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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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Ten Meaningful Ways To Celebrate Earth Week

I know what some of you are thinking:  Every day is Earth Day and every week is Earth Week. I agree.

However, I believe Earth Day, Earth Week, and now Earth Month succeed in helping normalize a respect for the planet.  I hate to say it, but in this day and age, the Earth needs a good set of marketers to bring a celebration of the planet into our collective conscience.

And for this reason, I celebrate Earth Day:  not because I need to be reminded of my impact on the earth, but because the more we all collectively celebrate this day, the more Earth Day becomes a part of the mainstreamAnd the more Earth Day becomes a part of the mainstream, the more people will say “Every day is Earth Day.” Every year this sentiment grows, and that is a good thing.

So for those of us who don’t need a reminder, and don’t want to buy stuff or let Earth Day turn into a day of buying stuff, let’s celebrate the day in our own way:  in our communities, in our families, and within our lifestyles.  Let’s celebrate it visibly and internally, so that it means something to us, but it also helps redefine normal in the mainstream.

Ten Meaningful Ways To Celebrate Earth Week

  1. Start/plant a garden in a public-facing space. Try planting vegetables or fruits in your front yard, in a community garden, on your parking strip, in your church yard, or in another neighborhood space.  Celebrate eating locally and sustainably!
  2. Take a week off of buying things. A good way to counter the consumerist aspect of Earth Day is to remind yourself and those around you that celebrating the earth is about not buying more than you need.  So go on, try not buying new things for one week, and let your friends and family know how you’re celebrating Earth Week.
  3. Spend time reflecting on your surroundings. Take family walks each evening, walk or bike to work, go for a local hike or bike, sit on your porch and soak in the neighborhood… There are so many ways!
  4. Support a local Earth Day event. There are more and more Earth Day events each year.  Pick one that you believe in, and volunteer for the day or for a few hours – help them spread the word about Earth Day.
  5. Have a family staycation. Camp in the backyard, have a picnic in a local park, eat dinner by candlelight, tell family stories around the dinner table, …
  6. Eat locally all week, or all day. Changing the way we eat is so important for our own well-being as well as that of the earth.  Some of us jumped right into this idea and live quite locally and seasonally.  However, for others it is more difficult, so start slow: eat local meals for a day, or even for a week.  You might find it’s addictive!  Check out Local Harvest if you don’t know where to begin.
  7. Volunteer locally. There are many local organizations who have needs in the spring.  Local environmental organizations likely have work parties to plant native plants, for example.  Local community gardens likely need help harvesting and growing food for local food banks, local charities can likely use your help in numerous ways.  Call, email, or visit them – I’m sure they could use your help!
  8. Give up plastic for a week. Need incentive to give up plastic?  Check out Fake Plastic Fish for loads of ideas.
  9. Give away things you don’t need. Go through that stuff in your closets, basement, and garage that you haven’t used for years, and give it to a local charity, thrift store, Freecycle, or a neighbor or friend who will use it.  Not only does this free your home from clutter, it also keeps others from buying new things because you give them hand-me-downs.
  10. What else? What else can we do for Earth Week that is low- to no-cost and stays true to our values?  I’m sure you’ve thought about it, and if you haven’t take a moment now to think about it, and leave a thought for us in the comments.  I’m sure your comment will help someone else.  What are you thinking of doing this week for Earth Day or Earth Week?

Our New Garden!

It seems like we are destined to have a new garden every year!  Each year for the last several years, we’ve taken over old, unloved land and nourished it.  We leave behind for others gloriously fertile soil and beds just waiting to be planted.  The bad part? We leave behind a lot of blood, sweat, and tears – and planning, too.

Sigh.

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know we moved from Los Angeles, where we had a potted garden on concrete, to Geyserville, where we had a 2,000 square foot garden.  Then we moved to Seattle, and I started a garden with my mom and we gardened on our fire escape.  Then we got a community garden plot (aka “p-patch”), a couple miles away.  Then we moved to a neighborhood closer to work, and the p-patch became 3 miles away.

And now I’m sooooo excited to say we have a new plot just down the street!  Hooray!

Ok, here’s what we did last weekend….

