Friday, July 30, 2010

Pumpkins, zuchinni and squash, oh my!

This year, my daughter planted pumpkin seeds as part of a kids' project led by the Master Gardeners program at the Puyallup spring fair. Given the size they grow to, they were the first of our plants to be transferred to the yard this year.

About a month ago, I bought some zuchinni and butternut squash starts and planted them outside also, because these are my two favorite vegetables.

When each of her two pumpkin planted sprouted one flower about two weeks ago, I proudly told my daughter that the spots with the flowers would turn into pumpkins. Then I read this post by Crunchy Chicken. Pumpkin plants need male and female flowers? (And how do you know which one is which?) The male and female flowers need to pollinate to actually produce a pumpkin? Sometimes the gardener needs to help the pollination process along by hand? (And how in the world do you do that??!) Huh??!!

So when the two little flowers died, I despaired the possibility of my daughter's pumpkins ever growing.

But not so fast. I was listening to "Gardening in the Northwest" on radio station KPTK-Seattle on Saturday, and someone aked about squash plants and pollination. Scott Conner, who leads that show, answered that pumpkins, squashes, zuchinnis, etc. tend to produce a few early flowers that die, and then produce a boatload of flowers again during the hottest month of summer, August. The second batch, he assured, will most likely pollinate and produce fruit. He added that zuchinni, in fact, can go from nothing to fruit in a matter of hours.

When I woke up this morning, my zuchinni plants, which had NO flowers yesterday, had about a dozen flowers on them this morning, and the pumpkin plants have re-flowered. (Nothing yet on the butternut squash). So I still have reason for hope! I'll keep you posted as "gourd watch" develops.

Praising Alaffia yet again

Earlier this year, I blogged about discovering that my daughter has the same dry, sensitive skin, especially on the face, that I have. My homemade shea butter and olive oil moisturizer caused her to break out in little pimples, and plain aloe vera didn't provide enough moisture to keep her skin from becoming dry, red and itchy.

At Super Supplements, a clerk recommended and I purchased Earth's Best Organics' Calendula Extra Rich Therapy Cream, designed for babies' skin. It worked for a while, but after about a month (as was always the case with me, using commercial moisturizers), my daughter started reacting to the product, breaking out in rashes.

Well, my resourceful child has come up with her own solution. She started applying Alaffia's Everyday Shea Body Lotion to her face. It has been working beautifully for months now, keeping her skin soft and smooth with no reactions or breakouts.

I encourage my readers to support Alaffia*, including their Everyday Shea products and their upline skin and hair care products. They're an awesome company, not only for the quality of their products**, but also for the values and principles they espouse and practice. Alaffia products are available at Whole Foods, Super Supplements, Marlene's (for those of you in Tacoma), and other natural food and personal care stores, as well as online.


* I have no relationship with Alaffia other than being a satisfied customer, and I receive nothing from them for my endorsement.

** Something else I love about Alaffia are the 2-oz glass jars they sell their pure shea butter in. I reuse these jars to make my homemade moisturizers, deodorant and (my latest experiment) toothpaste. They're the perfect size in which to make and store small batches.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Was this an especially bad allergy season?

Was this an especially bad allergy season? It was for me. The important question, however, is why.

Some background: I learned that I have seasonal allergies during the first and only time I attended summer day camp at age 6, when my eyes swelled up so badly I couldn't see. Needless to say, my parents never let me return to camp.

My allergies continued to worsen each year. As a young adult in 1995, I decided to begin allergy shots after meeting a woman whose sinuses had collapsed due to allergy problems. When I first began the shots (four of them, weekly, for trees, grass, mold and dust mites, respectively), I was told that I needed to continue the weekly shots for six months, switch to monthly shots for another six months, and then I'd be done.

It never happened that way. First, I was never able to have shots as infrequently as once a month; rather, I was reduced to every other week. Second, after a year I was told that I needed to receive the shots for five years. At five years, I was told that I needed the shots for 7 years. At seven years, I was told that now the science was recommending that people receive allergy shots for 10 to 15 years, or else one's allergies would return.

At that point, I couldn't stand the thought of continuing to receive four shots every other week for another three to eight years (and always having to miss some work in the process). In addition, my allergies had drastically improved until they were practically non-existent.

