Grow Your Own Vegetables and Go Green

Tomato plant with ripening tomatoes

If you’re serious about going green, learn how to grow vegetables at home. Not only is homegrown food healthier for you, it’s also an energy saving way to help the planet and conserve our valuable resources.

There are lots of ways that growing your own vegetables can be beneficial to the environment. Here are a few for you to think about.

Grow Your Own Vegetables for Fewer Chemicals

Conventional farmers use hazardous chemicals to keep pests away from their vegetable crops. Pesticides, herbicides and other chemically-created fertilizing agents are sprayed on crops apparently to improve the harvest. However when those same crops are washed for use, those chemicals are being flushed away down into the water system.

When you grow vegetables at home, you have a choice about how to fertilize your plants and the methods you will use to keep pests away. There are plenty of all-natural pesticides and fertilizers you can create from items that are good for the environment and for your vegetables. By not releasing chemicals into the air and not consuming them when you eat your plants, you will aid not only your own health but that of the people and animals around you.

Growing Vegetables Means Lower Emissions

The vegetables you buy in the supermarket have to be trucked in. Many of them travel quite a few miles before they reach the store. Each of those trucks runs on gasoline and is responsible for releasing harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

Producing your own vegetables means that you are responsible for helping to lower the emissions involved in transporting your family’s vegetables to zero. When you pick a tomato out of your own garden, it doesn’t have to travel by truck to get to your table. This makes the home vegetable garden an important energy saving enterprise.

Healthy Compost

Vegetables store a lot of valuable nutrients even in the parts we don’t eat. Scraps, peelings and other vegetable waste all make great additions to any compost heap or compost bin. When you compost vegetable waste, the nutrients slowly break down and become part of a rich fertilizer that can’t be duplicated, no matter what brand you buy at the store.

That compost, in turn, helps make the next round of vegetables even healthier and stronger. When you grow vegetables at home and don’t throw anything away, you create a pattern that could repeat itself forever without producing any garbage.

Growing Vegetables at Home Means Smaller Landfills

When you’re not producing as much trash, your garbage won’t take up as much space in the landfill. If everyone did this, the landfill areas themselves wouldn’t need to take up so much space.

In addition, when your vegetables come straight from your garden, you avoid using any of the packaging that comes with them when you buy them at the store. You not only cut down on your plant waste, but you use less of the plastic and paper that stores encourage you to use to transport and protect your produce.

Green Vegetables

As it turns out, vegetables are green in more ways than one! When you grow vegetables at home you will use fewer chemicals, participate in lowering emissions, have the ability to create healthy compost and help us move toward smaller landfills. Who knew that edible plants could do all of that?

Want to learn more about growing vegetables?

Vegetable Gardening Ideas takes you through all the steps of growing your own vegetables at home. Don’t miss the 21 Easy Vegetables and How You Can Grow Them page, or the growing instructions for the Top 10 Most Popular Vegetables page.

This year I’m growing tomatoes, basil and squash.

What are you planting in your garden this spring?

Earth Friendly ways to mow the grass

lawn mower at the gas pump
Photo courtesy of AbracaDebra at Flickr.com

Everyone loves a well manicured yard, and there are a multitude of power tools that make short work of trimming, mowing, and edging. A surprising number of green options also exist, and more people are setting aside diesel powered leaf blowers in favor of lawn friendly tools.

At this minute, the majority of people use gas powered lawnmowers. It may not be a coincidence that sales of riding lawn mowers are rising along with our obesity rate. Gas powered riding mowers are the tricked-out SUVs of lawncare. The average lawnmower uses only 0.5 gallons of gasoline per hour, but self propelled mowers can use 200-300% as much fuel while delivering only a fraction of the exercise.

Even gas mowers that have to be pushed produce a lot of pollution. They emit approximately 11 times as much pollution per hour as a car. Most of this pollution is in the form of volatile organic compounds that can cause cancer and trigger asthma attacks. Lawnmowers emit nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and other harmful hydrocarbon compounds. After they settle on the yard or filter into local rivers and streams, these toxins work their way into our food and drinking water.

