The Future is Insight

The title of this blog works on many levels- it plays off of my belief in hybrids being a critical step towards our future, the fact that introspection and mindful planning are critical to our future, and that the future is literally in sight for those that are willing to see it. Here I chronicle my attempt to Be the Change I wish to see in the world-and to help make that Future a Reality.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Act Local

Some may have seen it as inevitable, but I am still pretty stoked about it. This past Monday I was sworn in as one of 5 members of our village's Green Committee. We advise the village board on, well, All Things Green. We recommend standards for landscaping, ways to improve water quality, and most importantly given our explosive growth (500% in the next 10 years)-mitigating the environmental impact of our Village.

In addition to working closely with NGO's like the Rock River Coalition (the Rock is 2 miles from our village center), we are also setting standards for the developers that seek to cash in on our prime realestate. Over the next year we will be looking to enact a variety of statues to put us into company of such progressive municipalities as Madison, WI and Chicago. For starters we are considering mandating that all new developments have engineered or natural Rain Gardens in place under every downspout to limit runoff, encouraging the use of native plantings in detention basins, and including packages with the land rights to protect greenspace in eco sensitive areas near the new developments.

If you come across any ideas that you think could help my budding village of 1200 souls stay green please let me know!

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Be the Change: Going Carbon Nuetral

I have several Favorite Quotes-of late I have been focusing on 2 that I will paraphrase here:

"He who would be a man, must needs be a non-conformist"
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Be the change you want to see in the world"
-Mahatma Gandhi

I use both to guide my life, most evidenced by my gardening and car choices. Now, we are applying Gandhi's a step further and trying to go Carbon Nuetral. Even though I drive a hybrid and am a budding "hyper-miler" (those that strive to push the mileage limit-sometimes over their own good sense) we still drive ALOT as a family-upwards of 30,000 miles annually with family time zones away. Also, we aren't off grid yet so even all the compact flourescents and high effeceincy appliances (my washer uses under $8/yr in electricity) will never make us zero emmisions. I do want to say we are doing better-about 30-50% lower carbon than the 'average American family'. Mia is really driving us to reduce our ecological footprint-she is thinking Global on this-I am thinking Local (this is why we get along so well!): while I am out planting trees, she is researching the purchase of energy credits for our family. Energy Credits are a contentious issue-but we prefer to side step the debate and side with organizations Fighting the Good Fight-basically grass roots funding for Green Energy.

After a feverish weekend of research, Mia settled on 2 choices. We are now offsetting the emmisions of our driving with NativeEnergies Cool Driver program with a monthly subscription. There are several energy credit options out there, but Native Energy appears to be the best package and is backed by many companies we hold in high esteem and whose judgement we trust (Ben & Jerry's, Stoneyfield Farms, and Cliff Bar). Also we are signed up with Whole Food's Renewable Choice Energy to offset our household energy. All told it comes to under $5/wk and we rounded up so we are probably 'offsetting' some of our neighbor's too. Our utility does offer green energy choices, but it would kick us off the budget plan which we love. This also gets our money to 100% green organizations-no nukes, natural gas, or coal.

Be the Change!!

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Stories that define us

So-its Earth Day-that is becoming more of a Big Deal to us than it used to be years ago. In the effort to make it a real holiday we are beginning to form some traditions. This is now our second annual Earth Day Dinner-hosting this year one other couple for a homemade meal of locally produced food from the recently (for the season) opened farmers market in Madison. Mia made a wonderful 'country pie' of vegetables and a pan of roasted root vegetables (not much in season in April this far north!) that was fantastic. Our friends have children very similar in ages (4 and under) and we enjoyed watching and playing matchmaker between our son and their daughter.

As dinner wound down we were discussing preparing kids to handle the trials of adolescence and that inevitably led to us sharing the foibles of our youth-the stories that have built us into who we are today. We all have some whoppers-those stories that for a variety of reasons we choose to tell to define particular elements of who we are. Like the time I went to the Grand Canyon with my college buddies on spring break to throw a toilet into it (we chickened out at the $50k fines and instead threw it off MT Elgin in Flagstaff-no worries I made everyone pick up the pieces and 'back out what we packed in') or the time I walked 41 miles to work round trip for no good reason. I guess I like those stories because they remind me of the fact that I am, and always have been, a little crazy and that I am proud of that.