It's now been 15 years since I first started the shots, and eight years since I ended them. During my first summer in Washington, 2008, I had no allergy symptoms. Last summer, I had very mild symptoms. This year, however, my allergies fiercely returned. The question is why. Here are some possible reasons:

1) Geography. I moved in 2008 from Boston to Washington. The shots I received were created to help build my tolerance to local pollens in Boston. There are no doubt pollinating plants here in Washington that I never received shots for. This may help explain why my allergies returned only moderately last year--the local clime has taken time to affect me. In addition, during my basically allergy-free years, I took a few trips home to Ohio in June (usually to attend a relative's graduation), and there I would experience symptoms that I didn't have in Boston.

2) The allergist was right. In other words, I needed 15 years of allergy shots to ensure my immunity. Either 15 years was indeed the length that the shots would last, or the eight years that I've been off the shots now override the seven years I was on.

3) Global warming/climate change. One of the likely consequences of climate change is that we will have much longer growing seasons. Longer growing seasons = longer periods of time for plants to pollinate. Prior to my allergy shots, my allergies primarily affected me during May and June. This year, for the first time ever, my allergies started in April and only this week, the last of July, have they subsided. If climate change is the culprit, this doesn't bode well for the future for the many of us who suffer from allergies.

What do you think? Obviously, I'm one person, and my anecdotes are not data. I'd like to hear from others. If you are an allergy sufferer, were your allergies worse this year? If so, do you have any thoughts about why?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Awesome nature in the city moment

My favorite nature in the city moment occurred about a decade ago, when I was taking a walk on the Esplanade, the long stretch of park that runs along the banks of the Charles River in Boston. I spotted a mama duck and about five or six ducklings standing beside the shore. Several people gathered to watch the sight when suddenly a St. Bernard appeared, barking furiously and running toward the ducks. The mother duck started quacking loudly and jumped into the water, with her babies right behind her.

Although his owners were calling for his return, the dog ignored them and jumped into the river after the ducks. The ducks swam as fast as they could behind a rock. Once her ducklings were safe, the mama duck turned and let out what can only be described as a primal scream. She then took off like a low-flying missile aimed right at the dog!

The funniest part was the expression that appeared on the dog's face. You could tell he was thinking, "Oh no, I'm in trouble now!" As if he had just become aware of his owners' calls, he turned and hightailed it back to them as quickly as possible!

By this time, the dozens of people who saw this scene were rolling with laughter and speculating about what would have happened had the duck actually caught the dog. Despite the massive size difference (this was a St. Bernard!), she meant business. As one person pointed out, "This was a wild duck protecting her babies, vs. somebody's pet."

Yesterday I experienced another awesome nature in the city moment, and my daughter was there to see it as well! We attended Tacoma's annual Ethnic Fest held in Wright Park. As we walked along the duck pond in the park, a guy who passed us pointed to an area of the pond where hundreds of half-foot long goldfish were swimming. Just as we arrived at the area with the fish, we heard a whistling sound and saw something drop from the sky so fast we couldn't tell what it was. It landed with an explosive splash in the water. A few seconds later, we saw wet wings emerge and a bird lifted into the air. Not just any bird, either--this was a hawk who had caught a nice, juicy goldfish for lunch!

I remember watching a story on TV a few years ago about a family of hawks nesting on the eaves of a tall building near Central Park in New York City. People came out daily with binoculars to watch as the parents fed their babies, and as the fledglings began to learn to fly. It was an amazing sight, and highly unusual, according to the announcer, to have a family of hawks make its home in the city. Well, it seems that Tacoma has at least one hawk living here! And perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. We seem to have plenty of deer around here, even in the central city, not just the outskirts.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My favorite homemade cleaning products

I've blogged a lot about homemade products I use on my hair and skin, but very little about homemade cleaning products. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that finding commercial products that worked for my hair and skin without causing reactions was such a challenge, and so homemade, natural personal care products have been a godsend to me. I just can't get as excited about stuff for cleaning. Plus, there are plenty of natural cleaning products on the market that work well and are reasonably priced, so I don't feel as much of a need to make my own. Planet dish detergent, Trader Joe's laundry powder, and Seventh Generation all-purpose cleaner are some that I use, just to name a few.

