Tag Archives: sustainable living

Don’t rake those leaves!

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For years now we (that’s a royal we) have not raked leaves in the fall.

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Some years they were left in place untouched until spring due to my own health issues (nothing gets done around here unless I plan and organize the job). Some years, we did something a little different:

Mowed the leaves and left in place.

As a final mowing (my yard is mowed no more than 6 times each summer season), the yard is mowed chopping up the leaves. But even that is not recommended. It might be better to wait until spring to mow those leaves.

In his article Scientists Urge: Don’t Rake Your Leaves! – Here’s Why, David Wolfe cites the National Wildlife Federation’s recommendation that readers not rake up and throw away leaf litter. Here is Wolfe’s summary of the benefits of leaving leaves in place:

screenshot - David Wolfe, National Wildlife Foundation leaf litter benefits.PNG

Leaf litter provides habitat for creatures (small, smaller and smallest), nourishes the soil, and not raking keeps leaves out of landfills, reduces carbon emissions (no leaf blowers, please — hate those things), and gives you more time to do other things.

Les Harrison, UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director, in Leaf Litter: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Work?,  discusses the benefits of allowing leaves to remain in place:

  • moisture retention from precipitation
  • stormwater runoff slowdown
  • availability of nutrients for organisms and soil as they are broken down

Although his article mentions the year-round drop of leaves in Florida, the science behind his recommendations apply to all parts of the country.

We do rake leaves off of the driveway because they are quite slippery and make it more difficult to remove snow in the winter months. But those leaves are raked into areas nearby beneath shrubs and trees so their nutrition is not lost to the environment.

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Rethinking fall chores is easy: just don’t rake those leaves!

One a month: going organic and GMO free

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I have begun tweeting about choosing organic food items to replace chemically farmed food items. I challenge everyone to make a permanent change, one item each month. FlourSackMama.com’s #GreenGoesMainstream movement has picked up momentum while shoppers and consumers choose more organic foods.

Buying organic does much more than avoid genetically engineered or genetically modified ingredients, though. Buying organic supports a sustainable farming system that ensures that the soil and the planet stay alive. Instead of spraying life-killing herbicides such as glyphosate (RoundUp) and 2,4-D (which also kill micro-organisms in the soil, not just weeds), organic farmers and growers must follow a strict set of guidelines that keep the soil alive, keep the planet alive, and help keep humans and wildlife alive, including bees and butterflies.

What do you normally buy when you stock your pantry or walk through the grocery store? Do you pick up a few things after work each day? What are your pathing habits through the grocery store? Up and down the aisles or perimeter? Non-GMO shoppers are typically perimeter shoppers. There isn’t much we will buy on those aisle shelves except in the organic section (my grocery store places few organics beside chemically-raised food products).

When I began the switch to GMO-free foods, I discovered that buying organic ensured no GMOs. It was a simple solution to a problem: chemically farmed food ingredients in mainstream food products are not adequately labeled to indicate that they contained GMOs.

Big Food Fights GMO Labeling

The Grocery Manufacturers Association which has this plastered on its .org website (see below), spends millions of dollars to ensure that consumers do NOT know what products contain GMOs every time a state tries to pass a labeling initiative.

Lobbying organization for Big Food wants to tell us the truth about GMOs? I think they want to suppress the truth starting with stopping labeling initiatives.

Lobbying organization for Big Food wants to tell us the truth about GMOs? They pour millions of dollars into campaigns to suppress the truth by stopping labeling initiatives.

The facts about GMOs are just beginning to emerge in spite of an industry that, through its patents, has hindered independent research into the safety and sustainability of growing and consuming genetically engineered or genetically modified crops. Monsanto has controlled published research results on all of its patented GMO seeds and crops until patents began to expire last year. They had the final say on what could be published. How in the world is the truth to emerge from such a system?

Article: AG says more campaign money hidden in I-522 fight. Not only did the GMA and its financers pour money into stopping the GMO labeling initiative in Washington state (and California, Vermont, Connecticut), but they are now being investigated for illegal money laundering activity while doing so. Talk about dirty!

Making the Switch

Making the switch to one organic item a month ensures that the change becomes a habit, one that you can afford. Consumers making small, permanent changes in buying habits can make a huge difference. I have always believed that the real power rests in the buying power of the people.

