Friday, November 16, 2012

A Green Christmas

    For some years now artificial trees
have outnumbered real trees in the
US during the holiday season. There
are many reasons to get an artificial tree, but helping the environment is not one of them.

     Our natural inclination is to think
that by going artificial we are
preventing a tree from being cut
down. Not true. The trees are not
being cut from a forest preserve or a
national forest. They are cut from
farms just like any other crop. And
like any other crop they are replaced
as soon as they are cut. In between
they grow for up to seven years and
do what trees are supposed to do --pull carbon dioxide from the air.

     Christmas trees are usually
planted on more marginal land --
land that is not suitable for corn,
soybeans, or other crops. There is a
financial advantage to planting near
urban centers where most tree
buyers are. This provides additional
income for farmers and eases the
pressure to sell the land to

     And after the season is over living
trees can be completely recycled -- depending on how enlightened the local government is.

     In contrast, all the components of
plastic trees end up in land fills --
including the PVC's that compose the
needles of most artificial trees.

     The only ecological argument for artificial trees is that they are reused.

But studies have shown that the
trees need to be used from 10-20
years to begin to match the carbon
footprint of real trees. The average
American moves every 7 years, to say
nothing of all the other family
changes that might inspire purchase
of a new tree.

     There is nothing wrong with
buying an artificial tree because it is
easy to set up and take down. We all
make compromises. But ecologically
and aesthetically natural is the way to

Whether you use an artificial or
real tree you really should invest in
the new LED decorative lights. We

spend an enormous amount on
holiday lighting. LED lighting will
require ten times times less
electricity and last 10 times longer.
And because it generates far less
heat, it also reduces fire hazards
significantly. Who could object to

     Meanwhile, I have a crew available for those who need help with their outdoor holiday decorations. Just email or call.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


     I awoke last Tuesday morning to discover that frost had sneaked into my garden  while I slept. The last weather report I saw predicted a low of 33 degrees, which was good enough to give me an excuse not to do anything. And, of course I paid the price. My Thai basil and tomatoes and chili peppers had bitten the dust while I was still loafing in bed. I am glad now I had harvested most of the riper ones. I still have a hoard of all three in the kitchen. But they are dwindling fast.

     The rest of the garden, though, is doing fine. We just harvested some chard, spinach and snow peas for a stir- fry yesterday. The broccoli and Brussels sprouts are still producing as well.

     I had hoped for a late frost this year, but it turns out that November 6 is close to the average frost date for my Beverly neighborhood in Chicago. We city folks -- even those of us on the edge of town, benefit from our proximity to the lake and to the "heat island" produced by all the exhaust downtown and all the concrete storing it up.

     Now that the first frost has arrived, there are new things to do. I have suspended my composter operation for the season. I want to give my barrel a few weeks to work on what it has, rather than adding raw material, because I plan to till it back into the garden before the first really hard frost.

     It is now time to cut down my hostas and other perennials. I use my mulching mower for much of this task. The machine chops everything up and scatters it over the grass to add some spring fertilizer.

     It is raining now, but we are heading into a fairly long dry spell, so I am continuing my watering, especially for newly planted trees and shrubs. I leave my soakers out all winter and leave my regular hoses out, but disconnected until the ground starts to freeze.

     I am too lazy to drain and bring in my three rain barrels. The first year I had one I was caught napping by a really hard freeze. My barrel was full, and when it froze it burst apart at the seams. Please don't follow my example. Use your water stockpile quickly, keep the water levels fairly low, watch the weather, and drain the barrels if you expect a hard freeze. If you have the room and the energy, you can stick your barrels in your garage instead and then rest easy until you have to drag them out again next year.

     Two things I am not doing yet: planting bulbs and spreading mulch. The soil temperature is still too high. This is still a good time to plant trees and shrubs, though. Their roots will stay active underground and will get a head start on getting ready for their first scorching summer.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Veggies in Autumn

Parsley in front with snow peas behind.
     I am repeatedly surprised by the huge number of people who give up on their vegetable gardens a couple of weeks after Labor Day. Our season at this latitude is short enough without chopping off the hind end of it. Today is November 1, so I thought it would be a good time to give a "state of my garden" report.

     My cukes and zucchinis made it into the first week in October before giving up the ghost, along with their last fruits. Our Italian basil gave up about ten days ago, but it appears that Thai basil is made of sterner stuff. The leaves are small and sparse, but still healthy, and a little bit goes a long way.

     We ate our last green beans last night after we added all their leaves and stems to the composter.

     We had a frost scare last night, so we picked any tomato or pepper that was turning red, while leaving the green ones alone. Years ago when I had more time and energy, I would have rushed out to throw a tarp over these plants. Now I am too lazy. I just hedge my bets and go to sleep soundly. Sure enough, it was a false alarm. The tomatoes and peppers are fine.

     These are the "tender" veggies and will be lucky to go another two weeks. But there is a lot more out there. The parsley is luxuriant, and the broccoli must be working on its 12th harvest by now. Our Swiss chard is going to give us harvest number 5.

     We pulled one Brussels sprout plant too early just for fun, but we have the real harvest here ahead of us. The spinach seeds we planted germinated only spottily, but what we have is doing well and will probably be added to the chard when the time comes.

Flowering Snow Peas
     But the star of the fall show is our patch of snow peas. You may recall that our spring crop ran out of gas in mid-July. We waited about three weeks, then planted a new crop in August. This is what they looked like yesterday. The 30" plants on the right have already given us one crop and are still flowering like mad.

     The plants on the left were a big surprise. They are over 5 feet tall and everything else about them is over-  sized as well. They only began to flower last week and are in a real race to produce before the cold gets them. For these guys I might actually get out with a tarp just once. 

     All of these plants will survive a series of light frosts -- the kind we get frequently in late fall. Their speed of growth slows down but they do continue growing and producing. I hope to be harvesting some of these crops over Thanksgiving weekend.

     So why rush out and end everything? Yes, it is true: when you finally do your garden clean-up, it will be colder. But you don't have to do anything now and you get rewarded with more food as well. A genuinely lazy gardener like me cannot pass this up.