Friday, November 21, 2008

Vertical gardening

Gardening is frequently a problem for apartment-dwellers. They're often limited to a few pots on a balcony. And indoors, where space is often at a premium, devoted gardeners often end up with a clutter of pots near the windows or the door to the balcony.

One solution is to get a plant stand. There are lots of them. I used to have a simple, collapsible one from Lee Valley. Really, any sort of shelf that lets light through every layer will do.

But thumbing through Green Living magazine this morning, my son stumbled upon a photo of a product that really could be a useful solution for green-thumbed high-risers. It's the living wall kit from ELT Living Walls. I haven't tried one of these out yet, so can't offer a decent review, but I like the idea.

The kits include HDPE (sturdy plastic) planting cells, all the hoses and stuff you'll need for watering (using a drip irrigation system) and a cedar stand. It's slim, 22" wide by 6" deep, so it doesn't use up much floor space. What it does use is vertical space. The triple kit, pictured above, is 6'6".

As I see it, this is a great idea. There are two problems. One is price. The triple kit costs about $400 (the single kit, which is one-third the height, is just over $200). A handy and creative do-it-yourselfer could probably work out something similar for less money. But if you don't want that hassle, then the price is perhaps not unreasonable. Besides, most apartment folk don't have a workshop in which to build such a thing.

The other problem is an aesthetic one, and it's easily overcome. The product is unfinished cedar. Cedar is great, because it's highly resistant to mold, mildew and rot. But unless you've got a really rustic look to your place, it's unlikely to fit with your decor. I asked the manufacturer, and they said there's absolutely no reason why you can't stain or paint the wood. Cedar is a resiny wood, so you'll probably want to apply a sealer first. But then, picture how the unit would look with a glossy black finish to bring some leafiness to your goth pad, or a smooth, pure white for your urban minimalist look.

If anyone out there has used one, please let me know about your experiences.

The company also sells various components (handy for the DIY folk) and parts for much larger green walls. They're based in Brantford, Ontario, and they have a full catalogue online.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A film I really like

I knew the basement window was drafty. I just didn't realize how drafty it was.

It's an older aluminum casement window, of the type with two single panes of glass on either side with an air space in between. And both sides can open, making them easier to clean. But the frame around one of the outer panes is coming apart. To get through the winter, I applied a generous bead of clear exterior silicone. It helped a bit.

What really helped was the plastic film I applied to the interior. To apply it, one must first warm the window frame with a hair dryer. I hadn't noticed any major leaks, but when I turned the hair dryer on, I could see a cobweb inside the window moving. Not a good sign. And I'd noticed it was cold around the window.

The whole process of applying the film -- I used a ClimaShield kit from Canadian Tire, which cost about $4 -- takes about half an hour. This is because you have to let the double-side adhesive set on the warmed frame for 20 minutes before hanging the film. And the film is a bit unwieldy. For a more complicated job, I might want an extra set of hands. But I did this one on my own with no problems.

It worked like a charm. No more drafts, and I could immediately notice a temperature difference around the window. I have no doubt that, on this particular window, the film will easily pay for itself this winter (almost on cue, it started to snow just after I finished getting it on).

We'll see how it lasts as the winter progresses, but right now, all indications are that this product is very worthwhile, cost-efficient and a really easy way to conserve energy, save money, and make a house more comfortable. Oh, and in case you're wondering, when my son came in, I asked him to look at the window and he couldn't see the film at all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A nod to Salmon Poetry

I'm very happy. Today's mail brought my copy of Todd Swift's new poetry collection, Seaway. I've been looking forward to it for months, and can't wait to curl up with it this evening.

But what made me really happy was the discovery that its publisher, Salmon Poetry, sent it in re-used packaging. The padded envelope started its journey in Paris, France, likely carrying the manuscript of a hopeful poet. That brought the envelope to Ireland, and now the publisher sent it on to me, in Canada.

Publishers and booksellers get tons of envelopes and packages every year, and I'm always happy to see it being re-used. It's one of the reasons why I like Canadian booksellers McNally Robinson for online orders. I'm pleased that Salmon Poetry can be added to my list.

And best of all, the package contained poetry!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

More trash talk

First of all, I must commend the City of Toronto for its quick response. I left a message with one of the project communicators for the new garbage program, and she called me back within an hour. When I'm not calling from a major newspaper, that's a pretty fast response.

