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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!
When growing plants in containers, it’s important to use a good potting soil. It must have good water retention but also drain well, so that the roots can breathe and you don’t end up with root rot. And it must have a balance of good plant nutrition so that your plants thrive.
Why Make Your Own Potting Soil?
Making your own seed starting medium will generally save a great deal of money. Fortunately we can get truckloads of potting soil from our municipal compost system for less than $20 (photo here). But if you can’t obtain cheap potting soil this way, or if you need smaller quantities, you can easily make our own.
When you make your own, you also know what is in it. You can make sure you have the correct proportions of ingredients for the individual needs of your plants. And you can save energy and CO2 output by using locally-sourced or homegrown compost.
Why Make It Peat Free?
I have had debates with other gardeners about this – it is certainly a point of contention for many gardeners. Essentially, from what I have read, peat gathering destroys the wetlands and forests where peat moss grows. This is a problem for several reasons. Wetlands, as we all know, are teaming with life and are essential hosts to a great number of plants, mammals, birds, and microbes. Peat is also a carbon sink, meaning that it soaks up carbon, a major greenhouse gas. When peat is harvested, that carbon is released into the atmosphere.
To me, the arguments for using peat sound an awful lot like the arguments people use for cutting down forests in the Pacific Northwest. People say it is renewable if we plant tree farms, or we are only using a small portion of what is annually harvested – construction and large corporations use so much more. And there are many other rationalizations. But as soon as one sees a clearcut forest or a “sustainably planted” tree farm, it becomes clear that these are not good things for a number of reasons: biodiversity and whole ecosystem depletion, loss of important carbon sinks that now contribute to global warming, whole beautiful forests gone forever.
Some gardeners argue that we only use a small portion of the total peat that is depleted each year. Most of it is depleted for cooking fuel (peat is an early form of coal), farmland, or deforestation. Even if this is so, why would we – as gardeners and cultivators of the earth – contribute to this ecosystem depletion in any way, if we don’t have to?
Gardeners argue that peat is renewable. But first off, it is not renewable at the rate we use it. Second, while peat may be regrown and reharvested, just like a tree farm, it has lost its biodiversity. It is no longer a healthy ecosystem, no longer host to the millions of creatures that need it to survive. And third, it is no longer a carbon sink.
Please take a couple of minutes to watch this video:
If we don’t have to deplete a forest – eg, by using recycled or hemp fiber – why should we? If we don’t have to deplete a peat bog – eg, by using coco coir, which is a byproduct waste that is in great surplus – why should we?
1 Part Aged Compost (locally sourced or homemade)* or 1/2 Aged Compost, 1/2 Aged Manure
1 Part Coconut Coir
1 Part Pumice (a volcanic rock) or Perlite (a volcanic glass)
1 Part Sand
*Aging of compost and manure does two things: it breaks down the nutrients for the plants to then take in, and it cooks out the bad microorganisms and seeds that you don’t want. Without aging manure, the high nitrogen content may burn plants.
Coco coir (aka coco peat) comes in several forms. You can buy it as a brick or bale that you’ll need to hydrate before using, or you can buy it already hydrated. Most garden supply stores carry one or both versions, or you can find them online. Hydrate the coir bricks and bales by sub merging them in water until they are fully saturated (usually the packages have clear instructions for how much water to use, but always err on the side of less – you can always add more!). They will grow to at least 5 times their size. Then fluff it with your hands, to make sure the fibers are separated from one another.
Then mix all the ingredients together well. That’s it!
If you don’t want to use coconut brick, you can try using leaf mold or humus, as laid out in the recipes found here. Many gardeners do this. There are several other recipes you can try there as well.
Rob‘s Recipe: Mix two parts compost to one part vermiculite or perlite. Fluff up well. Makes the compost lighter for pots.
If you have a different recipe, please write it in the comments and I will add it here!
Back in February (was it that long ago?!), I wrote about our Sustainable Capitol Hill gardening plan. One part of that plan is to adopt a neglected roundabout in our neighborhood. It’s symbolic more than anything: it helps beautify the neighborhood, inspires people to garden, and it is a bit of advertising for us as a group, so we can get more people involved in what we’re doing.