Buying chemically raised foods supports chemical companies and the poisoning of the land. Buying sustainably-raised, organic foods supports an industry that cares about the land and all that depend on it for their very lives, including the bees, Monarchs, wildlife, and humans.

Make one change a month (or week) to withdraw support for chemically-raised food products and show support for organic farmers and growers. Oh, and don’t forget to go green when you purchase cleaning products (or just use vinegar and baking soda like I do).

Connecticut organic garden video tour – part 2

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Continuing the video tour of my Connecticut organic garden where I grow only open-pollinated varieties of vegetables organically. I use raised beds and intensive gardening techniques, no pesticides, make my own compost, and all while struggling with chronic fatigue and pain. My gardens aren’t pretty, but they grow food. This year’s garden went in very late, and will most likely result in a fall harvest for most of what was planted.

Fencing put up to keep deer out of garden is made up of cattle and calf panels supported by a single t-post. These are flexible, affordable, and are easily removed at the end of the season.

Back garden #2

Back garden #3: Over 50 sweet corn plants in a single raised bed

Back garden #4: Spinach, red leaf lettuce, red onions, buckwheat, snow peas, zucchini, broccoli

I hope you enjoyed walking around my garden with me. Please come back any time!

Symphony of the Soil: An artistic look at life in the earth

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New Documentary: Symphony of the Soil by Lily Films

New Documentary: Symphony of the Soil by Lily Films


In my weekly update from the Organic Consumers Association, a new documentary on the life within the soil was announced. Symphony of the Soil by Lily Films is available on DVD with $5 of the purchase price going to the OCA. I am hoping to buy a copy to show my support for continued production of beautiful, artistic, scientific documentaries addressing the crisis our planet faces with continued industrial farming practices.

I rarely promote anything on this blog, and I do not receive any financial remuneration for promoting this documentary.

The idea that our planet’s soil is a living organism is not new. Native Americans identified its life-giving force. Organic farmers and gardeners have identified the health benefits of cultivating this life through responsible farming practices: composting, the use of manure, limited machine cultivation, crop rotation, limited use of pesticides, growing cover crops or green manure, and even allowing fields to rest.

In my own little garden beds, I attempt to adhere to organic gardening guidelines even when production is greatly decreased. Why? I want my little piece of property to be a refuge for worms, snakes, birds, wildlife, and microorganisms. Imagine that microorganisms must have a refuge created for them in this modern age of chemical, pesticide and herbicide use as well as genetically engineered crops that pose a threat to the continuation of open-pollinated, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, kills. It kills broadleaf plants and it kills microorganisms in the soil. I haven’t done much research on Dow’s version, 2,4-D, yet. But the latest round of GMO seed applications going through the FDA are mostly those that would utilize that herbicide as many weeds have become resistant to glyphosate (Dow admits weed-resistence to glyphosate in this press release).

What can homeowners do to encourage life in their soil? Stop using any kind of herbicide. Pull weeds by hand. It is good exercise and you touch the life of the earth (did you know there are microorganisms in the soil that can benefit human digestion and immune systems?). You can then compost those green things to further feed and replenish life in your soil. It is such a delightful system: plant grows and produces oxygen, feeds bees (dandelions, clover, wild violets and even invasive ground ivy); plant dies and feeds the soil after it breaks down.

As a little motivation, in the future, homes that can advertise the use of organic ground care practices might be more enticing than chemical laden, pristine green park-like perfections. Just like having green, energy efficient heating and cooling systems and appliances is attractive to prospective buyers, the same might be said for attracting healthy, green families who want clean, healthy soil for their children to play on and to grow their own food. Just a thought.

Happy Sunday, folks!

Well-draining soil, peat moss and composting

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Late spring weather in Connecticut can be anything from nights in the mid-50s to daytime temps in the 90s. You never know. The past week it has been cool and rainy with the occasional few hours of sunshine. I grew a little concerned that my plants would drown. I was happy to discover that they survived with only a few beaten down by the torrential rains. And my soil seems to be draining well. That is always a big deal for gardeners. You can always water more but if your soil holds too much water the roots will literally drown, killing the plant.

