Category Archives: Organic living

Eco-Saturday: Cheap all-purpose cleaner


I use vinegar to clean almost everything. I don’t mind the smell, but then again, I’ve been known to order Pickle Pops by the case. Some people balk at using vinegar as a household cleaner, because the smell can get a little intense.

Enter this excellent idea I found somewhere online (Pinterest, probably) for recycling citrus peels into all-purpose cleaner.

You will need:
A good-sized jar with a lid
Distilled vinegar
Citrus peels

Cut up the peels into manageable chunks. Roll up each piece of peel as tightly as you can, shiny side out, and put it in the jar. (Rolling causes the pores of the outer skin to release citrus oil, which is the key ingredient in those pricey biodegradable cleaners you get at the health-food store.)

Cover the peels with distilled vinegar, close the lid tightly, and let it sit on the counter. Add peels as you get them. Every time you add some peels, add enough vinegar to cover them. Any kind of citrus peel will work — orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc. I bought a juicer recently and caught a sale on grapefruit, so I had a lot of grapefruit peels handy. I also had some Clementine oranges and a lime, all of which went in the jar.

Let the jar sit for at least a week after the last addition of vinegar. The longer it sits, the more it will smell like citrus instead of vinegar.

Strain the vinegar into a spray bottle and use it as you would Windex, Formula 409 or similar multipurpose cleaners. The peels can go in the compost pile. (Unless you’re vermicomposting, of course. Citrus and vinegar are both too acidic for worms.)


Gardening in January

I know, I know, I owe you an Eco-Saturday. I had one in the works, but I’m being treated for insomnia, which has created some obstacles to my usual blogging patterns. (The tradeoff: I might finally catch up that sleep deficit I’ve been running since 1988.)

Anyway. I’ll make it up to you next weekend, but in the meantime, I want to show off the work we did for the garden today.

I’ve spent most of the winter buying a galvanized metal fire ring every couple of weeks and rolling it into the garden to use as a raised bed. I now have six rings — five lined up in the garden, and one tucked into a shady corner next to the garage door, ready to be inoculated with the morel mushroom spores Ron ordered for us the other day.

I had some good intentions about using the rings as composters, but I haven’t had time to pick up horse manure this winter, so we just took advantage of a pretty afternoon to cruise up to Lotus NatureScapes, where we picked up seven big Rubbermaid tubs full of compost for $10. You read that right: $10 for all the compost we could haul home in my station wagon. A similar quantity of prepackaged topsoil from a big-box store would have cost at least $75, and I’d have had a mess of non-recyclable plastic bags to deal with when I finished. Such are the merits of bulk purchases from mom-and-pop businesses.

Anyway, we filled two beds and got a good start on a third. If the weather cooperates, I’ll try to pick up a few tubs of manure next weekend and start cooking up some thermophilic compost in the remaining rings. We’ve still got plenty of time to make a couple of batches before spring.

While I was moving the fire rings into position in the sunniest part of the garden, I repositioned the walkway slightly and put a thick layer of leaves — which Ron has been piling back there since November — between the beds to keep the weeds down. Here’s how it looks now:



They should be more impressive come July, when big, healthy tomato plants are growing out of them.

When I finished with my outdoor gardening, I came inside and set up my planting shelves so they’ll be ready to start seeds next month:


I borrowed an idea from Ron’s mom and outfitted each shelf with growlights. I’m keeping the shelf in the basement this year so I won’t have to spend all my time chasing the cat out of it. (I should probably tell the guy next door that I’m starting tomatoes down there so he won’t mistake my Tigerellas for weed and call the cops. I love our local K9s, but this house is altogether too small for an enthusiastic German shepherd to go dashing through it in a futile search for nonexistent contraband.)


Eco-Saturday: Darwin gardening


In the Southwest, xeriscaping is popular, as it involves planting only native and/or drought-tolerant species in your garden so you don’t end up draining every aquifer west of Amarillo in a misguided effort to keep some delicate green thing alive.

Here in the Midwest, I practice a variant I developed by accident, which I call “Darwin gardening.”

