Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sustainable Pin: Why You Need a Pocket Knife

Today's short post resurrects a column I've neglected for a while:  Sustainable Pin.  Here, I try to highlight pins that I've found on Pinterest that will help you live a more sustainable life.

Today's pin comes from Survival at Home; it links to an article titled "Why You Need a Pocket Knife."  Go ahead and take a look and then head back.

I was struck by this pin today because I realized that I am the only Generation Xer I know who regularly carries a pocket knife (in my purse).  Mostly, I see folks of older generations carrying knives, but the younger generations not so much.  I wonder at that, because it used to be a time-honored badge of maturity to be given a pocket knife with instructions and training on how to handle it safely.  I remember learning a little bit of whittling when I got my first pocket knife.  I've never forgotten those lessons on how to safely handle a tool with a sharp blade.

Of course, today's society has some constraints on carrying potentially dangerous objects.  I don't carry a pocket knife in the airport, of course.  But I like to have one with me when I drive or ride my bike, because, as the original article points out, it can be used in a number of situations in which you need to quickly cut something open, repair something, or even repurpose it into another tool (like using it as a screwdriver). Having a pocket knife around can keep you safer by allowing you to handle minor inconveniences and emergencies.  As a gardener, I like to keep a pocket knife in my garden basket to handle vines that my bypass trimmers can't.

I also think it presents the opportunity to learn skills that are important to everyday life.  Using a knife safely isn't just restricted to the kitchen; being able to cut rope, garden weeds, box tape, and the like is something we all encounter, and doing so with a well-maintained knife is safer than grabbing a blunt pair of scissors or some make-do.

It's an easy prep.  Carrying a pocket knife makes you that much more independent, which is a step toward sustainability.  What do you think?  Answer in the comments below.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

The Well-Traveled Tomatoes

So as I mentioned, Mr. FC&G and I recently took the rare opportunity for three weeks of travel before gardening season began.  Hopping into our newer-used SUV with our bicycles and suitcases in the back, we headed for Key West just hours after my last class of the semester adjourned.

We weren't worried about the garden.  The potatoes were planted, the carrots were started, and we had three weeks until the final frost date for our zone.  We had handed off a tray of basil and Red Pear tomatoes to my folks, and my Dad immediately took charge of those.  So there should be no problem.

We hadn't even traveled an entire day when disaster struck.  As we were walking into a hotel room in Chattanooga, I checked my email, and a set of 12 tomatoes that I had ordered way back in January had just shipped.  I won't name names, but I will say that this major garden company should have known perfectly well what the USDA growing zone was for Ohio, given that they were shipping from Pennsylvania and that they promised to ship for delivery at the proper time in the recipient's growing zone.  Three weeks before the final frost date is not the proper time.

Of course, I freaked out, and I freaked out long enough and loud enough that my dear husband contacted his parents, who live near us.  My in-laws jumped into action, and when the tomatoes arrived on our doorstep three days later, they were there to collect them.  My father-in-law went the extra mile on this one, too:  he decided the nursery pots would leave the poor tomatoes root bound in the ensuing three weeks, so he repotted all of them into large peat pots.  When my in-laws went away for the weekend to see our nephew graduate, they took my tomatoes to spend the weekend with a friend who has a farm and who promised to play the guitar for them and sing them lullabies.  

Meanwhile, back in Indiana, my folks were hard at work following my instructions that the Red Pear tomatoes should have a chance to dry out a bit and grow some deep roots.  My Dad put them on a strict rotation of watering and days in the still-chilly sun, and both sets of parents emailed regular pictures of their respective tomatoes while we were still on the island.

On the way back, we stopped in Knoxville to see my best friend from college, who has turned into a superlative gardener and cook.  She asked if we would like a few tomato plants to take with us, and of course we said "yes."  We came home with three tomato plants that were already setting blossoms.

In the following week, we collected tomatoes from the parents, took delivery of another shipment from Iowa (from a company that can actually read a growing zone map), and we started transplanting our well-traveled tomatoes into their garden home, along with a few volunteers that had sprouted in our pepper plant containers while we were away.  At last count, the main garden has 21 plants and five volunteers, with two more plants in containers.

The last two years have been miserable tomato years for me, and I spent the entire spring broadforking the soil, lightening it with peat moss and crushed leaves, and hoping for the best.  This year's crop has the best start ever.  If I don't get a good result this year, it won't be the fault of those who so lovingly cared for the tomatoes when they were babies!

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: April 2014

So, this photo you see is not our garden.  Instead, it is the beautiful deck at the condo we rented in Key West. It served as my office for two weeks, and it is part of the reason that the April gardening totals are so low.

Before we took off for our vacation/work experiment, we harvested a couple of key limes that came in at an ounce apiece, and an ounce of lettuce from our long-suffering lettuce bed.  We are more than due to take out the remaining lettuce crop and start a summer batch.

