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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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Does Living Sustainably Have To Take More Time?

Our Geyserville Garden

The Simple Life

About two years ago, Matt and I were living in Geyserville, CA, population 1,600.  He was working full time, and I was basically taking some time off from a taxing several years working long hours in the LA film industry.

When we moved there, we planned to stick around for the rest of our lives, living the simple life:  growing and preparing our own food, using very little electricity and water, learning to live as self-sufficiently as possible.  I eventually planned to learn to knit, sew clothing, can and preserve all the food we’d need for the winter, build a root cellar, and even install a micro-hydro-electric power unit and a composting toilet.

I learned a LOT.  I had a crash course in gardening with our 2,000+ square foot garden.  I almost became a master gardener (before I became fed up with the pro-pesticide stance they take), I preserved, Matt taught me how to bake bread using our own homemade Geyserville starter (and I did it every day), I was thinking about making my own soap and making my own just about everything else.

Worried Raisin

But then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  Right around the time I rushed Raisin to the animal hospital as she sat in my lap dying from pesticides, Matt became fed up with his life of driving long distances to a low-wage job that required significant manual labor.  And quite honestly, I realized I wasn’t cut out for the full-time job of homemaking.  I had so many ambitions for my life that I no longer had time for.  I wanted to make big positive change in the world, and working an 18-hour job at home, I didn’t have time for much else.

For several important reasons, our lifestyle was not sustainable.  It was wonderfully fulfilling in some ways – both Matt and I were much healthier, we had time to re-think our life directions, I took up writing and found I loved it, and the flavors of home-grown, home-made cooking were out of this world.

But we were dependent on driving long distances, we were unable to economically make ends meet due to low-wage jobs in the country and the rising price of gas, and we weren’t happy with the long-term trajectory of living a lifestyle that focuses solely on living simply.  (Those of us who have tried it know that living simply is not so simple!)

Our City Rooftop

The Sustainable Life

So we took the amazing things we learned, and we moved to the most sustainable neighborhood in the most sustainably-minded city we could find (we did a lot of research).  And over the past year and a half since we moved here, I can tell you that one major, major thing that is left out of much sustainable or simple living books and blogs and ideas is this:  COMMUNITY.

What can community do for you?  Well, cities and towns were built for a reason: to exchange goods and services.  Why make and do EVERYTHING yourself, when you can focus on what you’re good at, and trade what you’re good at for other things you’re not so good at?  Why spend hours and hours making my own clothes when someone who does it for a living can do it much more efficiently in both time and money?  Or soap, or jam, or many, many things?

Pike Place Market

Using Community To Find Your Balance

I’m not saying cease simple living altogether.  It depends on your motivation.  My motivation is living as sustainably as I can, and getting others to do the same.  Well, sustainable living and simple living are not necessarily the same thing!

So that means I let other people make my food for me sometimes.  I don’t let just anyone make and grow my food – I am careful about who I pick, where they source their food, how they treat their employees, what their values are, etc.

But not all the time – I still grow some of our own food.  Why?  Because I like it, because there are more flavors and nutrients in the food I grow myself, because it is more sustainable than trucking in produce, and because gardening makes me happy and brings me a sense of peace.  I also like writing about gardening, and enjoy talking and writing with other gardeners.

So somewhere in there, my family is learning how to balance simple living with an overall sustainable lifestyle where we can still have ambitions to do stuff beyond our home life.

We’re still working on finding ways to be more sustainable with less time.  In some ways that is the antithesis of the simple living movement.  But it’s important for us to live our lives as we want to live them, and live them sustainably.

What does that mean?  I live about a mile and a half from work, and I walk to and from work every day.  That takes about an hour round-trip.  I save money on gas and parking (or public transit), I have a zero-carbon footprint commute, and I don’t need to go to the gym.  All in all, it takes me less time and money to walk than it would take me to use the car or the bus, and go work out in a gym.

That’s just one example of several.  I don’t grow all of our own food anymore – I buy food from local growers and vendors whom I trust; I buy soap from a local organic soap company; I buy used clothing from local thrift stores; I live in an energy-efficient apartment so I am warmer but still don’t need to turn on the heat much (increased quality of life!).  I do make my own shampoo and household cleaners, because it’s cheaper and easier than looking for a local green brand that works.

