Thursday, December 10, 2009

Folding bike for urban apartment-dwellers

For green-minded apartment dwellers, it’s hard to beat a bike for transportation in the city. That is, until the inevitable storage problem arises. Let’s face it; our beloved bikes are a chore to store.

That’s especially true if you’ve paid up for a decent ride and are left without a place to keep it dry and secure. Rare is the urban apartment, or workplace, that provides tenants or employees with decent bike storage. Even condos often prohibit residents from storing bikes on balconies or hauling them up in the elevator.

Enter the Strida folding bike
To the embattled bike-loving apartment dweller comes a solution, the Strida folding bike. The Strida is a sturdy commuter that quickly folds for easy transport or storage.

The folding bike concept is not new. Companies including Brompton, Bianchi and Raleigh have been offered fold-away models since the 1960s. But a handful of features make the Strida unique. Most notable is its Kevlar drive belt in place of a traditional metal chain. The belt resembles a car’s fan belt and requires no lubrication. This ensures your tailored trousers and office carpet remain oil-free. The bike is easy to fold and unfold, with the entire process taking about 10 seconds. When folded, the bike can be wheeled along with one hand while you walk, much like those old-style baby strollers. It weighs in at about 22 pounds, making it easy enough to carry.

Test-riding the Strida
As a bike, the Strida performs quite well. At first it seems a touch unstable, but it doesn’t take long to get used to how it holds the road. Despite its 16-inch wheels and single-speed gearing configuration, the Strida can cover quite a bit of ground. But it might not be a good choice for regular rides of more than 5 kilometres.

During a test ride, I wheeled the folded-up Strida on Toronto’s subway system and was not accosted by transit staff. I unfolded the bike upon arrival at Keele Station, tore through the trails in High Park and arrived at the Lakeshore bike path in no time. I went out to Humber River Park, then back to my west-end home (8 km in total) with relative ease. The hand brakes were responsive and the seat comfortable enough for a longer ride. The Strida’s unusual triangular frame did draw some sideways glances. A few people asked if they could give it a spin.

Convenient, but how much does it cost?
With a retail price of $900, the Strida isn’t cheap. That price would buy a very nice commuter bike at most shops. But keep in mind that the portability explains much of the cost. Strida users can store their bike in a car trunk, in a coat closet, or among their checked luggage on an airplane.

In Canada, the Strida is available at Saved by Bikes, in the pedestrian mall beneath Toronto’s downtown core. Store owner Steve Inniss has sold Stridas to workers in Toronto’s financial district who needed a transportation solution they could take to the office.

Inniss is happy to let customers take the Strida home for a test ride, to see whether or not it will work for their daily commute to work.

“I sold one to one woman who was paying hundreds of dollars a month to park her car down here,” said Inniss, referring to Toronto’s congested downtown core. “The bike paid for itself in a few months.”

Inniss’s store is undergoing a renovation that will continue until March, 2010. But you can still buy a Strida online, and Inniss offers free shipping to anywhere in Canada.

Guest blogger Andrew Lupton is a journalist and editor, a transplanted West Coaster who now lives in Toronto.

All photos and text in this post are copyright Andrew Lupton, 2009.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Freezing purple beans

Last year, when we cut down the tree in the backyard, I noted that the garden would have to produce some food to offset the small amount of carbon that the weedy tree would have sequestered.

Today, the garden is producing. There are many pounds of carrots in the ground, there's more chard than I can eat, the beet greens are turning into triffids.

One of the most spectacular plants is the Royal Purple Bean. They're essentially a green bean, but they grow a glorious purple. In all honesty, I'm not a big fan of green beans, but I rather like these ones. They've got a bit nicer flavour and texture than most of the waxier beans I've had. The seeds came from Brother Nature, and are one of the more successful plants I've started with their seeds. In fact, the six or seven vines are producing more than I can (or want to) eat.

The curious thing about these beans is they turn green when cooked.

Today I picked a pound or two of them and decided to freeze them. I basically followed the instructions on this site, but I made one change, as Brother Nature suggested that the colour change is about the right amount of time for blanching.

Freezing Royal Purple Beans
  1. Pick and rinse the beans
  2. Drain and end them, cut into about 1" pieces
  3. Place in boiling water until they just turn green (about 2 minutes)
  4. Drain and immediately transfer to a bowl of ice water (use lots of ice)
  5. Soak in ice water for 2-3 minutes to cool
  6. Drain thoroughly
  7. Place in airtight freezer bag and place in freezer
It's also a good idea to mark on the bag what's in it, in case you freeze a lot. If you're freezing veg, do it immediately after picking. Leave the purple beans on the vine to look pretty until they're ready.

Now I'll have some tasty, homegrown purple beans this winter. Best of all, by the time the long weekend is over, plenty more will have grown to feed me next week.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Things to consider before going car-free

Last year, I decided to sell my car and begin a shiny, new, car-free lifestyle. It's mostly been a good decision. But along the way I've learned a few things, and there are certain factors to consider before sending your clunker to the scrap heap.

1. How will I get to work?
I work from home, so this is a no-brainer. But can you bike or walk to work? How far is it from your apartment to public transit? How long will it take and how many connections?
Public transit is generally less tiring than driving, but if it will change your commute from ten minutes to an hour, you'll likely grow to resent it quickly. On the other hand, you'll get more reading done and, in large cities, it can be much faster.

2. How will I get groceries?
Again, I live in a Chinatown, so there are lots of small grocers and fruit stands. But big grocery runs for bulky items like toilet paper or heavy stuff like laundry detergent were easier with a car. There are options. One is to do more frequent, smaller shops. Another is to walk to the grocery store and take a taxi back. Many grocery stores will also deliver the items you purchase for a modest fee. Or, for about $9, you can do all your shopping online and have it delivered by a company like Grocery Gateway in Toronto. Online shopping is different, so accept that the first couple times will be slow and probably aggravating. I've used Grocery Gateway a few times and the service has been consistently good.

3. What about getting out of town or to meetings?
I either take transit or a taxi to the airport when flying. But camping trips, visiting rural relatives and many other activities do require a car. Carefully consider how many of these trips you make. You may discover you're better off just not using your car for in-town things, but keeping it for out-of-town trips.
If the balance works in favour of ditching your wheels, do some comparison shopping for your occasional car needs. Car-sharing cooperatives like AutoShare and Zip Car offer some great advantages, such as fuel and insurance included in the price and hourly rental windows. However, their daily mileage is limited and extra miles are expensive, making many rental agencies a better bet for multi-day trips. Why go with a Zip Car instead of rentals? Rental car agencies run out of stock on weekends and on weekends they typically have a two- or three-day minimum. Expensive if you just want to nip out to see Granny.

4. Do I have occasional access to a car for my hobbies?
Bad as they are for the environment, cars do come in handy. Do you have hobbies such as woodworking that might necessitate picking up the occasional load of lumber? If so, do you have friends who might want to go shopping with you and who will use their car or truck? My parents are out of town right now, so I'm using their car for a few errands that have stacked up, such as returning empties.

5. Will your family support your decision?
Make your kids and any spouses you might have part of your decision. It affects them. It means more walking and biking, which is healthy and can be fun, but it isn't always. See the next point.

