Category Archives: sustainability

Wiggling Toward A Sustainable Garden

Red worms! Red worms!

Red worms! Red worms!

When Michelle Gardner of North Waterboro ordered her first batch of red worms last July, she had no idea how quickly her interest–or her garden boxes–would grow. From a plastic baggy about the size of a cup that held 1000 dehydrated red worms cushioned in peat moss, Michelle’s worm “farm” now encompasses several large outdoor garden boxes, 18-gallon plastic tubs, and even an old canoe.

Gardner is hoping to continue to expand her army of red wigglers–which handily compost old produce, eggshells, newspaper, cardboard, and other household garbage into highly usable fertilizer–and she wants to teach others how to utilize worms in their own gardens, as well.

“They multiply very fast,” Gardner said as she walked around her Lake Arrowhead property showing visitors her various composting boxes full of worms, table scraps, and shredded newspaper and leaves. “The worms are hermaphroditic. They will lay two eggs from which hatch two to twelve babies. In less than a month, these newborns are ready to reproduce.”

According to Gardner, worms are extremely helpful for building gardening soil. They increase air flow in the soil by making tunnels. The break down organic matter into castings that act like time release capsules of nutrients into the soil. The speed up the composting process. They also add microbes and good bacteria to the soil. A study at Cornell showed that not only are worm casting good for fertilizing, but it also could help suppress plant diseases caused by pathogens. Beneficial microbes can colonize on a seed’s surface and release a substance that protects the seed from a pathogen.

Worms do not eat living plants, Gardner explains, but rather ones that are already starting to break down. She put some worms in her indoor plant pots with some compost and was amazed at the prodigious growth of the plants once the worms went to work. “I’ve become increasingly successful with them,” she said. She is hoping to start teaching classes on vermiculture, calling her venture Michelle’s Happy Worm Farm. Students will learn how to build their first tub for composting–drilling holes in simple plastic tubs, adding strips of newspaper and leaves, a little bit of soil, and the worms. Worms like coffee grounds, but Gardner warns that because of its acidity, grounds should be accompanied by some other organic matter such as fruit or veggie scraps, manure, or plant debris.

One of the most sustainable ways of using worms is to compost manure. Placing a box of worms and soil under a rabbit hutch, for example, can quickly turn something unpleasant into valuable fertilizer for your vegetable or flower gardens. Red wigglers will not outgrow their container, Gardner assures, although sometimes they seem to be crawling out of the bin. The reasons for this include too high temperatures, too much moisture, or too much acid in the mixture. Adding more air holes, opening the top of the bin, or adding ashes or lime to the soil can remediate these problems.

Getting started with red worms is as easy as creating a bin and keeping it in your cellar, adding a bit of table scraps every so often. They won’t survive freezing temperatures, but once spring comes, the worms can be added to outdoor compost bins. Vermicompost “tea,” which is worm castings steeped in liquid, is also a good liquid fertilizer for household and garden plants.

A Very Cranberry Christmas

Chutney in Bowl

Chutney in Bowl

(This article also appeared in the Waterboro Reporter newspaper, soon to be found online, but for now check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TheWaterboroReporter)

Here we are, smack-dab in the middle of another holiday season, singing along with the carols playing non-stop on 94.9 WHOM (if you live in Maine), finishing up our shopping and wrapping of presents, and turning thoughts toward special holiday foods.

Yes, this is the season of Christmas cookies, nut bread, fruit cake, and eggnog. Peanut brittle, peppermint bark, snickerdoodles, and hot cocoa with whipped cream. Depending on our family traditions, we may enjoy turkey, ham, lasagna, baklava, corn-bread stuffing, sweet potato casserole, or those glorious Franco-American pork tourtieres.

And anything cranberry.

In my family, a traditional treat is cranberry bread. My mother serves it on a silver tray at her Christmas Eve dinner of fish chowder and crackers, jello fruit salad, and homemade sour pickles. Cranberries are fun to string together and hang as a garland on the fir tree. Frozen into an ice-ring, cranberries add a splash of color to a holiday punch bowl. Added to champagne cocktails, frozen cranberries not only keep the beverage chilled, but look very pretty rolling around in the glass. (A mint leaf provides good contrast, too!) There are cranberry sauces and jellies, cranberry pancakes, and don’t forget cranberry nut muffins with a little spread of butter to warm up chilly winter mornings.

There is something just so festive about those bright red berries that contrasts with the uber-whiteness of the snowy winter world outside!

As more and more people are coming to realize that eating locally with the seasons makes sense from a health and environmental perspective, here in New England we can feel confident about choosing cranberries in late fall and early winter. According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association, cranberries–along with blueberries and Concord grapes–are a native North American fruit. Native Americans used the cranberry in a sort of protein bar called pemmican which was made of crushed berries, deer meat, and melted fat. They also used the berry as a dye and as a medicine. Later, American sailors took cranberries with them on sea voyages to stave off scurvy as the cranberry has a high vitamin C content.