Back when I was in Retail Management I would sit my graduating seniors down every summer before they went off to college and give them one of my soap box speeches. They were instructed on the typical stuff-don't drink more than you study; don't date anyone seriously the first semester, but I would always finish with the admonishment to Make Stories. This was the time in their life when they would experience an unprecedented, and often unrepeatable, level of freedom- this was their chance to begin to write their own tale-the legend that begins when they leave the village and make their way in the world. The stories that they may be telling for years to come.

These days I throw a lot less toilets off things, but I am still writing stories (less figuratively right now I guess!)-about worm bins, sod piles, hybrid journeys and dinners with friends so close they are becoming family. The Stories that define me.

Happy Earth Day everyone!

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Progress! Worm Bin and the 'Back 40'

Just a quick catch up-even though I have strayed from the gardening theme I have by no means neglected them.

The worm bin is done! With the ability to hold over a cu yard of worm habitat I am looking forward to some serious compost by summers end. 2#'s of worms arrived from a slightly distressed UPS driver last week and in they went along with 10 gallons of coffee grounds and about a gallon of our household waste. The block was cheap, but I spent some coin on the lid to match our deck and fence-cedar. With the goal being an unobtrusive box to fit in with our middle class subdivision I felt it was warranted. It seems to have worked: my in laws were here all weekend and we spent all Saturday outside and my mother in law never even noticed the bin. Just the thing to keep under the radar of the neighbors! A few comments on the pic-the rocks in the foreground were all dug out of the whole (I love our 'dirt'!) and the rubbermaid in the background is our old bin-this one is a teensy bit bigger! Within a month I will have the ground around it prepared for a native woodland planting to mask it even further.

The Back 40. Now I know I don't really have 40 acres, let alone enough to need to differentiate between my pastures, but in my delusions I refer to our back 20' this way. Most of our backyard gently slopes down to a swale that drains the hill our subdivision is on, but the last 20' slopes up to the D.O.T fence providing a nice, albeit small, buffer to the freeway. I have had plans for this section sense we moved in-with the goals of 1)blocking the freeway from sight 2) reducing maintenance (no mowing!) 3) Be easy on the eyes as it commands the view from the house. Last summer I planted over 400 sunflowers to meet those goals. It failed miserably due to the utter lack of attention I spent on site prep-plus I would need to replant it yearly. So this year-much like the worm bin- I am Going Big. 25 Green Giant Thuja's from the Botany Shop are on the way the first week in May. I will be planting them on a zig-zag across the full back lot line and within 3 years I should have a nice wind/sight break. While evergreens are better than Big Rigs to look at-I can do better, and I would still have to mow. Time to refer to my permaculture texts. I will be guilding this stretch (about 1500 sq ft) to be self sufficient with a mix of n-fixing shrubs (Goumi) and herbs (native Lupine and Clover) with some nutrient accumulators (Yarrow) and a whole mess of insect attractors (butterfly weed, indigo, coneflower, etc) and some biomass plants (Big BlueStem and Switchgrass). Everything but the shrubs will be as a cover crop seed mix I will be mixing up in 2 weeks. Here is a pic of what I am going for in the 'feel' of the cover crop-though it will take severl years to get that good.

But I still need to get the site prepped-the sod is to thick right now. The initial thought was to sheet mulch it, but finding 10 cu yards of manure proved difficult so I am opting to sweat it out-stripping the sod, and then turning the soil to loosen it up. This is a Big Job-1500 sq feet by hand is not to be taken lightly (300' killed me last year, but I have better tools and technigue now), but I have 2 weeks so unless my muscles shut down, or we get some crazy rain I should make it. Here is a shot of today's progress-about 100 sq feet de- sodded and 70 or so turned. Once the sod is up the soil is in great shape-great tilth and lots of worms and bugs. Excellent! Also notice the starting of the swale that I am linking the bottom end of the planting with-this is to hold as much moisture as possible as in 1500 sq feet I will have over 35 trees counting the sycamores and maples I put in last year. The progress went well, but I have a long way to go... The perspective is off in the pic-but from the broken ground on the right to the fence in background is 100'. Ouch. One unexpected problem is what to do with the sod. As it is littered with quack grass I will not be reusing it. Last year I composted the sod as I went-but now I just deep sixed 2 of my bins to make room for the worms and just this 100 sq ft was a cu yard of sod. My worms have better things to eat so for now I am just piling it in a corner of the yard (Mia is not thrilled). It will compost there and I will aggresively compost in the remaining pile while using some for bedding for the verm. At this rate (about 10 cu yards by projects end!!!) I will have plenty of compost for next year!