Most of this pollution could be avoided if the lawnmowers had catalytic converters, but very few lawn mowers include even rudimentary pollution controls. Some of the worst lawnmowers have 2 stroke engines. This older technology relies on lubricant mixed with gasoline in the fuel tank. This mixture of fuel and oil eliminates the need for a dedicated lubricating system, which makes 2 stroke engines weigh less. Since 2 stroke engines have fewer components, they are also cheaper to build. Unfortunately, these costs savings have an environmental cost. 2 stroke engines burn oil along with their fuel supply and put out far worse fumes than 4 stroke engines or electric drive trains.

Do you want to breathe diesel fumes or poison your yard with partially burned gasoline? There are much better, greener options out there. Some alternatives to gasoline powered mowers include natural gas mowers, electric mowers, push reel mowers, livestock, and even using native plants for landscaping.

Cat staring at a lawn mower and jerry can
Photo courtesy of cheryl at Flickr.com

Fuel alternatives for gas lawnmowers
Unleaded gasoline is one of the most popular fuels for lawnmowers, but mowers also exist that are designed to burn other compounds. Some mowers can be converted to use cleaner fuels. Check with the manufacturer – not all leaf blowers, edgers, and lawn mowers can burn ethanol or bio diesel. Other models are made specifically to burn methanol, propane, or methane. These alternative fuels still produce pollution, but they produce far less (especially if you have a local fuel source with a lower associated carbon footprint).

A propane riding mower - with large tanks on either side of the driver
Photo courtesy of jgoverly at Flickr.com

Electrical mowers

Electric mowers come in two varieties – battery powered mowers and plug-in mowers. If you want freedom from cords, battery mowers are the way to go. They have some drawbacks though, including limited endurance, reduced torque, and increased weight. Mowers with batteries are also less eco-friendly than plug in mowers. Manufacturing batteries is a dirty business, and batteries also waste a lot of power while charging up (20-80% depending on the type and age of the battery).

If you’re using an electric lawn mower, the source of electricity at your home determines the footprint of the mower. More than 80% of the power on the US power grid comes from coal, and that power is only slightly cleaner than gasoline. If your home is supplied with green electricity from solar arrays, wind turbines, a hydroelectric dam, or similar sources, then a plug-in lawnmower is much cleaner. You can get even more green out of an electric mower by converting it to run on solar power.

An array of solar panels, charging the 36 volt battery of a lawnmower
Photo courtesy of M.Barkley at Flickr.com

Push reel mowers
People powered lawnmowers are even more environmentally friendly than electric mowers, because they’re powered by human muscle power. Rather than burn calories on an endless climb on the stairmaster, why not use your muscles to accomplish something? Manual mowers have several advantages – they produce no exhaust fumes, they don’t ever need to be plugged in, and they are far less dangerous than other mowers. Even if you run the mower over pebbles, the slow moving blades aren’t going to throw rocks.

Push reel lawnmowers are pleasant to operate. Since they have no engine, they are almost completely silent. You can listen to birds in the trees while mowing, or bring your phone along and talk to friends while doing lawncare. If you’re an early riser, you can mow at 7am without waking up your neighbors.

A push reel mower - spinning scythe blades mounted to an axle with a long metal handle for pushing
Photo courtesy of Beaker’s Glassworks, Jewelery & Things at Flickr.com

Lawn mowing animals
If pushing a mower (of any kind) isn’t your idea of fun, you could always outsource the work. Livestock is nature’s own solution to overgrown grass. If you’ve always wanted your own full-time gardener, don’t forget that ruminants make a really cheap labor force.

