We're an ordinary family, complete with picky eaters, budget concerns, and time management issues. But to prove that "eating local" works - even for busy families in cooler climates - we're trading Chick-Fil-A and goldfish crackers for grassfed meat and local produce. Join our adventure in learning to eat (sort of) sustainably for the summer!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

PS - this is my project for this fall


I'm going to lasagna the heck out of my front yard :)

Harvest day

Okay, so my "potato condo" is actually a collapsible yard waste bin from Target, and about four bags of potting soil ...


Who cares?  I still grew potatoes!

Today is my daughter's first day of school, so I'm going to wait until she's home to harvest the rest.  I can't wait to see how many we got in that little container!

And speaking of little containers, did you know you can grow awesome carrots in a deep flower pot in your front yard, and nobody will ever know (until you harvest them)?



Monday, June 13, 2011

Finding the brown in the season

This time of year it can be a challenge to get the right mix of "browns" and "greens" in a compost pile.  At least half of the pile - and probably more like 75% - is supposed to be brown.  But this time of year, all the stuff we want to add - kitchen scraps, weeds pulled from the garden, grass clippings - is "green," and the big influx of "brown" leaves won't happen until October.  What's a gardener to do?

I've been working that out, and have come up with a few suggestions you may not have considered as sources for "brown" material for your garden:

1. Dried leaves and grass.  Yes, it's true we won't have a ton of dead leaves until fall ... but the recent Hailpocalypse we had in Ohio brought down a lot of leaves and small branches in our yard.  I left everything out to dry for a few days, then gathered a giant garbage can load of it into a pile next to my compost bin.  I've been forking in a few scoops of the now-dried leaves every time I add kitchen scraps to the compost, and in only a few weeks I've used most of it up.  The same thing works for grass clippings - leave them laying on the lawn for a day or two before you rake them up, then add the dried grass gradually as you add in the kitchen scraps.  It won't win you any "lawn of the year" awards, but it does keep the stuff out of the landfill (and prevents it from going all matted and slimy in your pile).

2.  Shredded paper.  We started a bin for recyclable paper a month or two ago, and while Liza was in school I was taking it over to the fundraiser bins they have in the school parking lot.  But I'm not going to drive all the way over there this summer, and the paper load was getting pretty large, so I hauled out the crosscut shredder and got to work.  We shredded junk mail, and Liza's old school papers (with her permission), and even some paperboard boxes.

Some of it went into the pile immediately, while a fill grocery bag of the stuff is sitting by the back door, ready to be added to the pile with the kitchen scraps.  I figure a good couple of handfuls of paper per load of kitchen scraps ought to help keep things in balance.  Just remember that paper is really dry, and needs to be moistened when you add it.  You can either spritz the paper down with water from a sprayer before you add it, or just use a hose to add some water to the pile as you mix it in.

3.  Vacuum cleaner dust.  Yes, I know, it's kind of gross ... and technically it's probably a "green" instead of a "brown," but it helps separate out the slimy green layers, and it's better than throwing it out, right?  It will take a while to decompose the hair, but it's supposed to be a really great source of protein for the pile, so I'm all in favor of it.

4.  Ashes from the fire pit.  Seems like everyone has one of these nowadays, but I don't see many people adding the ashes to their compost piles.  They're a great source of "brown" material, they don't smell bad, and they help aerate the pile (because some of them are in bigger pieces and/or have holes in them that trap air).

Just don't add any ashes from charcoal briquettes or those chemically-treated "fire logs" you can buy at the home stores ... I don't think any of us want the petroleum products they use to make those in our nice, healthy piles!  And let the ashes cool completely before you add them - we want our pile to be hot, but not aflame!

