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!