Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Vacation Time, 2011 Edition

Last summer, when I took some time away from this blog because life was a little busy, I said I wished I could escape to a cabin in the woods. Well friends, that time has come! When I get back next weekend, I'll post some photos of my escape and let you know whether my DEET-free insect repellent worked. Meanwhile, here's a shot of my cats sleeping:

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Be Wasteful: Grow a Grass Lawn

It was a few weeks ago, over the holiday long weekend at the start of the month, when I started thinking about writing a post on the topic of grass lawns. My mother told me she had heard that we have President Roosevelt to thank for introducing British style lawns to the US. He was apparently very impressed with how neat and tidy English golf lawns looked. However...

... this is what lawns look like in my neck of the woods these days (and I've seen much worse). After an unseasonably rainy spring, we've had an unseasonably dry summer. Not only have we received very little precipitation, but I haven't seen a cloud in so long that I forget what they look like. Grass suffers in these conditions while it thrives in the damp of the British countryside. If only President Roosevelt had been surrounded by advisers with expertise in botany and climatology. Perhaps he could have been swayed to rethink the landscaping around the White House and grow lawns with grass alternatives and other types of ground cover more suitable for hot, dry conditions - homeowners would be mimicking a more sustainable landscaping strategy. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Briefly, let's think about what makes grass lawns a bad idea. A lot of this will sound familiar to you if you read my post on golf courses last year. As I mentioned above, hot and dry weather stunts grass growth while promoting the proliferation of unwanted plants that think sunshine and dry soil are lovely. The common reaction is to kill weeds with pesticides and boost grass growth with fertilizer. Both are toxic, both are dependent on fossil fuels: that's a 1-2 punch to the environment's gut and our health. It gets worse when you factor in gas-powered mowers, some of which emit more pollution than cars. Weed whackers and leaf blowers are similarly hazardous. But my favourite lawn-related environmental no-no is the intensive use of water. When grass turns brown it's not dead, it's reducing its need for water! In the end, watering a brown lawn only makes matters worse by signalling the grass that it can return to its green, water-thirsty growth mode! My ultimate pet peeve is...

... lawns being watered at midday, when the sun is at its peak and evaporating mist and droplets before they even fall on the grass. I took this photo yesterday, on the hottest day of the summer. We actually broke a record for July with 37.5 C (100 F), which felt like the upper 40s (115-120 F) with humidity factored in. Note the wet stones and pavement, and how the grass is only receiving half of the water coming out of the sprinkler. I suspect the photo looks dark because my camera couldn't handle the brightness. I took this shot at 1 pm when the sun was directly overhead - everything but the porch was in full sun, at a UV level of 11, no less.

What are our options? With more hot and dry weather on the way for the foreseeable future (global climate change, anyone?), we are forced to focus on adapting. While some non-toxic pesticides and fertilizers do exist, including products you can put together at home, you'll still have to mow and water like everybody else. Switch to an electric mower and set its blade height to leave the grass longer. Be efficient with your sprinkler! Make sure the spray only reaches as far as the edge of your lawn (not the pavement beyond), water only in the early morning when the sun is low on the horizon and the air is somewhat cool, and keep the sprinkler going only as long as necessary.

For those of you who can make a bigger commitment, consider planting hardier varieties of grass that are suited to your region's climate. Add more trees to your property that keep your lawn in the shade. Experiment with drought-tolerant grass alternatives and extend your flower beds farther into your lawn to reduce the overall amount of grass on your property. Your local garden centre staff can tell you about ground cover alternatives, and if you can afford it, why not hire a landscaping company to do a complete makeover of your front yard and turn that lawn into a native plant habitat garden? Here's what that looks like in my neighbourhood:

My favourite solution is...

... putting that soil to good use and growing veggies, like in this front yard a few blocks from where I live. If the image looks fuzzy it's because my camera caught the high evening humidity from a few nights ago. Remember, every little bit counts. Choose the options that work for you and your living situation and run with them. We don't need award-winning botanical gardens in every yard!

Do you have any tips for sustainable landscaping?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Presenting... the New Cat Tree!