After our tour, we inquired about four roundabouts (also known as “traffic circles) at the city’s Department of Transportation. And a wonderful thing happened! The woman from the city called the four people registered to take care of each of these roundabouts. Two of them called back and said, “no, don’t give it away!” and proceeded to work on them immediately. Our call inspired them to take action, and those two roundabouts are now thriving!
Of the two that were still available, we decided to “beta test” one, to make sure we had the time and resources to adopt it effectively. As an aside, I will say that a project like this, though small, takes three busy people to make happen (or one less-busy person). Fortunately, three of us stepped up to the plate to organize this at one point or another, and we made it happen.
So on Memorial Day, five of us met at 9:30 am to plant the circle!
At our Family Allotment, you may remember that my mother and I have been slowly replacing ornamentals with edible food plants. Well, we’ve been setting aside several of the more drought-resistant plants for the roundabout. So my job was to bring the plants. Guillaume’s job was to bring the compost. With tools we all brought from home, Alexis, Anne, Ariel, Guillaume, and I set to work!
Weeding the Roundabout (photo taken from my phone’s camera)
We knocked on a neighbor’s door and asked to borrow his hose. He was more than happy with what we were doing, and helped us stretch it down to the street, where we used a bucket to carry it across to the roundabout.
After several months of neglect, our roundabout was absolutely COVERED with weeds. As we started in on the weeds, a family drove past and stopped, rolling down their window: “We just wanted to say, thank you for what you’re doing,” they said.
Pretty soon, another driver did the same. Then a bicyclist. Then two passers-by stopped to watch. One even took pictures. As we progressed, more and more people stopped to say thank you. It was incredible. In the two hours we were there, at least 20 people thanked us for what we were doing.
And a woman bicycling by stopped and asked if we’d like some of her irises. She’ll be bringing 3 types of irises from her garden in the next few days! She also said she’d also help keep an eye on the watering and such, since she bicycles past every day.
Here’s what our roundabout looks like now:
Adopted Roundabout, May 2009
Even the finches and pigeons are happy with it. And with the irises coming, and some donations from our local nursery, we’ll be adding some nice color soon.
This weekend my mom and I spent a good deal of time working on the “Family Allotment“, so I believe it’s high time for a garden tour. I should say beforehand, though, that our garden is quite a bit behind most of yours for a couple of reasons: 1. The weather in the northwest has been atrocious this spring, and we are only now warm enough to plant a lot of crops out, and 2. Even if we could have planted earlier, my parents had to do some major work in the backyard over the last 6 months to keep their house from (very slowly) falling down a hill – so the backyard was unplantable until very recently. Those are my excuses, and I’m sticking to them!
The gigantic pile driver digging 18 feet down into the ground,
to stabilize the house and yard
As a part of the backyard transformation, my mother had some old cedars cut down. In general, I am not a fan of cutting trees, but these trees were not only ugly, they were also damaging the house and making the soil so acidic and shaded that very little else would grow. Can you believe that not one of us took a “before” picture? Here is the closest I can find:
June 2008: If you click to enlarge the picture,
you can see 1 of the 4 cedars in the background (to the left),
as well as the large crack in the concrete from the backyard slowly falling down the hill!
In place of the cedars, we planted a fruit garden: 10 blueberry bushes, which will get about 10 feet tall each, plus tayberries, raspberries, salmonberries, grapes, lots of strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers. So exciting!!
Newly planted blueberries in the evening sun
Side garden – tayberries, blueberries, bamboo, grapes, tomatoes, and peppers
Side of house – salmonberries, raspberries, strawberries
We also spent a long time in the main back garden:
Squash hills: acorn, tromboncino, and patty pan;
with little cauliflowers, peppers, tomatoes, and blackberries on the left.
