Tag Archives: gardening

Sustainable Universities

The university system does a lot to shape our world. It molds young people into citizens. The best of universities allow young people to mold themselves within a healthy and supportive environment, but most of them simply engage in indoctrination. I could write quite a long critique regarding that, but it’s not my purpose here,  so I won’t get into it just now.  There are some colleges and universities that have developed a focus on sustainability, but not nearly enough. We need to push for three different areas of change in our university system. This can be done by almost anyone – students, faculty, staff, alumni, prospective students. The areas of change: sustainability of the school itself, courses of study that focus on sustainability and application of knowledge in related areas, like engineering, to problems of sustainability, student organizations and focus groups that engage in discussion and action.

Unless we teach people what it actually means to be sustainable, we can’t attain a level of sustainability that will carry us into the future.

Student body & organizations

Students. The most important part of any school. The raison d’etre of any school. There are so many things that students can do to promote sustainability and to bring the topic into focus for the school’s administration, faculty, and other students. First: make some noise. Start an organization and make yourself noticed. Issue challenges to the entire school and everyone in it, or to other schools, like the “do it in the dark” challenge, in which houses and/or dorms compete for the biggest reduction in energy usage for a month. Have seed-bombing and guerrilla gardening campaigns. Petition the school for an area where you can have a vegetable garden on campus to produce cheap food for students – you can even have a little students-only farmer’s market to raise funds for the organization. Give out free BPA-free water bottles to encourage students not to buy throw-away plastic bottles of water. Ask the school’s bookstore to sell notebooks, flash drives, pens, binders, clothing, etc. made out of recycled and eco-friendly materials. Get involved in boards and committees of the institution in which you have a voice, and can push for change. There are so many things you can do.

Programs of study

This one is trickier. Students, along with staff and faculty with experience in related fields can push for the development of programs focused on sustainability and/or for a focus on sustainability in each related field. It’s really when people come together with experience in different fields and from different parts of the world that we can progress in leaps and bounds and make a huge difference. Look at the programs already available at other universities to see how they’re doing it, and try to improve upon them. If you’re a prospective student, even asking about whether schools have a sustainability program, or have plans to develop one, will help. An increasing interest from the general population can push things in the right direction. If you are a current student, you can aim for this within your own program, and you can encourage all your classmates to study together in the same place, which will collectively reduce the amount of electricity you’ll use by quite a lot over the course of a year. Think of how much more you’d use if you were each studying in a separate room or building all the time.

University & its policies

There are several areas to look at here. Alumni might consider telling your alma mater that you will make donations or donate more if it only makes investments in sustainable businesses and if it implements programs to increase its own sustainability, or you can earmark your donation for sustainability projects, renovations etc. Prospective students should keep this in mind, too. Choose the schools that are most environmentally friendly and that are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. See what you can do in your own department if you’re currently a student. Can you turn in your assignments via email or dropbox rather than on paper? Are all those hand-outs really necessary, or can they be sent to your email or posted on a virtual blackboard? Some students may need a paper copy, but most don’t. Again, there are many things you can do to try to make a difference, especially if your classmates join you.

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A Call to Action

industry-611668_640With what we’ve known for quite a long time now about the causes and effects of climate change, it’s almost inconceivable that we’re still, as a species, plowing ahead with our ill-advised plan to suck up all possible fossil fuels and burn them. The extraction processes and the pollution resulting from use are all extremely damaging to our environment and bode ill for future survival. We’re beginning to realize that even the more drastic estimates of global warming and its effect on all species, including us, have been frighteningly conservative in the face of our current reality.

Do you know what fossil fuels are made of? Organic matter that’s been laying in the earth for millions of years. Through a process involving time, compression, and heat, the organic matter turns into coal, oil, and natural gas. Unless you want to personally help comprise the next generation of fossil fuels, I recommend reading on.