Sage is a reliable perennial for a Darwin Garden.
Sage is a reliable perennial for a Darwin Garden.

The original Darwin Garden was located in our backyard in Belleville, Illinois, and it happened by accident: I started with a neat garden divided into four-foot squares delineated with old bricks I’d found in the garage, with neat mulched paths between them, and by the time we left, my laziness and absolute refusal to coddle weak plants left me with an unruly but outrageously productive tangle of perennials and vigorous self-seeding annuals that included echinacea, parsley, Roman chamomile, chives, dill, sage, spinach, cilantro, mint, marjoram, oregano, carrots, blackberries, and waist-high collards that thought they were perennials.

The Darwin Garden wasn’t neatly manicured, but it was healthy, low-maintenance, and completely organic. When you let natural selection dictate your landscaping design, you don’t need pesticides, heavy watering or other environmentally questionable practices to keep your garden thriving. You also don’t need huge blocks of time to take care of your garden, because your plants will be sturdy enough to survive without constant coddling.

Arugula -- a vigorous self-seeder if allowed to bolt -- has replanted itself all over the center bed and beyond.
Arugula — a vigorous self-seeder if allowed to bolt — has replanted itself all over the center bed and beyond.

We have a similar garden here. When we moved in last year, I planted a small garden, watered it occasionally, and otherwise ignored it, knowing the fastest way to find out which plants were suited to the local growing conditions was to neglect them and see whether they survived.

That's not a yellow Easter egg. It's an overripe cucumber I'm leaving to rot over the winter. Come spring, it will put out a whole clump of seedlings.
That’s not a yellow Easter egg. It’s an overripe cucumber I’m leaving to rot over the winter. Come spring, it will put out a whole clump of seedlings.

A year into that experiment, I’ve got sage, strawberries, mint, basil and Shasta daisies that came up with no help from me, and next year’s arugula and cucumbers have already planted themselves.

Late lavender blossoms. Lavender is known as a reliable perennial, though this is the first year I've had any luck growing it.
Late lavender blossoms. Lavender is known as a reliable perennial, though this is the first year I’ve had any luck growing it.

If you’re a little bit concerned about the environment and a lot lazy, consider planting your own Darwin Garden. If you can tolerate the frustrations of that first year, you’ll find it pays big dividends in subsequent seasons.


Why sustainability?

I’m seeing a few new readers drop by here lately, so I think this is as good a time as any to welcome the new folks and remind longtime readers of what I’m trying to do here.

While I added the weekly Eco-Saturday and Vegan Friday features in January, the principle behind them goes back to 1975, when a young member of the back-to-the-land movement was busy burning up her Osterizer one-upping Gerber on my behalf.

For 39 years, I’ve enjoyed the perks of an environmentally responsible lifestyle without spending a fortune or sacrificing any of the creature comforts most middle-class Americans have come to expect, and I suspect if others were aware of those perks, they’d be much quicker to embrace the idea of sustainability.

In exchange for minimal to moderate effort, my family and I enjoy a host of everyday luxuries we’d never be able to afford if we had to buy them off the shelf, and we keep our ecological footprint down in the process. For instance:

Backyard beehives supply us with sweetener for our toast, pollinators for our garden, and beeswax for skin-care products.

I can’t remember the last time I bought parsley, sage, rosemary or basil, and the mint I planted last spring has given me a virtually inexhaustible supply of peppermint tea. Meanwhile, between the cayenne plants and the cucumbers, I may never have to buy hot sauce or pickles again; I’m still harvesting arugula from under the frost blanket; and Ron just took three bushels of black walnuts to Martin Walnut Tree Farm to have them shelled last week.

In the past year or so, I’ve discovered the advantages of making my own yogurt, soap and beer. At this moment, I’ve got two gallons of nutbrown ale carbonating in the basement next to a finished batch of hard cider pressed from locally grown apples. While everybody else is drinking pasteurized, mass-produced swill, we’re enjoying freshly brewed craft beer for the same money.

