Going Zero Waste: Furthering the Link Between Growing, Restoring and Environmental Conservation

Zero waste sounds like a lofty goal, and it is, but rather than be intimidated by it we should remember that “perfect is the enemy of the good,” or perhaps even the possible.  So while we (and this is a team effort between my daughter Elsie, wife Hilary, and me) we strive to do our best, we recognize that though we may not be perfect we can always do better than we do now.  So, when we say zero waste, we really mean minimal waste. We are taking steps toward dramatically reducing 1. the waste we put out for curb collection, and 2. our use of plastics overall.  This second point is important given the current crisis in plastics recycling.  Hilary is the one who has planted the seed for our family, but we all share a deep concern over environmental issues so she didn’t have to work too hard to get Elsie and me in board.  My passion for building and growing and restoring is inseparable from my environmentalism and is  rooted in my concerns about the impact of modern technology and consumer culture.  Our move to zero waste will, I think, intersect with woodworking, gardening, and restoring is interesting ways: these activities will help our efforts in some ways (restoring means reusing, and the composting we do significantly reduces waste), but will be challenging in other ways (the dreaded black plastic nursery pot for instance).

There are many really great blogs that cover zero waste living.  I’m partial to this one, but there are lists of other “top” zero waste blogs that give great tips on minimizing waste in the home: using travel mugs, switching away from liquid soaps and shampoos, buying in bulk, etc.

IMG_1401 (2)
We’ve been slowly moving toward zero waste for some time; years ago I switched to using shaving soap rather than cans of foam or gel and stopped using disposable plastic razors in favor of a classic safety razor.  This is a 1960’s Gillette I found at a garage sale. Yes the blades are disposable, but being steel, they can also be collected in a metal razor safe and easily recycled.

We are progressively adopting these practices in the home, but I’m mostly interested here in considering the unique advantages and challenges for gardeners. Later on, I’ll tackle zero waste issues in the wood shop.

Advantages and challenges

In some ways, we have already been operating on a zero waste philosophy.  Most gardeners do. First off, we compost everything we can from food scraps to  the cardboard rolls from toilet paper.  Very little from the kitchen goes down the garbage disposal.  Obviously, we don’t compost meat or grease, but just about any other scraps from the kitchen are fare game.  That equals a significant waste stream reduction.

There are however two  big sources of plastic in the garden that present challenges: the plastic bags in which compost, mulch, and potting soil are packaged, and the plastic pots that come from the nursery and plastic trays and cells that are used for propagation.  Eliminating these sources of plastic is challenging, if not impossible given our current infrastructure.  Here are the ups and downs and challenges and victories of going zero waste in the garden:

1. We produce a good bit of our own compost, and when we run out, we have the luxury of access to free municipal compost through the Marblehead transfer station.  It’s a great deal if you don’t mind filling up your buckets and trugs and hauling them in your own car (and I don’t mind, which is why my wife drives a new car while I drive a used one).

2.  I order my bark mulch in bulk and have it delivered, or I use leaf mold which I produce myself.  I like to use a coarse wood chip for the paths in the vegetable garden, and I also get that for free from the transfer station (see above).

3. Potting mix/peat/vermiculite.  Well, there is no getting around this one.  Until garden centers start selling in a “fill your own container” format, I am forced to purchase it in 1, 2 or 3 cubic foot bags.  Now, being that we are a seaside town our transfer station has a special drop off area for plastic boat wrap.  I am am still waiting on an answer at to whether I can deposit plastic soil and peat bags there.

4. Plant pots. This one is another tough one.  New plants, shrubs, and trees come in black plastic pots that range in size from small plugs and “six packs” to 5 gallon.  If you are going to buy new plants, there is really no getting around the fact that they will come in plastic–occasionally you will find peat pots, but mostly it is plastic.  The best bet is to recycle these pots as if you can (there are challenges for commercial recyclers) or reuse them at home for plant propagation over and over and over until they they break (then recycle them if you can).  If you are buying  trees or shrubs, try to buy them “B&B” (balled and burlaped), all of which goes in the ground and decomposes. I am also told that Lowe’s will take nursery pots for reuse and recycling (assuming you live near one).

5. Our goal should be not just to reuse or recycle, but to minimize our use of plastic pots all together.  It is great if we can recycle plastic, but there is still a large energy input required to do so. For propagating at home, try to use alternatives to plastic pots.  Currently I am experimenting with peat plugs, cow pots, and paper pots in place of the flimsy plastic cell trays that have a limited life span.