Living sustainably effects every part of our lifestyles, and I typically focus on the small things that are part of our daily routines, because they can really add up if enough people make a conscious effort, make better choices, and spread the knowledge and initiative around. And because the smaller choices are more manageable.

The problem is – they aren’t enough. The two biggest issues facing us today in terms of our very survival are agriculture and fossil fuels. These two industries have shown no desire to benefit humanity, only their own profit margins. It’s a vastly different thing to say ‘stop eating GMOs’ and ‘stop using your car’ but it’s really no good doing one and not the other. So, right now, let’s think about the difficult choices instead of the easy ones.

There’s so much outrage about the what the fossil fuel industry is doing to the planet, as there should be. Just imagine if the massive amounts of money spent on lobbying went instead to research and development, design and implementation of alternative energies. We’d be sitting pretty. And the companies would benefit by diversifying and moving into the future with the rest of us. But that’s not happening. Instead, they’re creating a situation in which it’s entirely possible that many of us will not move into the future at all. It’s so disgustingly myopic, it’s not likely to change, and there are few ways that you and I can hope to make a difference.

We all use fossil fuels. We’re all complicit. With current technologies and the way things work, it’s impossible to avoid without completely uprooting your life, but each one of us must begin to fight to make the changes we can in order to attain the smallest degree of complicity possible. This is a moral imperative. It should be an easy choice for anyone who has or plans to have children, or nieces and nephews, or in any way cares about future generations. The truth is, the suggestions I’m about to make are not only going to help to transfer power away from the fossil fuel industry, helping future generations, they’re also physically and mentally healthier for you in the present. These are just a few; there are plenty more things you can do.

Invest in solar panels on your home – They’re not that expensive to install and they pay you back while reducing or eliminating your reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power. You might also be able to benefit from a feed-in tariff. If you generate enough electricity to feed back into the power grid, you get paid for it. You can also get federal tax credits, and some state governments offer rebates as well.

Use your bicycle for more than entertainment – In several countries, we grow up with this idea that bicycles are for entertainment. They’re fun, or they’re for kids who can’t drive to go visit nearby friends. You know what? They ARE fun! So why not use your bicycle to get to work, or go to the store, or the library, or out to dinner? As an American, taking my bicycle for a 30-minute journey sounded like a bit much, until I started doing it. Now I love it and there’s no way I’d rather travel, even for much longer trips. Americans spend tons of money pimping our rides, so why not spend a little on pimping our bicycles to make them both comfortable and functional? It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a lift kit.

How about a motorcycle or a moped? – Another good option for longer trips when a bicycle isn’t feasible. They’re not very expensive, especially mopeds, and they get you where you need to go while paying you back for your investment by using waaaaay less gasoline.

Move – Seriously. I know it’s difficult and time-consuming, but it’s also fun! And you can choose to move to a community that allows you to live more sustainably. It’s a big thing, but people do move all the time. It’s not inconceivable.

Buy local – Just about everything you buy from your local supermarket has traveled long distances, using lots of fossil fuels for production, storage, and transportation. Industrial agriculture is THE biggest user of fossil fuels and producer of greenhouse gases. Small local farms tend to use much more sustainable practices, to stay away from GMOs, and they require little use of fossil fuels for production, storage and transportation.

Gardening – Grow food at home, help start or engage in community gardens. This is physically, emotionally, economically, and socially healthy and sustainable, and results in a grand-scale reduction of the need to use fossil fuels.

Don’t vote party lines – Vote for what’s best for your children and the future. Always. Educate yourself about bills and propositions and politicians, and the effects they’ll have, keeping in mind that they are all often purposefully misleading. Dig deep. It’s necessary.

Engage in activism – Get out there! We need you to help make a difference and to inspire others to do the same. This kind of bottom – up change will only work if we reach a tipping point.