Nevertheless, I do make a few of my own cleaning products, and here are some that I like the best:

Bathtub scrub: in a bowl, stir together a lot of baking soda, a little liquid soap and a little more hydrogen peroxide until the mixture reaches a Soft Scrub or toothpaste-like consistency. Spread all over your tub and let it sit for a half hour. For tough stains, cover with a towel (hydrogen peroxide's power breaks down in light). Scrub with a scrub brush and rinse well. Your tub will be shining without any leftover grit. This formula also works well with stains on your kitchen sink.

Carpet and shoe freshener: I've been using this one since my daughter was a crawling baby. Mix together equal parts baking soda and corn starch (say, 1/2 cup each), and add about 15-20 drops essential oil. I add about 10 drops each of my favorites, sweet orange oil and peppermint oil. Stir well, add to a jar (ideally one that has a shaker top, but any jar will do), and cover. This last point is very important! Let the mixture sit for about 24 hours before use. If you use it too soon before the essential oils are dry, the stuff will stick to your socks, feet, or carpet and you'll end up with white dust footprints all over your house.

Once the mixture has dried, sprinkle on your carpet or in your shoes as needed. After about a half hour on the carpet, you can vacuum it up easily. When the smell in your shoes is gone, shake out the excess. How long it takes depends on the stinkiness of your shoes. :)

Deodorizer: Vinegar, vinegar, and more vinegar! I have found that nothing works quite like white vinegar to get rid of strong odors. I just love the stuff. I used to boil bathroom and kitchen sponges (laundering didn't work very well, since I wash in cold water), add baking soda, etc., and they still smelled like mildew. Now I soak them in white vinegar and pop them in the microwave for two minutes and the smell is gone! Add vinegar to a spray bottle and spray your smelly garbage can. Put vinegar in a bowl in your car overnight to get rid of musty smells in your car. The uses are endless.

You might object that vinegar itself has a strong, and to some people, unpleasant odor. Yes, it does. But here is the miracle of vinegar: once it dries or dissipates (usually after about a half hour), you can't smell the vinegar anymore and it takes the stinky odors with it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Making my own deodorant

Here's another reason why small steps are a good thing: each time one small step results in success, it encourages me to take another.

My latest is making my own deodorant. A few years ago, learning about the toxins in many antipersperants, I switched to natural deordorants. Most I tried didn't work well at all, leaving me wet and a little stinky at the end of eat day. Finally, I tried Tom's of Maine's long-lasting deodorant. It worked very well, except on very hot days. Thus, I began carrying a deodorant stick with me during the summer in case I needed to reapply it.

Last week, I read an article about unhealthy substances in deodorants that fingered many "natural" deodorants as culprits. One of the bad ingredients listed was propylene glycol--which turns out to be the first ingredient of my Tom's of Maine deodorant. Wikipedia states that propylene glycol is not harmful to humans in small amounts, but that it can be a skin irritant, and I wonder if that was the case with me. My underarms have had red, itchy patches on them lately.

It was time to try making my own. After googling and looking at several recipes on the web, I decided to try this one, found at the blog Cheap Like Me:

* Place 5 tablespoons of coconut oil (unrefined from natural food store) in a pot and liquify over low-medium heat. This happens very quickly.

[Amy's note: I used 2 T of coconut oil and 3 T of shea butter, since I love shea so much! Shea takes a little longer to melt.]

* Remove from heat and add other ingredients.

* Add 1/4 cup of corn starch

* Add 1/4 cup of baking soda

[Amy's note: I added 1 T of witch hazel to the mix, which the first article (on toxins in deodorants) recommended as a good ingredient. So I also added an extra tablespoon each of corn starch and baking soda, to retain the mixture's consistency.]

* Stir continuously until smooth

* Add essential oils drop by drop until desired scent is reached

[Amy's note: the blogger used lavender and tea tree oil. I used sweet orange oil.]

* Pour into a 4 oz canning jar.

*Leave lid off until cool. Re-stir once cooled, as essential oils sometimes float to the top. Can refrigerate for a couple days to solidify.

