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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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Say Hello To 5 Strangers Today

I believe that community building is one of the most important elements of sustainable living.  There are a number of reasons for it: when we live locally and strengthen our communities, we become stronger and better able to adapt to changes in the economy, climate, and energy availability.

When we become a part of our communities, we have a better capacity for creating change within it:  making people aware of important issues and ideas, sharing resources, learning from one another, change local policies, working together to solve problems, and feeling useful, helpful, and a part of a greater good.

Each community is unique and has its own needs, whether it is public transportation, sustainable food resources, strengthening local businesses, reducing carbon emissions, increasing recycling and reducing waste, building community gardens and parks… the list is varied and lengthy.  We can only learn and become part of the solutions if we become an active member of our communities.

So this weekend, I want to challenge each and every one of us to do this:  all you have to do is say hello to five strangers.  That’s it!


Because in the last several decades we have grown cold and disparate as a culture.  We don’t say hello to strangers anymore, we don’t participate in local events as much anymore, our children don’t play out in the streets together anymore, we hesitate to help one another because we don’t have time anymore.

But have you walked down the street lately, and had a stranger say hello?  It feels good and brings you two people together for a moment.

Generally that feeling lasts a few seconds, maybe a few minutes, occasionally a few hours or if it’s really special, the whole day.  The next thing you know, you  are spreading that feeling of closeness to others – maybe you say hello to someone too!  And that person may then stop into a local store and find themselves chatting with a local shop owner.  And the shop owner, feeling close to his customers, may find a way to give back to the community in some way.  And those who are touched by the shop owner’s giving back are more likely to give time, help, or conversations to someone else.

Your simple “hello” has changed the dynamic of the neighborhood, creating a positive cycle where more and more people become closer to one another.

It takes time, but it also starts somewhere.  So let’s start somewhere simple.  This weekend, let’s each of us come out of our shells and Say Hello To Five Strangers.

Will You Do It??!

I’m going to do it too, and we’ll all check in on Monday Tuesday* and see how we’ve done.  Shall we?  Let me know in the comments!  Come on, you can do it – I know it!

(*Y’all get an extra day to say your hellos!)

How To Amend The Soil In Your Whole Garden For $20 Or Less

There are five very cheap ways to amend your garden soil.

1.  Create Your Own Compost Bin

If you have the space in your garden, for very little money you can compost your own kitchen waste, grass and garden clippings, and leaves.  In a 4′x4′x4′ container, include half “brown” materials – straw, leaves, newspaper and other dry things – and half “green” materials -  grass, food waste and other new materials.

Compost Bin

Add lots of water, turn occasionally (every 3 days to 3 weeks, depending on how fast you want it to decompose), and wait (2 weeks to 4 months, depending on the weather, how often you turn it, and what you’ve included in the pile).

2.  Create Your Own Worm Bin

A friend of mine is going to show me how to do this soon, so I’ll post about this soon.  But in the meantime, if you looking for a smaller-scale way to recycle your kitchen scraps into luscious soil-amending goodness, check out Patti’s video:

3.  Lasagna or In Situ Composting

In Situ Composting. This is the lazy gardener’s compost method.  Here’s what I do:  I line my garden paths with straw.  As I’m weeding and cleaning up the garden, I throw everything into the path, on top of the straw.  You can also add food scraps, but be aware that animals might come find them so choose cautiously.  The paths will begin to decompose, rain and excess water from watering will keep it moist.

By next year, the paths will decompose and you can turn in the soil a bit and move your path to a new spot.  Keep in mind that you can only use weeds that haven’t gone to seed, because this method doesn’t get compost hot enough to kill the seeds.

Lasagna/Sheet Mulch Gardening. Another lazy gardener’s compost method, essentially you create a 2′ tall compost pile all over your garden, alternating green and brown in each lasagna layer.  If you do this in the fall, by spring you should be able to plant in rich soil!  I looked for a good video to show you, but the above is the best I could find – it helps, anyway!

4.  Plant Cover Crops

Fall or spring, you can plant cover crops – there are a plethora of options.  Crimson clover (above) is one of my favorites, because it’s beautiful and brings a lot of nitrogen and organic matter into your soil.  Peaceful Valley has some of the best resources – their Fall catalog has an amazing grid listing all their compost crops with each one’s benefits.  However, if you find cover crops locally, you’re likely to happen upon ones that work best in your area.

