Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Thursday, May 26, 2011 1:32 PM
The next time you visit your local library to check out a book, perhaps you’ll leave with some basil, butterfly weed, or sweet pea seeds in your pocket. Seed-lending programs, operating out of public libraries, are taking root.
The concept is simple: Seed libraries allow patrons to “check out” seeds and grow them on their own land. In exchange, the gardener or farmer is asked to donate seeds to the library at harvest time. These will be used by fellow library-goers in the next growing season. “Unlike a seed bank, the libraries are living collections that change every time a gardener returns seeds,” Organic Gardening writes.
The Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, housed in the Richmond Public Library near Berkeley, California, celebrated its one-year anniversary this month and has nearly 400 users. Carefully cataloged by type—herb, flower, or edible—and degree of growing difficulty, the seeds are a small but powerful force in bringing fresh food to all members the community, says Mother Earth News. The free program “provid[es] access to fresh, healthy food in communities where it may not otherwise be available and teach[es] everyone how much fun growing your own food can be.”
In addition to the seed-lending libraries spreading up and down California—at Alameda Free Library and San Francisco Public Library’s Potrero branch, for example—they are beginning to sprout elsewhere, such as at the Fairfield Public Library’s Fairfield Woods branch in Connecticut, reports American Libraries.
To start a seed-lending library in your area, visit Richmond Grows for tips and resources.
Source: Organic Gardening(article not available online), Mother Earth News, American Libraries, Richmond Grows
Image by mathteacher..., licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011 12:32 PM
Peat moss takes thousands of years to form and stores massive amounts of the earth’s carbon, making it a pretty unsustainable growing medium or soil additive for gardeners. In Organic Gardening magazine, Cristina Santiestevan breaks down the numbers behind peat moss production in Canada, the source of most peat U.S. sold in the United States:
At the average rate of 0.6 to 0.7 millimeter per year, Canadian peat bogs add 6 to 7 centimeters in depth (less than 3 inches) over the course of a century. It will require 3,000 years to amass the 2-meter depth needed to justify the costs of extraction. Under these conditions, a fully mined peat bog will not be able to support a second “harvest” for at least 3,000 years.
Can a resource that renews itself this slowly ever be considered sustainable? If we balk at cutting down 500-year-old trees in old-growth forests, should we accept the extraction of 3,000-year-old sphagnum moss from peat bogs?
Our prescient sister publication Mother Earth News touched on this issue a couple of years ago, pointing out the environmental costs of peat production while fielding an “Ask Our Experts” question, “Do you recommend peat moss to improve soil?”
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant tacitly endorses using small amounts of peat in indoor seed starting mixtures, but count me among the budding gardeners who’d like to find a way around using peat entirely. I’ve seen coconut fiber, vermiculite, perlite, and even non-clumping clay cat litter mentioned as peat moss substitutes, but I don’t have any personal experience in trying these. Are there any green gardeners out there who have a preferred peat alternative?
Sources: Organic Gardening, Mother Earth News
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Friday, November 12, 2010 11:27 AM
The recent U.S. election was discouraging in general for green transportation advocates, but one loss I felt particularly keenly was the unseating of Minnesota Democratic congressman James Oberstar by a slim margin. For as Carolyn Szczepanski writes on her blog People Powered Transportation at Mother Earth News:
If you don’t live in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District or follow federal transportation policy, you probably don’t even know the name James Oberstar. He was elected to Congress in 1974, and, since his very first term, served on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
For bike-ped advocates, those committee members are critical and, for three decades, Oberstar pushed to get bicyclists and pedestrians recognized and treated as “intended users” of our public roads. In the last wave election in 2006, when Democrats took control of the House, Oberstar was elected chairman of the Transportation Committee. A few months after he claimed leadership, he told a crowd at the National Bike Summit: “We’re going to convert America from the hydrocarbon economy to the carbohydrate economy.”
Oberstar was vested in many transit issues, as Minnesota Public Radio reports, but it was clear that biking was close to his heart, and he was responsible for directing funding to many bike trails in the nation and the state. He was in some ways a classic pork-barrel politician, but he served up an awful lot of tasty pork to bicyclists. I’ve ridden many miles on Oberstar-funded trails, including the Lakewalk along Duluth’s Lake Superior waterfront—and so, I imagine, have many of the people who voted red over blue this time around.
Washington, D.C.’s Streetsblog reports that now that Oberstar is out of the picture, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, a “coal-n-highways Dem,” may be angling for the top Democratic seat on the Transportation Committee. (The silver lining: This would take Rahall and his pro-coal agenda off the Natural Resources Committee.)
Oberstar is a savvy guy. He probably knows that he didn’t get voted out because people suddenly hate bike trails, but because the soft, doughy, pliable middle of the electorate simply swung in the other direction this time. Maybe they need to get out and bike a bit more.