Back in April I wrote a post about cat trees, mainly to discourage everyone from buying the furniture for sale at pet stores. Traditional cat trees are often made from materials that harm you, your kittens, and the environment, such as wood that isn't harvested sustainably and manufactured into particleboard using formaldehyde glue or carpeting that is made from petroleum byproducts and covered in toxic stain-repellents. I went so far as to recommend four alternatives that are safer and cleaner, and three months later I followed my own advice and bought a new cat tree!

I had to wait a week for Milly to be brave enough to try it out, but as you can see here she's become quite fond of the middle platform. This is Mountain Cat Trees' 58" Three-Level Cat Tree, with platforms at heights of 22", 40", and 58" if you include the base. The posts are birch trunks with the bark removed and the base and platforms are made of textured pine. These trees were harvested after storms when it is easy to find downed trees in the forest, and the wood was treated with a non-toxic clear coat finish.

Putting the tree together was a simple, straight-forward process. The minimalist cardboard and kraft paper packaging was easy to remove and set aside for reuse. I had no trouble following the instructions and was done in about half an hour. I didn't need any tools besides a screwdriver and the enclosed Allan key.

Each platform is bordered with sisal rope. This lets cats really dig their claws in to the edges of the platforms when they reach up and use the edge to stretch. My hope is that the corners of the dining room table become less useful for the same purpose! The sisal scratching post that you can see in the first photo (leaning up against and screwed into the tall post) should also discourage my cats from using the back of the couch to sharpen their claws. Sisal gives them a stronger grip and doesn't feel anything like upholstery!

I'm still waiting for the day that Donut ventures onto the tree and Milly has the guts to scale the 58" high platform. I've been able to entice her up there with catnip, but she never stays too long. If there's one thing I know, it's that you can't force cats to do anything they don't want to, so I'm content to wait for now. I'm just glad that in the mean time, no toxic chemicals are leaching from the tree into the air and onto my cats!

Would you switch to eco-friendly furniture for your pet(s)?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday Feel Good News

It's Friday, and in my books, that means it's time to feel good. Let's set aside the doom-and-gloom stories for a moment and focus on some good news!


This week I was happily surprised to hear that the Local Food Procurement Policy for the City of Toronto was not scrapped after all! A couple of weeks ago it was under threat when a consultant's report was released, stating that it was unrealistic to get the City to buy 50% of its food from local sources. When a compromise was suggested, that of targeting the policy at the departments that purchase food for child care centres, long-term care homes, and shelters, one Councillor went so far as to recommend the entire policy be scrapped. So this good news is actually great news, because the motion to keep the policy under these new terms was passed at 40 votes to 1! Please read this press released from Food Forward for more details:

Attention News/City Editors:

For Immediate Release

Thursday July 14, 2011

Council gives green thumbs up to local food

TORONTO, ON – Good news comes out of City Council’s third day this week as Councillors voted nearly unanimously to keep the City’s local food procurement policy, providing fresh food at City child care centres and long-term care homes.

“This is a win for the City’s food movement, the environment and Toronto food sector jobs,” said Darcy Higgins, Executive Director of Food Forward.  “In deciding to support local food, Council sends a clear message that it cares about local farms and healthier food for its residents.”

The policy, which began in 2008, had been at risk after a tie vote at Government Management Committee brought the matter to Council.  Over the last two weeks, letters and petitions from residents and cooperation by councillors on different sides of the political spectrum helped to return support for the policy.

“Over 58,000 people in Toronto are employed in the food sector, providing 1 in every 8 jobs, and this policy will continue to generate support for good work in this sector.” said Higgins. “Toronto residents and our members hope for continued support from this Council in recognizing the benefits of expanding food programs like urban agriculture and allowing community food projects and businesses to flourish.”

Food Forward especially thanks new Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon and the Toronto Environmental Alliance for their work to support local food.

- 30 -


Darcy Higgins
Phone: 416-459-9975

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

When Growing Your Own Food Is a Crime

Can you blame someone for putting vegetable beds in their front yard after it was torn up for sewer repairs? I wouldn't, but the city of Oak Park, Michigan, seems to think that's an appropriate action to take against a mother of six who refused to remove her garden. Julie Bass has now been ticketed, charged with a misdemeanour, and may face up to 93 days in jail if a jury finds her guilty on July 26th.

