Sunday, August 31, 2008

Goodbye, tree

Now I know that preparing the main garden bed is going to be hell. So many roots!

When I moved in, the backyard had a large tree, which meant there was almost nowhere with full sun. Not bad for sitting under, but not good for gardening. This created a dilemma: is the shade and carbon sequestration more important than fresh veg?

Our tree was, as a retired arborist described it, a weed tree. In about six years, it had grown to have a foot-thick trunk. Cutting it down would not mean the loss of a grand old maple or oak. And it would prevent some problems with overhanging branches in years to come. Plus there are still a couple large trees on the property.

It's not easy to figure out how much carbon a tree sequesters in a year. Somewhere between 20 and 40 pounds seems a reasonable estimate. This tree, however, has a very shallow root system, so in the long run, I suspect it would release a lot back into the atmosphere. And it wouldn't have a long life.

So, what might we save in carbon emissions? If we assume that my food consumption patterns are similar to those of an average U.S. resident, then 12 percent of my greenhouse gas emissions come from food. In other words, about 2 tons of GHGs are produced per year per household, just to ship food. The additional growing area could produce enough food for a person for a year, in theory, but I'm nowhere near being that confident in my gardening skills. But even if I can reduce food shipping by 5 percent, that's a tenth of a ton of GHGs cut from my share. Far more than the weedy tree would have sequestered.

Thus, a hot Labour Day weekend found my upstairs neighbour and I sweating away with shovel and axe. And once we've built the beds, we have all winter to plan companion plants and dream of fresh chard, tomatoes, beans, peas, maybe even corn and squash.

I should note that this is not a decision most tenants face. And it's one that should not be undertaken without careful consideration (and a check of municipal bylaws). But I rent half of a house, and landscaping is my responsibility under the terms of the lease. Also, this was not a valuable tree. I'm also in the unusual situation of having two good friends living upstairs, who also want to have a productive garden.

Oh, and getting the darn stump out took about four hours. I gained a new respect for trees, and my neighbours discovered the full richness of my vocabulary.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Essential bookshelf title

Homeowners have to tackle every repair by themselves (or hire someone to do it). One of the joys of being a tenant is that not ever repair is your responsibility. A leaky roof or crumbing wall is the landlord's to fix. But a lot of repairs can be done easily, and it can sometimes be more convenient or less stressful to just take care of them.

More importantly, a lot of repairs and maintenance issues are also important conservation measures. Whether it's fixing a leaky faucet, caulking around windows or installing a programmable thermostat, you are fully capable of doing it yourself and helping save energy, water and, if you pay utilities, money.

As a result, I always suggest that everyone should have at least one basic home repair manual. The one I've chosen to keep on my shelf is Do It Yourself: a step-by-step guide to fixing, building, and installing almost anything in your home. As with all such books, there's more than a renter will need, particularly for those who live in apartment buildings. But for those of us who rent houses, there are lots of minor repairs that need doing, and this book is the best general guide I've come across.

A very close second choice, in my opinion, is the Home Depot Home Improvement 1-2-3. It's a great book, but is American. As a result, the instructions do not take into account differences in Canadian building codes. The second edition had a section on Canadian code at the back, but that meant flipping back and forth. A new third edition is coming out soon, and we'll see if they've fixed this flaw.

To be fair, DIY is also a U.S. title. But the Canadian edition was adapted by celebrity handyman Jon Eakes. Knowing that he's gone over it carefully gives me extra confidence in its advice. It's not a perfect book, but I've found its instructions to be accurate and easy to follow.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fix the Drips

Water conservation is a bigger deal than most people realize. Municipal water systems use a huge amount of energy. Enough, in fact, that they can be a city's leading source of greenhouse gas emissions (from the electricity used to run the pumps, treat the water, etc.). With aging infrastructure that can result in a water system leaking away a tenth of its water or more.

Dripping faucets can be fixed easily, and doing so will cut down on water waste and save energy too. Replacing the washers and O-rings wo
n't take long and isn't difficult. Here's how to do it for the type of faucet found in most rental bathrooms.
Tools: For this repair you'll need an adjustable wrench, a flathead screwdriver and a #2 Phillips screwdriver.

Step 1: Look under the sink for a shutoff valve. Turn to the right to turn off the water. Do this before taking the faucet apart. If you don't have a valve there, you'll need to turn the water off in the basement or ask your building
dent for help.

Step 2: Remove the small plate on top of the faucet. Remove the screw underneath.

Step 3: Remove the faucet handle and you'll see the valve. Use your adjustable wrench to unscrew it, then lift it out.

Step 4: Use your flathead screwdriver to remove the screw from the bottom of the valve. Then remove the washer. While you have the valve off, it's a good idea to change the washer and any O-rings. If you're unsure of the size you need, bring them to the hardware store with you, or bring the whole valve assembly.

Step 5: Put the new O-rings on and screw the new washer into place. Screw the valve back in, screw the faucet handle on, replace the cap. Turn the water back on. Wash hands.

Congratulations, you have now made a very important repair. This will save you, or your landlord, money. It will save the city money. It will conserve both water and electricity (especially if it was a hot water faucet). And it'll mean an end to those nasty rust stains that have been building up in your sink during the months your faucet was dripping.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Carbon-Free Homes

Photo courtesy Stephen Hren

Stephen and Rebekah Hren live the environmentalist's dream: Their home is carbon-free. Well, pretty much. The North Carolina couple fixed up an old house with a goal of getting it off fossil fuels. It's an interesting project, and one I wrote an article about for today's Globe and Mail. They wrote their experiences up in The Carbon-Free Home, a new book from Chelsea Green.