Sources: Mother Earth News, Minnesota Public Radio News, Streetsblog Capitol Hill
Image of Rep. James Oberstar by John Schadl, courtesy of the photographer.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010 2:15 PM
Utne Reader Editor in Chief David Schimke recently returned from the first ever Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania. Our sister publication Mother Earth News hosted the event, and itwas a resounding success. Folks interested in sustainable lifestyles were treated to a weekend filled with speakers, demonstrations, vendors, and more. Schimke reported on presentations by Green Festival Founder Kevin Danaher and Richard Schrader of the National Resources Defense Council. If you couldn’t make it out to this year’s event, check out these stories, plus plenty of photos, videos, and reports from those who attended the fair over at the Mother Earth News Fair blog.
Source: Mother Earth News
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 5:01 PM
“Compostable” plastics are being marketed as a green solution to waste and pollution—but our sister magazine Mother Earth News found in an independent test of “bioplastic” bags that many of them don’t live up to their claims. Of five bags tested, none of them were completely compostable in home composting conditions.
Mother Earth News commissioned the test from Woods End Laboratories, which specializes in evaluating composts, soils, and organic wastes. The lab found that some of the bags did break down under high under higher temperatures resembling commercial composting operations—but this is seldom spelled out in marketing claims. Writes editor Cheryl Long:
The bottom line: Most plastic packaging that claims to be “biodegradable” or “compostable” will only partially break down under the conditions typical of most home compost piles.
Check out the full bioplastic bag report online (pdf) and look for an article about it in the June-July issue of Mother Earth News, which goes on sale May 25.
Even though some bioplastics can break down in larger operations, cities that are pioneering municipal composting programs have had problems with the materials, reports the Northern California environmental magazine Terrain. In October 2009, a group touring Berkeley, California’s municipal food and yard waste composting site
... observed employees picking all plastic items—both petroleum– and plant-based—out of the dumped materials. Any smaller plastics that made it through the initial screening were removed later, as the material was sent through a trommel and a sorting station.
Here’s the reason: even if bioplastic items are suited to break down in a commercial facility, they look nearly identical to the petroleum-based plastic they are meant to replace, which makes it difficult for workers at the plant to distinguish between the two. Because of the quantity of waste they are sorting, and the difficulty of identifying the types of plastics that arrive at the facility, laborers remove all plastics, including most compostable bioplastics, which are then hauled off to the landfill along with the other contaminants.
Source: Mother Earth News, Terrain
Wednesday, March 10, 2010 4:31 PM
How does your bird seed grow? With noxious weeds from invasive seeds, scattered wherever birds go? You bet. A few years ago, researchers identified the seeds of more than 50 weed species in commercial wild bird feeds, according to Organic Gardening. “It’s easy enough to snuff out noxious weeds that sprout under the feeder,” the magazine reports. “But when birds eat the seeds and the fly off and distribute weeds in their droppings, wild areas can be affected.”
Over half the weed seeds researchers found were viable; 10 of them were noxious—aggressive spreaders that can be harmful to other plants, animals, and humans. “When we informally questioned landowners and farmers to investigate the spread of a relatively new weed in the Pacific Northwest—velvetleaf—we found it growing in the soil beneath backyard birdfeeders,” horticulturist Jed Colquhoun, one of the researchers, recently told SeedWorld, an agriculture and seed industry publication.
What to do? Organic Gardening suggests choosing feeds that won’t sprout, including peanuts, sunflower hearts, and suet cakes, or growing a “bird buffet”—a garden of native perennials and grasses upon which birds can feast. Or make your own bird feed blends or homemade suet cakes with recipes from Mother Earth News. If you do buy commercial feed, Christian Science Monitor recommends making sure that it is baked so weed seeds are not viable.
Sources: Organic Gardening, SeedWorld, Mother Earth News, Christian Science Monitor
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Friday, March 05, 2010 12:49 PM
Food is pretty much always on my mind: the proverbial what, where, when, how, and why we eat; who eats (and who doesn’t); and all of the questions of environment, ethics, and health that are bound up in it. I’m reminded of something Siobhan Phillips wrote in a Hudson Review piece I blogged about a few months ago: “What dishes one consumes or refuses, what food products one buys or boycotts, constitute an expression of style, statement of politics, reflection of values, index of environmentalism, pledge of allegiance, and measure of health. . . . Wonder when this got so complicated.”
Well here’s another (complicated-but-compelling) thing to consider: staple crops. Writing for Permaculture Activist, Michelle Ajamian and Brandon Jaeger recall relishing the food security that a burgeoning local foods movement—with its farmers’ market produce, meat, and dairy—seemed to offer in 2007. “Then we talked,” they write. “Brandon asked the question: ‘Where do we go to get our beans, grains, and oils?’ The answer: grocers and buying clubs who source from across the continent or around the world.
