A Walk in the Harvested Woods

This week at Talk Green to Me book club, we were discussing Bill Bryon’s A Walk in the Woods. It’s a hilarious tale about the adventures of the author and an acquaintance walking the Appalachian Trail. The stories of beautiful scenery and the sense of accomplishment after braving tough weather conditions and still going forwards–well, it inspired me and I was ready for a hike of my own after reading this book.

Of course I’m not going to travel halfway across the country for a hike, no matter how epic. There are just so many parts of Austin that I haven’t even seen yet. I had an idea, though. And to test it out, I decided to walk to book club at Recycled Reads from my office. It’s not the Appalachian trail, but at 5.7 miles it’s a decent trek. Google Maps predicted just under two hours to make this journey on foot. (And fortunately we are just far enough removed from the summer heat that being outdoors that long isn’t arduous in itself.)

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A lovely wide walking trail along North Burnet Road 😛

This definitely was not the most scenic hike. Since almost my whole route was alongside Burnet Road, I had a great view of traffic and there were all kinds of shopping centers. Fortunately, crossing 183 was easy (I expected more of a mess of traffic lanes like at Lamar Boulevard and 183) and there were a variety of scattered trees and plants that I was able to stop and view more closely at my leisure. I arrived at my destination just a few minutes later than Google predicted and barely breaking a sweat.

Since that two-hour walk didn’t kill me, I was reassured that my more insane plan would work. A couple of months ago, I came up with the idea of a new years resolution to visit every Austin Public Library branch in 2017. Nearly a couple dozen of them. It doesn’t involve buying anything, which makes it a near perfect resolution for me, although not that much of a challenge.

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Map of Austin libraries

Well, you can probably see where I’m going with this. For 2017 it would be awesome if I walked to every libary branch! No, I’m not going to walk from the northernmost Spicewood Springs Branch to the southernmost Southeast Austing Community branch in one go. My idea is to start from my home to the nearest library constituting a single trip. The next trip would be from that library to any other library. And so on, accumulating a new potential starting point with each new destination achieved. For some sense of scale, the distance between North Village Branch and Yarborough Branch is about an hour walking, so none of the branches are more than a two-hour walk from another (although I have the option of making non-optimal trips).

Do you think I can do it? I think I can. The library is closed on January 1 & 2 next year, but I’m already planning my January 3 walk up north to Spicewood Springs branch–a happy 7.6 miles from my neighborhood branch. Worst case scenario, next year December I’ll hop on the bus to quickly visit any branch locations that I didn’t make it to on foot. 🙂

StormWater Wisdom

Every time it rains, a bit more of the soil around my house erodes away. We don’t have any gutters currently and most of the lot slopes down a bit towards the creek. Naturally, I was more than happy to attend a free Green Stormwater Conservation class this weekend to get some ideas on what to do about it.

Before sharing some of what I learned though, I wanted to share a few pics of the beautiful artwork at the Zaragosa Recreation Center. The artwork was all over the classrooms, too. An awesome tribute to our latino background.

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The class itself was led by Staryn Wagner of the Austin Watershed Protection Department. For three hours, he showed us pictures of streams that had been eroded, told us stories of various chemicals and other nasties that get into the water in different parts of Austins, and taught us all about what we could do to prevent excessive flow of water into the streams whenever there’s a storm event with all the impermeable surfaces around. There’s probably no one who loves rain gardens more than Staryn.

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One of the things that I was surprised to learn was just how beneficial ragweed is for streams. The creek by my house is covered with the stuff, and whenever I looked up ragweed online the results were full of much cursing and disdain for the plant. However, it turns out that in addition to the soil improvements that most weeds provide, ragweed is also great for storm management (although there are more aesthetic options if you have the money and time). As soon as the storm water comes, the ragweed bends over so the rush of water can flow over top while protecting the precious soil underneath. I’m thrilled that this means there’s one less thing I need to take care of, and it’s fine to leave the ragweed in place for now.