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

I guess old habits die hard. I have posted before about my 'tinkerer' tendencies. The fact that I take perfectly fine things and modify them in ways that may or may not actually improve the item. I have applied this to every car I have ever owned from my 77 Chevy Blazer to my 2003 Evo 8. No one who knows me really thought that I wouldn't modify my Insight. But where to start? Though people have done it before- I have zero interest in adding a turbo-the Insight is not about fast. I had planned on attacking friction with a passion-swapping every fluid down to the axle grease with super slippery synthetics-race car tricks applied to increase mpg not mph. I had even started dreaming about dropping in the IMA (integrated motor assist) drivetrain from the '06 Civic into the Insight when it dies as it is about 2-3x more powerful and should be able to push my tiny Insight into the 80mpg range no sweat. I fully understand-actually I have very little idea!- that this would be difficult in the extreme.

Then I read an article about California Cars and their fantastic prototype that drastically increases the battery storage of the Prius-giving it the ability to run on pure electric for dozens of miles. And also the ability for it to be plugged in at night to charge. Basically the beauty of the EV1 with unlimited range thanks to keeping the gas motor. They are seeing 130+ miles per 'gallon'. Granted this isn't factoring in the KWH's that they put in from the grid, but any coal plant produces electricity far cleaner than any car-even a near zero emission Prius. I applaud there efforts-especially as when I get to our Someday house we will have 'green' power from solar and wind. But the Insight's efficiencies are from its light weight and aerodynamics allowing it to run a very small gas motor (1000cc, 3 cylinder) and the system nevers runs on pure electric-and can't so the Cal Cars option is Prius only. Plus at $10-15k it is way out of my price range.

Then I stumbled onto numerous references to M-IMA on some of the hybrid sights. Some rsch led me to 99mpg and a brilliant little device that solves a problem with the Insight and allows you to get 100+mpg consistently. No I am not kidding! The current IMA will only kick in the electric motor when the gas motor is struggling-like when you are climbing a hill or accelerating. The kicker is that you can be cruising along getting say 100mpg on the ral time mileage meter, and hit a slight incline. On the stock car you apply more gas like a normal car and you gain speed-but your mileage drops to a (GASP!) 45mpg until you back off the throttle. Often the electric motor never kicks in at all. The mIMA allows you to manually engage the electric motor and using it to push you up that hill instead-keeping you at 100+ mpg the hole time. Brilliant!!

The mIMA is a total custom job with less than 50 in use right now, but the price is right (about $675) and it doesn't mess with any major system so it should be very reliable. To say I am stoked is putting it mildly. The founder of 99mpg will be in Madison in July-will he be installing a mIMA in the Pod? Is getting 850 miles on 9 gallons worth it to me? Only time will tell!

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Wicked Good Pancakes

One of the more endeering weekend rituals that we have developed here in the Beo/Mia household is that the kids and I usually make pancakes on Sunday Mornings. Several years ago these were from a box, then last year they were from scratch from the Betty Crocker Cookbook, but now I have enough confidence that I just whip them up to my fancy. Betty uses too much oil, and God only knows what Bisquick uses so I made my own 'recipe'. It is heavy on the whole grains, but still light and can be made Fat Free. Either way is super easy to be 100% organic.

In a medium sized bowl add:

1 Egg
3/4 Cup Milk
1/4 strawberry yogurt

Whisk vigorously then add:

1/2 cup Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour
1/2 cup Unbleached White Flour
1 Tbsp Wheat Germ
1/8 cup Ground Flax Seed
1 Tsp Baking Powder
1 Tbsp Honey

Mix well with a spoon of some sort and ladle them onto a well greased ( 2 tsp Olive Oil) hot griddle (should sputter when water is dripped on it).