Much of what they did to their house is the sort of stuff that only homeowners can do, such as adding lots of insulation. But lots is also tenant-friendly, such as sealing cracks. One of the best ideas they had is to keep an "energy diary." That is, you look up the amount of energy each appliance consumes (including everything from lights to air conditioners, blenders, stoves, etc.) and then track how long each is on.

Do this for a week or two and you'll quickly see where the most electricity goes, and where you can easily adjust your lifestyle to most effectively save energy.

The book, which I enjoyed reading, is a great resource. It combines their own experiences with information about energy consumption and includes lots of projects that they've completed on their own house, as well as some that they're looking forward to tackling.

What makes the book tenant-friendly is a handy table right up front that lists a selection of projects. The table is a way to jump into projects fast, and shows difficulty levels and the relative value in terms of savings. But it also identifies which ones are tenant-friendly.

As for the carbon-free thing, I remain unconvinced about its feasibility in northern climates. Off-grid houses, whether the Hren's in North Carolina, or Anthony Ketchum's cottage in Ontario, tend to have wood-burning stoves for heat. An argument can be made that wood is carbon-neutral if harvested sustainable (new trees suck carbon in as it's released by burning the older ones), but that's only applicable over the long term. Also, despite newer, more efficient, cleaner-burning stoves, wood smoke still contributes to problems such as smog.

That said, these houses are really worth looking at. They might not be a complete solution to the world's energy problems, but if every house were as efficient, climate change would be much less of a behemoth to tackle.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On Holiday

I know it's bad form to launch a blog and then go on holiday, but it's what I've done, all the same. After all, getting out of the city and into forests and fields is a healthy part of life, and a good way to remember some of the reasons why we try to live as non-invasively as possible.

Green Tenant will return next week with some handy tips on water conservation.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Gardening books for apartment dwellers

I've added a list of books that will be useful to renters. Today, you will find two new additions to the Green Tenant's Bookshelf. Both are gardening books.

The first is Food not Lawns. It's an urban gardening how-to guide and guerrilla gardener's manifesto. While it's not the best introductory gardening book, it offers suggestions that are really useful to apartment dwellers. In particular, it discusses vertical gardening (using window boxes, climbing vines and so forth) and devotes a good deal of space to the subject of finding a place to garden when you don't have a patch of dirt of your own (abandoned industrial sites, neglected municipal planters and so forth).

It also has a lot of gardening basics. It's not the best reference book for these, but it approaches the basics -- soil, water and so forth -- with a sincere, environmentalist approach and always with a DIY attitude. It also has a sense of humour, evident in the composting section, which includes a bevy of old "new age" recipes that involve, for example, stuffing some poor plant into a cow's horn and burying it in the ground over the winter. Most of the book, however, is earnest, and there aren't many gardening books that cater to the landless.

The other book really isn't for apartment-dwellers. Green Roof Plants is really better suited to people with expansive houses or commercial or industrial properties. It's a guide to creating low-maintenance green roofs. As such, it's probably best to check it out of the library to use as a one-time reference. Why? Because it's an excellent guide to the sort of drought-tolerant plants that will thrive in rooftop or balcony gardens.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A garden!

On June 1, I moved into my new apartment in Toronto. It's the lower two floors of a house. Thankfully, a couple of friends live in the upper apartment, making this place feel a lot more like home.

Needless to say, my project list is huge. But one of the first tasks was to plant a garden. Yes, the house comes with a yard, which means a place to grow flowers and, more importantly, veg! Soon, my son and I will be on the 100 yard diet, noshing on organic greens!

Okay, not quite. June is a little late for planting, even here, so the garden was my top priority (even before repainting the hideous, pinky-beige walls inside). I've gardened a bit before, and have a good stock of organic gardening books, thanks to a review I wrote for Green Living magazine over the winter. (See page 21 of the online edition.) Even with my little patch, the yard doesn't look great. But a few flowers do spruce the place up a bit.

Particularly inspired by How to Grow More Vegetables, I set my back into removing a two-foot deep pile of construction waste (clay, brick, bits of glass) and turning the soil for a 25-foot by 3-foot bed. The soil isn't great, so I added a little bit of black soil, a couple bags of sheep manure and some humus-rich material. I know this isn't all particularly green, but I was in a rush and, having just moved to the city, didn't have my compost heap going yet.

I put in four tomato plants, which as of late-July are well over three feet tall. Back in May, I picked up some mixed greens and rainbow chard at a farmer's market in Flesherton, Ontario, and I've also planted a hot pepper plant and lots of marigolds. My son and I had a pleasant afternoon planting carrots toward the end of June.

Today, the tomato plants are nearing four feet in heights, yielding well, and growing up the new fence our neighbour erected (photos soon). The rainbow chard is beautiful and delicious. The greens are peppery, and the carrots are coming along nicely.

Next year will see another bed of about 50 square feet added, and I'm almost looking forward to winter to begin the planting. Hopefully I can find the same source for the rainbow chard and salad greens seedlings next year. They've proven to be superb!

Introduction to Green Tenant

I like gardening. I like the environment. And I like taking on renovation and home improvement projects. But, as someone who rents his living space, I find that books and magazines generally don't suit my needs. They're written for homeowners. After all, those are the people with big disposable incomes, who are ready to splash out on stone countertops and expensive bulbs, aren't they?

This blog is for people like me -- people who rent their abode, but also want to live somewhere decent that hurts the earth as little as possible.The blog will become a repository for projects and ideas that tenants can take on. You can also expect the occasional book review or profile along the way. And I do hope that you'll share projects that have worked for you, and your experiences with any of the ones that end up on Green Tenant.