Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
One of our favorite perks of life in the Milwaukee area is easy access to the shores of Lake Michigan. We moved here in 2006 from land-locked Champaign-Urbana and soon formed a habit of visiting the lake, sometimes daily, to dip our feet in the water at Bradford Beach or walk along the shore at Klode Park in Whitefish Bay in search of sea glass and cool rocks.
Despite our love of the gorgeous expanse of Lake Michigan shoreline, we rarely wade further than our knees into the great lake's waters. Very few locals swim in the ice cold lake – partly because, well, it's freezing, and partly because of the unimaginable things one might find in the water. Like blobs of algae, garbage, maybe human and pet waste (really). Never mind the unseen poisons in the water thanks to industrial dumping by BP in Indiana and others.
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Thursday, June 9, 2011
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
As I explained in the aforementioned blog post, hot composting occurs when wastes rich in carbon and nitrogen are mixed in the right proportions (30 C : 1 N). A few scoops of soil or finished compost (for the microorganisms within) are thrown into the mix. The pile is kept moist and well-aerated and, if one is lucky, the bacteria in the pile will begin to consume like maniacs. They eat and breed in such a frenzied manner that they generate heat in the process. This heat is a sign that waste is breaking down rapidly.
I have no idea if my first compost bin really worked – sure, the waste I put inside broke down, but when I tried to remove it a year later the receptacle fell apart, and I never really found out if the compost heated. This is consistent with stories I’ve heard from other gardeners who have invested in expensive plastic composters only to find they broke or collapsed after a year or two of use. While not all of these bins bust so quickly, they can fail to deliver in their promises to cause the kind of heating that creates crumbly black "Gardeners' Gold" within three months’ time.
A few years after my disappointing first run with hot composting I opted to try passive composting. With passive composting, you basically throw stuff in a pile and let it rot for a year. You don't aerate by turning the pile, nor do you water the pile; you simply let nature take its course and enjoy a small amount of compost each spring. In 2003, my father-in-law built me a two-sided bin with an open top, removable wooden slats in the front, and chicken wire sides. I've been passively composting ever since, harvesting compost once a year.
That is, until about two weeks ago. That's when, despite the cold and rain, I discovered that my “passive” pile out back had accidentally become a hot pile – so hot, in fact, that it has been steaming for over a week. Here's a photo in which I almost captured the faint vapor rising one cold morning when I dug into the pile:
A hot compost pile is desirable because (A) heating causes compost to form much faster – it only takes about three months; (B) the quality of the compost is higher because of all the additional microbial activity encouraged; and (C) weed seeds and pathogens are "cooked" through the pasteurization process that takes place in the pile.
Accomplishing hot composting can be tricky. Most believe they fail to generate heat because their pile isn’t getting enough sun or warmth, though my case is proof that these variables have little to do with hot composting. My pile is in a shady spot in the back of my yard, next to an ash tree. The day I first found it steaming it was about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, extremely windy, and overcast. Not exactly the scorching day you'd expect would cause yard waste to heat. Nor is my bin made of heat-absorbing black plastic, which many companies claim is an important factor in successful hot composting (cf. this model, which advertises that "this high-performance tumbler is made of 100% recycled plastic in a heat-absorbing black color which helps compost 'cook'").
I'm not 100 percent sure what I did to cause my pile to heat, but I do have some theories:
(1) The pile is big. The whole thing is at least 3’x 3’x 3’. I'm not sure if it's absolutely necessary to have a big pile in order to achieve hot composting, but it certainly helps, for two reasons: one, the greater the variety of waste I throw on the pile, the more I increase the likelihood of balancing nitrogen to carbon, and two, the more waste, the more for the microbes to eat. I currently throw any and everything I can compost into the bin, from yard waste to kitchen scraps (my own and those I’ve collected from neighbors and, occasionally, local restaurants). I throw in large amounts of dried weeds and dead leaves from the yard (for the carbon) as well as buckets of moist, nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps. This helps me get closer to striking that important carbon to nitrogen balance of 30:1.