For landscape design, there’s vegetation, swales, and berms. However, as might be guessed from above, Staryn’s favorite feature to talk about is the rain garden. There are many types of these, but it pretty much amounts to having a depression in the ground designed to hold and slowly absorb water. They’re any shape and size but are generally from 4 to 12 inches deep so they can hold plenty of water but not take more than a couple of days to drain (to prevent mosquito problems). In addition to the info linked above, there are some more examples on the CreekSide Story blog.

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Example of rain tank surrounded by a rain garden

And finally, the part I’d been waiting for–rain catchment systems. Since my roof needs to be replaced soon and I have erosion issues, looking into gutters and rain tanks has been on my list since moving in. I had been thinking of a smaller system, but Staryn said he wanted every home to have a 1,000- to 3,000-gallon system. Yipes! Of course, his perspective wasn’t so much about having the water for use in the landscape but to protect the watershed during storm events. Since I don’t plan on dealing with rain harvesting installation more than once, it’s time to crunch some numbers and see if a larger system actually makes sense for us before getting into the process.

I’d never heard this mentioned before, but as shown above, it’s recommended to have the rain tank surrounded by a rain garden to both filter the first flush water and help handle anything in excess of capacity. That’s something I can totally do on my own, though.

There are three features to keep leaves and gunk from your roof from getting into your water tank.

  • Gutter screens – to keep leaves from entering your gutters. The smaller the filter, the more that will be kept out. The weaker your screens, the more likely stuff will just weight it down and clog the gutters.
  • Downspout filter – to catch any leaves that get through when part of the gutter screen inevitably tears.
  • First flush system – to capture the dirtiest roof-scrubbing water at the start of the storm and direct it away from the main tank. (Pro tips: Have a drainage hole at the bottom of your first flush system and one a little higher up to ensure it will empty on its own. Also, make it easy to remove the first flush system for cleaning.)

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Another pro tip is to have multiple spouts for your tank. After the presentation, Staryn showed us the rain tank he installed at the Zaragosa Recreation Center. This (what looks to me huge) 1250-gallon tank only collects water from just one portion of their roof. This is an interesting system because the first valve will only empty until the tank is half empty. Another valve will empty to a lower level. And the final valve will release any water. Actually, there’s one more valve right near the tank so the flow can be disabled if the other valves need to be maintained or modified.

I didn’t get any pictures of the surrounding area, but there’s a nice little rain garden around this tank with native plants. And across a little walkway, there’s a low area which was then filled up on the down-sloping sides in order to hold water. So whenever there’s a large flow of water, that’ll act as a rain garden to capture it and allow it to seep back into the ground.

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With that in mind, here’s a picture of my own already created rain garden after some of our spring rains. You may not be able to tell because the grass is a bit high, but that’s a pretty huge puddle next to the house. I’m already doing a bit for diverting water from flooding the creek too quickly and allowing more to soak in. Before this class, I was planning on filling it in with some dirt, but now I’m proud of it.

Seriously, though, I’m definitely going to add some dedicated rain features into my yard over time. I’m good with a shovel. 🙂

PFJ Day 1: Plastic Everywhere

Plastic Free July has started! And started as a collosal failure. 😦

It started when I went to visit my folks since my new nephew is in town for the week. They wanted to have lunch at Whataburger, and I was content that I could get a burger with just a paper wrapper. Sure, there’s also a plasticy sticker on the wrapper, but not too bad. And since we were ordering together, it was just one line item on the receipt instead of a whole separate receipt. Unfortunately, while I went to grab a table while others were still ordering, the cashier was unconvinced that I didn’t need a drink and insisted that I have one. On her. And my folks still up there ordering were happy to accept the extra foam cup and even pick up a packaged straw to go with it before they reached my table. This has never happened to me before. For the past year, I’ve been able to make sure I had a bit of water before going out and have never had any problem having a light meal without an additional drink. But there you have it, a foam cup and straw that ended up going straight in the trash.

More folks were coming over in the afternoon and it had already been named Rudy’s day. We placed the order online for what seemed like a ton of food, and it all came in foil trays with foil lids or foam cups with plastic lids, everything totally wrapped up in plastic wrap. Plastic serving utensils included as a bonus, plastic-wrapped of course. Decent enough quality to be reused but probably won’t be. And in the end less than half of the food was eaten. But that may be because my visiting sister and her family will be happily eating barbecue leftovers the rest of the week–when they’re not trying out other barbecue places, that is.

