September 21, 2012

Long Time, No Blog

I haven't been posting here for some time.  I'm sorry and hope you'll forgive me.  But, my silence hasn't been complete, I've just shifted where my writing is added to the Internet hive-mind.

I've started writing for the San Diego Free Press where I have a weekly column on free things to do in San Diego, SD For Free.  I also write other articles on topics that interest me, such as an article on San Diego's newest city park, Ruocco Park, that will be added to the website tomorrow.

If you'd like to follow my writings on the San Diego Free Press you can check out a list of my articles here.  As for this blog, I'll still be posting occasionally but likely not with the same frequency and most likely with a broader set of topics.  You're welcome and encouraged to continue to visit and hopefully you'll enjoy the new breadth.

Have a great weekend and I hope you enjoy some college football to celebrate the start of Autumn.

- John

July 24, 2012

A Month at the Farmers Market(s)

Farmers markets have been around for a long time, but are greatly increasing in number and popularity in the last decade as Americans become more informed about food and look to purchase healthier food while supporting local farmers and businesses.  As of mid-2011 there were 7,175 farmers markets operating in the United States, a 17 per cent increase from 2010 per the USDA.  Since 2002 the number of farmers markets has increased by 128%.

In San Diego we are fortunate to have a great climate for growing many items both seasonally and year-round.  There are also many farmers markets available to residents.  My favorite market in San Diego is the Little Italy Mercato and we have started many a weekend with a Saturday morning visit.  Another market we often visit is the Horton Plaza Farmers Market, which takes place on Thursday afternoons in downtown San Diego.  It's convenient for us because it's close to home and a nice place to meet for a family lunch during the week.

I like to purchase food at farmers markets for a few main reasons:

  • Fresh, healthy produce with a lot of variety
  • Supporting local farmers and the local economy
  • Many options that are certified organic and/or pesticide free
I often hear criticisms of farmers markets, primarily that they are too expensive.  It's true that there are many items at farmers markets that cost more than at a grocery store, but there are deals to be found and farmers markets can also provide great quality food at a very good prices.

For four weeks this August (8/4 - 9/1) our family will be solely shopping at and eating food from the two farmers markets noted above.  The one exception to this is for milk, which our doctor recommends for Eva, and is not currently available at the markets.  Our budget will be the average amount spent by Americans on food each month.  Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for a household of two persons the average monthly food expenditure is $496.50 and for a household of three persons the amount is $608.08.  These amounts are from the BLS 2010 Consumer Expenditure Survey, the most recent report available.  For additional information see the BLS website.

We have three people in our household, but since Eva is a baby I decided to use an amount between the figures for 2 and 3 person households.  Our budget for the 4 week period will be $550, $137.50 per week.

I'll be recording our purchases and the per unit cost, as well as other data on this online spreadsheet.  Hopefully this data will be handy if you're interested in comparing the costs at the markets to those in your local grocery store.

If you have a farmers market in your area check it out this weekend.  You might be happily surprised by the prices you'll find there, and it's a great opportunity to support your neighbors and local economy.  

Thanks to the Little Italy Mercato and Horton Plaza Farmers Markets and if you live in San Diego I highly recommend both of these markets as resources for fresh, healthy food and friendly, informative producers.


July 21, 2012

We are all good, we are all evil

The mass shooting Saturday morning in Aurora, CO has led to much commentary about the events, the perpetrator, and general commentary on the state of our nation.  Many of these writings are about the perpetrator, how someone with potential mental issues was able to purchase so many guns, and derision towards the deranged person(s) responsible.

I disagree with the idea that the perpetrator is an evil person, or different in most ways from the majority of our populace. Trying to separate people into groups of 'the good' and 'the bad' is a flawed premise and one that discards the truth of the complexity of all humans. Such groupings are simply convenient and make it easy to see tragedies like this as a rouge bad egg acting out. It is comforting to view such actions as aberrations that we can avoid by avoiding such persons or separating them from the rest of us in a jail or mental institution. This viewpoint ignores the ability that we all possess to do great good or great evil, and how close to the surface the desires to act in either way lie to the surface.

It is important to remember this dichotomy and a reminder of the need to consider ethics in our daily lives. Too often these topics are confined to the realm of spirituality and religion which is especially unfortunate given the decline of organized religion in Western societies over recent decades. I don't see the decline of adherence to traditional, organized religion as a problem in itself, but it is a problem if the moral principles and ethics lessons that are a part of many religions are not supplemented or replaced with teachings in ethics and morality on a rational basis that are missing nearly universally from our educational and cultural structures.

Indeed, even for those adhering to a religious tradition, ethics are often less a rational approach to thinking and living morally and more an idiosyncratic set of rules regarding particular areas of life.  To paraphrase Peter Singer:

Too often the word ethics conjures up an image of an older man in a cassock holding forth on the right or wrong of particular sexual preferences and acts.

Reading this description of much of Western traditional religious values (I'm Catholic and was raised Catholic) was so spot-on when I read it I was surprised I had never thought of it this way before.  Not to say that Catholicism, and other religions, don't have merits and redeeming qualities, but when I think of what areas of 'ethics' I most strongly identify Catholicism with the area of sex and sexual acts are easily at the top of the list.

My father-in-law has a saying; "People have the attention span of a gnat".  I have to agree with him, but don't see it as a necessarily bad thing.  As a consequence of our short memories and attention spans, we rely on societal norms and conventional wisdom to guide many of our actions and premises.  It is the rare soul among us that is able to change the broader conversations or the actions of many people with a speech or command. However, as a population our norms and mores are in constant flux - most of the changes taking place as do changes to our own bodies.  We don't notice them from day to day, but a snapshot taken a few years apart can show shocking changes that we scarcely noticed as they happened.

I typically write about the environment and direct my efforts to helping make the world a healthier place.  I don't see large changes in the world or even my small part of it as a result of my writing and truly believe that the majority of my efforts are for naught.  I write, and act, to change the world as part of a group working to push the societal needle towards a more sustainable future.

