Sustainable Food Choices – The Journey to Backyard Gardening

Over the past year, I have been contemplating our choices as a culture when it comes to food. Without getting into all the ins and outs of the many heated sides of this debate – organic vs. non, local vs. shipped, vegetarian vs. vegan vs. meat, raw vs. cooked, gluten vs. non, preservatives, pesticides, and food dyes, oh my! – suffice it to say that, for now, the one conclusion I have come to with certainty is that something has to change. Both for our health and for our society as a whole, we have to begin making choices that are more sustainable. Already, in our generation, we are beginning to see the consequences of bad, hasty, or financially motivated decisions and those consequences will be magnified many-fold for our children and grandchildren if we don’t commit to change. I am convinced that this change cannot begin with the government or the big businesses involved. It has to begin with us. Each consumer making more informed and socially conscious decisions to benefit not only themselves, but society as a whole and thus their own posterity. Even small changes, when implemented by the multitudes, can have a vast impact on the big picture. I am sure our food choices will continue to change and grow as we learn more and more about the way things are vs. the way we believe they should be, but for now, my family is making some changes that we believe will benefit our health, our home, our happiness, and our culture.

One major change is that we are attempting to buy as much as we possibly can from local providers. We are fortunate to have a prolific farmers market in our area that is open year round and provides locally grown, organic produce, dairy, meat, eggs, plants, soaps, and much more. We have found that we can buy all these things directly from the farmers, speak to them about their farming practices, and get advice about our decisions for almost the same price that we can get them at the grocery store. The only loss is in convenience, and that convenience comes at too high a cost. Whatever we are not able to get at the market, we will continue to buy at the grocery store – and, trust me, our choices are not always as noble as we would like them to be – but at least these concessions are a less pervasive part of our overall diet.

The second big change that we have made is very near and dear to my heart, as it has become a fulfilling and beautiful part of my everyday life. I have built and cultivated an extensive back yard vegetable garden. It is the most beautiful thing I have created since Owen and I am probably a bit too proud of it. But if it’s growth and success continues at the rate it has thus far, we will have organic, home-grown vegetables to last us through the summer and well beyond. It doesn’t get much more local than that! Anyone who has read some of my previous posts on aesthetics knows that I firmly believe that just because something is useful does not mean it has to look simply practical as well. I built my garden with my own two hands and I knew from the start that I wanted it to be a thing of beauty as well as a source of nutrition. I could easily have just plowed the “back forty” into rows and started planting (which is certainly a viable option for some, don’t get me wrong), but instead I laid out and planned 4 raised beds, leveled into a hill, framed, and surrounded by walkways. I chronicled my garden building journey with many pictures and decided to share some of them here with you. Hopefully a few of you may find inspiration as I have and be led to create your own oasis of food production.

Owen wanted to know what exactly was going on when I came home from the store with all these crazy supplies.

Owen wanted to know what exactly was going on when I came home from the store with all these crazy supplies.

After cutting the necessary landscape timbers into half lengths, the next step was to lay out the location of the beds.

After cutting the necessary landscape timbers into half lengths, the next step was to lay out the location of the beds.

The first bed I attempted to till up by hand. Needless to say, for the next three, I rented a tiller.

The first bed I attempted to till up by hand. Needless to say, for the next three, I rented a tiller.

Here, all the beds were tilled and the hill was leveled out and ready for the frames to be assembled and put in place.

Here, all the beds were tilled and the hill was leveled out and ready for the frames to be assembled and put in place.

Owen was a huge help in building the frames ;)

Owen was a huge help in building the frames ;)

And lifting them into place!

And lifting them into place!

Now all the frames were in place and I discovered the need for retaining walls to prevent the soil from washing out underneath the low end of the hill.

Now all the frames were in place and I discovered the need for retaining walls to prevent the soil from washing out underneath the frames at the low end of the hill.

Aiden was a big help in building the retaining walls! I used cinder blocks that I filled with soil so that they could be used for plants as well.

Aiden was a big help in building the retaining walls! I used cinder blocks that I filled with soil so that they could be used for plants as well.

And here aesthetics came into play. I could not abide mismatched retaining walls and bed frames, so I spray painted them.

And here aesthetics came into play. I could not abide mismatched retaining walls and bed frames, so I spray painted them.

After I completed the beds, there was a significant mud problem at the bottom of the hill. So I created a walkway. A friend gave me ALL of the bricks that he needed out of his way and I filled it will builders gravel (not landscape gravel - they are essentially the same and the builders variety is 1/3 of the price).

After I completed the beds, there was a significant mud problem at the bottom of the hill. So I created a walkway. A friend gave me ALL of the bricks, saying he needed them out of his way, and I laid them out and filled them in with builders gravel (not landscape gravel – they are essentially the same and the builders variety is 1/3 of the price).

Then it was finally PLANTING TIME!

Then it was finally PLANTING TIME!

Baby plants full of potential. The pea trellises were $30 a piece at the garden store and I needed 4! I could not stomach this so I spent $15 on a bunch of stakes and some garden twine and made my own.