When I lived in Texas and then Florida, I would buy 3 cubic feet bales of peat moss and incorporate that into my soil. Such a product is not available up here anywhere that I can find. Or maybe peat moss is not available anywhere. I remember reading something a few years ago poo pooing peat moss. Quick internet search and here is what I found.

In The Real Dirt on Peat Moss, guest ranter Ken Ruse stated:

Peat moss is mined, which involves scraping off the top layer of living sphagnum moss. The sphagnum peat bog above the mined product is a habitat for plants like sundews, butterwort and bog rosemary, as well as rare and endangered animals like dragonflies, frogs and birds, not to mention the living moss itself. Despite manufacturers’ claims that the bogs are easy to restore, the delicate community that inhabits the bog cannot be quickly re-established. Yes, peat moss is a renewable resource, but it can take hundreds to thousands of years to form.

On the flip side, the Canadian Peat Industry created this position paper: Sustainability: Canadian Horticultural Peat Industry Position Paper.

Let me first say that since it was approved by the Board of Directors of the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA) it must be true. Right? If I have learned anything it is that if a corporation spins it, most likely it is a bunch of baloney. There might be a little bit of truth hidden within but the main goal of an industry is to make money and greed is typically the driving force.

They claim that “It is estimated that 89,910,000 hectares or 81% of Canada’s peatlands remain undisturbed.” Further, “Evidence based on the document, Canadian Peat Harvesting and the Environment, Second Edition, Issue Paper No. 2001-1, North American Wetlands Conservation Council, identifies that over 70 million tonnes of peat accumulate each year in Canada. Of this only 1.3 million tonnes of peat on average is harvested each year.”

You make up your own mind. The main reason you might not want to use peat moss is that it alters the soil pH. If the soil pH requires altering, peat moss might be a good choice (if your soil is too alkaline), and when I lived in Florida it was absolutely perfect for making sandy soils retain moisture and provide a more balanced pH. Up here in CT my soil pH is already spot on, so adding peat moss would not be a good choice.

Here is a great discussion on the use of peat moss including NOT using it as a mulch (it is reputedly a horrible mulch because it will actually repel water if it dries out — so claims ranter Ken Ruse — and again, will alter the pH of the soil).

Okay, back to MY garden and my wonderfully draining soil. This year I added composted horse manure and my own compost from the old goat house pile and the old chicken house pile. I am just getting compost from the compost pile I started last fall from mostly kitchen scraps and garden litter. I really want a leaf mould pile, so this fall I will be sure to have the boys haul leaves to a certain location for that purpose. Here is a short article on two methods of turning fall leaves into leaf mould. It is not complicated.

Compost pile started last fall.

Compost pile started last fall.

You can buy bags of compost from the store. I have not done so myself for a couple of reasons: 1) I don’t have the money to buy compost, and 2) I don’t know what is in that compost. Even if the bag says organic most of the time it is imported from another country. I just don’t trust organic standards from most other countries. And think about all of the fuel it took to haul those 40 lb. bags of compost to my tiny little state. I am surrounded by trees and forest litter. Why can’t I use that? Well, I actually did harvest some soil from the woods surrounding my yard. Yes, it is a lot of work. Darn it if gardening isn’t a lot of work. And if anyone has the excuse that it is TOO much work to haul soil it would be me since I am a weakling who can work in 15-30 minute increments before I need a rest. But I hauled compost and soil myself with a final contribution by my sons after I almost started crying and begging them to help me because I was SOOOOO tired. I really was very tired. They helped. I am thankful.

Just below the surface is gorgeous compost!  If I dig a few inches deeper, the pile is full of huge worms which means my pile is not hot or cooking but has become an outdoor worm compost pile.  Hey, whatever works.

Just below the surface is gorgeous compost! If I dig a few inches deeper, the pile is full of huge worms which means my pile is not hot or cooking but has become an outdoor worm compost pile. Hey, whatever works.

If you need to, please buy “organic” compost from the store. And why don’t you start a little compost pile of your own if you haven’t yet. Mine is still not built; is just a little hill behind the goat house. The pallets are still there waiting to be turned into a 2-bin compost area. If you have the money, just buy one of those cute little compost barrels that you can turn easily. Or try your hand at worm composting.