Like many Americans, I'm tired of bickering, pettiness, and triviality - whether in politics, our consumer culture, or TV programming.  We need to move the needle in our society towards a more rational, ethical culture.  Changes to gun laws, building more prisons, and having more security may avoid another movie theater or college campus mass shooting but humans are incredibly creative, clever creatures and we will always find new ways to destroy each other.  The only effective way to address actions like those that took place in Aurora is to help build a better, kinder, more rational place to live.  It won't be 100 per cent effective - nothing is ever guaranteed.  But we can all do our part to create a more ethical, happier, better place to live.

We don't need more apologies and sympathy for victims, we need more efforts to create a more intelligent, rational, ethical world.

Flying at the San Diego Airport? Check out Car2Go to Get There

I flew to Kansas to visit my parents a couple of days ago and got to use the Car2Go car sharing program in San Diego for the first time to get to the airport.  Car2Go is also in Austin, Miami, Portland, Washington DC, and Miami in the U.S.  If you're a member you can use your card to access vehicles in any of these cities.

Bonus: You can currently sign up on the Miami Car2Go site regardless of where you live and get a membership card for free, avoiding the $35 one-time registration fee. Use the promo code HEAT on the site to waive the fee.

There are a number of options for our family to get to the San Diego Airport.  I love this airport, primarily because it is situated right in the middle of the city, near downtown, beaches, and the bay.  Since we live near downtown it's a short trip to get to and from the airport, with a number of different modes of transit we can use to get there.  Below is a summary of the cost, time, and distance of these options, in order of my preference for getting to/from the airport from our house.
  1. Driving - Car2Go
    1. Time:  41 minutes (17 minutes driving and loading / unloading, 24 minutes walking to / from car)
    2. Cost:  $6.41 ($5.95 plus $.46 tax)
    3. Distance: 6 miles (5 miles driving, 1 mile walking)
      1. Note: The walking distance and time is currently increased because of construction going on at the airport.
  2. Taxi
    1. Time: 15 minutes
    2. Cost: $20, including tip
    3. Distance: 5 miles
  3. Public Transit - Bus
    1. Time: 1 hour
    2. Cost: 4.50 (2.25 per segment, no transfers allowed)
    3. Distance: 6 miles
      1. Note: The San Diego transit authority, MTS, does not currently have an electronic pay-per use option for traveling and exact change is required for bus and trolley rides which are $2.25 and $2.50 per trip, respectively.
  4. Walking
    1. Time:  90 minutes
    2. Cost: Free
    3. Distance: 4.6 miles
  5. Driving - Personal Vehicle
    1. Time: 15 minutes
    2. Cost: $2.76 for fuel plus estimated vehicle wear.  $10 per day for parking at airport.
    3. Distance:  5 miles
We have typically taken the bus, or a cab, to get to and from the airport.  Depending on the time of day the bus isn't always an option and a cab has often been our choice when returning from a trip and wanting to get home quickly.  After using Car2Go for an airport trip, it seems to be the most convenient, quickest, greenest option for getting to, from, and around the airport and central area of San Diego.

One drawback about Car2Go is that the cars only accommodate two people since the current fleet is comprised of two door, two seat Smart cars.  Also, Terminal 2 at the San Diego airport is under construction which makes the walk a bit longer than it will be in the future.  Once construction is complete in 2013, the total walk from the parking at Spanish Landing park to Terminal 2 will be a .2 mile walk away, just across Harbor Drive.  Car2Go vehicles can be parked at any metered parking space in San Diego without having to pay the meter.

For parents out there: I originally thought that Car2Go would not be an option for a baby / carseat but it is permitted under California state law. In 2 seat cars, a carseat can be used in the passenger seat, as long as it is properly secured and the passenger airbag is turned off. Props to Car2Go for also sharing this information, and utilizing a sensor to automatically turn off the air bag.
From car to plane in a hop, skip, and a jump.

Although flying itself produces a lot of carbon emissions, and reducing flights was part of my 'Top 10' ways to be greener when traveling list, it's a part of modern life that few of us can or will give up entirely.  Finding a greener way to get to and from the airport with Car2Go is a small step to help green my total travel plans that hopefully you will find enjoyable as well.

Happy travels!

July 18, 2012

DIY Vertical Garden Planter - Finished Product (Post 2 of 2)

About a month ago I posted about a vertical planter I made.  I wanted to share the finished product so you can see how it turned out, and share the final materials list and cost, in case you'd like to make one yourself.  I adjusted the design a bit because the upper shelves needed more soil than I originally provided for.

If you don't have much space in your yard, or just have a balcony or other outdoor space this design is great for getting a lot of planting space out of a small amount of surface area.  For a spice or herb garden this would work awesome.  For larger fruits and vegetables I would opt for a deeper planter or for optimum production in the ground.


  1. Saw
  2. Drill (with Phillips head bit)
  3. Tape measure
  4. Level (I didn't use this, but if you want everything perfect would come in handy to check yourself)


  1. 6 - 1" x 6" x 8 foot lumber
  2. 2 - 5/8 " x 1/2 " x 6 foot cedar fence boards
  3. 2" wood screws (box)


  1. Cut 8 foot lumber in half, resulting in 12 pieces, each 4 feet long
  2. Separate pieces into 4 groups, with 3 pieces each.  Screw together lengthwise at right angles to create shelves
  3. Attach first shelf at bottom of cedar fence boards to create base, putting screws through the side of the cedar fence boards, which are the vertical pieces
  4. Measure up 15 inches from top of base and attach next shelf, repeating to the top of the fence boards.
  5. Vertical garden planter is now complete. Add organic soil and plants as desired.
  6. If water is not draining down from the upper shelves, you can drill a few holes in the underside of the shelf, in the middle of the board to help.

I used Fox Farm Ocean Forest soil for my planter, my first time using the product, and it has been awesome.  I'm not always the best at growing potted plants and have been really impressed with the results.  I highly recommend this product.

My total cost for making this planter was 49.89 and the cost for each material is posted here.  I've been really happy with the turnout so far, and have my first ever banana peppers, serrano peppers, and paprika peppers ready for picking.  Here's a photo of the finished product.