5.  Cardboard.  It's strawberry season here in Ohio, which means that I'm bringing home lots of those pressed cardboard berry boxes from the farmers' market.  They can't be reused much in the home as they get soggy really quickly, but if you pull them into smallish pieces, they make excellent compost material.  You can do the same thing with egg cartons (but they're harder to pull apart) and even low quality cardboard boxes.  You can also find compostable paper plates, which work well for parties and can be used in your pile afterward.  Most cardboard we send out to be recycled, but if you're desperate for brown compost material, you may want to chop some up and throw it in your pile.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


The strawberries Liza planted last year are thriving despite the 48,000 inches of rain we've had this spring.  If I can just keep them from rotting before they ripen, we'll have at least a bowlful of summery goodness in a few weeks!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Gardening is much more fun ...

... when you can grab a handful of these off the bush in the front yard when you need a snack.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The wonders of moderation

I've been reading Just Food by James E. McWilliams, and I'm going to have a lot to say about it when I'm through.  In the meantime, though, I'd like to talk about the concept of moderation.

People seem to view living sustainably as an all-or-nothing endeavor.  "I couldn't do that, I like my Twinkies/Doritos/McDonald's cheeseburgers too much," is a common refrain I hear when I talk to people about my project.  But no one ever said you have to give up Twinkies, or Doritos, or even McDonald's cheeseburgers, in order to eat more sustainably.

The key there is the word "more."  I'm talking about improvements, not complete overhauls.  Sure, the environment would be much better off if we all were exclusively vegan locavores who rode bikes to work at offices powered by solar energy and fairy farts, but realistically that's never going to happen.  But most of us can make changes - even small changes - in our diets and our lives to move us in the direction of sustainability.

I don't think anything I'm doing this year is out of reach for the average suburban middle-class family.  Sure, I'm lucky to live in an area with a vibrant food community - I can easily get everything from locally made cheese to local pasta to local hummus, right at the farmers' market - but Cleveland isn't the only place with farmers' markets and CSAs.  Despite what my parents keep saying, they DO have access to both in Delaware:
Getting to the farmers' market requires a little bit of planning - I'm getting good at remembering to bring the cooler and ice packs with me - but isn't any harder than going to a second grocery store to pick up something that was out of stock at your regular store.  My routine tends to be:
  • Tuesday - visit the local grocery store chain while my daughter is in an after-school program nearby
  • Thursday - pick up CSA basket (about 10 minutes away from our house)
  • Saturday - visit farmers' market and Trader Joe's, which is right next door
Occasionally I need to supplement this with a trip to the local grocery store (which is across the street from the library, which I visit at least once a week), and any trips to the farm stand can usually be combined with a trip to visit friends nearby, so neither one counts as a separate trip, just an extra stop on an existing errand run.

Recycling is easy for most of us, thanks to curbside pickup and the proliferation of paper pickup dumpsters at schools and businesses.  But recycling paper (dropoff at my daughter's school, which I have to visit every week anyway) and cardboard (curbside pickup) means that our family garbage output is now down to slightly more than one bag a week.

Composting works if you've got any sort of yard at all - or even a basement or cool closet, if you're willing to set up a worm composter.  Our compost setup is terribly complex - it's a pile in the backyard that I flip around once in a while with a pitchfork.  I decided not to harvest any of the finished compost this spring, keeping it instead to kickstart things for this summer's output.  But when I'm ready to use it, it will be taking the place of some of the mulch in our existing flower beds, as well as taking the place of some of the soil amendments I need to buy when I make a new bed.  Getting the kitchen scraps out to the compost pile is no work at all - I hand them to the kid and tell her she gets an extra 5 minutes of playing outside before bed if she takes the scraps out for me.  Win/win!

One of our main waste sources used to be cat litter.  But now that I'm using a flushable litter, that's dropped to zero, as has our need for plastic grocery bags to scoop stuff into.  Come on, most of us keep our cat boxes in a spare bathroom or utility room anyway - is it that hard to scoop it into a toilet instead of a bag?

Choosing sustainable products for housekeeping is getting easier and easier.  Even stores like Target and Wal-Mart carry brands that, while not perfect, are at least an improvement on conventional detergents and soaps.  And things like soaps, lotions, and other personal care items can even be bought online from small vendors (we like several sellers on www.etsy.com, as well as local folks who sell at the farmers' market and the gift shop at the botanical garden).