5.  Let Your City Do It For You

Big Truck, Little Truck

A good portion of local municipalities now have compost programs that work with your regular garbage pick-ups.  Every Spring, we go get a truckload full for $10-20, depending on how big a load we want.

It is a lot of exercise to bring in a whole truck load of compost at a time – but with two people, a shovel and a wheelbarrow, you can unload it and mix it into your soil in 2-3 hours.  And you feel really strong and well-exercised the next day!

Which Method Do You Use?

How have you amended your soil in the past?  Will you try something new this year?

Is Green a Hokey Western Invention?

GrandmaMy Grandmother

I received a thought-provoking email recently that I’d thought I’d put to you all to answer.

Hi Melinda!

I am soooooo not a blog-commenter, you cannot imagine! Pretty safe to say this is my first.

Your site is so real and honest. I was browsing purely for research yet the character ringing through these pages was so… crystal, I think?… I couldn’t help but engage.

I live in the Philippines, a developing country in Asia. While my family is in that slim ratio of the more materially fortunate, our country is beset with poverty, corruption and moral decay. As such, the ideals on this site sound removed from reality, as esoteric as a new religion. Even as IN PRACTICE it all comes down to things our pre-colonial ancestors took for granted! Conditioning shampoo made from tree-bark, leaves/roots/flowers in everything, water kept cool in clay jars, giant palm fronds pulled manually to cool the room, wood-burning stoves… my own grandmother was a poster girl for green!

It’s when we think of it as modern or alternative or even Western that it feels hokey. Being poor and still agricultural, maybe we don’t need to call it “green”. It’s just what our mothers did.

And then I wonder: isn’t that true even for you guys???

Best of luck with this undertaking!
If there’s anything I can do…


What I Believe

Thank you for your thought-provoking question, Adele!

First off, I don’t want to make anyone feel bad about their lifestyle, because whether or not it’s a Western invention, I think it’s necessary given how far our Western culture has gone astray.

Secondly, I also believe that back to the basics or living as our mothers did is a bit artificial, because our lives ARE different than our mother’s and grandmother’s, and I don’t believe it’s realistic nor healthy to be always looking back.  There are many things I learned from my grandmother and mother that I do want to return to my normal life.  But there are a lot of aspects in the contemporary world that are essential to understand and be a part of in order to change society.

For example, I can’t blog if I go back to the simplicity of life during my grandmother’s time.  Yet I feel I’m creating great change in my life as well as thousands of others’ lives by blogging.  I also can’t run a business that creates wide-spread change without utilizing modern tools and reaching people where they are, which often means reaching people with technology.

And finally, my mother and grandmother didn’t always have it easy, and didn’t have time to do some of the things I do today.  I did try to live a lifestyle that was self-sufficient and idolized an old way of doing things. But I found that I didn’t have time to reach out to others, I didn’t have enough money to survive as a family, nor did I totally enjoy a lifestyle that so fully centered around my own daily life.

So I see living a sustainable lifestyle as utilizing the tools we need to use in order to generate change, while reincorporating some of the timeless values of our ancestors.  In other words, taking the best of both worlds, both generations.

What Do You Believe?

Are we just creating another artificial, hokey alternative?

Natural, Non-Toxic, Frugal, and Organic Hair Color

My New Red Hair

I don’t wear makeup very often, I use virtually no beauty products regularly… but I have colored my hair for YEARS.  Since I was a sophomore in high school in fact!  My natural hair color is a dishwater blonde that doesn’t really flatter my skin tone and it makes me feel very much like I recede into a crowd.  Coloring my hair is fun, makes me feel good, and allows me to shape how others see me.

But in the last 2 years, as I learned to live an increasingly sustainable life, I couldn’t bring myself to use those nasty chemicals anymore!  They are really bad for your skin, your health, and the planet.  I even tried some of the “natural” hair tints in the natural foods store, only to look up their ingredients and find they weren’t much better than the “non-natural” varieties.

A few weeks ago, however, I was feeling low and frumpy and overworked, and I hit my limit.  I needed a change!  I couldn’t bring myself to go to a salon and use all the crazy chemicals there.  So I went to the natural food store and read every single package of hair color.

Ick. This or that kind of alcohol or sulfite or SLS or – wow – I was so disappointed that there really wasn’t anything!

For twenty minutes I stared at these packages, hoping that somehow the ingredients would change before my eyes, or that maybe one of the colors didn’t have nasty stuff in it.  But alas, I began to walk away, giving up.

And then…

In the same packaging it had when I used to color my hair in college 15 years ago… Henna.