(2) The pile has LOTS of sticks in it. In the past I omitted the sticks, as they take a very long time to break down and are a pain to pick out of my passive pile once a year. HOWEVER, I learned in my Master Composter class that sticks, because of their size, create necessary pathways in the pile for air. So I allowed a number of sticks of various sizes into the pile, which I believe helped to aerate it, thus reducing the need for turning (something I seldom do).
(3) The pile is very moist due to ample rain. One of the main reasons folks’ piles don’t' heat is because they dry out, especially mid-to-late summer. Compost piles need to be watered when it's not raining – especially if they contain a lot of carbon-rich materials like dead leaves. It has been raining a lot this spring – which has limited the amount of time I’ve been able to spend in the garden, but has worked wonders on my compost pile.
Of course, my happy composting accident has me revved up to try intentionally hot composting. So lately I've been checking the pile daily and have even started turning it with a pitch fork. It’s so fun to see all the black crumbly compost steaming in the center of the pile. If my hot pile keeps working so well I’m sure I’m going to have compost by mid-summer, which will offer a nice pick-me-up for the veggies and herbs growing in my raised beds.
Do you have a question about composting or a composting success to share? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. Or, stop by the Tosa Farmers Market on Saturday, May 28 at 11 a.m. and learn about composting basics at the Historic Little Red Store (7720 Harwood Avenue).
Thursday, May 5, 2011
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Around the same time my last Gurney's catalog arrived, I also received an unsolicited catalog from a company called Henry Field's. So I thought I'd do a little comparison shopping by reading the catalogs side-by-side. I figured this would help me compare the two companies’ products and prices.
That was when I noticed something strange: I discovered many identical products in both catalogs. For example, I noticed that "Rainbow Carrots" were in both catalogs, with the same picture (flipped in one). This seemed off, but it wasn’t exactly shocking – many companies purchase seeds from the same wholesaler, right? No big deal.
Then, a few days later I received two seemingly urgent e-mail messages about major discounts at both Gurney's and another nursery I’ve ordered from in the past, Michigan Bulb Company. Both e-mails were formatted in the same way. Out of curiosity I read the fine print on each message. Turns out they are owned by the same company – Scarlet Tanager LLC.
Out of curiosity, I googled "Scarlet Tanager LLC" and came upon this fascinating piece, reprinted from Countryside Magazine.
According to this article, many seed companies are owned by umbrella corporations like Scarlet Tanager LLC (an organization that, quite interestingly, doesn't seem to have its own website). These companies owned by Scarlet Tanager give the illusion of small and local – when you buy from Michigan Bulb Company, for example, you might imagine that your seeds come from a family farm in Michigan. In actuality, as reported in this piece, most of the seeds sold by these companies are purchased at the lowest price possible from mega-corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto, as you may know, has gained notoriety after being exposed by documentaries like Food, Inc. and King Corn. These films and many others have accused Monsanto of patenting and therefore controlling their own genetically modified seeds, making it illegal for small farmers to save seeds from patented varieties. [Incidentally, Monsanto crafted a response to the claims made in Food, Inc. I’ll let you be the judge of whether Monsanto has a right to sue small farmers for saving patented seeds].
What I’ve learned from this experience is that one must be very careful when assuming that seemingly local, family-owned farms aren't connected to Monsanto. Take, for example, the Wisconsin-based Jung Seed Company. Many assume that Jung is a local family company and therefore worth supporting in the fight against GMO foods. I looked into the matter of who owns Jung and the answer is somewhat complex, but it does seem that there is a Monsanto connection. The company that was originally owned by J.W. Jung was later split into two groups – Jungs Garden Centers and Jung Seed Genetics, which is owned by Monsanto. Cf. this discussion thread at seedsavers.org.