Front profile

 The plants I'm trying out are (from upper left):

  • Banana pepper
  • Serrano pepper
  • Malabar spinach
  • Purple basil
  • Hungarian paprika
  • English thyme
  • Okra
  • Burpless cucumber
  • Dinosaur kale
  • New Zealand spinach (my favorite of the items in the planter - really awesome)

Thanks to the Horton Plaza Farmers Market, City Farmers Nursery, and the Little Italy Farmers Market for the plants. :)

Side profile
Happy planting (and eating)!

July 17, 2012

10 Steps to Greener Flying

Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight? They're single-serving friends.
- Fight Club

Today's post: how to be more environmentally friendly when flying. Suggestions are in a 10 top list format, although not necessarily in order of impact.
  1. Don't fly or fly less often 
    1. For most of us, flying is the biggest single contributor to our annual greenhouse gas emissions. One flight equals about 15% of our annual personal emissions. especially if flying multiple times a year. Cutting out one flight a year goes a long way towards being more 'green'. Plus, you might discover something really awesome closer to home.
  2. But sometimes flying is better than driving
    1. Driving solo in a car can produce more emissions than taking a flight, especially if over a long distance. Here's a calculator to help you determine which method of travel may be the best choice for you.
  3. Opt for direct flights over connecting flights
    1. In addition to saving time and being more convenient, taking a direct flight also produces fewer emissions than having a connection.  Takeoff and landing produce about 50% of the emissions of a flight so avoiding an additional stop makes a big difference on the emissions of a trip.  Also, a direct flight means fewer air miles because of the more direct flight path.
  4. Just say no to free food and drink
    1. As tempting as it can be to take full advantage of all the freebies on a flight in hopes of getting back part of the hundreds of dollars you paid for the flight and baggage fees, fight the urge to consume as many 8 ounces servings of soda and peanuts as possible on the flight.  It's tempting to fall into the trap of "it's free, I'm taking all I can" - the same mentality that can put placid adults into a frenzy over a free XXXL t-shirt at a sporting event.
    2. Most of the freebies on a flight are highly processed food and beverage items, in single serving containers that are often made of plastic and will likely not be recycled.  It's estimated that about 20 percent of the recyclable items in the flight industry are actually recycled.
  5. Take a water bottle
    1. To help stay hydrated, save some money, and reduce your footprint take a water bottle with you and fill up in the airport.  Remember it has to be empty to go through security but you can easily refill at a water fountain on the other side of the TSA vanguard.
  6. Take snacks and food with you
    1. Pack food to take with you. This will help to avoid the single-serving snack temptation, be more healthy, and save you some money if you can skip the terminal eateries.
    2. Some favorites of my favorite items to take, all of which are OK to take through security, are:
      1. Oranges
      2. Raisins
      3. Almonds
      4. Loaf of bread (freshly baked the morning of the flight)
      5. Apples
      6. Bananas
  7. Take public transport to / from the airport
    1. Public transit instead of a car or cab is a more eco-friendly way to travel, and helping to support public transit increases the likelihood of expanded routes and dollars for public transit in the future.
    2. Some cities also have options like Car2Go here in San Diego, which is an electric fleet of vehicles shared among customers.  Other cities, like perennial bicycle power Portland, have bicycle resources so you can cruise to and from the airport on two wheels.
  8. Pack lighter
    1. Everything put on a flight increases the amount of fuel needed to haul it.  If you can cut out 5 pounds, or take one bag instead of two, you can help to reduce the amount of fuel needed for a flight.  Having fewer, or smaller, bags will also make it easier to navigate the airport.
  9. Take a coffee mug
    1. This mostly applies if you drink coffee or other warm beverages. As with a water bottle suggestion, reusing and avoiding waste makes sense.  You can even double up a mug for both coffee and water to cut down on packing needs.  Highly recommend a stainless steel (double walled) option, with a really good lid.
  10. Give feedback to businesses and airports
    1. Let the businesses you interact with know your thoughts.  Whether it's a positive - thanks for recycling! - or a negative - can you please recycle? - companies are more likely to respond when they hear from their customers.  You can give feedback in person, via social media like Twitter and Facebook, send a letter to the corporate offices, or in any other way you can think of.  It's not complaining, it's giving businesses a chance to keep or increase your business with them.  That's something that businesses will nearly universally embrace.
Happy travels!

- John

Sweet home San Diego.

July 13, 2012

Simple Syrup - Cocktail Must - Recipe

Amelia and I are relative novices to the world of cocktail making, and generally prefer beer to cocktails anyway.  However, in our limited experience with making cocktails one clutch ingredient we have become big fans of is simple syrup.  Many drinks call for sugar and using simple syrup in place of stirring in sugar will help your cocktails to turn out more consistent, and ensure that you don't have undissolved sugar resting at the bottom of your glass.

To improve the legibility and ease of sharing recipes I decided to create an profile.  I really like the site and it makes it easy to convert recipes for different serving amounts.  Plus, there is a huge searchable database that we regularly use when we are cooking.

Simple syrup is very easy to make and our recipe can be found here.  We make extra and then keep it in a mason jar in the refrigerator so that we don't have to wait for it to cool every time we want to use some.  You can buy simple syrup in almost any grocery or liquor store, but as with most items if you make your own you'll save some money and also be more aware of the ingredients you are consuming.  Additionally, you can  probably avoid some preservatives or fillers in your drinks that you don't need.

Happy Friday and happy cocktailing!

- John

June 28, 2012

Recycling Habits

Old habits die hard.  I grew up without a recycling service and except for aluminum cans, which we could take to a recycling center for cash, we didn't do any recycling at home when I was young.  College was a different story and there were recycling bins in each room, as well as around campus.  However, college isn't quite the same as the 'real world' so I would count my first true experience with a recycling program as my years in Chicago - from summer 2006 through summer 2009.