Growing your own food doesn't take 40 acres or a mule.  Don't tell me you don't have time, or space, or even a container.  It takes five minutes to grab an old plastic tote, drill some holes in it, and fill it with dirt.  Plant something in it.  Stick it on a patio, put it on your front porch, leave it sitting near whatever sun you can find in your apartment.  Even growing one tomato plant - or a small planter of herbs or salad greens - lets you control exactly what goes into your mouth in a way that trips to Safeway can't.

And one of the easiest ways to make a big impact on the environment doesn't involve farmers' markets or weird soap or finding a place to recycle #5 plastics, it just means making more informed choices when you plan your meals.  We've gotten so used to having every food available every day - thank you, Chile and New Zealand! - that the idea of waiting until something is actually in season near you before you eat it is completely foreign to most of us.  Asparagus with Christmas dinner?  Sure!  Strawberries in January?  No problem!

There's nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional out-of-season treat, but partaking in the bounty of the Southern Hemisphere all year when there are local alternatives that support neighbors' farms and don't damage the environment as much - well, that's just wasteful.  As I described it to the kids in my daughter's kindergarten class, when you go to the grocery store, you should think before you buy fruit - do you want a banana from South America, a kiwi fruit from California, or an apple that was grown in a suburb of Cleveland?  There's nothing wrong with eating bananas, or kiwi fruit - but we don't need them every day.  They taste that much better if they're a treat to be anticipated and savored, not a staple to be taken for granted.

Erg, this has gone on too long.  I'm not done - plenty of blog fodder in my brain, at least today! - but I'll put it on hold for now.

Now, got grab some asparagus before the season is over!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Aphid control?

I wanted to save this idea, so I'm sticking it here in case anyone else is interested:

"Aphids don't like hot peppers, so grow a few extra.  If you have aphids, put 2 whole 'Serrano' peppers and one peeled garlic clove into a blender with 2-4 cups of water.  Blend well, and spray infested plants with the mixture.  If you don't have fresh peppers, cayenne boiled with garlic will make an effective 'anti-aphid' tea."
- from a little piece of earth by Maria Finn, 2010, by Universe Publishing
(I was going to add a photo of aphids here, but they gross me out too much.  Hate those little suckers!)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Giraffe Krispies

What do you get if you use honey puffed spelt instead of the usual cereal to make rice crispy treats?
Treats that look like giraffe hide and taste like ridiculously sweet Honey Smacks!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

First garden pix of the year

Top to bottom in the bed that's between our sidewalk and our garage: The Oregano that Never Dies; 3 stevia plants, some onions I forgot to pull out last year, three bell peppers, some chives, two spicy peppers, and a nasturtium.  There are some daffodils left in there, too, and what seems to be the Incredible Multiplying Allium Plant (I swear, we had one when we moved here, now we've got like 10 in this bed and half a dozen in a neighboring bed).

Top to bottom in the bed that's between our sidewalk and driveway (closest one to the street): Carrots (started seeds in planter), 3 cilantro plants, sugar snap peas (seeds started under tower), spinach (seeds started in planter), 4 dwarf celery plants, 4 freckled lettuce plants, 3 Thai basil plants, 3 purple basil plants, 3 cinnamon basil plants, 2 rosemary plants (one is a volunteer left over from last year), a lavender plant, and the Thyme Plant That Never Dies No Matter How Cold It Is.  There's a nasturtium in there, too, as well as two roses, some sedum, and a peony, all of which were there to begin with and are too happy where they are to think about moving them this year.

Top to bottom in the new bed, which is right on our property line: Cardinal vine (in planter, and I'm growing it for the hummingbirds, not for us), a lavender plant which I suspect is dead, another Thyme That Never Dies, 4 fennel plants (2 regular, 2 bronze), 4 lemongrass plants, a Tumbling Tom tomato (in hanging basket), and a rhubarb.  Also in this bed: some veronica I transplanted from the side of the house, some roses that grew from hips off of another plant, and a maple tree that sprouted in our junk pile in the back yard.