Here are my baby plants, full of potential. The pea trellises were $30 a piece at the garden store and I needed 4! I could not stomach this, so I spent $15 on a bunch of stakes and some garden twine and made my own.

The addition of angled trellises for the squash and zucchini.

Later, I added angled trellises for the squash and zucchini.

Some of the first fruits.

Already, we’ve been able to harvest some first fruits!

Today, the plants are enormous and lush. We're getting some fruit almost every day. This also shows the bean trellises I built from sticks I found around the yard and some zip ties.

Today, the plants are enormous and lush. We’re getting some fruit almost every day. This also shows the bean trellises I built from sticks I found around the yard and some zip ties.

Voila!

Voila!

Let me know what you think. And please share some of your gardening success stories. I can use all the help I can get!

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The Real Cost of Cheap

Today I found myself ruminating on the ideas of durability and quality versus availability and cheapness. We come across this dilemma rather frequently in our daily lives. Something breaks or wears out and we are faced with the decision of whether to spend a little now and pretty much guarantee that we’ll spend it again in the not so distant future, or spend a bit more now for a quality item that we know will stand the test of time. In the long-term, of course it’s a better investment to opt for quality, but who has the extra money to spend? If things break around our house, usually it’s not part of the planned budget and too often, cheap is the only option. But sometimes I wonder, why is cheap an option at all?  It never used to be. If a craftsman built something, they built it to last. They took pride in what they had made. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it had to be any more expensive to make. It it was just made with care rather than the understanding (and often the hope) that the buyer would most likely chuck it in a few years and buy a new one. Plastic and prefab have since replaced wood and steel. Machines have replaced hands. And because there is such a dramatic difference in quality, there ought to be a significant difference in price, right? Even if it didn’t really cost that much more to make. And no one seems to consider the fact that all of these products that are made to be discarded and replaced year after year end up in landfills and never biodegrade.

But what is the solution if you can’t afford the quality that used to be affordable and now seems to be elite? My solution is usually to search for second-hand or slightly damaged or refurbished items that still, despite their age or scratch-n-dent appearance, stand out against their cheap counterparts as objects of beauty and enhanced functionality. And, this way, I also reduce waste by buying things that others have discarded or no longer need. For instance, our coffee maker broke this week. A problem that needed to be remedied ASAP, since it was creating very crabby parents in the morning. But for the last decade, it seems, I have been buying a new coffee maker every couple of years because that’s about as long as the $30-$40 machines last. And I was tired of this cycle. Particularly because, when I was growing up, we had the same coffee maker for at least a decade because it was made to last, it was a Bunn. But I certainly didn’t want to spend $200-$300 dollars on a new coffee maker. (Let me rephrase that, I wanted to, but I have MANY higher priorities for that kind of money.) Even though the five machines I’ve already bought over the last 10 year (at approximately $45 a piece) add up to the same amount and created 5 times the waste! So I searched Overstock and Craigslist and Amazon‘s used sellers and found an Amazon warehouse deal of a new Bunn coffee maker in perfect condition but with damaged packaging for $65 – only $20 more than I would’ve spent on a cheap one that I’d have to replace again in a couple of years. Score!

Another example of this is my son’s tricycle. You can find any number of cheap plastic tricycles and big wheels out there whose plastic cracks, colors fade, and seats fall off within a couple of years. Or you could spend a hundred dollars on a nice steel, Radio Flyer Trike that will last through every single one of your children. But I don’t spend that kind of money on my toddler very easily. So I found one on Craigslist for $15 whose owner’s only son “never really liked it that much and barely rode it.” Sold!

So, let this encourage you to seek out quality and stop encouraging the production and sale of goods that we know are made to be quickly replaced. Even if you have to cut some corners or bruise your pride a little bit to get it, it will be well worth it in the long run. And, who knows, we might just change the ideals of our society in the process!

The Great Outdoors

I have always known, but somehow need to be continually reminded that time outdoors is essential to my happiness and well-being. Some of the moments in life that I have felt the deepest connection to spirit and self have been times that I’ve spent alone or with a loved one in nature. Soaking in the reality, beauty, and simplicity of the untouched world. Stepping away from screens and music, work and stress, and the continuous noise of busy life into the quiet sounds of plants and birds and children’s laughter. Experiencing sunlight as it filters through the trees creating shadowy artwork on the ground. Discovering forgotten clearings along paths through the woods that seem as sacred as a temple and using those spaces to meditate and reclaim calm. Sitting on a park bench and watching children who are still too young to be self-conscious run and play and be free in a way that many adults envy in the deepest parts of themselves. Dropping the restraints of time and tasks and pretending for a short time that they do not exist. Inhaling the smell rag weed and wood mulch, dead leaves and earth all in the same breath and feeling cleansed by it. Going home dirtier than you’ve been in a long time, yet with no desire to wash it off. This is life in its simplest and best form and I am grateful for it.