As the saying goes, “If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.” ~ Leroy Eldridge Cleaver

Guerrilla Gardening

Meet Ron Finley – resident of South Central L.A. and guerrilla gardener. Even if you’ve never been near the place, you probably have at least a vague notion that South Central is not really where you want to find yourself. But for the residents, it’s home, and many people couldn’t move if they wanted to (and they probably want to). So, instead of jumping ship, this man decided to do something about it; to try to make a difference that everyone in his community could appreciate and anyone could participate in if they wanted.

Food Deserts

South Central L.A. is considered a food desert. That means that the residents don’t have access to healthy foods within a relatively convenient distance, though they often have plenty of access to fast food, and convenience and liquor stores. Food deserts exist all over the U.S., predominantly effecting lower-income areas, where there are, on average, 3 times fewer grocery stores than in wealthier neighborhoods. This is entirely related to the off-balance obesity rates and incidents of type-2 diabetes in these communities.

Why you should get involved

The purposes of guerrilla gardening are to both beautify and provide healthy food for local communities, no matter what their socio-economic status. As the gap between wealth and poverty widens and the middle class shrinks, it’s not just the food deserts that need help. In suburban neighborhoods, many people are struggling more to make ends meet and, as Ron Finley says, “growing your own food is like printing your own money,” and he tells us that about $1 worth of green beans can generate as much as $75 worth of produce.

The effects are much more far-reaching than that, though. These gardens offer incredible educational opportunities for both children and adults, to learn how to be more self-sufficient and to understand and appreciate the importance of fresh vegetables, for health, yes, but for well-being in general. Kids that are out in the garden aren’t out getting into trouble, or sitting in front of a television. They’re learning how to improve themselves and their communities instead of watching fast food advertisements. Another great benefit is that you can control where your seeds come from and how they’re grown. You can buy non-GMO seeds, and choose not to use pesticides. You generate less waste from trips to the grocery store and all the paper and plastic you come away with in addition to your food. This is something worth getting involved with in some capacity, even if you’re just chucking sunflower seeds down a grate or creating graffiti art with moss (link to instructions below). Make whatever difference you can!

Watch Ron Finley’s TED talk. It’s only about 10 minutes long and worth your time!

Learn more about food deserts at the Food Empowerment Project.

Advice and tips on how to get started

Community pages on guerrillagardening.org and a Facebook page – try to find other guerrilla gardeners in your area to team up with

How to make moss graffiti

Herbs & Spices for Health & Garden

Keep yourself out of the medicine cabinet, and the round-up out of your garden

ad01c-generalWe have too much salt in our food, and it’s really just a substitute for flavor. Most of it comes from processed foods that are often very high in sodium to cover up all the artificial stuff. But this can also lead to an acquired taste that gets us putting excess salt in our food even when we cook at home. Salt is vital for our bodies, and a healthy amount is an important part of our diets. It also enhances the potency of other flavors, but should be used sparingly, and certainly not to the exclusion of everything else. You’ll have to re-train your taste-buds, but you’ll enjoy the flavors more in the end.

Using a different set of spices or herbs than what you normally use can also add a whole different dimension to your meals and allow you to enjoy the creative process of cooking rather than seeing it as a mere chore.

The most important reason, though, why it’s bad that salt is the go-to flavor enhancer in so many food products and for so many people at home is that herbs and spices offer significant health benefits. They are one more piece to the puzzle of living a sustainable and healthy lifestyle.

