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September 30, 2010

Simpler chemicals

We met most of our neighbors earlier this month at a neighborhood block party. (Said party’s hosts have college-age or post-college-age children and claimed they hosted the party because their children are no longer an excuse to have a bounce house and pony rides in the yard. Sure enough, there was a bounce house and pony rides in the yard, and free-range children running in herds, which was encouraging.)

My conversation with our two-doors-down neighbor, while brief due to his son, who had just learned to walk a few days before, was most interesting. The neighbor in between us apparently makes both of us feel equally insecure about the appearance of our lawns, because we spent a few minutes telling each other how we shouldn’t expect much of our lawns. (Apparently in today’s suburbia, this is how men subliminally compete: with lawns.)

Then he said, “We aren’t spraying anything or fertilizing because this one” (nodding at the toddling son) “would be stuffing grass in his mouth by the fist-full if we gave him the chance.” (This sounds silly, but if you’ve met enough toddlers you’ve met at least one whose exploration routine with anything includes stuffing it in his mouth.)

And that’s the thing. If there are going to be children in this house, I’d rather not be spraying chemicals around the air they’ll be breathing, or scattering stuff on the lawn they’ll be rolling on, or any of that. Not that I’m a knee-jerk chemical-hater—baking soda is a very useful chemical, just to name one—but I sort of get along with Sangamon Taylor in Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac, who holds that the simpler the chemical is, the better/safer it is, or at least the less likely it is to mess with the intricate function of human life. (S.T. takes this to mean that huffing nitrous oxide is the best way to get high, which is a length to which I have not taken this philosophy, but the basic guideline is reasonable.)

This is all a long way of saying I’m about to go upstairs and try to attack a slow drain with baking soda and boiling water.

Posted by pjm at 8:18 AM | Comments (0)

September 17, 2010

Making dirt

For the first time in years of nomadic apartment living, I can now compost. It seems like a little thing, but I admit I like putting out very small bags of garbage for collection.

The hierarchy of kitchen waste is something like this: compost is better than garbage disposal is better than garbage bag. Your worst option is putting stuff in a plastic bag to get buried; even if it’s biodegradable, it probably won’t be back in circulation for centuries.

The garbage disposal is a lot better, because at the worst it’s going to get treated with sewage. The negatives to the disposal are that it uses water and electricity, and it contributes in a very small way to our sewerage disposal problems, which aren’t trivial.

Compost, though, is a minor inconvenience (the compostable waste has to be taken outside to the bin, unless you’re fortunate enough to live with people who don’t mind a worm bin in the basement) and your waste actually produces something useful: nice rich soil. I plan to spread compost on the barer patches of lawn next spring, and possibly also in the garden if there’s enough to go around.

There are a lot of different bins available, but I just picked up a plain black plastic bin at the local supply. With just two of us, we don’t always produce a lot of waste, and it’s going to take us a while to fill that with coffee grounds, tea leaves, lettuce and apple cores. (I’ve actually been snagging banana peels and apple cores from the cross country team on the bus back from meets, but it might be a bit much to bring a compost bag on the bus. We’ve only just convinced them to separate recyclable bottles from the trash.) I occasionally throw in some leaves as they start to come down, but apparently one doesn’t want to let the mix go too far one direction or another, and I could easily fill it to bursting with leaves in another month or two. Grass clippings are apparently good compost food, but I’m leaving those on the lawn to compost in place.

Near the bin is the heap, where we’ve been throwing all the weeds we pulled from the flowerbeds and garden. Ironically, this seems to be composting faster than the actual bin compost (to be fair, it started earlier) and yet it’s unlikely I’ll want to use much of it. The problem is that it’s likely loaded with weed seeds; one doesn’t want to spread the weeds back out on the lawn. My father-in-law says he once worked at a garden supply operation which sterilized their compost by spreading it on a screen and piping steam through it, but I don’t think I have the facilities to manage anything like that, so the weed compost is going to have to just be forest fertilizer. Maybe it will keep the worms well-fed while we reach critical mass in the bin.

Compost, oddly, has a lot in common with training for running, so I was excited to notice Jay Johnson drawing the same parallel in Scott Douglas’ recent Running Times profile of him. We throw a lot of stuff on the heap; we don’t know exactly what ratio of stuff is best, but we work with what we have, wait a few months to see how it comes out, and tweak the inputs a bit if we think we need to. Nothing pays off immediately—in fact, it looks a lot like trash at first—but it all works together down there under the surface.

So yeah, I’m excited about the compost bin.

Posted by pjm at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

September 13, 2010

Changing my thinking on sprinklers

I have a clear vision of myself in my former status as a renter, running with a group early one morning, in the rain, and mocking the houses we went by with their lawn sprinklers spraying: coals to Newcastle, so to speak, and with town water the homeowner was undoubtedly paying a quarterly bill for.

Can I just eat those words now? Maybe pretend I was mocking the folks who water their lawn at 2PM on a bright sunny day instead? (I was doing that too, so I guess I can’t make a case there.)

If I’d thought about it, I’d have remembered that the best time to water lawns—the time when the greatest fraction of the water gets slurped up by thirsty grass—is the early morning. Earlier than most reasonable people want to get up in the morning, generally. The practical way to do this is with a timer, it turns out, and the former owners of this house were practical people. This means that it’s very easy for a well-meaning, conservation-minded person to set their sprinkler timer at night with a clear sky, and wake up in the morning to find they watered their lawn during a rain shower.

Supposedly there are gauges available that will prevent the sprinkler from running if it’s raining, but we don’t have one of those, and I’m guessing most other people don’t either.

(The goal, of course, is to spend as little watering the lawn as possible, which means figuring out how little watering we can get away with in which sections of the lawn. The rationalization for watering at all is that we’re hoping to keep the grass sucking up carbon and burping oxygen as long as possible, and that means keeping it green and photosynthesizing.)

(Sprinklers who water when the sun is out lose a large fraction of the water to evaporation, which is why it’s better to water in the morning.)

Posted by pjm at 5:53 PM | Comments (0)

September 4, 2010

The Lawn

As I’ve previously alluded, we now have primary responsibility for a lawn for the first time since about 2002.

My history with lawn care is pretty limited; the only thing I knew lawns needed was mowing, and sometimes leaf-raking. The mowing part we have down; I have a reel mower from my days in Pennsylvania when my housemates and I had a lawn. At that house, the front lawn was barely large enough for the name (picking up trash was as important as mowing) and the back lawn was about the size of the driveway at this new house. At the new house, while the lawn is not huge (a ride-on mower would be overkill) the neighborhood is apparently one where Lawns Matter.

I like the reel mower for obvious environmental reasons (no gas, no exhaust, less noise) but it’s no harder to push than any powered rotary mower and it turns out to be nicer to the grass. As far as the actual cutting goes, a rotary mower is like cutting grass with a powered scythe, which is fine if you consider your grass a crop; mowing with a reel mower is more like cutting grass with scissors. I’ve noticed that rotary mowers give a much flatter/smoother look to the lawn immediately post-mow—that is, the reel mower doesn’t look as “neat”—but after a day or so, the overall appearance of the lawn is just as good. So I’m ready to stand up for my use of the reel mower instead of a power mower.

Watering is a complicated issue I’ll discuss separately. What I’m really interested in now is treating the lawn, and that’s because I arrived back at the house from doing some errands on Friday to see the distinctive tracks of a spreader all over the lawn, and found an invoice from a local landscaping company in the mailbox. It was addressed to the former owners; apparently they scheduled a number of treatments and forgot to tell the landscapers they’d found a buyer and moved. This one was a “4th treatment” of some kind of fertilizer; I don’t have the invoice in front of me but the word “feeding” was on there somewhere.

Obviously (to me at least) we’re not paying the invoice. We didn’t ask for it and nobody asked if we wanted it; we can’t be obligated to pay for something without being given some choice in the matter. But the deeper question (for me, at least) is how far I’m willing to go for a socially-acceptable green lawn. My gut reaction is to do very little: spread some compost in the spring, mow tall and leave the clippings, and let nature run its course. We’ll save money and avoid contributing to the phosphorus run-off that contributes to algae blooms in waterways around the country. But how many brown patches am I going to tolerate when my neighbor to the south has a lawn like a movie set?

We’ve also had some visits from moles, which is annoying but (from my point of view) unavoidable. A’s mother says moles mean grubs, and grubs mean you need to spray. I’m not so sure and I’m not convinced that we have grubs that even need a control—but I’m also not sure how to tell.

And maybe it’s not long before it’s time to do the last mow of the fall and let the snow cover the whole thing for a few months?

Posted by pjm at 10:36 PM | Comments (0)

September 1, 2010

Sugar borers and self-limitation

I recently finished Bernd Heinrich’s Summer World. You can look back through the Books category here and see that I’ve been a longtime appreciative audience for Heinrich; Summer World was apparently meant as a counterpart to his Winter World of a few years ago, except that where Winter World mainly dealt with how various organisms survived the annual plunge into deep freeze, Summer World is about how they manage the warm season, when most of them expect to do most of their living.

Summer World also includes Heinrich’s most overt opinions yet about the way our own species is living. I dropped a marker in the book when I read this paragraph:

“The sugar borers have achieved, or are held to, something enviable. They are in a world of plenty, so none go hungry, destroy their habitat, or jostle and interfere with each other. Somewhere there is a check on their natural increase, and you can be sure of one thing - that if they could tell us what they wanted at any one time, they would vote to obliterate the forces that hold them in check, the forces that ensure their long-term benefits. And so, probably, would we, if we voted merely on the basis of our individual interests.”

We recently became homeowners, a mixed blessing if ever there was one. If I can find the time to continue posting here, expect a few posts on my attempts to reconcile the expectations placed on the modern homeowner with what I hope is an environmentally responsible approach to life.

Posted by pjm at 8:48 AM | Comments (0)