the communities where it's grown than conventional sugar, and it may not contain the same pesticide residues, but that doesn't mean you should just go ahead and eat as much sugar as you possibly can. However, if you eat some sugar (as most of us do), you can make the best choice possible.

This principle holds true for snack foods. It makes sense to minimize these 'fake foods', and to not be lulled into a false sense of security simply because you picked it up at an organic grocery store. If you're hungry, reaching for a whole food will pretty much always be better for you and for the planet. Assuming you succumb to your craving for something crunchy, salty or sweet from time to time, however, it may make sense to opt for a better product, from a company with better ethics.

When you're choosing snack food - much like when you're buying any product - you should beware of greenwashing. Many 'green' brands are actually not so green, containing high levels of genetically-modified ingredients, for instance. This means that it's important to do your homework. It also emphasizes the importance of limiting snack foods in general. It might be better to choose a snack that doesn't contain a lot of artificial colors and flavors, but that doesn't make it a healthy choice.

I wonder how you handle your snack food cravings. Do you avoid snack foods altogether, opt for greener choices, or just allow yourself the occasional indulgence? I'd love to hear - and I promise not to judge.

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