Ingredients:  Henna.

That’s all.

I was a bit apprehensive.  There were only 4 colors, and I’m used to having a high amount of control over the color process.  But it was only $6.  Yes, $6!!  So I bought it.

I got it home and looked inside the package:  green powder.  I remembered henna being pretty and giving my hair some nice, natural color and shine.  But I was still unsure.  So just in case, I looked up how to get out the hair color if I hated it.

How To Get Henna Out Of Your Hair

There are instructions inside the box for how to use powdered Minute Maid to remove the color.  Here are further instructions from Light Mountain – they recommend using the first two options within 24 hours:

A. For darker shades make a mixture of baking soda and molasses using equal parts. Make up enough of the mixture to be able to coat all of your hair. Apply this mixture to your hair and let it dry, a blow dryer can be used, until it is hard then rinse out.

B. For lighter shades make a mixture of Crystal Light lemonade mix  and a rinse out cream rinse/conditioner using equal parts. Use 1/2 cup of cream rinse/conditioner to one tub of lemonade mix. Apply to your hair and let dry, a blow dryer can be used, then rinse out.

C. If the treatment is older, more than 24 hours, you can try using a high detergent shampoo and a deep conditioner. The conditioner should be one that you leave on the hair for 20 minutes. You can also try a “clarifying” shampoo, also known as “swimmer’s shampoo”.

Easy enough.  Ok, I took the plunge…

Henna in Hair

Applying Henna To Your Hair

I followed the very detailed instructions that came inside the package.  It’s like putting mud on your hair – it takes a little getting used to.  (Yes, redefining normal:  it’s ok to put a mud-like substance on your hair rather than a chemical mess!)

  1. Protect. The package comes with gloves.  Use them!  Henna will color your hands a pretty color, too!  Also moisturize your face beforehand, and apply some kind of oil to your hairline around your face – I use jojoba oil, but olive oil or any other type of oil will work.  This keeps the henna from dying your face.  But don’t worry – chances are that you will drop some on your skin, and just make sure to get it off right away so it doesn’t sit there long enough to dye your skin.
  2. Mix. Pour the henna in a NON-METAL bowl with NON-METAL utensil.  In a NON-METAL container, boil 3 cups of distilled or filtered water.  Gradually stir in enough water for it to be thick but not too thick – about the consistency of pudding.
  3. Let it Sit. Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes to 2 hours – the longer you let it sit, the deeper and faster the color (I let it sit for 2 hours).
  4. Apply. Apply it as you would apply any hair color:  divide your hair into sections with a NON-METAL comb or brush and NON-METAL clips.  Apply from the roots outward with your hands, comb or brush.  Cover with the plastic bag that comes with the henna.
  5. Heat. Optional.  Heat will enhance red shades in particular, and decreased the amount of time you need to leave the henna in your hair.  I blow dried my hair for about 20 minutes – I felt guilty about using the electricity but was too vain not to.  You can also sit in the sun if it’s a warm day.
  6. Leave In. Up to 2 hours.  The longer you leave it in, the deeper the color.
  7. Rinse. Rinse with warm water.  If you like, you can use a dilute baking soda mixture to help rinse out the henna, but don’t shampoo.  Wait for 24 hours before shampooing, so the color has time to set.

Hair drying henna

The Result

Seriously, my $6 application of henna came out just the way a $125 hair color would (and has) in a salon!  Not only that, but it is healthy for my hair rather than a depleting process, it doesn’t make my skin break out the way salon dyes do, it smells nice, and I’ve received a whole lot of compliments.

I’m hooked!  And I’m glad I didn’t have to use the Minute Maid.

My New Red Hair

What Do You Use?

Do you color your hair? If so, what do you use?

Watch Garbage Dreams Airing Tomorrow Night!

The following post is written by one of my lovely and talented writers at Re-Vision Labs, Martina Welke. Look for more of these posts in the coming months, as we aggressively build our Environment Lab to help environmental organizations to do their work better, faster, and more effectively.

Garbage Dreams

Waste Not, Want Not

This week, Director Mai Iskander’s film Garbage Dreams will premier on PBS as part of the station’s Independent Lens series.  The documentary features three adolescent young men “raised in the trash trade” in Cairo.  Adham, Osama, and Nabil are part of the Zaballen community, which is one of the oldest urban recycling cultures in the world.