And I suppose that is the question Matt and I ask ourselves now:  can we do it ourselves cheaper, more easily, and more sustainably (in terms of the planet)?  If the answer is yes, we welcome it with open arms.  If the answer is no, we generally find a sustainable local source and pay that person to do it.

This is one of the main ways that our community helps us live sustainably.

So back to our question…

Does Living Sustainably Have To Take More Time?

No.  I believe it’s possible to find a balance between simple and sustainable, where you can simplify your life as much as you enjoy doing so, and utilize your community to help continue on your path to sustainability.

What Do You Think?

I’m not alone in thinking about these things today.  Green Bean got me thinking about this this morning, and Ruchi wrote quite a thought-provoking post called “Is Living Sustainably Unsustainable.”  What do you think?  Have you been able to find a balance between living sustainably and living the life you want to live?

The First Five Steps To Starting A Vegetable Garden

We have a lot of new readers, and several new gardeners signed up for the Growing Challenge Evangelist Edition, so I thought I’d make it easier for you new gardeners to begin!

The First 5 Steps to Starting A Fruit and Vegetable Garden

1.  Liberate yourself from what you think you’re supposed to do. This is your garden.  Yours! So rule number one in planting your garden is to forget what you’re supposed to do and do what you want to do.

2.  Make a list of the things you and your family love to eat fresh. Don’t limit yourself for this task, just write them down.  First on my list is actually fresh fruits like raspberries and peaches, followed by tomatoes, carrots, salad greens, and peppers.  So write down what you really enjoy eating when you buy it fresh from the market.  And also add fresh foods that you love to eat that are often too expensive for your budget.  I’d add blueberries, basil, and maybe fennel bulbs or saffron.

3.  Research the things on your list. A little knowledge now will make a HUGE difference later.  Look up:

  • Can you grow it in your area?  If so, is it easy to grow or really temperamental?
  • Can you buy the seeds, bulbs, or starts of the plant?  If not, maybe you can find an open pollinated variety at the farmer’s market or a local farm?
  • How much space does it take up?  If you have a limited space, are there smaller varieties or dwarf options available?

Let yourself cross off things that just seem too difficult, temperamental, or require too much time, space, or money to grow well.  You can spend some time at your local library, look everything up online, or buy a good gardening book or two.

4.  Plan your garden. First take your refined list and divide it into when you need to plant each crop:  research whether you plant it in the fall, winter, spring, or summer.  Many plants can be planted in several seasons, but some have a specific need for lots of warm days, or lots of cool days. Here’s a very fancy version:

Last Frost Date

You’ll likely find that most seed catalogs and gardening books will tell you to plant a certain number of days after the threat of last frost.  If you’re in North America, you can find your last frost by visiting Victory Seeds, Farmer’s Almanac (here for Canada), the National Climatic Data Center, calling your local master gardeners, or perusing your local newspaper archives.

Sketch Your Garden

Then draw a sketch of your garden.  It can be quite simple – you just need to know how much space you have, so you can fairly accurately plot out what will fit in your space.  And then start plotting!

Take into account size and how much light it needs when you’re deciding where to plot things. Again, here is a very fancy version which I created last year with some online software:

But really all you need is a pencil and a piece of paper.  It’s possible you’ll not be able to fit everything on your list, and that’s ok.  You will have to prioritize this year – you can always try it next year!!

5.  Begin to Buy Your Seeds and Plants! The more local you can source your seeds and plants, the better adapted they will be to your specific soil and weather.  I’ve created a list of my ten favorite catalogs (be sure to look at the recommendations in the comments as well), or you can visit your local nursery, farm, or farmer’s market.

Challenge Yourself!

The Growing Challenge New! The Growing Challenge Advanced Edition – From Seed To Seed! The Growing Challenge: Evangelist Edition

Ten Places to Find Cheap, Free, and Green Books

Living Room - Plants and Books

Our Living Room Bookshelf

Last night I went to my first book group gathering with a bunch of lovely, interesting ladies.  It was so nice to just sit around the table and chat for a bit.  I do that at work, but at work we talk mostly about serious things.  It was nice to relax.

Anyway, here is a list of resources we came up with last night for finding cheap, free, and eco-friendly books (thanks ladies!), and I thought it worthwhile to share with you all…

Where to Find Cheap, Free, and Green Books

1.  Trade with friends, family, and co-workers. Duh, but sometimes we forget.  I’m going to ask my mom if she has the book we’re reading for next month before looking anywhere else!  We’re also setting up a lending library at work, to make it easy for everyone to bring in and exchange books regularly.