To be fair, I've bought products from companies like Jung, Gurneys and Michigan Bulb in the past and have been satisfied with their products (with a few notable exceptions, like the "bare root" hazelnut shrubs from Gurneys that turned out to be complete duds). The tri-color butterfly bush, the Nanking cherry shrubs, the dwarf fruit trees – they have all been quite successful. However, I wonder, what is the true cost of buying these cheap frankenplants? Am I unwittingly supporting genetic modification, corporate patenting of life and the demise of seed saving by purchasing from these companies? These are questions I am now pondering as I prepare to purchase seeds for the 2011 season.
Where do your seeds come from? Do you make a point of buying only locally-grown, unpatented seeds? If so, who are your favorite local growers and seed sellers? Do you participate in a local seed exchange? Do you save your own seeds? Or do you simply buy seeds of those who offer the most interesting varieties at the lowest prices, regardless of who's selling them? Weigh in by leaving a comment below.
From this point forward, it is my personal goal to stick to buying only heirloom varieties of seeds (which are not patented or genetically modified) and/or purchasing from companies that have taken a stance against GMOs and patents. If you would like to do the same, you may find this list helpful (use the search function to quickly locate Wisconsin vendors on the list). Or, join the Seed Savers Exchange,like I did,and get discounts on rare heirloom seeds http://www.seedsavers.org/.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Sweet Water is a fascinating project that brings the aquaponics system made famous in recent history by Growing Power's Will Allen to a repurposed industrial building on Milwaukee's south side. Aquaponics involves creating a growth cycle whereby fish like Tilapia and Perch are farmed in tanks; the waste they create is used to fertilize edible plants like lettuce, wheat grass, watercress, sprouts, and so on. This is an organic, sustainable growing method with the potential to revolutionize the food industry.
On our tour we congregated in a classroom and heard the back story of Milwaukee's aquaponics revolution from former Growing Power board member, Sweet Water co-founder, and local food revolutionary James Godsil, AKA "Olde." Following the lecture we were able to explore Sweet Water's aquaponics system. My three young daughters helped feed the fish. We then heard all about the science behind the aquaponics method. Following our aquaponics lesson was a Q + A period that was still going when I had to leave (my daughters started getting antsy). We were there for at least an hour and a half.
Sweet Water tours are every Wednesday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at Noon; children under 10 are free. Growing Power (located on the north side of Milwaukee) gives daily tours at 1 p.m.
Learn more about Sweet Water Organics at www.sweetwater-organic.com.
Friday, February 11, 2011
My interest in vermicomposting began several years ago, when I began hearing that folks were keeping "pet worms" in boxes in their homes and using them to compost. I was fascinated by the idea of having a little composting factory right in my house. So one day I decided to give vermicomposting a try. I did some research and built my own bin using an 18-gallon plastic storage tote. I bought several containers of red wiggler worms from a local bait shop, dumped them into the bin atop moistened newspaper strips, and began my vermicomposting adventure.
Truth be told, my first couple of years experimenting with worms were rocky. All went well with my first bin until I started noticing tiny fungus gnats all over the place. Frustrated with the pests, I moved the bin outdoors, buried the too-moist, nitrogen-rich bin contents with with dry, carbon-rich materials, and left the bin alone for a spell – a very long spell. In fact, I left the bin outside all the way through the winter. When I returned to the bin in the spring, I had a container full of lovely compost, but no worms! It was then that I learned the hard lesson that worms cannot survive above ground outdoors during a Wisconsin winter.
Determined not to give up, that spring I started a new bin, this time with a bucket of worms from Growing Power in Milwaukee. As I started to get the hang of vermicomposting I soon added a second bin. Then a third. Then I started building bins for friends and family. I'm now at the point where I'm so into vermicomposting that I just launched a little side business called Gardens, not garbage! to help others establish their own worm bins. I also hope to continue to give workshops in the area. Vermicomposting is a fabulous way to reduce waste while creating an amazing organic fertilizer in the process. If you do it right it doesn't smell and works like magic.
