Earth Day: Gardening 101

23 Apr

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I decided to re-start the garden in my backyard this year, despite the fact that I haven’t got a clue how to actually do it. After much research and trial and error, I created my own unique course for the first time gardener, which, dear readers, I am going to share with you right here:

Gardening 101: A (Not Terribly Useful) Introductory Course for the Beginning Gardener

Step 1: Learn how to garden.

Step 1.a. Research gardening techniques and design

I took April’s advice and hit up the library for books on gardening. Of all the introductory gardening books I have read so Barbara Pleasant’s Starter Vegetable Gardens has been the most helpful. Although I haven’t been able to use any of her layouts the step by step directions and planning lists have been really useful. I would totally recommend it to a first time gardener. I’ve also gotten a lot of wisdom and advice from a number of my friends and neighbors, some of whom have had their own gardens at my house. Conveniently this leads me to my next step.


Step 1.b. Take inventory of existing resources

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of love has been put into this garden, but it’s been neglected for the past few years. I needed to take stock of what I had to work with before I could start. I started by weed whacking the hell out of the backyard to excavate the existing garden beds. Several extraordinary things happened during this stage. First, I learned how to use a weed whacker. Second, I discovered some kind of ancient drip irrigation/soaker system that had been lying in a tangled heap hidden by weeds for the past two years.


In that moment I felt a bit like Howard Carter uncovering the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Step 1.c. Begin planning

I had uncovered a bunch of garden beds, but I didn’t yet know which areas of my garden got full sun, partial sun, or shade. I got out a sketch book and colored pencils and made a little map of my backyard and sat on the porch to draw in the sunny areas at different parts of the day.

Let me tell you friends, I felt so organized and clever as I did this. Little did I know what was in store for me. I started to make my list of plants and planing where I would put them, based on their needs for space, sun, and water.


I also knew from talking to the other gardeners in my community that installing some kind of drip irrigation system to water efficiently was going to be key to gardening during a drought. I had a bunch of soaker hoses, but I had no idea how to set them up. What’s more, I could see that there were sections of the hose that were damaged, joints where the hose had broken off, and there was this weird valve thing that had rusted shut. I looked all over our shed for spare parts, directions or even a brand name that I could google. Nothing. This led me to step 1.d.

Step 1.d. Get completely and hopelessly overwhelmed

After over two hours messing with the %$@&-ing hoses I still had no idea how they worked or how to fix them. I also couldn’t decide what should go where in the garden. I had two choices at this point, either give up or….


Step 2. Screw it. Buy a bunch of stuff, stick it in the ground, and hope for the best.

Step 3. Make mistakes

After planting the majority of my plants in the blazing heat I looked at the weather forecast and was horrified to discover that it was predicting snow. Fortunately, it later changed to rain, but the low temperatures have hovered low enough for me to worry about a late season frost. I later found out that most people around here wait until after next weekend to put their plants in the ground.

Step 3.a. Hopefully learn from mistakes


So, apparently you should look at information about your area’s last frost date before putting plants in the ground?

Step 4. ???????

I don’t know, I haven’t gotten there yet.

Step 5. Success!




Earth Day: In the Cloud

22 Apr

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Yesterday I heard a story on NPR about cloud computing.  I’m a big fan of keeping documents on the cloud.  I use a lot of different computers and I like to be able to access my data from any of them.  I use Evernote, Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, Flickr and iCloud and that’s not including things like email, social media, and, yes, WordPress.  I knew about the security concerns of these services, but the NPR story was the first time that I heard anything about the environmental impact of cloud computing.

Searching the Planet to Find Power for the Cloud

If you don’t have time to listen to the four-minute story, the gist is that powering one cloud storage facility uses enough energy to power 57,000 homes.  They use millions of computer servers that all need to be constantly cooled by air conditioning.  Facebook actually has a data center near the Arctic Circle so that they can naturally cool their servers.  Apple, Box and Google run their clouds on renewable energies.

Greenpeace is one of the environmental organizations with initiatives to green the cloud.  Their Clean Our Cloud program spotlights companies using green technologies and lobbies for changes in those that don’t (they’re looking at you Microsoft,  Amazon, and, sadly, Pinterest).

After hearing the story, cloud computing seems pretty wasteful, but compared to the alternative it actually cuts energy consumption by up to 87%.  This makes sense when you take into consideration that, like buying in bulk, it’s often easier to streamline energy savings in a fewer large-scale operation rather than in numerous inefficient personal setups.

