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Friday, September 23, 2016

The Power of Yelling at Your Plants

Remember your elementary school science experiments? Because it tends not to be a good idea to let 8 year olds plan experiments involving caustic chemicals or live electrical wires, at least one class would always downshift into a project about the effects of talking to plants. The control group plants would be watered but otherwise ignored, while the experimental group would be talked to on a daily basis.

If the teacher were really on her game, there would be a second experimental group. For this group, the plants would not be talked to but yelled at and subject to verbal abuse. If you were lucky, you'd see results that demonstrated that kind words make living things thrive and abuse and indifference make them suffer.

Of course, there was always that killjoy that had to point out that the group that whispered sweet nothings to their plants were probably leaning in closer and marginally increasing the amount of carbon dioxide the plants were exposed to from juvenile exhalations. And, let's not forget that Mrs. Vandersnoot's south-facing classroom, which was roughly 117 degrees for the entire month of September, got an uneven pattern of light exposure across her windows, meaning the "ignored" group was actually in the shade part of the day or something.

Anyway, I seem to have replicated this experiment in a totally non-scientific way this year. Last year, my good friend told me that she had had success keeping her pepper plants in the garage and hauling them back out for a second season the coming summer. I think some of her peppers are currently on their third year. Anyway, I had to try it.

I saved three huge ceramic planters full of pepper plants in the sunroom. One died, but two were alive come spring, albeit looking a little rough. I hauled the remaining two out into the sun in the spring and hoped they'd produce.

At first, it looked like they would do so, but with not a great yeild; I'd get a couple of peppers once in a while all summer, which was basically fine for our consumption needs.

Then, about a month ago, I pointed at one of the second-year peppers and said out loud, "This thing never has looked healthy, and I'm yanking it at the end of the season."

Lo and behold, the darn thing proceeded to shoot up 6 inches over the course of a week, leaf out in places it was barren before, and set the most impressive set of peppers I have seen in a long time. I now have no choice but to make sure that this plant, along with two other containers full, is put into the greenhouse for protection during the fall, then haul it back into the sunroom or garage or wherever Mr. FC&G's back can stand to carry it.  At this rate, I could be harvesting peppers in November if I get all of these blossoms pollinated before I take them inside.

Maybe I should experiment by being nice to the peppers and bringing them into the house foyer. I haven't exactly broached this subject with Mr. FC&G. Wonder how good peppers are at healing lower back strain?
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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: August 2016

Right now, the garden is like a metaphor for my entire financial life.  With the exception of my primary business (thank heavens), every single one of my side businesses have taken simply forever to get into the black this year. The garden has been no exception. Where I should be ending August with over $300 in savings/profit, I'm actually ending the month just $13 to the good. That's pretty discouraging.

Part of it is the need for a complete garden overhaul. Mr. FC&G and I have been having a debate over the usefulness of an oak tree in the back yard.  When we moved in 15 years ago, this tree was small enough to allow two big areas of ground that received 14 or more hours of sunlight during high season. I was able to put a raised bed in one of the areas and a big garden in the other.

Today, the oak shades both areas so much that I have half the garden size that I once did, and the raised bed (and my clothes line) gets no sun at all. Mr. FC&G had the tree trimmers thin the tree out last year, but it is still casting a lot of shade. This is great if your dream is to have a shade-dappled back yard, but if you want as much sun for yourself and your garden as possible, it is a nightmare.

I want that tree gone.  We have two humongous pine trees, a mature sweet gum, at least one mature maple, and another mature oak elsewhere on the property. This tree isn't pretty, it isn't useful, and I want it gone. It may look like a lovely tree to some, but it looks like firewood on the hoof to me. Stay tuned.

The upshot is that the garden was not terribly productive. Oh, the tomatoes did OK; since I grew most of them from saved seed, they were profitable, and even the ones I purchased were largely profitable. Cucumbers and zucchini were my saving grace, even though my Straight Eight cukes failed this year, making for a very small pickle batch. The beans have grown and flourished and not given a single bean until last week (the middle of September), when the shade finally shifted so that they got more than 8 hours of sunshine during the day.

All in all the garden kept us fed, but it did little more. I'm still hopeful for my "winter garden" (with tomatoes in a container, pictured above) and the sunroom crops to boost us a little more into the black. But in a year in which we really could have used a robust way to slash the food bill, it just didn't happen.

Sigh.

Cumulative Totals

Total Ounces Harvested: 1058.5
Total Pounds Harvested: 66.15625

Total Value of Harvest: $246.49

Total Expenditures: ($232.88)

Total Profit: $13.61
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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

My Sustainable Car, Part II

I recently got a question on the blog about whether or not I still had my sustainable automobile. Looking back, I see that I wrote a post about all the things I do to preserve my car back when she had just turned 15.