This makes about 8 1/4 cup pancakes. For the kids I use lowfat yogurt and milk to give them some healthy fats for healthy brains, for Mia and I - I use skim milk, fat free yogurt, and 2 egg whites if I am feeling particularly low cal. To truly hit Fat Free, you will need to pull the flax meal and substitute more w. wheat flour, but those Omega 3's are worth it for me. Product Plug with Pride: we use Organic Valley, well everything, because after touring their facility and meeting much of their staff they have proved themselves to be the Real Deal. They Care-not just about making shockingly good dairy products-but about helping farmers, families and the Earth live better more sustainable lives and plug thousands of dollars into our local economy annually thru grants and fair prices to our local organic farmers. The extra $1 per dozen eggs is a charitable contribution in our book. Stoneyfield Farms makes the best yogurt hands down organic low fat, and 100% natural light yogurt-no chem-class sweeteners- if you were to chemically analyze them, are kids are about 20% Stoneyfield's farm yogurt.

I prefer thick pancakes, and these will rise to about 3/8-1/2"-add more milk if you want them thinner. These are a sweet pancake that don't need much syrup or jelly. To include the kids my 4 year old has now graduated to stirring while my 2 year old adds the dry goods that I have measured. Messy? Heck Yeah! But good, good fun!


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Sunday, April 09, 2006

90 mpg!!!!!

I finally did it-I broke the 90 mpg barrier this week on the commute home! Taking a different route home, with a tail wind and favorable traffic allowing me to draft at 60mpg on the state highway I earned myself High Honors with a 90.1 over 15 miles. With a few stops thru town including an errand I still ecked out a 82.6 over 27 miles. This in a 4 star safety rated car with another 40,000 left on the warranty!

The Future is Insight!

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Verm: too legit to quit.

The weather is finally starting to turn here in SE Wisconsin. Even though we took a hard frost last night (23 degrees) it was sunny and 50 today and will continue to have sun and rising temps for the next 2-3 days hopefully brushing 70 for the first time. Over the past week I have been a busy little bee. My '3 Sisters Bed' that got annihilated by the June rains last year has pulled a feather from the Phoenix and come back in all new plumage. I was able to surround the entire bed with stone, and I had enough compost left from last year to fill it almost perfectly full with a thick 3-6" layer of humus and 75% finished compost. Unfortunately that last 25% was halloween's pumpkins so I may have hundreds of pumpkin plants this year. Patience is a virtue I could use some more of.

As we got glimpses of the sun last week I dusted off my hoe and pulled some packets out of seed drawer. About 10 days ago I dropped in about 3 row feet of radishes and another 17 feet of spinach. The radishes were just poking their heads up when the frost hit. Cross your fingers! I had wanted to get my peas in but my farm supply store was out of innoculant and I needed to wait a week. With innoculant in hand in went the peas. I got more than a little silly with the peas this year. Over the past 3 months I have grown quite fond of sweet peas on my diet so I planted more than is perhaps wise. I lost count on the third row but given that I have have over 65 row feet of peas I think I have 180 or so plants in the ground. That's alot of peas!
In my planting fervor I dropped in 2 packets of lettuce along the edges. I really should have gone back in to check my books or planting calendar as its about 2-3 weeks early for the lettuce. Worse case I loose $3.50 in seed-best case I have fresh greens in early May without a cold frame.

So with all this warm weather coming in this weekend I am itching to keep going strong on my garden project but all the spring crops are in. Time for the worm bin! With all the other projects going on last year I had opted to install the quick and dirty compost bin-a very functional 3 bin setup, each bin 4x4x3. It was also butt ugly-chicken wire ziptied to 48" green metal stakes. The chicken wire quickly rusted and with no wood frame it was not too easy on the eyes. Now that things are settling down I am looking to spruce things up some. The winter we moved in I had tried my hand at vermiculture with a small worm bin in the basement. I hacked up an 18 gallon rubbermaid and put about 1000 red worms in it with some coir bedding. They were very happy to live there all winter and ate about a pound of scraps a week-more once I got them outside in warmer temps. Verdict? The vermicompost was legit-great texture, earthy smell, and our roses loved it. But the small setup was very limiting-it didn't come close to handling the food scraps of our family, and harvesting the compost was tedious as I had to literally sift out the worms by hand on my front driveway. That got me some weird looks from the neighbors. Plus wormsbins end up forming the own eco systems which is really cool. Unless it is in your basement-it would be more accurate to call them microorganism bins. Seemingly out of thin air mites, centipededs, and flies arrive in the bins. The mites aren't so bad but the fly's in the house were no fun. So I let that worm bin phase itself out.

