Tag Archives: sustainability

My Small Steps Toward Sustainability

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now and the inspiration has come from many places. I saw the movie, No Impact Man. I read books about sustainable living and articles like this one about families trying to live with less. And then there was this post I found by one of my favorite bloggers, Ashley English, on Design Sponge where she talked about the small measures, also the title of her blog, she takes to live a more sustainable lifestyle. I related to her list and realized that I do much of the same things to conserve and consume less.

I have to be honest though, I haven’t always been like this. The way that I am living my life today is a work in progress that’s been happening over the past few years. It started with food, being more aware of what food I was putting in my body. But turns out, when I started slowing down and paying attention to the food I was eating, I started to pay attention to other choices I was making. I didn’t mean to – it just happened. It was about food to begin with and then it started to be about life.

It was subtle. It happened as I started washing out and reusing Ziploc bags and “disposable” containers. I looked at my dish rack one morning to see a gallon size Ziploc bag, inside out and upside down hanging up to dry, and had a flashback of my childhood. I remember being in my grandparents’ garage and seeing washed Styrofoam take out containers piled on top of their chest freezer, which was always packed to the gills with their garden’s bounty. When they’d try and save something that the rest of the family would have thrown away, we’d say, “You’re going to save that?” Inconspicuously we’d judge and think, what are they going to do with that? They had been through the depression. They looked at their resources a little bit differently then us kids that grew up wanting for not. At the time, I was ignorant and had no idea how wise they were. I would have never guessed that a decade later I’d be doing the same thing.

I’ve realized that just like eating without thinking about what you’re really putting into your body, we sometimes make choices to consume things without really thinking about what we’re doing. Plastic baggies are seen as materials to be used and thrown away, a flexible container that’s really convenient, but that will take thousands of years to decompose.

It didn’t stop with the plastic baggies though. I switched to e-billing. I started attacking the countless pieces of junk mail I received that always just went straight into the recycling bin. I’d call whatever 800 number I could find on the catalog or mailing and ask them to remove me from their mailing list. I waited on hold and got annoyed with automated phone menus, but was smugly satisfied when I started coming home to an empty mail box.

I stopped buying and using paper towels, except to pat down an occasional pan of bacon or to oil my seasoned cast iron pans. Where I absentmindedly used to go through rolls and rolls of paper towels each year, I now go through one. It turns out a package of reusable rags that can be thrown into the washer work like a charm where paper towels used to do the job.

I saved a shampoo, conditioner, lotion, hand soap, and dish soap container and started buying those things in bulk at the  Green Lake PCC, my local food co-op.

I made it my New Year’s resolution to always bring my reusable cup to the coffee shop. If I could remember to use my reusable grocery bags, which I’ve been using religiously, then I could train myself to always bring my cup. And I’m not being facetious when I say “train.” I spent many months driving around with a sticky note on my dashboard that said, “Bring your bags!”

My latest effort has been to rid myself of my sticky note dependence. Sticky notes are handy tools, especially when you’re in the classroom – they mark pages in books, give messages to students, remind me of all the pressing things I need to do! It wasn’t until they started trickling their way into my home that I began to take notice. They’re convenient, for sure, but they’re not as indispensable as I’ve always thought. I started saving receipts  and used the back of those to write my little notes and shopping lists that I sometimes need to jot down. PCC (I swear I don’t work for them) gave me this idea when I noticed that their “green” checkout machines printed receipts using both sides. Unfortunately, not all stores are that savvy, so I decided to put them to use. A little spot in my desk drawer that once held a stack of stickies now holds receipts and scraps of paper that can be put to another use.

I feel hesitant as I write this, worrying that I might come off sounding self-righteous, like I have things all figured out.  I am certainly not perfect though and am not living a completely waste-free lifestyle. But I’m trying. This post is just a reflection of the sustainable lifestyle I’ve created for myself and of the person I’ve become. Life sometimes feels like it’s moving at warped speed, but I’m slowing down, getting creative, and paying attention to the things I’ve consumed out of habit for years.  Everyday I’m more aware of the simple quotidian choices I make and the impact they have on the world and it feels pretty good.