The five raised beds she uses to grow corn, squash, tomatoes, other veggies, and even some law-abiding flowers can be seen in a photo embedded in this article from Treehugger. Frankly, that garden looks tidier than many front lawns I've seen, but apparently Oak Park City Planners take offence at how unsuitable edible plants are for a front yard. It would seem "suitable" means "common", and if you want to keep up with the Jones' you plant grass, trees, and flowers, but no veggies - regardless of how well or poorly they are maintained. I guess small-minded city bureaucrats like the proverb about the nail that sticks out getting hammered down.

But we don't have to let this happen without putting up a fight. Here's what you can do:

  1. Call Oak Park city officials. Check out Julie's blog to find contact information for the Mayor, City Manager, and other officials. Remember that one phone call is worth about a dozen e-mails, so please call if you can.
  2. "Like" the Oak Park Hates Veggies Facebook page.
  3. Tell your Twitter followers and Facebook friends about this in the weeks leading up to the trial. There are many reasons to support Julie, not the least of which is outrage that a cash-strapped city would spend so much money on investigating, charging, and prosecuting such a harmless act. If it can happen in Oak Park, it can happen where you live. I wouldn't want my taxes to be wasted on something like this!

Imagine you move into a house with better growing conditions in the front yard than the back (due to differences in size, exposure to sunlight, soil drainage, etc.). Would you consider planting veggies out front rather than out back? Would you fight the City if they disapproved of your "unsuitable" choice of plants?

Photo used under Creative Commons from Scorpions and Centaurs (flickr).

Monday, July 11, 2011

Another Green Roof is Growing!

I'm happy to announce that a new green roof has been built by Access Alliance, and it will serve as a learning grounds on topics such as planting and maintaining vegetable gardens, healthy eating, organic growing methods, as well as broader environmental topics. Come to the launch party tomorrow night!

Join us at Access Point on Danforth to celebrate our new Green Roof!

Tuesday July 12th
6:30 - 8:00 pm
3079 Danforth Avenue

You are invited to:
-      Take a tour of the Green Roof
-      Taste recipes freshly made from the garden
-      See a slideshow of the first Spring Season
-      Plant a seed in the organic vegetable garden
-      Learn about the benefits of Green Roofs

As of spring 2011, the Green Access Program is a new program based at the Access Point on Danforth, with the bigger vision of supporting broader Environmental initiatives.

The Green Roof is used for community engagement and to promote environmental awareness and healthy eating. Programs are tailored to meet the needs and interests of participants and participating organizations/groups. Programs include garden drop-in, public events, educational workshops about food and the environment, hands-on gardening and volunteer training. As it gets established, the Green Roof will be a demonstration project to inspire other health service providers.

For more information, please contact Lara Mrosovsky, Green Access Community Animator at the Access Point on the Danforth, at 416-699-7920, ext. 405, or visit the Access Alliance website.

Have you visited a green roof or rooftop garden? Are there any near you? Should the government be forcing big corporations like Walmart or Home Depot (and other businesses with large warehouse stores) to install green roofs to help reduce their ecological footprint?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Congrats to the TYFPC on Another Successful Year

How time flies these days! We're near the end of the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council's second year, and it's time to celebrate the hits and laugh at the misses at the last community meeting of the 2010-2011 term. From the website...

The Toronto Youth Food Policy Council (TYFPC) has had quite the year as North America’s first YOUTH Food Policy Council… We held two exciting events – the “So You Think You(th) Can Cook” competition and the “Youth Food Fair”, started a Youth Food Journal, secured two permanent seats on the Toronto Food Policy Council and inspired Youth Food Policy Councils across the continent. And most importantly, we held four Community Meetings which highlighted sustainable food-related topics that are important to YOU – Toronto’s Food Passionate Youth Community!

Throughout the 2010-2011 year, we discussed issues of Food Literacy, Hunger and Underserved Populations, Urban Agriculture and Farmland Preservation.  Please join us for our last Community Meeting of the Council Term on July 11th from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at Metro Hall, room 308 where we will revisit each of the four topics.  We’ll be joined by exceptional food movement leaders who will answer your questions including Don Mills of Local Food Plus and the National Farmers Union, Brooke Ziebell of FoodShare, James Kuhns of CRC Toronto and Barbara Emanuel of the Toronto Food Strategy within Toronto Public Health.  Join us at 6:00 for a mingling social and delicious hors d’oeurves!