6. Is it summer?
When cities ban smoking from pubs, they usually do it in summer. The idea is that the weather is nice, so smokers won't mind stepping outside for a puff. By the time winter rolls around, most of them have gotten used to the idea. If they plunged in and introduced legislation in the middle of winter, a lot more smokers would get cranky.
Same thing goes for shedding the car. I first tried in January, and found myself resistant to 8 km a day of walking to and from my son's school. By April, it was much easier to make the change. By the time of the first snow, we won't even think of cars anymore.

7. Do I like biking or walking?
You'll do a lot more walking, so make sure that's something you want. Also consider buying a decent bicycle with a good helmet and a really good lock. Bikes are not only an efficient way to get around, but after work it can be fun to hit a river valley or waterfront trail and feel the wind in your hair.

8. Will I save money?
You might not. Add up what you spend on car/lease payments, insurance, parking (at home, work and travelling) and gas. Then figure out what you'll need to spend if you go car-free. Will you need a transit pass for commuting or just occasional fares (budget for more than you think you'll need...there are rainy days and unexpected trips all the time)? What will bike maintenance and better shoes cost? How many taxi rides will you need to get to meetings? How many days a month will you rent a car for out-of-town trips or bulky errands?

That last question is a big one. I'm not sure that I'm saving much money by not owning a car. But I had a used car and didn't have to pay for parking. Money wasn't my main motivation, though. I wanted to cut fossil fuel consumtion and live a healthier lifestyle. That's definitely happened.

You'll note that many of my questions have to do with continuing to use cars. I see them as useful tools. My car-free lifestyle means not owning one of the machines, it doesn't mean a complete abstinence. What I don't want is for a car to be my default mode of transit. I want to walk, bike or take public transit instead. By not owning a car, it's harder for me to just hop behind the wheel. And that's the change I really wanted.

So far, I'm happier and healthier. And those walks to school give my son and I lots of time to chat. Car-free is good for me.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The 15-minute grey-water barrel updated

At the beginning of summer, I converted an old trash can into a grey-water barrel in just 15 minutes. It was a project intended to conserve water by re-using bathwater on the garden. The initial project was only a partial success, thanks to a design flaw. But it didn't take much to fix the barrel. Here's what I did.

  1. Removed the silicone sealant that had failed.
  2. Bought two nuts for 1/2-inch threaded pipe, as well as common garden O-rings and hose washers.
  3. Put a nut on the faucet so that I could sandwich the barrel and washer snugly.
  4. Put faucet in hole, then on inside of barrel put on the washer (a tight fit, but better seal than the O-ring, which resulted in leaks).
  5. Tightened the nut.

The first thing I realized is that you'd need to be well over six feet tall or have really long wrench handles to do this by yourself. I recruited some help to hold the outside nut steady while I tightened the inside one.

The result had a very tiny, slow leak when I first filled the barrel. The volume wasn't something I was worried about, as it would take weeks, maybe months to lose a couple litres of water with the drip. All the same, I decided to put the barrel on a stack of old patio stones beside my deck, instead of on the wooden deck.

I found that once the barrel was filled, the leak stopped. Perhaps the moisture expanded the washer? At any rate, the stones under it have been dry ever since.

Simple to build, but how well does it work?
Filling it is a matter of carrying buckets of water from the bath. A quick shower can easily fill a 5-gallon bucket, and my son's baths yield 4-5 of them. It's actually kind of fun pouring the water off the side of the deck into the barrel below.

Watering from the barrel is less fun. The water isn't pressurized, so don't try to hook up a sprinkler. Unless you have a serious slope, it takes a long time to water by hose. I mainly used the grey water on my potted plants and some of the mid-season new seedlings. It takes some time to fill a bucket (a larger-diameter faucet would help), so I typically do some weeding while it fills.

Did the grey-water barrel save water?
A bit. This has been an unusually cool, wet summer. As a result, I haven't had to water the garden much. I've used no tap water at all on the potted plants, and have watered a couple beds using the barrel attached to a hose. I've probably filled and drained the barrel three or four times in total.

Were it a typically hot, sticky summer, it would have been much more useful. My son keeps asking me "Are we going to put my bath water in the barrel?" and is inevitably disappointed because the darned thing is still full, after weeks of rain. So a real test will have to wait until next summer, as will hooking up the rain barrel.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

David Suzuki digs this balcony garden

The David Suzuki Foundation recently ran a contest called "David Suzuki Digs My Garden." One of the things I like about the contest is that it recognizes not every gardener's situation is equal. The contest has categories for big and small gardens, vegetable and ornamental gardens, new gardeners and cold-climate gardens.

On the Balcony
In particular, I like the Small Gardens category, because it showcases gardens that many renters can create. This year, the winner in that category was Melanie Kramer from Toronto, Ontario. Her garden is the one pictured above. Her garden is 20 feet in the air and is amazingly lush for a mere 44 cubic feet of soil.

In that small space, she planted "arrays of peas, beans, strawberries, rapini, garlic, calendula, and nasturtiums." Just goes to show that a balcony garden can be beautiful and bountiful.

In the Parking Lot
But one other category caught my eye this year, and that's the Starting Over category. Lots of companies offer free parking, but Associated Labels, in Coquitlam, BC, offers its employees free garden plots.

In many cities, garden plots are hard to come by. Like Jay Ashworth, who entered his company in the contest, I like the idea of office workers being able to take a break, go outside and pull some weeds or pick some salad greens for a healthy lunch.

You can find all the winners, as well as lots of other useful gardening information, on the David Suzuki Digs My Garden website.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Clean Breaks is one to miss

I love books. It's probably why I work as an editor. As a result, I'm trying to imagine the conversation that led the Rough Guides editors to commission Clean Breaks: 500 new ways to see the world.

My guess is that they wanted to fill a gap in their list, knew that All Things Green are selling, and knew a couple good travel writers who could lend their names to the project.

The result is a mammoth, 392-page book. A book with a lot of problems.

1. Five hundred locations in about 350 editorial pages (there's also an index and some pages of green travel tips) means less than a page per location. While visiting mountain gorillas in Rwanda merits a spread, most items get only the most superficial treatment. Really, if I'm thinking of tracking wild dogs in South Africa, five column inches ain't enough to go on.

2. It's painfully Eurocentric. Almost a third of the book is devoted to Europe. That's not surprising, as the lead authors are Guardian correspondent Richard Hammond and former Ecologist editor Jeremy Smith. North America merits a whopping 25 pages, with nothing whatsoever in the Arctic.

3. The vast majority of the locations will require one to fly in. Some, like Skoki Lodge, are wonderful places that are only accessibly by hiking or cross-country skiing...after flying to Calgary and driving a couple hours up into the mountains.

4. Many entries have questionable "green" value. St. Lawrence Market in Toronto is neat, and a great place to get good cheese. But what makes it green? It's not exactly a local farmers' market (well, arguably the North market is on Saturdays). Interestingly, most of the produce at Toronto farmers' markets wouldn't fit into a 100-mile diet. But that's not the authors' fault.

5. The book is massive. And with its entries being so short, really little more than a blurb and contact info, one wonders why it's a book at all. With high linkability, it would make a great website. Given that Hammond founded the Green Traveller webguide, one expects the info is already neatly organized online, though perhpas without so many of the pretty stock photos.