However, I still am in love with the idea of vermiculutre-you just tuck the scraps in and the worms do all the work leaving me more time to plant, build beds or hang out with my family. Or in Permaculture speak-minimize the inputs while maximizing outputs. It was time to Go Big or Go Home. Tomorrow I will begin digging out a 4'x8' hole to partially bury the 30 sq ft bin that I will be building this week. The plan calls for a bin large enough for me to start the worms feeding on one side and then gradually moving where I add new scraps across the bin. The worms will follow the fresh food as they process the old, leaving behind finished compost allowing me to shovel it out at my leisure. Given that a bin this size will hold 100's of thousands of worms-if several hundred get forked out while still munching on the old compost it is no big deal. Also the bin needs to be this large for winterizing. By partially burying the bin, I will have some frost protection, but I also plan to add a 5 gallon bucket of water with a bird bath heater in it for the winter. The Worm Woman (Mary Applehoff) says this is enough to keep them alive through a winter-and that chic knows worms. Even better a bin this size should easily handle all the scraps from my family-and may even be able to process the 20 gallons of coffee grounds I get weekly from our coffee shop which would be sweet.

Now for the biggest change though it is still brewing in my brain. Toby Hemmenway of Gaia's Garden and Masanoba Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution both make strong cases against the traditional compost pile, especially if you are moving to no till gardening. Don't get me wrong composting is uber cool-but there are 'better' ways from certain points of view. Without tilling the soil I will be allowing my cover crops compost in place. This keeps all those necessary little critters in the garden where I want them, and I am not messing with my soil strata. The fact that I won't spend a week every spring, summer and fall (I plant each bed three times) turning the gardens is another boost. That is more time for my family, social activism, or just hanging out. I guess the long and short of it is that I would like to be able to (GASP!) begin phasing our my compost pile. The Worm Bin of the size I am considering will hold almost 2 cubic yards of compost. I am not sure I can completely let the 'manure pile' go, but I am definitely going in that direction.

Stay tuned for pictures of this work in progress. Other items on the docket for this month will be the 'back 40'-planting a wind/sight break along the freeway and then guilding it with enough n-fixers, biomass, and nutrient gathering plants to make it self sufficent. I want to throw in another element and include as many native plants as possible. This will be a Big Project as it covers over 1200 sq feet and the 25 trees (little ones about 2' high) arrive the first week in May! What was that I said about taking it slower this year?

Time to get digging!

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Slow Food

I am not a card carrying member of this Slow Food movement, but from what I have seen the idea is great. Buy foods that are in season, locally produced and ensure that it is prepared wholesomely. Big Fan.

When I sold my Evo, the automotive antipathy of the Slow Food movement, and purchased my Insight I knew that some things would be changing. One of the first was that I took up bread baking. I have a history of putting function over form-and my culinary exploits are no exception. Last fall I had dabbled in bread baking again, but I was working under the assumption that I could indeed create a bread that you could live on alone-so they were rock hard and incredibly dense. Other than using 100% whole wheat flour, my biggest problem seemed to be, in hindsight, that I was trying to cram in the full recommended amounts of flour, but I digress.

My Father has made bread by hand for years, and it is the lightest, fullest bread you will ever taste. Over the years he has accumulated a fair library on bread making and in Feburary my Mother recommended that I read Bread Alone and lent me Dad's copy. This book struck cords that resonated deep within me. Author Daniel Leader was a successful chef in New York, but as his acclaim grew he got further and further from what he really wanted to do, which was to make good wholesome food. In a trip to Europe he had ended up in a French bakery and the result of the time he spent there was for him to quit the chef gig, and set himself up as a baker in rural New York making bread's the Old time honored way-waking up in the middle of the night, using organic grains, and wood fired ovens. I made his 'practice bread' the day after reading his book. Talk about slow food? This bread took 10 hours! Most of the time it is sitting in the corner patiently rising, but still it forces you home for the day. Other than the unbelievable taste, this single trait maybe the reason we have been eating my bread almost exclusively. My son loves to help me knead: he is my 'whoosher' throwing some flour under the dough as I knead, and my daughter is growing in competence at adding flour as I stir. They are covered from head to toe in flour when we're done-but its worth it to have spent a real 3o minutes together as a family with nothing plugged in.

