garden

The case for peeing outside

July 21st, 2013.

First published February 2009, last updated July 2013

Our peeing habits have quite an impact on water consumption. The water we flush it away with is often water fit for drinking; a resource we’re in short supply of.

Even a dual flush toilet will use a minimum of around 3 litres (.8 of a gallon) of water each flush, so we tend to use far more water each day just flushing away pee than we need to stay alive.

In the case of old style toilets with only a single flush setting, the amount of water used is incredible – up to 13 litres (3 gallons).

So based on a low flush toilet, used 4 times a day:

4 x 3 x 365 = 4380 litres (around a thousand gallons) a year

With an older style toilet:

4 x 13 x 365 = 18980 litres (over 5,000 gallons) a year

Those are big numbers, but now multiply that by the population of your country and it becomes truly astronomical.

The old saying goes “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown flush it down”. I’m all for conserving water, but I think the time I spent as a contract cleaner, cleaning dozens of toilets a day, has well and truly turned me off that idea. I have some awful flashbacks when contemplating that strategy. Still, it works for some folks and good luck to them.

Unless you’re an apartment dweller or have no privacy from your neighbors, considering taking a whizz outside instead when you can, particularly on your garden. This will not only save a stack of water, but urine is a great fertilizer as it contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. In fact, the world is running out of easily sourced phosphorous so you’ll not only save some cash on store bought fertilizers, but you’ll be doing your bit to conserve phosphorous supplies.

I do acknowledge that peeing outside is far easier for guys than for gals – I’m sorry ladies; I have no practical advice to offer.

Peeing outside is not “dirty” as urine (unless you have a urinary tract infection) is sterile. Still, it’s not really a socially acceptable practice, particularly if you attempt to do it in public or in your neighbor’s yard. Discretion and common sense is advised of course :).

Just a couple of other tips:

When peeing outside, it’s advisable to aim away from plants a little as it can burn the roots of some species due to its high nitrogen content.

If you’re going to collect urine for use outside at a later time, it shouldn’t be kept for more than 24 hours as chemical reactions will cause ammonia levels to build up that could also damage your plants – and it could become quite whiffy; particularly during the warmer months. In bulk urine reclamation projects,  the urine is stored for months until all the reactions settle.

Also, don’t target the same spot each time, for the same reason – unless it’s your compost heap. It seems that urine is a fantastic additive and will get your heap working faster.

If you’re even more adventurous, check out my article on composting human waste.

Deterring and dealing with ants

June 25th, 2013.

First published April 2008, last updated March 2013

I love to watch ants go about their business. They perform an important role in the environment – cleaning up dead insects and animals, transporting seeds and aerating the soil. They aren’t so interesting when they infest our houses though!

Usually we reach for insecticide when ants become a problem; but there are more environmentally friendly ways of deterring ants that don’t necessarily have to involve killing.

After a question from a reader about this, I dug back through the articles I had already published and found a few tips, but I also put the question to readers of my newsletter – and received a stack of great tried and tested ideas! I’d like to thank the following readers who contributed:

Cheryl, Elizabeth, Christine, Debbie D., Bonnie G, Becky K. Susan G., Stephanie H., Charlotte, Kathern T., Dan L., Jess A., Melissa B. and Kel.

Ant deterrent tips

Here’s some things you may want to try before reaching for that can of insecticide, depending on the application:

  • Pouring lemon juice around areas ants frequent.
  • Sprinkle cinnamon or place in cheesecloth bags in affected areas. Cinnamon was a very popular choice with quite a few readers reporting it being highly effective.
  • Baking soda can deter ants – pour a solid line in areas of activity and they won’t cross it.
  • A ring of coffee grounds around sensitive plants can discourage ants.
  • A puree blend of orange peel and water can be applied to an area to discourage ants from crossing.
  • Ants hate vinegar; so spray it around doorways and other areas they frequent to repel them. A small container of vinegar mixed with honey placed in affected areas appears to do the trick too.
  • A reader reported baby powder stopped them dead in their tracks.
  • Pouring boiling water over their tracks (destroys the scent trail)
  • Sprinkling a circle of ground cloves around pet food bowls
  • Removing rocks and wood from around the garden
  • Planting mint around vegetable patches, flower beds and around the house
  • Quite a few readers found cinnamon sprinkled across ant scent trails to be very effective
  • Citrus oil is a good deterrent; it can soaked into a piece of string and place around scent trails.
  • Use a piece of chalk to draw a line over trails – again, the ants won’t cross it. Chalk also has the advantage of being able to be used on vertical surfaces