Sheep and geese are happy to trim the yard, and they produce wool and down feathers as well as meat. Sheep ranchers are having a tough time with falling prices, and some are making ends meet by leasing out their sheep herds as expert mowers. If you have a larger area, cows are four legged mowing machines. In Australia, wallabies are becoming increasingly popular for their lawnmowing skills.

Some towns and HOAs have started keeping herds of farm animals instead of sheds full of gardening equipment. On the Google campus, a trial is underway using goats to keep the lawn trimmed. Several urban homesteaders have reported problems with goats though, because they’re escape artists and they can be unpredictable eaters. That means that they’ll eat some weeds while ignoring the grass, or that they’ll chew one area down to the roots while ignoring thigh high blades of grass on the other side of the yard.

sheep and geese on a lawn
Photo courtesy of albatrail at Flickr.com

Slow growing / native plants
Another way to control your landscape is to use alternative plants. Some species of grass grow at a much slower rate than the popular St. Augustine and Bermuda. These slow growing grasses require less maintenance, and they often require less fertilizer (further reducing their environmental impact). Clover and bluebonnets are popular alternatives because they naturally fertilizes the soil.

When choosing plants, think about using native species. Native plants are very well suited to the climate and wont run out of control like invasive plants. Xeriscaping your yard will also reduce the amount of water needed to keep the landscape lush and green in the middle of summer. Cactus and wildflowers aren’t the only native plants to consider – moss works surprisingly well and prairie grass also has great eye appeal.

Native grass growing in Lurie garden with skyscrapers in the background
Photo courtesy of one2c900d at Flickr.com

In the news: Environmentally friendly legislation and programs

news-wallyg-fl
Photo courtesy of WallyG at Flickr.com

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with recent legislation leading the way.

Many gardeners, ranchers, and farmers are concerned about a Food Safety Bill that’s pending in the House. There have been rumors that this legislation would redefine the word “organic”, or outlaw small scale farms, or make it impossible to grow heirloom seeds, or drive up the price of locally grown food. HR 875 has been the subject of message board arguments, blog punditry, and even chain mail. Before you call your Congressman and voice concerns, it’s important to do some fact checking about HR 875.

There’s also some interesting news about ethanol and biofuels production. The percentage of ethanol in gasoline is currently capped at 10% (E10), but Ag Secretary Vilsak is urging lawmakers to raise the amount of ethanol that’s allowed in transportation fuel. He’s calling for E12 gasoline, and we may see 15-20% ratios if the Environmental Protection Agency approves E15 or E20 gasoline. This move face opposition from equipment manufacturers who are worried that high ethanol blends may harm engines. Lawnmower and boat engines are particularly at risk.

Several states are making green news too. Michigan is offering scholarships to train unemployed and underemployed workers for green collar jobs – these Michigan Promise scholarships may help the state survive waves of layoffs in the automotive sector. The funds come from Tobacco settlements and are not at risk from the declining tax base in the state.

Illinois, California, Texas and other states are rushing to build transmission lines that will carry wind generated electricity from the countryside into the big city. A recently proposed line called the Green Power Express would run from the Dakotas into Chicago. This is one of many infrastructure projects that could pay dividends in reducing pollution and reducing dependence on foreign energy sources at the same time.

Private enterprise is also partnering with city and state governments to encourage energy saving projects. “Green Mortgage” programs allow homeowners to take advantage of the tax break on mortgage interest to finance energy saving additions and renovations to their homes. These programs will funnel money towards installing insulation and energy efficient windows, or replacing light bulbs with skylights and upgrading Energy Star appliances. In the process, they will generate manufacturing and construction jobs now while boosting energy efficiency of homes for decades to come.

Do you know of any other big green news? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

Mulching with recycled rubber tires

tires-tyres-vagawi-fl
Photo courtesy of Vagawi

Every year, approximately 1 Billion tires are replaced due to wear and tear. Many of these tires end up in landfills, but the majority are burned or converted into Tire Derived Fuel. A growing number of tires are being recycled after they have reached the end of their useful lifespan.

