Category Archives: Green

2012 04 15_6995

Green household: outdoor clothesline

I have always been kind of anal about what clothes I will allow in the dryer (read:  none), partly because that is how I learned to do laundry, partly because it prevents shrinkage, fading and wear and tear, and also because dryers are a notorious hog of your household’s energy budget.  Second only to refrigerators in energy usage for appliances, about 6% of your energy bill can be accounted for by your dryer alone.

Since college I’ve had this little (okay, big) clothes drying rack from Ikea.  In spite of the negative feng shui, unless I wanted to impress new guests to my home, it’s pretty much always been open in my bedroom for drying all my shirts, jeans, etc (and also comes in handy when you feel like being lazy about folding clothes).  But it’s not terribly useful for large items like towels and sheets, so I’ve always relied on the electric dryer for those.

But now that I have a back yard, it was time to invest in an outdoor clothesline.  I purchased this one from lehmans.com and had Mr R attach it to a metal pole that was mysteriously sticking out of the ground next to the old wash basin I mentioned yesterday.  I guess it probably was some sort of clothesline before?  The other end I attached to the house.  The line works like a pulley so you can stay in one spot and not have to drag the basket of wet laundry down the line.

I hung my towels out first, and on a hot, dry day like today, they were dry in under an hour. And they smelled wonderful!  I pulled them down when they were 99% dry and popped them in the dryer for 5 minutes to soften them up — they do get a little stiff when air dried.

 

I realized later that extending the line underneath a mulberry tree might not have been the best idea.  But otherwise it would have had to cut through the middle of my yard.  Oh well.  I guess this just means I won’t be able to use it for a few weeks in June.

-R

2012 04 15_7013

Brick spiral garden

In this age of Pinterest there seems to be no end of DIY advice for re-purposing all the old junk you have lying around.  But uh, I don’t know about you, but it’s rare that I actually have all these things — old picture frames, vintage wine crates, pallets, etc, who HAS all that stuff?

But then, on occasion, I come across a project with materials I actually do happen to have.  It is like a lightbulb goes off and I think, HEY, I can MAKE that!!!  And it gets filed away on one of my pinboards, only to be forgotten until I stumble across the object and think, “oh yeah, I should make that project some day…”

Well here is a project that finally came into fruition, thanks to the beautiful spring weather and my eagerness to get into the garden.  I got the idea from this website when I came across it on Pinterest:  tutorial:  spiral herb garden. 

My house came with an enormous stack of ancient bricks in the backyard.  With summer approaching, I’ve been wanting to plant some edibles in my yard, but not until I test the soil and make sure there are no heavy metals lurking underground.  So I had been planning to stick to container gardening for this year, and here was a perfect way to get started.

I chose a sunny spot that was filled with weeds and daylilies like this:

Though the existence of the daylilies seem to indicate full sun, it is hard to tell now before the trees fully leaf out.  So I decided to stick with veggies that (supposedly, I’ve never tried…) can thrive in lower light — swiss chard, arugula, and cilantro.  As the spring and summer progress, I’ll reassess and adapt as necessary.

I cleared and leveled out the ground:

And as the tutorial explained, lay down some cardboard as a foundation and got started laying out my spiral!

It took a couple days to set it all up, with the help of Mr. R.  Finally I filled it with some straw and then a large bag of potting soil.

I started with some seed, but with the extremely hot, dry weather we’ve been having, and considering I am not home 24/7 to keep the soil moist, I didn’t have much luck.  So I picked up some seedlings nearby; hopefully this way I’ll be able to really drench the soil enough to last all day.

 

Gardening is always a little touch and go, especially as strange as the weather has been this spring.  And I’m new to this whole container gardening thing.  So we’ll see how this works out — hopefully I’ll have some fresh greens soon!

The next object I want to re-purpose into a container garden is what I think is an old wash basin, cemented into the ground next to my brick spiral.  I already had Mr. R drill some drainage holes, but, even in this warm weather, I think I’ll wait till beyond the average last frost date in May just to be safe.

-R

Naturally green for St Patrick’s Day

The 5 year old in me has always been drawn to bright colors.  I think there was even a point in my life where I said my favorite color was “rainbow.”  Truth be told, I am terribly mesmerized by the bright rainbow layer cakes I’ve seen all over pinterest.  I want one!