The Zaballeen people saw economic opportunity in trash collection over a century ago, and have built their livelihood around the business.  Since there is not much money in garbage pickup, the Zaballeen make the majority of their revenue from recycling.  About 80% of the trash they collect is recycled by hand and then sold as raw materials.

The film chronicles the Zaballeen struggle to maintain their recycling program after the city of Cairo hires foreign corporations to take over garbage disposal in the city.  Although the corporate program recycles only a small fraction compared the to Zaballeen, the city government prefers the foreign companies because they are perceived as modern.

In an effort to combat the foreign competition, the Zaballeen community launches a grassroots campaign to organize the enterprise, modernize their services, and educate the surrounding community.  The community sponsors a Recycling School that teaches reading , writing and computer skills as well as safe recycling practices.  Iskander includes a few community meetings and some footage of door-to-door canvassing efforts, but I found myself wanting to see more scenes focused on Zaballeen community organizing than the one-hour time frame would allow.

One of the most interesting segments of Garbage Dreams is when two of the young boys, Adham and Nabil, are selected to travel to the United Kingdom in order to study modern waste management.  The boys are appalled at how much garbage is wasted at the high-tech plant they visit.  Adham tellingly remarks, “Here there’s technology but no precision.”

In a very brief segment near the film’s conclusion, Iskander included updates two years after the launch of the Zaballeen campaign.  Unfortunately, the foreign corporations seem to be winning the battle.  Yet there are still signs of hope, as one community member notes that people around the globe are finally starting to care about trash and understand its environmental, political and economic importance.

Garbage Dreams is the kind of documentary that left me wanting to see more, learn more, and do more.  Luckily, there is a fantastic interactive website that allows viewers to do just that.  The site is packed with additional information, discussion guides, and lesson plans to help people learn from the film.  There’s even a game that simulates the Zaballeen business process and challenges players to match the 80% recycling rate they have achieved (no easy feat, even for a die hard recycler like myself—I only reached a 32% on my first attempt.)

Garbage Dreams premieres tomorrow, April 27th on PBS.  Check local listings here.

What Else Can You Do With Trash?

$25 Gift Certificate for Abe's Market: Giveaway!

Abes Market

Abe’s Market is an online natural foods market founded by Richard Demb and Jon Polin:

For a long time now we’ve talked about starting a business that we’d feel great about – a business that is wonderful for both businesses and consumers and that would have a positive impact on the environment. As natural product enthusiasts, we envisioned a place that would enable shoppers like us to discover fantastic, hard-to-find products and to really connect with the product creators – the way markets were once run.

Richard Demb and Jon Polin

Launched in the summer of 2009, Abe’s Market features stories about each of their sellers – with videos, photos, and interviews.  “Discover remarkable natural products.  Meet the real people who make them.” Nice thought, isn’t it?

They also host periodic webinars featuring their sellers; plus you can reach Abe’s via live chat, phone, or email.  It really is like an old time grocery store, but on the internet.  I love the idea.

I believe that if I can’t find what I need locally, buying from a good company like this is the next best thing.  So….

Abe's Gift Certificate

$25 Gift Certificate

One lucky someone will get to try out Abe’s Market!  The winner will receive a $25 gift certificate, which can be used to buy anything on the site, it’s good for one year, and it doesn’t have to be used all at once.

Please leave a comment below if you’d like a chance to win.  The winner will be drawn on Sunday 2 May at noon!

Hay Is For Horses, Straw Is For Mulch

I love using straw for mulch – it’s cheap, breaks down easily, provides a nice cushion along garden paths, and extra bales are wonderful seats in the garden.

Most feed stores will sell both hay and straw, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the feed store and questioned myself about whether or not I was getting the right one.  I’ve noticed that many garden blogs use the two terms interchangeably, but they are ABSOLUTELY AND UTTERLY NOT THE SAME.  Gardeners beware!

Hay Is For Horses by Montanabw on Wikipedia

Hay? No Way! Hay Is For Horses!

Hay.  Hay is for horses… and pigs and cows and goats.  In the store it’s often a bit greener than straw.  Hay has SEEDS in it.  So unless you want to grow hay all over your garden, don’t buy hay for mulch.  Hay?  No Way!

Straw by Adamantios on Wikipedia

Straw Is For Mulch

Straw is a by-product of the wheat, oat, rye, or barley industries.  After the seeds have been threshed and sold, the dry husks are bundled up and sold as straw.  Straw, therefore, is without seeds.  Straw saves seedlings.  Straw is for mulch!

Any Questions?

Have you made the mistake of using hay?