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday on A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa. Happy Earth Day, y’all!

Lazy Lawn Care


I’ve said it before and I think these pictures probably confirm that I’m not a big lawn girl. The arborist I had over to assess my out-of-control apple tree (more on that project later) said they could thin out some of my maple trees so they don’t shade the lawn so much. I’m thinking he probably mentioned that when he saw the lovely chartreuse moss taking over the grass beneath where the trees normally don their seasonally lush, leafy canopies. When I said no, he made a casual comment to the affect that it doesn’t look like I’m that in to lawns anyway.

I don’t think he meant that’s because it looks like you know what, but because I’ve got a huge raised bed on a big chunk of it. We were chatting about growing food and permaculture, so I think it was more of an observation of my priorities, but still.

I’m not interested in spending a bunch of time, chemicals, or water to maintain it. In fact, it’s probably just a matter of time before I’m growing fruit, vegetables, and lavender all over the small amount of grass that remains. But I do kind of like the look and nostalgia it brings. And having a little bit makes the chickens and dog pretty happy. So, my lawn care regime is simple and it does not require any scary pesticides.

I do this grass treatment once during the spring time. First, I cut the grass with my old school rotary lawn mower. Then, I dump a couple bags of Cedar Grove compost around the lawn. For easy spreading, just open the bag, turn over and twirl simultaneously to hurl bits of compost all over the grass. Use a rake to gently spread the compost around. I basically just try and get the compost to mostly sink in between the blades of grass.

I love the color contrast as the dark compost settles in among the vibrant green grass. It’s beautiful! Leave the compost to soak into the lawn via all the rain we get here and let the grass start benefiting from all the organic microorganism goodness.

Update from a Garden Nerd

This is the time of year when things feel like they’re in turbo drive. That’s probably because for a gardener, the winter can feel interminable. After a whole season of waiting, suddenly, the weather starts changing, there are seeds to be started, and garden things to be tended to. In the span of just a few weeks, my garden went from being asleep and slightly desolate, to being planted, cloched, and at work. Things in the garden happen so fast, I wanted to catch a glimpse of it all before the time and these miraculous changes escape me. The pictures don’t really do it all justice with all the artificial light going on, from the brooder heat lamp to the grow lights, but for now, they’ll have to do. 

Tomorrow, Louise and Camila will be four weeks old. How is it possible that the chicks are already a month old?

The heirloom tomato seeds I started in February…

are vibrant and healthy. I’m upping my tomato crop this year – from the four I planted last year (not including all the tomatillos) to 18 tomato plants this year (again, not including the tomatillos I plan to plant).

I began hardening them off this week and will probably plant them out in their warm, toasty cloche bed in early April. I always push the envelop when planting my tomatoes. I remember last year, sitting at the farmers’ market table as my fellow Master Gardeners recommended that people not plant out their tomatoes yet because it’s just too cold, while meanwhile mine were already in the ground. But come June, I was getting my first ripe tomatoes despite our undesirable summer. I’m going to go for it again this year and hope for the best. We’ll see what happens.

My heirloom brassica seeds (Romanesco, Rapini broccoli, and Brussels Sprouts), which I also started inside a few weeks ago, have taken their time, but were finally ready to be potted up this weekend. I’m hoping to plant eight Romanesco plants, so I hope they pick it up a bit. I want to have those amazing vegetables growing in my yard!

I created three potato towers a la Sunset to grow my potatoes in this year. This will be an experiment, as usual since I have yet to master a solid, successful potato planting technique. I used materials I had on-hand to create these (left over chicken wire, a roll of screen, oil cloth, a hole punch, and some garden twine), so they don’t look as uniformly attractive as the ones in the Sunset tutorial. But they get the job done and kind of fit my garden’s reclaimed material, shabby chic aesthetic. I’ll have to keep you posted on how they’re working out.

My salad bed (and beets!!!) are coming along – I can hardly wait for some fresh garden salads!