Well, this October will be her 19th "birthday," since I took delivery of her on October 31, 1997. And yes, I do still have her, and she is still my sustainable baby.

Since I last wrote, I have retired her to being mostly a pleasure vehicle, so I literally am that cliched person who drives the good car primarily to the farmer's market. (Although, with the narrow parking lot and the aggressive shoppers, I'm not entirely sure I shouldn't be driving a bigger car; those people are fierce!) But Mr. FC&G and I have a nice system where he drives our everyday car unless the weather is bad or unless I need to drive a long distance, when I would be more comfortable with a more workmanlike automobile. I drive my car locally for errands and the like.

One thing I've added to my maintenance roster is fuel stabilizer. Both Papa FC&G and my cousin goaded me a bit this year, and I have to admit I was neglectful last year. Since I only run through a tank or two of gas a year and let the car sit in the garage during the worst of the winter, I needed to do something to maintain her internal health.

Fuel stabilizer, I'm told by Papa FC&G, keeps the gas from breaking down during storage and prevents varnish from forming on the fuel lines or injectors.  The brand I bought, Sta-bil, can be used in almost any engine, so we plan on using some in the lawn mowers once we are done with them for the season. Papa FC&G even recommends running a dose of stabilizer through the other cars that get more use, because he says it helps keep the engine in good shape.  For something like $14 for a 32 ounce bottle (which should do all of the cars and mowers with some leftover), it seems like good preventive maintenance.

A conversation with another cousin got me to thinking. So far, I've been lucky enough to buy all my cars outright; we try to never take a car loan (although that could happen). Because we don't like car loan debt, we have to try to keep our automobiles running smoothly as long as possible.  No, we're not driving the fanciest cars on the block; we don't have all the bells and whistles we would like to have. But we don't have the debt, and with a little preventive maintenance, we have reliable transportation. I'll count that as a win.


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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Sunlight and Vitamin D: Necessary for Public Health" An Academic Review

And now for something completely different, I'm going to nerd out and share an academic article with you. Don't worry, though, I'll make it painless; you really do need to know about this.

(Note for readers: if you want to reference the study I'm writing about, there are quotes in italics throughout and a link in the next paragraph.  If you just want my summary and opinion, that's in plain text.)

Writing in the recent Journal of the American College of Nutrition, a group of authors have published "Sunlight and Vitamin D: Necessary for PublicHealth."  Head on over if you'd like to geek out on the whole thing, but I'm going to give you the most important points.

Basically, the authors examine the fact that many recommendations from the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization, and the like, focus on encouraging sun avoidance and sunscreen use during the very hours of the day that our bodies are most primed to make use of the sun:

"Though these recommendations, all focused on reduction of skin cancer, are accompanied by brief acknowledgement of the importance of vitamin D for health, they persist in urging avoidance of the sun at the precise times when vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin—the hours between 10 am and 3 pm—and suggest that all necessary vitamin D can be obtained through food and dietary supplements."

And yet, there are compelling reasons to get your Vitamin D from the sun. Take a look at this introductory paragraph:

"These recommendations are understandable from the viewpoint of preventing the 3.5 million new cases of and 2000 deaths from nonmelanoma skin cancer in the United States each year, but they neglect the fact that we have a long cultural history of appreciation of the sun and use of UV radiation for healing purposes. Moreover, they neglect that we have evolved with physiological adaptations to help protect the skin from the sun when we are mindful of our exposure and do not burn. They neglect the fact that increased sun exposure, based on latitude, has been associated with protection from several different types of cancer, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases. They also neglect the fact that exposure to the sun induces beneficial physiological changes beyond the production of vitamin D. Though adherence to the current sun-protective recommendations would likely result in the reduction of nonmelanoma skin cancer, that reduction would likely be overshadowed by the potential reduction in deaths from other cancers and from cardiovascular disease, which could be achieved by doubling average blood concentrations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) to 40 ng/mL through a combination of sun exposure and supplements."

Let's break that down a bit.  Basically, we're saying that, in our zeal to protect ourselves from approximately 2000 nonmelanoma skin cancer deaths a year, we are turning our backs (no pun intended) on our cultural and biological adaptations that allow us to appreciate the sun and use it for healing. Additionally, we are increasing our risk of other types of cancer, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions.

For example, look at these benefits:

"When the skin is stimulated with UVA radiation, nitric oxide is released, stimulating vasodilation and lowering of blood pressure. During active exposure to UVA, diastolic blood pressure in one study fell by roughly 5 mmHg and remained lower for 30 minutes after exposure. A reduction of diastolic blood pressure by 5 mmHg decreases risk for stroke by 34% and coronary heart disease by 21%."