Not pictured: the two blueberry bushes I haven't put in yet - one's going in the blank spot at the front of the curve in this bed, and one's going next to our driveway and trashcans.

Now I'm sure some people are a little leery of the idea of decorating with foodstuffs.  Maybe a few pictures will convince you?

This is what you can see from the sidewalk by the street:

This basil is more vivid (and better smelling) than any Coleus I've seen:

Oh, rhubarb, how I love your giant foliage and strangely-spraypainted-cauliflower-looking blossoms!

Gratuitous tomato shot, because - damn, it's May and I have tomatoes!

Chives - I never remember to cook with them, but the flowers are just too cute for words.

Friday, May 6, 2011

First gardening of the year

Maybe I'm being overly optimistic thinking that we're past frost for the year, but yesterday was so nice I was compelled to go out and buy vegetables for the garden.

I'm always trying new things in an effort to actually get any of my gardens to produce.  First we had a nice raised bed with soil that after three years of amendments was actually friable.  But it was all the way at the back of the yard (inconvenient) in a section that was so wet it actually got moss on the surface in between the plants, and it was in shade for part of the day.

Last year I cleared out some room in the front yard and actually swapped out the soil, dragging out the clay from the front and replacing it with the good soil from the back.  But the site up front is still too shady for many plants, and thanks to that and some unfortunate visitors, we only got half a dozen tomatoes all year.

This year I'm trying to approach this in a more logical fashion.  Last fall I put in a new bed up front in full sun, then transplanted a few things there to make it look a little less barren all winter.  Now I'm on the lookout for edible plants that are also attractive - things I can grow and eat without it looking like I'm setting up a truck garden in my front yard.

My first purchase was a hanging basket full of Tumbling Toms.  I have great hopes for this plant, which is already covered in blossoms and green tomatoes.  I'm keeping an eye on the weather and letting it sleep over in the garage in the evenings so it doesn't get too chilled ... an hopefully I'll get a few dozen tomatoes this year!

I've also got a bed that's mostly sunny that I have in the past filled with ornamental plants like daylilies, snapdragons, and peonies.

Last year I punted some of the flowers out of there and put in herbs - rosemary, basil, thyme, lavender - instead, and they did really well.  I also put in a tomato plant which went toes-up in a matter of weeks, so it's not a full-proof spot, but it's better than the shady swamp out back.  This year I'm upping the ante a bit.  All of the snapdragons are gone and have been replaced by freckled romaine lettuce and dwarf celery plants, and I'm planting cilantro in between the daylilies.  I've got some stevia tucked into a corner, as well, and a flat of basil plants in the garage waiting to harden off a bit more before I stick them in the ground.

Over in the new-this-year bed I've got some lemongrass (which is supposed to look like ornamental grass) and some fennel (which is supposed to get to be 4' tall, and I don't care because fennel is awesome).  I transplanted some of the thyme over there, moved a shepherd's crook up there for the tomato planter, and I've still got room left for a couple more short things.  The soil's not bad over there ... maybe I'll try carrots again this year.  I've got a spot saved for a rhubarb, too - I just have to pick which type I want.

I've got several decorative metal tepees I'd like to cover with climbing crops, maybe sugar snap peas or even pickle cucumbers.  I'll have to fence them somehow to keep the groundhog out, I suppose, but if I can get anything to actually grow I'll be happy to do that.

I don't have any pictures yet (too busy planting yesterday to photograph anything!), but I'll get some soon. I can't wait to see what this is going to look (and taste) like!

This is what $20 looks like

When I got my morels ready to cook, I was very surprised to find that they're hollow inside - I guess I expected the part that looks like a brain to be solid inside, like a button or portobello.  It's more like a gnarly-looking balloon.
This was spring experiment number 2 (last year we tried ramps, which we liked enough to play with again this year), and again it involved lots of bacon.  Basically, I fried up some bacon pieces and ramps, pulled out the bacon and used the grease to fry the morels, which I cut into wedges so they'd end up being bite-sized when they were done.  When the morels were mostly done I added some salt and pepper, and some milk that I thickened with flour (because I was out of cream).  Served it over some fettuccine with the bacon sprinkled over the top and liberal amounts of Parmesan cheese.