The Chicago city recycling program when I lived there was known as the 'Blue Bag' program.  At grocery stores you could purchase a roll of blue plastic bags, and recyclable items were placed into these special bags and deposited in the same garbage cans as trash, which was put in the standard white or black plastic bags.  The blue bags were supposed to be separated from the trash and then sent to a recycling center for further sorting and processing.  Eventually the blue bags were replaced with blue plastic trash cans and the blue bag program was retired.  It was widely known as a failure and the city stopped even separating the recyclable blue bags from the regular trash sometime in 2008, a couple of years before the program was formally scrapped.

If you've lived in Chicago or are familiar with Illinois politics you probably wouldn't be surprised to find a poorly managed public service in waste management, or other areas of government.

Although the items I attempted to recycle in Chicago likely never reached a recycling center and are probably in a landfill tomb somewhere today, it was still a good learning experience in getting used to sorting the waste types and becoming more cognizant of which types of items can be recycled and which can not.  The obvious items like plastic bottles or aluminum cans were easy to remember to put in the blue bags and I was used to doing so from childhood and college.

Other items, however, were equally recyclable and I never thought to separate them.  Many items I continued to throw into the garbage because I was still in a worldview where that was the standard and I relied on the habits I had developed in earlier years.  For example, a toilet paper roll is just as recyclable as a newspaper or other cardboard product but I never thought of recycling them until I attended an Earth Day presentation at work and they noted that item specifically is often overlooked.

I continue to learn and adjust my habits to be more Earth-friendly and over the past couple of years have found many items that I wouldn't have put into recycling until I thought more about what they were made of and thought more thoroughly about what we were throwing away.

If you have a recycling program (or don't but want to get into the habit of recycling for the day that you do) here are some common items that you may not be currently recycling.

  1. Toilet paper rolls
  2. CD and DVD cases
  3. Batteries
    1. This is especially important because many types of batteries contain hazardous materials like mercury, lead, cadmium, and nickel. Many post offices and other stores will recycle batteries for you.
  4. Junk mail and other paper waste
    1. Almost any type of paper waste can be recycled and junk mail is a commonly encountered item for nearly every American.
There are many other items that can be recycled, and as recycling programs continue to evolve and new technologies are developed the list of items that can be recycled continues to grow.  

Contact your local recycling program for details in your area, and if you don't have a program already talk to your local politicians and environmental groups to express your support for one.

The best option is to reduce consumption.  The second best option is to reuse.  The third best option is to recycle.

June 27, 2012

Food Choices & Purchases

As I learn more about the environment and related issues the more I realize how connected the many parts of our lives are.  One area I have been reading on and learning more about lately is food and agriculture.  In my efforts to live in a more Earth-friendly way I have been trying to reduce packaged and processed foods from our diet.  This began because I simply wanted to reduce the amount of packaging we were recycling or throwing away.  I've tried to replace these items with unpackaged produce and bulk bin purchases for which I can use my own bags and avoid packaging waste.

An added benefit of purchasing unprocessed, packaged foods and produce has been that I've learned a lot about cooking and how to use these items in various dishes, and about the effects that different foods have on our bodies.  There are many, many foods in the world and I'm just beginning to learn about them but even in a short amount of time I feel that my worldview of food and food production has been greatly changed.  In addition to the culinary uses and health effects of food, I've also learned a bit about the impact that different farming methods and products have on the environment, and directly or indirectly our health as well.

Some things that are of import to Americans I wanted to share, since it seems that we often think that eating more healthy or more organic is prohibitively expensive.  I certainly thought this way but have found that eating more healthy has been a minimal increase in cost, if any increase at all.
  1. We spend a far smaller amount of our income on food today than in the past
    1. In total, Americans today spend 15.3% of our income on food, compared to 40% that we spent in 1949.  In other words, if we paid about 3 times the price we currently pay for food we would be paying a comparable amount to what our grandparents paid for food.
  2. Compared to other countries we spend very little of our budget on food purchases
    1. For the average American household, food accounts for about 6% of all our purchases during the year.  (This differs from the 15.3% above because that figured is in total and the 6% is calculating food expenditures on an average household basis.) The US has the 12th highest GDP per capita in the world, $48,100 per year.  
    2. Compare this percentage of income to a much poorer country like South Africa, which has the 105th highest GDP per capita, $11,000 per year, but where food accounts for 20% of purchases.  Or India, where food accounts for 35% of expenses and the GDP per capita is $3,700 a year - 163rd globally.
    3. In fact, the US spends the smallest percentage of income on food of any country in the world, while being one of the most wealthy countries.  Although it makes sense that food is a somewhat fixed costs in terms of quantity (a person can only eat a limited amount of food) it is telling that our food costs are about half of an average European country which have similarly high income per capita.  For example, Norway has a higher GDP per capita, $53,300 (8th highest globally), but spends 11% of their budget on food.
  3. The percentage of our population that is obese continues to increase
    As of 2009-2010, over one third (35.7%) of American adults are obese.
Although these figures vary somewhat between different studies and sources the overall picture is clear. We spend very little of our income on food purchases, and our health continues to be severely damaged by preventable diseases related to obesity (heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer).

In the future I plan to write more about food and how we are trying to improve our eating habits. Food and health are complex issues with many variables to consider, but eating more unprocessed foods is a simple first step to better health that has been enjoyable for us so far.

 to Honeycrisp

Switching from Golden Crisp . . .

June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day!

Every year we take a photo of Eva and I in front of a magnolia tree we planted in the backyard when she was born.  Here's a look at our first two Father's Day photos, we're excited to see how Eva (and the magnolia) grow in the future. :)

June 2011 - My first Father's Day

June 2012 - The Sequel

Hope all the fathers out there have a great day.  Thanks to my dad, Scott, for all the support over the years and to my grandfathers, Jack and Pat, for planting the gardening and farming seed in me long ago.

June 16, 2012

Sharing is Caring

Last week we picked up a Thai Chili Plant for free on Craigslist and planted it in the backyard.  The plant had a lot of chilis on it, and we didn't want them to go to waste so we picked them, and also picked a bunch of the lemons on our tree.  Since we couldn't use all this produce, we decided to put it out on the driveway to share with the neighborhood.

All of the produce was gone within a few hours.  We were glad to share with our neighbors, and I assume they were happy to get some fresh, free produce.  