Our New Community Garden Patch

Here we are, with loads of work to do.  A very unloved patch of land, full of horrible, horrible weeds (morning glories, among others – they have long, long roots and seem like they pop out every where).  There were several weird wire cages and fences, and numerous old metal and wooden poles and posts, plus raspberries all over, and clearly pretty poor soil.

The pots you see are garlic and rhubarb from our old plot.

So we dug and carted and weeded and dug and carted some more.  Brutal work!  But alas, we moved the raspberries to one place in the plot, rescued some beautiful chives, and cleared our new land.

Baren Land

Then we went with some friends down to Cedar Grove Compost, our municipal compost location, where we bought a truck load of “Booster Blend” (compost mixed with aged manure) for $11.  It’s great for us city dwellers:  we compost at home, it goes to Cedar Grove, they mix it with microbes and age it, and we buy it back for a small amount of money.  Not bad!

Several hours later...

After wheeling and dumping and digging and raking in several barrels of compost, voila!  We have a plantable garden!  I transplanted the garlic and rhubarb, and we now have a blank slate of good, nurtured soil.

This weekend we will plant!

The space is about 15 by 20 – almost twice as big as our old plot.  It doesn’t seem like much, probably, to those of you who have large garden spaces.  But it is a good amount of space if you use it well.

So… What Shall We Plant?

Currently, we have rhubarb, raspberries, chives and garlic.  What else shall we plant?  What’s your favorite unusual vegetable?  What space-saving varieties have you found?  Please help us maximize our garden space!

Redefining Health

As I lay here in bed nurturing a cold, I am realizing that as a part of redefining normal in my mind, I have redefined health.  From a small child through my young adulthood, I was sick very often.  A normal cold often turned into a three- month long disaster that ended in bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, mononucleosis, strep throat, or any number of things – often more than one at a time.

But this year, I went through almost the entire winter without a single cold, even as many coworkers and friends were sick time and again.  Why is that?

Ways of Redefining Health

  1. Emphasize Preventative Health.  As a result of eating local, seasonal, organic foods I eat a diet low in additives, preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and other things that aren’t good for me. Instead, my meals are high in nutrients and amino acids that boost my immune system.  I also take extra vitamins, go to my doctor annually, and I take good care of the ailments I do have – like asthma.
  2. Nurture Yourself When You Are Well.  In the same way nutrition and health maintenance is important, so is emotional maintenance.  Nurture yourself, allow yourself time to relax and unwind, learn quick and easy destressing mechanisms like meditation or concentrated breathing.  Give yourself family time and self time often, and leave work behind when you do.  Spend your free time doing things that make you happy!
  3. Pay Attention To Your Needs.  Something I didn’t learn until a few years ago is to see the warning signs in my life and in my own body.  For instance, when I get stressed out I often clench my jaw or tense my shoulders.  Doing yoga a while back actually taught me to notice when I’m tense, and to then relax those muscles.   Also, I know that certain foods don’t make me feel good, so either I don’t eat them at all, or in the case of acidic or spicy foods sometimes I take an acid reducer beforehand.  Know your limitations, know when your body is telling you something, and know what to do to make it better quickly.
  4. Wash Your Hands.  Huge.  No need to be paranoid, but before you eat make sure to wash your hands.  If you’re in a public space or shaking a lot of hands or wiping kids’ noses, don’t touch your face or mouth until you wash your hands with hot water and soap.  So easy, but so often forgotten.
  5. Sleep Well.  Eight hours a day keeps the sickness away!  Your body needs to regenerate, so let it do its job.
  6. Reduce Stress.  Stress can make you sick or leave you more susceptible to illness.  If you think you’re doing too much, you probably are, so allow yourself to say no and set boundaries.
  7. Nurture Yourself When You’re Sick.  Rather than filling yourself up with pills and tonics and all sorts of things to make you feel “normal” while you’re sick, stop and relax.  Make yourself take the time to heal.  You will ultimately be more productive if you’re out for 3-4 days, rather than sick and in the office for 10-12 days.  Plus you’ll save your co-workers from becoming sick as well.
  8. Weigh The Pros and Cons of Taking Cold Medicine.  Your body rids itself of germs by fighting them internally and getting them out of your system with mucous.  When I really can’t sleep because I’m coughing all night, I sometimes take a decongestant to help my body sleep – so that my antibodies can fight off the germs.  But during the day, I often let my body do its thing without medicines.  As a result my colds are usually quicker!

