Archive for the ‘Waste’ Category

Healthy Yards

In an online discussion held in a course at SAIT for the Environmental Technology program (ENVS470 – Advanced Environmental Considerations) someone asked if we’d all got our free rain barrels from the City of Calgary yet.  “The City does not give rain barrels away,” I retorted.  “They cost up to $80 outside the sale in May.”  Turns out I was wrong about that.  “You have to sign up for the Healthy Yards program,” I was told.  So I looked in to it, and signed up right away.

I expected to have to wait until 2012 to get my equipment, as the student said she had signed up too late last year to get hers, so she gets it this year.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I got an email informing me that I’d been accepted to the program for this year and would get my equipment soon.  This all happened in mid-May.  I now have got my rain barrel and composter, and am eager to get everything going.

Now some background.  The City of Calgary Healthy Yards program is a two-year commitment on the part of the participant, with some very simple requirements that are very easy to comply with.  While it is free to participate, there is a limit of 200 participants per year – hence the waiting list described above.  As mentioned, participants receive a complementary rain barrel and composter, as well as a DVD with videos demonstrating and explaining how to use this equipment and

  • how to use a mulching mower,
  • how to select and plant water-wise alternatives for Calgary’s unique climate, and
  • responsible pest management.

The basic requirements of the program are (if I’ve missed something, please let me know!)

  • use the provided equipment,
  • practice grass-cycling,
  • use a push-mower, or at most a 4-stroke gas mower,
  • limit or eliminate pesticide and artificial fertilizer use.

These are all pretty simple.  The Healthy Yards Orientation will provide you with more information about how to compost, how to use your rain barrel, how to grass-cycle, and much more.

One part of growing a healthy garden is to have the right soil.  Soil is described, at least in part, by its texture, and one of the easiest ways to determine this is to use the jar test.  Soil textures are often described by terms such as “clay,” “clay loam,” “sandy clay loam,” and so on.  The Healthy Yards program encourages participants to determine their own soil texture using the jar test.  It is not difficult – in fact, it is probably the easiest (and cheapest) way to do it.  Native soils in Calgary are generally clayey and require amendments such as peat, compost, vermiculite, et cetera, to become more workable.  Unfortunately, the process of developing a good, healthy, organic soil base can take several years of careful attention.

The funny thing is that I learned all about the jar test, as well as a couple other soil classification methods such as sieve analysis, in the laboratory component of my course in Sampling and Analysis at SAIT.  The basic idea with the jar test (Procedure: Jar test for determining soil type) is to collect a representative soil sample from your garden, place it in a jar (such as a mayonnaise jar), fill to about 3/4 with water, add some borax or non-foaming dishwasher detergent, seal the jar, shake vigorously for about 10-15 minutes, and then let the jar sit for 2-4 days.  The different components of the soil will separate at different rates based on particle diameter and density (Stokes’ law), so that coarser materials will settle first and clayey particles will settle on the surface.  By measuring the thickness of each layer (differentiate them by colour) and comparing it with the thickness of the entire soil column you can determine the percentage composition of sand, silt, and clay.  Then refer to the soil texture triangle to classify it.  (Apparently the Canadian system uses only clay and sand proportions to classify.  The link provided goes to the more familiar US version.)

Anyway, the point is that the Healthy Yards program is cool, easy, and inexpensive.  There is no reason you shouldn’t get going with it yourself!


Calgary River Pathway Cleanup 2011

Today I took part in my first ever Calgary River Pathway Cleanup.  While I live closer to Crowfoot Station than either the Bow or Elbow Rivers, I’ve wanted to participate for years but always just miss it, or forgot to sign up.  This time around I found a sign while walking along the pathway in Inglewood and signed up on the spot (smart phones are great!).  Of course, I say “I” like it was just me, but I roped two friends into it as well.  Turns out the Inglewood cleanup crew is one of the largest groups that participates in the cleanup.

My friends and I worked with a group cleaning along the shoreline from the Cushing Bridge south to the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.  Within the first few steps onto the rip-rap by the stormwater outfall  under the bridge I found a syringe for a needle.  Happily that was the only one I saw, and I think one of only a very few found.  Other items of note include a dead mouse, two Bic lighters, and a condom.  My garbage bag was not very full by the time we finished, though it was getting heavier.  A lot of styrofoam pieces were found along the river bank, as well as several pieces of waterlogged fibreglass insulation.

