Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I do apologize for not having posted in a very long time. Quite frankly, work has been busy and I haven't had time for many projects, much less photographing them and writing them up. Must get back to that.

In the meantime, here in Ontario we're having a provincial election. Just as in the U.S., elections mean attack ads. Ours used to be tamer, but they're really getting unpleasant. Unfortunately, as much as people say they're turned off by attack ads, the darn things do seem to work.

But what else can work? Can clever, innovative adds sway people's opinions? Whether it's the environment or provincial politics, I do think that clever can work. Not sure I've seen an ad yet this election that clearly hits the target, but here are two that I at least enjoyed watching.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Planting done, watching bees

Because I rent the main floor of a Victorian semi in Toronto, I'm lucky enough to be a renter with a garden. Today, I finished the spring planting with the melons, hot peppers and flowers including marigolds, gazanias, mums, lantanas and foxgloves.

Now I intend to sit back, have a beer and watch the bees at work. The foxgloves went in on the edge of a wild back corner, and will grow in that part shade to provide a visual break between the vegetable garden and the wild corner. The marigolds are scattered in the garden for a bit of colour and to keep something in flower all season. The lantana is right up near the patio to attract butterflies and bees for my amusement.

I've always been fond of bees, but after reading Keeping the Bees last month, I find myself wanting even more of them. Now they'll have more reasons to visit while my various other plants grow up to flowering size.

So far, there hasn't been a lot in bloom in the garden. The strawberries gave the bees some pleasure, and right now they're loving the chives, as well as the pansies I planted earlier. In a few days they'll also have the sage, which is about to bloom and this year is several feet in girth. Later they'll have various vegetable and fruit blossoms to keep their tummies full, as well as the flowers I just planted. And later in the summer the nasturtiums will begin cascading over the deck from the window boxes in which I planted them this year (very conveninet for salads.

What is in the garden this year?

Bed 1

(morning shade, afternoon sun)
Royal Purple Beans (which I plan to train up over the fence)
After this comes a big patch of mint, which I dry for tea.
Various lettuces

Bed 2

(centre, full sun)
Lantanas, chives and mums
Strawberries and chives
Buttercup squash
Honeydew melons
Canteloupe (we'll see if these take)
Down the middle is a row of corn, down the edges rows of carrots

Bed 3

(Morning sun, late afternoon shade)
Tomatoes (yellow pear, purple calabash, black cherry)
Red mountain spinach
Rainbow chard

Bed 4

(Deck, midday sun)
Nasturtiums (coming down from above)

I let the fifth bed, which was small and unproductive, go this year. The bit of lawn and the day lillies will soon take it over.

Garden costs

This spring I put edging around the beds and to isolate the mint (which is incredibly invasive). Cost about $50
Seeds. Mostly used leftovers from previous years, so about $15
Plants. Started most from seed. Spent less than $25
Fertilizers. Nothing. Top dressed with two wheelbarrows of my own compost.
Total: under $100

The first two years, when I was preparing the beds, were the most expensive, as I needed to improve the soil, buy hoses and lots of seeds, etc. Still, I doubt I spent more than $200 even in that first year. Here on in, the garden will probably cost me about $50 a year. It's about 400 square feet of planting area, and the lettuces alone will pay for the costs. Then there's everything else. And the real benefits are watching all the birds and insects that come, not to mention the incredible flavour of truly fresh veg in the city.

Next week the garden should provide my first salad. I can hardly wait!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Spring carrots

I thought I'd hit the jackpot. When the snow melted, the tops of carrot plants poked out through the soil. The last crop from last year that had been too small to pick in the fall had come up!

A grand new strategy! Plant in autumn, eat in spring!

Sadly, no. I chose some plants that were readying to bolt this week. The roots were generally small and those that weren't had pale, somewhat spongy interiors.

No spring carrots for me, after all. But a lesson learned, and now some room for flowers. I'll be choosing flowers that a) I like, b) are bee-friendly, and c) may help repel or distract pests.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Keeping the Bees

When I first moved into the Green Tenancy with its tangle of a backyard, I had a notion of keeping bees. It was one shared by an upstairs neighbour who daydreamed of apiary. Sadly, it was a dream we could not fulfill because doing so would put us in contravention of the Ontario Bees Act.

