Saturday, October 25, 2014

Change The World Wednesday: Small Things

My friend Small Footprints has challenged us on her blog Reduce Footprints, to "amp up" or begin to do one little thing that can make a difference. She lists several things that we can all do to make a difference in our lives. These may seem like small things, but, it is the little things that add up.

Here are some of the things we do in our home that make a "small difference".

Paper Towels -  I try to use as few paper towels as possible. I find that we tend to use a lot of paper towels without even realizing it. I keep tea towels handy for drying hands and dishes in the kitchen. Instead of using paper towels for napkins, I have towels that I have cut up in large squares to use. You could also use cloth napkins that are available in most home stores.

Newspapers -  While I do recycle a lot of newspapers, I have found uses for them around the house also. They are great to use in the garden as a weed barrier. You can use them as book covers for your kids. The comics make great wrapping paper for children's gifts. And last but not least, newspapers are great for cleaning windows. They provide a streak free finish to windows, mirrors and windshields.

We have replaced light bulbs in most of the lamps and everyone has become better at turning off lights and electronics when not in the room. I also have lots of house plants to not only improve the air quality of the house, but they add that little extra warmth to the overall decor.

Water - My neighbor gave me a Brita water pitcher which I love! Now instead of buying bottled water, I can keep water in the fridge and use a reusable water bottle to carry with me.

While this may not seem like a lot, it does add up in the long run. If we all do just one thing or a few things, together we can change the world!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Chemical Free Weedkillers: Do They Work?

If you have looked in your garden or flower beds, you have noticed the ever present weed. If you are like me, you just pull it up and keep going. However, there are some pretty persistent weeds out there that can be daunting to get rid of to say the least.

In some areas of the yard and garden you can use "natural" weedkillers such as vinegar, borax, salt, or baking soda. Or, you could go totally green and just continue to pull them. I have several of those persistent weeds in my beds and yard. Unfortunately, I may have to revert to chemically treating them to get them under control. But, not just yet! 

Borax as a weedkiller can be good and bad depending on the amount used and the area you are treating. There are many recipes for using borax as a weedkiller on the web but, you do need to keep in mind that less is more in this case. A University of Wisconsin researcher has noted that too much boron will kill all vegetation. Since the chemical does not degrade please use sparingly or nothing will grow in the affected area. 

Salt is another option. But, which salt? Table salt? Epsom salt? Rock salt? Salt is salt so you can use whichever type you prefer. You need to exercise caution when using salt. Fertilizer is a salt so if you have ever used too much fertilizer, you know that plants can "burn up". It will also get into your soil and can stay there for a very long time causing damage to distant plants. Salt can be used sparingly  in driveways and sidewalks.

Vinegar is probably the most popular item used for weed control. Vinegar like salt, removes the moisture from plants. So while leaves may dry up and die, the root may still be able to produce weeds. Vinegar is not selective so it will kill whatever it comes in contact with. As with the above listed items, vinegar should be used with caution. 

Most recipes call for the addition of soap. You will want to use regular dish soap. Jerry Baker recommends that you do not use an antibacterial dish soap. The addition of soap helps the liquid to stick to the leaves and lets you know where you have sprayed.

There are some natural weedkillers that are available through your local home improvement center or the web. The recipes available for the above listed items are endless. Remember what worked for that guy in Minnesota may not work for your garden in Georgia. I did find this article that addresses some other issues with natural weedkillers. 

If anyone has tried any of these items as a weedkiller please feel free to leave your results below. As always, I would love to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Willow Water: Nature's Root Planting Hormone

We have all seen that one tree or plant that makes us wish we had one exactly like it. While there are many plants and trees that can be grown from cuttings, there are just as many that require a root hormone to get a cutting to grow. If you look at your local nursery or home garden center, you can find many root planting hormone products. These can be liquid or powder in form and require very little to get you started. But, why buy when you can the same thing for free?