The best perk of vermicomposting, for a gardener like myself, is being able to use vermicompost to revive tired houseplants. I brewed up some "vermicompost tea" about a week ago using this method. Before using the tea to water and fertilizer my houseplants (everything from dracaena to dwarf pomegranates, figs, and coffee plants) I decided to try something I recently learned about in my Master Gardener class: I gave my houseplants a shower. I took all my houseplants and put them in my two bathtubs, then rinsed them with warm water, cleaning dust from their leaves (excessive dust can inhibit photosynthesis). After rinsing the leaves and soil thoroughly, I allowed the water to soak through the pots, washing away the build-up of salts that can occur in the average houseplant pot due to treated water. After their bath, I poured my brew of compost tea on the plants' leaves and into the pots. The compost tea serves the dual purpose of acting as a foliar rinse and a fertilizer. The beneficial microbes in the tea strengthen the plant, positioning it to better resist diseases and pests. The tea also adds nutrients to the pot, bringing dead soil back to life.
My plants now look so healthy and shiny and new. Though the task of showering them was a bit painstaking, I don't imagine that the process will have to happen more than once or twice a year. Of course, I will probably repeat the compost tea every few weeks, because it's so beneficial. It doesn't take much vermicompost to make the tea – only about a quart per five gallons of water -- and it's fairly easy to make. The benefits are definitely worth the trouble if you want happy house plants!
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
I'm inclined to believe the snow insulates more than it chills. It's tough to find a very scientific answer to my question, but these two blog write-ups on the subject seem logical enough: "Using Snow to Insulate Your House" at self-reliance-works.com and "It's cold! What difference does snow make?" from scienceandsarcasm.com. The conclusion is that snow does have an insulating quality, though I would suspect it's minimal -- foundation snow berms and a little roof top snow help, perhaps, but unless our homes are totally buried they're not insulated all that much.
That said, I haven't found a source yet that says snow chills a house. So keep shoveling! There's nowhere else for this much snow to go anyway, other than against our homes. Hopefully it's helping to keep our houses a tiny bit more insulated so that when we return inside from shoveling, we're a little warmer.
Friday, January 28, 2011
As soon as I learned this I went straight to the hardware store and bought a 48", two-bulb shop light ballast for $15 and four 48", T8 bulbs – two cool white and two soft white. Each two pack was about $5. I am going to hang the new light behind my other shop light, under which I'm currently growing lettuce seeds. The first light appears to be working just fine so far, and I've saved a lot of money not purchasing a "real" grow-light system (depending on how elaborate the system they can cost upwards of $100, often far more).
Here's a photo of my basement shop light. Growing underneath are two flats of lettuce atop space-saving mini tables my father-in-law constructed for me. The second shop light will be added after I purchase extra long chains for the ballast so I can bring the bulbs closer to the flats (the chains that came with the shop light are much too short).
By the way, you don't have to wait until early spring to start seeds. I'm growing lettuce in my basement under lights. These "Pablo" lettuce seeds I received courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange and planted on January 15 seem to be doing well!
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Following the inspection, Tim suggested that we have our house and attic insulated. We couldn't afford to do it all at once, so we decided to start by sealing and insulating our attic and basement. We also had our old house exhaust fan replaced with a more energy efficient model. After we had this work done by Insulation Technologies in Milwaukee, Tim returned to our house and again conducted his blower door test to determine the air change rate. It improved from 13.8 changes per hour to about 10.
Our latest WE bill arrived one day after Tim's second inspection, on Tuesday, Jan. 12. The bad news is that gas prices are on the rise again, and this was reflected in our bill. The good news is that the amount of therms we used last month went down from last year, from 761 to 665 (the average temp was one degree warmer this year, which may account slightly for the decrease in therm usage – it went from 23 degrees F last year to 24 this year).
I'm also pleased that our overall energy usage is much lower than average, as evidenced by the following graphic provided by WE:
All in all I'm very happy that we're bringing our therm usage down as prices are rising. We'll still probably pay a great deal to heat our once-drafty old bungalow, but perhaps not as much as we might have.
