Archive for Outdoors

Garden waste with less waste

The days are getting shorter, there’s a nip in the air: autumn’s blush is with us. In the next week or so the streets of my neighbourhood will be plastered with mini advertising hoardings. Oops, sorry, I meant garden waste bags.

Did you ever wonder why these are so cheap in the stores? Indeed so much cheaper than their smaller counterparts, the indoor compost bin bags, which have altogether more limited advertising possibilities.

The fact that the bags are cheap and made from natural-looking brown paper which is, of course, going to be composted, makes it easy to use them with gay abandon.

But let’s think about that.

Yes, garden waste bags are typically not made from actual trees, but from waste products in the paper system. And it is true that they are not bleached like white paper. But paper manufacture is energy intensive….and even if more than 50% of that energy is now generated from burning waste chips and other biomass, it is still carbon generating.

Then there is the issue of transporting the finished bags. Anyone who has bought a pack of 40 bags from Costco will back me up when I say that they are heavy: indeed they need to be heavy to withstand the ravages of decaying plant material and rain (even snow…). Heaven forbid that we should be inconvenienced by a split bag.

Many bags I see here in Canada are actually made in the US (yes, we seem to have no comparative advantage in manufacturing large paper bags), so first need to be shipped up here and then carried home.

You get the picture: there is a lot of waste tied up in each, neat brown bag. And, to add insult to injury, when your nice brown bag is composted, it will release methane (as does your garden waste), a potent greenhouse gas.

So what is your alternative? First, be sure to fill your bags to the top (I can attest to the fact that the waste disposal guys will pick them up even if they are not neatly rolled over to seal them up). Then let them settle and fill them up even more. It’s amazing what you can stuff in after a couple of days on the curb, especially if your first filling consists of dry, bulky leaves (it’s always better to rake leaves when they are slightly wet).

More importantly, round up all those rigid plastic containers you have littering your backyard and bring them into service. I use recycling bins (on the off week), garbage bins (the bags can sit on the curb alone for short periods, if necessary), garden waste bins, even cardboard boxes.

In so doing, I drastically reduce my bag consumption. Not to zero, for sure. I have five large trees on my property and neither the time nor space to mulch all the leaves, so I certainly get through a number of bags at this time of year. But on an ongoing basis I manage very well with my motley selection of plastic. Not pretty, but it works.

CowPots: gardening with cow poo

The time for planting seeds and potting-on has passed, but I wanted to tell you about an eco product that will make your gardening life easier next year: the CowPot.

CowPots are a new type of seed starter pot made entirely from cow manure. Being a farmer’s daughter that does not phase me, but before you city types get anxious, let me assure you that they do not smell.

CowPots are similar to the peat pots the you see at most garden stores: you can start seeds in them or pot-on into them, and then bury the whole thing in your garden, thereby not disturbing the plant’s roots (and making your life easier).

CowPots have two main advantages over traditional peat pots. First, they actually do biodegrade over time. Peat pots are supposed to break down, but this is often an unfulfilled promise. You need to rip or shred them to enable the roots to penetrate. (Or, you can do as I do, and treat them as plastic pots that you reuse year after year). If you don’t do that, your plants suffer.

Second, they are not made out of peat. When I first came to north America, in 1998, I was shocked to find that the anti-peat message had not yet reached this great continent. During my 14 years here, not much has changed.

Extracting peat destroys biodiversity and releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere (the peat acts as a carbon sink, when disturbed the carbon is released). In the UK, the government is looking to phase out the horticultural use of peat by 2020. Here in Canada, gardeners continue to use peat with gay abandon, but I hope that will change.

Other eco advantages of cow pots are that they provide an outlet for excess manure (getting rid of animal waste is a big headache for farmers) and that energy is extracted during the manufacturing process. But if you imagine they will also fertilize your baby seeds, think again. They are 1-0-0 (so contain a bit of nitrogen, not much else).

CowPots come in various sizes (round, square and seed cells) and are widely available in the US. For stockists, see here. In Canada they are harder to find. Some natural products stores stock them (I bought mine at Rainbow Foods in Ottawa and they are available at the Big Carrot in Toronto). A limited range of pots – all square – are available on-line through Lee Valley Tools and West Coast Seeds.

If you are in Europe, you are also in luck (see here) though I do have some reservations about the shipment of cow poo over the Atlantic.

I wanted to wait to write this posting until I had seen how my CowPotted tomatoes did in the garden. I can assure you that they are doing very well. I may not spring for these year on year (my tomatoes that I transplanted naked – pulled out of plastic pots – are doing equally well), but if you go for ease, these are the pots for you. Better than peat on every axis.

Biodegradable bike oil

A sure sign of aging is when all your friends start buying expensive road bikes and swearing that joint-friendly biking is a superior form of exercise and really very, very fun.

In my mind I will never succumb to the road bike craze, but time will tell. I am, though, an avid cyclist, but purely for functional reasons.