Recycling tires is a tricky process, because tires are a hodgepodge of many different things:

A typical passenger tire contains 30 types of synthetic rubber, eight types of natural rubber, eight types of carbon black, steel cord, polyester, nylon, steel bead wire, silica and 40 different kinds of chemicals, waxes, oils and pigments. They typically contain 85% hydrocarbon, 10-15% iron (in the bead wire and steel belts) and a variety of chemical components.

Discarded tires are mostly inert, but their effects on the environment are largely unknown. When discarded in landfills, they pose a significant fire risk and they take up a lot of space. Even before they reach the landfill, a lot of tire rubber flakes off into the environment from normal wear and tear. The effects of this worn tire rubber haven’t been widely studied.

Old tires are a cheap and plentiful resource, so many different ideas have been proposed to put old tyres to practical use. In the 1970’s, several attempts were made to build artificial reefs out of discarded tyres. Those plans didn’t work out very well, because chemicals in the tires repelled marine life. Now, millions of tires are rolling around on the ocean floor and even causing damage to natural coral reefs.

More recently, tire recycling companies stepped in and found commercial uses for tire scraps. More than 80% of dead tires end up getting turned into Tyre Derived Fuel. When tires are burned along with coal and wood scraps, they can actually reduce emissions of some pollutants.

There are other uses for recycled tires – they’re used as an ingredient in road construction, as a replacement for pavement, to make rubber flooring, and as artificial mulch. A blend of liquid asphalt and “Fine Grind” tire rubber lasts about 25% longer than other road surfaces, which cuts down on maintenance costs for highways nationwide. Crumb rubber is also widely used on running tracks and playgrounds for children. It provides excellent cushioning and prevents injuries for children and adults alike. Rubber chips are also offered as mulch.

Rubber mulch is a controversial product. Some gardeners swear by it as a long lasting weed suppressant and low maintenance landscape surface. Other gardeners steer clear of rubber mulch, due to concerns about chemical leaching, fire hazards, and smell.

Here are some of the benefits of using rubber mulch instead of wood mulch:

  • More durable (rubber lasts 5+ years vs 1-2 years for wood mulch)
  • Uniform look and color
  • Does not attract termites or other insects
  • No risk of mold or fungus infestation
  • No effect on wood allergies
  • Resistant to flooding and high winds
  • Cushy and comfortable to walk on
  • Helps dispose of used tires
  • Here are some of the problems with rubber mulch:

  • Some brands contain metal wire or nylon scraps
  • Smells like rubber, especially on hot or humid days
  • Potentially flammable (but so is wood mulch)
  • Risk of chemical contamination
  • Breaks down into inorganic components
  • Heats unevenly in the sun, killing sensitive roots
  • May contain carcinogens
  • The jury’s still out, but recycled rubber mulch seems safe to use in certain applications. What do you think? Do you have any experience using rubber mulch in your garden or greenhouse?

    Here’s another way you might want to consider to recycle old tires – they make great insulation for earth friendly homes. Crumb rubber also shows promise as a water filtering medium. In Arizona, state law makers are exploring another way to dispose of old tires: filling abandoned mine shafts to eliminate dangerous pitfalls. A few million years from now, who knows – those mine shafts might fill up with black gold!

    tires-oil-derrick-and-solar-panesl-road-dog-fl
    Photo courtesy of Road Dog

    What the heck is aquaponics?

    1008662887_08245fea75
    Photo courtesy of AIDG

    If you hang out with gardening hippies, you may hear the term “aquaponics” thrown around. So, what the heck does it mean?

    Aquaponics is a gardening technique designed to maximize water efficiency and minimize the need for fertilizers. The technique involves farming and raising fish in an integrated system, where fish produce natural fertilizer while plants filter and oxygenate the water. A well designed aquaponic system requires minimal supervision and creates two desirable crops – fresh herbs and fish. The components of the system produce synergy: fish and plants grow more efficiently together than they would in separate tanks.