IMG_1398
Paper pot maker by Secrets du Potager.  Paper by the Marblehead Reporter

6. The old adage of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” still applies.  In the past I’ve purchased I don’t know how many plastic watering cans only to have them split, break, or otherwise fail after a distressingly short period of time.  No more.  Now I only buy used/vintage galvanized cans.  Occasionally I have some repairs to do, but they last for years and years, and when they finally rust through, steel is readily recyclable.

IMG_1389
I picked up this old watering can for just a few bucks because the copper diffuser on the head was bent and split in a couple of spots. Some light hammering, bending, and a little bit of soldering (visible in this picture as a blob of silver) returned it to service. Do I get bonus points for recycling rain water?

7. As money permits, purchase high quality tools once and you will likely never have to purchase them again.  That means less going to the landfill.  For instance, a pair of Felco #2 pruners may run you double the cost (they retail for about $50) of a middle of the road pair but they are very durable, easily resharpened, and most parts (most importantly the blades) are replaceable.  This means you don’t need to pitch them altogether and buy new pair if one component happens to wear out.  I’ve had mine about 15 years and they have seen heavy if not downright abusive use; I’ve replaced the blade once at a cost of about $10. I keep them sharp, lubricated, and clear of sap, and with some basic routine maintenance they work as well now as they did brand new. And by the way, I would not have even had to replace the blade had I not used them to cut some hard steel wire that damaged the edge beyond what I could grind out.  The other lesson is to not (overly) abuse your tools.

8. I’ve stopped buying plastic plant labels and switched to using wood or bamboo.  Both materials will biodegrade in the compost pie, though the bamboo will probably do so a bit faster.

Moving forward

The point here is not to be self righteous, but rather to talk about some of the successes we have had–this is tempered by the challenges we face and the places we fall short.  In the end though, it makes little sense to restore our backyard habitat or grow our own vegetables if we don’t do our utmost to reduce the negative externalities those activities produce.  I’ll continue to try new things and consult with others to find ways of reducing the waste produced by our gardening and thereby increasing the net benefit of our efforts.  I’ll be sure to report back on how the paper pots hold up.  Next year I will be creating a new garden area, and one of the ways I am going to minimize the use of plastic is to propagate most of the new perennials myself.

This fall I will put the garden to bed and return to my wood shop.  Expect another post looking out ways of reducing the waste stream from my shop. Gardening, building, and restoring should be acts of environmentalism, activities that that engender thoughtfulness and care and are a bulwark against mindless consumption   To minimize the environmental impact associated with these activities is not just something nice to do, but rather, goes to the core of the philosophy behind those activities.

 

Reclaiming Marginal Ground

I’ve written quite a bit on our efforts to restore the back yard, which, isn’t really a yard.  As a recap, starting about 5 feet from the back door our property rises nearly 20 feet over a run of about 20 to 30 feet.  You can see in the picture below the view across the first set of retaining walls that sit atop the rock outcropping.

IMG_2019

This outcropping of the Salem Gabbro-Diorite creates a low ridge that emerges suddenly from otherwise level ground and runs about 500 feet or so parallel to our street before dipping back down.   The formation is evident in a few of my neighbor’s yards, but is most pronounced in mine.  Turning this outcropping into accessible ground has been a lot of work: removal of invasive species, replanting with native plants, terracing, building steps, etc.  Challenging yet rewarding, and the work is ongoing.

Last year we terraced off a small section along the right hand edge of our property in order to put in a vegetable garden. The area had previously been overrun with invasive like multiflora rose and shaded by a Norway maple.  After removing these invasive we were left with an area of marginal ground.  The soil was relatively shallow (little more than a foot in spots), rocky, and lacking in substantial organic material.  The terracing helped increase the soil depth a bit and I was able to introduce some organic material into the soil.

Our first year’s garden was moderately successful.  Truth be told, I didn’t have very high expectations for year one, knowing how poor the conditions were.  Our tomatoes did O.K., as did the squash.  The beets really struggled, as did the eggplant.  I suspect soil PH and nutrients were at issue.  The soil was also pretty compacted in spots.  Despite those struggles I was happy that anything grew given how poor the conditions were before we constructed the low retaining wall and started the process of reclaiming that small bit of land.

Nearly a year later, we were ready to move on to step two which was to construct raised beds.  The goal was to buy ourselves a little more soil depth, increase soil fertility, and  ameliorate the problem of soil compaction.  In the early 2000s, I managed a community gardening program in Wilmington, DE run by the Delaware Center for Horticulture. The problems faced by the community gardeners I worked with in that urban environment were similar to what I am dealing with here: nutrient poor, highly compacted soils.  In Wilmington we had bricks and concrete in soil whereas here I have rock.  About the only thing I’m not dealing with–thankfully–is soil pollution (Wilmington had elevated levels of lead and arsenic).  Our solution there was also to build raised beds.