I splurged and bought some starts from local farm, Rents Due Ranch. I planted six savoy cabbage plants and six cauliflower plants (thanks to my new Indian food obsession), which I am vigilantly protecting from slugs and chickens. I planted and cloched (via an up-turned vase and quart jar) lacinato kale seeds too. I feel like I maybe missed the good kale planting window some where, which is unfortunate because it’s probably my most favorite thing to grow and eat.  I’m hoping I didn’t start them too late and  am sending them all my green thumb vibes.

Finally, I have to leave you with these precious pictures of my little chickies learning to roost. I built them a little perch this weekend and it is really the cutest thing ever to watch them flap their wings for balance as they teeter unsteadily on the dowel. They’re still building up their roosting and balancing skills, but as you can see from the picture below, they’re starting to get the hang of it.

My brother-in-law just asked me about the light I’m using for my tomato plants and I proceeded to work myself up into an enthusiastic tizzy going off on topics from heirloom seeds, to soil and the beauty of worms, to monocultures and Round-up. I’ll I can say is thank goodness for this blog. My family would go crazy putting up with all this garden nerdiness on their own…especially in the spring time.

Creative Crop Rotation

Those of you that have been following my blog for a while know that I love pretty plant markers. I’ve made a few in my day. But this project is different – this is all about crop rotation.

I’ve learned that one of the best organic methods you can use to protect your vegetables from pests and diseases is to use crop rotation. I remember hearing someone say that rotating crops is a way of confusing the pests that like that crop. If you keep moving the crops to different parts of your garden, the pests have to keep searching for it rather than overwintering in the soil just to find it in the same place in the spring. And according to all my research, it seems that the vegetables I love the most like leafy greens and broccoli in the brassica family and tomatoes in the night shade family, should not be planted in the same spot for three years.

The square foot gardening theory suggests that since your bed is divided into squares that encourage diversity (i.e. planting different vegetables in each square), as you plant new things in each square you are automatically rotating your crops as well. And while I guess that’s sort of true, if you’re not careful, you can fake yourself out. For example, you can plant kale in a square and then broccoli after that, but since those two vegetables are in the same family, you really didn’t rotate those crops at all. Unfortunately, the same sort of pests and diseases that like kale, prefer broccoli too.

To get around that dilemma, last year I started an intricate recording system that involved a square foot grid of my garden beds, tracing paper, and a lot of time. My idea was to record what I planted in each square. I may be a type-A personality, but with my growing garden with 146 square feet to plant, even I can’t keep that up.

So, here’s my solution – plant family raised bed markers. I cut up some amazing reclaimed fence boards I found at the ReStore a few summers ago and made some signs with the Latin names of the families I plant the most. I plan on planting each raised bed according to different families:

  • Solanaceae – tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, tomatillos, eggplant
  • Cucurbitaceae – squash (zucchini, cucumbers, winter squash)*
  • Fabaceae – beans and peas
  • Brassicaceae – kale, broccoli, collards, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, radishes, rutabagas, turnips, and kohlrabi
  • Chenopodiaceae/Asteraceae – my salad bed (lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, beets)

I have five beds that are sort of laid out one in front of the other in different terraced levels. I figure after the bed has been through a season, I’ll plant that same family in the next bed in front of it. So by the time I get to the bed where I started, it will have been through at least three or four years of different families. And as I rotate the crops, I’ll move the signs along with them, so that I can keep track of what family is where. Plus, the bonus of this new system is that plants within the same family generally have similar water needs, so I’ll be making my maintenance work a little easier and the plants a little happier too. Win win!

*A note about cross-pollination from Edible Heirlooms by Bill Thorness:

There are four major species within the Cucurbita genus: All the summer squashes are C.pepo, as are pumpkins, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, and some gourds. Hubbard, turban, buttercup, banana, and mammoth squashes are C. maxima varieties. Butternut and some cushaw varieties are in C. moschata. Green and white cushaws are in C. mixta, a species only recently created as a spin-off of C. moschata. Squash are insect-pollinated, and varieties within the same species cross easily. You can control this by hand-pollinating or by growing only one plant of each species in the same garden space.