I have been very fortunate with my plants. With the exception of a very few, they have all been given to me by friends and family. Most of my plants came from cuttings or were given to me as small plants that had a good established root system.

But, my neighbor has this beautiful blossoming cherry tree that I would love to get a cutting from! So in my quest for a greener way to do things, I started searching the web. I found this very interesting article on making Willow Water to use as a root hormone for plants. What is really great about this method is that it is easy, relatively fast to do and free! No trips to the nursery, no powders that may or may not work after an extended period of time, and I don't have to find a place to store anything!

Before I give you the recipe please note that you can use any member of the Willow family including pussy willows! So look around your yard or neighborhood or park for willow trees to make your own root hormone.

Willow Water:

1. Collect first year twigs and stems of any willow species,these have green or yellow bark. Don't use older growth that has brown or gray bark.

2. Remove all the leaves as you do not need these. You can add these to your compost or mulch in the garden.

3. Take the twigs and cut them in to about 1" long pieces.

4.  The next step is to add water. There are a couple of ways to extract the natural root planting hormones:
     A) place the twigs in a container and cover with boiling water, as in making tea and allow the "tea" to sit overnight.
     B) Place the twigs in a container and cover with unheated tap water and let is soak for several days.

5. When finished, separate the twigs/stems from the liquid by pouring carefully or using a strainer. Your liquid is now ready to use! You can store it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 months.

6. To use, just pour some into a small jar and put the cuttings in the liquid and leave overnight or for several hours so they can soak up the plant rooting hormone. Then prepare them as you would when propagating any other cuttings.

The second way to use willow water is to use it to water the propagating medium in which you have placed your cuttings. Watering twice with willow water should be enough to get them on their way.

I can't wait to try this with roses and hydrangeas from my sister's garden and of course the cherry tree from my neighbor!

As always I would love to hear your comments. Happy rooting!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Raised Bed Gardening: Some Pros And Cons

This year was my first year to try and do some raised bed gardening. While the above photo is not my bed, hubby and I did construct a similar bed. Since this was my first year to try this, I am not completely sold on it yet. But, I am hoping that with some of my new found knowledge albeit trial by error, that next year will be a better year for me.

You can construct a raised bed out of almost any type of material. I used 2x6s that were treated. I know this is not the way to go now, but at the time I using what was within my limited budget. I also used weed barrier cloth that was given to me to line the bottom. You could use newspapers or cardboard to put in the bottom of your bed to keep the weeds away.

You can construct your raised bed from many different options depending on your budget. I have seen beds made with cinder blocks, cedar, re-purposed wood, and many types of stone including brick and what is known around here as "Arkansas flat stone". The possibilities are endless.

I think the biggest advantage for me with a raised bed was that it was easier to work. Because I filled it with compost, I did not need anything other than basic gardening tools to work the dirt. I also liked the fact that weeds are at a minimum since the area is confined. I really enjoyed trying to plan out what to plant where and how to maximize my space. Also, now that the season is almost over, I can use my bed as a compost bin which is a great advantage.

Other than the initial expense involved in constructing a raised bed, water is the biggest issue. Because the area is raised, it drys out faster and it takes more water to keep things growing properly. My tomatoes suffered from "leaf curl" which I later learned was caused from irregular watering. I would recommend that you consider how much you can or are willing to water before you use a raised bed. I do have a rain barrel and a soaker hose that I used but, I still needed to water on a more regular schedule.

If your soil is mostly clay or some other hard soil, or if you live in an area with contaminated soil, a raised bed is a good option if you want to grow your own food. This article is a very good place to start to learn what you can plant safely in contaminated soil. She also lists some of her own pros and cons of raised gardening.

Soil "shrinkage" is another disadvantage with this method. This is easily remedied by using your beds as a compost bin during the off season. Raised beds are nothing more than big containers so keep that in mind when planning your garden. You can go here to read 5 common problems and solutions with raised bed gardening.