Brenda W. also contributed this tip:

“Pour a small bottle of peppermint oil into a pump spray bottle, put a few drops of dishwashing liquid into small bottle and top up with cold water, recap it and give it a couple of shakes. Pour this into spray bottle and top up spray bottle with water. I spray my bench with this and I don’t get ants anymore and you get a lovely fresh smell in the kitchen.”

Another enterprising reader decided to work with the ants rather than against them. She made a sugar trail away from the house to her compost pile and put out the intent that they would find a greater feast there. It worked!

Ants invade for a reason – usually for food or water, so be sure to keep food items well secured and clean up after you prepare food. Also check plumbing for leaks, particularly under sinks. Dead insects can attract large numbers of ants, so check window sills and other areas where they may accumulate.

Ant eradication tips

Unfortunately, some times you’ll need to eradicate the ants rather than deter them. A couple of greener ways to do it (but unfortunately not very kind to the ants):

A mixture of 1/8 teaspoon of powdered borax and sugar or honey will attract and kill ants. This is a mixture that is often used in commercial ant-specific products. Worker ants take it back to the nest and pass it onto other ants, killing the colony. While borax in small quantities is relatively harmless to larger animals, in big enough doses it can kill, so be cautious about placement and keep out of reach of pets and children.

A reader reported using dry grits to kill ants; a non-toxic strategy she’s used with success for 20 years. The theory behind it is that the ants eat the grits and when they drink water the grits expand in their stomachs, killing them.

Hopefully one of the above tips will help you in your environmentally friendly control of ants! If you have any other tips, please add them below.

The Greening Power Of One

April 28th, 2013.

A man in India has grown a 1,360 acre forest from scratch on his own – and there are some lessons in his efforts for all of us.

I’ve been following the story of Jadav Payeng for a couple of years now as it’s a remarkable achievement. Over the last 34 years, he’s transformed a barren sandbar into a lush jungle and he’s about to do the same on another sandbar. His efforts have been repaid by being able to eke a living from the forest he planted.

Obviously he’s put a lot of time and effort into this, but one of the comments following the TreeHugger story points out something very important – revegetation doesn’t have to be an all-consuming task; if you use local resources and learn a little about recognising local plants to avoid treating them as weeds.

In the case of Jadav Payeng, he started by growing bamboo – a hardy, fast growing family of plants native to the area. I’m assuming animals then also assisted with plant diversification; e.g. seeds from other areas were deposited in bird poop.

Back in the early 00’s, I propagated 300 native trees from seed and planted them on a property I had at the time. Every stage was very time intensive; from caring for the seedlings to carting a 25 litre barrel around the block in a wheelbarrow to give the planted seedlings a small drink every week.

Last year I moved into a house on a largish block where the previous owners had put in substantial effort in planting. Unfortunately, some of the species were not native. The hedge out front isn’t particularly heat, drought, wind or frost tolerant and those plants take up 90% of my maintenance time. If it wasn’t for their importance, I’d just let them die and may still do so in the future as water is gold out here. The front also has …brrrr… grass; but that’s another story for another time.

There are quite a few barren patches in the backyard; but thankfully there are also native plants about the place. These are shrubs and trees that require next to no maintenance. So all I’ve done is collect seeds from these – which are produced in abundance – and spread them around the bare spots; gently stepping on them to push them into the ground a little.

It’s a “survival of the fittest” approach utilising nature’s abundance – which is probably the best strategy for this area.

That is slowly starting to prove fruitful and I expect within the next couple of years the back yard will start looking more like the bushland once so common in the area. Some of the plants will be food sources for birds, bees and various critters, others will provide shelter.

Very lazy, yet productive – the perfect gardening method :).

We might not have the time or money to revegetate hundreds or thousands of acres, but we can do our bit to help the patch we are responsible for without it being too taxing.

Related

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Teach them to love the insects’

July 14th, 2012.

When the Dalai Lama was asked the most important thing to teach children, his response was (reportedly) “teach them to love the insects”.