2.  Free Used Book Exchanges. BookMooch and PaperBack Swap are both good options (BookMooch is run by some lovely people, I know less about PaperBack Swap but I’ve heard good things and they have a better website).  It’s free.  You enter in the books you have to exchange, and the books you want.  All you pay is the postage (which is a cheap “book rate” when you’re sending books.)

3.  Your Local Library. So many books, so easy.  Most local libraries now have their catalogs online, where you can peruse, reserve, and renew books all online!  Some will even send you email reminders before they’re due.

4.  Half.com. Buy and sell used books at half.com.  I haven’t used it, but one member of the group swears by it (and I trust her)!

5.  Online Used Bookstores. Biblio (described in #6), Alibris, and Powell’s are all ones I’ve used and loved.  (If you have a favorite, please share in the comments.)

6.  Biblio. Matt just ordered a textbook on Biblio.com.  He ordered the very same textbook he would have found in the US for $35.  Rather than $165 at Amazon!  The only difference is that the book is printed on thinner newsprint paper versus the glossy textbook paper you normally find in the US.  You do have to weigh the ecological benefits of the more ecologically sound paper with the further shipping distance.  And arguably the economic and social issues with buying foreign products (though I’d argue the book companies could take a hint from this and maybe cut down on the trees they cut down).  Yet the cost is so different, it gives you economic freedom to do more with your money.  You can also choose carbon-offset shipping.  And they have many used books.

7.  Amazon Used, Rare, and Green. If you are a lover of Amazon, or you have a gift certificate left over from the holidays, try their amazing selection of used books.  In the books section, when you search for a book in the top of the site, use the pull-down menu to select “Used Books” before clicking “Search”.  Amazon also has used textbooks, bargain books, Amazon Green, and Rare BooksAudio Books can also be a good eco solution.

8.  Your Local Independent Book Store. IndieBound is a great place to find your local store – many indie stores sell used books.

9.  Blog Giveaways. I’ll be doing more of this in the coming months, as I’m receiving more and more requests to review books.  There are several other blogs with great books to giveaway – keep your eye out (and let us know in the comments if you have specific sources).

10. Ok, I have 9.  Please help with the tenth! Where do you find used, cheap, free, and ecologically sound books?

Two More Posts!

The Power and Importance of Our Lives

I’ve been busy writing a lot lately, and I’m hoping some of you might come visit me at two other blogs I write for.

Check out both blogs, and let me know what you think!

Thank you for reading, and for your support. ~ Melinda

P.S.  For those of you who came by the blog this morning, my apologies – I’d meant to schedule this to appear at 3pm today, but scheduled it for 3am when the Co-op article hadn’t posted yet.  Many apologies – I hope you still take the time to click over now! Thank you, Tree, for sending me an email about it.  And thanks to all of you for your patience.

Fun with Lifestyle Changes

Me and Raisin

Hi everyone, I hope you’re starting out the week happy and well!

Over the weekend, I created a new page at One Green Generation called “Lifestyle Changes” – you can find it at the top of the blog, in the navigation bar.

There you’ll find a link to all sorts of tips and tricks and inspirations surrounding how to change your lifestyle to a simple, green, frugal, and sustainable one.  Please let me know how you like it and if you have any suggestions!

Thanks so much for reading. ~Melinda

Don't Forget To Water In The Winter!

We had a horrible cold spell  earlier this winter, with nearly unheard of lows. However, as I walked to work each morning, and visited our community garden, the biggest killer during that time was not frost nor freeze.  It was drought.

Lack of water combined with extreme temperatures is a sure way to kill even hardy perennials!  Whether dormant or not, plants need some water to survive the winter.  Plants spend the winter protecting themselves from the cold, and getting ready for spring.  (Even bulbs and root crops do this.)  They are still alive!

When You Need  To Water

There are several methods for measuring how much water your plants have received.