But it doesn’t end there. Companion planting with herbs is not only a flavorful addition to your dinner and good for your health, many herb and spice plants also help your garden by naturally deterring pests and attracting the ‘good’ insects that eat the pests rather than eating your crops for you. Here is a list of some of the herbs and spices that offer the most benefit for both you and your garden:

Basil – Definitely makes the top of the list. It’s incredible stuff. Basil is anti-inflammatory, good for cardiovascular health and the upper respiratory system, and fights off bacteria such as staphylococcus, e. coli, shigella, and pseudomonas. Adding basil to your next salad can actually help ensure it’s safe to eat. Basil is also high in vitamins K, A, B6 and C, as well as iron, calcium, fiber, manganese and more. In your garden it will benefit the growth and the flavor of tomatoes, asparagus, peppers, oregano and petunias. Many of the health benefits from basil come from its essential oils, which will benefit from being planted with…

Chamomile – Great for your digestion and helps with abdominal pain, cramps, and breathing when you have a cold, as well as being a mild sedative. Good for soothing headaches and skin problems, too. It even seems to help with hormone regulation, which might be why it looks to be effective against some cancers, including breast and prostate cancer. Planted alongside any other herb, chamomile helps to increase its essential oils. It also helps out cabbage, cucumber, onions and wheat, and attracts hoverflies and wasps which pollinate and feed on unwelcome garden guests like aphids.

Cilantro/Coriander – These both come from the same plant, which is a good source of dietary fiber, calcium and magnesium. It lowers bad and raises good cholesterol, protects against nausea and arthritis, UTIs and salmonella! In your garden it protects from spider mites, aphids and potato bugs.

Dill – A very good source of calcium to help prevent bone loss. Dill also protects against free radicals and some carcinogens, and has antibacterial properties. It makes a good companion for cabbage, lettuce, onion, sweet corn and cucumbers, keeping away spider mites, squash bugs and aphids wile attracting pollinators.

Garlic – Whole books are written about garlic. It’s antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and eating it daily has been shown to help protect against most types of cancer. It helps metabolize iron and has cardiovascular benefits as well. It’s as close as we get to an actual panacea. Planted with apple, pear and peach trees, roses, cucumbers, peas, lettuce, and celery it helps keep rabbits and a myriad of pests away from your food.

Mint – A rich source of dietary fiber, magnesium, iron, folate, and calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B2, potassium and copper. Mint is good for your tummy and can help you breathe if you have asthma, allergies, or a cold. It’s also antibacterial, fighting e. coli, salmonella, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and others, and inhibits certain types of fungus. Cuttings of mint can be used as mulch, which will help keep mice out and is beneficial for cabbage, mustard, turnips, and broccoli. The living plant attracts bees and deters beetles, mosquitoes, ants, aphids and more.

There are so many flowers, herbs and spices that make good companion plants and benefit health. Do some research to decide what would be best for your garden and keep them in mind while you’re planning for next summer. Of course, during the winter you can keep potted herbs going in your kitchen to continue to enjoy their advantages.

Resources to get you started:

Check out this comprehensive infographic of complementary flavors. Every home cook should have access to this resource.

Companion Planting: friend & foe

Herbal companions

The basics of companion planting

Health benefits

Cooking with herbs & spices

Seed Bombing

Seed bombs are an ancestral Japanese gardening technique, called Tsuchi Dango (earth dumpling), re-integrated into farming practices by Masanobu Fukuoka, microbiologist, farmer and author of The One Straw Revolution. Their purpose is to plant and grow with minimal human intervention, which makes them perfect for guerrilla gardening (more about that another day). You make a little ball of clay and compost or fertilizer with the seeds rolled up inside. This gives them a good start in life no matter where they land.

After about 3 weeks, give or take depending on rainfall, temperatures, etc, the seeds will start to germinate, pushing down into the soil, and the ball will break apart as the plant grows, loosening more seeds to germinate.

Some Considerations

flower-1085136_640There are a few things to consider in seed bombing. Think about your environment and opt for non-invasive species. You can make seed bombs with one type of plant, or with a combination of seeds from different plants that play well together (companion planting). The earth is your canvas, and you can beautify it any way you like. You might even want to create a slow explosion of herbs, like basil, rosemary, thyme…or a soft ground cover around the base of an urban tree that will provide the soil with nitrogen, like clover…or flowers that provide comestibles for bees and butterflies…whatever you like.