Once more, the results have been awesome! The homemade deodorant has kept me dry and smelling good all day. I've carried a small amount with me in case I need to reapply it, and I haven't had to. And the red, itchy patches have gone away!

So many natural products I make myself work just as well, and usually better than the commercial varieties, without the toxins or (for my sensitive skin) the side effects. Other than the time factor of making them, why would I ever go back?

Why quinoa is like liver

Did your parents ever serve you liver as a kid, "because it's good for you"? Whether it is or not is debatable, but what isn't debatable is that liver is one of the foulest tasting things you can eat. My siblings and I learned, however, that if you smothered liver with enough bacon and onions, it became edible.

Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wa") is one of the healthiest grains you can eat. I learned about it during pregnancy, reading something or other about the best foods to eat for your baby. So I bought it, cooked it, ate it--and promptly upchucked all of it. Like liver, quinoa was one of the foulest tasting things I'd ever tried. (Although quinoa's health benefits are much more certain!).

I couldn't stomach the thought of eating quinoa again during pregnancy, nor a year later when it was served at a luncheon I attended. But my daughter is now five and morning sickness is a distant memory, so I decided it was time to try it again. (Because it's good for me, of course!). No, I didn't throw up this time. But I decided that as with liver, you need to smother quinoa to make it edible. In this case, I used curried tofu and vegetables. As long as each bite had enough tofu and veggies to overpower the taste of the quinoa, I was fine. But without it, blecch!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Cheap green tip: visit your local Starbucks for coffee...

... grounds, that is!

Starbucks coffee shops are saving their used coffee grounds in bags and making them available for free to anyone who wants to add them to their gardens.

We've been having slug problems again, and the beer in a small pot trick just wasn't working. (Maybe because the beer is old and stale? We're not beer drinkers, so what we have was left over from a party last summer).

I did some internet searching, and found some sites that recommended mulching used coffee grounds around your veggies to ward off slugs, as well as to help nourish your plants. Because coffee grounds are so fine, you have to mix them with something rougher such as broken-up eggs shells or dead leaves or bark mulch, so the grounds don't become impacted and prevent water from penetrating to your plants. The slugs don't like the feel of the rough stuff and they don't like the smell of the coffee, so they stay away.

Since we don't eat enough eggs for the quantity we'd need and our dead leaves went in the local yard waste disposal months ago, we chose organic bark mulch. Because organic bark mulch is more expensive than non-organic, another benefit to free Starbucks used coffee grounds is that it makes the bark mulch go further. So far, so good--no slugs!

And I have to wonder if the coffee smell is distasteful to deer as well. I spread some of the coffee/bark mulch around our blueberry plants. Last year, the deer devoured all our blueberries, and this year, they haven't touched them--and my husband hasn't even made his "deer off" pee-garlic-cayenne mix yet!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cheap green tip: use (a lot!) less laundry detergent

I've been hanging my clothing to dry for about a year now, indoors when it's cold and wet, and outdoors during those glorious few Northwest months of summer. But I still occasionally dry laundry when some item is needed right away, or we have a big load of towels or jeans.

One of the challenges of air-drying heavy items such as towels and jeans is that they end up hard and stiff. I usually add a half cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle and shake these items out a few times while they're drying, and that helps. However, they still end up a little stiff.

One recommendation I've read is to add less detergent, because part of the stiffness is due to all the soap not completely rinsing out. I was skeptical about that because I already use half the recommended laundry soap detergent whenever I wash.

After my daughter's bubble party, we had all these wet towels that the kids had used to dry off after running through the sprinklers. My original plan was to wash them at home and dry them at the laundromat, but when the day turned out to be gloriously sunny, I switched tactics.

I washed the towels, not with half the scooper cup of detergent, but less than one-fourth, figuring that since the towels had only been used once, they weren't that dirty. I added vinegar to the rinse cycle, and then hung them over chairs on our deck to dry. They didn't end up quite as fluffy as towels dried in the dryer, but still, no stiffness! Once more, I'm a new believer!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A few inexpensive items for going green

Inexpensive, in my thinking, is around $10, or less!

