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 :)