Not everything we do for the environment is luxurious, of course, but most of it saves money, and very little of it requires any significant investment of time, money or effort.

To learn more about how you can save money and enjoy the satisfaction of a more sustainable lifestyle, search the Eco-Saturday and Vegan Friday category here on the blog, or hop over to my Pinterest board and start exploring the possibilities.





Eco-Saturday: Vermicomposting

Redworms are excellent little gardeners.
Redworms are excellent little gardeners.

I built my first worm bin on New Year’s Eve in 1999. No, I wasn’t drunk; I was just bored at the office (holidays tend to be slow in a newsroom) and decided to kill time on the Cityfarmer website. I’d made a resolution to shrink my environmental footprint as much as possible while living in a second-story apartment in town, and when I ran across an article telling me I could install a functioning compost bin under my sink, I knew I needed one RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

One might reasonably question the feasibility of acquiring redworms at 10:30 p.m. on a holiday in the middle of winter, but at the time, I lived in Belleville, Illinois, where a nice older couple ran a 24-hour bait shop out of their house. I called, and the lady said of course I could stop by on my way home to pick up 200 red wigglers for my New Year’s Eve vermicomposting project.

Worm bins are an awesome winter project, because they allow you to do something nice for the garden without going out in the cold. Worm compost is great for starting tomatoes.

Here is what you need to construct your own worm bin:

Plastic storage tub with a lid
Container to use as a drip tray
Small blocks to elevate the tub
Shredded newspaper or wood shavings (don’t use cedar; worms hate it)
Small handful of potting soil
Redworms, sometimes called “red wigglers”
Fruit or vegetable scraps

Any excuse to use power tools….
Any excuse to use power tools….

Drill holes in the sides and bottom of your plastic tub for drainage and aeration. I drilled about 50 holes in mine.

My drip tray is a storage basket with a solid bottom.
My drip tray is a storage basket with a solid bottom.

Put a couple of wood blocks in the drip tray and set the tub on top.

Get the worms' bedding wet.
Get the worms’ bedding wet.

Put the newspaper in the tub and douse it with water until it’s about as wet as a wrung-out washcloth. Add the worms at one end and the fruit or vegetables in the other. Don’t feed your worms anything too harsh, like citrus or hot peppers.

I fed my worms apple pulp leftover from making cider. Chopsticks are handy for moving things around.
I fed my worms apple pulp leftover from making cider. Chopsticks are handy for moving things around.

Don’t overload the bin. Start with a couple hundred worms (this should cost about $10 to $15 at the bait shop) and a handful of food. Check your worms once a day to make sure the bin is still damp inside and they have enough food. When the bin contains mostly castings (a fancy word for worm poop), shove all of it over to one side and put some food, fresh bedding and potting soil in the other. The worms will all go to the side with the food, so you can scoop out the castings the next day and use them in your garden or on your houseplants.

Ignore the scribbles on top. I used storage tubs as moving boxes.
Ignore the scribbles on top. I used storage tubs as packing crates when we moved.

Your worms will breed. If you end up with more than the bin can handle, you can build a bigger bin, start a second small bin, sell the excess worms to a bait shop, or put the worms in the garden and let them aerate the soil.

If your worm bin smells weird, it’s probably too wet, or you’ve put too much food in there.



Gratuitous lavender photo. Every time I think it's done blooming, it puts out another blossom or two.
Gratuitous lavender photo. Every time I think it’s done blooming, it puts out another blossom or two.

I spent part of today working on my pond filter and starting a few small indoor projects, including some sprouts and a worm bin.

While I was outside, I took a few pictures of the garden in its more-or-less dormant state. Fall and winter always make me sad, because I hate saying goodbye to the garden, but I’ve got a few projects planned out there for this winter, and I think we’ll be in good shape come spring.

These fire rings will spend the winter serving as compost bins before turning into raised beds in the spring.
These fire rings will spend the winter serving as compost bins before becoming raised beds next season.

So far, I’ve bought four 36-inch fire rings to use as compost bins this winter, with the intention of planting directly into the compost this spring to make incredibly rich, easy-to-manage raised beds for my tomatoes.