So I’ve always looked at artificial food coloring with a nonchalant attitude.  I know they can’t be good for you, but can they really be that bad?  What’s the harm in a little technicolor icing on the occasional birthday cake? Everything in moderation, I say.

But the more I read about artificial colors, the more I start to question.  The latest issue of Fine Cooking — yes, a mainstream publication –recently featured an article by Ellie Krieger on the hidden dangers of food coloring.  Ingredients in food dyes have been associated with cancer, allergies, and organ toxicity.  Some recent studies have also revealed a connection to hyperactivity in children.

So when it came time to bake some St. Patrick’s day cupcakes, it was a little difficult to justify unnaturally bright sprinkles or dyes.  But how can you make cupcakes for St. Patrick’s day without a little green?

To achieve the colors in her recipe, Ellie Krieger looks to nature — some raspberry puree, grape juice, matcha powder, etc all provide lovely pastel shades.

I was also able to find natural food dyes at my local grocery store:  http://www.indiatree.com/.

For St. Patrick’s day, of course I had to use this chocolate stout cupcake recipe with Swiss buttercream frosting.  Yum!

The colors were not as saturated as artificial dyes.  This made my inner 5-year old sad.  But it probably also made my inner 5-year old less prone to hyperactivity too.  Well worth the trade-off in my opinion!

-R

 

 

 

An early start to spring?

It hit 80° at BWI today.  There are tulips blooming outside of my office.  Now I can tell you that there are usually tulips blooming when my birthday comes around…in mid-April.  So I guess we are a month ahead in weather this year!

Another way we’re a month ahead — last week I totally harvested the broccoli and kale I planted in my old garden this fall.  I checked the photos I took of my garden last year — yep, date stamp of April 3.  Crazy!

I actually got a SECOND crop of broccoli this past weekend.  I had chopped off the large heads the first time around, and sure enough they came back with enough little heads to make another meal.

(Please excuse the bad iphone photo…why do I ever go anywhere without my camera?!)

And the beautiful Russian red kale was absolutely abundant.

I picked a whole grocery bag full the other week, made some pasta with kale and lentils and still had some left over to freeze for some green monster smoothies (more on that later!)  And came back this past weekend for yet another batch.  Barely looked picked over.

Normally these cold weather vegetables sort of just survive all winter…go dormant.  But I am pretty sure these have been actively growing all winter.  It’s a little disconcerting, for sure…but hey, I’m not one to complain about an early demise to winter blues!

It’s time to start working out in the garden again — and in my new house, there is a lot of work to be done.  A LOT.  So I’m excited to get my hands dirty, but I know I need to avoid overextending myself and expecting perfection right away — I don’t even know how much sun I’ll get all summer!  Lots of old oak trees in my town…

Has spring come early in your backyard?

Spring cleaning with Castile Soap

Well the weather has warmed up enough now that I think it is safe to say winter is, for all intents and purposes, over (now watch for a cold snap, I’ve just jinxed it!)  Time to get going on all our spring projects!

It occurred to me the other day that I have over the past couple years accumulated a rather obscene amount of castile soap.  Which kind of defies the purpose of this all-purpose product, but when you find something that works, you just can’t get enough! I’ve found such a diversity of uses for this magic soap that I need to get it in every scent.

I realize that for most people, the thought of using the same product for your hair, skin, laundry, floors and countertops is a bit disconcerting.  Soap is made traditionally from animal or plant-based fats, and in this form has been used for thousands of years as an all-purpose cleaning agent.  In the 20th century, as natural oils became more costly, synthetic surfectants were developed, and changed the cleaning industry as we know it. These synthetic surfectants, combined with fragrances, optical brighteners, phosphates, and other chemicals, allowed new petroleum-based detergents to dissolve messes quickly, keep your underwear gleaming white (artificially, thanks to the brighteners in laundry detergent), and foam up a little easier in hard water.  People very quickly abandoned their boring old soap!

But this all came at a cost — to our health.  If you’ve ever gotten a headache just from walking through the cleaning aisle at the grocery store, then you understand.  According to the Environmental Working Group, many conventional cleaning products “contain ingredients linked to asthma, cancer, reproductive toxicity, hormone disruption, neurotoxicity and other health effects.”