It’s not uncommon to fear or loathe insects and “creepy crawlies”. It’s not an instinctive thing; rather learned behavior in many cases. Just as beauty among humans is often perceived based on what society dictates rather than the eye of the beholder, so to is it in regard to other creatures on our planet. Our views may also be shaped through limited experiences with a species.

I remember seeing an experiment many years ago where a harmless spider was placed in the presence of a mother and very young child. When the mother didn’t react, neither did the child – he had no fear of the creature. However, when the same mother then expressed fear and disgust, it had a marked affect on the child; and continued to do so in experiments that followed.

(Trivia – a spider is not an insect, it’s an arachnid; but anyhow).

When I was young, a friend told me that dragonflies drop acid “bombs” from their tails. I believed him and it took me years to get over my irrational fear of dragonflies. These days I smile whenever I see one, thinking back to how silly my fear was.

We often see insects as little more than biological robots, pests or even monsters – incapable of real thought or emotion. However, the concept of insects not experiencing emotion is being challenged. Some species may indeed be sentient beings.
 
Regardless of whether they have feelings or not, insects are an incredibly important part of our planet. They are a food source, they are pollinators (and not just bees), soil aerators, disposers of waste, control other pests and provide fertilizer.

In order to “love the insects”, there has to be understanding and interest. Too often we are blind to these creatures; crushing them underfoot without a second thought; not grasping how incredibly intricate and refined they are.
 
We need to be able to marvel at the extraordinary strength of the ant, which can lift and carry fifty times its own weight; or the dragonfly that can zip along at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. We should be in awe of the froghopper – when it jumps, it accelerates at 13,000 ft per second and endures a G-force over 400 times its own body weight.
 
Whether common or exotic, “ugly” or “beautiful”, all insects have fascinating aspects.
 
Yes, insects can be poisonous or cause other problems, so we need to eradicate them in some scenarios. Even the Dalai Lama has a “three strikes and you’re out” policy with mosquitoes.
 
But bear in mind everything has its place. A termite colony chomping away at your home isn’t the same as termite colony out in the forest. It’s not a problem there, it’s an integral part of that ecosystem – and only 10 percent of the 2,750 known termite species are “pests”.

Mention the word “cockroach” and many people will screw their nose up in disgust – but it’s a similar situation there where a comparative handful of species have given the entire cockroach world a bad name. Only around 30 species out of 4500 are associated with human habitations.

A honeybee is not hell-bent on stinging you – it’s far too busy going about its work and aside from the fact bees aren’t generally aggressive except in specific circumstances; if a honeybee stings you, it dies.

To cultivate an interest in and respect for insects is easy. Think about the insects around your own yard and run a search on the species. You may be amazed at what you discover. Learning more about these creatures can also alter the way you deal with some insect problems you experience. 

Don’t forget to tell your children what you discover so they may also learn to “love the insects”.

Green Your Lawn – Reel mowers

May 19th, 2012.

(First published June 2010, updated May 2012)

On any weekend, the buzz and cough of gas powered lawn mowers is a common sound in suburbia. Aside from the noise pollution, gas powered lawn mowers spew a stack of greenhouse gases  into the atmosphere as their emission controls are nowhere near as sophisticated as today’s cars. 
  
A conventional gas powered lawn mower emits on average nearly 90 pounds of carbon dioxide and over 50 pounds of other pollutants into our air every year according to the USA EPA. Emissions aside, there’s all the other environmental nastiness associated with oil exploration, extraction and refining to provide the gas to power these machines.
  
Short of getting rid of your lawn altogether or generally greening lawn care practices, a couple of other options for lightening your lawn mowing environmental impact are electric mowers and reel mowers. 
  
Electric mowers are a great option if your house is supplied with green power, otherwise you may just be powering the mower with another filthy fossil fuel – coal.

If you’re looking for an even greener option, a manual reel mower could be ideal. After all, why waste money and travel related emissions going to the gym when you can work those muscles and be productive at the same time – in a sense, it’s exercising for the environment!
  
I first used a reel mower was in the late 80’s and that model was from the 60’s. It was certainly quiet, but incredibly heavy and awkward to use. My brief association with the contraption gave me a new found respect for gardeners of yesteryear.
  
But it also probably explains why lawns were so much smaller back then. 
  