But not being allowed to keep honeybees doesn't mean you can't enjoy bees or the pleasures of amateur mellitology.

Bees are an absolute necessity for any gardener. They pollinate our fruit and veg, making it possible for us to grow most of our food crops (though grains and corn generally work without 'em). Over the last few years, I've been enjoying watching the various bumble bees, hornets and swat bees (I think that's what they are) buzzing around my various flowers.

Last week, I sat down with a copy of Keeping the Bees, an excellently written and very lively book by York University mellitologist Laurence Packer. If you like bees or gardening, this book is a must-read. Not to mention a fun read.

It contains more than just an overview of bees, bee genetics, bee habitats and a solid argument for using them as environmental indicators. It also shares the author's incredible passion for his subject and provides some great ideas for urban gardeners. Here are a few tips I picked up from the last chapter:

  1. Plant a variety of flowering plants, particularly native species. Some ornamental flowers aren't very bee-friendly, many native plants are. A variety of plants is good for a garden anyways, and it seems my mixture of strawberries, peas, beans, tomatoes, flowers, triffid-like squash and more is as good for the bees as it is for my plate.
  2. Plant some raspberry or blackberry canes and don't chop them down at the end of the season. Some bees live inside old canes, which is really cool. Besides, these brambly vines produce excellent fruit for eating and for attracting birds (which, like wasps, are great natural predators of common garden pests). I planted blackberry canes in the back alley this year. If they grow anything like the ones I had in London, then they'll likely deter the raccoons a bit, too.
  3. Provide nesting sites. In addition to blackberry canes, you can stake tomatoes with bamboo. Leave the stakes out year-round to provide bee habitat. Carpenter bees also like holes in wood. I tossed an old tree trunk in one corner of the garden that I let go wild. That corner has sprung up with bee-friendly wildflowers such as goldenrod, as well as mint and several other plants, and I've no doubt that both the soil and the old trunk are now home to all sorts of nifty insects. Will have to go back there with my son and a magnifying glass to check it out sometime.
  4. Buy organic food when possible. Many pesticides are bad for bees, either killing them or sterilizing them. Kind of a silly practice when you consider that bees are important pollinators for most non-cereal crops. As Packer points out, "You can help the bees in this way even if you live in a high-rise without a balcony."
  5. Encourage politicians to support bee-friendly policies such as planting wildflowers on verges, banning cosmetic pesticides or letting areas of parks grow wild. To my city's credit, they've banned cosmetic pesticides and are letting several sizable areas in parks grow wild (which is far more attractive than you might imagine).
Luckily, many of his suggestions are ones I'd picked up from other sources over the years or had already done by pure coincidence. And I am enjoying watching several bee species in the garden, despite the predominantly rainy weather this spring.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Making a compost screen

This spring is the beginning of my fourth summer in the Green Tenancy, and a couple weeks ago I determined that it is finally time to empty the first of my composters. After removing the sturdy black plastic outer structure and a bit of non-composted straw from the top, I quickly realized the compost would need screening.

You see, different materials take different amounts of time to compost. Almost everything had turned to a nice, rich soil (and it is true that there's no odour save a pleasant earthy smell). But a few bits hadn't broken down sufficiently to go in the garden. Also, because of occasional thin layers of dirt added (it adds micro-organisms and speeds composting), there were a few bits of gravel.

I needed a screen.

Thankfully, I'd put the composter on a sturdy metal mesh. This I placed on top of the wheelbarrow, then shovelled some compost onto it. With my son holding the mesh in place, the system worked. But, being eight, he soon lost interest and I found the mesh wouldn't stay in place on its own.

Making my own screen
Because the mesh nicely fit the length and width of the wheelbarrow, I took it down to my basement workshop. On a shelf I keep some lengths of wood for whatever projects come along. In this case, I selected some old railings from a retired bed.

Normally I am an advocate of careful measuring, but this is no fine woodworking. Here's what I did.