Many of the studies I found were commissioned by providers of cloud services, so they can only be trusted so far.  They’re trying to acquire cloud customers so these studies intend to negate the impact of data center energy consumption.  I wouldn’t put my money on the exact percentages they report, but the general principles are sound.  I think as wasteful as cloud services seem now, they will become more efficient and greener fairly quickly.  With just financial incentives, companies will be motivated to make more efficient data centers as time passes.  Even if environmental improvements are just a side effect of their cost-saving measures, the benefit still stands.  An article in Forbes also points out the impact that e-commerce in general has had on the environment, citing the rise of telecommuting, online purchasing and the decrease in brick and mortar stores and paper use as benefits of the move to the online economy.

I think that the move toward cloud-based services is a positive direction, but the implications of that still need to be studied and improved.  As  individuals, there isn’t much we can do to improve the efficiency of data centers.  I would suggest using companies that take advantage of renewable resources and demonstrate responsible environmental practices.  You can see a list of the good and bad companies as well as guides for calling them out on social media at Greenpeace’s Click Clean website.


Earth Day: Backyard Garden Adventure

22 Apr

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I adore my house. Ok, so I don’t technically own it, and I can’t take credit for many of it’s charms. I can thank a wonderful facilities team for things like the solar panels on the roof, the tankless water heater, the energy efficient appliances and the many other features that make my house a fantastic planet-friendly crib. Another reason to love my house is for it’s long glorious history, created by the people who lived here before me. It is from these previous occupants that we’ve gotten treasures and traditions like the house journal and the magnetic poetry on the fridge. (Ask Mara if you want to know the story of how Virginia came to live here.)


Unfortunately one house treasure that has been sadly neglected for the past few years is the garden. When I moved into the house, the backyard was occupied by an orderly little veggie patch. I started to hear little snippets of the garden’s history. How one occupant spent an entire weekend working a huge load of compost into the soil, how another turned the garden into a kale factory, and how the random set of mattress springs came to live here. Unfortunately though, I was never around during the summer, so I took very little interest in maintaining the veggie patch, and it slowly grew from neat rows of perfect beds into a backyard jungle of rocks and miscellaneous junk. The only thing that thrived in our backyard was a surly patch of mint, knee high grass, and a few plucky little poppies.


Until now.

I’ll be spending this summer here in Yosemite. (I’m secretly terrified that I’m going to melt in the heat but that’s another issue entirely.) I can finally, finally garden in the backyard.


Step One: Figure out how to garden.


P.S. That thing is called a shovel right? Oh, I am going to be so good at this!

P.P.S. Sorry this entry is a bit late. I’m going to try shirking at least some of the blame to April since I spent most of today prepping for her wedding.

Earth Day: Weekend Images

20 Apr

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Itsy Bitsy Spider
Spider at the Austin Botanical Garden

Happy Easter Everyone!


Earth Day: Go Celebrate!

19 Apr

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Since Earth Day falls on a Tuesday this year, lots of events are happening this weekend.  Tonight I’ll be rocking the part of the Lorax for Yosemite’s Earth Day Family Night. If Yosemite’s Earth Day Events are too long of a commute for you, April made a list of ways to celebrate last year. I’m sure a google search for “Earth Day events” with your location will turn up more opportunities.  Go do something awesome  and be on the lookout for greenwashing.

M Mead Quote 2_2_2


Earth Day: Foraged Food

18 Apr

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I’m going to start this post with the disclaimer that I approach wild edibles with a very healthy dose of caution. There are a number of plants that look like edibles that are, in fact, highly toxic. For example, in the Marin Headlands fennel grows like a weed. It has a lovely scent and a licorice like flavor, but it looks remarkably similar to hemlock that also grows everywhere and has the slightly problematic property of being used to kill uppity Greek philosophers. Know what you are doing, use a guide that teaches you how to recognize a poisonous look alike, and do not go all Into the Wild on me.


With that out of the way, foraging for food among the weeds growing around your house is a fun, if slightly challenging way, to go green. Eating hyper-local reduces your carbon footprint by cutting the miles and packaging between farm and plate, and it’s a fun way to get outside and become familiar with your natural surroundings.