The only thing that costs money here is #1: Preventative Health.  And only that costs money when you visit a doctor  for checkups and to take care of your chronic health issues.  Ultimately that is cheaper than ending up paying for the months of care you will need if you don’t take care of yourself in the first place:  for example, if you end up with bronchitis you’ll need multiple doctor visits, xrays, antibiotics, a humidifier, and any number of other things that cost money.

Redefining Health As A Society

As a society we still don’t value preventative health enough in my opinion.  And it is extremely unfortunate that many of us don’t have the money to pay for preventative care.  At the same time, I think we often don’t effectively prioritize our spending as a society:  we often value cable television more highly than preventative doctor visits, for example.

We also punish ourselves at work by having to take time off when we’re sick, which is a deterrent for taking time off.  Instead, it seems like we could be rewarding productivity, which might force people to take a few days off to get better so they could be more productive in the office.  Suddenly regenerative health would make sense from an economic perspective as well.

If you are an employer you can help redefine health at your office by encouraging people to take time off when they’re sick, and rewarding them with their level of productivity when they are healthy.  You can also keep people from becoming sick by helping them destress, encouraging them to nurture themselves, and providing preventative health care.

And as a family member and friend, you can help others to learn how to redefine health in a way that most benefits them.

What Ways Have You Redefined Health Over The Years?

Thanksgiving Recipes

The holidays are my favorite time to eat homemade foods made from sweet local and seasonal ingredients.  I’ve posted several recipes here, and thought I’d share them with you now so you have some exciting recipes to try this year!


Homemade Hot Buttered Rum


Homemade Hot Buttered Rum


Easy Homemade Cranberry Sauce


Homemade Cranberry Sauce


Delicious Winter Squash Souffle


Winter Squash Souffle


Fresh Pumpkin Pie

(Includes Homemade Pie Shell and Filling)


Fresh Pumpkin Pie


As I went through my recipes I realized we have several more in our holiday repertoire, so I will upload some more holiday recipes in the coming weeks.


Please Share Your Own Favorite Recipes!


You are more than welcome to post your recipes in the comments here.  Or if you have posted a favorite recipe on your blog, please feel free to link to it here.


Staying True To Your Values Through The Holidays

Winter Greens


During the holidays, I generally eat too much.  I generally “allow” myself to stop and buy foods or stuff that I don’t normally buy.  I generally turn up the heat more than I need to and sometimes I drive that mile to the store instead of walking.


It’s easier to “make exceptions” when it’s cold and you’re busy and you’re stressed out trying to get things done.


But do you ever NOT regret it later?  After the holidays, do you ever NOT regret eating too much and gaining those few extra pounds, or feeling awful from having too many unusual foods in your body, or having blemished skin from too much of something or another?  After the holidays, do you ever NOT regret just a little bit spending all that money, and now having a big credit card debt to pay off as you enter the new year?  And do you ever NOT have a twinge of guilt after driving or turning up the heat?


Extreme cold and grey and wet gets us a little down at times, and makes us want to hibernate.  I challenge you to fight that need to hide from the elements, the seasons, the real life outside!  I challenge you to embrace the change in temperature, as it pushes our citrus trees to produce luscious fruits, our plums and peaches to sufficiently overwinter, our carrots and greens to sweeten in the cold earth.


And I challenge you to resist the urge to give up for a moment on your values as you pass by something that you really want to buy.  Just ask yourself if it’s really perfect, given the environmental, social, and economic impact on you, your family, and the world.  Is it?  Or should you find an alternative that works better for every stakeholder in that transaction?


Make your holiday season guilt-free, happy, and healthy for you, your family and friends, and the world around you.  You deserve it.  And we all deserve it.


If you’re looking for some challenges to keep you on top of your values this season, here are a few:


1.  Eat Local for Thanksgiving

Eat Local For Thanksgiving


2.  Dark Days Eat Local Challenge

It’s not nearly as hard as you think, once you get started.  Try it out!