  1. Set the mesh on the floor
  2. Cut two pieces for the longer sides. These I made so they'd stick out 7 or 8 inches on either end. This was partly to make sure they'd be long enough to straddle any wheelbarrow, but also to serve as handles for shaking the compost through.
  3. Position those two pieces on the mesh, with 2-3 inches left over on either side (to later fold up and staple into place.
  4. Cut two pieces for the ends, just long enough to fit inside the sides. Again, leave some extra mesh to fold up and staple in place.
  5. Pre-drill and nail sides into place. I used two nails on the end of each sidepiece and selected 1 1/2" (4d) spiral finishing nails
  6. Place the mesh on top, then push it down into place so that there's an inch or more of mesh going up the inside of the box on every side.
  7. Tack the mesh into place. Heavy-duty staples or U-nails make the most sense, but finding none handy, I just tapped finishing nails in part way and bent them over.
The result? Well, art it ain't. But it worked well. It stayed on the wheelbarrow, was easy to shake, and gave me nice, evenly screened compost.

What didn't compost?
Not much. Almost everything broke down nicely. There were some exceptions, though.
  • Rocks. Obviously.
  • Black olives. They were partway there and had turned red and cork-like on the inside. I put them back for another year or two.
  • Wood. Even the sturdy stems I'd lined the bottom of the composter with had broken down, but a couple larger chunks of wood had to go back.
  • Egg shells. Don't compost these. Instead, bake or boil them to kill micro-organisms, then grind them with your mortar & pestle and apply the coarse powder to the garden. It adds calcium (handy if your soil is too acidic) and may also deter some annoying pests (slugs, I'm lookin' at you!). We did find one whole, uncracked egg, which was unfortunate.
  • Rabbit poo. Some was still in pellet form, but with two years of composting, I'm betting it'll be okay for the garden, so I let it go through. The critters in the garden seem to have broken it down already.
That's about it. Two very full wheelbarrow loads provided a thin layer for all four beds, and only about three shovelfulls of material went back for another cycle. And I continue to send less than a pound a week to the city's green bin (occasional chicken bones, for example) and greedily hog all the lovely banana peels, apple cores and tea leaves for myself!

Oh, and I also keep my coffee grounds separate. I've heard they repel slugs, so am scattering them directly on the garden. We'll see if it turns the lavender brown.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Two smart things: dehumidifier and timer

Like a lot of renters, I have a basement space. And that means a choice between dampness and poor air quality or running a dehumidifier and eating the electricity costs.

This week, I did two smart things: I cleaned the dehumidifier and bought a timer.

Before going further, in the interests of clarity I should state that I rent the ground floor and basement of a Victorian semi. The basement in question is home to my son's bedroom, my office, plus storage and my little workshop.

Cleaning the dehumidifier
This was easier than I'd expected. One piece of advice: go outside or to a room with a floor drain. Even if you empty the dehumidifier, if it's been running there's likely ice which will melt and make a wet mess. Luckily, my workshop/furnace room has a concrete floor and floor drain.

The main thing to clean out on any dehumidifier is the air filter. On most they are above the water bucket and simply slide out. Oh, by "simply" I mean "with great difficulty." I've never owned a dehumidifier in which the filter slid out easily. This time I took the front housing off to make it easier (just had to remove two screws and unclip it from the main body housing).

A quick rinse under warm water removed about a 3mm-thick buildup of dust that had clogged the air filter. Doubtless this alone will improve the machine's efficiency.

For good measure, I removed the back housing and wiped down the fan blades, which had a good caking of dust on them.

Has my energy efficiency improved? I don't know for sure, but can't see how it can fail to have improved. An added bonus is that the machine's annoying buzzing sound has gone away, making it much quieter. Probably just a factor of screwing everything back in securely.

Buying a timer
Where I live, electricity is priced by when it's used. Between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. it's about half the price it is at other times. This is why I do laundry and run the dishwasher at night. But remembering to turn the dehumidifier on and off was a pain, resulting in high electricity bills or a musty basement.

This week I finally dropped twenty bucks on a simple timer. There are cheaper models that work fine, but this one is a three-pronged timer suited for appliance use. Now the dehumidifier goes on at 9 p.m. and off at 6 a.m. and I no longer have to think about it at all.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pansies who love chicken wire

My son and I were cleaning up the yard on Saturday and he found a piece of old chicken wire. It was a cast-off scrap from a cage I'd built last year to protect our strawberries. Since it wasn't very big, I told him to bin it.

Then, on Sunday, I realized that was a mistake and retrieved it. Turns out this piece of chicken wire may be the solution to one of my biggest problems: squirrels in my pansies.