Often, especially in summer, gardens can produce more of a given item than can be used by one person or family.  If you are in this situation consider sharing with your neighbors, they might have some produce to share with you as well. :)

Happy weekend to everyone!

June 9, 2012

The Problem With Pavement - Part 1

Don't it always seem to go, 
That you don't know what you've got
'Til it's gone
They paved paradise 
And put up a parking lot

- Joni Mitchell

One thing about my yard, and much of the San Diego area, that bothers me is the amount of concrete, asphalt, and other pavement that cover much of the land area - including the entirety of many yards.  For example, at right is a photo of my neighbor's backyard.

We live about a mile from San Diego Bay and less than 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean.  This is an area that gets frequent dew, has a very temperate climate, and relatively high humidity (around 75 percent) year-round.  Although San Diego doesn't get much rainfall each year, about 12 inches in our area, the climate is very well-suited to growing many types of plants with little to no watering required.  It's disheartening to me that paving over the land is the preferred option for many in the area.  This is in addition to the roads, freeways, sidewalks, driveways, commercial and residential buildings, and many other structures covering the ground.

The amount of paved surfaces and structures covering the ground leads to issues with urban runoff.  Urban runoff is the problem created when pollutants (oil, grease, trash, etc.) are directed to water sources like bays, rivers, and oceans.  Paved surfaces reduce the ability of the ground, plants, and other natural materials to filter and slow the progress of pollutants traveling to water sources.  Due to impervious surfaces like pavement, the runoff produced by a typical city block produces 9 times more runoff than a wooded area of the same size.

In San Diego, all public storm drains send water directly to the ocean, without any treatment or filtering.  This means that when there is rainfall all of the trash (cigarette butts, wrappers, animal wastes, roadkill, motor oil, gasoline, dirt, litter, etc.) are sent to the water we swim, surf, fish and play in.  As a result of urban runoff there are regular beach closures of the Pacific Ocean in the San Diego area.  The Pacific Ocean is the largest body of water on earth.  That is ridiculous.

There are a number of things that can be done to reduce urban runoff and I plan to write a number of posts on the topic, this is the first.  I wanted to start with one of the most simple and obvious ways to reduce urban runoff - by reducing the amount of pavement.

Along one side of my house there is a strip of land about 2 feet wide and 35 feet long.  It's not structural concrete or necessary for the support of our home.  I believe it was leftover material from pouring the driveway and put down to avoid weeds growing along the house.  Given that our property cost about $100 per square foot of the lot, that is $7,000 worth of lot that isn't doing anything for us.  From a monetary perspective as well as an environmental one it makes sense to use this space in a better way.

I decided to plant some climbing plants along the reed fencing to give us some additional privacy.  These plants will also reduce the noise level in our yard and home and help to improve the quality of air coming in our windows.  Additionally, I selected plants that have pleasant scents, and that are attractive to birds, butterflies, and other local wildlife.  My initial plant selections are:
  1. Wild desert grape (Southern California native)
  2. California blackberry (California native)
  3. Fuggle hops

Since the pavement in this area of the yard is pretty thin I only needed a sledgehammer and a masonry chisel to get the job done. I'm hoping to pull out our driveway in the coming months but need to find a jackhammer first.  If you're attempting to remove concrete from your yard I'd recommend using a jackhammer for an area of large size, or for strong / thick concrete.  Also, take care when using a sledgehammer to not hit your hands.  I made the mistake of smashing my right index finger (twice) and haven't been able to type properly for a few days.  Thankfully, no major damage and the finger should be back to normal in no time.

Ready to start.
Ready for planting. 
After clearing out a space for planting I found that the soil underneath was pretty good quality.  I added the plants (1 gallon container size, from City Farmers Nursery) and a bit of organic soil on top for additional nutrients.

The newly added Fuggle hops (fore) - looking forward to some beer brewing.
This area is pretty shaded so I selected plants that didn't need a lot of sun.  A bonus of the shaded area is that the water requirements are minimal - it's nice and cool all year-round in this space.

The wild desert grape I planted a few weeks ago - the  vine is climbing well.

Although Joni Mitchell wrote Big Yellow Taxi about a disappointing visit to Hawaii, the sentiment of the song is equally applicable to San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, and many other beautiful places in the U.S. and abroad.  Hopefully small efforts like removing a bit of pavement can help to make the parking lots we live in a little greener.

June 8, 2012

Free Friday on Craigslist

The 'Free' section on Craigslist is a great resource for finding free items you can use, or for getting rid of items you no longer want.  Today I picked up a thai chili pepper plant on the way home from happy hour.  As with any new plant, I was stoked to add it to the yard and am looking forward to cooking with the peppers and learning more about the plant.

Up close with the peppers - red and some green / black

Nice looking plant, nice looking ride

We made guacamole tonight with one of the peppers.  Here's look at the ingredients before making the guacamole.  The peppers are hot!  We only used one and it was pretty spicy.

Tonight's guacamole: juice of one orange and one lime, 4 cloves garlic, 2 fuerte avocados, one thai chili pepper, dash of salt and pepper.

Have a great weekend and check out Craigslist for some awesome free stuff. :)

My weekly 'end of the week' message for Amelia.

June 4, 2012

DIY Project - Vertical Garden Planter

I ended up tweaking the design for this planter after a month of seeing how it worked.  Please see updated design here.


the start of a new month, I had a new plant budget to work with, so I was antsy to get to the ever-fabulous City Farmers Nursery today and see what new treasures they would have to add to my yard.  I was not disappointed and found many new plants to bring home and try out, and also picked up an idea for how to add them to the yard without taking up too much space.

On display at the nursery was a vertical garden box that I really liked the look of. Since I was headed to Home Depot to pick up some paint on the way home anyway (we're painting the exterior of our home) I figured I'd try my hand at making a vertical planter to use in our yard.  I thought that others might be interested in this design since it's a great way to get a lot of garden out of a small space.


Vertical gardening is exploding in popularity in many different forms these days, from Manhattan condos with living walls to 150 foot 'supertrees' in Singpore and everything in between.  (Both of those articles are awesome and highly recommended.)  For many people, vertical planters are a functional and easy introduction to using space and resources like light, water, and fertilizer in a more efficient way.