Times have changed and reel mowers have certainly come a long way. They needed to do deal with the expanses of grass areas around homes these days. Here’s a comparison of old vs. new models in terms of looks.

   

Aside from the slick, modern lines; reel mowers are often far lighter. Some are under 20 pounds for a model similar to the basic old style; a third of the weight of the one I tussled with years ago. I’m told even the heavier modern ones with the extra features are a breeze to push given their design.
 
Manual reel mowers don’t need much in the way of maintenance and unlike reel mowers of old; the blades don’t require sharpening anywhere near as often. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who swear by them, but they recommend that they are really only suited to a flat lawn – a bumpy, sloping back yard will provide probably a little too much of a workout and less than stellar cutting results.
  
A few people have mentioned it takes a few mowing sessions to get the grass “trained” for the mower and that if you have long grass, it’s probably best to whack it down first with a gas powered mower before making the switch to a reel mower for good. 
  
Also be prepared to mow a little more often – once the grass gets away from you, it will be a battle with a reel mower. As mentioned, perhaps instead of seeing it as an additional dreaded chore, if you have a regular exercise regimen replace an aspect of it with a regular reel mower workout.
 
Before taking the plunge and forking out the cash for a reel mower, try borrowing or hiring a mower for the day to give it a lawn test and determine if it’s right for you. When choosing a reel mower, it’s also important to ask for expert advice as unlike gas powered mowers, you’ll need to select one suited to your lawn as different models are designed for specific situations and grass types. 

I finally bought a reel mower recently. In Australia, there aren’t all that many choices compared to the USA, so I settled on one that generally received good reviews, a Flymo H40 (Husqvarna). It cost around AUD $150 + $40 for the catcher.

Flymo H40 Husqvarna
 
reel mower closup
 
manual push mower and catcher

The mower + catcher weighs in at under 10kg – approximately 22 pounds. Unlike the original behemoth I used years ago; there is a fair bit of plastic on this one; including the wheels unfortunately. The rear roller is also plastic, as are the adjustment screws. Aside from that, everything else is metal.

I wasn’t entirely confident it would do the job. The small patch of grass out the front of my place isn’t really “lawn”. It’s kikuyu and rather patchy, so the surface is quite uneven. Out of the box the mower didn’t do too well, but after I fiddled with the cutter bar adjustment, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it performed. Once I train the grass, it should do even better. Aside from being able to adjust the cutter bar, the H40 offers 4 height adjustments.

I didn’t find it all that much different to pushing a normal mower, although I had to run over the same strip several times. In short, I’m a convert. It was so nice to be able to cut the grass without the whole town also being aware of the fact – the quiet operation is a huge plus.
 
Have you had experience with a modern reel mower? Can you share some advice on model selection and usage? Please add your comments below.

Weeds – useful plants just in the wrong location?

April 21st, 2012.

First published August 2008, last updated April 2012

I used to define a weed as anything that couldn’t stand up to my lawnmower or required too much care. It was also incredibly important to me to have a well manicured lawn and garden. I hate to think how many hours I spent mowing a lawn when it really didn’t need it and also the gallons of herbicide I used.

I still admire a well manicured lawn and a tidy garden, but my thinking has changed over the last few years and I also appreciate “cottage” type gardens that can often seem quite chaotic and weed infested.

After all, sometimes a weed is just a plant in the wrong spot and our views have often been shaped by our parents and peers as to what constitutes a “good” garden.

Weeds in rehabilitation/revegetation

While some weeds are incredibly invasive to the detriment to every other plant in its path, sometimes they can save a landscape from further degradation.

One of the most interesting applications of using weeds for rehabilitation has been carried out by Australian, Peter Andrews, as part of what he calls Natural Sequence Farming.

Peter theorized that weeds were growing in a particular area as the soil wasn’t in good enough condition to support native species; so he let them grow – even encouraged them. Over time, native species took over and balance was restored.

Peter has also relayed the story of being in a British paddock and complimenting the farmer on its weed free status. The farmer was insulted as in that part of the country a healthy sprinkling of weeds in amongst the pasture was a sign of a healthy paddock.

Peter’s book, “Back From The Brink” is one of the most fascinating publications I’ve ever read – plenty of “doh” moments for me in that. If you get a chance to read a copy, you won’t regret it – many of his strategies can be applied in small gardens also.