However, the small harvest of April was more than offset by the learning.  We were gone for three weeks, and I was terrified that I would come back to a total garden mess.  Instead, the potatoes in both the containers and the trench had each grown over a foot (and were more than ready for supplemental soil), the carrots were doing well, the peppers in their large containers were thriving when we returned, and I had so many volunteer tomatoes that I plan an afternoon just to sort those out.  I think the lesson is that I should be hog-tied during the last week of April and first week of May, just to keep my hands off the garden so things can grow at their own pace.

So, hopefully April will be the penultimate month for really marginal harvests.  May will bring more expenditures, and then June should be our chance to start building toward profitability!

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 20
Pounds: 1.25

Total Value of Harvest: $13.04
Expenditures: -212.21
Total: $199.17
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Thursday, May 15, 2014

On Local Consumption...of News

Apologies for the dearth of posts.  Mr. FC&G and I just finished a long stay in Key West testing out whether we could live there.  I'll share more in a future post, because I think it is an exercise that many of us will go through in our lives, but the immediate effect was that I couldn't write about what I was up to without telling every burglar in the Western Hemisphere my whereabouts.

One thing I learned, however, is the importance of a local focus.  In the sustainability movement, we talk a lot about consuming locally, and we usually mean food. After all, food grown near to the point of consumption involves less transportation, less sacrifice of quality, and more consumer control.

The same, I realized, was true for the news.

I grew up in a small town, and I was endlessly frustrated with the local paper.  The front page was filled with news that wasn't interesting 25 miles out of town, with just a cursory bit of national and international news buried in the back or referenced in the op-eds.  Like most young people, I wanted my horizons as big as they possibly could be and my world to extend beyond this sleepy little town.

As an adult, however, I realize that the local paper of a small town has it exactly right.  Look at the examples of the Key West Citizen pictured above.  On the one hand, only a local would care that the city clerk was doing a great job or that the flood map was being redrawn.  On the other hand, that's the point.  If I were a local, I would know if I wanted to vote for the city clerk -- or campaign for or against her -- the next time she ran for office.  I would know if I wanted to show up for a town meeting discussing the flood map or if I needed to call my insurance.

National and international news is great, but often there is very little we can do to dramatically impact things at that level.  What we can do, however, is get very involved at the local level, and let our efforts trickle upward to impact the nation.  And that means a front page story about how the city clerk is doing. Some of these city clerks will eventually run for a state or national office, so they deserve our scrutiny at the most local level.

Local involvement is a very sustainable activity, but it must go beyond food.  We need to select the community in which we want to live and then become active in making it succeed.  And this starts with knowing all the local news.
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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Sustainability and GMOs: What You Need to Know

If you've been following sustainability news, you know that Vermont has passed a law requiring the labeling of food containing GMOs, or genetically modified organisms.  You may also know that there are attempts on the national front to block this law, which is due to be signed this week.

It has taken me a while to get my opinions together on this issue.  I've talked to some people who are very pro-labeling and anti-GMO, and I have talked to farmers and folks who have committed their lives to agriculture who are anti-labeling.  The results indicate that this issue, like almost all others in the world, is not black and white.  So, to give you a guided tour of my understanding of the grey areas, I wanted to share this FAQ that reflects the issue as I understand it.

What are GMOs?
GMO stands for "genetically modified organism."  It simply means that developers of a certain organism (plant or animal) have used scientific techniques to remove genes, introduce new ones, or tinker with the way genes are expressed as the organism develops.  Obviously, since it is easier to tinker with the simpler genetic profile of plants, we hear more about GMO plants than we do animals.  Examples of GMO plants include "golden rice," which has been developed to help with vitamin A deficiencies in parts of the world where people depend on rice as a food staple, and "Roundup Ready" corn in this country, which allows farmers to use the herbicide Roundup on their crop to kill weeds without harming the main crop of corn.

Have humans been creating GMOs for thousands of years?
Yes and no.  This is a popular argument among those who are pro-GMO, and it is correct to an extent.  Yes, human beings have been modifying plants and animals through selective cross-breading since the beginnings of agriculture and the start of animal domestication.  Modern corn and modern pet dogs are two examples of successful cross breeding of an organism to make it more suitable to human use. The difference is that the GMO organisms are created in the lab, which means that scientists have used their skill to tinker with the genetic profile of the organism.

Are GMOs dangerous?
In and of themselves, most GMOs probably aren't dangerous.  My concern with them is twofold: lack of natural controls and how the GMO is ultimately used.

First, GMOs don't have quite the same level of natural control over their development.  For example, look at one of the first natural crosses that everyone learns about:  cross a horse and a donkey, and you get a mule.  Mules aren't inherently dangerous (unless, I suppose, you get kicked by one), but they are sterile.  It isn't natural to cross breed a horse and a donkey, and so the offspring is created, but it can't reproduce.  That is not to say that all sterile hybrids are problematic, or that mules are, but that nature has a way of putting the brakes on cross breeding that is too far flung.  GMOs don't have these restrictions; theoretically, a scientist can put a piece of a gene from any other organism into the DNA of the target organism, and if it lives, it might be patented, marketed, and sold to the public.  This means that some crosses that could never happen in nature could theoretically happen in the lab, and this opens up the potential for both benefits and problems that we don't yet anticipate.