It was good, but honestly you couldn't really taste the mushrooms that much - it would have been as good (and much cheaper) with any of the regular varieties of mushrooms you can buy at the grocery store.

And then we tried fiddleheads.  This was much less of a success, due in large part to the fact that when boiled they're fuzzy and curled up and have little leaves that look like feet and it's very hard to get over the "Ack!  I'm eating caterpillars!" factor.  Jason and I each had one bite and threw the rest away.  Luckily, those were only a $5 investment ... it would have killed me to have to do that with the Solid Gold Fungi.

So now we've tried the three most common wild-harvested spring vegetables!  Yay!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Quickie - alfalfa sprouts

Just a quick note to tell you that I'm raising a crop of alfalfa sprouts as an example for the elective I'm teaching at my daughter's school on Monday, and SPROUTING IS THE COOLEST THING EVER OMG YOU HAVE TO TRY IT NOW!!!!!!!!

Itty bitty little teeny tiny plants - sprouting - in a jar inside a cupboard in my living room - and I can eat them on Monday.  Squee!!!!!

Ramping up

Hello, my name is Gretchen, and my lifestyle is Somewhat Sustainable.

  • I have a compost pile ... but I don't trudge out there in the winter, and it's not large enough to compost all of the leaves we rake in the fall.
  • I recycle cans, bottles, paper, #1 and #2 plastic, and cardboard ... but I don't bother sorting through the trash in my car to bring home the recyclables.
  • I have a ton of reusable shopping bags in my car ... but I rarely remember to use them, and anyway, I need the plastic bags for cat litter disposal.
  • I bought a bunch of CFL light bulbs ... but I haven't installed them because a) they take so long to light up, and b) we sort of use the incandescent lights as a secondary heat source in our craptastically cold house all winter.
  • All of the beef we buy is local and sustainably raised, and I haven't bought a fast food cheeseburger in more than a year ... but I slip occasionally and buy something that contains beef (like chili) at a restaurant.
  • I buy recycled printer paper, and recycled paper towels, and recycled paper napkins ... but I hate the paper towels, I am too picky about my toilet paper to try a new brand, and I should be using cloth napkins instead of paper, anyway.
  • I try to minimize the number of plastic bags I send in my daughter's lunches ... but that means I'm sending stuff in non-recyclable plastic containers that may or may not be BPA free (she's 5, and can't be trusted with glass at school).
  • Canning is fun! But by the time I get all of the stuff washed and prepped and processed and cleaned up, I've probably used more resources (water/electricity/glass) than I would have if I had just bought the canned tomatoes from the grocery store.
  • I have fun being a member of a CSA ... but I still waste a lot of food, either because I don't like it (I'm talking about you, beets and chard) or because I'm too lazy to cook it.
  • I'm trying to install a native plant garden in my yard and I love seeing butterflies and birds in the yard ... but I have no problem paying Trugreen to come and spray god only knows what all over my yard every six weeks so that I can have a weed-free lawn.
  • I have been trying more environmentally friendly cleaning products (like shampoo, soap, dish detergent, laundry soap) and I wash most of our clothes in cold water, but I run all of our clothes through the dryer, even in the summertime.
  • I'm recycling all that I can from the packing materials that came with my daughter's birthday presents - boxes, wrapping paper tubes, paper packing material - and I'm reusing a bunch of gift bags for the millionth time, but I still use plenty of (non-recyclable) wrapping paper and tissue.
I could go on, but I think you get the picture.  So, in my quest to become Supremely Sustainable, I plan to do the following:
  1. Compost everything that can possibly go into a standard pile, including crushed eggshells, dryer lint, yarn scraps, and hair from our brushes. 
  2. Look into buying a worm compost system to use in the winter when I'm too lazy to walk out to the pile.
  3. Look into getting a leaf shredder, or at least use our newly discovered (at the end of last fall) method of shredding the leaves before bagging them.
  4. Switch cat litter varieties to one that is flushable, which should reduce the number of grocery bags I need in the house.  If the litter doesn't work, buy the new biodegradable plastic bags to use for collection.  
  5. Start using the damn shopping bags.
  6. Recycleables from the car come into the house.  Period.
  7. Install the CFL bulbs in rooms where we don't use the lights for heat (bedrooms, living room, kitchen) as the old ones burn out.
  8. Reduce the number of meals eaten in restaurants, and stick to mainly-vegetarian options whenever possible.  
  9. Replace paper towel dispenser with cloth towel and stick roll of crappy paper towels in the closet for cat puke cleanups and other severely gross jobs.  Use microfiber cloths for most cleaning (windows, counters, bathroom, mirrors, etc.).
  10. Keep sending the lunches in reusable containers - maybe look into buying a bento set for next year?
  11. Need to can lots more tomatoes, more tomato sauce and salsa, more peaches and pears, less jelly.  And freezing works better for a lot of things, anyway - maybe freeze some veggie mixes this year instead of just solo veggies?
  12. Cook more of the CSA stuff, or find homes for it with people who like it (Hi, Judy!  Those beets are coming your way!).  
  13. Cancel TruGreen, and see how the yard does.  If the dandelions come back, try removing by hand, or if that doesn't work, look into more enviro-conscious yard companies ... because they won't let me grow a prairie in my front yard, no matter how much I'd like one.
  14. As they run out, replace shampoo and body wash with locally made or enviro-conscious alternatives.  Use miracle cloths whenever possible (seriously, they do work miracles with just water).  Reduce the number of cleaning products in the house.  And start using the clothesline for some things.
  15. Look into making fabric gift bags for future use?  Or switch to using just paper gift bags made of recyclable material?