Dark Days Challenge


3.  Buy Nothing New For the Holidays

If you’re going to give gifts this year, instead of buying brand new things:

  • Give used or antique;
  • Make, bake, or grow a gift; or
  • Give non-material gifts

The Buy Nothing New For The Holidays Challenge!


4.  Buy Nothing Day

If you can’t do it for a whole month, at least try it for a day! Crowded malls, buying frenzy – are you sure you want to go out there?  Stay home and make something or nurture yourself instead.

Buy Nothing Day

 

5.  Freeze Your Buns Challenge

Challenge yourself to keep the thermostat low this winter.

Freeze Yer Buns Challenge


I encourage you to take on at least one or two of these challenges.  We are taking on all 5!


Will You Do It?


Come on, give it a shot!  And please feel free to recommend other good challenges out there as well!


Matt’s Rosemary Olive Bread Recipe

by TomSchaefges on Flickr


The following recipe was written by my brilliant baker of a husband, Matt.  Enjoy!


This is my favorite olive bread.  I got the recipe from my instructor in the professional baking class I took at the New School of Cooking in Los Angeles.  I’ve never found another olive loaf that is nearly as good, and I’ve tried the olive bread at every single bakery we’ve ever set foot in.


Do you know why it’s so good?  Fat.  Well, sugar and salt, too, but fat is the real hero of the day.  We’ve got fat in the form of olive oil, olives, and egg.  And we’ve got a whole tablespoon each of salt and sugar!  I wouldn’t recommend skimping on any of the ingredients, but I wouldn’t suggest eating it every day, either.  This is a great special occasion bread, perfect for the upcoming holidays.


Rosemary Olive Bread


Ingredients


  • 3 cups bread flour (13.5oz)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
  • 1 egg
  • 6 oz warm water (100F)
  • 2 oz olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
  • 1 cup pitted olives


Slashing the Loaf


Directions


  1. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water.
  2. Combine beaten egg, olive oil, sugar, rosemary and olives and add the yeast/water mixture.
  3. Add flour and knead for 5 minutes.
  4. Let the dough rest for 15 minutes.
  5. Add salt and knead for another 5 minutes.
  6. Place dough in bowl greased with olive oil. Cover. Let rise for one hour in a warm spot (90F).
  7. Remove the dough.  Knead it a bit.  Form it into a ball and place on parchment paper.
  8. Loosely cover with a towel and place it in a warm spot (90F) for 30 min.
  9. Pre-heat the oven for one hour at 400F.
  10. Slash the top of the loaf before baking.  Bake for 45 minutes or so on a pizza stone or in a cloche until the loaf registers 180F in the center.
  11. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for two hours or so before eating.


Notes


  • The baker’s best friends are the scale, the thermometer, and the timer.  I really don’t know how to bake without them anymore.  For example, everyone’s “cup” of flour is very different.  The only way to maintain consistency is to do almost everything (but especially flour and water) by weight.
  • I use kosher salt.  Specifically, Diamond Crystal kosher salt.  It’s the industry standard in the restaurant world.  Personally, I think there is no other salt that makes food taste better.  However, if you are using table salt, use a little less than a tablespoon (the grains are smaller) and if you are using sea salt, use a little more than a tablespoon (the grains are bigger).
  • The period of rest between the two kneadings is called autolyse.  It allows the gluten to begin to form before the dough has to deal with the stress of further mixing.  Try it, it really works!  And the best part is that it requires no effort!
  • I always add the salt in after the autolyse and allow to to incorporate into the dough during the second mixing.  Salt tends to tighten the gluten (making it  hard to knead) and can kill yeast, so it’s best to give things a little time to get started.
  • The first rise for this dough is a higher temperature than normally given in recipes.  This is due to the fact that it is a very heavy dough.  The yeast needs to be very warm so they can be very active and make a lot of gas to raise the loaf. It’s not a problem, but you have to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t over-proof.
  • The slash on the top of the bread allows the bread to expand during baking without ripping (which destroys the form).  Even worse, if there is no slash, sometimes the surface tension on the dough is too great, the bread doesn’t spring in the oven, and you get a brick.  Good for the birds, not so much for people.  Even dogs don’t really like it.  We use a razor blade, but you can use a sharp knife or whatever is handy. 
  • My favorite thing in the world is the cloche.  It replicates a real baker’s oven at a fraction of the cost.  Not only does it provide radiant heat all around the bread from the stone, but it allows a high level of humidity around the baking loaf for the first few minutes. This is important because it keeps the surface of the loaf supple and allows it to spring to it’s final size during the first few minutes of baking.  Below, you’ll see our cloche on top of the baking stone in the oven.  The jagged nubs on the top are from me breaking the handle off the very first time I put it in the oven!