Second, and more troubling to me, is the use that GMOs are put to.  The most obvious example is the Roundup Ready line of crops from Monsanto.  These are crops, like corn, soy, and sugar beets, that were developed to tolerate levels of glyphosate that they could not otherwise.  This allows farmers to plant more of their intended crop per acre (in closer rows, for example) and then use Roundup instead of tilling or other mechanical means to control weeds.  The farmers get a higher yield per acre, but the consumer gets a product that is exposed to glyphosate, the chemical in Roundup.

But isn't Roundup OK?
The problem for me with glyphosate is cumulative exposure.  I'll go out on a limb here and say that if you eat a piece of corn that has been treated with Roundup, you aren't going to die from it.  But basically everything you eat is exposed to Roundup, unless you eat exclusively organics and food you grew yourself.  (And even then, try keeping Roundup off your garden when your neighbor wants his lawn to look like a golf course and the wind is blowing the wrong way.)

Roundup Ready corn, soy, and sugar beets are used to as sweeteners (HFCS, non-organic sugar), as flavor and texture enhancers, and as preservatives or shelf-stabilizing agents.  Cumulatively, if you eat a lot of processed food, you may be consuming multiple "OK" doses of Roundup throughout the day, and the science on this cumulative exposure is still a little sketchy for my taste.  Certainly, we all know that things that are OK in small doses can be harmful at high exposure levels, and that is my concern about GMOs -- that GMO is a proxy for knowing if the food is Roundup Ready and therefore has been exposed to glyphosate.

So are you pro- or anti-labeling?
I'm still on the fence.  On the one hand, I am very much in favor of food producers labeling when their product is GMO-free.  By definition, organic food is GMO-free, but I think of the GMO-free label as something similar to kosher, halal, or gluten-free -- just one more way that the consumer knows what they are purchasing and eating.  If you are a producer of a food without GMOs, get that label out there so we know when we are making purchase decisions!

The labeling laws would require food producers to affix a label if their products contain GMOs.  I would be agnostic on this, except the argument I have read from the agriculture community holds that they don't want to label GMOs because consumers would perceive it as a warning label.  And there's something in my head that keeps saying, "maybe if you think it looks like a warning label, then it is."

Right now, I'm supportive of efforts like that in Vermont because it means consumers are expressing what they want to know about their food.  If the agriculture community wants to demonstrate the safety of GMOs, then I suggest they break the issue down into smaller segments:  Is golden rice safe for consumption?  How about the Flavr-Savr tomato?  How about Roundup Ready corn?  What tests have been conducted to demonstrate this safety? If consumers want to know more about their food supply and agri-business has nothing to hide, then this should be an amiable discussion.

What do you think of GMO labeling laws?  Is this a factor for you when you shop?

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Friday, May 2, 2014

The Latest Experiment: Lymphatic Brushing

Sustainable living is a series of experiments and projects for us.  Every week, we learn about new ideas to try, and we are always swapping out an idea that doesn't work as well as we had hoped for one that we are excited to try.  What I'm trying now is called "lymphatic brushing."

The practice is simple.  You take a soft-bristle, preferably natural, brush and, before your shower, spend a couple of minutes brushing long strokes up your body from your toes and in from your fingertips.  Be certain not to brush too hard, but brush hard enough to get the circulation going, and make the strokes as long as you can rather than settling for short strokes.

If you Google "lymphatic brushing," you'll see lots of raves about it.  The benefits range from stimulating circulation and exfoliating dry skin all the way to diminishing cellulite and helping your lymphatic system rid your body of toxins, hence the name.  Since I've just started, I can attest to the first two, which is good enough for me at the moment -- heaven knows, I need some exfoliation and increased circulation after this last winter-that-wouldn't-quit.

What will make this a sustainable practice is if I start feeling that it helps my body be healthier.  I'm already a practitioner of and believer in yoga, so I really do think some of these simple ideas can help wring toxins from your body and help your body recover from the daily wear and tear and proceed on in a healthier way. Obviously, health is a resource that we can't squander, and getting it back once it is endangered is a difficult and sometimes expensive process.  A little maintenance on the front end can't hurt. And even when we are fighting large or small physical challenges, some simple practices that help our bodies work better are a good idea.

So the jury is still out on this one.  Obviously, you can see from the picture that I need to find the ideal natural-fiber brush; I picked up the softest one I could find at the grocery, but it isn't natural fiber.  I'll report back when I have a preliminary conclusion, but for now, I'd say this is a pretty pleasant way to exfoliate at the very least?

Have you tried lymphatic brushing?  Leave your experience in the comments!

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