  1. Calendar Method. Keep a calendar of when it rains.  If it hasn’t rained or snowed in 3 weeks, or in 1 week that includes high winds, water!  Did I say snow? I did.  The rule of thumb is that one foot of snow has 1 inch of moisture.  1 inch in the winter will usually last about 3 weeks, or 1 week if the air is really dry from wind.
  2. Water Gauge Method. Measure the moisture.  You can buy a cheap water gauge in your local hardware store.  Stick it in the soil, and it will tell you how wet the soil is.  It should read moist but not wet.  If it reads dry, water.
  3. Soil Grab Method. If you hate calendars, and you hate gauges, dig down 8 inches or so.  Then grab a handful of soil, and press it together in your palm.  If it sticks together, it’s fine.  If water drips out, it’s definitely wet.  But if it doesn’t stick together, it’s too dry and you need to water.

If you live in an area where the ground freezes solid for months at a time (so frozen that it never thaws during the day), you may not need to water.  But be ready as soon as the soil begins to unfreeze during the day.  Frozen soil will still absorb water and dissolve the ice, which can help aerate the soil and make sure your plants are receiving enough water.  You’ll have to judge how frozen your soil really is.

If you have potted plants, be particularly watchful as they are more prone to freezing and more prone to drought.  They will dry out faster than plants in the ground, so if you use the calendar method, they should be watered once a week between rains.

What Time of Day to Water

Water in the late morning to early afternoon, preferably when the soil is nearing its warmest point of the day, so the soil has time to warm before the cool or freezing night temperatures.  It also helps to mix a bit of hot water with the tap water, so that the water is tepid rather than ice cold.

How To Water

A general rule for winter is to water when the soil is dry, and only water until the soil is moist, not wet.

Do not water leaves, stem, or trunk! Water the soil not the plant.  In other words, water where the roots are:  find the distance halfway between the stem or trunk and the outer reach of its branches.  Start watering from that point, and water in a circle all the way to the outer stretch of the branches.

Water when soil is dry and only water until soil is moist, not wet.  If you have drip irrigation, this is a good method.  Otherwise, a hose is fine.

Special Circumstances:  Dangers of Frost

There are a few other times when you might want to water.  If it is nearing your first frost, and you are trying to protect your tomatoes or other crops through the last few days before a hard frost kills them, water toward the end of the day.  The reason is this:  water evaporates at night, and as it evaporates it will slightly warm the air.  This might be just enough to keep your plants from frost late in the season.

The same circumstance might occur early in the season, when you’ve transplanted your seedlings thinking your last frost has come and gone.  But whoa, at the last minute you hear a frost warning coming your way.  Go water (unless the soil is already wet).  Avoid the stems, but go water.  Just a bit, to make the soil moist.  I find that watering with water that is slightly warm (just above tepid) helps quite a bit.

Houseplants, Too!

A dear reader wrote me recently to remind me to take care of my house plants.  She’d seen a photo of my apartment, and was saddened to see a bit of plant neglect (it’s true – when I get busy, I do forget them).  So same goes for your houseplants:  particularly in winter, when the insides are dry due to the heat being on, don’t forget to water your plants!

Any Other Tips, Tenured Gardeners?

Please add to this!

THE GROWING CHALLENGE: Evangelist Edition!

The Growing Challenge: Evangelist Edition

A New Challenge!

I know some of you have been waiting for a new challenge.  You’ve been reading seed catalogs, or thinking about maybe growing a nice garden this year, reading books maybe, and thinking about taking a gardening class… Or maybe you haven’t really been thinking much at all about it.  Maybe this idea is new to you, or maybe it’s old hat – you’ve been growing for years.

Whatever your history, I challenge you to join me in doing something new.

The Rules

In a nutshell:  Grow 3 crops from seed, and plant the seeds in 3 new people.

1.  Grow 3 Crops from Seed this Year. I leave the details up to you, but I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone – even seasoned gardeners.  If you are still learning, feel free to grow the easy stuff, or seeds you might have grown before.  If this is old hat for you, you might try to grow something new – challenge yourself!

2.  Plant the Seeds in 3 New People.
In other words, inspire 3 new people to grow crops from seed this year.  I know for some of you this means really stepping out of your comfort zone.  But you can do it.  We’ll all support each other – this is how we change the world, one bit at a time!  It’s easy.  Let your enthusiasm shine through what you do.  Be an inspiration and resource to others!

This could be your neighbors, your friends or family, people in your community garden, people in your book group or parents at school…  You can wait until someone asks you, or you can strike up a conversation with them.  And you don’t have to do it in person!  You can write an article in your local newspaper or community newsletter (I’m writing an article in my local garden newsletter), if you have a blog you can write a blog post about how easy and fun and cheap seed starting is, you can volunteer at a local senior center garden, you can inspire your kids to grow with you….