Thinking about the plastic straws at my daughter's party prompted me to do a little internet research. I found these compostable straws at, for $5-11 for 250-400 straws (depending on the length of the straw).*

I wandered around that site and found these refillable wooden pens, from $3.75-9.95, depending on the style of pen. Refills are $3.75.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I have been doing some shopping on Etsy, an online store for vendors of handmade items. I've already purchased a reusable sandwich wrap and reusable snack bag from a vendor there for about $11, including shipping, and I couldn't be happier with the results. The items were bigger than I anticipated, they seal very nicely, and the quality is excellent. My next order will be for reusable covers for my Swiffer mop.

All of the above are small investments, but they will both save money in the long run and do a little more to help our environment. Just remember, small steps count!


* You can buy reusable glass straws instead of biodegradable ones, but at $6.50-8.50 each they're a pricier (and more fragile) investment, and I certainly couldn't afford the quantity needed for a kids' party!

UPDATE: if you're like me and lose pens easily, then paying $4-10 for a refillable wooden pen you'll probably lose might seem like too much. Another option might be pens made from recycled materials. I saw packs of a dozen Bic stick pens made from 80% recycled materials for $1.99 at Office Depot. Retractable Bic pens made from 70% recycled materials are also available, but they're more expensive, about $16 for a dozen. Office Depot also carries Ticonderoga pencils made from recycled materials at a very low price.

Friday, July 9, 2010

How to have a (mostly) waste-free children's party

A few weeks ago, my daughter came up with a great idea: have a start-of-summer bubble party! We began planning a day in which her friends would gather at our house to blow bubbles, run through sprinklers, and drink bubbly milkshakes. The date we set is tomorrow (July 10th). When we first started planning, I wasn't sure it would work out, since the temps were about 60 degrees and we were wondering when summer would ever get here. Now that the mercury has hit 90, a party like this is an excellent suggestion. According to my daughter's daycare teacher, the kids there are so excited that the party is all they can talk about.

I started thinking about how I could make the party relatively waste-free, and here is what I came up with:

-- I purchased some durable, reusable plastic plates at Value Village (my favorite thrift store!) and durable, reusable plastic cups at a yard sale, to supplement the ones we already have that we use with my daughter. Cost: $2.50 for five plates and $2 for 8 cups.

-- Since we don't have a hand towel rack in our bathroom, we usually just dry our hands on our bath towels, and put out a roll of recycled paper towels when we have guests. So at Value Village, I bought a stand-alone twin hand towel rack and two sets of hand towels: a plain set for the kids, and a fancier set for when we have adult guests. Cost: $3.50 for the hand towel rack, and $3 for two sets of hand towels (so really, $1.50 for the set we'll use at the party).

-- We currently have a plain set of cloth napkins for everyday use, and a couple of fancier sets for guests. Because these are children (who tend to be messy), I needed some more plain napkins. I bought eight cloth napkins at Value Village for $4.

-- We bought a "bubble toy bonanza" kit that comes with all kinds of bubble wands and pipes. Because the kids are going to be putting their mouths on the pipes, I decided to have two bowls available outside: one filled with soapy dish water, and one with clean water with a little vinegar in it. The kids can swish their pipes in the sudsy bowl and rinse in the other bowl before passing a bubble pipe on to another child. No need for things like disposable wipes! Cost: $6 for the bubble toys, and to clean them: free.

-- I bought two durable, reusable vinyl tablecloths at yard sales. Cost: $1 for both.

-- As take-homes, the kids are going to get two things: a jar of bubbles, and a seashell they paint themselves. We spent July 4th at a cookout on Vashon Island and my daughter and I collected a bunch of large sun-bleached clam shells, which look gorgeous when painted. My daughter already has paint and brushes. Cost: $8 for 16 bottles of bubbles, and painted seashells: free.

Now, I did say this party would be mostly waste-free. Here are the areas where we'll still generate waste:

-- The various bags and containers for food and drinks, including hotdogs and buns, fruit, chips, juice, ice cream and milk (including non-dairy varieties for a few kids who are lactose-intolerant). I'm not yet at the place where I purchase all my food from farmer's markets and have milk delivered in glass bottles. However, I'll try to buy the largest sizes I can, recycle those containers or bags that are recyclable, and of course, use my reusable bags for shopping.

