Category Archives: Uncategorized

What Worms Can Do

worm bins


Since I keep worm bins I’m always on the lookout for worm food. This means I anticipate junk mail. Those envelopes and circulars I used to dread are fodder for the shredder and then, nirvana for the worms.

Working in the kitchen I protectively guard the food scraps, no matter how tiny. Mixed together with the paper scraps and moistened, they make the perfect worm meal. Peelings, egg shells, coffee grinds, tea bags, anything left in the refrigerator produce drawer too long. Oh, the worms especially love those tea bags.

This material I collect is taken to the greenhouse and divied up between the three bins. The worms are like little machines, eating every day and always needing more fuel. Walking across the school campus I scuff up fallen leaves, carry armloads back to the greenhouse. Opening a package that arrives in the mail, I anticipate how the worms will enjoy that cardboard.

Red wriggler worms kept in a bin are an intimate form of recycling. The super rich castings they produce make natural fertilizer for gardens and potted plants. The verdant green growth of the happy plants makes the process obviously worthwhile.

What about the recyclables we put out at the curb for city pick up? A recent report titled New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics indicates most recycling programs are not so successful, particularly in the case of plastics. While 58% of paper gets a new use, only 5% of plastics are recycled. Worse, 32% of plastic escapes the waste collection system entirely, and much of it ends up in oceans.

The use of plastic has exploded in modern times. Plastic production worldwide was 15 million metric tons* in 1964, and 311 million metric tons in 2014. If this trend continues the weight of plastic in our oceans will exceed all fish by 2050.

Just for fun, let’s review the time it takes for various items we buy, use and discard daily to decompose in a landfill. Plastic bag: 10-20 years, aluminum can: 80-200 years, plastic container (think yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese): 400-500 years, disposable diaper: 550 years, monofilament fishing line: 600 years. Styrofoam does not ever go away.

On the other hand, a biodegradable food container decomposes in 2-12 weeks. That’s something a bin full of worms could also take care of for you.

*A metric ton = 2,204.6 lbs


Power Addiction

aloe stairway

It’s been cold in the Phoenix area this week, and snow fell as low as 2,000 feet last night! We also lost our power yesterday afternoon, at about 4 pm. It was as if the house emitted a long sigh and then everything went absolutely quiet. The silence was eerie and peaceful.

I remember when we moved into this home, and how nervous all the various humming, droning and switching on and off of appliances made me. I worried about knowing how to fix everything that might break. The water softener comes on the middle of the night and once wandering sleepless, I panicked thinking that water was spewing throughout the garage. It was just a “normal” cycle of another machine that had become indispensible to our lives.

Yesterday afternoon I’d planned to make meatballs for dinner, but instead I found my head lamp and started pulling candles from dark cupboards. There were just five matches left in the book, so I lit an old chopstick so I could get to all the wicks before the matches ran out.

The boys left to watch football on a sport’s bar screen, and I wondered what to do. How many of our leisure activities involve electrically powered devices! Without the relentless bright lights that carry us through the dusk and dark, I felt disoriented like I’d forgotten to wear my glasses. The cats paced and the dog clung to my side.

I don’t want to start on some big thing about survivalism, but gosh. How prepared are you to be without power for an extended time?

I saw a listing in the paper for a program called Kid vs. Wild at Usery Mountain Regional Park. Children ages 7-12 learn how to find their way, signal for help, build an emergency shelter and avoid desert dangers. Kids must be able to hike a mile, bring a parent, water, hat and closed toe shoes.

Maybe someone will think to offer classes on how to carry on with life without electricity. We might learn some interesting lessons along the way.

Oh, the house came back to life after just an hour of silence. One machine after another kicked in, and warm air began to flow from the vents. I turned on the lights and started making meatballs.

Christmas Tradition

Charles Schultz story first televised 50 years ago.

Charles Schultz story first televised 50 years ago.

Christmastime is more than a religious holiday, and yes, more than a marketing and shopping frenzy. It’s a time of year when our high tech, cutting edge culture is willing to indulge in nostalgia. Really old fashioned music is playing everywhere you go. Theaters headline plays written over 150 years ago. And, for about three weeks, we just can’t get enough.

The earliest carols were sung thousands of years ago in Europe to celebrate the winter solstice. The songs were retooled to reflect Christianity and have been going strong ever since. “O Come All Ye Faithful” appeared in its current form in the mid 1800’s.