After the practice loaf-I made the sourdough. This may be the slowest food of all as the first loaf took a week. First I had to Stalk the Wild Yeast-having made bread on and off for several months, I had inadvertently impregnated the air with yeast spores that had gone Rogue and it was time to recapture them. I was incredulous... Put some flour and water in a bowl and let it sit for 3 days and I will have yeast? Sounded like a recipe for mold, but I did it and sure enough each day as I added more flour the chef was changing and by Day 3 it has a distinct sour tang to it. Success! But the baking was still two days off. I had to make the levain -the starter which would take another day. When it was done the loaves were fantastic-and it was unbelievably simple. Not the process, which is intimidating at first glance, but the ingredients: flour, water and salt. That's it. No fat, no eggs, no anything. Glorious! This recipe has been in use in France for at least 300 years-that connection with history is so important and a valuable tool in battling the hubris of our modern society. I have since tried to apply my inner calling to modify and improve on anything I touch. Results? The new boulanger motto in our house is don't f#$% with the sour dough-it is perfect as is.

As we have been dieting of late and paying more attention to what we are eating, my wife has made a subtle shift in our shopping-she has begun to place much more emphasis on where our food is coming from. This has many roots, probably started with us working a CSA in 2004 and reaching fruition in environmental impact of what it takes for us to eat strawberries in December. How far has that berry traveled? What did they have to do to it to get it to stand up traveling across two hemispheres? The most immediate effect of this shift is that we are eating vegetables we had not before-like Kale. I ama vegetarian, and I love to garden, but I have trouble with leaves that aren't lettuce. Even Spinach. I am working on that, but this Kale was out there in my book. But our local(ish) choices are limited in March in WI. So we are eating a lot of winter crops-potatoes, onions, Kale, etc. We had a wonderful Culcannon stew, dubbed Kulcannon stew by Kaleigha of the weight watchers veggie board as she makes it with Kale. Wholesome, filling, nourishing, and good enough that my finicky 4 yr old finished his bowl and my more adventurous 2 yr old had 2nds. Good Food. Good Environment. Healthy Family.
Big Fan.

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Natural Drain Cleaner

This will not be my most glorious post, but it fits in well and in the long run will have a significant impact on our sustainability. This post starts with the clogged drain in our master bath. I had been watching it slow for a week or so, and over this weekend it began backing up. Neither my wife or I was too keen on going out and purchasing some Drano-all those heavy metals going into the water stream aren't something we undertake lightly, but the drain was getting nasty. We use Seventh Generation and other eco-friendly, less toxic cleaners, but nothing like drain cleaner. Luckily a friend had given us a copy of Clean and Green so I looked up natural alternatives. The solution seemed too easy-chuck some baking soda down the drain, let it sit for a few minutes, and then wash it down with some vinegar. I had my doubts, but as they used a reference to Mt Vesuvius in the book's description I was willing to give it a try on the merits of the obscure historical reference alone. Down went the soda, it chunked up in the water so I had to cram it in-it was difficult to get past the stopper. Then a liter of vinegar. I don't know about creating a volcano, but the effervescence was encouraging. It took about 15 minutes, but by the end I had the drain working again, but it will take some retreatments to get it done right. Still I am very encouraged that $1 worth of all natural ingredients got the job done with virtually zero impact on the environment. I am now a believer in natural cleaning products. Will be tackling a natural 'soft scrubber' next for the kitchen sink. I will provide a report!

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Monday, April 03, 2006

Seed Starting: Start Smart!