Weeds and climate change

The climate is changing – I guess that’s not news to many people. This means that plants we’ve come to know and cherish in our gardens may no longer do so well. Some grasses are just too thirsty for some areas with decreasing rainfall and what may have been considered “weed” grasses in some places, such as kikuyu, may become necessary if you’re wanting any sort of groundcover.

The availability of water supply in the future is something that all gardeners should keep in mind when considering what to plant. Hedge your bets – if you’re in a traditionally wet area, plan on it getting wetter – and vice versa for dryer climates.

We may not have a lot of choice about getting along with weeds as researchers have found that they positively thrive in areas where a high level of carbon dioxide is present in the atmosphere. Weeds are also becoming increasingly resistant to herbicides such as glyphosate.

Useful weeds

So for a moment, cast aside the prejudices you may have when certain weed names are mentioned and let’s take a brief look at some of the positive attributes of plants that commonly invade our garden.

Generally speaking, weeds do help with breaking up and aerating soil, fixing nitrogen and providing organic material when they die. Here are some specific weeds and their uses.

Dandelions

I remember my Dad cursing dandelions popping up everywhere. My brother and I weren’t helpful in this as we used to love playing with the “puff balls”, which contained all the seed. It’s been *years* since I saw dandelions in any quantity; so it seems gardener rage has had an impact in the places I have lived. But when you stand back and think about it – aren’t they a beautiful flower?

They not only provide a splash of color and food for bees, but they are edible. The petals can be used as a garnish and young leaves can be added to a salad. You can also make tea and wine from dandelions. Researchers have also discovered dandelion root sap can be economically used in the production of high quality rubber.

Couch grass

Couch grass is used in herbal medicine and the roots can be dried and ground to make a flour for breadmaking.

Bracken

Bracken is one of the oldest and most successful members of the fern family. It can be used to make glue, soap, fertilizer and mulch.

Milkweed

Certainly considered a weed here in Australia, milkweed is the primary food source of the incredibly beautiful Monarch butterfly. It’s also used in herbal medicine for a variety of ailments.

Clover

I have to admit I’ve always liked clover as a ground cover – it’s so lush. It’s another weed that has a nice flower and bees love it. Clover also handles compacted soil better than lawn grass and has longer roots that enable it to access moisture from deeper in the soil.

Nasturtium

Not always considered a weed, nasturtium is a good companion plant for vegetables and all part of the nasturtium are edible.

Wild mustard

Seeds are edible and also suitable as a companion plant to act as a host of nematodes and many insect pests.

Chickweed

Edible and used in alternative medicine.
 
I’m certainly not a master gardener or expert on plants and I’m sure just about every weed is useful in some way. If you know of uses for a particular species, please share the info below!
 
Note: before actively encouraging any ‘useful weeds'; check your local laws. Some can also be particularly troublesome in terms of spreading past your own boundary – you don’t want your neighbours showing up on your doorstep armed with with torches and pitchforks.

Is Treated Timber Environmentally Friendly?

April 3rd, 2012.

A recent project had me looking at various types of treated timber. As you read on, you’ll getter better understanding of why I opted not to use any of the following for a raised garden bed application and purchased composite plastic timber made from recycled waste materials instead.

What is treated timber?

I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful than timber when it comes to construction materials. White ants (termites) share a similar passion, but theirs is more a culinary appreciation. While some wood is more termite resistant than others, it all eventually succumbs or is affected by other elements, such as moisture, heat, mold and fungi unless somehow protected.

Treated timber is simply wood that has had chemical and/or other processes applied in order to make it more resilient to all of the above threats.

While wood used in housing doesn’t have to be treated if a building is constructed properly, where wood touches the ground or is exposed to the elements; you’ll need some sort of treated product. Paint may not be enough as it only takes a small chip to provide a doorway for termites and moisture and paint has its own environmental issues.

Types of timber treatment

Unlike paint, the chemicals used in treated timber sink deep into the wood, offering superior protection. When looking at treated timber products, the following acronyms may not be mentioned. Often treated wood will just come under a brand name, so when shopping around, be sure to ask what the actual chemical treatment is.