-- The plastic wrap around the packs of bubbles and bubble toys.

-- Plastic straws. It would be pretty tough to have young kids drinking milkshakes neatly and easily without them. Plus, it will help prevent brain freeze.

-- Invitations. We made really cute paper invitations with a clip art cat blowing bubbles. I know the "green" recommendation is e-vites, but c'mon, we're talking about 4-6 year olds here, the parents of whom, in some cases, I don't know very well. Thus, paper was the way to go.

So, for not much more than it would have cost to buy disposable napkins, plates, cups, paper towels, tablecloths and wipes, and with the added benefit of having these items available for future use, we will have a (mostly) waste-free kids' party. And I hope the kids' parents appreciate the take-home bubbles and pretty seashells rather than gift bags filled with cheap plastic toys!


Update: The party was a hit! The one thing that didn't last long was the sprinkler--the kids started complaining they were cold after a few minutes (it wasn't quite as hot today as yesterday). But they loved blowing bubbles, painting the seashells, and drinking milkshakes! Interestingly, one of the parents gathered all the used straws and put them in a large container of soapy water. So that's one less area of waste for this party! And one parent commented that it was nice not to have their kids sent home with gift bags full of junk.

Cheap green tip: use cereal box liners instead of zippable plastic storage bags

Since I stopped getting plastic bags at the grocery store, I started saving the plastic bags I obtain from other things, such as loaves of bread, bags of produce, etc. I find that if I need to throw trash away or have a plastic bag available for say, packing shoes or carrying a child's wet clothes, these work just as well as plastic grocery bags.

However, one of my favorite (plastic? wax?) bags to save and reuse are the ones inside boxes of cereal. These make awesome substitutes for zippable plastic storage bags. They're strong and waterproof, and usually can be reused longer than plastic storage bags, which tend to break down after two washings. I use them for such things as storing leftover pizza, pancakes, and chicken. Smaller cereal inserts can be used for such things as sandwiches. These bags do well in the freezer, too. To use, remove the bag after finishing a box of cereal, shake out the crumbs, and seal with a chip clip, twist tie or rubber band. Because they're waterproof, damp foods store well without leakage. Of course, since they don't seal completely, you can't use them for anything completely liquid. Otherwise, however, they're an excellent alternative to plastic storage bags.

Monday, July 5, 2010

In praise of small steps

Grist, an online environmental magazine, has a regular column, "Ask Umbra," which answers green living and environmental questions for its readers. Most recently, a reader named Patty asked the following of Umbra:

But right now with the oil spill taking over the Gulf and ruining so many ecosystems, I just don't know if anything I do really makes a difference. ...

I live in southern Louisiana and remember feeling the same way after Katrina. ... Why even bother? What can the little things I do matter when compared to one big horrible thing like this?

I hope you disagree with me and tell me why I should care.

As I've shared before, I can relate to Patty's feelings of being overwhelmed. Here's what Umbra shared in response (emphasis added):

Being overwhelmed by a big crisis may cause us to think that our personal actions are meaningless. But this is where we’re wrong, dear Patty.

Just this week New York Magazine noted that, "recent neuroscience and behavioral-economics research suggest that changing people's individual behavior may be the best way to grow a movement."

Furthermore, an analysis from the Garrison Institute’s Climate Mind Behavior Project (CMB) and the Natural Resources Defense Council, found that "Americans can reduce U.S. carbon pollution by 15 percent -- or one billion tons of global warming pollution -- through collective personal actions that require little to no cost."

So go ahead and sweat the small stuff! The "little things" we all do are not futile. In fact, little things add up fast. Especially if you do them, and then talk to your friends and family so that they start doing them too. That’s the magic of the multiplier effect.

Grist put it best: "Practiced consistently, small steps facilitate both gradual evolution and rapid revolution for positive lasting change. Of course institutional and policy change is crucial, but it doesn't happen on its own; it happens when people fight for it, motivated by their values."

Umbra ends with a few famous quotes about doing small things with great love (Mother Teresa), about how small groups of committed citizens are the only thing that can change the world (Margaret Meade), and one of my favorites, from Dr. Seuss' The Lorax:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.