The most popular Christmas song is “White Christmas”, written by Irving Berlin in 1940 and first performed by Bing Crosby in 1941. The achingly nostalgic song is the best selling single of all time, with 50 million copies sold worldwide. More than 500 versions have since been recorded by various artists.

“A Christmas Carol” was written by Charles Dickens in 1843 and still today the theatrical adaptation is a holiday tradition for many families. We used to go see “The Nutcracker” every year as a family until my son and husband rebelled.

Based on the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman, the Nutcracker was originally performed as a two act ballet to music by Tchaikovsky in 1892. Today elaborate performances are bread and butter for most American ballet companies, generating up to 40% of annual ticket revenues.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” was produced and directed by Frank Capra in 1946, and is one of the most popular films in American cinema. The movie is based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” written by Phillip Van Doren Stern 75 years ago.

In our society today school curriculums focus on science and technology and career paths in IT and engineering are paved in gold. Considering the challenges facing our planet and the human population, the sciences will be critical.

But while humanities such as such as literature, music, dance and theater have fallen from favor, we’d be wise not to forget them altogether. The popularity of tradition as upheld by music, theater and dance provide us with links to the past. The stories, songs and visions hold truths and morals that we apparently aren’t willing to let go, even in this digital and ever changing world.

Gardener Extraordinaire

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

I arrived at Desert Botanical Gardens about 6:15 pm. The evening air cast a cool grace over the gardens. I was there to soak up the wisdom offered by a genuine, true-blue gardener. Pam Perry put her hands in the soil with the intention to grow plants when she was just three years old. Years of observing the performance of different varieties of plants in different soils and microclimates grant life-long gardeners a feel for growing that’s hard to get from books.

Pam’s stayed closely tuned to her passion all these years. For her, varieties of plants have unique characteristics, even personalities. She describes the Rosa Bianca eggplant: “An elegant girl, nice to have in the garden, beautiful really, but be aware she might give you just four eggplants all season”.

Here is someone you would love to have at your elbow as you confront the big seed display at the nursery. Pam offered a perspective on the performance of crops depending on the type of seed purchased. Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been in cultivation from 50 years to more than 3,000 years. Hybrid seeds come from plants that have been carefully bred to be disease resistant and to produce in a short growing season. These plants are trialed all over the country to ensure reliability and vigor.

Seed producers market seed based on the moods of the time. In the twenties, carnations were a favorite flower for funerals, durable and uplifting with their spicy colors and scent. But carnations fell from favor when people began to associate the smell of the blooms with death. Even today carnations are bred to be odorless.

The class covered the secrets and tips to be found in the study of seed catalogs. Pam orders a number of favorite catalogs every year and lines them up to compare offerings for specific plants. Ordering in January allows her to get first dibs on what might be limited seed for popular or newly introduced novelty crops. We learned the ins and outs of saving seed from plants we grow in our own gardens, and how long they last with careful storage.

Seed libraries are sprouting up (sorry) all over the country, and in Phoenix the Permaculture Alliance offers heirloom seed for free, asking only that you save seed from a few of the plants you grow, to renew the library’s supply. Local seed exchanges can be found online.

Master Gardener Pam Perry manages the demonstration vegetable gardens and the native plantings around the Maricopa County Extension offices at 4341 E. Broadway Road in Phoenix. It’s worth the time to stop by and see what’s going on in the garden.

Have a javelina?

Javelina is also called a collared peccary

Javelina is also called a collared peccary

baby javyOn a windy morning when it’s still a little dark I pass a desert tree with low branches. From under the shadowy hollow comes muffled snorting. A glimpse of a sharp hoof pawing the ground sets my heart racing. But my dog trots past, unconcerned, so I know it’s just the wind. For a minute, I thought I saw a javelina.
At cocktail parties and on outdoor outings, people tell stories about javelinas. The tales are laced with fear and fascination. This good sized desert mammal lurks on the edges of our neighborhoods, coming right into gardens to paw up and consume pansies and bulbs. People claim javelinas will charge and even kill a dog. This is hogwash. Javelinas do roam in herds, and they do look fierce with their bristling hair, but they are painfully shy and avoid people and dogs.
These animals are herbivores. Although they look like pigs, they are more closely related to wild boars. Their favorite food is the prickly pear cactus, which provides nutrients and moisture. They also eat a variety of succulent plants, roots, bulbs, berries, and occasionally lizards and dead birds or rodents.
Javelinas live in family groups of around 10 individuals. The close knit clans eat, sleep and play together. Because of very poor eyesight, javelinas rely on keen hearing and an acute sense of smell. Oil glands on the tops of their rumps produce javelina musk unique to each family group. Daily routines include rubbing this scent on each other and around their territory. The aroma permeates the tribe, allowing them to stay together as they meander and graze.
An adult javelina stands two feet tall and weighs from 35-50 pounds. He can run 21 mph. Newborns weigh just one pound. Predators include mountain lions, bobcats and human hunters. Coyotes and golden eagles will take youngsters. The javelina gets its name from closely aligned canines that sharpen each time the animals closes its mouth. In the event of an attack, the animal defends itself with these razor sharp teeth.
Javelinas live in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico and through the tropics to the northern regions of Argentina. They may breed at any time of the year, although the babies are often timed to coincide with rainy seasons when there will be plenty of food available. The herds feed in the morning and afternoon and lounge together in community beds during the heat of the day. I’ve come across javelina beds while hiking, large smooth areas sheltered under trees where the dirt has been dug up to provide a soft resting place. The beds are marked with imprints of cloven hooves and wide rumps.
Photos by Terry Stevens and Wikipedia

Why I LOVE to Weed

One big weed

I love the feeling when the little roots give way and rip out of the earth
I love the sun on my back, warming and permeating me with solar vigor and Vitamin D
I love practicing my Zen mindfulness And daydreaming
I love observing the birds, the bugs, and the feel of the breeze on my face
I love seeing my neighbors out weeding too
I love the satisfaction of a previously weedy area all tidied up
I love it that weeding requires no special tools, clothes or equipment
I love it that the HOA won’t be sending me a chastising letter
I love it that I get to bend and crouch and use some neglected muscles
And of course, I love it that I am not pouring, spraying or squirting poison on the earth

Cathy Cromwell has a few tips for controlling weeds without toxins in her book Earth Friendly Desert Gardening:

Get to weeds before they flower and seed to cut down on next year’s work.

White vinegar is a non-toxic weed killer, put it in a spray bottle and try to avoid spraying your landscape plants while you are at it. This works best on summer weeds such as spurge, pigweed and purslane.

Look into using corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent herbicide. This patented by-product impedes root formation as seeds germinate. Since corn gluten meal is 10 % nitrogen it is a safe weed and feed alternative for lawns. Look for it at your favorite nursery or buy it online, and remember that timing is critical for successful use of this product.

Dave the Garden Guy likes corn gluten meal, and he has a non-toxic formula for killing weeds growing in gravel areas.

What’s to Know about baby birds – Part One

A Dove Bun in the Oven - Baby bird season is coming!

When I was a kid I was taught to NEVER touch a baby bird!! We learned that wild birds are filthy and germy. And, the mother will abandon the baby if it has been touched by a human. You touch that little bird and you and it are doomed!
Well folks, this must be one of the earliest urban myths. Wild birds are not germ ridden, and most birds (excepting buzzards) have no sense of smell. Mama bird won’t mind if you pick up her baby and put it back in the nest.
The other thing I have always believed about baby birds is that they launch into their first flight from the edge of the nest and don’t look back. Reality is a little different. Lots of baby birds find themselves on the ground after that launch and stay on terra firma for a week or more continuing to develop and practicing short flights. In the meantime, the bird parent(s) will protect the fledglings and keep bringing them food. This is true for little guys like mockingbirds as well as great big species like great horned owls. If you encounter a bird on the ground and it has feathers, it is a fledgling. If it is hurt or sick, it will look lethargic or lopsided as it moves about. If that little bird is perky and balanced it should be fine as long as it is in a relatively protected area. Keep pets and kids away and no other intervention should be needed. (Many baby birds have no fear of humans, another clue!) Next installment will cover the unfeathered nestlings and what you can do if you find one of those really tiny babies. Supernaturelover to the rescue! In the meantime, if you live in the Phoenix area and you find a wild animal in a bind call Liberty Wildlife at (480) 998-5550. They can help.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

Andrew Revkin, science writer and author of Dot Earth blog was in Tempe this week to chat with Braden Allenby a Sustainability scientist and professor of Engineering and Ethics at ASU. The two gentlemen discussed how complex systems—natural, human, and technological—interact under rapidly changing conditions. The importance of addressing this topic was underlined by both the unusually frigid weather in Tempe as well as most of the U.S. and the protests, just developing at that time in Egypt. The Carson Ballroom in Old Main was packed with students, professors and the curious like myself. Kristina Johnson, Under Secretary of Energy was seated in the front row, taking notes.
Professor Allenby began, illustrating how technology is imbedded in our culture’s psychology. The automobile, the computer and the cell phone are iconic with personal freedom. Revkin’s opening statements addressed the current rate of change and used cell phones as an example of exploding technology. Of 5.3 billion cell phones in use in 2010, ¾ are in developing countries. He referred to a NY Times article about a woman in Africa who had to go into the village to charge her cell phone, where the rates kept rising. So she installed a few solar panels and soon people were paying her to charge their phones. In no time neighbors were installing their own solar panels. The lightning speed of progress is not just happening here!
Allenby pointed out that the current academic model became outmoded with the Internet. Now anyone can take classes at MIT. “If the information that professors distribute is available on the web, what they need to be teaching is wisdom.” He commented on changes in our cognitive systems, magnified by social networking and claimed the gap is widening between those who “get it” and those who don’t. (Distressingly, I am firmly in the latter camp!)
There was discussion about climate change. Both agreed that political imposition of climate control will never work, but said that keeping the idea in people’s minds is valuable. Forward thinking people will include consideration of potential affects of climate change in decisions about issues like development or investments. The optimistic viewpoint is that in the same way CFC’s were done away with as result of the Montreal Protocol, there are currently underestimated technologies lurking that will be part of the solution when the time comes.
Allenby pointed out that humans have already had a huge impact on the planet. He stated that lots of nature is still out there because we decided to make it part of the human system. He referred to the Everglades as a deliberate design choice. There is an idea to digest!
The two scholars agreed that in the future there will be no simple solutions (no Kool-aid) and that we will have to rely on constructive discourse to work out the issues. I liked Revkin’s comment that the people on the far edges always dominate conversations, but the people in the middle find the compromises and the overlooked solutions. Here’s to that!

Grand Canyon Chronicles

Zoroaster Temple 7128 feet

On day two of the canyon trip, eight of our party hiked out. The rest hung around in the Phantom Ranch canteen, reading or writing post cards. After a bit we mobilized and packed up to hike the Clear Creek Trail. Straight up the side of the canyon we went and along a track with dizzying views of the river flowing through the gorge below like a fat green snake. Our geology experts pointed out the Great Unconformity, and the make up of the rocky walls around us. (The layers of stone in the canyon portray a chronology of the geological history of the earth, but at the Unconformity fairly recent sandstone sits mysteriously atop ancient schist, omitting millions of years.) We stopped for lunch where flat boulders provided both seating and staggering views of the Kaibab cliffs. From there the trail continued through a series of washes to the base of the Zoroaster Temple.
As we walked I listened to the chatter of the women, words tossed over shoulders into the canyon grandeur. Hiking drew stories from us, stories of families and careers and challenges. Everyone in the group is married, all have children, many have faced the death of a parent, or a sibling. Several have battled and survived cancer. Years of their lives have been spent caring for their kids and supporting their husbands, many have also held demanding jobs. One woman has started a non-profit to address a devastating disease, one works with handicapped children on speech therapy, one rescues and fosters huskies. Another has gone back to work raising funds for a non-profit that helps the poor. One woman with three kids has gone back to school, obtained a masters degree and is working on a PhD. Two in the group are planning to hike Machu Picchu in June. One woman traveled from Florida to hike with her sister last year and when the trip was cancelled due to weather, came back again this year. Hiking the canyon in the winter is no small accomplishment, it requires training and planning and commitment. I found the magnificent aspects of the Grand Canyon were mirrored in the qualities of these strong women. Thanks to all of you ladies for your laughter, your stories and companionship on our journey.

Nature Discovery Starter Kit

Splendid agaves at Glendale Demonstration Gardens

Four million people live in the Valley of the Sun, making homes in subdivisions, moving about on freeways, working and shopping in strip malls and urban cores.  But another reality lies just beneath this surface veneer; the ever present natural world.  Here wildlife eats or is eaten, plants breathe in carbon dioxide and sunlight and exhale precious oxygen, insects propagate and pollinate and the age-old cycles continue to bring beauty and life to our world.  I hope to connect with you to lay bare little noticed wonders of nature through this blog.  Please share your discoveries and we’ll celebrate the connections.  I am just one lookout.