Also, if you're interested in applying to become a council member during the 2011-2012 council term – stop by! We'll be on-hand to answer all your questions.

Become part of the Youth-led food movement – Don’t miss this exciting meeting!

Although I'm less of a Youth and more of a Youth-at-Heart, I've always found the TYFPC community meetings to be inclusive of everyone, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be to exchange ideas about ways to improve the food system. If you're in town on Monday, I hope you'll join me at the party!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How I Love to Hate Migraines

I was going to prepare a post for today on Monday or Tuesday, but a migraine got in the way. Migraines are my Achilles' heel. I don't take painkillers for tension headaches, menstrual cramps, or aching muscles. But when a migraine hits, my world shuts down, and liquid pain relief capsules that are supposed to begin working within fifteen minutes only manage to take away a tiny portion of my suffering, and that, only after an hour and a half. A swollen fist of pain sits in my temple, putting so much pressure behind my eye that it tears for hours. And there is nothing I can do about it.

It's at times like these that I wonder why this happens to me and so many others. There are obvious factors: stress, anxiety, skipping meals, sleeping too little or too much, and being over-exposed to bright sunlight. I admit my weekend was full of stress and anxiety, and my emotions were on a bit of a rollercoaster, but there have been other times when a migraine has hit for no apparent reason (and vice versa, when those factors were in place but no migraine appeared). What if invisible environmental factors have something to do with it?

Take for example this weekend. I drove out of town for a family reunion. Apparently the whole city had similar plans, this being a long weekend. Both the drive out and back in took two hours longer than usual. That's four hours of inhaling carbon monoxide, unburnt fuel, VOCs, and ozone from nearby tailpipes while idling on an eight-lane highway. Isn't it reasonable to assume that toxic gases + traffic-related stress = migraine for those of us who have a propensity for them?

What about smog? Toronto gets its fair share in the heat of the summer, and that's when I experience more migraines compared to the cold winter months. Since I don't have respiratory or cardiovascular problems, my body might react to smog by unleashing a migraine. I don't think poor air quality and headaches are directly related, but I wonder if migraines are a symptom of overall body stress? "You're polluting me", my body cries out as it pounds that fist into my temple. If you think about my reaction to the pain - going home to sleep it off and staying away from exhaust, toxic cleaning products in public buildings, and the nasty chemicals that hide in the perfume and cologne that so many people like to bathe themselves in - then maybe migraines serve the purpose of isolating me from these poisons.

What do you think? Could there be some validity to this theory, or am I sprouting nonsense because yesterday's migraine killed off some of my brain cells?

Photo used under Creative Commons from Deborah Leigh (flickr).

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Happy 1st Anniversary!

One year ago today I wrote my first post for this blog. Promoting reducing and reusing while demoting recycling as a last resort when it comes to waste reduction, my heart was in the right place but my mouth was, well, a little eager. Years' worth of frustration about how little everyone around me was doing to clean up the planet was expressed with critical words when I first began to use this blog as an outlet. 150 posts later, I still get outraged, but I'd like to think my focus is on educating, providing options, and inspiring action - not just ranting! To those of you who have been here from the start: thank you for being interested in my opinion for a whole year. To those of you who are relatively new to this blog: thank you for stopping by, I hope you find my posts informative. If any of you wish to leave feedback privately rather than in the comments, e-mail me at andreastwocents(at)

Without further ado... let's celebrate with cake! Also, happy Canada Day and Independence Day!

Photo used under Creative Commons from Roger Wollstadt (roger4336/flickr).

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friday Feel Good News

It's Friday, and in my books, that means it's time to feel good. Let's set aside the doom-and-gloom stories for a moment and focus on some good news!


Today's good news comes from the city of Hangzhou (with a population of over 6 million) in southwestern China. Watch this short video about the city's new public bike sharing program:

How cool is it that they include kids' bikes in the system? And that some of the adult bikes come with child seats! I'm particularly impressed by the integration of the program with public transit such that you can use a bike for 90 minutes at no cost if you've just stepped off a city bus. The designers behind this system have clearly thought about some of the barriers that prevent many people from cycling - having children with them or living outside of the city's core where the stations are located - and made it more convenient for everyone to make use of the bikes. Here's hoping they reach their target of having 175,000 bikes available by 2020!