She explained the program and pricing very well and cleared up some of the concerns I raised in yesterday's post. But I'm still not convinced that the system is universally fair and that it doesn't discriminate against people who live in small multi-family buildings (that is, places with 2-8 apartments... the city has a different program for what it calls "multi-unit" dwellings, which are larger apartment blocks).

First, the garbage fee is not being applied to the water bill, it will be part of a new water and waste bill. Still a lousy deal for tenants who pay for all their utilities, but I recognize that a minority of people who live in apartments pay their water bills directly. Then again, isn't fair treatment of a minority one of those principles we're supposed to consider as a society?

Okay, so each building pays for garbage collection through its property taxes. Under the new system, each building will instead pay a garbage fee, based on the size of its container. That fee is given a $209 rebate annually. Why $209? Because it's the average amount paid for garbage collection in the city.

Where this breaks down, from my perspective, is that not all buildings are equal. Buildings with two or three apartments often have higher assessments and pay higher taxes. Which would mean that the tenants will, under the new system, end up paying for garbage collection twice. Once with the new fee and again because the $209 rebate won't fully offset the difference that they pay indirectly through property taxes.

Each building gets the $209 rebate once, no matter how many units there are, no matter how many families live there, no matter how many bins they have (you can have more bins, you just pay more).

The city encourages "bin sharing" to avoid extra fees. That's a good idea, and the reason why I'll be sharing the second-smallest bin with my neighbours. That bin will cost us $39/year after the rebate. But if I didn't have to share with my neighbours, I could use a bin half that size... no, I wouldn't pay half as much ($19.50), but instead would get a $10 rebate.

If I lived in the single-family house next door and generated the same amount of waste as I do now, I'd be getting a rebate. So would my neighbours.

So I have yet to get an explanation that really makes clear how this system is in the least bit a fair one. If one of the experts from the City of Toronto is reading, please do use the comments section to set me straight, if I've got this all wrong. I'd rather discover that I'm wrong than feel that the city isn't treating tenants in small buildings fairly.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How Toronto's new garbage plan discriminates against renters

On November 1, 2008, a new garbage collection system came into force in Toronto. It’s part of a noble plan to reduce the amount of material going to landfill. Unfortunately, its implementation has been clumsy, and the program is highly discriminatory toward people who rent apartments in small buildings.

The city is sending out new garbage bins to all the buildings it collects waste from at curbside. For a single-family dwelling, it’s a sensible program. Get a small bin and you get small rebate. Get a larger bin, and you pay an annual fee, presumably because you’re sending more material to landfill.

Unfortunately, the city is charging based on the amount per building, not per residence. So, if the two single-family houses next door each generate the equivalent of one bag of garbage per collection (the volume of the smallest bin), they each get a rebate on their water bill. However, I live in a two-unit building and we are allowed one bin for the building. As a result, if each apartment generates one bag per collection, we have to pay a fee. In other words, the city will be charging each residence in my building a fee while giving a rebate to other residences on the same street that generate the same amount of waste.

This is patently unfair, and clearly discriminatory toward multi-unit dwellings. And, it’s worth pointing out, multi-unit dwellings tend to be more energy efficient and generally better for the environment. The city should be rewarding multi-unit dwellers, not punishing them.

But there’s one other problem with the new program. The rebates or charges are applied to the building’s water bill, not the property tax bill. Traditionally, charges relating to solid waste management are part of property taxes. In Canada, property taxes are usually paid by the landlord. Utility bills, on the other hand, are often paid directly by tenants. Shifting the cost of garbage collection to a utility bill means that, in many cases, it will be shifted to a cost borne directly by the tenants. And that amounts to a rent hike in addition to any allowable annual rent increase a landlord may charge.

That, and it’s a little hard to understand what garbage collection has to do with water and sewage.

Green Tenant will be seeking answers from city officials. Don’t turn to the pink tag line for help, as it’s just a call centre and has no answers. Do call them (416-392-2467) if you haven’t received a bin or pink collection tags, but be prepared for a very long wait. I was on hold for more than 30 minutes this morning.

Monday, November 3, 2008

How long is a tap root?

Most people hate weeding. Me, I kind of like it. Sure, it's repetitive and you spend a lot of time hunched over. But it's also meditative work, and can add a lot of good stuff to your compost (assuming your composter is hot enough to kill off weed seeds).

As I was turning soil to make new beds this autumn, I pulled up many huge weeds. I got to know which plants have shallow roots, deep roots, rhyzomes and tap roots. And some of them were impressive. Just look at the picture above of some grass that came up when I loosened the soil. Those roots just go on forever! For scale, the plant is on a 2x6 plank.