The Cloche in the Oven


Why Are Some Plants Killed By Frost But Not Others?

Broccoli in Frost

 

Every fall since I began gardening, I work to dispel the myth that the growing season is over, and that frosts will kill anything remaining in the garden.


Not all plants are the same.  Tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, and other crops that thrive on hot temperatures are from hot climates.  They didn’t need to survive the cold – instead, they needed to protect from heat.  However, broccoli, carrots, garlic, rhubarb, and many other crops came from cool climates.  Their systems work differently in the cold – not only do they survive cold temperatures, but they taste better when they get cool in the fall and winter!


It’s Not Frost That Kills, It’s Freeze


The night the first frost comes around in the fall, many people rush out to yank their tomato plants and bring them inside.  After that night, it often gets warmer and sometimes there isn’t another frost for several weeks!  It’s highly likely all those tomatoes hanging from rafters after that first frost would have been just fine outside through the first frost.  The reason is that the first frost is often not a killing frost.


What kills the plants is not frost specifically, but is the internal temperature of plant tissue – once it freezes, the plant dies.  Have you ever put a bottle of beer or soda in the freezer to cool it down quickly, and then forgot about it, until you heard a loud crash in the freezer several hours later?  The loud crash is the glass breaking because the liquid inside the bottle expanded as it cooled.  This is essentially what happens to the cells in a tomato plant when it gets cold.


Generally the first frost doesn’t quite freeze the plant because it happens at just barely 32F, and doesn’t stay long.  However, the first freeze – or hard frost – often rolls in with much lower temperatures and stays cold much longer, usually killing the cells of tropical plants.

 

However, many plants do not have the fragile cellular structure of these tropical plants.


Frost-Tolerant Plants

 

Deciduous trees, bushes, and vines go dormant in the winter by losing their soft tissue (leaves), and waiting until spring before producing them again. 


Root crops (beets, carrots, radishes, parsnips, daikon, rutabagas) store all of the energy from their leaves into their roots as it gets cooler, and the ground gives them protection against the freezes.


Cole crops (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustards, turnips, watercress) can often survive temperatures below 20F.  That means those of us in temperate climates can generally grow them throughout the winter (they don’t grow a whole lot in the winter, but they don’t die and you can continue to pick fresh crop), where others can often grow them with a row cover for protection.  These biennial plants are made to last through the winter, so that they can bloom and produce seed in the spring.


Alliums (leeks, onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, chives) can survive very low temperatures (-30F).  These perennials are generally planted 2-3 weeks before first frost, and rely on the spring warmth to start putting their energy into bulbs.  Garlic in particular can benefit from a layer of mulch over the winter, to keep them protected through cooler temperatures.


Other perennials (asparagus, rhubarb, oregano, rosemary, sage, jerusalem artichokes, citrus) – there are many perennials that either continue to produce over the winter, or that go dormant over the winter to produce in early spring.  I highly recommend checking out some of these, as they are incredibly rewarding when the rest of the garden is sparse.

 

Other crops I’ve had success growing in winter (parsley, cilantro, dill, spinach, endive, sorrel, lettuces, fennel, fava beans) – the key for many of these is to get them growing before it gets cold, as most plants don’t grow very much in cold weather.  Thus, plant them 4-6 weeks before frost, and then harvest throughout the winter.

 

For More Information

 

There are many other plants you can continue to grow or store in the garden with often just a bit of protection.  Check out “How To Grow A Four-Season Garden” for many tips on how to do this effectively!

 

Anything To Add?

 

Avid gardeners, what else would you add here?  Other crops you’ve had success growing in winter?