One nice thing was the barbeque social at the community hall afterwards.  Spolumbo’s Fine Foods, M&M Meat Shops, and Wild Rose Brewery all contributed food and beverages for the event.  At least a dozen other community businesses contributed door prizes (which included $100 gift cards for Star Building Materials, Starbucks gift bags, a boogie board for the kids, and much more).

The weather turned out to be absolutely fantastic, considering that it was originally forcast to snow.  I just wish that I’d taken some pictures to post.  (And no, I’m not a stooge for business.  I just think that it’s so awesome that they contributed for such an awesome event that they deserve the potential of some traffic from me.)

Gardening Season Approaches

I am excited.  Classes are nearly finished, and gardening season is fast approaching.  The only thing that would make it better would be having a job lined up for when I graduate.

Anyway, there are some events coming up for those into gardening, both of which I will  be writing about here as they happen.

  • All About Seeds
    Friday February 25, 2011
    19:00 @ the Unitarian Church of Calgary
  • Seedy Saturday
    Saturday March 19, 2011
    10:00-15:00 @ Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Centre
  • Garden Show
    Saturday April 9, 2011 – Sunday April 10, 2011
    Spruce Meadows

So why am I excited about gardening season?  Well, for one thing, gardening is fun and interesting.  But I am also very excited  because, for the first time ever, I am planning  to try growing some grain crops.  Between the All About Seeds evening and Seedy Saturday, as well as the resources available on the intertubes, I feel confident that I will be able to learn enough of the basics to be able to grow and collect enough grain to plant next year, and hopefully also make a small amount of flour.  I’m planning at the very least to plant some wheat, but would also like to plant some quinoa and perhaps barley.  Couple all that with growing smaller items such as carrots, garlic, onions, and asparagus, as well as starting a rain barrel and continuing with worm composting, and it should be a fun and exciting season!  I do plan keep you all posted on here as things progress and as I learn more, so stay tuned.

Sustainable Gardening in Calgary

Tonight I went to a seminar on sustainable gardening in Calgary, presented by Rob Avis of Verge Permaculture.  I was a little leery at first, because The last event I went to on urban farming was more woo than gardening, talking about such silliness as biodynamic agriculture (if you pack cow manure into a cow horn and bury it for a year, it will become stronger and more powerful – sounds more related to homeopathic nonsense than gardening).  Turns out that I needn’t have worried: this was a presentation more about sustainable (or rather, regenerative) urban farming, rather than woo and supernatural forces.

The event was hosted by the Unitarian Church of Calgary, and was sponsored by the Calgary Horticultural Society.  There are several more events coming up, which I plan to blog about as well (see the list at the end of this post), including movie presentations, guest speakers, and seed exchanges.

The church sanctuary seats about 150 people and about three-quarters full at 19:05 – it really is nice to see so much interest in sustainable living.  The Unitarian Church of Calgary has been in partnership for several years with the Calgary Horticultural Society through its Green Sanctuary committee, hosting several “green” events per year.

Rob started out with a definition of sustainability along the lines of maintaining the status quo.  It’s not quite what we’ve been discussing in my environmental technology program, but in this context it makes sense.  The key is to recognize that in this context, sustainability means that we can keep doing what we are doing, with no real change occurring.  What we really need is to regenerate what has been destroyed.  In order to attain this, we need to develop very efficient agriculture.  Rob Avis sees this taking the form of urban farming.  After all, before WWI a majority of food was grown at home.

I learned that Brad Lancaster in Tucson, Arizona has created a permaculture in the desert, operating successfully on the very limited amount of rainwater that falls in the region.  He essentially initiated the transformation of one of the “worst” neighbourhoods in the city into one of the most desireable.

I also learned that graywater systems are illegal in Alberta, and in Canada as a whole.  Graywater is water that has been used for things such as bathing, dish washing, or laundry.  This water is considered by the Government to be waste water, unfit for further use, which is absurd in itself, and so is disposed of with sewage (known as blackwater).  Using dish water to water one’s vegetable garden is perfectly safe, so long as appropriate detergents are used (no phosphates, perfumes, or other toxic substances).  Check out your local green store for more information and for recommendations.  Using bath water and laundry water is a little  more difficult and requires more work, but is not impossible – many have, and many more will.