6. Printed in China. Yep, nearly 400 oversized pages, all from China. The book does state that it's printed on FSC-certified paper, but I'm leery of such claims when the press is in China. The country has a dismal environmental record, and a lot of the wood processed there is illegally poached. There's a good story in the Globe and Mail. FSC-certified wood may all be harvested on the up-and-up, but I'd feel more comfortable if it weren't coming from an area known for corruption and processing illegally harvested timber. Also, did I mention that it's a big book?

I really hate to pan a book on this blog. But this one is a sign that publishers are pushing too hard to get on the "green" bandwagon.

In its defence, there are a lot of interesting travel ideas. Some are novel, some really aren't "new ways to see the world." And I don't want environmental concerns to stop people from traveling the world, seeing new places and exposing themselves to new ideas. That's vitally important. But the book kind of misses the point that the big environmental concern isn't what you do when you get to your destination, but how you get there. A destination that requires a long-haul flight, followed by a car ride, seaplane ride and outboard motorboat trip isn't really so green, is it?

Save your $35 and look up interesting green holiday ideas online instead.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Nothing fresher than veg from the backyard

Without any doubt, the garden has been a success this year. Devoted readers will recall that I spent the winter developing elaborate companion planting maps and rationalizing the removal of a tree from the backyard.

I've learned a lot this year. There's a lot I learned during research and planning for the garden, but the greatest lessons have come from this season. Some things worked really well, others did not.

Plants that worked
As you can see, the Royal Purple Beans are beautiful. They're also tasty and have been producing really well. What else is working out?
  • Rainbow Chard - 8 plants give all the cooked greens we can eat
  • Radishes - fast, reliable results
  • Carrots - the first are coming out of the ground now. None of the purple ones yet, though
  • Buttercrunch Lettuce - mild flavour, grew well. Second planting coming in now.
  • Tomatoes - Sweet 100s and Roma are now full of fruit. Ate the first cherry toms last week
  • Autumn Joy Sunflowers - animals ate most, but the two survivors are big and beautiful
  • Nasturtiums - growing like Triffids. Flowers are sweet and peppery. Delicious.
  • Arugula - lovely, simply lovely
  • Mustard Greens - phenominal growth. Has a sharp, wasabi-like taste, great in stir fries. Will plant less next year and only the Giant Red variety, which looks better. Leaves are spiney when small, much nicer when they're bigger
  • Eggplant - low survival rate, but two plants are doing really well. The purple one looks great. Still too early to tell what yeild will be like

Plants that did not work
It's been a very cloudy, rainy summer here in Toronto. As a result, many plants are shorter than I'd expect or are not producing well. Here are some things that didn't work out.
  • Celery - For some reason, most of it didn't take
  • Oak Leaf Lettuce - One grew huge, most didn't germinate. Not a great texture
  • Peas - tried an heirloom and some older hybrid seeds. Germination rate poor, very small yeild. Partly to blame are the slugs, which almost ate my peas to death. Will try again next year
  • Broccoli - Squirrels ate it all. Every last stalk. A second planting is coming up now.
  • Cucumbers - six plants went into the ground, two survived to flower, but they remain an inch high
Mixed results
A few things did okay, but not fabulously.
  • Fava Beans - plants did well, couple hit by disease. Otherwise, great flavour and satisfyingly tall, early plants. But they're a low-yeild plant. Will probably include again
  • Beets - great for greens, high survival rate. Will not plant in the little peat pucks again, as they restrict bulb growth too much
  • Onions - not a fantastic survival rate (started from seed). Will try again, with same caveat as for beets
  • Zucchini - One plant is finally coming along, others dead. Move to sunnier location
  • Corn - grew well, but squirrels took down many stalks. First cobs will ripen this week. Planted Sunny Vee, which seems to only produce one cob per stalk. Try different variety

Red's Garden Stir-fry
When I ask my six-year-old what he wants for dinner, his answer frequently is "Stir-Fry!"

My stir-fry is made of whatever is ready to pick in the garden. Right now, that's mostly chard, purple beans, fava beans and mustard greens. I fill a large collander with veg until it's heaping. If you use cauliflower, broccoli or carrots, add them before the chard stalks.

  1. Thoroughly wash all vegetables. Separate stems from leaves on chard and mustard greens. Discard mustard green stem, chop chard stems into 1" pieces. Chop up leaves
  2. Cut of ends of purple beans and chop into 1" pieces. Remove fava beans from pods.
  3. Chop one onion and add it to hot pan or wok with 1/4 cup peanut oil. Clarify onions. Add a clove or two of garlic, chopped.
  4. Add chard stalks and cook for 2-3 minutes.
  5. Add all beans (and peas, if you have them) and cook for one minute
  6. Add chard and mustard green leaves, cook until wilted.
  7. Add extra-firm tofu (in 1" cubes) or gluten (I live in a Chinatown, so tins of duck- or chicken-flavoured gluten are readily available).
  8. Add sauce and one or two packages of udon noodles. Toss, heat and serve.
For a sauce, I mix together:
  • 1/4 cup sesame oil
  • 3 Tbsp dark soy sauce
  • 2Tbsp rice vinegar
  • A squirt or two of hot chili sauce
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
These measurements are approximate. It's not something I measure. Adjust it to your taste.

Do you have favourite recipes for your garden produce? Post them in the comments so I can try them out!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tiny home or apartment?

I wrote a story about the tiny homes movement in today's Globe & Mail. It was a fun story to work on. The people involved in the movement are interesting, and Sasha McIntyre was absolutely delightful to meet. I'm also generally in favour of finding creative ways to live comfortably while using fewer resources.

But, much as I like many of the tiny house designs, there are problems with this approach to housing. Since one cannot tackle every aspect of an issue in an 800-word story, I'd like to discuss some of them here.

Size matters, but it's not everything
As Sasha McIntyre and others pointed out, it takes less natural gas or electricity to heat a house of 140 or 500 square feet than it does to heat a 2000 or 3000 sq.ft. house. In her case, it seems that home ownership was a top priority. That makes a lot of sense, since she and her husband, John Lei, both work in an industry prone to layoffs. Owning a house mortgage-free is an important safety net for them.

If the environment were the top priority of people in the movement, however, they wouldn't be in tiny detatched houses. They'd be in apartments. Apartments have fewer exterior walls and don't lose massive amounts of heat through the roof of every unit. They often have shared laundry and other facilities, and that can reduce duplication.

For the people in the story, it just didn't make sense. McIntosh and Lei could have had a condo, and did before buying a house. Will Pederson lives on a farm where he doesn't own the land, so his mobile Tarleton makes a lot of sense.

The answer: clustering
One interview I didn't have room to include in the Globe story was with Gregory Johnson. He runs the ResourcesForLife website, works on computers at the University of Iowa, and is a leading proponent of the tiny homes movement. His 140 sq.ft. house doesn't have a bathroom.

Why not? Because he'd prefer to share certain resources with other tiny house owners in a clustered community. Right now, his hosue is parked in his parents' backyard and he uses either their washroom or the one at work or the gym. Some might see that as cheating, but for him it's a sensible trade-off.

"I built it with the idea of it being part of a community, so there would be a larger, central shared community centre with shower and exercise room. There could be a composting toilet I could stow away when not in use," he said during our interview. Environmental (and cost) benefits come through reducing the number of kitchens, washrooms or exercise rooms, he noted. "It's less duplication. Rather than having ten of those, we have one."