If you are not sure of your soil pH, please pick up a soil testing kit from your local extension service (in the US). Or you can use pH testing strips or a digital tester. Wiki-How has step-by-step instructions on testing your soil’s pH at home.

The soil test will tell you more than pH levels, though, so it is worth it to get this done (preaching to the choir — I have yet to do this). Soil tests check for potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus as well as pH levels. You can then amend the soil depending on the outcome. Adding compost each season is the best thing you can do to amend your soil, though. Over time the soil will become healthy and naturally balanced, so get going on that compost pile!

Compost area with my pallets waiting for someone to get inspired and turn them into a 2-bin compost unit.  On top of my pile are the two huge Aichi cabbage plants I pulled up yesterday to make room for tomatoes and peppers in my terraced garden.

Compost area with my pallets waiting for someone to get inspired and turn them into a 2-bin compost unit. On top of my pile are the two huge Aichi cabbage plants I pulled up yesterday to make room for tomatoes and peppers in my terraced garden.

How I started my compost pile (literally, just a pile on the ground).

I poured a layer of kitchen scraps on the ground and covered with soil from the area around the pile. More kitchen scraps, more soil. That is it. It was slower this way because it never got truly hot. Cooking your compost is a bit more work, but well worth it for quicker compost.

Here is a very long, detailed article on compost from the University of Illinois Extension Service.

Another great article with details on composting from Earth Easy.

Composting isn’t rocket science, but it is science. Honestly, if you put kitchen scraps, grass clippings and some leaves in a pile, throw in some soil and leave it, you will end up with compost. You can be as hands on as you want to be in the process or just leave it alone. I interacted with my pile a teensy bit, and I mean just making sure the fresh stuff was covered with some of the nearly finished compost and surrounding soil as I went along. I never “turned” my pile.

Happy gardening!

Just Grow It!

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There can be no other occupation like gardening in which, if you were to creep up behind someone at their work, you would find them smiling. ~Mirabel Osler

Red cabbage seedlings

Red cabbage seedlings


Up here in New England we are still dealing with snow, daily. Night before last we got about 2.5 inches of sleet. Last night snow showers covered my car but didn’t accumulate on the ground. Temps are dropping down below freezing when the sun goes down. We are still waiting for spring up here.

For my southern friends you are happily digging away, watching things sprout, planting and starting your growing season with delight. I am fighting jealousy like never before.

I started a lot of seeds over a week ago, and then several egg cartons full throughout the week. I have green growing things here, too. Tiny ones. But they are green and they are growing and I got to play in the dirt even if it was in my kitchen.

Here is my exhortation for the week: Just grow it!

If you have never grown your own food then I encourage you to go to the garden center, buy one large pot, buy a bag of organic compost (yes, please buy organic), buy a package or two of heirloom seeds, and plant something. Keep the soil moist, keep in a warm place, keep a watch on that pot, and wait for it. The miracle will make even those with the brownest thumbs converts. You just planted seeds and they germinated. You have the promise of home grown tomatoes, or herbs, or beans, or cucumbers. Plant something even if it is a pot of lettuce and radishes (the easiest to grow, by the way).

I have inexpensive landscape fabric that I will be transforming into grow bags. I will be growing tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and squash in grow bags this year (just decided this morning). They need the extra warmth, to be up off the ground, and access to the most sunlight. And although I do plan to build some new raised beds, I think I can get the most sunlight around my driveway where there really isn’t room for raised beds.

Driveway container garden: parsley, oregano, beans, and tomatoes

Driveway container garden: parsley, oregano, beans, and tomatoes


Okay, everyone: Just Grow It!

Start a new trend in your neighborhood. Grow something edible (heirlooms, please for seed saving purposes). Just Grow It!!!

You can do this. Need some other ideas for easy-to-grow veggies in containers? Don’t forget herbs. They are so very easy to grow in containers. Here is a short list:

  • Green beans on a simple trellis
  • Peas, snow peas, sugar snap peas
  • Lettuce, spinach
  • Radishes
  • Bunching onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers

All of the above grow easily in containers. Water, organic fertilizer, and sunlight will reap you a wonderful harvest. Just grow it!

Unpaper Towels

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Out of paper towels.  What to do?

Out of paper towels. What to do?