I bike the kids to school. I bike to work for as much of the year as I can bear (one of the biggest knocks against living in Ottawa is the 3-4 month period when only crazies take their bikes out: there are a lot of crazies in Ottawa). And I bike to the shops whenever possible (I am not shy about accosting friends and neighbors in the supermarket and asking them to drive watermelons and other heavy weekly specials home for me: my own special type of craziness).

In the harsh Ottawa climate, bikes require love and attention. Mostly I forget that, but one item that I do always have at hand for a quick squirt is Pedro’s Go! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name), a biodegradable chain lubricant.

Go! is made from 40% renewable vegetable oil. The rest is made up of a proprietary biodegradable synthetic oil and about 1% bio-based additives. Pedro’s also markets a product called Chainj (50% renewable vegetable oil) a chain lubricant for wetter riding conditions.

Not being a true bike enthusiast, I am not really qualified to rate Go! relative to other chain lubricants. However, it works for me and for my local bike shop (though they did say that it gets stickier a bit quicker than synthetic oils so you might need to apply more frequently). By way of due diligence, I have also checked out on-line reviews and found happy customers.

Both these Pedro’s products biodegrade up to 73% in 28 days (the figure for all-synthetic bicycle lubricants would be under 60% and possibly as low as 15-25% over the same time period). With the tiny amounts in use, maybe this is not a critical issue. But in my view, all things being equal, biodegradability has to be a good thing.

Pedro’s sources its bike lubricant products in the US (Massachusetts, not too far from me) and, as company, is conscious of finding ways to improve its environmental footprint. It no longer warehouses goods (shipping them direct to customers reduces transportation costs/emissions) and uses recyclable PET bottles for most of its products. And, of course, employees are encouraged to bike to work… Not a profoundly ecological company but one that is certainly trying to move in that direction.

So when you have finished your current lubricant and your dry and squeaky bike calls out to you, give Pedro’s a try. Many of the bike shops in Ottawa sell Pedro’s products so I assume that is the case in other cities too. It is also available internationally (here is a UK source) If you can’t find it locally, there are also a number of on-line sources. It retails for about $10 for a 120ml (4 fl oz) bottle, no more than your average chain lubricant.

A better bike basket

I love to cycle. Not so much for exercise as to get from A to B faster and with less uncertainty.

One of the joys of cycling is that you can easily stop and run errands, without having to worry about parking. This means that I often end up cycling along with unintended groceries or books or kids’ shoes and backpacks.

I have never been a fan of panniers (those pockets that hang over your back wheel), as I like to keep an eye on what I am carrying. And besides, they require careful packing.

But old-style bike baskets also have their drawbacks: not only do they tend to be made of mesh, designed to make me lose small items, but they are also fixed so you have to empty them each time you leave your bicycle. In the old days we could unthinkingly use plastic bags inside our baskets…but life is much more complicated now we actually think about the environment.

bike basket full

Fortunately, I have found the (almost) perfect bike basket. It is a KLICKfix Shopper made by a German company called Rixen Kaul. The company makes all manner of bicycle accessories. Its really smart move has been to design a series of baskets, bags and map-holders that all make use of the same handlebar adapter.

Klick Fix 300x

You mount the adapter (which comes in various sizes to accommodate varying handlebar widths and configurations) and then clip on your chosen basket. I have the most basic basket, the Shopper, but somewhat covet a more jazzy one (such as this) or a purse-style carrier for my work days. You can also get baskets with raincovers and special pockets for your phone, which could come in handy.

When leaving your bike unattended, you simply unclick the basket and walk away with it. It takes 2 seconds, really. And unlike other click-off baskets that apparently (according to my local bike shop) wear out very quickly, it lasts. I have had my basket and adapter for more than 5 years, I would say, and they are still going strong.

So what is the downside? For me it is that I have had some difficulty in keeping the adapter tight on my handlebars. This is probably a function of my overloading the basket (which then rubs on the front mudguard) and poor installation. I suspect that were a bike shop guy to have installed it for me, I would not have had problems.

The second problem is specific to Canada. For some unfathomable reason, Rixen-Kaul products do not seem to be available here. The company has no listed agent in Canada and I have never seen KILCKfix products in a bike shop (even in Ottawa, a keen cycling town). You can order the full range through the US agent/distributor, and they will ship to Canada, but shipping costs are high and you risk those heavy duties.

In Europe and in the US Rixen Kaul products are easy to find and, in my opinion, pretty well-priced. The shopper is priced at €25.95 in Germany, about £28 in the UK and in and $39 in the US (though you have to buy the adapter separately which will cost you another approximately $20 or £12 in the UK).

So, Canadians, my advice would be to add these items to your list when you are out of country! Then you can cycle and shop to your heart’s content. Or even volunteer to carry your kids’ backpack as you cycle to school on the first day.

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