Sustainable Living with a Garden: All Posts

In my own opinion, an essential and deeply satisfying strategy for sustainable gardening is putting the plants to use at every stage of their life-cycle. Saving seed from open-pollinated varieties enables me to grow a variety I like year after year - and even select for traits that fit my own garden - without necessitating a big yearly seed order. (Choosing to make a wintertime seed order because it's a Hell of a lot of fun is another matter.) Composting kitchen vegetable scraps enables me to capitalize on those nutrients, which will be made available through decay, that I worked so hard to put in there, in the first place - and ultimately provides me with a balanced, natural soil supplement. Also don't underestimate the seedlings you thin out from the seed flat: they might just make a mean little side salad. "Getting Fresh" blog posts cover these and other ways to enjoy making your garden more sustainable, reuse stuff in garden DIY projects, and taking advantage of natural or readily available sources of what your plants need.

Origami Newspaper Pots for Seedlings: The Movie

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

This movie demonstrates a simple technique for making pots for seedlings out of newspaper. I use them for potting up seedlings and hardening them off before transplanting into the garden. I’ve found that the newspaper holds up well to repeated waterings — indoors or out — without any added tape or staples. If you want something sturdier, brown paper grocery bags cut to size work well, too.

There are a couple reasons you might be convinced to spend your evenings doing origami: It produces multiple pots for no more than your local paper or grocery bag costs you, and you can plant them into your garden plot or container, where they will break down quickly and add carbon to the soil. This is why I prefer them to peat pots that take longer to break down in my garden bed.

Raid Your Recycling Bin for Reuse in the Garden

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Starting seeds indoors is one of the areas where gardeners can easily save money. Avoid buying peat pots or plastic flats by reusing common items you probably already have in your home.

  • Plastic produce containers, egg cartons, and the like: Seedlings don’t need a glamorous first home. Save greenbucks by sprouting multiple seeds in reused produce containers. Another benefit: containers with lids will keep more moisture in, which is important for sprouting seeds. Be sure to open the lids when the seedlings are established and need more air and growing room! Cherry tomato and fruit containers are great, and have drainage slots built right in — drill a series of small holes in containers that do not.
  • Newspaper: For starting seedlings, plantable pots will add nutrients to your garden and minimize root disturbance. You can buy all sorts of these, but there is an easy and inexpensive alternative. Fold single sheets of newspaper into small flower pots using an origami method that has worked for me. The newspaper pots are surprisingly sturdy, even when exposed to water repeatedly. Once your seedlings are ready for larger containers, simple plant them, newspaper and all. The paper will soon break down in the soil, and I’m convinced that certain seedlings like beans and squash grow better in this permeable pot than a plastic one.
  • Laundry detergent container: During hot summers, try catching rainwater and saving it for dry days – you might even find that you won’t need to use any water from the tap for you container plants. Rinse out a large detergent container economically beforehand by pouring a half-cup or so of white vinegar into it, and setting it in the shower.

Compost Envy: NatureMill In-Home Composter, $199

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

I’ve mentioned before that I’m an inconsistent composter, just because my family and I have yet to agree on a suitable in-home composting method for our condo. Looking at it this morning, it sure sounds like the NatureMill Classic composter would take care of several potential problems: it promises to be odor-free, for example, and so would be suitable for indoors — especially where space is at a premium, because it’s very compact.

It does use electricity, so it’s in the same vein as an AeroGarden or PowerPlant compact hydroponic unit — which is to say, weigh what you’ll be putting into it against what you’ll get out of it, and decide if it’s worthwhile for you. The electricity usage does sound like it’s minimal.

Honestly, I think I’ll try vermi-composting first*, but the Naturemill is just the kind of in-kitchen or balcony composter I would buy if I were living with a couple of roommates who wanted to split the cost. If you’re game, NatureMill is currently offering a Web exclusive of $199 on the stripped-down, “Classic” unit.

*…Because commercial worm bins are usually cheaper and, actually, fairly simple to construct; because neither a lot of worms nor a little odor makes me squeamish; and because I’m fairly certain I could keep the bin in the storage area downstairs, to satisfy my fiancé, who’s a little more reticent; and, finally, because it wouldn’t require a lick of electricity.

Sustainable Kitchen Compost, No Antibiotics

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Recently, as the terms “eco-friendly” and “green” become over-used and misused, “sustainable” is taking over where they left off, but I find the term even more amorphous. That’s because defining sustainable is peculiarly personal, and depends on one’s own evaluations of the information that’s out there. What one gardener determines to be a sustainable practice, another shuns. It’s all about what you think the earth can sustain for the long term — and that, I think, leaves a lot of room for practices that don’t improve the environmental situation at all. Using peat in the garden is one example.

We might agree that cultivating a self-sustaining garden is an admirable goal, and one that’s pretty elusive. And maybe we can all also agree that producing our own compost is a big piece of the equation. What we don’t eat (certain vegetable peels and stems, coffee grounds, eggshells), we throw onto the heap; a season or so of active gardening later, and we’re essentially eating food grown from everyday leftovers. Now with that, I feel sustained.
But, if you’re like me, and your compost heap is currently across town — or if you’re still debating the merits of hosting worms in your apartment or on your precious balcony space — you need every extra motivation. So here is another good reason to compost, compost, compost: there’s growing concern that vegetables fertilized with uncomposted animal manure can pick up trace amounts of antibiotics. The cumulative effect of ingesting this stuff — and of antibiotics pervading the foodstream, in general — is unknown, but to me it’s something I take measures to avoid, when I can. Researchers have already found, though, that composting fresh manure reduced the amounts of antibiotics by 99 percent.

The take-away: Put your own personal kitchen waste to work. For a balcony garden, this might just be enough to do ya. I’ve raised good-looking edibles with handfuls of home compost, made in a heap across town, the occasional precious bag of worm castings — precious because paying for poop seems a little extravagant, no matter what the bill — and a more-or-less judicious mix of the bagged soil and sand I happened to have on hand. If you have the right spot for it, consider vermicomposting. For inspiration, check out Flickr for what balcony wonders can be accomplished with a well-fed worm bin. And, when you do buy additives for your little garden, try to ensure that anything with livestock waste has been properly composted, or “aged.” If you’re not reasonably sure what you have, forgo it, freecycle it, or frow it on a home compost heap for good measure.

In all cases, let patience sustain you; if you’re growing in a small space, you’re battling fewer marauding deer and woodchucks, and you can reasonably put in a little extra effort in the early phases to grow a small batch of perfectly unmolested peas. They are a prize.

Full of Compost: When “100% Compostable” Isn’t

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

A word to the wise for adventurous composters: Food containers made from PLA, also known as corn plastic, will not degrade in a home compost heap. Even those labeled “100% compostable” usually require specialized conditions to even begin breaking down — correct amounts of added nitrogen, for example, and temperatures that well exceed 100 degrees for days on end.
Where can you subject your take-out container to such conditions? Only at a commercial compost facility, if it even accepts residential waste. Alternatively, some grocery stores and chains will collect PLA containers and bring them to a commercial facility for you.

But in your backyard, they’re not going to do anything but take up space.