Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Seedlings, chickens, bees and the city

My little plot of veg hardly qualifies as urban agriculture. If all goes well, it will make a dint in my grocery bills, though. But as May approaches and my seedlings, as you can see, are beginning to sprout nicely, my thoughts are turning more and more to what we can do with our limited urban greenspace.

First, an update on my garden. Few of the early season seeds planted directly have sprouted yet, save for the radishes. There's been lots of rain, though, and I expect to see some activity once the weather gets a little warmer. The strawberries I transplanted last winter from my dad's patch are still alive. I'm sure the squirrels will be thrilled. The seeds I started indoors are doing very well, except the marigolds, which have been late to start. For seed sources and my early plans, see this post. They've recently moved onto the deck, into a lovely little collapsible greenhouse my parents had, but weren't using. These stands are also handy for balcony gardening, as the plastic cover acts as a windbreak and will help keep your plants from drying out. The outdoor sensor of my thermometer is in there, so I can easily see if it's getting too hot or too cold.

But back to urban agriculture. Thanks in part to the localvore movement, it's becoming a new area of interest for many urbanites. I'm looking forward to learning more at the Society of Environmental Journalists' Toronto pub night on May 5 at Harbord House (7:30 p.m., upstairs bar, RSVP to The guest speaker will be Ravenna Barker, an urban agriculturalist with Foodshare.

When I first moved into this apartment, I wondered about keeping chickens. They're neat. I loved playing with my aunt's chickens when I was a kid, and am sure my son, Graham, will love 'em too. Sadly, Toronto doesn't allow urban livestock. Apparently, however, it's something the city may revisit, as more citizens are expressing an interest in having a few chickens. Other cities allow them, some even allow goats. Marie-Eve Cousineau has a fun article on urban chicken politics in the current issue of L'Actualité. It includes the wonderful phrase "les poules clandestines." My French is awful, but the image of clandestine chickens is now forever etched in my mind.

Knowing that chickens were out, I began to think of bees. I was beside myself when my upstairs neighbour, Alison, asked if it's something I'd consider for the back yard. Never knew my friend was a closet apiarist!

However, that's another dream that's impossible for urbanites in our area. Unless you're renting a place with one really big backyard, you can't keep bees in Ontario. The provincial Bees Act (yes, there's a Bees Act) states:
19. (1) No person shall place hives or leave hives containing bees within 30 metres of a property line separating the land on which the hives are placed or left from land occupied as a dwelling or used for a community center, public park or other place of public assembly or recreation. 2002, c. 17, Sched. F, Table.

Hives also have to be at least 10 metres from a highway.

So, for now I'll have to satisfy myself with organic vegetable gardening. And I'll definitely be at the pub night on Tuesday.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A grey-water barrel in 15 minutes!

Last year, the City of Toronto sent every residential building a new garbage bin as part of a program to limit the amount of trash going to landfill. A side-effect of this program is that there are now thousands of obsolete garbage bins that we can't use. Well, we can't use them as garbage bins.

I spent 15 minutes and turned mine into a grey-water barrel. I'll show you how to do it. (Please also see the update I posted here.)

There are, essentially, three categories of water: clean, grey and black. Clean is what you drink. Black is what flushes down your toilet. Grey is the stuff that's somewhere in between: it's your washing-up water and bath water. My barrel will be getting water from the bath. That water is fairly clean. It contains some dead skin cells and some soap, but nothing toxic or particularly nasty. Good stuff to use on the garden.

I started this project with a fairly standard plastic garbage bin, the kind with wheels on the bottom and a lid held in place by two handles. There are no holes in the body, so it should hold water. The axle for the wheels runs through its own tube and not through holes drilled into the body of the bin, so no worries about leaks there.

For this project, I nipped over to the hardware store and bought a 1/2" ball valve and a 1/2" female-threaded brass connector. Really, there should be a simple screw-together plastic bung apparatus on the shelves with flanges on either side (put one piece inside the hole, screw the other into place and presto! a watertight bung!). Sadly, there wasn't. If you find such a thing, let me know, as it'll probably be better than my device.

The project also requires some teflon tape (it's cheap, and worth having on hand for minor plumbing repairs) and a bit of silicone (I had some left over from sealing leaks around a window). Unlike normal plumbing, the water in the barrel will not be under pressure.

First, place the male end of the joint on the side of the barrel, near the bottom. Trace around it so you'll know how big a hole to make. Then drill small holes all the way around. When you're done, the bits between the holes should be easy to cut with an Olfa knife.