CCA

This is a type of treated timber most of us would be familiar with. CCA is often applied to pine logs used in car park barriers, playground equipment and houses.

The preservation method is Copper Chrome Arsenate. Copper and arsenate are the insecticide/fungicide components. “Arsenate” is arsenic – a very toxic substance and a known human carcinogen. Chromium is used to fix the copper and arsenate in the wood. Chromium is a heavy metal and also a carcinogen. 

Copper compounds will bind to sediment or soil particles. Copper can negatively impact on micro-organism activity in soil and it can become concentrated in plants, which are then consumed by animals that suffer adverse health effects.

As with other forms of treated timber, the concern is the copper, arsenate and chromium can leach into soil over time.

Creosote / Pigment Emulsified Creosote

I was always under the impression creosote treatment utilised the same material that is the by-product of burning wood – the stuff that clogs up your chimney known by the same name. I always wondered why it smelled different. Because it is.

Creosote has been in use for over 170 years. The original creosote for preserving timber was made from coal tar. Wood creosote is used in other applications, or if used in treated timber, it is mixed with coal tar creosote. Other varieties of creosote made from petroleum and oil are called oil-tar creosote. 

Fossil fuel based creosote products are known to be carcinogenic and can contaminate water supplies.

I chose creosote posts as fencing strainers on my property thinking they were treated with the wood form and probably more environmentally friendly than CCA posts. I’m not so sure now.

ACQ

Alkaline Copper Quartenary. This is what I was going to purchase for my raised garden bed, but it has higher copper leaching than CCA and therefore higher aquatic toxicity in that respect.

CDDC

Copper dimethyl-dithiocarbamate. Contains copper and sulfur compounds. Seems to be a relatively uncommon treatment and I don’t know much about it. It appears to have less copper leaching than CCA, but I found quite a few references to CDDC being toxic to animals in laboratory testing.

CC

Ammoniacal Copper Citrate. Contains copper and citric acid. As with ACQ, it leaches more copper than CCA.

LOSP

Liquid Organic Solvent Preservative. It may include tributyltin (TBT), a persistent organic pollutant and permethrin; a common synthetic chemical widely used as an insecticide. As to its toxicity, let’s put it this way – LOSP treated timber is not recommended for children’s toys or anything touching food, such as cutting boards.

Treated timber for marine applications use other chemical compounds, which appear to be even more nasty.

Wood is natural. So are copper, arsenic and chromium. Natural doesn’t harmless. All the types of treated wood mentioned above come with a variety of safety warnings to be observed when working with it – such as wearing masks, long clothing, washing thoroughly after working with it, etc. etc. etc. There is no form of treated timber I know of that can be safely burned either. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence as to its general health or environmental street cred.

It’s not just the wood

The chemical treatments applied to timber don’t appear magically – they must be applied somewhere. Sites that treat timber have been in the headlines a number of times in regard to contamination issues. Before the treatment, there’s also the source of the chemicals and elements themselves. For example, copper mines are notorious for making the land around them barren or saturating vegetation in the surrounding with copper and other toxins, making it harmful to grazing animals.
 
While the above all seems rather frightening, we need to bear in mind timber is treated to repel living things – by its very nature it is meant to be toxic. It certainly has its place, but the term environmentally friendly treated timber is an oxymoron.
 
Related:
 
Recycled Composite Plastic Timber

Recycled Plastic Uses – Composite Timber

March 14th, 2012.

I had a garden-bed type project on my to-do list and needed to find something to use as borders.
 
I would have liked to use plantation pine, but aside from rot, the white ants (termites) are very active and hungry critters out here and would have started chomping away at it before I’d fixed the final screw. 
 
Hardwood was an option, but the hardware store I visited couldn’t tell me much about the origin of their stock – whether it was plantation timber or the result of clearing – and the termites would have had their way with it in the end also.
 
Rocks and concrete weren’t an option either.

Then I started looking at various treated pine products. Every treatment appeared to have the potential to leach some form of chemical into the soil (stay tuned – article on this topic in the works).

So I settled on plastic. Yes, plastic. 
 
This may sound at odds with what green living is all about, so I’ll quickly clarify before you scoot away in disgust. Recycled plastic composite timber.
 
Composite plastic timber is the result of upcycling – or downcycling depending on how you look at it. These products give new life to plastic destined for landfill and wood waste, such as sawdust.