    …when the aquaponic system is fully operational after six months, it leaps ahead of inorganic hydroponics. This leads to earlier maturity of greenhouse crops under aquaponics and much heavier cropping.

    Aquaponics is a portmanteau of the words Aquaculture and Hydroponics. It gets improved results due to the symbiotic behavior of several living organisms. The plants and fish complement each other, but a lot of the productivity depends on integrating bacteria and microorganisms in the system. Bacteria convert fish waste into useful nutrients for the plants, and phytoplankton produce food for the fish.

    Aquaponics is an old concept – the ancient Aztecs and Egyptians used the technique with various plant and fish species. In China and Thailand, it’s traditional to raise fish in flooded rice paddies. Since the 1970’s, several universities have been developing modern techniques and applying scientific method to get the greatest performance.

    Compared to conventional agriculture, aquaponics is a huge water saver. On a farm in Oklahoma, it takes 6 gallons of water to grow a head of lettuce. At 24 heads per case, that means raising 1,250 cases of lettuce using conventional methods would require 180,000 gallons of water. A DeepWater aquaponic system uses about 16.1% as much water to create the same results (and it generates more than 3,600 pounds of fish fillets and 7,400 pounds of fish scraps for use as fish feed or fertilizer).

    Here’s some more information on aquaponic water efficiency, comparing aquaponics to hydroponics and conventional farming techniques:

    Estimated total value of output is then A$405,000 ($305,491 USD) — which represents water use efficiency of around 173 liters/A$100 of production.

    This compares very favorably with the Australian commercial hydroponics figure of 600 liters of water used per A$100 of production.

    There are many different aquaponic systems, but two major schools have emerged. These two approaches look very different, and each is best for certain crops or locations. These competing systems are Deep Water Aquaponics and Reciprocating Aquaponics. The primary difference is where the plants are positioned. In Deep Water Aquaponics, plants float on top of a pond of water (usually inside styrofoam rafts with holes for their roots). In Reciprocating Aquaponic systems, the plants are outside the pond and water is carried to their roots along irrigation tubes.

    aquaponics-2829775810_39e6fef787
    Photo courtesy of Aria Fotografia at Flickr.com

  • Deep Water Aquaponics
  • Deep Water Aquaponics is also known as Raft Culture Hydroponics or “the UVI system”. One of the main proponents of this type of hydroponics is Dr. James Rakocy of the University of the Virgin Islands. He offers training courses and maintains an aquaponic demonstration facility with 15 full scale systems that have been in continuous operation for several years. The system is very productive and water efficient:

    UVI’s aquaponics system, which occupies an eighth of an acre and uses 29,000 gallons of water, can produce annually 11,000 pounds of tilapia and 11,000 pounds of basil or 1,250 cases of lettuce.

    Here’s a cool photo-tour of the UVI system. Note – the fish are grown in separate tanks to prevent them from eating the roots of crop plants.

  • Reciprocating Aquaponics
  • Reciprocating Aquaponics is also known as “Flood and Drain” or “Ebb and Flow”. This system uses gravel or sand beds to filter water from fish tanks, and then irrigates plant beds using irrigation pipes (or positions plant roots inside the irrigation pipes). The result is a system with more control over temperature and humidity. Some plants that don’t do well in hydroponic systems thrive in these conditions, because their roots are protected against rotting. Biofiltration beds also allow more microbial activity in a smaller area, which is important when space is limited. On the flip side, the filtering media will get clogged over time, and cleaning it is hard work.

    This type of aquaponic system was developed by Mark McMurtry and many other pioneers. Several different ebb and flow systems have been built since the mid 1980’s.

    If you’re looking for a cool way to renovate the pool in your back yard, or if you want to do more with the rain water in your rainbarrels, there’s no time like the present to check out an aquaponic system.

    aquaponics-2552598398_02192ce095
    Photo courtesy of ideonexus at Flickr.com