Below is a breakdown of the design I used for my vertical planter, along with some notes and photos.  The biggest advantage of a vertical planter is that you can get 3, 4, or more times the planting space as if you used just the ground on which the planter sits.  Additionally, with a design like this one the water you use can trickle down from one box to the next, maximizing the absorption and utility of your watering.  Fertilizers can similarly be added to the upper boxes and drip down, to a limited extent.  You can also utilize the shading of the lower boxes to plant different varieties of plants (with the most sun-loving on top, to those more sun-averse on the bottom).

Project Plan: Vertical Garden Planter


  1. Saw
  2. Drill (with Phillips head bit)
  3. 30 - 1.5 inch screws
  4. Tape measure
  5. Level (I didn't use this, but if you want everything perfect would come in handy to check yourself)
  1. 5 - 1" x 6" x 8 foot lumber
  2. 2 - 5/8 " x 1/2 " x 6 foot cedar fence boards
  1. Cut 8 foot lumber in half for 4 foot sections
  2. Take 3 of these sections and screw together at right angles (see photo, this is the base)
  3. Take 6 sections and screw together into pairs, at a 45 degree angle (these are the 'shelves')
  4. Attach base to bottom of cedar fence boards
  5. Measure up 15 inches from top of base and attach one of the 'shelves' created in step 3
  6. Measure up 15 inches from top of lowest shelf and attach next shelf.  Repeat for third shelf as well.
  7. Vertical garden planter is now complete.  Add organic soil and plants as desired.
Here's a photo of the (almost) finished product.  I still need to add the last shelf in but Eva was ready for dinner and it's hard to screw boards together with an infant on one arm.  I'll add some photos when the soil is added and everything is growing.

Below are notes on the new yard additions, starting from the top left.  Not all of these plants will stay in the planter, some are too large or needed in other areas of the yard but I liked the presentation for a photo.

  1. Purple basil - for cooking.  We love basil!
  2. Scarlet milkweed - I've been wanting to add milkweed to the yard for awhile since it's highly attractive to monarch and other species of butterflies.  We'll see how it goes.
  3. California blackberry - to attract birds and for eating the berries.  Will go in a narrow area that's mostly shaded next to the house.
  4. Fuggle hops - I enjoy making beer and am going to try my hand at growing some hops in the yard.  These will also be in mostly shade and are a climbing plant.
  5. Banana pepper - will stay in this planter, hopefully will have some nice peppers to add to our pizzas.
  6. Silky yellow milkweed - Another milkweed variety to attract butterflies, this one has light yellow rather than red and orange blossoms like the scarlet milkweed.
  7. Irish moss - will be used in another DIY project sent my way from Michelle Cajigal.  Keep an eye peeled for a future post on how this secret project turns out.
  8. Serrano pepper - for using in stir fry, guacamole, and other spicy dishes.
  9. Hungarian paprika - I had no idea what a paprika plant looked like until I came across this today, but love cooking with paprika and thought I'd give it a try in the garden.  Will have to read up on how to harvest and dry.
  10. Green santolina - A natural insect repellent.  We don't have many airborne pests in San Diego, but there are occasionally flies and gnats so I'm going to plant by the door and see if it helps to deter entry by these winged invaders.
  11. Spinach - always a favorite, and versatile for use in many recipes

 Hope you had a great start to the week today!

June 1, 2012

Donate Instead of Throwing Out

It's the end of May and the start of June.  The end of any month marks a typical time for moving into a new apartment or home, and May is especially popular since it coincides with the end of the school year and the start of summer.  Summer in general is a popular time to move; May through August are the most popular months for moving to a new residence.

If you're moving this weekend consider donating used items you no longer need or want to a local Goodwill, Salvation Army, or other local thrift store.  If you prefer not to make a separate trip you can utilize Craigslist and make some money, or give the items away for free.  Whichever route you elect to take, you'll help to reduce the amount of items going to the landfill and benefit others in your area.


Many times we tire of the style, color, or age of clothes, furniture, or other goods before their useful life is expended.  If you are cleaning or getting ready for a move and find items you're not using anymore take advantage of the network of thrift stores that are present in nearly every town and city in America today.  Furniture items can be very large, and donating even one dresser or bookshelf can greatly reduce the amount of trash headed for the landfill.

Many colleges and universities host events to help students dispose of items they aren't taking with them when they leave to campus.  My alma mater, Notre Dame, runs a program called 'Old 2 Gold' for this purpose.  The 2011 event raised more than $50,000 for organizations in the South Bend area.  If you just graduated, or are heading off for summer break, see if your school has a similar event you can utilize.

Recommend action steps:

  1. If you're moving this weekend (or just have some items you'd like to get rid of) find a local thrift store and donate the items
    1. If you prefer not to make a trip, use Craigslist
    2. If you don't know how to use a computer, have a garage / yard sale
      1. My most recent method for giving away items has been to put a sign on my driveway next to the items I no longer want (photo below).  The items are usually gone within an hour so it's easy, quick, and convenient.
  2. Save the receipt if you donate - you may be able to deduct on your tax return
  3. Have a great weekend!

Sometimes the simplest way is the easiest way :)

May 28, 2012

5 Recommendations for a Greener Summer

Happy Memorial Day!

Today marks the traditional start of summer in the United States.  I recently got a request for a post on recommendations I have for how to be 'more green'.  This post is my top 5 recommendations for simple, easy, and cheap ways to live in a more Earth-friendly way this summer.

  • Stop - Don't use pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or other poisons in your yard

    • Although when pesticides and other poisons are mentioned, the most likely picture brought to mind is one of large farms or crop dusting planes, backyards are often where the highest concentrations of these poisons can be found.  Due to drift from neighboring yards, as well as the mixing of many different types of poisons in one yard the concentrations can be many times higher the recommended levels noted on product labels.  (And regardless of the recommendations on the label consider if you would like to ingest the product you are putting onto your yard or garden.)
    • Additionally, consider the yards and gardens of your neighbors if you use these products.  They may have pets, children, or edible plants that could be harmed by the products you use on your yard.