“That led to another question, which we couldn’t readily answer: ‘Where’s the food security when these foods, coming from far away, represent more than 70% of our diet—the bulk of what we eat?’ ”
Ajamian and Jaeger acquired a modest federal grant and in their home region of southeastern Ohio planted small test plots of “high-nutrition staple seed crops” such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, adzuki beans, and dent corn. Response from local bakeries and restaurants was immediate. As they went, they discovered that growing staples is relatively easy; harvesting and processing them into dry beans, milled flour, or pressed oils, and then transporting and storing those foods is the complicated part, requiring investment in infrastructure and equipment.
In 2008 they formed the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative (APFC), dedicated to building a replicable system for regional staple foods. Recently they opened a processing facility called the Shagbark Seed and Mill Co. As spring hatches here in the Midwest, I know they’ve give me a lot to chew on. (I’ve already turned to Utne’s sister publication Mother Earth News to learn more about the mechanics of growing grains, beans, and rice.)
Ajamian and Jaeger’s article for Permaculture Activist isn’t online, but here’s a short video of these two very interesting people discussing their project with the Athens Foundation, one of their many backers. There’s also an interview with them on the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service’s website, and you can also check out the APFC group on Facebook.
Sources: The Hudson Review, Permaculture Activist, Mother Earth News
Image by llsimon53, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, May 01, 2009 5:42 PM
Lately, it seems like every publication in Utne Reader’s library that isn’t busy analyzing who’s to blame for this economic crunch is offering up tips and tricks for living on less—and with good cause. No time like the present for expending some mental energy on how we all might live more thriftily and lightly on the earth.
Which is what makes far too many of the thrifty-livin’ articles so, well, disappointing. I swear I’m going to jam a recycling bin over my head if I read one more cheerful checklist urging me to grow my own food. Um, yes. Gardens are great. More gardens = even greater. But is that the best (see: only) idea we have?
I’m not losing hope. The latest issue of BackHome—their 100th, as a matter of fact—just arrived, and brought with it “50 Ways to Live on Less,” a great article chock full of not-everybody-else’s ideas. The piece isn’t available online, so here’s a handful of suggestions that got my feathers fluffed:
#6 Think of your three favorite ways to cook beans and do those every week. Aside from the roadkill mentioned above, it’s hard to find a cheaper source of protein (and beans are more appetizing, too). Try beans in soups, salads, burgers, or in anything but ice cream.
#11 Use clear containers for food storage, so you can identify and eat food before it goes bad.
#41 Don’t be afraid to barter with anyone for goods or services. This includes doctors and lawyers.
#50 Write down your life goals, then write down your monthly expenses. Figure which expenses aren’t meeting your life goals, and cut out those expenses.
While we’re on the subject of not-boring advice, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention our sister publication Mother Earth News, a font of information when it comes to efficient, smart, do-it-yourself living. Plus, you can ask its knowledgeable editors questions, too. Really. And if anyone out there has seen unconventional stories or has unusual ideas for scaling back and living smart—I’d love to see some links.
UPDATE (5/6/2009): Oh ho! As it turns out, Craig Idlebrook, the author of BackHome’s “50 Ways to Live on Less,” wrote an even more expansive article in 2007 for Utne’s sister publication Mother Earth News. “Live on Less and Love It!” offers up 75 inspiring, unconventional ideas for a happy, thrifty life—and you can read them all online. Thanks to Mother Earth News managing editor John Rockhold for the tip.
Sources: BackHome, Mother Earth News
Monday, December 29, 2008 3:00 PM
The sting of cold in the winter is often accompanied by the shock of rising energy bills. Since not everyone can afford to install new, energy-efficient appliances throughout their homes, Utne Reader’s sister publication Mother Earth News published a guide to energy-saving and cost-reducing do-it-yourself projects.
Many of the projects are surprisingly simple. Managing the energy used by the computers in his house, writer Gary Reysa spent $20 and an hour of work, and it ended up saving an estimated $178 yearly. Reysa also suggests insulating windows with bubble wrap and buying an electric mattress pad. And since not every do-it-yourself project is good for every situation, Reysa includes a guide to choosing which projects are right for any given situation.
Wednesday, June 04, 2008 1:44 PM
Our sister publication Mother Earth News has an online rundown of a fun little springtime DIY project: making kites from recycled materials.
You can choose from designs that use paper bags or newspaper. Or you can go with non-recycled (but still inexpensive) fare such as paper, foam balls, and feathers. For the expert kite-flyer and -maker, there’s some guidance on DIY sport and stunt kites, too.
Image by ronnie44052, licensed under Creative Commons.
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