Convenience vs. Waste – The Journey To Cloth Diapers

At the risk of sounding like a mommy blog (which is not my goal or vision), one of the biggest issues on my mind lately has been whether or not to cloth diaper our second baby. I know that, after the initial investment, in the long run it is cheaper and better for baby’s skin, but the real clincher issue for me is waste. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the big issue on my mind lately has been the overwhelming waste in our society as a whole. It is not just the diaper issue, although I’ll get back to that in a minute, it is all the other ridiculous habits of convenience that produce an astonishing amount of garbage which most of us don’t give even a second thought to after it leaves our house twice a week. As though the garbage truck makes all of this non-biodegradable waste just magically disappear! Even things that are degradable, like yard waste, for instance, are placed inside PLASTIC bags that won’t break down and sent to landfills where they create piles of rotten vegetation entombed in plastic bricks. I say all of this with the indignation of someone who you’d think was proactive about reducing excess consumption and waste. But I suppose that is the problem I am facing. MYSELF. I am lazy. Like much of the rest of western society. I have a hard time relinquishing convenience. In the three years we have lived in our current house we have never put forth the effort to start recycling despite the fact that our neighborhood has curbside pickup. Why? Because I don’t have a good place for the bins or the time to sort my garbage. Please! I watch documentaries that get me all fired up, but then I rarely do anything about it. We did have our own garden one year, but it yielded so pitifully that I have not attempted again. We did compost for a while, but the smell (in our kitchen and yard) was just too much. We do buy many things second-hand, but I’m not sure it’s from a sense of resourcefulness so much as budget constraints. But, but . . . BUT.  It’s time for change! This year instead of bagging our leaves and shipping them off to the dump, we are following the suggestion of woman we heard interviewed on NPR and mulching our leaves with the mower and spreading them over the grass to be driven in by the rain and used as natural fertilizer. We have gotten the recycling bins and the schedule for pick up and will be starting a habit of recycling soon (darn it!). I am making my own Christmas gifts, from the heart, instead of spending an exorbitant amount of money on a bunch of stuff that no one really needs or most of the time even wants.

But now we come back to the issue of diapers. And I have to ask myself, how far does this conviction go? I love the convenience of disposable diapers. I mean LOVE. My conscience almost got the better of me with our son, but since I work and we’ve had to have child care for him during the day, that’s always been a convenient excuse. But we have since switched sitters to someone who cloth diapers her own children. Bye bye excuse! What about time spent washing diapers as a working mom? What about the initial expense of investing in a supply of cloth? What about the added extent to which I will have to HANDLE someone else’s poo! (Sorry all you non mommies out there.) Are these inconveniences enough to allow me to ignore the fact that one child produces over a TON of diaper waste in their short time using them? Or the fact that approximately 27.5 BILLION diapers are consumed in the US alone in one year and each of those takes between 300 and 500 years to break down in a landfill! That means if disposables had been available in the 1500’s we would still see remains of them today!  Diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills representing about 4% of all solid waste! And yet I am still having trouble making this decision. As I stated above, I am lazy. Will I overcome this laziness and take the leap into the world of cloth diapers? I still don’t really know. But after writing all of this, if I don’t, I give all of you, my readers, full permission to mock me mercilessly until I come to my senses.

(The facts about diaper waste in this post are found in numerous places online, but the most succinct collection of them came from http://www.realdiaperassociation.org/diaperfacts.php)

The Fun Theory

Why is it that most of the things in our lives that we should do feel like chores?  Eating healthy, exercising, recycling, keeping an organized household, doing yard work, maintaining the car . . . the list goes on and on, but I think you get the picture.  As children, simple tasks like unloading the dishwasher were exciting endeavors because we hadn’t done them 8 million times before and they were filled with interesting colors, shapes, textures, and ideas.  The simple act of stacking plastic cups as high as they would go and then watching them tumble before putting them away provided endless entertainment.  Perhaps this is exactly the point.  We as “grown-ups” are too sophisticated to do such silly things as make cup towers before putting them away.  We are much to busy to waste our time on such frivolities.  We have crammed our lives so full we no longer have time to make simple tasks FUN.  And because we don’t take the time to add the ridiculous to the mundane, we find ourselves should-ing our way through life rather than enjoying it.  I was pondering this idea while watching my son pretend to be a ghost as he put away his blanket, when I remembered an ad campaign by Volkswagen that I had seen some time ago which centered around this very concept.  It was called “The Fun Theory”  and its goal was to coax people out of their boxes by taking everyday tasks, injecting them with a healthy dose of fun and seeing how dramatically it improved people’s participation in those activities as well as the quality of their work while doing them.  The results were often remarkable.  Demonstrating that it’s not that people don’t want to do the things they should, it’s just that most of us are bored and under-stimulated.  If we could expand on this idea and start seeking out ways to make ordinary tasks enjoyable, I believe we would all lead much more productive and fulfilling lives.  So lets stop should-ing all over ourselves and start looking for ways to make life more interesting and everyday things more FUN!

Piano Stairs - 66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator!

 

Bottle Bank Arcade - in one evening, this was used by over 100 people, as opposed to the normal 2 or 3

 

Speed Camera Lottery - caused a reduction of speed of 22% in three days!