So no, I didn’t break any of my own rules for Plastic Free July, but I may have taken a step backwards. The next time I go over to visit this week, I may just take my own food as a backup. At least there’s usually watermelon too. 🙂

A Graduation Celebration, Or “The Day I Totally Pigged Out”

My oldest nephew graduated from high school today! I still remember him best as a small child, and it’s so strange to see him now ready to fully embark on the journey of independent life. He’s a lover of animals and a vegan, and has a beard the likes of which would definitely have kept him from walking back at my high school graduation (although it’s nothing compared to his dad’s).

Deciding on a gift was easy. My husband and I gave him cash. He recently earned an honor for Economics, so there’s some hope that he may use it wisely. 🙂

We didn’t go out and buy a five dollar greeting card for him. I could have made him a card from some nice paper that has printing on only one side, but I still had a pack of generic blank greeting cards that I picked up at Goodwill a while back. As it turns out, another family member needed a quick card, and we did make that one out of a sheet of paper that was laying around and some markers. It was a fair decision because later on, the graduate was happily counting all the cash he had received while the various cards were laying about totally neglected.

My cousin (his father) hosted the celebration party at their house. Many other relatives were there, and even my grandmother made it in to town for the festivities. But we were nowhere near enough people to eat the smorgasboard of food that unfolded before us. We started with crackers and hummus dip and chips with pico de gallo. There were vegan cookies. Someone brought chocolates. Then food started coming into the house from the grill. Burgers and sausage. It was surprising that with a vegan graduate there were no veggie burgers, but I was hungry and immediately gobbled up the beef delight before me. By that time, more food appeared and fortunately included many fruits of which I ate some pineapple, strawberries, and grapes. A batch of veggie kabobs made their way in, but those were specially for the birthday boy and not enough to go around. The trays kept coming, though. Some chicken kabobs. Shrimp kabobs. Being surrounded by food, I helped myself to a sausage burger. Within one hour I had eaten more meat than I would normally eat in a week! Then veggie burgers appeared, only after I was stuffed enough to avoid any more entrees. More veggie kabobs appeared, but those again were just enough for the graduate. So much food around me! One of the chicken kabobs also somehow disappeared into my mouth. After that, I kept nibbling for the duration of our stay, barely managing to stick to strawberries and grapes.

Oh, but it wasn’t just the excess of meats. (Or the fact that the kabobs were probably store-prepared and excessively wrapped on foam with plasticwrap in addition to the kabob stick.) The drinks that were available at the party were canned sodas and bottled water. I had considered bringing my own, but the auditorium where the graduation was held had a no outside food or drink policy and I was afraid they’d confiscate my favorite water bottle. I drank from the water fountain at the arena, but I was out much longer than anticipated and needed something more. Since bottled water is so repulsive to me, I opted for the soda. Full corn syrup. Full caffeine. Full plastic-lined can. In retrospect, bottled water is still probably better than canned soda in every respect — for the environment, for my health, for the wallet of my hosts.

So, there you have it. My confession of how I succumbed to the pressures of the day. It’s not so bad though. Another time, I might have eaten multiple burgers or several chicken kabobs. I might have really pigged out on the individually-wrapped chocolate candies instead of filling up on fruit. I could also have partaken in the cake and ice cream. This was moderation and progress. I can only hope that the ton of food left over also left an impression that maybe less food should be bought for the next time. Then again, in our family I’m not sure if there’s ever been a celebration where we didn’t all leave with achingly full bellies. We haven’t learned yet.

Bee Magic

Three bees in a squash flower

Since moving in, I’ve seen wasps, dragonflies, butterflies, regular flies, lightning bugs, and all kinds of ants, beetles, other insects. But not a single bee. However, the moment that the squash flowers were in bloom, they knew instantly. Not just one of them, but three are crowding into a single flower at this moment. It’s magic. And if delicious yellow squash is the result, well, that’s magic too.