I reached a point recently where I had to choose between buying food or buying paper towels. Of course, it was a no-brainer. We went without paper towels. And then we went without a little longer. But I hadn’t really provided anything in the kitchen to substitute for those oh-so-handy paper towels.

I began to bring the subject up at the grocery store checkout line when I guiltily bought one single roll of a really cheap brand (which are awful, by the way). It was interesting hearing the responses. The male cashiers all completely understood what I was talking about. The female cashiers looked at me like I was on crack. One male cashier told me that he cuts up his old t-shirts and uses those, washes and reuses them. What a great idea. By the time I got home I completely forgot about trying to find something to substitute for those paper towels.

One day I had to laugh at myself. They are called paper “towels”. Duh. That means that at one point in history people used actual cloth towels for the jobs that we typically pull a few off the roll for (sorry, ended in a preposition). I would think about it a bit, envision that flannel would be an awesome paper towel substitute. I still hadn’t done anything about making some towels to use in the kitchen. Here are some creative alternatives I had found.

  • Paper grocery bags — did you know that is what your mothers and grandmothers used to drain fried food before the advent of paper towels? So now I often ask for paper instead of plastic so I have a supply for fried chicken. [Yes, I tried those reusable shopping bags and they got nasty really fast — did not think a cashier would want to touch them after a few months. Working on sewing some new ones. Okay, thinking about working on sewing some new ones.]
  • Junk mail — I know. Strange item to use but if you drop an egg on the floor you do NOT want to use your sponge or a cloth towel. We all have some junk mail laying around. Just open a letter-sized item and use the envelope to scrape the egg (or any other fairly solid mess) onto the paper, and toss.
  • Newspaper — these are especially good for cleaning windows. I don’t subscribe but we do get junk mail printed on newspaper such as grocery store ads.
  • Waxed paper or parchment — waxed paper is quite handy (and I use it when I run out of plastic wrap as well with a rubber band). Parchment paper is expensive so you are not going to clean up the counters with it but in a pinch it can be useful.
  • Old clothes — this goes along with cutting up old t-shirts to create reusable kitchen towels. I have been known to grab a t-shirt that has a hole in it, clean up a nasty mess or clean the bathroom and then toss it out. If you clean up a grease spill you do not want to put a grease-soaked cloth in your washer and dryer. Hand soak, wash, rinse and hang on the line.

Recently I took the time to work on developing some small, square cloth towels to use in the place of paper towels. I did a search online, especially Etsy, and found a variety of cloth unpaper towels as they are called. With the intent of placing them on a vertical paper towel holder some sew-ers put snaps on one side so they could attach one to another in a long line. Some made them without. Most used a cloth broadcloth for one side and a birdseye cloth for the absorbent side. Some used cotton terrycloth. All of them were made using a serger, a type of sewing machine that sews two or more layers together while trimming the edge. The stitching is visible. Not only did I not own a serger I really didn’t like how they looked. I sew only on vintage and antique sewing machines. I could zig zag but I couldn’t serge. So what to do?

Simply sew both layers right sides together, turn, press and topstitch. Easy as pie. They just take three times as long. That’s okay. I do everything slowly now.

Bright kitchen towels

Bright kitchen towels

I started by making some bright kitchen towels using quilting fat quarters, one side the broadcloth (which is what quilting fabric is) and the other side a heavy t-shirt cotton knit I had in my stash. After I figured out how to make consistently nice rectangles (kitchen towels) I cut out some of the unpaper towels 11-3/8 inch squares which result in 10-1/2 inch finished towels. I really love how they turned out. They feel nice, are absorbent, and I could get a dozen out of four rows of the cotton knit leaving a strip on one side to make several kitchen towels.

A dozen unpaper towels

A dozen unpaper towels


Unpaper towels

Unpaper towels


Unpaper towels would make great cloth napkins, too!

Unpaper towels would make great cloth napkins, too!

I am working on sewing an inventory of Unpaper Towels to sell in the near future. Email me if you are interested. If you would prefer to make your own I will be creating some sewing tutorials with directions on how to make your own Unpaper and Kitchen Towels aimed at a beginning sew-er. So subscribe to my blog for upcoming sewing tutorials, all highlighting my vintage and antique sewing machines.