The product I chose is made by Plastic Recyclers Australia. They sort waste plastic, which is processed into granulated form and then melted and mixed with wood fiber. This is then forced under pressure into moulds, which are cooled in large cold water tanks until the plastic is set.

UV stabilized, these boards are resistant to water damage, termites and do not leach chemicals, so it’s safe to grow veggies in a raised garden bed using this as a border/retainer. Unlike working with wood, there’s no danger of splitting boards – I only have to look at a pine board and I swear it starts to split. This product can be easily sawn, drilled, nailed and screwed.
 
The first thing I noticed (as did the courier) is the weight. The boards are very solid, tipping the scales at 4.5kg (~10lbs) per meter (~3.3 feet) length of 20mm x 200mm (~3/4″ x ~7 3/4″) board. 


 

Raised garden bed kit made from
recycled plastic composite timber
(small grubby dog-like creature optional extra)

Composite plastic lumber certainly isn’t as cheap as pine or even many types of hardwood, but the company offers a 15 year guarantee and I can see why – this raised garden bed may outlast me.
 
You can buy these particular boards in various sizes or in garden bed kits in any color you want, as long as it’s black :). Being black, I was a bit concerned about the boards getting very hot, so I left one out in the sun for a few hours on a hot day. While the side facing the sun certainly heated up, the other side stay relatively cool by comparison. There was also no apparent warping – according to the company they will retain their shape over their long life. The boards can be painted using a special primer, but then you may face leaching issues from the paint or primer (something I didn’t look into as I’m not painting them).

I have seen other recycled plastic boards around featuring wood-grain type patterns and various colors, but most of those were hollow and I wasn’t confident they would stand up to the harsh conditions this garden bed will contend with.

While Plastic Recyclers Australia’s products aren’t available outside Australia, New Zealand and some parts of South East Asia as far as I know, a search on Google for composite plastic timber (or lumber) may turn up a similar product in your country.

 

Using indoor plants to clear the air

March 8th, 2012.

First published June 2007, updated March 2012

There’s nothing quite like the scent of forest air – the real thing, not an air freshener :).

While some of that lovely earthy scent is due to decomposition, the trees and plants of a forest are constantly circulating oxygen and carbon dioxide, unlike in the midst of a concrete jungle when the air we breathe can get somewhat stale or downright poisonous.

Our homes aren’t an oasis from our toxic modern environment either. The inside of our houses can have very poor air quality due to fumes from cigarette smoke, furnishings, paint and other items. Some items can give off these fumes for many years – that smell of fresh paint and new carpets isn’t just potentially harmful just while you can detect it.

The airborne chemical cocktail inside our home often includes:

benzene – used in oils, paints, plastic, rubber
trichloroethylene (TCE) – paints, lacquers, varnishes and adhesives
formaldehyde – foam, clothing, particle board, carpets.

All of the above have been shown to be potent environmental pollutants and likely carcinogens in humans.

New homes can be particularly bad for formaldehyde – it might be at many times the generally considered safe level for quite some time. Office air can also be saturated by a fog of toxins due to the type of furnishings and floor coverings often used on commercial premises.

Keeping indoor plants not only adds a nice green touch to our homes; some indoor plant species have proven to be effective filters for pollutants such as the above and carbon monoxide (an element of car exhaust).

A while back, I came across a couple of very interesting studies by NASA carried out in the late 80’s and early 90’s that included information on the plants NASA found useful as indoor air filters to combat these chemicals.

Beneficial plants include (scientific name followed by common) :

Aloe vera
Aglaonema Modestum – Chinese Evergreen
Chamaedorea Seifritzii – Bamboo Palm
Chlorophytum elatum – Green Spider Plant
Chrysanthemum morifolium – Pot Mum/Florists’ Chrysanthemum   
Dracaena Janet Craig – Janet Craig
Dracaena Marginata – Marginata
Dracaena Massangeana – Mass cane/Corn Plant
Dracaena Warneckii – Warneckii 
Gerbera Jamesonii – Gerbera Daisy/African daisy
Hedera Helix –  English Ivy/Common Ivy   
Philodendron Domesticum – Elephant Ear Philodendron
Philodendron Oxycardium – Heart Leaf Philodendron
Philodendron Selloum – Lacy Tree Philodendron
Sansevieria Laurentii  – Mother in law’s tongue
Scindapsus aureus – Golden Pothos
Spathiphyllum Mauna Loa –  Peace Lily/Mauna Loa

Some of the above are more effective than others at filtering particular chemicals, so if you’d like to learn more about the NASA research, here’s the study:

Interior Landscape Plants For Indoor Air Pollution Abatement (PDF 1.7 megabytes)

Indoor plants don’t just look great – they can help make your house or office a more healthy place to live and work in!