There is nothing complex about building raised beds.  The only real question is the type of material you want to use.  Obviously the fact that there is soil contact means that natural materials will eventually decompose and need to be periodically replaced.  Pressure treated lumber is less toxic than it used to be since it no longer contains arsenic–nevertheless, I didn’t want to use PT lumber in my veggie garden.  Cedar is rot resistant as is cypress but both were cost prohibitive.  I also considered Douglass fir, though that ain’t cheap either.  As this is a project on a budget (I have a Disney vacation to pay for) I simply used pine 2 x 8.  I expect I’ll get no more than three or four years out of it before I need to rebuild.  In the meantime. I am going to work on sourcing recycled plastic timbers like I used in Wilmington or perhaps I’ll find a source for cypress.

IMG_1255

The beds were assembled with simple butt joints fastened with decking screw.  I drove some stakes into the ground to stabilize the frames.  I filled the beds with compost, peat , and a bit of vermiculite.  That’s it.  Easy. We are going to use square foot gardening  to maximize out limited space–another technique that I learned doing community gardening.

IOFS5083

We are approaching mid spring and have already planted carrots, radishes, spinach, lettuce, and onions.  Elsie was if course in on the action.

IMG_1335
Elsie’s smaller and more nimble fingers make her better at sowing tiny seeds.

 

IMG_1346

As she planted she was humming and singing this great old song. I’ll post more as the gardening season progresses.

Teach Your Children Well

I often hear people say that “kids these days don’t know where their food comes from” or that “kids think food comes from the grocery store.”  That’s hyperbole. I’m pretty sure most kids beyond the toddler years understand that there are places call farms where food is grown and livestock are raised.  But, I understand the concerns implicit in these somewhat exaggerated claims: we are ever further removed from food production as fewer and fewer people make their living from agriculture and fewer people live in proximity to active farms. So, I’d like to amend the above claims to say that “kids these days don’t understand the work, energy, and sacrifice that go into raising food.”

It is not the knowledge of what a farm is, but rather, what a farm demands and what a farm means that we lose sight of.  It is the loss of the culture of agriculture that Wendell Berry has warned us about for almost half a century now.  My friend Jay (who works on the land) recently sent me an article about the need for a “chore culture”as a means for cultivating the virtues of hard work, commitment, and responsibility. It really struck home. These virtues have always been integral to the agricultural narrative, but of course translate into success in any sphere: family, community, and career.  This is part of what we lose as fewer and fewer people make a living from the land and mix their labor with the soil in order to meet the basic needs of the community; we have ever fewer people whose lives exemplify those core virtues of work and thrift and sacrifice and commitment.  No wonder we throw away so much food in this country–it is cheap not only in price, but also in the values we once affixed to its production. Our food is no longer set against a larger horizon of significant people, places, practices, and values.

We don’t all need to move onto a farm to revive the culture of agriculture.  Gardening is a great way to introduce kids to the connection between the soil, labor, and the food we consume. It also teaches care and patience.

IMG_1221
New raised beds awaiting soil, compost, and plants of course.  Over the next several months Elsie will be helping to plant, weed, water, and harvest.

I am also grateful for having the opportunity to include my daughter in the volunteer work I do at Appleton Farms where she learns about the effort that goes into the gallon of milk in our refrigerator.

IMG_1168
Chores need not be drudgery.  Helping me feed the Jerseys and the White Parks is also a chance for joy and discovery
E235CC01-B611-4321-A770-B89559C375DC
In my experience, kids like being given a task that they can take charge of and complete; it helps to follow up with recognition for a job well done.  In this case, putting out hay before the dairy herd is brought in for milking.
IMG_1234
Jersey calves are cute and curious.  They also need to have the poo brushed from their fur from time to time. Give a kid a job and show her that you trust her to do it and do it right and she will often reward you by exceeding your expectations.

When we visit my friend Jay, she understands the daily chores that go into the carton of eggs we use for breakfast.  She also learns what it means to be respectful toward and show gratitude for animals, even those that are being raised for food.

IMG_0912
Elsie has learned from Jay and his family that chickens don’t work for free.  If you want eggs, you need to provide for the hens. Chores at Jay’s farm are more fun because she is often joined by Jays kids Emma and Liam.

The point of all of this?  If we wish to cleave to the virtues of thrift, commitment, hard work, and sacrifice that we claim are the foundation for our welfare and prosperity, we must seek out the places where we can transmit those values to our children.  Those places are fewer and farther between, but they are there if you go looking for them, perhaps even in your own back yard.