As my son potted pansies for the hanging baskets, I cut the chicken wire into rectangles to cover the surface of the planting boxes on my deck railing. Then I scooped out about 1/5 of the soil and lay the mesh on top of the remaining soil.

Then I cut four holes through which to plant the pansies, after which I covered the mesh with the soil that I'd removed earlier. This was repeated for three boxes and two pots down on the patio.

This morning, the unprotected front pot has clear evidence of squirrel tampering. But the planters with their new layer of chicken wire look undisturbed. If all goes well, this will prove to be the solution to one of my squirrel problems...and save the lives of countless innocent flowers!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Lifelong renters, lifelong environmentalists?

Lifelong Renter David Hayes shares his typewriter collection in his Toronto Co-Op

I was just reading David Hayes' latest Lifelong Renter column in the Toronto Star. It struck me as particularly interesting because I recently received an email from a reader whose company is promoting 10 reasons why it's better to buy a home than to rent.

Like most people, I often pine for a little piece of land and a tumbledown shack of my very own. But I'm a writer in a single-income household raising a kid and saddled with debt. I also live in Toronto. The semi across the street just listed for $630,000. Even if I could carry a mortgage on that, I'd never get the down payment together.

One of the reasons why I like David's column is that it reminds me, and others apparently, that there are good reasons to rent rather than buy. Around here, rent is often cheaper than a mortgage and condo fees for an apartment. As renters, if we take a job in a new city, we can just leave. Oh, and replacing the roof or plumbing isn't our financial problem. Also, in some cases people will be better off financially if they rent instead of buying. (According to the CMHC, renters almost always pay substantially less per month.)

But I have another reason to like renters: the environment.

Detached single-family dwellings are, compared to other forms of accommodation, large. In Canadians use a huge amount of energy for space heating, and the larger the house, the more energy it takes to heat it. Single-family dwellings are also exposed on all sides, allowing more heat to escape than in a row house or apartment.

Some people do rent houses. But in major cities, the vast majority are privately owned (about two-thirds in Toronto and Ottawa, more than 80 percent in Calgary and Edmonton).

Conversely, the vast majority of apartments in multi-unit buildings are rentals, as are a large proportion of townhouses. Because these are smaller, they take less energy to heat. Because they have shared walls and less exterior surface per dwelling, they lose less heat.

In other words, most renters are already ahead of the game when it comes to the environment.

Just one more reason many of the people in Hayes' Lifelong Renters columns can feel good about their choice. If you haven't read his column before, I highly recommend it. And if your renting story is one that might help others, then give him a shout. I'll look forward to reading it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It's curtains for me!

Inside and outside temperatures in August.
Left: behind heavy curtains. Right: without curtains

I've been wanting thick, insulated curtains for my bedroom ever since I moved into my apartment. The bedroom has big sliding doors that open onto the garden, which is a lovely feature in an apartment. But sliding doors are also big glass areas, and poorly insulated. Even the best new windows perform poorly.

The problems is that I live on a single writer/editor income and prefabricated insulated curtains cost a lot. I contemplated making my own, but there is a limit to how many projects a person can actually get done.

Credit for the solution goes to my parents. Always resourceful, they came across a store selling used hotel fittings while looking for window coverings for their own house. They recently moved into a place backing onto a highway and found thick hotel curtains a good solution to highway noise.

So, instead of buying new curtains, I'm re-using some from a hotel. Now that they're up, I can easily feel the temperature difference. The window side is very cold, the inside nice and warm.

The difference?
Right now, at 9:30 in the morning on Feb. 25, 2011, the thermometer in my bedroom is reading 17.3 C. (I like a cool house.) The thermometer placed between the new curtains and the window is reading 5.5 C.

The curtains cost about $30 and are long and wide enough for a sliding patio door. New ones would have cost at least $90. Were I to make my own, they could insulate better but the materials alone would cost more than my used drapes.

They are not fashionable. They're beige with a floral print. To be fair, none of the inexpensive insulating drapes are particularly fashionable.

What I did to get around this is hang the heavy drapes flush to the wall, then hang my nicer-looking red drape a little higher and further out. Were I ambitious, I could probably remove the decorative fabric from the insulating drapes and sew the thermal layer onto my red drapes. But for now, I'm just enjoying the warmth. And in summer I'll appreciate how much heat they keep out... not to mention sunlight when it's streaming in just a little too early in the morning.