Don’t you think there’s something a little wrong with the fact that the products we used to clean the surfaces we eat off of and the home we live in require a label like this?

There is an endless supply of simple and affordable green cleaning recipes online.  I’ve written about it here.  But this post is devoted to my beloved castile soap.  Not a day goes by where I don’t use it in some way.  I’ve amassed quite an array.  Here is how I use it:

Rose scent
My hand soap and face and body wash.  I dilute it in an old foaming soap dispenser at approximately 10:1 water:soap ratio.  I don’t actually measure this.  I fill the dispenser about a half inch with soap and fill the rest with water.  The point is that a little goes a long way.
Made from coconut oil, with nothing artificial, this soap is so super gentle on your skin.  The artificial ingredients in conventional face wash, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, are actually extremely drying and irritating.  They do more harm than good.  This stuff gets you clean gently and effectively.  My skin has been so happy since using it.
I refill all my hand soap dispensers with this too.  Most store bought soap these days contains triclosan, an antibacterial ingredient you want to avoid.  Not only is it implicated as a possible carcinogen and endocrine disruptor, it is just generally not a good idea to overload on antibacterial agents.  This is what encourages resistance and in the long-term provides NO additional health benefits.
I buy a big bottle of the rose castile soap and it lasts me almost a year.

Citrus scent
This is what I use for the laundry.  It leaves my clothes with a pleasantly clean and natural fragrance!  Here is my post on homemade laundry detergent.

Peppermint scent
Dog shampoo.  If you think conventional human soap is bad for you — take a look at the ingredients in your typical dog shampoo. I have a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and their fur is naturally oily which provides water resistance.  Regular dog shampoo would strip those oils right off, but using a gentle, oil-based soap gets her clean without being harsh.  As a bonus, I have heard that the peppermint and eucalyptus scents provide some level of pest prevention, though these products are not certified for that.

Baby mild unscented
Sometimes you just want unscented soap.  I keep a small bottle of this on hand for those occasions.

Lavender
Travel.  I have a small bottle of lavender that I toss into my bag when I’m traveling or going camping.  It’s a travel-size face and body wash, a biodegradable dish detergent when camping, and in a pinch I can use it as shampoo, for washing clothes, and cleaning messes.

I don’t have a favorite for all-purpose cleaning; I usually just grab one already in my stash.  I am tempted to try the tea tree oil or eucalyptus for this, but I don’t need to feed my soap addiction.

Avoiding toxin exposures from your home: flooring

This sounds totally lame, but perhaps my favorite element of my new kitchen is the floor:

It is so soft.  And quiet.  And beautiful.  And it just makes me want to sit down right on the floor just like the little Swedish model children on the front of the packaging it came in.

These floors, from afar, certainly look like your run of the mill vinyl but they are actually a product called Marmoleum.  You see, back in the day, before vinyl was invented or in wide household use at least, floors of this type were linoleum.  Yes, you may be thinking, BUT MY KITCHEN FLOORS ARE LINOLEUM!  But they are probably not.  Linoleum is made from linseed oil, not vinyl.

Vinyl was a cheaper alternative that offered a greater array of colors and designs, but it’s otherwise hard to understand why natural linoleum ever went out of style.  I mean my floor is amazing, I must say.  Aside from their natural beauty, they are water resistant, anti-static and easy to clean, extremely durable and more forgiving to damage than tile or vinyl, and they are naturally bacteriostatic.

And, branded as Marmoleum, it is derived from natural, renewable materials with a minimal environmental footprint and no off-gassing pollutants your home.

PVC Vinyl, however, is a cause for legitimate concern.  The manufacturing of vinyl creates an enormous amount of hazardous byproducts that are discharged into the environment, and vinyl never breaks down —  when you’re done with it, it will be here, on this earth, in a landfill, forever.  It’s bad news for your health too:   the phthalates used to make the material flexible are a known endocrine disruptor and possible carcinogen.  One study even found an association between vinyl floors and autism. Vinyl is a cheap material to produce and much of it is made in China with less oversight of manufacturing practices.  Lead, anyone?