"Additionally, human skin produces beta-endorphin in response to UVB exposure; these opioid peptides have the result of increasing a feeling of well-being, boosting the immune system, relieving pain, promoting relaxation, wound healing, and cellular differentiation. Light signals received through the eye regulate production of melatonin and serotonin for circadian rhythm control and also play a role in seasonal affective disorder."

Short form: sunlight contains both UVA and UVB radiation.  The UVA radiation can lower blood pressure enough to decrease risk for stroke and coronary heart disease. UVB radiation can improve mood, help with certain depressive conditions, improve the immune system, relieve pain, and help with healing.

Are we sure we want to keep avoiding the sun?

Look, no one is going to tell you to go try to get a sunburn. And if vitamin D supplements make sense to you, go for it.  But the sun has been getting a bad rap lately.

And, there are reasons for seeking the sun:

"The full solar spectrum is essential to optimal health and well-being. Humans are physiologically adapted to produce vitamin D in response to sun exposure, specifically UVB radiation; other regions of the spectrum seem to confer benefit as well. Though some vitamin D comes from our diet (and more recently from supplements), we should not ignore the natural capacity that we possess to produce our own. We are of the opinion that moderate sun exposure (less than the time required to burn) to the arms, shoulders, trunk, and legs should be sought rather than avoided."


I agree with the authors.  Bottom line, the full spectrum of sunlight seems to confer many health benefits, and our bodies are designed to make vitamin D from this exposure. So go outside wearing a tank top and shorts. Mow the lawn, hang the laundry, take a bike ride. Do so between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm for maximum formation of vitamin D.  As long as you don't allow yourself to burn, you will very likely be helping your health far more than you might possibly harm it.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: July

Oh, my gosh.  Seven months in, and we're still not in the black!  But more on that in a minute.

One thing that's wonderful about July is the variety of veggies that start becoming available.  Of course, there was a really awkward few days when I was harvesting nothing but zucchini and blueberries, which was kind of confusing come dinnertime, but mostly I've been bringing in baskets that look like the one at the right.

Almost the full range of vegetables has become available, except for carrots and beans, for whatever reason this year. Some interesting highlights:

  • So far, I've harvested nearly $24 of greens this year, although most of that was before July. It's time to start the next round now that it is likely to start cooling down a bit.
  • The final blueberry tally stood at 81 ounces, or nearly $31 worth. As someone who just dropped $40 at the farmer's market on fresh fruit, I appreciate every bit of fruit I can get out of my little patch.
  • Zucchini and cucumbers are my big monetary producers as always, with over $31 of zucchini so far and over $25 of cucumbers. This is in spite of the fact that some of my cucumbers seemed to die from the heat wave we had. I'm experimenting with a late crop of cukes in the grow boxes.
  • We've had some early stand-outs in the tomato patch. A beefsteak plant I bought for $5 has so far given me over $15 of tomatoes, and an early San Marzano I also bought for $5 has given me $15 worth of fruit; that makes way for my later San Marzanos that I've grown from seed.
So why are we still in the red? A couple of reasons.  First is that the garden has shrunk by about a third due to the fact that an oak tree's shade now makes part of my patch too shady to grow anything. I have my eye on a pine tree out front that should come down and would make a lovely front yard patch, but that would be next year at the very earliest. I've tried to compensate with containers, but I haven't been able to make up the difference yet.

Also, since I lost the space to the shade, I've had to get rid of some of our less-loved but more profitable crops, like the butternut squash. Those always were worth a lot, but we didn't crave them quite as much as we do some of the summer veggies.

Regardless, even if we're not canning as much as I would like, we are certainly eating veggies like crazy. I'm hoping that the lack of a robust buffer of canned goods doesn't hit our budget too hard this winter.

Cumulative Totals:

Expenditures to Date: (-$204.08)

Total Ounces Harvested: 564.5
Total Pounds Harvested: 35.28125
Total Value of Harvest: $144.20

Total Profit (Loss): -$59.89

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Monday, August 8, 2016

Sustainable Sanity: The Pacifica App

(Part two of our discussion of sustainable sanity!)

Do you ever have one of those days? You're in a foul mood for one reason or the other, and someone goes and does it: they post a meme to Facebook or Twitter that says something unbearably chirpy.  You know:

  • I think you're as happy as you make up your mind to be!
  • Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life!
You know the memes.

Now, before I scare all of my optimistic-meme-posting friends away, let me say that I get it.  I do. There's a lot of truth in these sayings. You can do a lot for your mood by just deciding to try to put a positive spin on things; those of us who are lucky (or hard-working, or both) enough to have found or made jobs we enjoy are certainly in a better place than those who just intrinsically hate their jobs.