I’m fortunate to have a patch of miner’s lettuce growing only a few feet from my front door. Miner’s lettuce is remarkably similar to spinach in both texture and flavor. Around here the miner’s lettuce grows a little on the small side. I’ve seen it grow three times larger in the Sierra Foothills. Even with my patch’s lilliputian size it took me only a few minutes to harvest enough for a salad, and there was still tons left in the ground. I load my salads with toppings so I tossed on some sliced tomato, sunflower seeds, crumbled goat cheese, olives, and a splash of balsamic vinegar.


Miner’s lettuce supposedly got it’s name during the California gold rush, when miner’s would eat it for it’s high vitamin C content. The added bonus of eating this foraged food? I am so not gonna get scurvy.


Earth Day: Go Camp

18 Apr

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Yesterday Robin called asking me to put up a post since she was heading into the wilderness. I quickly agreed to switch days since I’m heading out to camp today.  Of course I proceeded to immediately forget our pact as I gathered up my camp gear and then sat on the couch and watched a movie instead.

Our camping plans did remind me that this weekend is the start of National Parks Week. And on April 19 & 20 you’ll get free entry into the parks.

Join Robin and I in celebrating National Parks Week, getting outdoors and shirking obligations. You won’t regret it.


Earth Day: UGH!

16 Apr

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From the department of “You’re Totally Missing the Point” comes this gem:

Cinemark, a fine paragon of film, but not so much of environmentalism, delivered this to me as my weekly coupon today. Putting aside the fact that $2 off a bottle of water when there are water fountains in the lobby is considered a deal, offering a discount on bottled water for Earth Day is equivalent to free bacon on Passover.  Lots of stores will be running Earth Day promotions this year, but it’s important to judge whether or not they’re really earth friendly.  Is owning another reusable bag all that green when you already have 42 languishing in your back seat?  Probably not.  It’s fine to take advantage of deals that you’re going to use, but before you jump on an Earth Day deal, think about it for a second. That will certainly be longer than Cinemark considered this partnership.


P.S. This coupon is only good once so if you try and use it and it doesn’t work we’ll all know someone else missed the point.

Earth Day: Buying in Bulk

15 Apr

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I have a confession to make: It took me a long time to understand the appeal of buying in bulk. Buying in bulk conjured up memories of shopping with my family at whole sale stores as a child, where the food was highly processed, poor in quality, and didn’t necessarily scale down the packaging. Plus, I usually got sick of eating the food long before we made a dent in our supply of it. Even when I saw more appealing food being sold in bulk I still didn’t get it. If I was still pouring my bulk items into a bag to take home, I wasn’t reducing the amount of plastic packaging in the world, so why bother?

I’m too embarrassed to reveal exactly how long it was before I had this simple revelation that changed my whole outlook. What I finally realized was this: You can bring your own container to the store to buy bulk products. It’s glaringly obvious, but I admit that I felt a bit like Archimedes springing from the bathtub shouting “Eureka!” when I finally got it.


Now I buy a lot of stuff in bulk. I show up at the store armed with a variety of bags and reusable containers. The only hassle of buying in bulk is that you have to go to the register first to have them tare your containers. They weigh the containers, and when you pay they subtract that weight so you only pay for the actual weight of what you are buying.


I’m lucky to have a fantastic store near me that carries a lot of bulk items including soap, shampoos, and conditioners. You can also find a number of bulk items at Whole Foods. A simple google search for “bulk grocery” and your location will likely turn up a few options. And of course there’s an app for that.

I like buying in bulk simply because it reduces the amount of plastic packaging floating around in the world, but it can sometimes (not always) be a money saver as well.

Happy shopping!


Earth Day: Every Last Drop

14 Apr

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Arthur C Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  While this usually conjures up images of Google Glass, sophisticated AIs and (in my dreams) teleportation, sometimes I see an amazingly-designed website and think the same thing.  That’s the case for Every Last Drop, a UK website aimed at bringing awareness to water usage.  Not only is it informative, it’s also beautiful, and that makes it effective.  I’m not a coder by any means and so it’s probably not surprising I think this level of computer skill is magical.  I challenge anyone not to be a little impressed at the whimsy this site offers though.

Make sure you check out the website for the full effect, but for a little more info and some simple Earth Day water-saving tips, enjoy their video as well.

Every Last Drop – How to Save Water Film from Nice and Serious on Vimeo.



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