If you fill your raised bed with compost, your ph should be around 6 or 7 which is neutral (good). I am not well versed in all the ph lingo but, I do know that you should have your soil tested before you just start adding things like lime and other chemicals. Lime takes a while to get into the soil so you will want to add that at the end of your growing season so that it has time to get into the soil.

Nitrogen is another nutrient that you will hear people tell you to add to your soil. There are plants that will naturally add nitrogen to your soil. You can also add coffee grounds to your soil. If you have access to chickens, their droppings are a good source of nitrogen for your garden. I found this article concerning nitrogen that gives some great advice on how to test for nitrogen in your garden.

Raised beds can be a great option for many experienced and novice gardeners alike. If you think you have a "brown thumb", I would suggest some fuss free plants to give you some confidence in your growing abilities. I would also start small if you have limited funds. Look around you and see what you have that can be re-purposed into raised bed materials. Think outside the box and surprise yourself with your own ingenuity!

As always I would love to hear your comments and tips!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fair Trade Coffee: Is It Really Fair?

I love coffee. I mean I really love it. I could and do drink coffee at all hours of the day and night. In my quest to live a greener life, I have had to look at the coffee that I don't seem to be able to live without for long periods of 5 hours or more.

There are a lot of words that are thrown around the "environmental movement" that are Greek to most of us. Fair Trade Coffee is one of them for me. Exactly what is Fair Trade Coffee? Is it the same as organic coffee? Is it readily available for the masses? Is the cost preventing most of us from purchasing it on a regular basis? These are all valid questions that you may be asking yourself. While there is a plethora of information out there, the jury is still out on how beneficial purchasing Fair Trade Coffee actually is for the "common" coffee farmer.

Fair Trade Coffee in a nutshell is coffee "that is certified as having been produced to fair trade standards." Now in theory Fair Trade Coffee sounds like a great idea.If we can use our dollars to purchase items that are helping others to get a decent wage, promote sustainable farming practices and get better import/export conditions for the farmer, that is a good thing right? I would have to answer yes and no. Yes, it is a good thing to help the smaller coffee farmers earn a decent living. It is also a good thing that these organizations help with better farming practices that are short and long term better for the environment. However, there are several organizations within the Fair Trade family but there seems to be little organization.  

Not all organic coffee is Fair Trade coffee. Organic refers to the growing methods used. Fair Trade is more of a social issue than an actual farming method. As most of us know, commercial farmers use harmful pesticides, mass production often using GMOs and destroying land unnecessarily in the process. By buying organic coffee, you can usually be assured that strict rules have been followed to ensure that the above listed issues have been eliminated from the farm(s).

So I know you are wondering about your Venti Mocha Latte with that extra shot of espresso. I mean when you pay upwards of 6 bucks for a cup of coffee, it should be organic AND Fair Trade in my opinion. Well, I went to Starbucks' website to set my mind at ease. This company has their own responsible growing program along with purchasing Fair Trade organic coffee. Starbucks coffee is available at most supermarkets so you can purchase your own to brew at home.

There are several organic coffees that are readily available through websites, grocers and coffee clubs. However, if you are looking for organic and Fair Trade, be prepared to dig a little deeper. Equal Exchange offers a variety of Fair Trade, organic coffees that are available here. For more information on the difference between organic and Fair Trade, you can check out this link.  This site has older data but, it gives you an idea of just how much Fair Trade coffee is being bought by grocers, coffee houses and the like. The latest data is from 2011 so bear that in mind. However, it does list several companies that only buy Fair Trade coffee which can give you a starting point.

Last but not least, your Fair Trade coffee should have the Fair Trade Logo on the bag. Below are the two most common logos that I found. Now if your pocket book cannot not afford Starbucks or Equal Exchange, Sam's Club sell Free Trade coffee and that is readily available at your local Wal Mart!

As always I would love to hear your comments on this issue. Please feel free to comment below!