If you’re more experienced, think about teaching a class at your community center, or a community college – you might make a bit of money at the same time!  Or you could teach gardening at your kid’s school (maybe help them grow a garden?), teach someone in your community garden, or participate in an online forum – so many easy ways to spread the word.

3.  Tell the Stories About Your Seed Planting Here. We all want to hear your stories!  So in the periodic updates here, come and tell us how you’re doing, ask questions, talk about your experiences teaching others, your frustrations or thoughts or ideas or whatever.  We want to hear them, and take advantage of this awesome community!

Need More? Go Extreme!

The Growing Challenge:  Extreme Evangelist Edition

For the Optional Advanced or Extreme Edition, add this step as well:

4.  Make it Seed to Seed! Grow 3 crops from seed, and save the seed from each of those 3 crops to grow them next year.  That means you do have to buy open pollinated seeds (not hybrids), and learn a bit about the crops so that you save the seed well enough that they’ll produce a good quality crop next year.  I’ll be continuing to write about saving seeds in the coming months to help out.

Can you swing it? I’m thinking about ways to reward those who participate in the bonus edition.  Maybe a special prize*…

Experienced enough that you still need to up the stakes for yourself? GO FOR IT.  Leave your new stakes clearly in the comments below, and we’ll all help you stick to it.

*if you have any thoughts, I’m all ears!

Still working on your green thumb?

Still “green” to gardening?  Not yet have a green thumb and want to start slower?  Try the original growing challenge here.

Join Us!

All you need to do to sign up is leave a comment below with your name, where you’re gardening, and what hardiness zone you’re in.

Find your hardiness zone:  U.S., Australia, CanadaEurope, South America, China. For other regions, I don’t have links so give it your best guess!

Doodads

If you have a blog – or a refrigerator, or computer desktop, or place to post at your office – please spread the word!

The Growing Challenge: Evangelist Edition The Growing Challenge: Extreme Evangelist Edition

To add a button to your blog, right-click on the image and save it to your desktop. Then upload it to your blog as you would any other image, with a link to:

http://1greengeneration.elementsintime.com/?p=1537

Oh, and once you’ve uploaded the image, check to make sure the link works and the image loads correctly. Feel free to email me if you have any problems and I’ll see if I can help.

To print or download the doodad, click on the image, which will open to a bigger version.  Then download by right-clicking on the image to save it to your desk top, or choose print from your file menu.

Resources

Check out the loads of content here at Organic Gardening 101. I’ll be adding to that growing list as we move into Spring!

Who’s In?

I’ll be listing names right here in this post as people join, so come on and join in the fun!! All you need to do to sign up is leave a comment below with your name, where you’re gardening, and what hardiness zone you’re in!

  1. Deb G, Bee Creative, Pacific NW, Zone 7/8 – Extreme
  2. Abby, Woodchuck Acres, Indiana, Zone 5a – Extreme
  3. Jackie, Zone 9a/b
  4. Catherine, Love Living Simply, Texas, Zone 8 – Extreme
  5. Deb C-G, Simple Not Easy, Western Canada, Zone 5a
  6. Rob, Rob’s World, Burien, WA, Zone 8 - Extreme
  7. Judy, My Freezer is Full, Iowa, Zone 5a - Extreme
  8. Tree Huggin Momma, Frugal is a Green Journey, Western NY, Zone 5
  9. Lorna, Intrepid Experiment, United Arab Emirates, Zone 11 - Extreme
  10. Sheryl Gallant, Providence Acres Farm, Barrie, Ontario, Canada, Zone 5a - Extreme
  11. Jen R, Emerald Sunshine, Iowa, Zone 5A
  12. Spanishloquat, Bermuda, Zone 10/11
  13. Ken Toney, Our Mountain Farm, West Virginia, Zone 5 - Extreme
  14. Lise, In The Purple House, Western Massachusetts, Zone 5
  15. Belinda, Belinda’s Place, Mt. Dandenong Victoria, Zone 2/3 (Aust) - Extreme
  16. Simple in France, The Simple Life In France, France, Zone 6/7
  17. Withajoyfulheart, Simply Seeking Jesus, Quebec, Canada, Zone 4
  18. Really Rose, Zone 8 - Extreme
  19. YOU!