Several of my friends at work and online have been inquiring about the esoteric secrets of seed starting so I figured a timely post was in order. Like many things in our modern lives this is a very simple task-though as much Art as Science which is how it should be. Last year was the first year that I started my own seeds and overall I had good success-but others can certainly avoid some of the pitfalls I did. The reason that I started my own were primarily due to the kind, and size, of gardens I wanted to grow. Firstly-as I wanted to grow organic food gardens I wanted to ensure that my plants were not GMO's, and also my soil makeup would be very different than the typical factory greenhouse and I wanted to have as little transplant shock as possible. Finally I wanted to grow heirloom and native varieties-and Menard's will not be selling those in their garden center-plus given that I wanted to plant over one thousand sq feet of garden, even when I could find native transplants-the cost was prohibitive. So I started my own. Here's some of learnings and a brief How To:

1) Use sterile planting mix (It MUST say sterilized on the bag) and sterilize you seedstarting containers if you have used them before. If not there will be a fungal disease in there that will cause your seemingly healthy seedlings to fall over and wither before their first true leaves. This is utterly demoralizing-so sterilize!
2) Use good seed. I use Seed Savers as they are not GMO's, and have amazing variety. Also if you are just starting don't try to do crazy tropical flowers-stick with tomatoes, peppers, etc. They have almost 100% germination rates and are very easy to grow.
3) Get your timing down. Check out a gardening book or look online to see when to start for your zone. Then call your local DNR County Extension for theLast Frost Date (LFD) for your area. This will allow you to start seeds exactly when you need them and to transplant with confidence.
3) Light and Water. If you have more money than patience you can buy heating pads, motorized lighting racks and automatic waterers-you might get better seedlings, but you will certainly spend alot of coin. I start seeds to save money so I bought some trays from the hardware store ($4) , filled them with sterile Jiffy Mix ($3), and put them in a south facing window. As long as they get Sun/Light for 6-14 hours a day at room temperature the regular garden plants will do fine-if you ar growing tropical annuals it may be different. Water-I water the tray and let the peat soak it up. This encourages the plants to drop roots fast, and helps prevent mold and fungus on the seedlings. The mix should never be sopping wet, and I let it get slightly dry-but only on the surface- in between waterings. Never let the peat completely dry out! Also, if you are using a window rotate the tray every day to keep the plants straightish.
4) Right Size your pots. I try to minimize transplanting as it damages the critical roots, so I start my Big Plants in Big Pots. My tomatoes and melons get quart pots, peppers pints, and only the broccoli get a regular tray-mostly due to space constraints (70 quart pots won't fit in the living room!). This means I spend another $3 on mix, but I get great root structure when they hit the garden. To put the Re-Use in your 3 R's use Yogurt, margarine, or cottage cheese quarts (Stonyfield's look great!)-just sterilize them with a 10:1 bleach or the dishwasher and poke some holes in the bottom. They are even tapered for easy transplanting!
5) Fertilizer. If you read much on seed starting you will get inundated with how to give them a nitrogen fix every other week or so. I say balderdash. Any good mix will have plenty of minerals and nitrogen to keep your seedlings going for 2 months, sure adding nitrogen will get you huge green leaf growth and they will look great- but that growth will quickly outpace the roots and it is the roots that you are trying to grow. Plus addicting your seedlings to nitrogen this early dooms your organic garden-get the plants used to growing on a balanced diet now. However, make sure you garden is ready for them with a good bunch of nitrogen-compost is fine-when you transplant them to help ease the shock.
6) Hardening off. When the time comes (reference the timing for each plant) start easing them out. Your seedlings have never felt a puff of wind and the temperature has never changed more than a degree or two. The Real World will literally do them in without your help! I have a south facing garage, so I put them in the garage for an hour or two with the door open to protect them from the wind. Then I gradually increase their exposure until they are strong enough to survive the relative trials of the garden. This is more Art than Science-listen to your plants, they will tell you when they are ready. Don't rush them!

Now earlier I stressed starting with easy seeds-what I meant was easy species-tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, zucchini, etc. And I stand by that , but I encourage you to get very adventurous with your cultivars. Seed Savers has literaly thousands of varieties. If Big Boy's are all you have ever had-Look Out!!!! Last year I grew purple Dragon Carrots-they blew me away with their multi layered flavor: sharp almost like a radish and then a sweet finish utterly unlike any carrot I had ever tried. Plus my kids loved how silly a purple carrot was and ate them as fast as I could pick them. Most of us grow gardens for the flavor and to connect us to the land-heirlooms do both fantastically and add an element of history that take it to another level. I love Russian history-so now I can grow Russian watermelons and tomato varieties that came over with their immigrants. Growing a multitude of varieties of each species will diversify your garden with all the benefits it gives your stock portfolio-you are better able to capitalize on unforeseen trends, and are better protected from unexpected pitfalls.

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