Cranberries are also grown commercially right here in Maine. According to the Maine Cooperative Extension, cranberry production is a new “old” industry since cranberries were grown here in the past, disappeared in the first half of the 1900’s, and then experienced a rebirth in the 1990’s when new commercial production began. Last year, I bought a ten-pound box of the ruby-red berries from a local food co-op organized by Ossipee Towns for Sustainability (check out their Facebook page). The group orders from Crown o’ Maine Organic Cooperative which markets products from Maine growers.

I had good intentions when I bought those berries, but somehow after sticking that box in my freezer I forgot about it…until last week. All of a sudden, as we rounded the corner to Christmas, it hit me. Cranberries! I decided I wanted to try making chutney to include in my Christmas dinner menu and also to give as handmade gifts. It doesn’t get much more local than your own kitchen, right?

I searched the internet for a recipe, found one I liked on the Ocean Spray website, gathered my ingredients, and set the pot to boiling. The first batch came out a little more runny than I wanted, but the flavor was tangy-sweet and spicy. Making a few modifications the following evening, I ended up with a firm, spreadable chutney with a glorious dark garnet-red color and just the right blend of spices. I can’t wait to serve this with my Christmas turkey, not to mention all the leftover turkey sandwiches!

If you would like to try it yourself, here is the recipe.

Shelley’s Second-Batch Christmas Cranberry Chutney

1 ½ cup water
1 ½ cup sugar
2 cups frozen Maine cranberries
1 cup vinegar
1 cup raisins
½ cup small dice apple
½ tsp each allspice, ginger, cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves

Put sugar and water together in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring often to avoid sticking. Pour into glass bowls and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate. Stir before serving to show off all that chunky deliciousness.

If you like your chutney more saucy, reduce cooking time. The longer you cook, the more “set” your chutney will become. Happy holidays!

My Evil Pellet Stove

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Dear Reader:

I live in Maine, and in Maine the winters are cold. Correction, the late autumns, winters, and the biggest part of springs are cold. In order to survive, humans who live in Maine need a source of warmth in order to thrive. So it has been, I believe, ever since the first people took up residence in our fair state.

Over the past five years, I have explored various issues pertaining to sustainability, localism, and culture. I was inspired, first of all, by the notion of “Peak Oil” which is really “Peak Energy” or–to be more colloquial–“When the Juice Runs Out.” I read about the End of Suburbia and the Geography of Nowhere and about how we need to Powerdown.

Throughout the book reading and eco-film watching, I heard much about weaning off oil and using, instead, renewable energy. Things like wood, geothermal, and solar were touted as better options. I was cool with that.

I grew up with a wood stove. I am fond of that dry, heatier-somehow kind of warmth that is thrown out by a wood stove compared to a forced hot-air furnace. Plus, you know, it is traditional, and I like traditional.

It took a few years to make the switch, but eventually hubby and I decided on a pellet stove. We bought one last fall, used it all winter, and were pleased. We rarely filled the oil tank (for the hot water heater; replacing that is a future consideration), and I was warmer than I’d been in many years since I had taken to reducing the thermostat down to 60 degrees–way too cold for me to be comfortable, even with a sweater and knit hat. I was thrilled that the pellets were made out of a local resource–wood from Maine or neighboring Canada–and would burn more efficiently and cleanly than a traditional wood stove. Yay! We were doing our part for the environment!

Or so I thought.

Today I learned of an article expressing shock and dismay that some major corporations are–gasp!–producing pellets, shipping them overseas, and making a profit! I went in search of the article and think this might be it. OUTRAGEOUS: U.S. Forests Logged, Pelletized, Shipped Overseas in the Name of Renewable Energy. (from EcoWatch.com)

It does seem rather appalling.

Sigh.

I get it. Trees are beautiful. They are a wonderful resource, and we should manage them with care. Burning them throws carbon into the air. But wasn’t the whole idea of switching to “renewables” dependent on, um, actually USING the renewables? And what other choices do we have? Solar? What about those solar panels? What are they made of? What kind of energy is used to manufacture and transport them? What about batteries and storage of energy for when you need it? And if we all switch, will we then be told by the likes of EcoWatch that we are evil for supporting a corporation that is profiting from the production and sale of the technology?

I’m not saying “going solar” is wrong or in any way a poor choice. I would love, love, love to see our communities transition to using solar, but please don’t act as if 1)sustainability advocates are blameless in this burgeoning market for wood pellets and 2)there is no environmental cost to ramping up solar energy solutions.

Human beings use resources and make an impact on the environment. Period. Perhaps the only way we can TRULY reduce our impact is to stop making more humans to warm, feed, clothe, inoculate, and hydrate.

In other words, don’t throw out your pellet stoves. Instead, buy some birth control. Or just say NO to sex. (WARNING: CRUDENESS ALERT! 31 Ways to Say No To Sex)

Whatever works best for you.

ps: Just watching the national news and learned that China is lifting their “one child only” rule. And so it goes and goes and goes…