Say No To 2,4-D Based Weed Killers

February 25th, 2012.

Prior to today, I had never heard of a chemical called 2,4-D (2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). I had heard of Agent Orange though as have most folks who have some familiarity with the Vietnam War.
  
Agent Orange was the name of a herbicide and defoliant used extensively by the U.S. during the conflict. By killing forests and vegetation on rural land, it deprived combatants of cover – but also civilians of their ability to farm in some cases.
  
The loss of tree cover also gave way to massive erosion and a loss of biodiversity, while providing some invasive species opportunity to flourish.
  
Agent Orange also severely affected the health of many people who came into contact with it. By far, the Vietnamese people were the worst afflicted, but also foreign troops on the ground. I remember a friend of my parents who did multiple “tours of duty” having severe and ongoing health issues he connected with Agent Orange exposure. Even more tragic – so did his child born after his service. 
  
I was going to include some images of the consequences of Agent Orange exposure to highlight how dangerous it was, but they are quite disturbing, so I’ll refrain.
  
2,4-D was a component of Agent Orange, but unfortunately its use didn’t end with the Vietnam War. According to the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), it is still used extensively in the USA in everything from weed and feed products for home gardens and lawns to large scale agriculture. 
  
2,4-D is also used in Australia and the UK in agriculture; but I believe it has been banned in Canada (Ontario and Quebec for certain).
  
A staggering forty-six million pounds of 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid are reportedly spread and sprayed every year in the USA alone – 22,000 tons. 2,4-D is one of the top three herbicides sold nationwide says the NRDC.
   
2,4-D has been linked to cancer, severe hormonal disruption, reproductive problems and birth defects.
  
The NRDC is so concerned about the chemical, it filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in February 2012 for what it says is “their failure to respond to a 2008 petition to cancel all registrations and revoke all tolerances of this known neurotoxin and ingredient in Agent Orange.”
  
When researching for this article, I found there has already been a lot invested in seeing its continued and increased use, so it may be an uphill battle. 
  
For example, according to Wikipedia, Dow has developed a genetically modified soybean with resistance to 2,4-D; which is “intended as an alternative to Roundup Ready crops due to the increasing prevalence of glyphosate resistant weeds”. Round and round we go with GMO’s – it’s a little like the story of the woman who swallowed a fly.
  
How the NRDC’s action plays out is anyone’s guess – but you don’t need to wait until the government finally bans it; at least when it comes to your own garden. 
  
With more than a thousand products containing 2,4-D being sold in the USA, you’ll just need to be very careful when reading labels in order to avoid it. 

If ingredients aren’t listed on the product you use or if the labeling is otherwise unclear, run a search on Google and/or ask the company. My article, “What’s In That Product?”, may also be of some use. If 2,4-D is in a product you use, aside from switching; write to the company and tell them why. If enough people do so, they may take note.
  
We’ve made such a mess of things on this planet that perhaps the use of some environmentally harsh chemicals (the lesser of the evils anyways) may be required in agriculture for a while to come yet – but we’re using damaging chemicals in far too large quantities and far too often improperly; so there needs to be more education.
 
Additionally, gentler and safer herbicides and pesticides need the necessary support from government and industry to bring them to market at competitive pricing. An example is Green Guard, a much safer product used for targeting locusts during plagues; but much more expensive than the more commonly used and far more toxic Fenitrothion and Chlorpyrifos; which are broad spectrum, organophosphate insecticides.
  
Keeping a thousand acres weed free is a much bigger challenge than doing the same in the home garden. If your weed situation isn’t severe, instead of immediately reaching for highly toxic chemicals; consider trying some of these cheap, earth friendly weed killer alternatives.

By the way – weeds are often useful plants; just perhaps growing in the wrong location.