Left to right: potatoes, flowers, tomatoes, peppers;
with rhubarb and flowers in the background
Tomatoes on the left, 3 beds of potatoes on the right
Looking back the other way: broccoli and peppers on the right,
potatoes and apple tree on the left
Far end of the garden: herb pots in front, 2 dwarf apple trees,
garbanzo beans (one is already large, a volunteer from last year), potatoes in back
Looks like I was getting a bit exhausted by the time I took the pictures – they aren’t particularly good, but hopefully you get a sense of the garden.
We’ve also been spending time on the front yard and the community garden p-patch. The front yard will soon be full of herbs in addition to my mother’s ornamentals, and next time I’ll give you a quick tour of our p-patch plot! I hope your garden is growing well.
As I get older, I realize more and more that holidays and birthdays aren’t about the day itself, they are about the celebration, the traditions, and the company. Do you feel this way as well? It became particularly clear for me on Christmas 2008, when the snows made traveling particularly dicey, and many people chose to celebrate Christmas a couple of days after the official day.
On Mother’s Day this year, my parents went to a soccer match. The following weekend, I had a lovely work weekend retreat of sorts. So two weeks later, we celebrated Mother’s Day. And it was lovely.
One of the traditions we started last year was to have Matt’s currant scones, yogurt, and fresh fruit. Yum.
A coworker sent me an email yesterday morning entitled, “Stop whatever you are doing right now and read this.” I did stop and read it, and it is so close to how I feel that I wanted to share it with you. It is also a good reminder to have around when we do feel overwhelmed. Enjoy!
Commencement Address by Paul Hawken to the Class of 2009,
University of Portland, May 3, 2009
When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” Boy, no pressure there.
But let’s begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.
This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food, but all that is changing.
There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.
When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.
You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.
There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.
Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit.. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental organizations, of companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.
The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the only species on this planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.
The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”
So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.
This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing and stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.
You can read more about Paul Hawken at his website. You may know him from his most recent publication Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. According to Culture Change, he was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters by University president Father Bill Beauchamp, C.S.C., in May, when he delivered this speech.
Thanks, Dan, for sending the email. Have a wonderful day, everyone!
Hello, all! Welcome back – it looks like it has been a while since we’ve all checked in, so there should be lots to chat about. I’m anxious to hear how it’s going!
Check In, Everyone.
Please check in and let us all know what you’re up to in your garden. Has the snow melted, and frosts past? Are you battling heat? Have you started saving any seeds, or are you still thinking about what you’ll save? What are you harvesting? Tell us all about it!
If you’ve written about your garden recently – or gardening in general – please feel free to link to your post here.
So far there are 145 participants signed up for The Growing Challenge: From Seed To Seed, and we’ve reached 197 participants in The Original Growing Challenge. Together we’re an awesome support network for learning new things! Welcome, everyone who has recently joined. And if you haven’t already, please join us in taking a new step toward sustainability by growing your own food from seed to seed.
New participants of The Growing Challenge From Seed to Seed are in orange at the bottom of the following list, and new participants of The Original Growing Challenge are listed here. Let’s visit, support, and learn from one another!
I’ve posted this at the Co-op today. Would love you to come visit!
This weekend I had a great time of meetings, food, and drinks at my new company. It was sort of a retreat to welcome a new partner into the organization, and to figure out some big strategic and organizational issues. At the same time we were having these meetings, one of our partners was having his first child. Another partner had his second child just over a week ago. It’s quite a time of new beginnings.
And I realized at the end of the weekend that I was proud of my self and my life. It has taken me a long time to do this, but at long last, I have really manifested my true self into my business, my home, my friendships, my family, my neighborhood, and most every other part of my life.
I look back and I wonder how. I have made a lot of conscious choices to understand myself, who I am, and who I want to become. I have been striving to make a positive impact on the world for the last 20 years. I’ve been striving to make myself a happier, healthier person for the last 5 or 10 years. I have been striving to become an open, honest, and caring person for a as long as I can remember. And I’ve worked hard to bring all of these things into my home life over several years.
But now, finally, I am working in a JOB where I can have my dreams and I don’t have to hide them.… Please come read more!!