This pond has come SO far in the past year. It sheltered at least two rounds of tadpoles this summer.
This pond has come SO far in the past year. It sheltered at least two rounds of tadpoles this summer.

That pond filter I built out of an ice-cream bucket looks as if it’s going to work pretty well. Time will tell, of course, but so far, it seems to be working. I’ll have a tutorial for you in an upcoming Eco-Saturday entry. The picture above delights me; I can’t believe how big that lemon balm has gotten. The oregano, meanwhile, apparently thinks it’s an aquatic plant — I found some of it growing roots right down into the water. Leave it to a mint to be audacious enough to try to compete with water hyacinths on their own turf.

The arugula I allowed to bolt this summer has scattered seeds all over the small bed in the center of the yard and halfway across the yard around it, so I’ve got salad growing all over the place without having to do any late-season planting. The sage and chives are still hanging in there, too, although my Genovese basil succumbed to the light frost we had the other night. I’ll have an Eco-Saturday entry on Darwin gardening sometime in the next month or so. If you’re willing to let Mother Nature run the show, you can have a remarkably productive garden with virtually no effort.

Hope your day was good, wherever you are.


Vegan Friday: Gorgeous little tacos

Gorgeous, yes?
Gorgeous, yes?

I don’t know whether this is the best Vegan Friday recipe I’ve ever posted, but it’s got to be in the top five, and it’s definitely the prettiest.

The idea of using savory seasonings on sweet potatoes never occurred to me (y’all know how I feel about keeping my sweet foods and my salty foods separate) until I had some vegetarian tacos at a place in Tulsa called Elote.

They were awesome. I don’t mean pretty-good-for-vegan-food awesome. I mean they were just flat awesome, and not the sort of thing I’d ever think up on my own.

I miss Elote.

Fortunately, while I was looking for vegan inspiration on Pinterest recently, I found several pictures of things that looked awfully similar to those gorgeous little tacos from Elote, and after looking at several recipes, I came up with something similar. These aren’t a precise replica, but they’re pretty great, and Ron — who is generally not a fan of any vegan food that is not a PBJ or a bowl of chips and guacamole — liked them enough to look disappointed when I only put two of them on his plate. (He brightened up when he learned he could have more once he finished the first helping.)

Three tacos apiece were enough to fill both of us up, and the amount of fiber, protein and “good” fat in this recipe ensured we didn’t get hungry again an hour later. WIN.

2 small sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 packet of taco seasoning (or 1 T. homemade; I’ll post a recipe for homemade seasonings soon)
2 T. olive oil
2 small limes
1 can of black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 c. salsa (preferably homemade, but if you have to use storebought, buy something respectable, and add a teaspoon each of cumin and chili powder and a squeeze of lime to dress it up)
1/2 c. chopped fresh cilantro
1 T. chopped red onion
1 avocado
12 small corn tortillas

My taco seasoning looks dark because it contains cocoa and chipotle powder.
My taco seasoning looks dark because it contains cocoa and chipotle powder.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat the bottom of a smallish baking dish with 1 T. of the olive oil. Toss sweet potatoes with taco seasoning, the rest of the olive oil and the juice from one of the limes. Roast until sweet potatoes are tender. (This took about 30 minutes in my oven, but your mileage may vary.)

While potatoes cook, heat beans and salsa together.

I don't really have words for how good sweet potatoes are when you dice them and roast them with taco seasoning.
I don’t really have words for how good sweet potatoes are when you dice them and roast them with taco seasoning.

When potatoes are done, nuke tortillas between two paper towels for 30 seconds.

Arrange tortillas in stacks of two. Dice the avocado and cut the remaining lime into wedges. Top each tortilla stack with a spoonful each of sweet potatoes and black beans; some cilantro; a little onion; and a few pieces of diced avocado. Garnish plates with cilantro and lime wedges.

Sit back and enjoy the sound of people telling you how awesome you are. Because they will.

Makes six tacos, plus enough leftover beans to make a small burrito or a couple of black-bean tacos for lunch tomorrow.