Rest In Peace, Brightbutt

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(not our firefly) Photo by: Marty Gabel

My husband and I were just talking in the living room when a bright light suddenly flashed in the kitchen. Not stationary but moving in that moment of glow. Until recently, we would not have recognized it because it had been decades since we’d seen one. But they’re a regular visitor in the yard of our new house by the creek. Yes, a precious little firefly. It must have snuck in when I came in from the yard earlier.

We wanted to release it outdoors again but had never caught a firefly before. While it was sitting on the curtain, I tapped it into my coffee grounds collection jar so we could take it outside. Unfortunately, it wasn’t moving. And it moved no more.

Brightbutt, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kill you. In memory, my grass out back is growing long so your old friends can frolic and remember you happily.

The Backyard Theater

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If you look up the term “boring” in the dictionary, it might mention something about “watching grass grow”. But if that’s the case, how is it possible that watching a tomato plant grow is so suspenseful? I remember the cotyledons slowly unfurling after much careful watering. The real leaves slowly growing in at first and then more vigorously after being transplanted outside. And now I feel the climax approaching. See that little yellow globe hanging in the middle of the picture? That sure looks like a future tomato. How long will it take to grow into a full-sized Roma? To turn red? Will it even make it all the way to maturity or instead be tragically struck down in its youth? Every day is a cliff-hanger in the backyard theater.

Weed Love

Today I took another trip to my mom’s house, where the raised bed in the backyard that I started months ago had some goodies waiting for me–the very last of the carrots and a few onions. The carrots were already much less sweet due either to the warmer weather or the regular storms lately, but that won’t stop me from eating them.

Overflowing handful of carrots and onion

(By the way, if you have a backyard, I strongly recommend growing some carrots. They take forever to grow but they’re extremely low maintenance and really sweet and juicy if you pick them when it’s cool out.)

Do you see what’s behind my hand? That raised bed is full of weeds! Pretty primrose. Reinvigorating clover. And other types of weeds. The weeds didn’t stop the food from growing at all. In fact, the largest onion in the bunch was one that was nearly hidden beneath a thick section of clover. It reminds me of Masanobu Fukuoka’s farm as described by Larry Korn’s intro to The One-Straw Revolution:

Some vegetables go unharvested, the seeds fall, and after one or two generations, they revert to the growing habits of their strong and slightly bitter-tasting wild predecessors. Many of these vegetables grow up completely untended. Once, not long after I came to Mr. Fukuoka’s farm, I was walking through a remote section of the orchard and unexpectedly kicked something hard in the tall grass. Stooping to look more closely, I found a cucumber, and nearby I found a squash nestled among the clover.

These veggies weren’t quite that wild, but they were just as beautiful.

Handful of carrots and onions in front of a weed-filled raised garden bed

Speaking of weeds, there were plenty of dried seedpods on the clover so I grabbed a few to use in my own garden later, as well as the dried seedpods of the peas that were too small to harvest on my previous visit. The only things left are the garlic and oregano, which I haven’t decided yet if I should just dig it up whole or leave in place and propogate cuttings. But I have at least a few weeks before the garlic can be harvested, plenty of time to decide.

Good Reads

It always inspires me to see so many people out there who are either trying out new changes for a more sustainable lifestyle or who are sharing knowledge that they’ve acquired over years of mindfulness. Here are just a few of my favorite blog entries from the past week in case any of these inspire you also.

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Over at Pioneering the Simple Life, a broken plastic wheelbarrow was restored to working condition with wire stitches.

Ania has taken inspiration from a hamster in small steps to improve her quality of life and help the environment.

Mhloe has completed her second month of zero waste and confirms what I suspected was true in that you never need to buy a new pen again. (I find pens on the ground so often that buying a reusable one is out of the question.)

Dani shares her experience making a drop-off at the landfill and how she hopes to never have to do that again.

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Sky is swapping out single-use tissues and single-use grocery bags.

Peggy describes some of the reasons why it makes sense for everyone to cut back a bit on the meat and dairy and why she’s vegan.

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Nikki salvaged some delicious produce by dumpster diving.

And although Earth day is now past, it’s never too late to take advice from this Earth Day tip offered by Katy from the Non-Consumer Advocate.