This is not meant to be alarmist.  To date there have not been any conclusive studies conducted on the impacts of vinyl on your health.  But I personally believe that when there’s smoke, there’s fire…and I’d rather err on the side of caution.

So Marmoleum it was for us, and I couldn’t be happier.  We installed it ourselves with great determination.  This caught us off guard as one of the more challenging DIY projects, which for some reason we hadn’t anticipated.  I mean, they just click together, right?  LOL.

I was also insistent on installing them diagonally.  At one point, I was googling to troubleshoot an issue we were having and I came across a search result that said “installing floors diagonally on your first try is like trying to drive the Daytona 500 when you don’t know how to drive.”  Oops.  Good thing you didn’t tell me that before.

But we did it.  I won’t detail the step-by-step instructions here, cause god knows our methods were likely a little unorthodox.  I will say, however, that if we can do it, anyone can, so you may as well give it a try and save yourself, oh, a thousand dollars.  As one family member, whose advice we kept repeating to ourselves said:  “the worst thing that can happen is you’ll [eff] it up and have to start over.”  Which we did, many times, but still managed to have two boxes of tile left over.

Marmoleum was more expensive than vinyl, and a bit harder to find — the big box stores do not sell it.  When we added together the underlayment, tools, shipping, etc we figure it worked out to about $7/square foot.  You can often find last year’s colors at a discount, and I’ve seen it advertised occasionally at our local reclaimed/recycled/thrift hardware warehouse.  Armstrong, which is a larger brand of flooring, also has a natural linoleum line, and there may be others I’m not aware of.  But our kitchen is pretty small, and even at that price it wasn’t something that was going to break the bank.

But truly, a healthy home is priceless, no?

-R

Streetcar suburbs, bungalows, and the American craftsman movement: a brief history

In spite of all the HGTV I watch, to be honest, I didn’t know much about what a bungalow is until I decided to buy one. And of course, once I did learn about them it just gives me another reason to feel smug about my decision to live in a uh, “up and coming” neighborhood instead of the cushy 1990s-era suburbs where I grew up ;).

Bungalows perhaps exemplify the Arts and Crafts movement, which began in Britain as a rejection of both over-wrought, ornate Victorian styles, as well as, according to Wikipedia, “the Industrial Revolution, with its disregard for the individual worker and degradation of the dignity of human labor.”  Craftsman design seeks to emphasize clean, simple lines and handmade craftsmanship over the mass-produced.

William Morris, Artist, Utopian Socialist, and Father of the Arts and Crafts Movement (photo from Wikimedia commons)

Throughout the United States, the original suburbs began to pop up on the outskirts of major cities as streetcar lines were built — Mount Rainier is one such “streetcar suburb.”  In the early 20th century, you could purchase a little plot of land in these early developments, select and build your own home from the Sears catalogue, and live out the American dream.

Bungalows were designed to be accessible to your average American worker.  They are small but efficient — definitely no “bonus rooms” or wasted space here.  Designed “for the people,” bungalows introduced certain design elements that would never have been found in Victorian-era homes — for example, the eat-in kitchen, for families to gather while meals were prepared, since servants were not doing the work.

A typical craftsman bungalow in Seattle (Photo from wikimedia commons)

Once the automobile achieved its prominent spot in society and streetcars were dismantled, these close-in communities began to decline alongside their urban counterparts in the shadow of the more distant suburbs and exurbs we know and love (or love to hate) today.  As developers, rather than homeowners, began designing people’s homes for them, neo-eclectic homes, with little creativity but lots of square footage and prominent garages, of course, began to dominate architectural styles.  But these days, with McMansions falling out of favor and ever longer commutes, the historic streetcar suburbs may make a resurgence.

Yeah, what the heck is this? (photo from wikimedia commons)

Old homes may be a hassle, but in the long run, it has been found that restoring the existing housing stock is greener and more efficient than continual expansion of new construction.  I take comfort in the fact that while my house may need some modernization and cosmetic updates, it has been standing for 90 years, and was built with the loving hands of its owners rather than some developer who is solely concerned with the bottom line.  In other words, it’s got good bones.

It’s not something I ever knew about before, but these days I cannot drive through a city or neighborhood without trying to figure out what architectural style the homes are.  Funny how homeownership will do that to you!

-R