Another thing to think about is possible intervention. Your efforts will be wasted if you seed bomb an area that gets mowed by city workers. Look for neglected spots or little islands of safety where the mowers can’t reach, such as under park benches or right up against the side of a building.

Community

Neglected and desolate spaces have a negative impact on the community, mentally and demographically. They’re ugly, repellent. We often manage to walk by them without paying attention, blocking them from our overt mental processes, but anything you see is ultimately processed by your brain, whether you know it or not. You can make a very real difference in the well-being of your community, and have fun doing it! So if you don’t have plans for the weekend, or are feeling bored, do a little seed bombing project. Here are some simple instructions for making seed bombs. There are several different ways to make them and lots of tutorials available, so feel free to search for one that works for you. Watch this Seed Bomber video to get inspired!

 

 

 

 

 

An Unsustainable Food Supply

Fur trappers and traders who came to North America in the 1600s and 1700s had to eat what they could forage and catch. Rabbits were plentiful in many regions at that time, and so they formed the bulk of some trappers’ diets. Those trappers who relied too heavily on rabbit meat often died of malnutrition. Rabbit meat takes more calories to procure than you get back from eating it. That balance is unsustainable, and yet it is exactly how the U.S. food system works.

A little bit of math

It takes approximately 10 calories worth of fossil fuels to produce and transport 1 calorie of food. That means, for a family of four with a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, 930 gallons of gas per year will be required to produce and transport their food, not including that family driving to and from the grocery store. Since the average household in the U.S. consumes somewhere around 1,000 gallons of gas per year, the way we manage our food supply nearly doubles the already ridiculous amount of fuel each person is responsible for consuming. That kind of imbalance on a personal level will eventually kill you, and what we’re seeing on a national level is no different.

Approximately 15% of the energy supply in the United States goes into crop production, livestock production, food processing, and packaging. A Cornell University professor of ecology and agricultural science did the math for what that means for the big picture: if all of humanity were to go about food production the way the U.S. does, we would exhaust all known fossil fuel reserves in seven years. Wow, that’s wasteful!

Agricultural practices contribute greatly to global warming. Because of the complexity of the problem and the multitude of factors, it’s difficult to arrive at an accurate number, but it’s thought that approximately 33% of contributions to climate change are a direct result of the food supply system. Some of the factors are farm machinery, petroleum-based chemicals used in synthetic fertilizers, the manufacturing processes for agro-chemicals and fertilizers, the processing of major crops like corn and soy into a vast array of derived products, and the distribution over long distances of everything, including the final output. Animal agriculture itself accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions (18%) than all transportation in the globe (14%). (Others argue that the figure of 18% allows a large number of unallocated emissions that are really due to animal agriculture, bringing the figure up to 51% – read more here.)

Let’s take school lunches as an example, if only because a) they need to change anyway as they’re incredibly unhealthy for our children, and b) I can quote directly from an article by Tom Starrs, VP and COO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation:

“According to 2005 USDA National School Lunch Program participation figures, 29.6 million American school children were served nearly five billion meals at school last year. Typically these meals are highly processed, filled with conditioners, preservatives, dyes, salts, artificial flavors, and sweeteners. Usually they’re individually portioned and packaged, and travel thousands of miles to the school cafeteria.

School meals are commonly delivered frozen, wrapped and sealed in energy-consumptive packaging, and in need of some interval in a warming oven to thaw before being served to students. Studies of packaging and plate waste in school cafeterias indicate that, every day, as much as half, by weight, of these hasty, unappetizing, low-nutrient, highly processed and packaged meals is tossed by students — unopened, un”appreciated”, untasted, unrecycled and uncomposted. The energy needed to collect and transport the waste generated by school lunch must also be added to the net energy embedded in the meal.”

This is no different from food in the grocery store, which travels hundreds if not thousands of miles to get there, and is wastefully packaged to boot.

