My 2012 garden resolutions are a reflection and reminder of my overall gardening philosophy – that it should be enjoyable, that it should help us achieve a greener lifestyle, and that we can reap social benefits along with the peas and tomatoes because the value of gardens are often found in the personal connections we make in the process of growing and sharing food. So, without further ado, here they are…

Resolution 1: Make the garden more presentable for company.  Cleaning up the inherited and accumulated detritus of old pots, tomato cages, toys, collapsing trellises, hoses, etc. (really sounds like a paradise, huh?!) will encourage me to share the garden with family, friends, and neighbors. I will no longer be reluctant to talk about its progress because someone might ask to see it. Additionally, I will put more effort into planning the space to be attractive and accessible with mulched paths, weeded borders, and flowers that I will claim are to attract beneficial insects and birds but which are really just there to be pretty.

Resolution 2: Grow more food. One of the emerging motivations behind my gardening is to supplement our family’s diet with more organic produce and to reduce the environmental impacts engendered by the production of our food. Therefore, I would like to improve yields to make a more significant difference. Luckily, the San Diego climate is very obliging. For me, the best part about growing here is that it is never too late in the season to start over!

Resolution 3: Learn about and practice water-wise gardening. I am used to watering only when planting or if I’m feeling particularly generous during a record-breaking drought, so I’m still figuring out how much irrigation is needed to keep plants alive in this semi-arid climate. Mulching, more compost, ollas, contouring, and drought-tolerant varieties will likely be part of the water conservation equation this year. I may also break down and put in some micro-irrigation.  There will be more posts to follow with updates on the relative merits of these strategies.

Resolution 4: Continue improving the soil. The soil here is disgraceful. We need a different name for this stuff. I’m planning a compost-tea brewing session (my first, actually), a big harvest of vermicompost, and cover-cropping one section. Of course, as a confirmed compost enthusiast, I will keep you posted about any composting developments.

Resolution 5: Keep learning and experimenting. But start small. In Solana Center’s gardening courses, we always talk about small successes versus large-scale flops. I will try to take some of my own advice, saving grander plans for later phases and aiming for a small-to-medium success this year!

We invite readers to bravely share their exciting 2012 garden plans as well. Feel free to make comments below or send me an email at elizabeth@solanacenter.org.  Making resolutions public is a little scary, but I’m hoping the threat of accountability will keep me on-track, and, who knows, it might work for you too!

I am a bit of a goal-setting devotee, and most years I do make New Year’s Resolutions, despite some concerns about all the pressure associated with this type of goal-setting. I started thinking about this year’s resolutions just before the holidays when I received a call from a woman who is committing to composting in 2012. While I admire the eco-nerdiness of her chosen resolution, I am a little hesitant to post my own green goals for the year. My general philosophy on New Year’s Resolutions is that goals made on January 1st do not deserve quite so much extra clout. If, like most people, I lose motivation around February, I don’t want to wait months before I can make another resolution of significance! However, I am willing to go out on a limb and, at the very least, share my gardening-specific goals for the year.

The garden is in a bit of a slump at the moment, with a few of the most stalwart plants persevering despite moderate levels of neglect. Conversely, there is also a large amount of luscious compost just waiting to resuscitate my pathetic Southern Californian soil and provide sanctuary for new seeds. 2011 was the Year of Experimentation in my garden, allowing me some time to translate my mid-western gardening skills into the San Diegan climate in which I now find myself. This was also the first time that I was primarily responsible for the life and death of everything in the garden, without the option of relying on parents, custodians, or roommates to water, weed, or otherwise ensure a harvest. I did learn a lot during this experimentation phase – including a few ways to slow down the scourge of snails and slugs, how to make the most of compost and worm castings, and the hard lesson that plants will not quit needing water, despite my admonitions that they should just “toughen up.”

The most important take-away, however, is that the experimentation phase doesn’t really end, and that maintaining curiosity – observing and tinkering and plotting new courses – is an important measure of a successful gardener, at least for me. It is also essential to celebrate little victories and pleasures. These include the Holiday Strawberry that I rescued from the insatiable maw of the snails and slugs at the peak of ripeness as well as the English thyme I saved from the botanical version of Trench Foot which will now be making my soups tastier for years to come, no matter how inconsistently I water it, and many more little triumphs.

Visit again next week for my 5 Garden Resolutions for 2012, and, in the meantime, I would love to hear about your green or garden resolutions. Post them in the comments section below or shoot me an email at elizabeth@solanacenter.org.  Happy 2012!