Much of our home energy efficiency endeavors were made possible by our friend Mike Arney, who is quietly and ardently working to inspire Tosans to go green. He has helped us and he can help you, too: get involved with the new Green Neighbor program (the brain child of Mike Arney and John Bahr). Click on the Green Neighbor checklist to learn about measures you can take to make your home more energy efficient.
There are still several things, both large and small, that we'd like to do to reduce energy consumption in our household. I plan to write about them here – stay tuned.
What measures have you taken to green your home?
Monday, January 10, 2011
I soon began to regret this decision – especially after I came across this list of monthly gardening tips at the Hawks Nursery website. Hawks reminded me not to give up those precious evergreen boughs, as they are very useful in the garden. Thankfully, I found a bit of time to drag the tree to my blueberry patch, where, wearing heavy duty gloves, I cut it to shreds with garden pruners. I then spread the needles around the shrubs, where they will serve as mulch and, hopefully, acidify the soil a bit -- blueberries love acidic soil, and pine is a mild acidifier.
When I got most of the needles off the tree, I replaced what was left of the tree on the curb. (Note: I learned the hard way not to save the trunk and branches as firewood: pine sap tends to explode when heated, which can be dangerous and destructive).
I admit it feels a bit weird to hack apart a Christmas tree. The skeleton that now remains on my curbside is undoubtedly going to make some passersby wonder what the heck we Zydeks do in our house during the Christmas season. On the other hand, recycling my tree is such a beautiful way to continue celebrating Christmas long after December 25 -- that evergreen tree symbolizing eternal life will now also symbolize resurrection as breaks down in the soil, giving new life to other plants.
It's not too late to recycle your tree! Pull it off the curb, clip off the boughs and place them on your garden beds as mulch. Or, save the clippings in a bag and let them age, spreading them as needed during warmer weather or adding them to your compost bin.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
We're looking into the whole home inspection thing because like you, we have a drafty old bungalow and are paying out the ears each month. I was wondering how much your assessment cost? Did you do the blanket assessment or did you pick & choose individual testing to be done? Was it a lot of do the air seal and insulation? And you said that there is a marked difference?
I think the inspection cost around $300. Generally they run from $300 to $500, depending on the size of one's home. We did the whole assessment, for which the inspector looked at the home's air flow as it relates to heating and cooling. FYI, the inspector doesn't look at, say, lighting, or water usage, or appliances. These are things a consumer can easily assess on one's own. Air flow is much harder for a consumer to assess, and it's important to assess, as heating and cooling account for a majority of a home's energy usage -- which can be A LOT if one lives in a drafty old bungalow. Our first February in Wisconsin the We bill blew my mind. I could simply did not expect to pay $400 or $500 a month on energy each winter when I had been paying closer to $200 a month in Urbana, Illinois.
BTW, the company that inspected our home is Beyond Energy, llc. You might want to contact your neighborhood association to find out if any of your neighbors are interested in getting an assessment. Many energy inspectors offer group rates.
Following the inspection we had our attic air sealed and insulated. We also insulated our basement. The cost was about $3,500 – this is a significant expense for us, but we felt the cost is worth it for the following reasons, in no particular order: (1) improving the comfort level of our home (2) saving money (in the long run) (3) preserving energy and protecting the environment, and (4) preserving an old home while bringing it up to twenty-first century standards. I haven't seen a full month's We Energies bill since we had the work done, so it's too early to analyze cost savings, but the house does feel warmer. Based on estimated savings, my husband figures it'll take us about five years to recoup inspection and insulation expenses.
We were pretty happy with the company who did the work: Intech, located in Milwaukee. They've specialized in home insulation for decades and have had thousands of happy insulation customers, so we knew we were in good hands. They also offered us the most attractive price. The were pleasant and professional, didn't use sub-contractors, and completed the work in one day.