It’s the Monsanto monster again

A huge amount of agriculture and food supply mismanagement can be traced back to Monsanto & friends. The federal government has been convinced by lobbyists and money to subsidize over-production of monoculture crops such as corn and soy. They are genetically modified crops, grown in petroleum-based synthetic fertilizer, drenched in herbicides and insecticides, then either fed to cattle who can’t digest them or highly processed before going into your own food. Monsanto & friends get extremely-well paid, while you and I foot the bill, twice – once in our tax dollars funding their subsidies and once for increasingly expensive health care to treat our inevitable diet-related illnesses.

Farmers growing fruits and vegetables that are fit for human consumption don’t receive subsidies. It’s really an upside-down system. We should be able to offer farmers subsidies to protect them from a year of drought, blight, etc., but not for purposeful overproduction of nutritionally useless and environmentally damaging crops that serve no purpose but to line the pockets of those in charge of unethical corporations.

Tipping point

With a rising global population, increases in droughts and flooding, and a beautiful planet that can’t take much more of what we’re throwing at her, we absolutely have to make our system more sustainable and energy-efficient if we’re going to survive. None of us can implement that change alone, but we can each make choices in our daily lives that will contribute, and we can urge others to do the same. If enough of us care and get involved, we can and will reach a tipping point where the system will have to change. It’s a top-down problem that we need to try to solve from the bottom-up. We all have to get involved. Buy local as much as possible. Go to farmer’s markets. Grow your own vegetables at home. Start to think about the net energy that goes into your food and the waste that results. Start or get involved in a local community garden, farm-to-school program, or food forest project. Above all, teach your children!

Bees & Butterflies & Alternative Energy

We have to stop using massive amounts of insecticides & herbicides. Obviously. But it may take some time to get there, so what can each of us do in the meantime to help our little buddies who are suffering mass extinctions?

Win – win

There’s a company in the UK getting it right. Unlike fossil fuel extraction methods, solar power doesn’t destroy the immediate environment in which production happens. So we’re already a step ahead, but that’s not enough for the folks at Solarcentury, who have decided to do what they can to support biodiversity in their country.

They are about to begin planting indigenous flora throughout their solar parks that bees and butterflies love, and that promote native biodiversity in general. They envision their solar parks as wildlife sanctuaries, and it’s not just for bugs; it’s estimated that 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK have been lost since the 1940s. They’ve found an ingenious way to make human interference in a natural landscape beneficial. The CEO of the company pointed out that solar parks actually provide a wider array of wet, dry, shaded and sunny areas than completely open fields, making it a perfect place to promote biodiversity. Win – win.

How bee-friendly is your land?

You could easily follow their example at home and make your land a refuge for bees and butterflies, who are fighting to survive and could use all the help we can give them. Frankly, it also has the potential to be more beautiful than a grass lawn. It may not be the right thing for everyone to do. Of course, you can also have gardens, but they do require more care. One of the nice things about attracting bees, butterflies and other pollinators, though, is that they do help you out with that.

There are more benefits, too. Many of the plants that attract bees and butterflies also attract hummingbirds. Many are also edible, including herbs like fennel and basil. You just have to make sure you let them go to flower, but you were going to do that anyway so that you can save the seeds, right?

See how synergistic it can all be? When you begin to recognize it, it seems so inane of us to have commercialized this process to the point of destruction. Nature takes care of all this with relatively little intervention on our part and here we are wasting valuable energy and resources (non-renewable ones) engineering plants that lack the nutritional value of natural plants, while creating robotic bees (yes, it appears Monsanto IS involved in that project) just in case that’s the only way they can survive. Well guess what? We’re next.

What to plant

Here are a few resources to learn more about the plants that pollinators love, and other potential uses for some of them, as well as a helpful hint for people with allergies, and more.

21 best plants for pollinators

No-fail plants to attract hummingbirds, butterflies & bees

Bee balm: for butterflies & bees

10 things you can do to help save the bees

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