But is clustering a solution?
Clustering helps with reducing duplication. It helps with creating strong communities of like-minded people, if you can find people you want to share facilities with. But it doesn't help with other big environmental drains, such as heating. You still have exposed walls, ceilings and, in some cases, floors, on everyone's sleeping areas. So still not as energy-efficient as a good apartment block. Maybe nicer to live in, but not more efficient.

Victoria architect John Gower pointed me to Royal Homes in Toronto, which might have an answer. They make pre-fab houses, including one model in their Royal Q line that's under 700 sq.ft. But where savings really stack up is when you take units and put them together into a multiplex. Fewer exposed walls and less duplication can lead to big environmental savings, and on a smaller footprint than a cluster of fully detached houses.

I live on the lower two floors of an attached Victorian house in Toronto. The shared walls make a big difference to my heating bills.

Building to code and beyond
I view the building code as an absolute minimum standard for construction. In my opinion, a well-built house will exceed the code requirements in many areas, notably insulation, and will also exceed basic LEED requirements.

My biggest complaint with some of the tiny house designs coming out of the United States is that they don't meet code. Some, like the Tumbleweed designs, are on trailers. As I understand it, this is at least partly because some jurisdictions don't recognize buildings that small as houses, and thus it's difficult to get the permits one would need.

We really should revise our by-laws in most municipalities to make it easier to build a diverse range of house styles and sizes. Then tiny homes would meed certain minimum standards. Because they're trailers, they're not necessarily hooked up properly to a power system. Some may have extension cords running to them, and that's worrisome.

From an environmental standpoint, insulation is also a problem. The Tarleton, for example, has 2x4 walls, not 2x6 as required for houses in most of Canada. This is a problem because most houses are insulated with fibreglass batts, and it takes a 6-inch cavity to accommodate an R20 batt. A 2x4 wall will only have R14 (though one could do better with three inches of sprayed foam). As for the ceiling, you need thick joists to have a cathedral ceiling with R40 insulation.

Because John Gower's houses are not trailers, the designs from BC Mountain Homes should meet code requirements in British Columbia, and therefore be more energy-efficient than the U.S. designs.

If you're seriously looking for a tiny house, carefully consider your options.
  1. Does the design I'm looking at meet or exceed building code requirements where I live?
  2. Can I share facilities to reduce duplication?
  3. Can the design be clustered to reduce exterior wall/ceiling space?
  4. How much land will I use? Am I using part of my land for something other than housing?
  5. Is mobility more important than environment?
  6. How much space do I need to live?
  7. Is my family likely to grow? Can my house expand to accommodate that?
In any case, tiny houses are more efficient than the monster suburban houses that typified 1980s and 1990s construction. In a tiny house, you're only heating the space you're actually using, not countless empty rooms. And your cooking, exercising, computing, breathing, help keep it warm in the winter.

Hopefully this movement spurs us to start thinking more economically. The way things are going, John Gower might be right that those monster houses will quickly lose resale value and become seen as "dinosaurs."

Friday, July 17, 2009

A $250, low-carbon vacation

There's nothing like a bit of time away, and last weekend's trip was a wonderful one. As an added bonus, it had a minimal environmental impact. Also, it combined some of my favourite things: camping, dancing and eating.

We headed to Richmond, Quebec, for the Ooh la la festival, a weekend of music, contra dancing and quebecois folk dancing. If you like twirling about on the dance floor and are not fiddle-averse, it's an excellent little festival in an attractive town.

So, what made this trip an economical and environmentally friendly one?

I've always enjoyed a road trip. They so often seem to lead to adventure. Reminds me of this time in Montana...but that's another story. The round trip from Toronto to Richmond is 1362 km. In a Ford Windstar van, that means about 0.43 tonnes of CO2 (according to the calculator at Kuzuka). That's a lot of carbon to pump into the atmosphere. But with five adults in the van, that's less than a tenth of a tonne each, and about $40 in gas each for an out-of-province vacation. Not bad.
The trick to carpooling is to plan ahead, make sure there's enough room for everyone to be comfortable, and make sure the travelling companions are compatable. It doesn't work if some people really want to get to their destination quickly and others want to see the sights along the way. To futher save time and money, consider stopping somewhere pretty for a picnic along the way. We happened upon a nice roadside turnout along the St. Lawrence River, and enjoyed the wee break very much.

Camping is not necessarily environmentally friendly. Campfires and inefficient cookstoves can be a problem, and hauling trailers increases fuel consumption by a lot.
We were in Richmond to dance, so didn't tend to hang around the campsite, so no need for fires. And all our food was provided, so no need for cookstoves. Because we all used tents, the fuel cost of hauling our gear was minimal. Also, we chose a campsite within 2km of the dance hall, which made it possible to walk home (possible, though not always an appealing option after many hours of dancing). Also, our site came to $44 for the weekend, so pretty cost-effective.

One of the best things about the Ooh la la festival is the food. It's mostly vegetarian and locally produced. It's also beautifully presented and delicious. Vegetarian food is almost always better for the environment.
But why was a vegetarian diet so welcome last weekend? Because we were dancing. It's vigorous activity, and heavy meals don't lend themselves to good nights of dancing. Lighter fare keeps you light on your toes, though a good dose of carbohydrates helped to keep me dancing all night long. That said, a little chicken on the Saturday night was welcome.
(If anyone did need something less healthy, the chip shop down the road had decent ice cream, as well as almost two dozen kinds of poutine...what exactly is the point of vegetable poutine?)
Communal cooking is a great way to save energy. It takes much less to cook for 200 people than it does to have 200 people cooking their own meals. Also, the festival provided plates, cutlery and mugs, so very little garbage was produced.

While the bands, incuding Crowfoot, provided fantastic music for dancing, a lot of the joy of dancing comes from the people you're with. Contra dancing is a wonderfully social pasttime. The halls tend not to be air conditioned, so it can get hot, but eveyrone expects that. The main energy draws are lighting, sound equipment and fans. But the sound systems aren't very big, and the workshops tended to be acoustic, so I'm not terribly concerned about the energy draw. More efficient lighting would always help, but it's tough to find good, affordable dance floors.

All in all, it was well worth the roughly $250 my mini-vacation cost. And it was a chance to get out of town, have a great time dancing, and not have to worry about the environmental cost. For anyone who likes dancing, I certainly recommend Ooh la la. I'm certainly looking forward to the Toronto Island Dance in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How to survive the LCBO strike

What a summer it's shaping up to be! First there's the garbage strike (click here for tips on how to survive). Now LCBO workers are poised to go on strike. We could have, as Toronto writer Carl Wilson phrased it, "the stink without the drink."

For those of you unfamiliar with Ontario's arcane liquor distributions rules, the LCBO has a near monopoly. Because it has almost exclusive rights to sell booze to the province's 13 million residents (well, the ones over 19, at any rate), it's one of the world's biggest buyers.

Fret not, oh thirsty Ontarians, for the monopoly is not complete! Here are ways to slake your thirst during an LCBO strike. Oh, and as an added bonus, most of them work on a locavore diet!

  1. Drink Beer
    The strike will not affect Beer Stores (we have such creative names in this province), so domestic beer will be almost as easy to get as it usually is. The fine imported beers that the LCBO carries, however, will not be available.