So, who's with me?  What are you planning to add to your sustainability repertoire this summer?  I'd love to hear your ideas!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Farmer's Market is open for 2011!!!!

It was the first day of this year's market, so they had special events like sheep-shearing demonstrations and a visiting chef cooking up some of the day's offerings.  We were more interested in petting the wee little (4-day-old) lamb:
Who's a cute little sweater-and-curry-to-be?  You are!

The weather was foul - like 45F and drizzling sideways by the time we left (see the Medusa hairdo Liza is sporting above?) - and there were only half as many stalls as there will be in July and August, but that didn't keep the shoppers away.

We came home with a gallon of apple cider, a package of maple sugar candy, two jars of pickles, and some honey puffed corn.  It was amazing how much I missed going there when it was on hiatus for the winter.  I don't miss waking up early on a Saturday to go, nor do I miss carrying 20 pounds of produce back to the car, but I did miss the apple guy, and the meat guy, and the pie guy.  I missed the sellers' babies waving from pack-n-plays, and the kid selling watered-down lemonade for $1 a glass.  Heck, I even missed the dogs.

It's good to be back!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Saved that one.

     "Cummins leaned forward over his paper-strewn desk and told me about a poet who had been walking along the beach one morning at low tide.  The poet saw thousands and thousands of starfish that had been stranded on the shore, baking in the sun.  If they were left on the beach surely they would die.  In the distance, he saw a boy sifting through the sand on the beach.  The boy would stoop down, pick up a starfish, and throw it back into the sea.  When the poet reached the boy, he said, 'What are you doing? You can't save them all!' The boy knelt down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the ocean, and said, 'I saved that one.'  And he did it again.  'Saved that one.'  And again.  One by one, until soon the poet joined the boy, and together they saved as many starfish as they could.
     "That's how people who make a difference think and live."

I found this today as I was reading a parenting book, and it struck me as a good explanation for why I'm still trying to eat as locally and sustainably as I can.  No, I can't singlehandedly change the food system in this country - or even in this town.  But by choosing to buy local/organic/sustainable products whenever I can, at least I'm doing something.  It's not as obvious as throwing a starfish back into the ocean, but when I drive past the vegetable lady's house or the farm market where we shop in the summer, I think to myself, "Helped that one."