I knew this project was on-track when the resultant hole looked like it had been chewed by hearty city mice. Don't worry, it needn't be pretty. This is, after all, a grey-water barrel. And the hole will look better when it's done.

Check that the male end of the connector fits snugly into the hole.

Next, wrap the male threads on the faucet in teflon tape, then screw it into the connector. The teflon tape provides a watertight seal.

Run a generous bead of silicone around the hole. This will provide the seal between the barrel and the connector. Insert the connector so that the valve points down (that is, so it'll drain properly when you stand the barrel up to actually use it). Run your finger around the joint to smooth the silicone. Probably a good idea to put a bead on the inside of the barrel, too.

And shazam! You're done. Now let it dry, then take it outside and test it for leaks, as I will do with mine in the morning.

***Note: The "indoor/outdoor" silicone I used proved to be a mistake. It wasn't water-resistant and broke down. A better caulk might have worked, or the faucet kit from Lee Valley (There's a link to it in the comments section). I later fixed the problem using nuts and washers, and wrote about it here.***

Friday, April 17, 2009

Quick Fixes

I've written before that every household needs a good, fairly comprehensive repair manual. There are a couple reasons for this. First, a lot of basic maintenance and repairs are simple and really not worth the hassle of calling a landlord about. After all, not everyone's landlord is helpful. Or competent. Plenty of tenants have complained about the shoddy patch-up jobs or scary wiring work of their landlords (please, landlords everywhere, hire a decent electrician!).

But there are other good reasons. Some green projects require a few construction-related skills that you may not have. And if your landlord's letting you do 'em, you'd better do 'em right and make 'em look pretty.

That said, my favourite general repair manuals are big, cost more than $40 and contain a lot of material that renters just don't need. I mean, how often is a tenant going to be insulating an attic or hanging a curtain wall?

A new book just came across my desk that brings us a lot closer to the sort of repair manual that a tenant needs. It's DIY Quick Fix, a spin-off on the successful Do It Yourself book that came out a couple years ago. Like its cousin, DIY Quick Fix is an American title Canadianized by Jon Eakes. (A pet peeve of mine is manuals that give instructions that don't meet Canadian building code requirements.)

The Quick Fix is a small, spiral-bound book, which means it'll lie open to the right page for easy reference. It's also got a cover price of $20, about half that of the full manual.

Best of all, the 100 repairs in it are comparatively small things, and include many that a tenant may need to take care of. It's a great list, including fixing paint drips to replacing a broken bathroom tile, patching a hole in the drywall, repairing a drawer handle and replacing a broken electical receptacle.

Some, such as instructions on how to patch simple leaks in water pipes, will also have environmental benefits. After all, landlords and their repair folk don't always show up quickly and a lot of water can leak while you wait. And your stuff is getting wet.

More than a good green book, this is a good buy for tenants. It'll help you keep your pad looking good and functioning well, and if you live in a place with mandatory deposits, it'll probably pay for itself when you move out and don't lose money to the landlord for that hole in the drywall that happened when your college drinking buddy was over and... well, that's a story for another blog.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring gardening and a peat alternative

First off, I apologize. I like to start each post with a nice photo. But I've been busy in the garden today, and am just sitting down with a coffee out on the back porch. And really, the yard is mostly dirt right now. Nicely raked dirt, but still, dirt.

Last year I prepared my first beds with peat moss and sheep manure. I expect they'll do very well. But I was uncomfortable buying so much peat. You see, peat is a non-renewable resource. There's quite a bit of it around. It grows in bogs up north. The bogs are fascinating places, teeming with wildlife, and I've enjoyed every minute of my life that I've spent among them. Yes, even with the blackflies.

But peat bogs form very slowly, over hundreds, even thousands of years. So I was quite happy to find an alternative, aptly named Beats Peat. I picked up a couple bricks at a home improvement store a couple blocks away. The stuff is made out of coconut husks, which are abundant and would otherwise be a waste product. In the garden, they work like peat moss, loosening the soil, absorbing moisture and providing the rich humus layer that's so neded, especially in one of my beds, which was mostly clay.

Some of the other beds have been top dressed with a thin layer of straw and rabbit poo, thanks to Emma and Amanda, the bunnies who live upstairs. More of this is in the compost bin, which is working away very nicely. There are robins playing on top of it right now (a sure sign of spring).