  • Grow - Plant and enjoy something edible

    • Regardless of the amount of space your have at your resident, grow one plant you can consume this summer. It's a great way to learn about a new plant and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  If you are looking for an option that is easy to grow inquire at your local nursery and consider tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumber or squash, cilantro, basil, or rosemary.  
    • If you're short on space or just have indoor room available consider herbs like rosemary, dill, basil, or mint.
    • Hopefully one plant will encourage you to try new varieties in the future.  Here are a few that I haven't tried before that we planted for this summer.
New arrivals: lemongrass, yarrow, baby leeks, cat scat, chives, chamomile, italian squash, radicchio, armenian cucumber

  • Learn - Read a book about sustainability, greening, or the environment

    • Education is key to better understanding on any subject whether you're an adult or a child.  With the longer days of summer enjoy a new book on vacation or on summer evenings.  Here are some titles I recommend (in order of preference):
      • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
      • Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris
      • The God Species by Mark Lynas

  • Compost - Reduce your trash output and improve your soil
    • A large portion of the U.S. trash stream is comprised of discarded food.  Per the EPA, in 2010 food waste was the second largest category of waste that went to landfills (behind paper).  Composting food waste helps to reduce the trash going to our landfills (and increase their useful life).
    • There are many composting systems available today - from simple bucket-type containers to worm based vermicomposters and many other varieties.  I have a worm composter and a compost pile as well.  My compost pile is simply a pile of our food waste that I put underneath of our guava tree in the backyard.  (Note: we have very little meat waste and the compost pile is almost exclusively plant-based waste.  I generally wouldn't recommend putting meat-based waste in a compost pile.)  Inquire at your local nursery about what type of system might be best for you, or simply start a pile in the back corner of your yard to try it out.
  • Enjoy - Take a walk, hike, or run through your neighborhood or a park or wilderness area every week
    • Take the time to enjoy the outdoors and the insects, plants, birds, etc. that are present where you live. It's good for your health and a reminder of why it's important to live more sustainably. If we want the world of the future to be even more biodiverse and green than it is today we need to take action now to ensure that it will be. This weekend's Wall Street Journal noted the positive impact that getting outdoors can have on your mental state, happiness, and creativity that's a good read on the topic.
    • This step is especially important if you have children. We need to ensure that the next generation knows about nature. If they don't, why will they care about it?

Strawberries are fun to pick . . . 
. . . and delicious to eat.

Hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend and take care!  Thanks to Angela for the suggestion and if you have a suggestion please email me at or leave a message in the Comments section below.

May 24, 2012

Old Chairs Repurposed into Trellis

A few days ago I wrote about picking up pieces of a couple of old chairs that had been discarded along a street near my house.  I went back to the spot and picked up the remaining pieces and made the backs of the chairs into a trellis for some purple lantana I had planted to attract hummingbirds to the yard.

Inspecting the raw materials.

After seeing this awesome monkey pattern that was beneath the faded red seat covering I was tempted to try and refinish the chairs but between the missing parts and damage already done it seemed a long way above my skill level.

One of the best patterns I've seen in awhile.

Here's the finished product, just wanted to share how it turned out looking.  I'll throw up a new photo when the trellis is covered with delightful purple flowers and hopefully a charm of hummingbirds.  Check out that link for the group names of various birds - pretty good stuff.

The finished product - Eva approves.

The Power of Compounding on Your Yard

I recently wrote about the importance of making a commitment to regularly planting and/or gardening.  As with developing any habit, it takes consistent, recurring effort to form a new habit and make it stick.  Over time, the effort required decreases as the habit becomes a more natural, automatic part of your schedule.  In regard to planting, each addition to your yard makes the next one easier because it becomes a routine habit, knowledge and experience is gained with each planting, and because each plant helps to create better conditions for the next plant to survive and thrive.


Compounding is a concept typically encountered in relation to a 401(k), retirement account, or investing in general. Per Investopedia compounding is defiined as:

  • The ability of an asset to generate earnings, which are then reinvested in order to generate their own earnings. In other words, compounding refers to generating earnings from previous earnings. 
Basically, if you take the interest, dividends, or other earnings of an investment and invest them, your return will grow more and more quickly, as you are earning money not just on the money you contributed but also on the earnings that money generated (earnings on earnings). This idea is the basic premise behind most retirement planning today.  Here's a graphic representation of the idea of compounding.

The concept of compounding equally applies to creating a healthy, flourishing environment in your yard.  If you start with a yard that is nothing but pavement, it's going to be pretty hard to get the first plant to grow.  However, if you can get one plant established, the next plant will be able to benefit from a host of ways the first plant improves growing conditions, including:
  1. Quieter environment
    1. May promote growth and presence of pollinators and seed disbursing animals
  2. Improved usage of water resources present
    1. Denser vegetation encourages more dew to form
    2. Plants can also benefit from transpiration of nearby plants 
  3. Increased soil quality through decomposition of leaves, berries, etc.
  4. Habitat for birds, bugs, insects, etc.
    1. Provide pollination, seed dispersion, source of fertilizer
  5. Increased shade and protection from strong sun
  6. Improved air quality
Essentially, these improvements to the conditions in your yard are the 'earnings' on your initial investment and can be 'reinvested' in additional plants.  This reinvestment occurs through the lower input costs required (fertilizer, physical effort, water) the new plants require and the higher 'returns' (growth rate, health of plants) possible.  Lower costs and higher returns both lead to an increase in the growth of the investment made.

These benefits impact not only your yard, but also your neighbors, city, and larger region. Although we apply many lines to the world - property lots, city limits, county and state borders, etc. our actions easily cross these borders and impact those on the other side of them.  This is readily seen on a large scale here in San Diego where there are regular beach closures (more than half the year, 239 days, in 2010) in the southern part of the county primarily due to polluted water entering the ocean from Tijuana, Mexico.  