But man, some days, there's nothing like being told that your bad mood is the result of poor emotional control or lousy life choices to really kick you when you're down.

While I think there's a lot you can do to think yourself into a good mood, I really believe that it's a lot easier to do so when you have factors set up in your favor. And so, I recently started using a mood-tracking app called Pacifica, available on Apple's App Store and on Google Play.  I believe one of their tag lines is "no judgement, just data," and that's what they provide.

The app is designed to use the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to help manage anxiety and depression, but I think the app is useful for anyone, as I can attest.  On the the free version, you have a screen that allows you to set certain generalized goals in certain categories, as you can see on the screen shot; the categories are sleep, exercise, eating, water, caffeine, and (not shown) outdoors, and medication.

But the beauty of this is that you set your own goal, and there's no nagging involved. You can see above that I have set a goal of two glasses of water a day, which I hadn't met when I took this screen shot. I picked two because I drink a lot of other liquid and eat fruits and vegetables that are loaded with water, so I felt pretty good about trying for two glasses of clear water or seltzer; the app did not nag me to try for eight, which would be unrealistic for me right now.

Or take something like exercise.  I'm going for 60 minutes a day, but the app doesn't nag me to say that so much of that has to be cardio or that it all has to be yoga; I'm in charge of what I count as exercise and how.  The same is true for eating; it operates on a very general scale of poor to perfect, but you are in charge of what that means in your life.

On another screen, you can track your mood on the same sort of generalized scale, and you can record multiple mood entries per day.  Over time, you will start to amass enough data to see if your best mood days correlate with certain behaviors in your life.

So, for me, I've seen that my best moods are on days that I've gotten eight (and ideally 10 or more) hours of sleep, have been outside for an hour or more, and have exercised for an hour or more.  I don't think this is a surprise to me, but now I have some tools at my disposal. If I'm feeling my mood slip, I can think about whether I need a workout or a nap or something else that might help bring me back into balance.

Now, this is all going to be challenging in the winter, when there is no sun and very little chance to exercise outdoors, but it certainly means that I'll be taking advantage of every acceptable day to at least take a mile walk and breathe some fresh air, and I plan to reactivate the gym membership when gardening (and outdoor exercise) is over for the year and start treating myself to my favorite classes.

Your mood is as much a sustainable resource as anything else, so it makes sense to treat it as such.  I encourage my readers to try this app; you may learn something that makes you happy enough to post all sorts of memes to Facebook!

(Note: This is not a compensated review; I downloaded the free version of Pacifica and have shared my own opinion.)
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Monday, August 1, 2016

The Power of Going Outside

Normally, this blog focuses on sustainable use of resources like time, money, food, and fuel; all important things. But for the next couple of posts, I'm going to focus on something else that's easy to use up and hard to get back: your sanity. Because I've become at least half convinced that our modern lifestyle is killing us.

Think about what we do every day. Now, I'm lucky, in that part of the year I have the freedom that comes with self-employment and good weather to take a bike ride to the grocery or to see a client, but the majority of us are stuck for several hours in a day sitting in a chair behind a desk staring at a screen. Everything is square and backlit and makes strange beeping noises, particularly when you get email that explains why this deadline has been moved up or that client needs something right away or another person needs something fixed. These things may be our financial lifeblood, and they may even provide a degree of career satisfaction, but, no matter how benign, they take a toll on our health.

Take this new study out of Australia that goes a long way toward quantifying our need for nature in our lives. According to the research, if everyone visited a park for just 30 minutes once a week, there would be "seven percent fewer cases of depression and nine percent fewer cases of high blood pressure."  That's pretty specific, but it does point out that we can get a lot of benefit from even a little exposure to nature. It also maybe suggests that if corporations were really serious about employee health, they'd make sure they had some green space and encourage everyone to use it.

Of course, it's difficult sometimes. In the winter, I often think of Papa FC&G, who used to work in a windowless office. In the winter, he'd go to work in the dark and come home in the dark with only glimpses of the sun. Needless to say, my sun-loving father always had trouble with this arrangement.

The fact is, our bodies -- and that includes our minds -- need the outdoors. We evolved to want the warmth of the sun and the development of vitamin D in our skin. We spent millennia evolving a comfort with irregular, organic shapes and leafy green canopies above our heads. We have a visceral memory of the comfort of salt water, the salinity of which is echoed in every cell in the human body. We love nature because we evolved to be a part of it.

Now, I'm not arguing against progress. Believe me, I like central heat and ready supplies of food and electronic gadgets as much as the next person. But we all have to take time to touch base again with nature. Our minds will thank us for it.
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