Weather permitting, I'll plant my first outdoor seeds tomorrow: peas, fava beans, radishes and arugula. Inside, some 300 seedlings are growing happily, just waiting until it's save to go outside. And the garlic that Graham and I planted last fall is doing very well. It's planted in rings around the roses, as it's supposed to be a good companion plant.

Today's work mostly involved putting a strip of chicken wire along the bottom of the fence. This is an effort to annoy the raccoons. I have no delusions about keeping them out, but at least I'll make 'em work to get my veg! As for the squirrels, well, we'll see.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How (and why) to fix a toaster

A few months ago, a friend's coffee grinder broke. Coffee grinders, like toasters and other small appliances, are often cheapter to throw away and replace than to repair. But think about the waste.

If you just don't like your small appliance anymore, or are replacing it because you need a new function (like a timer or auto shutoff on a coffee maker), then there are plenty of places to take working appliances, clothes, furniture and all sorts of household goods for re-use. And, as we all know, it's better to re-use most items than to recycle them. The city I live in, Toronto, has a web page full of links for such wonderful places.

Sadly, a lot of working appliances and electronics do end up going to landfills. These range from ugly old toasters to last year's cell phones. In 2000/2001, Toronto studied the composition of its garbage. According to a six-week sampling of 80 single-family households, goods such as appliances, small appliances, electronics and furniture accounted for 12 percent of waste. That's 116 kg per household per year. In those six weeks, the 80 households dumped 67 kilograms of small appliances and electronics. That's equivalent to almost a toaster for every second household in just six weeks!

This is one area where, according to the study, apartment-dwellers fare better. The study also looked at 826 households in multi-unit dwellings. The average apartment only tossed the equivalent of 4 kg of small appliances or electronics per year.

But still, even if every Torontonian threw away only as much as the residents of a typical apartment, we'd be looking at about 4 million kilograms of small appliances and electronics in the garbage every year. That's about 2 million two-slice toasters.

So, what can we do? In some cases, we can fix 'em.

My friend pointed me to a nifty site, It has instructions on maintenance and repair of all sorts of things, particularly small appliances like toasters and coffee grinders.

Me, I like books, so I'm always on the lookout for a good book that'll guide me through a problem. Sadly, there are few books on the market today that instruct people on small appliance repair.

One that does cover some small appliances in a simple, straightforward way is How to Fix Everything for Dummies. It covers the basics and is easy to follow. It does not, contrary to its title, include instructions on how to fix everything. It does have instructions on fixing lots of things, from simple household repairs to small appliances. The small appliances section is brief, but does cover things like the upright vacuum, iron and food processor. It does not actually tell you how to repair these things, generally. Instead, it covers what I would call maintenance. That is, how to take apart and clean them, and some simple adjustments that'll give 'em a longer life. It also covers large appliances, heating and air conditioning systems, and lots of other household concerns. And at about $25 (Canadian), it's not a major investment.

Small appliances are a concern because they're bulky items to send to landfill. But the real danger is electronics. These contain many components that will leach dangerous heavy metals. Like small appliances, they're often less expensive to replace than to repair. Or at least so it seems.

If we factored in the cost of safely disposing of, or recycling, the components of most electronics, repairing them would be a much more cost-effective proposition. Right now, that cost is borne by the general public. My taxes pay for your waste. Not fair.

More often, though, nobody is paying for proper disposal. Cell phones, printers, old computers, they all too often are just tossed into a landfill. Future generations will end up paying through the nose for expensive cleanup projects as water and soil become contaminated. I'm a father. I don't want that legacy for my son.

What I would like to see is something called "Extended Producer Responsibility." That's a system in which manufacturers are responsible for their products, even after they've been sold to a consumer. When their life is done, the products go back to the manufacturers (or the manufacturers pay for proper recycling or disposal). Apply the idea to packaging, and you can bet we'll see a lot less of those hard-to-open, non-recyclable plastic packages on toys and video games. (If you're not sure what's recyclable and live in Toronto, see my post here.)

In the meantime, lots of electronic devices can be repaired. Some can be fixed by an average lay person. Most will require some legitimate training in electronics. I thought I'd hit paydirt when I found Troubleshooting and Repairing Consumer Electronics Without a Schematic. It's writtin in plain language! I understand most of it! Unfortunately, to actually make use of it would require a couple years of education that I'm sadly lacking. So, if anyone in my neighbourhood wants to field test my copy, you're welcome to it. Just promise that you'll repair at least one radio, VCR, television or DVD player and keep it out of a landfill.