Living with a Composter

December 10, 2011

My composting experiences and experiments throughout the years have been defined as much by the people with whom I was composting as by the more typical influences of location, bin, or materials. I grew up composting with my family – arguing with my older brother about who would take the food scrap bucket out to the big pile by the garden, relying on my parents to do almost all the work, and occasionally helping Mom scoop some finished compost from the bottom of the mound to mix in with the seeds of spring. My formative composting years were marked by my family’s no-nonsense, minimalist management strategy, a product of busy lives, the already luscious topsoil of Iowa, and winters ill-suited to venturing outside.

Dorm living and tiny apartments led to some lapses in composting during my time in college until my roommates and I adopted the compost bin of a nearby campus garden as our kitchen waste dumping ground. Our “system” was no paragon of composting. We allowed food scraps to rot – sometimes for weeks – in the 5 gallon bucket under our sink before one of us got around to walking it to the garden. Nevertheless, I have nearly fond memories of dumping that anaerobic sludge into the bin because it was our anaerobic sludge.

When my husband and I moved to San Diego County, we were happy to rent a place with a little garden and some inherited worm bins. My composting enthusiasm increased as I started taking gardening and composting classes with the Solana Center. While Nathan was deployed to Afghanistan, along with all the mushy messages, I sent him a picture of a handful of my half-cooked compost – and fully expected him to share my excitement.

I’ve learned a lot about the social side of composting in these different households made up of family and friends. No matter how excited you or I am about composting, it is important to recognize that the project requires at least some degree of cooperation and patience from others. There are a few considerations that can help guide your household in designing a composting system that works for everyone:

Assign responsibilities based on each person’s motivations. For example, I’m more invested in the garden, so most of the turning, harvesting, and use of the compost falls to me.

Determine the limits of how much each person is willing and likely to contribute to the effort (and don’t expect any more). This is a function of commitment but also of time, energy, and level of composting knowledge.

Most importantly, stay flexible and reevaluate your system periodically. Our composting projects shift with seasons, work schedules, garden developments, and whether or not we have been eating our vegetables. Composting, like all of this green-living stuff, is part of a grand, on-going experiment, each of us figuring out our paths as we go.

The Work of Getting to Work

November 30, 2011

Last week my husband and I reluctantly took the plunge into multi-vehicle ownership after living most of our adult lives (a whopping 9 years) without regular use of a car.  We succumbed to the transit trends of San Diego County, which, like much of the US, is troubled by the dual afflictions of sprawling development and underfunded mass-transit options, leading to roadways clogged by the nearly requisite personal vehicle.

It is not an easy choice to kick-off my green-living blog discussing our decision to buy a second vehicle, but I want to acknowledge the difficulty we face as individuals in making more sustainable choices within systems that offer limited support for such actions.  I also hope to affirm that personal transportation choices do matter, and that we have several good – though not perfect – options to explore when attempting to reduce our footprint.

Buying a second vehicle was an agonizing decision because it conflicted with two of my most fiercely-held values: limiting my environmental impact and not spending money (ever).  Despite some important advantages to taking the bus or train – lots of time for listening to my MP3 player, people watching, and the satisfaction of knowing that my body is moving through space in an ecologically responsible manner – I came to the painful realization that, valiant effort notwithstanding, the personal toll of mass transit commuting in southern California was just too high for me to sustain.  The main disadvantages centered around time – the three hours of commuting time (over 2 hours more than by car) and the aggravation of arranging my life around bus routes and timetables.  I plan on savoring the extra 12 hours per week that are now freed-up by driving myself. The first morning I reveled in all the extra time – cleaning the kitchen, cuddling our dog, sipping my coffee, and even flossing!

However, I refuse to let the story end there.  Looking at the EPA’s household carbon emissions calculator, reducing the miles we drive and keeping up with regular maintenance are the most effective measures for reducing our overall emissions. The calculator also estimates the amount of money we would save for various actions, which can provide a little extra encouragement for initiating changes.

Cutting our mileage by just 80 miles per week would save us approximately $800 per year, resulting in an estimated 10-15% decrease in emissions. Not too shabby.

To investigate the environmental impact of reducing your miles, visit http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/emissions/ind_calculator.html. Our family is aiming for a weekly reduction of 80 miles. Check back soon for an update on how we’re doing…

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