  2. Visit a brewpub
    Many Beer Stores do stock very good Canadian (and some imported) beers. But if your tastes are, like mine, a bit on the snobbish side, then go to a local brewpub or microbrewery. Bartowel has some great suggestions, and they're not all in Toronto. In Toronto, my favourites (so far) are the Mill Street in the Distillery District, and C'est What? on Front Street. Please add your own suggestions in the comments. I'm always on the lookout for a good pint of ale!

  3. Go grocery shopping
    Thanks to another part of Ontario's arcane liquor laws, some winemakers have their own stores, often set up in grocery stores. These stores, such as the Wine Rack stores, will not be affected by the strike. However, they have a limited selection from one company. You'll notice that Wine Rack also allows online ordering.

  4. Visit a winery
    A generation ago, an LCBO strike would have been unbearable. Back then, local wine was awful! But today, the province isn't only producing drinkable wines, it's producing some very good ones. The best I've tasted have not been available at the LCBO stores, so it's always worth going to a winery. There are great wines to be found in batches too small for the province's liquor stores.
    I've toured quite a few on the Niagara Peninsula, and have always enjoyed the outing. There are excellent suggestions in Linda Bramble's guidebook, Touring Niagara's Wine Country (disclaimer: I worked on one edition of the book). There's also a directory of Ontario wineries to help you find one near you.

  5. Seek out the hard stuff
    The biggest problem during the strike will be getting hard liquor. Most of the major distilleries do not have their own stores. However, there are small ones that do. Kittling Ridge is probably the main one. They have seven stores in Barrie, London, the Toronto area and at their main facility in Grimsby. While I'm not a big fan of their wines, I have found some of their harder products, such as vodka, rye and rum, suitable for my highball needs.

  6. Order a Canatini
    Many apartment-dwellers, including me, are living the car-free lifestyle. While this is usually great, it does limit one's ability to traipse about from winery to winery. The solution is the home-grown martini, or Canatini as I'm calling it. Magnotta, which makes some very good wines, also produces beer, grappa, vodka, gin and vermouth. And they deliver using Canada Post.
    Yes, you read that correctly: You can get a martini delivered by mail. Well, some assembly required.

  7. Go visit Uncle Jim
    If things get really bad, you might have to dip into the dandelion wine that some strange relative makes. Or, if you want to try something really different, Downey's Farm northwest of Toronto makes all sorts of berry wines. Not my taste, but it could be a fun change for some, and it's a nice place to visit in the countryside. As always, you can make your own beer and wine (let's hope the strike doesn't last that long!), but home distilling isn't legal here...yet.

  8. Cross-shop
    There are bizarre laws in Canada about transporting booze across provincial boundaries. Folks in provincial border towns, such as Ottawa, can perhaps fill us in on how much policing there is during the strike. You can buy booze in the States (or elsewhere) and bring it back. You will have to pay duty on anything over the rather paltry limit, though.

  9. Hit the border?
    There's a rumour afoot that some of the Duty Free stores may be open for business during the strike. However, we're not sure at this point whether they will be open to the general public or just border-hoppers, as usual. This item will be updated when more information becomes available. This could be good news for folks in areas around Windsor, Niagara Falls and Fort Erie, Cornwall and Thunder Bay or Rainy Lake (is there a duty-free store at the Rainy Lake crossing?)

  10. Go on vacation
    This is especially true for folks in Toronto and Windsor, where garbage strikes continue. Go to Barcelona, pick up a case of cheap Cava, head down to a beach somewhere and ride out the strike season in style.
Green Tenant welcomes your additions to this list. Please share your ideas and updates in the comments section, especially ideas that will work for car-free people.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Today's lunch: from field to table in less than five minutes

Finally, summer weather has come to Toronto. With warmth also comes an abundance of salad greens. I've taken to stepping outside to pick my lunch most days. Really, there's nothing that can compare with a freshly picked salad.

Today's delight was mostly made up of butter crunch lettuce leaves and beet greens, with a few leaves of oak leaf lettuce, a bit of giant red mustard green, a few leaves of basil and parsley, and one nice red radish.

I grew more mustard greens than I need. A little bit goes a long way, and as they mature, the greens get very strong. The giant red have a nicer texture and are a touch milder, it seems. The green ones get spiny and are quite strong, almost like wasabi. I'm thinking that I might try rolling sushi with some large leaves. I'll also freeze some for use in soups this winter.

Soon enough, I'll be producing enough of certain produce that I'll have to start preserving some, either by freezing or by canning. There's an interesting article on how to handle vegetables to maximize nutrient retention on the Oregon State University website. Because vegetables lose certain nutrients quickly, a salad this fresh is incredibly healthy. My body seems to feel better after eating one.

Oh, and that salad? It's completely organic with zero food miles and cost next to nothing. More importantly, it tasted fantastic!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Garbage strike survival ideas from a six-year-old

Like most parents, I'm frequently surprised by my kid. He's six years old and, well, to be perfectly honest, he often has better ideas than I do.

When we got home from school tonight, there was a message from a radio station that had read my post, 10 ways to survive a garbage strike. This meant that I had to start by explaining what a strike is. Thankfully, he's a smart kid. Probably also helped that we read him Click, Clack, Moo when he was little.

I asked him if he had suggestions to add to the list. Of course he did.

"I would just not use a lot of things," he said. Sensible. What would he give up? "Milk."

"Okay," I replied. "That might help, but the strike might last for weeks. You probably need milk. Lets put that on a list of 'essentials' that we can't give up." I suggested buying milk in bags instead of cartons because of the smaller volume of waste (we'd have to freeze some bags, since we don't go through too much."

Naturally, he started talking about how we could re-use the bags as garbage bags. After the strike ends, that is. (If there is a garbage strike in Toronto, that is. We'll know all too soon.)

"What else could we use less of?" I asked. He pointed at the shampoo. I conceded that we could probably be more careful about the amount we use, and proceded to wash his hair.

Then I got up to let him play in the water for a bit.

"Wait!" he called. "I've got more ideas."

I got a pad and pen and sat down on the toilet to take dictation from a six-year-old pontificating from the bath.

"If you ever get a cardboard box, turn it into something else, like a little town with a train track in it."

Right. Creative, but not necessarily a way to deal with thousands of tons of trash. Still, it could make a fun weekend project, so I'm not going to argue.

That's when he really surprised me: "Eat less candy, because that means fewer candy wrappers."

Somehow I doubt his friends will be cheering for that one.

In the meantime, I'm going to use his bath water to help the tomatoes grow and tuck my creative thinker into bed. Then I'm going to sit down and cross my fingers that the outside workers and City Hall can find enough common ground to make everyone happy.

Monday, June 8, 2009

10 steps to organizing a great walking tour

Walking tours are a great way to learn about the local environment while having fun and meeting your neighbours. In the last year, I've organized two successful ones along the lower Don River in Toronto, and am looking forward to more in the year ahead.

Organizing your own walking tour is fun and rewarding. It's also fairly easy to do. Here are some tips to help you organize one that will be a great success.

  1. Who are you doing it for?
    Start planning the walk by thinking about who will be along. If it's families, then it should be shorter, stroller-accessible and have a focus on very engaging speakers. My tours have been for journalists from Canada and the United States. This means the speakers need to be subject experts and at least one needs to be someone in a position of authority. It also means I need to tell them up-front that the tour is entirely "on the record."
    If it's a fitness walk, then it can be a longer route. The Lower Don walk I've done is about 4-5 kilometres with frequent stops to look at wildlife and discuss the river's ecosystem and plans for it. The walkers are typically 30-55 years old and are usually ready for refreshments by the end.
    All your decisions should flow from an idea of who will be on the walk, what they will want to learn and whether they're primarily there to learn or to have a nice, social walk.

  2. How many speakers should you have?
    This depends upon the composition of the group, its size and the goals for the walk. On my local trail, which is paved and has heavy bicycle traffic, I find that about 15 people, including speakers, will work. Beyond 20 people, I might want to split it into two groups (and thus double the number of speakers).
    In addition to a short introduction by the organizer, for a two-hour walk, I'd suggest two guest speakers. Even for my groups, which are engaged and there to learn, a stop of more than 15 minutes is probably too long. Space things out so the group pauses somewhere appropriate every kilometre or so, step off to the side of the trail and have discussions there. If it's a family walk, have activities for the kids at some or all of the stops.

  3. Choosing the right speakers
    This is vital. For an adult group, choose experts in their fields, but also choose ones who are engaging, lively speakers. A walking tour is not all about education, it's largely a social activity and a form of entertainment. Never forget that.
    While speakers can overlap in areas of expertise (sometimes they'll play off one another nicely), don't have two on the same topic. For my last walk, I had a speaker with a strong interest in ecology and history, and one who is an architect representing an official agency. Sometimes you might want speakers representing opposing viewpoints.
    For kids, put the emphasis on fun. It's a weekend and we want 'em to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, meet some other kids and, if all goes well, absorb a bit of knowledge along the way. Don't turn nature into a classroom, open it up as a place to explore.

  4. Selecting the Route
    In most cases, go for the scenic walk. My Lower Don tours are an exception because they're designed for people who write about pollution, brownfields, redevelopment programs and so forth. Most of the time, people will want trees, flowers, wildlife. I like to start somewhere with a good view of the city or surrounding countryside.
    The route should follow a logical course. If it's a historical tour, try to arrange it chronologically through time or through an event (follow the path of a group of rebels, for existence). If it's a nature-related walk, follow the edge of a river or escarpment and avoid roads as much as possible.
    For families, keep it short. A couple kilometres at most. For a walk focused on discussion, I'd say no more than 5 km. For one that's going to be more walking and less talking, you can go a little farther. But consider having people bring a picnic lunch if it's more than 8 kilometres. Anything longer than that is more for fitness and will require planning with different goals in mind.

  5. Timing
    I like early afternoons in the sprintime for walks. But we can't always have sunny spring Sundays. Don't start too early. If you do, you'll miss out on a lot of folk who work hard all week and need a bit of a lie-in on the weekend. Don't start too late or you'll interfere with dinner plans. About 1:30 p.m. seems a good starting time to me.
    Tell people the walk starts 15-20 minutes before you really plan to have it start. This is especially important if you're organizing it around a meeting or having out-of-towners come in.

  6. Test the walk
    Scout the route once for good places to talk, good things to see, potential destinations and so forth. But walk it again, slowly, to get an idea of the amount of time it will take. People walk more slowly in groups than they do alone. They like to talk along the way. They stop unexpectedly to photograph ducks, drink water or dash into some bushes for relief.
    My Don River walks take about two hours. They're about 4 kilometres long with two stops of about 15 minutes to listen to speakers, a 5- to 10-minute introduction by me and a bit of unplanned dawdling along the way. You will have to push people along a bit.

  7. The right starting point
    Pick a convenient, logical starting point. A perfect one will have ample free parking and great public transit access. It will be relevant to the walk and highly visible.
    For the Don River walks, I've met on the broad steps of Riverdale Public Library, which is served by three streetcar routes and is close to a major highway. It's beside the Old Don Jail, which is a great starting point for a discussion of the river valley.
    Consider amenities near the start, such as washrooms, and places to pick up last-minute snacks and drinks. Also go for a spot with a good view. On Don River tours, we stroll up to Riverdale Park for a great view of the city's skyline. It's also a good place for an overview of the tour.

  8. The right ending
    A good walk has a beginning, a middle and a fantastic end. I like beer and pubs, so mine typically end at a good pub. I research these in advance, looking for a good diversity of beers (I'm a bit of a beer snob), but also at whether the place is too boozy. The food is also important. It needs to be decent quality and ideally there will be multiple vegetarian options.
    But that's not the right place to end for every walk. You might want to end at a historic site, or somewhere with an amazing view. Wherever you end, there should be good transit access (if people drove to the start, then think of how they'll get back to their cars) and both food and liquid. Everyone will be thirsty, many will be hungry.
    Absolutely make reservations in advance. If the place won't take a reservation, then find another venue. Phone the destination from the beginning of the walk to confirm numbers. Ask in advance if they'll do separate cheques.

  9. Be prepared
    During the walk, you are responsible for the walkers. Carry a small backpack containing water, sunscreen, band-aids (aka "sticking plasters") or a first-aid kit, a cell phone, a bit of money and anything else you think someone might need. As the organizer, it's your job to remember what the walkers will forget.

  10. Marketing
    Let people know about the walk. I like to organize them for out-of-towners, to introduce people to something interesting in my city that they won't otherwise see. Thankfully, this means that a lot of the marketing is done by conference organizers.
    But there are other ways to publicize. If it's mostly for friends, use email, Twitter, Facebook and so forth. If it's for the broader community, you could put up posters at logical places and call the local newspaper (if you've done the walk before and have good photos, make them available). Also contact relevant groups, such as local nature clubs, service organizations or historical societies. They'll often have great suggestions, can provide speakers you hadn't thought of and can let their members know about the group. There are also sometimes lists of local walks, such as the Jane's Walk website.
The key is to plan ahead, be prepared and have fun. Good luck, and let me know how your walks go!

Check out My Web of Life for tips on creating nature walks for kids.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Lower Don River walking tour

We're finally into a spell of nice weather, and that means it's time to get out and explore the city. What better way to do it than on foot?

To get to know the local environment, I like to organize occasional walking tours. Last weekend's tour, organized with fellow SEJ member Saul Chernos, was in Toronto's Don Valley. The Don is often described as Canada's most urbanized and polluted river. It's also one with a rich history that is undergoing tremendous changes.

Lower Don River walking tour route
Our walk began on the east side of Riverdale Park, where there's a fantastic view of the Toronto skyline. There are also views north to the Prince Edward Viaduct, which is just south of historic sites such as Todmorden Mills and the Brickworks.

We walked down into the valley and joined the trail at the footbridge in Riverdale Park. As we strolled along, John Bacher told us about the valley and its history and environment.

Our particular group included writers from various parts of Canada who were in town for the MagNet conference. Most are members of the Professional Writers' Association of Canada, so there were plenty of questions for our guest speakers.

The Mouth of the Don
As we continued down the river past Queen Street, we heard from Brenda Webster. She works for Waterfront Toronto and was with us to discuss plans to change the mouth of the Don River and redevelop former industrial areas such as the docklands and the West Donlands.

The redevelopment plans are inspiring, particularly the plans to create new wetlands at the mouth of the river.

It was a beautiful day, and the local wildlife was out in force. There was a close, and thankfully fairly cute, encounter with a raccoon. Lots of redwinged blackbirds with brilliant crimson flashes on their wings. The usual assortment of robins, finches, sparrows and mallard ducks. A couple walkers even saw a black-crowned night heron. Despite the pollution, there were plenty of fish jumping, minnows swimming and cormorants diving.

A fine end
The walking tour continued across Lakeshore and into the docklands. We followed the edge of the Keating Channel, which today serves as the mouth of the river. A jovial group welcomed pints and nosh at the Keating Channel Pub, which has a patio right at the point where the river's water flows into Toronto Harbour.

We'll be looking forward to organizing other walking tours in the future. They're a great way to get to know your city and its environment, and a pollution-free way to enjoy a day.

Click here for tips on organizaing your own walk.

Want to walk, but not organize the walk yourself? Check out the list of Jane's Walks near you.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

First salad of spring

I'm lucky. I live in a wealthy society, in a modern era in which I can get fresh greens all year long. These include nice, tasty mixed salad greens in the middle of February.

That said, they pale in comparison to last week's salad of fresh greens. It was the first salad of the year from my garden, and it was wonderful. The greens were full of flavour, especially the peppery arugula (which is known in the UK by the much cooler name "rocket") and the mustard greens. The leaves on my standard mustard greens develop a slightly hairy texture when they get bigger than a couple inches across, but the giant red mustard greens don't seem to do so.

The radishes are abundant. I've two varieties, and the first ones are a rich purple on the outside, creamy white on the inside, with a mild flavour. They were well-suited to the salad, which my six-year-old son shared. I can't wait until he pulls up his first purple carrot.

Readers: the squirrels are wreaking havoc on some parts of my garden. Companion planting will probably help, and I got a lot of good advice from How to Grow More Vegetables, but those companions are just sprouting. Any tips?

For my season's initial ideas for the garden and some handy links (including an interactive planting calendar), click here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

10 ways to survive a garbage strike

There's a serious chance that my city, Toronto, will have a major garbage strike this summer. The last one was in 2002. It was a long, smelly one in the middle of a hot summer. Windsor is in the midst of a very long one.

Garbage strikes are more than an inconvenience, they're a health hazard. But they're also a good time to take stock of what we're throwing out and look for ways to clean up our act. With that in mind, here are some tips on surviving a garbage strike. What ideas do you have? I rent part of a house with a yard, so I'm particularly interested in hearing how these strikes affect people in high-rise apartments. Let's turn the comments section here into a running list of ideas on how to beat the stink!

1. Stop eating meat.
This is easier for the vegetarians, and there's are good reasons why most of us should cut our meat consumption, anyway. But in a strike it's a really good idea. Rotting meat scraps are some of the smelliest stuff we throw away. They're also the most likely to attract rats and create a genuine health hazard.

2. Get composting.
If you have a back yard, get a composter. In Toronto, the city sells them for $15. We're getting a second one because of the volume of garden and rabbit-related organic matter we produce. The first one has, in the past year, consumed enough material to fill many garbage bags. In apartments, consider vermiculure. That is, the fine art of worm composting. If you have kids, they'll love you for it.

3. Freeze!
For a short strike, put the smelly stuff in plastic bags (you may have to conveniently forget your cloth shopping bags one day to get some), tie them up and toss them in the freezer. You could save a little energy too, as food scraps have greater thermal mass than air, and so will hold the cold better.

4. Time for cloth.
As a parent, I washed a lot of cloth diapers. It's not that horrible an experience. They are a significant expense, though, so plan for it to be a long-term solution. In Toronto, disposable diapers can go in the Green Bin for composting. But in a garbage strike, they're going to get ripe awfully fast. I'd rather do an extra load of diapers every day or two than have a mountain of dirty disposables sitting in my living room! (Or, if laundry facilities are inconvenient or far away, hire a diaper service to do the washing for you.)

5. Reduce.
Easy to do. Look for products with less packaging. Buy fruit loose and avoid those clamshell containers - they're not recyclable in my city, anyway. Plastics are relatively easy to store, as they won't start to smell, but all the same, they're some of the bulkiest stuff to go in the bin.

6. Re-use.
A lot of our "waste" is quite usable. A lot of house-related stuff, from the end of a roll of tar paper to 2x4s and even toilets, can find a new home through places such as Habitat for Humanity's Re-Store. There are also places to bring partial cans of paint (because really, how long could you live with the beige your landlord painted all the walls?), furniture (checked out Value Village or Goodwill lately?), and so forth.

7. Double-bag.
If you can't do anything but throw something potentially stinky away, double-bag it. That will help keep the smell down and help prevent rodents from attacking the trash.

8. Postpone.
Now might not be the time to clear last year's freezer-burned Thanksgiving leftovers out of the freezer. You might also want to hold off on projects likely to create a lot of waste.

9. Use the phone book.
Find the numbers for by-law enforcement officers who handle illegal dumping. Garbage strikes lead people to do some stupid things, like toss their trash into local ravines. This is a dangerous, messy and downright uncivilized thing to do. If you see it happen, call the authorities. Write down the license plate number of the perpetrator.

10. Get out of town.
Yes, a garbage strike is a good time to go on holiday. You won't build a pile of waste in your backyard and you won't have to endure the stench of the heap being stored at the local park. Grab a tend, catch a train up to a nice provincial park and do some backpacking. Or take a bus up to the beach. If you're driving, maybe go visit your uncle's farm...and ask if you can make use of one or two of the garbage tags for his municipal pickup while you're at it.

While you're out in the country, take a deep breath, enjoy the clean air and try to remember the really crappy days that some freezing guy came and took away your stinky old diapers, turned a blind eye to that extra bag you'd set out, or loaded your old couch into the truck without complaint. And try to remember that, one day, the strike will end.

In the meantime, add your ideas in the comments section below.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Small wind turbines for the city

Photo courtesy of Wind Simplicity

Before you say it, I know, wind turbines aren't something tenants can put up. But today, The Globe & Mail ran a story of mine about a new generation of small wind turbines that are much better suited to urban applications. And since the first comment to appear asked about links, I figured that Green Tenant could provide them.

To read the story, please click on this link to it.

What makes these turbines special is that they don't spin at super-high speeds. Older small turbines had been a bit of a safety hazard because of their speeds. Many of them don't require tall towers. Some spin horizontally to reduce wear. Others actually make use of the updraft from a roof. And they're all designed with gusty city winds in mind.

The turbine that inspired the story is the Wind Dancer. It's an award-winning Toronto creation from Wind Simplicity (

There's a nifty rooftop model from Wind Terra (

Also mentioned is the Skystream 3.7 (

If you're in a high-rise apartment and have a landlord with a sympathetic ear, you might want to mention that the first Wind Dancers sold were to real estate mogul Shane Baghai. They're on top of one of his condo developments. Maybe this is a way for your building's management to cut down of the cost of electricity in communal spaces, such as hallways and lobbies? Can't hurt to mention it.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A light goes on

Toronto Hydro is giving away free compact fluorescent lightbulbs this weekend and next. The first 350 people to show up at a participating Canadian Tire or Home Depot will get one. According to the flyer, they're "specialty" CFLs, rather than the usual garden variety.

This is good. Many fixtures don't take standard CFLs, and these "specialty" bulbs are designed for chandeliers, vanities and other such non-standard fixtures. There will also be in-store discounts on specialty CFLs and power bars with timers.

A power bar with a timer is a great idea, especially if you're one of those people who always forgets to turn off the lights. Or plug in televisions and other equipment that goes into a "standby" mode rather than turning off completely. By shutting the power off to these appliances you'll cut down on your house's phantom draw. That is, you'll cut the power that's consumed invisibly by appliances you thought you'd actually turned off. Phantom draw from one appliance may not be big, but it adds up. If we got rid of unnecessary phantom draw, we might not need our tax dollars funding a new nuclear plant or our energy dollars going to buy more coal.

So, while I'm not big on promoting big companies like Home Depot or Canadian Tire (though I must confess that I've long enjoyed browsing the latter), if you live near one and are planning on getting up for a morning walk on Saturday or Sunday, go in and pick up a nice new CFL. A list of participating stores, and details about the promotion, are on Toronto Hydro's "Spring Turn On" website.

If you're not in the Toronto area, check with your local utility. Are they doing something similar? If they are, please post the information in the comments section to share it with others. Green Tenant enjoys having readers from around the world (mostly from Canada, the U.S. and the UK, but we're also getting lots of visitors from Central and South America and from Australia), and I'd love to know what's happening where you live.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Changing my mind and planting out

In contrast to yesterday's torrential downpours, Toronto enjoyed a beautiful spring day today. Since yesterday (May 9) was the average last frost day here inspired me to look at my planting calendar. It suggested that this was the weekend to plant seeds for sunflowers, nasturtiums, carrots and onions and that I should already have transplanted my lettuces and broccoli...on April 4!

Since frost seems unlikely, I spent a few hours in the garden today. I'd already directly sown my peas (think I see one peeking up today), a few radishes (doing well), arugula (not sure if it's up or if those are just weeds) and fava beans. The fava beans are doing fabulously, as you can see from the photo above.

In that same photo you'll notice a lot of straw. David and Alison, who live upstairs, have two lovely, fluffy rabbits named Emma and Amanda. These wonderful little fertilizer machines have been providing top dressing all winter long. My plan had been to use their bedding as mulch and just open up spaces for planting. Gardening the no-dig way! Yay!

However, weeding through the straw is a pain and there are a lot of plants to go in. Rather than weed everything and shift mulch about nonstop, I decided to just chuck my grand plan out the window and dig it in (except in a couple places where I'd already begun planting, such as around the fava beans and strawberries). The good news is that, in the bed I planted last year, there are tons of big, juicy worms where there were only a few when I made the bed. My soil looks to be very healthy and I have high hopes for my yields.

Today I planted two large beds. The tomatoes, zucchini and corn have yet to go into the ground (a little early yet), but most everything else is in now.

Bed 1, which is by far the biggest, will have most of the tomatoes. Today, in it, I planted marigolds (the workhorse of companion plants), various salad greens, rainbow chard, basil, parsley, spinach and mint.

Bed 2, which gets the most sun, will eventually have some corn and zucchini. Today it got marigolds, chives, a new everbearing strawberry plant (to compliment the two my dad gave me from his patch), some lettuces and spinach, nasturtiums , leeks, carrots and nine rows that alternate between onions, beets and radishes. There's also garlic at the far end, around a little rose bush.

Tomorrow, as weather and work permit, I'll work on beds 3 and 4.

So far, my only disappointment has been the poor germination rate of my marigolds (everything else I ordered from Brother Nature has had a decent germination rate, so this is probably an anomaly). But a little shop on the corner sells them and they're very inexpensive, so no worries. I also bought my tomato plants from them. No rare heirloom tomatoes this year, just sweet 100s and romas. But next year I'll get my act in gear earlier and plant some that will be a bit more fun.

Oh, and the carrot patches should be fun. I mixed three different seeds. Every time I pull up a carrot, who knows what it'll be. Nantes Touchon? Tendersweet long hybrid? Purple haze? (Yes, I planted purple carrots. Part of the goal is to have fun gardening with my six-year-old son.)

In addition to the other two beds, I still have four or five pots and various window boxes. Because the garden has so many veg, I think I'll use all the planters for flowers. After all, a garden shouldn't just be productive, it should also be pretty.

Some gardening posts that might be of use to you:
Vertical gardening
A handy gardening book for apartment-dwellers

Friday, May 8, 2009

The long-running toilet

Ever since I moved into my new apartment, the upstairs toilet has had a habit of running. I'm tired of reminding visitors to "jiggle the handle," so today I got off my duff and did something about it. After dropping my son off at school, I rode his scooter over to the hardware store (needed a new nut for the wheel and... well... it was fun, too).

The problem with my toilet is a common one. The old plastic handle is cracked and that somehow causes it to jam in a depressed position. That is, it keeps the flap open.

Before getting into the step-by-step instructions, let's think about why we're bothering to fix the handle. It's quite simple: A running toilet wastes water. If a toilet flushes with 6 litres and takes 30 seconds to fill up (which is probably slower than in reality), then that's 12 litres per minute. Don't notice for five minutes and you've wasted 60 litres. Don't notice while you nip out to the shops for half an hour and you've just flushed away 360 litres!

Water systems are one of the biggest energy costs for most municipalities. A leak of this size will result in a higher water bill (if you pay bills directly), likely higher rent (if water is included in your rent), higher taxes (again, likely translates into higher rent) and possibly less money for the city to spend on more important things like social housing or public swimming pools.

There are lots of possible repairs to make on a toilet. If there's a shutoff valve at the bottom, they're all pretty easy to make. In my case, it's one of the easiest. You don't even have to turn off the water. Here's what to do.

Take the magazines off the back of the toilet and remove the lid. Put it somewhere safely out of the way and don't drop it on the tile floor. That would be nasty.

Unhook the chain from the end of the rod attached to the handle. If you can, hook it over something nearby so you don't have to fish it out of the water when you're done. Not that it's a big deal, there's nothing to fear from the water in the back of the toilet. It should be pretty clean. There's a great Canadian tradition of using the toilet tank to rapidly chill beer. But that's another story.

The handle is held on with a large nut, probably made of plastic. Using an adjustable wrench (my 10" one did the trick nicely) loosen the nut, then slide it off the end of the rod.

Slide the old handle and rod out of the tank.

If you're like me, you thought of fixing this problem while you were already out, and so didn't know how long of a rod to get with the handle. Thankfully, adjustable ones are quite common and cost $5-7 in Canada right now.

Hold the old one against the new one to figure out how long to cut the new one. Measuring is easy, as there are only three lengths and the adjustable models have marks to help you easily cut them to length. "Easily" is a subjective term. Scissors won't do the job on this thick plastic. Tin snips probably would. I found that, on the Moen model I bought (a dollar cheaper than the other universal one) it was easy to just bend and break the rod at the correct point.

Remove the nut from the new assembly, slide the rod in and then put the new nut on to hold it all in place. Make sure the nut is snug, but don't overtighten it. Don't want to crack it and have to walk all the way back to the hardware store (how can you tell I've made this sort of mistake before?).

Hook the chain into place and give the toilet a test flush. If the handle sticks in the open position, you may have overtightened the nut. If you encounter other problems, bring them up in the comments section and we'll see if the Green Tenant readers can't help you out.

Now put the lid back on the toilet and return your magazines to their proud, newly refurbished home.

For other water-saving repairs, see the following posts: