Saturday, February 23, 2008

dirt farmin'

Last weekend, I was again consumed with berserker fury against the forces of Backyard Bamboo Evil. I know you have little basis for comparison, but trust me when I say that the below pic would have shown an obscure screen of green before then.

M sez: Look, a house! Wow!

That's the view straight back from the house. At the left-hand corner is what was once a garden plot, but has long since been overgrown with you-know-what, of course.

Unlike every other patch of overgrowth, though, a bit of scraping revealed this one to be covering a cauldron of black gold!

Teh Dirt Hole.

Black gold meaning here not coal, but its much, much, much younger cousin: loose, airy, cakey, rich, loamy topsoil.

Either the spot was a former compost heap (I found peach pits, a straw, and oval fruit stickers), or it just built up lots of humus from years of bamboo leaves, or more likely both (bamboo leaves take a long time to break down). Anyway, I stripmined it as best I could with a shovel and paint bucket and hauled it over to the garden bed. After a few trips, I had 6" deep of perfect, organic, and unbeatably local topsoil for FREE. (We had just bought two 40-lb. bags of "organic" topsoil, supposedly from WV, for $2.49 each. They barely covered the 32-square-foot bed.)

See, the bamboo is good for something! At least for separating plant rows. With topsoil down, 36 spinach seeds were in their new homes in a matter of minutes!

Also, we planted lettuce in yet another type of repurposed planter:

Now with extra Omega-3s!

In 1 week, 18 of 24 little pellets have turned into cheery green stalks!

Even when I'm stuck indoors, doing French homework on a rainy day, the natural world won't leave me alone. I leave you with our new pal, happily lunching in the damp.

M Cardinal sez: J'ai peut-ĂȘtre froid, mais je n'ai plus faim!


an impulse buy you can live with

The day is finally upon us: IKEA ("We Promoted Compact Fluorescents Before They Were Cool") now sells rechargeable batteries.

They're not even on the IKEA website yet, but they are called LADDA ("charge") and they look like the yellow alkaline ones, except they're (of course) green.

We hardly ever use batteries (so many things have chargers these days, and we now have a hand-cranked flashlight), but for the few instances in which we do, I decided to finally take this opportunity to make the switch. A pack that includes a charging unit, two AAAs and four AAs cost me $18. Not bad for never having to throw any away.

I felt so cutting-edge when I mentioned this to my dad and he hadn't noticed them in the store yet. He likes to keep everyone up on the latest IKEA developments. Well, you heard it here first!


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

more trash reduction: shampoo

In the aisles of my local bourgeois hippie food store, something seemingly out-of-place had been catching my eye amongst the shelves of natural and organic hair care products:

Shampoo in a bar? Wow, I thought. More power to the people who can use that, but they must be serious hippies.

Recently, though, we've been learning about the virtues of food with fewer ingredients (last night found us reading in bed, each with a different book by Michael Pollan), so I thought, why not bath and body products with fewer ingredients? I'm trying not to get caught up in the throng of paranoid young parents spurning everything ever made by Johnson & Johnson, but on other hand, it really couldn't hurt to cut down on the things I can't pronounce.

We've also really enjoyed buying food in bulk since we moved to a place where we can do so. I don't mean that we buy a ton of something at once; the store does, and we buy as much or as little as we need. It means we've stopped throwing out or recycling as many containers, because now we can bring a bottle or a jar or a bag from home and get sugar, flour, cereal, peanut butter, dry beans, honey, molasses or olive oil. So it's no surprise that I found myself looking at the almost-empty bottle of shampoo recently and wishing I could bring it back for a refill. No such luck this time.

Wait a minute, I thought. Maybe we are serious hippies. Maybe we should buy the hippie bar shampoo.

Hippie or no, we took the leap. Tossed the biodegradable wrapper in the recycling and gave it a go. You know what? It's just like any other shampoo. It's just in a bar. It's got five ingredients and it rates a 1 ("low hazard") in Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetics database.

My main concern had been that I have dry hair, and I was afraid this would dry out my hair the way soap sometimes dries out my skin. But so far, so good. I wash my hair every other day, and I haven't even needed to use conditioner.

J.R. Liggett's sells a "patented shampoo shelf" for twelve bucks on their website, but we've found that this works just as well.

Conclusion: regular people can use bar shampoo. It is possible. You might want to think about it the next time you're about to buy another plastic bottle.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

the tougher the bamboo, the sweeter the victory!

When we moved into the Small Red House back in July, we quickly learned that there were two types of bamboo. The nice type is called "clumping bamboo", because it grows in neat, orderly clumps, right where you wanted it. And then there's "running bamboo", which sends out tendrils underground that push up new shoots wherever they can. Naturally, that's the kind we inherited all over the yard.

As you can see, the bamboo had conquered the property. One couldn't see the street or the neighbors', and it was no accident that the patch in the picture above became a home for empty liquor bottles and fussing, defecating sparrows. A tenant's desire for privacy is understandable, I'll allow, but the bamboo had taken that inch and grabbed a mile. The Potomac-Anacostia basin may be a swamp, but we'd be damned if we let it remain a jungle.

Among the lessons of the past half-year has come intimate, inexplicable knowledge of the ways of running bamboo and its sworn enemies, the lopping shears and the mattock. Lopping shears can fell and trim, but only the mattock can rend greedy roots from the ground they have colonized.

So vast was the task that I found ways to break it into manageable chunks. First came the clearing of one garden bed in front of the house. (See before and after.) Then came the legitimate distractions: I'd be out with the mattock anyway, breaking clods within the garden frame, and I'd inevitably find myself in the corner of the backyard yanking up long yellow tentacles. The backyard still bears the brown, rutty scars of those battles.

Fast forward to this weekend. With spring on the horizon and a newfound consciousness as gardeners, we have become all too aware of our plot's disadvantageous lay: it slopes northward, it extends east-to-west, with the house shading one side or the other half the day, and the uphill neighbors' house blots out a good chunk of our southern exposure. Perhaps the only thing we can do to improve our latent garden's sunny chances, we realized, was to strip away the 8'-10' walls of bamboo that lined the southern, uphill fence. Somehow, without prior discussion, we tacitly agreed that yesterday was the appointed day. Maybe it was the 60-degree, mosquito-free weather. Maybe it was the homework that faced us inside. Whatever it was, the bamboo had to die.

After a couple hours, I had cleared the front fenceline and went to the back to thin the 20'-30' stalks around the swingset. Maria fetched some shears and trimmers from her folks' and hacked down the clump by the sidewalk (at which I had made a small dent over the preceding months). By sundown, our yard had doubled and our street opened its arms to our view.

My zeal was waning around the swingset, so I contented myself with clearing some holes to let the sun through and to give Khymi some more space to play. (Click here to compare.)

Besides the original bamboo-cum-leaf pile, the backyard now sported two new bamboo piles. One for the shorter ones from the front...

...and one for the giants in back.

(For scale, note that the garden bed is 4' x 8'!)

Anyone know a hungry panda?
Barring that, maybe we'll make some windchimes.

Mind you, we're under no illusions. Unless we pour Roundup (per Annie) or Essig-Essenz (per Jon Singer) down the stems, the roots will send up plenty new shoots in the spring. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the tale of Cadmus and the soldiers who sprang up from the ground. I suppose the modern analogue is the touting of bamboo as "renewable". But what's a renewable resource in one place is a doggone weed elsewhere. Whatever. We'll be ready for 'em!


little green babies...

Maria tells me I am a bad brother. Last weekend, while calling my brother, I noticed that the first tomato seed-leaves were poking up out of the planter. Like any first-time gardener, I couldn't contain my amazement and started shrieking about how we were having a baby! This naturally amazed and befuddled my poor brother, which amazement and befuddlement quickly turned to irritation when he realized I was talking about tomatoes. Apparently nightshades don't exactly put one in an avuncular state of mind.

But I've already gotten ahead of myself.

I've read and been told that first-time gardeners tend toward overeagerness: they plant too early, thin too little, water too much. Even with this warning, and for all our almanac-checking and calendar-comparing, we probably started our tomatoes and peppers too early. Ah well. What can I say: we wanted to stop reading and start planting already!

In order to save money and pursue the reduce-and-reuse-before-recycling ethic, we had some fun making our own planters out of toilet paper tubes. (The VERY VERY EASY process is documented on To spur germination, we made the seeds a greenhouse out of a translucent plastic bin we had lying around, which we covered with a translucent piece of plastic we cut from a bag. We sprayed in a little moisture and set it on a radiator in a window, et voilĂ ! the first tomato sprouts popped out in three days' time! So that the shoots wouldn't rot in the moisture, we moved the sprouted planters one by one off the radiator, into mini-greenhouses we made out of plastic milk jugs.

After two weeks, 3/4 of the tomato seeds sprouted - nine in all. Of the nine fish pepper seeds we planted, four have sprouted so far. We're still waiting on another trio of fish peppers and one of bell peppers.

Care for a tour?

The sprouting greenhouse:

The post-sprouting greenhouses:

Tomato seedlings in their tubes, in a milk jug greenhouse:

A fish pepper seedling in its own mini-greenhouse/planter: