Our chickens and that time they nearly died in a fire

One of our pullets in the spring 2012

It’s been nearly a year since I shared that we’d finally gotten our backyard chickens. When I last wrote, they were itty bitty chicks living in a cardboard box in our basement while they grew bigger and my husband Jody built their permanent home. Now they are a year old, doing well and living in their palatial coop, built by Jody and painted by yours truly, but their life wasn’t always rainbows and unicorns (or mountain scenes and prayer flags as the case may be).

The coop One of the girls with my mountain mural

Nest boxes with sunflower

One day last March — only weeks after getting our chicks —  I arrived home to find the smoke alarms going off and the house filled with smoke! HOLY CRAP! I think I was in shock as I quickly unlocked the front door, let our confused dog Piper out of her kennel and looked around trying to figure out the source of the smoke. I only had my son with me at the time and I instructed him to take the dog outside. Unable to figure out where the smoke was coming from, I joined Julian outside and called 911. While I was talking to the dispatcher it dawned on me — maybe it was the brooder heat lamp and the cardboard box that the chickens were living in in the basement! OH NO!! NOT MY CHICKS!!!

Against the advice of the 911 dispatcher, I took a deep breath, ran downstairs, grabbed the frantic chicks and shoved them into the ferret carrier, unplugged the heat lamp that started the fire and ran up and out of the house. The box had indeed caught on fire and appeared to be smoldering. If there had been flames, I’m sure I would’ve turned around and ran back upstairs, but it didn’t look too menacing, just smokey. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I coughed for a while lived and my chicks were safe and sound with me, Julian and Piper in the front yard as we waited for the fire department to arrive.

It turns out I had neglected to turn around the protective cover on the heat lamp so it keeps it AWAY from things and prevents fires. A helpful firefighter showed me how to do it. I thanked him, all the while thinking I may die of embarrassment. There I was, one of the people who spoke out in favor of backyard chickens to our city council, saying they wouldn’t cause any trouble or use any additional city resources and I was the one who called 911 after having a fire in my basement because of my ineptitude! Oy. Of course I didn’t tell the firefighters that. I just smiled and nodded and apologized profusely. (Thank you for your quick response and help, fire department! 🙂

Thankfully there was no damage to our house, just some water to clean up and soot on the wall and carpeting. The chicks’ cardboard box, on the other hand, had seen better days and I had to find them new living quarters. The girls desecrated lived in our bathtub for several days until we borrowed a friend’s dog kennel to house them in while work on the backyard coop was started in a hurry completed.

Lucky for us, the smoke and fire scare didn’t seem to cause permanent trauma (three cheers for resilient chickens!) and the girls started laying eggs in the summer just like happy little hens should. For a while we got the occasional double yolker (two yolks in one egg) as the girls sorted out the whole laying business, but these days they tend to be single yolks. Generally we have plenty of eggs — even enough to give some to my parents — but the girls have slowed down their laying over the winter as hens tend to do and we’ve had to supplement our supply at Vitamin Cottage.

Fresh eggs

Now spring is just around the corner and we’re hoping to add a few more chicks to the mix. Ava may be taking some to the county fair this summer as part of 4H, where she’ll have the option of selling them when it ends so our flock won’t get too big. This time around, however, I will be putting the protective cover ON the heat lamp (or maybe even buying an EcoGlow Brooder — how cool is that?) and using a large plastic bin for a brooder.

The next time I attempt to smoke a chicken, it will be in a smoker, not in my house. 🙂

Our Ancona this winter 2013

Here’s your Public Service Announcement for the day:
Brooder lamps get very, VERY hot and can cause fires even when properly installed. Please be careful if you use one in your house or chicken coop or perhaps check out this alternative instead — the EcoGlow Brooder.

Learn more about raising backyard hens:

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We finally got our backyard chickens!

OK, so technically they are basement chicks, at least for now. But yes, it’s true — we’ve got chickens!

After much organizing, letter writing, signature gathering and city council meeting attending, backyard hens were finally given the go-ahead in my city. I could have actually gotten chickens quite a while ago (when the limited number of permits was opened up city-wide), but like all good things, planning and patience were involved. I can’t even say now that we have it all planned out, but we’re working on it. And with chicks in the basement that are growing bigger by the day, we have to have it all sorted by the time they need to spread their wings!

Oh, and hi by the way. Yes, it’s really me coming out of blog hiding (is that what it is I’m doing?) to share this fun news with you all. 🙂 Happy Spring!

We chose a variety of chicks. I based my decision on some breeds based on what I’d read about their temperament, etc., and some choices happened because the kids each wanted to choose one for themselves and we were at the mercy of what the local feed store had in stock. Currently residing in our basement are a barred rock and gold-laced cochin (my choices), a production red (Ava’s choice), a gold sex link (Julian’s choice), and a black and white ancona (one that I thought looked cute). Our chicks are 3 to 4 weeks old and have recently started having some supervised playtime in the backyard. They LOVE it! Pecking around in the grass and dirt is apparently a fabulous thing when you are a chicken. I have to admit that they are pretty fun to watch too.

The two chicks pictured with our newish dog Piper (we got her in November 2011) are the same chicks Ava and Julian were holding in the first picture taken just two weeks prior. These little ones grow fast!

My husband has been scouring the ‘net looking for the perfect coop design for our feathered friends and so far we are both liking this free insulated coop design. The coops looks to be some pretty snazzy digs, including a solar-powered door and a deicer for the water in the winter.

I’ll be sure to update once our chickens have a permanent home in our yard and when that first egg comes you’ll probably hear me shouting from the rooftops! 🙂 Bawk, bawk.

Learn more about raising backyard hens:

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The Apple Never Falls Far From The Tree

The fact is, that to do anything in the world worth doing,
we must not stand back shivering and thinking of the cold and danger,
but jump in and scramble through as well as we can.
–Robert Cushing

It’s no secret that anxiety has played a big role in my life. It’s something I’ve blogged about time and time again over the past two-plus years as I diligently tried to find a solution that worked best for me and to let others who might be dealing with this know they aren’t alone.

Around the time when I was first diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I recall asking my (then) therapist, “Why is this just showing up now out of the blue?” And she replied that it was probably something I’d been dealing with for a long time, but it took time for the symptoms to compound in number and severity until I reached the point where I sought out help and was eventually diagnosed. At the time I wasn’t sure I believed it, because the whole thing still felt like it came out of nowhere to me. However as time has passed and I’ve reflected on various events in my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that anxiety is something I’ve dealt with since childhood — I just didn’t know it then.

This is where this blog post gets a little tricky for anonymity reasons. How much can I share without sharing too much? Ya see, I have my reasons to suspect that one of my children also is dealing with anxiety. I had hoped that this wouldn’t happen to either of them and certainly never expected it when they were still so young, but now here it potentially is — staring me right in the face (literally). And why should I be surprised, right? The apple never falls far from the tree and all that, but yet I sure hoped those apples would.

While there has been no official diagnosis, after talking to a friend, reading the book “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Anxiety,” reading the blog Child Anxiety Mom, and searching my soul, my suspicions have certainly not lessened. When I compare some of the things I did and experienced in my adolescent years with some of the things my child is experiencing/doing now (but at a seemingly accelerated rate than I did), it seems obvious to me that anxiety could be playing a factor. I won’t go into detail as I don’t think that would be fair to my little person, but if you have questions email me directly and we can discuss it further there.

I’m not sure what the next step will be, but this is a subject that certainly weighs heavily on my mind. Everything I’ve read says the sooner anxiety is dealt with, the better. And I believe the more I read, the more likely I will figure out what direction we should take. I’d been considering therapy, but perhaps other things — such as The Anxiety-Free Child Program or simply reading more of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Anxiety (I admit I just started it) or perhaps another visit to the pediatrician (now that I feel I have more pieces of the puzzle) — would be useful as well.

“Courage is saying, ‘Maybe what I’m doing isn’t working;
maybe I should try something else.’”
— Anna Lappe

Then again it’s entirely possible that anxiety isn’t what’s going on with my child or perhaps it is just one part of the whole picture. After all, I’m not a psychologist or doctor, yet I am a mom who knows her child better than anyone else. I also know what it’s like to live with anxiety and if my child is experiencing this, I want to figure out what’s going on sooner than later. I don’t want to just assume X, Y, or Z behavior is “just a phase” and it will pass or that he/she is simply acting out or trying to manipulate me. I’ll continue to do my research and try to get to the bottom of this. Nobody should have to live their life in fear.

Photo credit: apdk via Flickr

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HAS CRUNCHY DOMESTIC GODDESS RETURNED FOR GOOD?
If you are wondering if I’m back to blogging again on a regular basis, I have to say your guess is as good as mine. 😉 I will continue to write when I feel moved to write. Now that I’ve gotten my first “return from hiatus” post written, perhaps that will be more often. 🙂 Like I do with many things in my life, I will take blogging one day at a time. Thank you if you’ve stuck around in my absence. It truly does mean a lot to me. xo.

How We Came to Home School: Guest Post

I’m currently on hiatus from blogging (read more about the reasons why), but want to continue to provide interesting and insightful content on my blog in the meantime. For a while I will have guest posts from various bloggers interspersed with posts by me when I am moved to write. Thank you for your understanding. — Amy (CDG)

This guest post comes from a good personal friend of mine named Jen who blogs at The Evolving Homemaker.

How We Came to Home School

I had always been fascinated in the idea that kids could learn MORE than what they learned in conventional classrooms.  I think the first time I had ever heard about homeschooling I was in college and heard about a little girl who was attempting to fly across the country solo.  While the trip ended in tragedy, I started to wonder why it was we arbitrarily sent our kids to school and how much more excited they might be about learning, if they had a little flexibility, more time to explore things they were interested in, and more freedom to discover themselves.

As I was becoming a new Mommy, I thought for sure we would home school.  I had lofty dreams of how our days would be and how much smarter my kids would be than so many others.

Ahem.

And then motherhood gave me a reality check.  Toddler-hood.  Woah.  Would my kids learn from me?  Was I patient enough to teach them?  Patient enough for even the hard days? Was I creative enough?  Organized enough?  Would I be able to still do laundry, home school, and have any iota of a personality and passions to call my own?

Then I started being haunted by panic attacks.  I was under a lot of stress and doing a lot at the time.  I was volunteering, heavily involved in the political season, lobbying, and raising two small children and trying to be a ‘good enough’ house goddess too.  Whatever it is that looks like.

So I sent my son to kindergarten at a local Montessori that had just opened.  I was sure they would be able to do it better than I could.  After all, they certainly knew more than I did about educating young minds, this would be better for him.

Except it wasn’t.

He began to show signs of anxiety.  He wasn’t learning to read there.  I sat in one day to find him not partaking in the ‘works’ but playing ‘cars’ with the tape dispenser instead.  He didn’t like to go.  Every morning he would ask, “Is today a school day?” and if I said, “Yes.” he would yell, cry, and be mean to his sister.  He would come in the car in the afternoon like a pressure cooker and burst in a fit of energy.

With two weeks left in the school year, they told us he should be held back in Kindergarten.

We decided instead to try it at home like we always thought we would.  With both kids.

It has been fantastic.  And hard.  And scary.  And frustrating.  And fun.  They both have time to play, they are learning to read, and they are exploring their own interests.  We are all learning more about ourselves and our passions.  I am learning that I can do it, that doubt and fear are not infallible.  That I am a ‘good enough’ Mom, and that yes they need math, but they also need my presence.

I wanted to home school because I wanted my kids to learn to think outside of the box.  That life isn’t just about going to school, getting a job, and then working for 50 years, retiring, but all the while hoping you make it to retirement without a heart attack or cancer.  Nope, the marrow of life is at their fingertips any second they decide to find it.  That is what I want them to learn, that they are the creators in their own journey, and while we use some textbooks, I don’t think they need a textbook to understand that.

Jen Parsons is Mama bear to two babes 7 and 5.  While she would like to be better at parenting, crafting, farming, sewing, ceramic scouring, knitting, homeschooling, travelling, book writing, domestic laundering,  boxing refereeing, spousal engagement, etc., she is learning to realize she cannot do it all but blogs about the journey at www.theevolvinghomemaker.com.

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Portrait of a Home Birthing Couple: Guest Post

I’m currently on hiatus from blogging (read more about the reasons why), but want to continue to provide interesting and insightful content on my blog in the meantime. For a while I will have guest posts from various bloggers interspersed with posts by me when I am moved to write. Thank you for your understanding. — Amy (CDG)

This guest post comes from Courtney who blogs at A Life Sustained.

Portrait of a Home Birthing Couple

If you had asked me a year ago to envision a “home birthing couple” I probably would have described a pair of long-haired back-to-the-land hippies living in a cabin in the woods and shunning any and all medical advances. That, or some sort of religious extremists. I definitely wouldn’t have described myself or my husband, we’re far too run-of-the-mill, but that’s exactly what we’ve become. As of this February we have become a home birthing couple.

I’ll fully admit that I never really gave much thought to what my birth experience might look like. I assumed that I would go to the hospital, scream a lot like they do on TV, and then be handed a swaddled little bundle o’ joy. But by the time I got around to seriously considering having a child, my life had begun to change in much larger ways. After a quarter century or so of flitting from one thing to another, never having a real job, and pretty much just coasting through life, I decided that that was no longer how I wanted to live. I was desperate for something deeper. More meaningful. I wanted to take more responsibility and make actual decisions rather than just falling into the next stage. Words like “mindful,” “sustainable,” and “deliberate” took on new and profound meanings for me. All elements of my life were suddenly under a critical lens and my plans for childbirth were no exception.

My mother was 30 years old when she gave birth to me. She wasn’t particularly planning on having a natural birth, but ended up with one because the window of opportunity for any drugs had already closed. After a very short labor, I was handed to her still covered in vernix and she had an intense urge to lick me clean. She held me to her chest, drank in my new-baby smell and was immediately ready to have another one, she said. This is the story of my birth and it has completely shaped my notions of what a “normal” birth looks like. I thought that all births looked this way.

It was at a fundraiser for my local women’s clinic that I saw the film The Business of Being Born. It didn’t necessarily convince me that I wanted to birth at home, but it did show me that I had made a lot of assumptions about attitudes and practices towards birth in the hospital setting. It also made me realize that if I thought my birth experience was an important thing, and I did, then I needed to take responsibility for that experience, educate myself, and come up with a plan.

After much, much reading and visiting with other soon-to-be-mamas, I took the easy way out. That’s right. I chose a home birth because, for me, it was the easy option. I knew that I wanted a natural water birth. I also knew that I cave easily under pressure and all it would take would be a stern word from anyone in a white coat and I would abandon my plan. Even just a “why don’t you get that epidural, honey,” I knew, would cause me to falter and I just didn’t want to deal with that pressure. I talked it over with my husband, who, although skeptical, trusted me to make an informed decision and was willing to surrender to the fact that I was the one giving birth and so I should be the one to have the final say in where that birth took place.

Not too long after I turned 30, I got pregnant. And I panicked. What should I do? Who should I call? I didn’t even know how to go about finding a midwife who would attend a home birth (Direct Entry Midwives, those who usually attend home births, cannot legally practice in my state, making finding care a bit more challenging). I did, however, remember that a friend of a friend was a doula (a word whose definition I didn’t even know a year prior). Even though I didn’t know her very well at that time and I am incredibly shy, I contacted her, shared our good news, and begged her for help. She, like most midwives and doulas that I’ve met, was incredibly kind and compassionate and she set up a time for us to meet with her and the midwife with whom she works.

We met in the warm and welcoming environment of her home and I knew immediately that these two women (well, and my husband) were the only people that I needed next to me when I went into labor. I didn’t need time to think it over. It just felt right.

Over the next nine months they provided in-depth and personalized care. There was no waiting in waiting rooms and each appointment lasted at least an hour. During this time, the midwives did all that would be done at a prenatal appointment at the hospital (check weight, blood pressure, urine, listen for fetal heart tones, etc.) plus a lot of time was spent giving full answers to our many questions. A lot of time was also spent laughing. These women were fun and they helped me to see that labor, although an intense experience, could actually be enjoyable, something to look forward to, and nothing to fear.

I should have known that I would soon be going into labor because I stereotypically cleaned my house from top to bottom. I justified this uncharacteristic behavior, however, with the fact that we had a prenatal the following day and I didn’t want the midwives to see just how lackadaisical we really were with housework. At 1:00 A.M. I woke up with contractions, although I didn’t really recognize them as such. I was more annoyed than anything because for the first time in three months I was actually comfortable and was having a fantastic night’s sleep, but then these cramps just kept waking me up.

In denial that this was it, I labored alone for three hours and let my husband sleep. When I finally needed some help coping with the contractions I woke him up. Even at that point I didn’t really think that I would be giving birth that day. My contractions were 5 minutes apart and a minute long, so we called the midwife to let her know. Normally this would be the point when things are just getting rolling, but when she heard the vocalizations I was making, she said that she would be right over.

Because I was at home I was able to move around as I wanted. I spent most of my time in a half bend over a waist-high dresser, but also spent some time on the floor and kneeling on the bed. I felt completely free to make as much noise as I needed to (which turned out to be quite a bit) without feeling self-conscious. I believe both of these things were really key in how quickly and easily I dilated. I felt safe and my body took that as permission to do what it needed to do.

My water broke three hours later after which I got into the tub and after two hours of pushing my son was born and laid naked on my chest. He was perfect and I was without words. I’m pretty sure the first thing I said was, “it’s a baby!” and of course, I cried.

Throughout most of the labor my midwives mostly just stayed out of my way. They offered constant reassurance and support, but they let me move and proceed as instinct dictated, offering gentle suggestions on how to modify what I was already doing to make it more effective. They monitored the safety of the situation, intermittently checking fetal heart tones and came prepared with emergency equipment. At no point did I ever feel that this wasn’t a safe decision. I was confident, and I still am, that birth is a natural process that our bodies are perfectly designed to cope with.

For the 90% of pregnancies that are low risk, like mine, birthing at home is such an opportunity. It was an opportunity for me to find out how strong I am. To share an intimate experience with my husband. To bring my son into the world in a manner that was calm, gentle, safe, warm, and loving. After we were all cleaned up, the midwives tucked the three of us into bed, made us breakfast, and started a load of laundry. They came back to the house to check on us (Housecalls! I didn’t have to figure out how to transport a newborn to the doctor’s office in the dead of winter!) the next day and again at one week, two weeks, and six weeks.

Our home birth was such a positive experience, but it was also so…normal. When people ask us about it, I think they expect to hear some long nail-biting tale in which we “almost didn’t make it” or for me to start talking about what a moon goddess that I am. They are always surprised by how simple and straightforward the whole thing was; exactly as it should be.

Courtney is a Midwestern mama who is striving to create a home that is simple, mindful, and full of nature and beauty. She is passionate about treading lightly on the Earth, supporting local craftspeople, and all things natural and handmade. She blogs about her transition to living a more sustainable life as well as her transition to motherhood at A Life Sustained.

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Chicago schools’ garden produce forbidden in the lunchroom

A school garden can be a wonderful outdoor classroom. Children can learn a variety of subjects while working with others to grow their own food. But in some school districts the children have the gardens to grow the food, but are forbidden from eating it in their lunchrooms.

When I first read that the Chicago Public Schools are not able to use the produce grown in their more than 40 school gardens in the lunchroom, I was shocked. Why grow it if you can’t consume it? The truth is that due to rules set by the district and its meal provider the food must be either given away, sent home with students, or sold.

“In order to use food in the school food program, it would need to meet specific/certified growing practices,” CPS spokeswoman Monique Bond said.

These requirements would include eliminating all “pesticides and insecticide” applications and using only “commercially prepared organic compost and fertilizers,” said Bob Bloomer, regional vice president of Chartwells-Thompson.

Commercial vendors, though, don’t have to abide by these rules. They can sell the district produce treated with several pesticides and grown in nonorganic fertilizer.

But produce grown by the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences on its 25-acre farm wouldn’t make the grade because, for example, it treats its corn with a single pesticide.

The school district touts using some local produce in its lunch program, but the produce that is most local of all — grown right outside their doors — is off limits. Children are being denied the most local and fresh produce of all. How does that make any sense?

According to the CDC, more than one-third of U.S. adults (over 72 million people) and 17% of U.S. children are obese. For Chicago children ages 6-11, the obesity rate is 28%. So in an area where more and more children are overweight or obese and, as evidenced in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, some American first graders can’t identify vegetables, the system is denying them healthy, local food.

Unfortunately, this is happening other school districts as well. Sybil who blogs at Musings of a Milk Maker told me on Facebook that this is also the case at the public school she is trying to get her daughter into.

Andrea Ward isn’t surprised by any of this. She had this to say on Facebook, “Lunch food is a big time business with big time rules and greed. Education is never about the kids (unless you are the one in the trenches–then that’s all you care about). Otherwise, it’s about politics. And politics is about money.”

However, other school districts across the country, such as Auburn School District in Washington state, have been able to adopt a garden to cafeteria plan. The school district’s 1 1/2 acre organic garden and orchard produces “fruits and vegetables for student lunches and snacks in 10 elementary schools. In addition to garden produce, the Auburn School District purchases from local farmers for all 22 schools.” This single garden produces food for all elementary schools during the growing and harvesting seasons.

Joanne White who blogs at Media Mum told me about her son’s elementary school in the Boulder Valley School District, Colo., where the school garden provides produce for its own salad bar. Joanne said, “The kids are fully involved from garden to table. No way Jamie Oliver would find any of them not knowing what a tomato is!”

In other school districts, the students eat what they grow, but not necessarily in the lunchroom, however not for the same reasons that the Chicago Public School District gave.

Karen from Eternal Maternal said her son participated in a school garden program at his elementary school located in Vancouver School District in Washington State. The children ate what they grew, but due to a variety of reasons including not enough of any one ingredient, lack of preparation time, etc., the produce was not used in the school cafeteria. Karen said, “I think it’s very important that kids learn where their food comes from and what it takes to get it to the point that it can be eaten. Providing food for oneself is a basic need. Typically, we don’t have to do it for ourselves until we’re in college and what do we do then? Go to the grocery store and buy a case of Ramen. When children learn to grow food that can sustain themselves, even if only partially, it gives them a sense of accomplishment, raises their awareness of the environment and, whether they realize it or not, raises their level of security because it’s a way they know of to care for themselves.”

At Stylin Momma Katy’s daughter’s charter elementary school in Maryland, all of the children participate in the school garden in one way or another. Her daughter is in kindergarten where they are in charge of pollination. The garden food is not used in the school cafeteria food (which is brought in) and most students bring lunches from home. However, Katy said, “they will sometimes have a sampling station in the lunchroom where the kids can try the foods picked from the garden, or they will use it in cooking class. They also have a school produce stand as a fundraiser.”

After hearing about the practices of different school districts, I have to say I find the reasoning behind Chicago Public School District’s ban on garden food in the lunchroom appalling. I have to agree with Andrea above who said, “it’s about politics. And politics is about money.” If the district had these kids’ best interests at heart, they would find a way to allow the locally grown garden food into the cafeterias.

Despite all of this, I am pleased to hear that many districts — especially inner-city districts like Chicago — have implemented school gardens. Perhaps even if the children are not allowed to eat the food in the lunchroom, they still are learning the valuable life lesson of how to grow it and perhaps are able to take some of it home to their families to enjoy.

Do your children have a school garden? Does the school use the produce in their lunchroom? How do you feel about Chicago’s policy?

Related articles:

Photo credits: Flickr StevenDePolo and Sarz.K

Cross-posted on BlogHer

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Make Your Own Dirt From Scratch: Guest Post

I’ve decided to take a little break from blogging (read more about the reasons why), but wanted to continue to provide interesting and insightful content on my blog in the meantime. For a while I will have guest posts from various bloggers interspersed with posts by me when I am moved to write. Thank you for your understanding. — Amy (CDG)

This guest post comes from Julie who blogs at Terminal Verbosity.

Make Your Own Dirt From Scratch

I was hoping to start my own carnival of sorts with “Make Your Own Monday,” but it looks like the folks over at Stop the Ride have beaten me to it with their Make it from Scratch Carnival. So OK, I’ll play and cross-post at BlogHer

I’m starting with something that I’ve been doing for some time, which I know, strictly speaking, is not playing by the MIFS rules (sorry). But I’ve had a lot of questions recently about compost, about how to fertilize without chemicals, and I’ve seen a lot of comments posted on green blogs that indicate that people are confused and bewildered by trying to compost. So my first installment in the Make it from Scratch carnival is making your own dirt, i.e. composting!

What is compost?

Compost is, literally, fertile dirt. That is to say, not the barren gray top soil you’ll find on a building site or in a conventional farmer’s field. This is the good black stuff that smells sweet and makes nice little crumbly clumps. It contains the perfect balance of nutrients that your plants need to be healthy and that the microorganisms and beneficial insects like earth worms–key components of healthy soil–need to thrive.

You can make it yourself using common kitchen and yard wastes that would otherwise go in the landfill using a process Mother Nature has used to recycle things in the natural world since time began. Want a list of things you can put in the compost bin? Plantea lists 163 of them! Then you can use it in place of expensive mulches and chemical fertilizers. As a mulch, compost helps retain moisture and shade a plant’s roots. As a soil amendment, compost breaks up heavy clay soils, allowing more water and air to penetrate to the root zone of garden plants and, if added in high enough quantities over time to keep the organic matter of the garden soil at 4-5%, can provide sufficient nutrients for even nitrogen-hungry vegetable growth.

I love Journey To Forever’s thoughts on Nature’s conspiracy to make more soil:

If you watch carefully to see what nature does as she goes about her daily round of chores, it’s quite easy to start believing that the whole thing is a complicated, secretive conspiracy by soil micro-organisms to beget more soil micro-organisms. Nature’s first concern is always to build more topsoil, and to protect it. It’s easy to see why: no topsoil, not much nature either. The Earth’s green carpet of living things is really just the Soil Creature’s skin.

OK, how do I start?

Now is a great time to start because it’s the beginning of the season and building a pile now will keep the growing season’s clippings and cuttings out of the trash. If you are cramped for space, live in an apartment, or are particularly interested in vermiculture, worm composting might be for you. I’ve never tried this before myself, but it can be effective if you have a smaller quantity of waste (like only kitchen scraps because you live in an apartment) because there is a limit to how much the worms can eat. Check out the great resources at WormCompostingTips:

Worm composting (also known as vermicomposting) is the art of using worms to help you break down the organic waste you produce at home to create fertilizer for your garden. The worms will produce both a liquid fertilizer, and worm castings. Worm castings are a solid, odor free byproduct of worm digestion. You can collect your worm castings periodically and use them as a soil addition, soil conditioner, or even light mulch.

If you have more space, even a patio space for a small compost tumbler, this method will allow you to process a lot more waste. I’m really a fan of worm composting, but our family of four needs between 3-4 5 cubic foot compost bins to make sure we always have space for both food scraps and yard waste, so that quantity would not be feasible for worms.

To make a successful compost pile you need a balance of green materials like grass clippings and food scraps or brown materials like shredded paper, dried leaves, or sawdust. You simply make a bin, either in one of the many commercially available compost bins, in a wooden or chicken wire box somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-6? wide and no more than 3 feet high, or in a pit dug into the ground. If you need more space, build two bins, don’t make one big one or it will be harder to manage and ultimately take too long to break down. We’ve used a combination of these different pile-types all with fairly good success. The most important thing is keeping your bin close enough to the kitchen & yard that are producing the inputs that you’ll actually use the bin as much as possible.

Adding material to your new bin

Here’s where the science behind composting can turn people off. Some books and articles provide diagrams with detailed information on how thick each layer of green and brown material should be, suggest alternating the layers with dirt to speed the process along, and recommend near-daily turning. This can be labor-intensive and frustrating, especially to the beginner. And it’s just not necessary. That’s not to say that those who follow the labor-intensive processes don’t get good compost–they do, and they probably get it quicker than I do, but I spend much less time on my piles and always have plenty of compost for my garden each spring despite my lazy and unscientific methods. ;)

Now, you’re supposed to add two parts green material to one part brown material. However, the fact of the matter is if you are trying to compost all of your yard and kitchen scraps, you will almost always have more nitrogen (green materials) and not enough carbon (brown materials). Then, if you get really excited about the prospects of reducing waste, you’ll start composting things like office paper (shredded works best), junk mail (no glossy colored paper, please, it can contain heavy metal inks), tissues, cotton balls, paper towels, and just about anything else you can get your hands on (paper plates after a picnic, egg cartons, drier lint). In fact, you can compost just about anything with the exception of what VegWeb lists here. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

A site in part shade conserves moisture while lending a bit of the sun’s warmth in cooler weather, which helps the pile continue to cook down. This is necessary here in Colorado, but if you’re in a really wet, warm climate, you may actually want a lid to keep water out.

Water, heat, and oxygen are the other essentials for composting. Compost should maintain the dampness of a wrung-out sponge, which in dry areas means supplemental water at least during the hot summer months. Consider running a drip irrigation line straight into the bin, but don’t forget to move it aside before stirring or emptying the bin!

Speaking of stirring, while occasional stirring allows the compost to break down faster by allowing good oxygen penetration and the mixing of the carbon and nitrogen plant materials, daily or even weekly stirring is not a requirement to produce compost. A frequently-stirred pile may break down in 4-6 weeks, while an unstirred pile may have to wait until the following spring to be used. I use the no- or low-stir method and the end product is the same, it just takes longer to get there, which is fine by me. Also beware of over-stirring: in the winter months stirring compost allows heat to escape the pile and may stop the break-down if the center of the pile falls below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you need a few more scientific tips on composting, the folks at CSU’s Cooperative Extension offer this great fact sheet: Composting Your Yard Waste.

I hope I’ve demystified compost a bit for you and shown you how easy it can be! We literally spend the minute it takes us to walk out our sliding glass door and deposit the day’s food scraps into the bin and spin the tumblers (we purchased tumblers for the winter because food scraps are almost all nitrogen and can get stinky without some turning & additions of copious amounts of shredded junk mail) and each spring we’re rewarded with the best fertilizer nature can provide–no petrochemicals (yes, the stuff you buy at Home Depot, unless it says otherwise, comes from petroleum), no waste in the landfill, very little effort. So go make it from scratch!

Photo credit: Flickr suavehouse113 and normanack

Julie Artz lives in Helsinki, Finland, with her husband, two children, and geriatric cat. She endures the cold by dreaming about her garden in Lyons, Colorado, and writing about life in Finland and anything else that comes to mind on her blog Terminal Verbosity.

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What Are We Teaching Our Kids With Our Reactions to Osama bin Laden’s Death?

I know there’s already been a lot written in response to Osama bin Laden’s death on May 1, but something about it all left me feeling discombobulated since I first read the news (on Twitter). After listening to President Obama’s speech and seeing the celebrations and reactions on Twitter and Facebook that ensued, I felt even more ill at ease and I’m hoping to finally articulate my thoughts.

Justice, not Vengeance

I understand feeling a sense of relief that bin Laden is no longer able to kill innocent people. I understand a need for quiet reflection. I understand feeling a sense of justice. What I don’t understand is crowds of people chanting “USA! USA!” like they are at some kind of sporting event, encouraging your children to wave signs celebrating someone’s death or all of the Tweets and Facebook statuses from people with vengeance coursing through their veins. It disturbed me. What are we teaching our children?

Yes, bin Laden did atrocious things in his life, but by cheering and celebrating his death, are we not stooping to a new low? I admit I did not personally know anyone killed in the 9-11 attacks, so it’s entirely possible that my somber reaction to the news is different than those personally affected. Still, it just doesn’t feel right.

David Sirota of Salon.com has this to say:

This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory: He has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history — the ones that aggressively cheer on killing, as long as it is the Bad Guy that is being killed.

…our reaction to the news … should be the kind often exhibited by victims’ families at a perpetrator’s lethal injection — a reaction typically marked by both muted relief but also by sadness over the fact that the perpetrators’ innocent victims are gone forever, the fact that the perpetrator’s death cannot change the past, and the fact that our world continues to produce such monstrous perpetrators in the first place.

When we lose the sadness part — when all we do is happily scream “USA! USA! USA!” at news of yet more killing in a now unending back-and-forth war — it’s a sign we may be inadvertently letting the monsters win.

Talking to Kids About Osama bin Laden

What are we teaching our children when we celebrate the death of another human being? Here are a few different thoughts on how to talk to (or not talk to) your children about Osama bin Laden.

  • Annie at PhD in Parenting chose not to talk to her kids about it: Kids and Osama bin Laden
    “Talking to my kids about history is important. Teaching them about diversity and injustices and privilege is important. But purposely opening this particular can of worms and then scaring them by not being able to answer their questions is not something I want to do right now.”
  • Melissa Ford at Stirrup Queens chose to talk to her twins about bin Laden before they heard about it from someone else: Talking to Kids about Osama bin Laden
  • Jenny Lind Schmitt at Psychology Today talked to her kids about it too, hung up an American flag in the house and talked about honoring all of the people that died on 9/11 and since as a result of bin Laden: Osama bin Laden’s Death: What It Means to Kids
  • From Dane Laverty at Times and Seasons: Barack Obama, Osama bin Laden, and the Kids Eat Corn Pops
    “My hope, however, is that it [bin Laden’s death] will serve as a reminder to us that we can be grateful to have the luxury of dealing with the kinds of inconveniences we face here in America, to remind us that early morning seminary and burned cookies are blessings, because they mean that we’re not facing ideological repression and physical starvation.”
  • From Danielle Sullivan at Babble: Kids Cheer In NYC Over Osama Bin Laden’s Death
    “Isn’t celebrating a death the very opposite of what we should do as parents and Americans? I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t feel satisfied or even proud that our country stood up for those who were senselessly killed, but we shouldn’t make it a party, don our kids in hate-filled t-shirts and light fireworks (as they did in my neighborhood).”

As for my kids, I haven’t seen any reason to talk to them about bin Laden at this point. As far as I know, they’ve never heard of him and at ages 4 and 6, I don’t feel like there’s anything they need to know right now. We’ll save that history lesson for when they are older.

Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

There’s a quote that’s been circulating wildly after bin Laden’s death that was misattributed to Martin Luther King Jr., but is now correctly being credited to Jessica Dovey.

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. — Jessica Dovey

That spoke to me, as it did to so many other people who reposted it on the ‘net causing it to go viral. And it’s so much more eloquent than anything I could come up with myself.

Martin Luther King Jr. has also said several things that really speak to this week’s events. I’ll just share this one.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction….
The chain reaction of evil —
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars —
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength To Love, 1963

I wish I had some tidy little paragraph to wrap this all up, but I don’t. I only hope and pray that the darkness of our world begins to subside little by little and the love and light shine through. Peace.

Photo credits: Flickr, Josh Pesavento and L.C.Nøttaasen

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Newly Identified Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals Leach into Food Packaging: Guest Post

I’ve decided to take a little break from blogging (read more about the reasons why), but wanted to continue to provide interesting and insightful content on my blog in the meantime. For a while I will have guest posts from various bloggers interspersed with posts by me when I am moved to write. Thank you for your understanding. — Amy (CDG)

Today’s guest post is from Alicia Voorhies who blogs at The Soft Landing.
Post image for Newly Identified Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals Leach into Food Packaging

Newly Identified Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals Leach into Food Packaging

Emily Barrett of Environmental Health Perspectives recently provided a great synopsis of an updated review of food contact materials and their potential to leach endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) into our food.

Author of the review, Jane Muncke, didn’t mince words when issuing her findings, calling into question the current means of estimating the true level of exposure to EDC’s through food contact materials.  Her conclusions included the following major points:

  • Food packaging is an underestimated source of chemical food contamination
  • Migration into dry foods can be considerable
  • Substances of concern, like endocrine disrupting chemicals, are widely used in food contact materials
  • Risk assessment of endocrine disrupting chemical food contamination is challenging because exposure and effect assessment are not always straight forward

Muncke’s insights have caused me to carefully reconsider which food packaging I choose for my own growing children. Based on her article, I’ll be investigating benzophenones (a known carcinogen) and organotins, two groups of suspected EDC’s, which are legally used in the United States and European Union.

And as Barrett pointed out, we now have even more motivation to choose fresh foods over processed ones.

The guidelines do not consider the collective numbers and toxicity – alone or in combination – of all of the chemicals that can leach from the packaging, the author points out.* In a chemical mix, individual health effects may be magnified. Printing, ink, adhesives, recycled cardboard and the plastic containers can all introduce unwanted chemicals into a single food product, creating a mix with additive or synergystic effects. What’s more, the chemicals may degrade over time or form new compounds that migrate into food. These can go entirely unmeasured since it is nearly impossible to identify and test for them all.

Kids may be at particular risk. Not only are their bodies still developing and hence susceptible to environmental insults, but they tend to eat more packaged foods, a more limited diet and more food for their body weight than adults do. There are similar concerns for pregnant women and their fetuses, as well as obese adults, whose bodies may process these chemicals differently from their trimmer counterparts.

Tips for Reducing Your Exposure to EDC’s in Food Packaging

  1. Avoid PVC in plastic food wrap:  ask your butcher to prepare the cuts of meat you want and wrap it in paper.  Most butcher or freezer paper is coated with wax or polyethylene which are better alternatives. As for blocks of cheese, look for packages with Ziplok style closures, and plastic packages that have been heat-sealed, because most of these bags are made from polyethylene.
  2. Buy fresh or frozen produce packaged in polyethylene bags:  BPA is found in most epoxy linings of aluminum cans, glass jar lids and the bottom of some frozen cardboard boxes – although there a few BPA-free options available
  3. Choose jarred foods when possible – especially those with space between the lid and the food
  4. If you do choose to purchase foods packaged in plastic, do not reuse, cook or heat food in them – even if recommended by the manufacturer; this may include some microwavable meals, so just remove them from the plastic container and heat in glass
  5. Look for non-recycled cardboard boxes when ordering takeout meals like pizza, as they are less likely to contain BPA.
  6. Bring your own reusable coffee cups and to-go containers for leftovers and skip Styrofoam altogether

>> Read the complete research study: Endocrine disrupting chemicals and other substances of concern in food contact materials: An updated review of exposure, effect and risk assessment in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

>> Related link: The Breast Cancer Fund has recently released a new study about BPA in food containers.

Photo Source: Flickr via _anh

Alicia Voorhies is a Registered Nurse who left the rat race to pursue her dream of owning a business. She traded working as Director of Nursing in an organization for disabled adults to relax and enjoy her love of medical research in alternative health ideas. She was immediately attracted to the mysteries of toxic plastics and their effect on children and quickly learned that avoiding endocrine-disrupting chemical in common household products can be overwhelming.  While searching for safe alternatives, she quickly realized how limited the available information for parents was – and that’s how her education-based company, The Soft Landing, was born.

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