On a smaller scale, I often find disoriented dying bees on my driveway and yard.  Most likely these bees have been sprayed with a poison by someone nearby and then found their way to my yard.  Decreasing the bee population, and the beneficial effects they provide as pollinators, harms my yard and plants.  More importantly to me, I also worry that whatever was sprayed on the bees may drifting into my garden, patio, yard, etc. where it may directly impact my health.  Actions like this also decrease the returns I can realize on my investment in my yard and garden.

Suggested Action Steps:
  1. Make a regular commitment to adding plants to your yard or garden
  2. Consider the plants already in your yard when selecting new plantings
    1. For example, if you have a shade producing tree find part shade plants to install below, or climbing vines to climb the trunk and branches
  3. Enjoy the quieter, more enjoyable yard you've created and the returns on your investment

My neighbor's yard - first plant is going to have a tough time (if it ever happens).

Part of my backyard - not great, but getting better. (Which yard do you think a new planting would do better in?)

May 21, 2012

Lawn Mowers + Air Quality

A gasoline-powered lawn mower running for an hour emits the same amount of pollutants as eight new cars driving 55 mph for the same amount of time.
- Union of Concerned Scientists 

Over 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled each year while refueling lawn equipment.  That's more than the entire amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez spill.

Garden equpiment engines create about 5% of the nation's air pollution and a good deal more in metropolitan areas.

- Environmental Protection Agency

Summer is upon us, which brings to mind thoughts of fireworks, grills, and mowing the yard.  As with many other American youth in the bucolic lands of rural or suburban America one of my first 'jobs' was mowing our yard during the summertime.  Usually a chore I tried to avoid, but also occasionally enjoyed, a field of emerald green grass is a vision almost as classically American as an apple pie fresh out of the oven or a white picket fence.  I enjoy working in the yard and garden but was surprised to learn how detrimental some of the tools we use are to our environment, despite the seemingly pristine yard they can help to create.


The standard gas-powered lawn mower creates a disproportionately high amount of air pollutants for their size, compared to cars.  I was surprised by the figures at top - I would not have expected lawn mowers to produce 5% of our national air pollution.  Thinking of air pollution brings to mind images of freeways, large trucks, and large boats - not lawn mowers.  Air pollution is of specific concern to me because although San Diego is known as a beautiful place with gorgeous weather it is also regularly ranked as having some of the worst air quality in the nation.  In a recent study by the American Lung Association San Diego was ranked in the worst 20 cities in the nation for both ozone and short-term particle pollution.  

I use an old school 'reel-style' push mower (pictured at right).  It works well for me, although I have a small yard.  If you have a larger yard there are rechargeable mowers available on the market today that are much more powerful than the plug-in types of yesteryear.  In San Diego there is an annual event where you can trade in your old mower for a greatly discounted electric mower.  This year's event was last Saturday, May 19, but you can put it on your calendar for next year or keep an eye out for specials at local retailers for the Memorial Day holiday.  If you live elsewhere, check with your city to see if similar programs are available.  My mower cost less than $50 and requires very little maintenance - an occasional blade sharpening, and a little big of oiling to prevent rust.

Although electric powered tools still typically rely on fossil-fueled power stations that are detrimental to the environment, producing power in a central location and then distributing over power lines allows for better pollution control measures.  

Additionally, Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards are helping nearly every state to make their overall energy production cleaner and more environmentally friendly.  Here in California, we have a commitment to producing 33% of our energy from renewable sources by the year 2020 (following an original commitment to 20% by 2010).  For information on your state, please see the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions website and consider supporting renewable energy in your state.

Suggested action steps:
  1. If you have a grass lawn and use a gasoline powered mower, consider switching to a push or electric mower to reduce air pollutants
    1. If you hire a landscaper, consider an environmentally friendly provider that uses these kinds of tools
  2. Consider reducing the size your grass lawn and utilizing native plants and trees to reduce the amount of time, energy, resources, and money required to maintain your yard
  3. Enjoy your summer!

May 20, 2012

One Piece (and Day) at a Time

Look around the table. If you don't see a sucker, get up, because you're the sucker. 
- Amarillo Slim
I just got back from a nice run on this sunny Sunday morning.  A beautiful start to the day, and some nice views of Balboa Park, downtown San Diego, and the South Park neighborhood to enjoy.  About a half mile from home I saw a few chairs on the side of the street that have been there for at least a year.  I've passed these chairs regularly on walks or runs through the Golden Hill neighborhood and never stopped to pick them up and put them in the trash.  Although it annoyed me that someone would just throw furniture on the side of the street and let it rot I didn't do anything other than be annoyed and think how someone should clean up the mess.  Of course, that someone would be an anonymous cleaning person, or the city, or some concerned neighbor (that wasn't me).

I picked up two of the chair backs today and plan to get the rest of that pile over the next few days.  One small act, and there is a lot more litter and trash on the streets, alleys, and canyons nearby to be picked up.  I plan to continue making a small effort to address the mess in my neighborhood and city.  Hopefully if you're reading this you'll consider doing the same.  Even a small item like a gum wrapper or a cigarette butt helps, especially if we all do a little every day.


My first few posts on this blog were about picking up litter on my walks with Eva when she was still a newborn (hence the name of this blog, Walking Miss Eva).  I try to pick up at least two pieces of litter, big or small, everyday.  I don't always succeed in this effort.

Although I've written about litter before I think it's well worth revisiting.  The world is increasingly complicated every day - new inventions, new problems and solutions, etc.  But many basic principles still apply and when it comes to helping improve our environment it's hard to find a more tried and true way to do your part than by not littering and helping to clean up the litter left by others.

I hope you have a great day and encourage you to take a moment to pick up some piece(s) of trash you come across on your street today.  

Suggested action steps:
  1. Don't litter
  2. Try to pick up at least 2 pieces of litter each day
  3. Enjoy the cleaner, more healthy street, neighborhood, and city you've helped to improve
Thank you!

(Here's a photo of the chair backs I picked up today.  I'm planning to use them for trellising in the yard/garden.  Should make for an interesting look and I'll post some photos when they're covered with bougainvillea or another climbing plant.)


Couldn't get this song out of my head on the run this morning.