There were a few more points discussed, but I can’t really remember all the details (and I’m not really good at live-blogging… yet).  For a bit more information, Rob and a couple others in the audience recommend the book Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, as well as the documentary Natural World: Farm for the Future (50 min), available on GoogleVideos.  I am simply passing the information along – I have not (yet) read the book or seen the video.

Upcoming Events

  • Friday February 11 (7 PM): Dirt! The Movie
    At the Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1 Street NW
  • Friday February 25 (7-9 PM): All About Seeds
    At the Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1 Street NW
    Learn everything there is to know about seeds from catalogues, seed packets, seeding techniques, and more.
    $10 in advance or at the door, but pre-registration is advised
  • Friday March 18 (7 PM): Catching Rain: Harvesting Hope One Drop at a Time
    At the Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1 Street NW
    A documentary by Dax Xenis of a grass-roots assistance project in Uganda.
  • Saturday March 19: Seedy Saturday
    At Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Centre
    Calgary Horticultural Society Seed Exchange and Workshops
  • Friday April 15 (7 PM): You Never Bike Alone
    At the Unitarian Church of Calgary, 1703 1 Street NW
    A Vancouver documentary production, describing critical mass rides and their effect on driver attitudes, freaky bike rides, and the world naked bike ride.

(Note: I am not a member of the Unitarian Church of Calgary and do not presume to promote or otherwise endorse the Church.  The events listed above simply lie within the union of my interests and all scheduled events.)

No Facebook, No Problem

No Facebook!

Just say NO to Facebook!

Every now and then I find people coming to this blog using search strings such as “no to facebook” or “no facebook”, so I thought I would write something about it.

At this point I am resisting Facebook on principle.  I have not succumbed to the great pressure from friends and family wondering “Why are you not on Facebook?”, and I’m not about to bow to such pressure now.  I also just don’t see the need to have my life available to everyone in one place.  Not everyone needs to know about some party I just had or went to and any shenanigans that (may or may not have) happened.  Of course, such problems can be avoided with limited profile management and self-censorship, but why open up yet another online presence to manage in the first place?

I just recently got a new cell phone – the HTC Desire Z.  I love it.  It comes complete with a Facebook app and widget, but it also is intimately interlinked with Google (seeing as they produce the Android operating system the phone runs on).  So, I’ve decided to get a Google account and use the infrastructure that is there.  I have a Google Calendar that I use (though it’s mostly filled with classes through the end of April 2011), but for personal security reasons it is not public.  Email, either from my home account or Gmail, gets pushed to my phone almost instantly.  I can edit my Calendar from my phone, on the go.  I can send SMS messages, make phone calls, and much more.  For my professional life, I’m available on LinkedIn.  I’m about as connected as I want to be, and I don’t need or want another platform to look after and maintain.

If you have similar ideas of the Facebook phenomenon, please feel free to leave a comment below.  Or maybe you think you can convince me to play the game.  I’ll welcome all sides of the argument.

The Worms Have Arrived!

Worms Eat My GarbageFinally!  The worms have arrived!

I know there are a few out there who have seen my Vermicompost page.  Well, I’ve finally got the worms to get the system going.  I went today to pick up a half-pound of worms for $35 from Worms @ Work here in Calgary.  Right now I’m just letting them get acquainted in their new home.

I have to admit that there is a certain ick factor associated with the worms, but I know they’re not really that bad.  It will just take some time and handling to get used to them.

For this initial go-round I’ve used hand-shredded newspaper and some hand-shredded corrugated cardboard for bedding.  The instructions that came with the worms suggest feeding only two cups of food waste at a time, so I’ll start with that.  I have a bunch of food scraps frozen from before, so want to use that up before doing too much more.  Of course, we will now be freezing our scraps again.  Can’t starve the worms, and I really want to have some great top-dressing and fertilizer for planting in May-June.

Stay tuned as I provide more updates.  Pictures are forthcoming (unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of the worms after placing them in the bin, but I will make sure to take pictures in the future).

Of Bulbs and Batteries

Okay, so we’ve all done this before. You change your fluorescent light and wonder what to do with the dead one. Same thing with batteries. The last thing you should do with either is put them in the garbage to go to the landfill. Fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, and we get more than enough of that from the fish we eat (and in some places, the water we drink). Alkaline batteries may seem harmless, but they are filled with a dry chemical mixture designed to produce electrical potential energy (usually 1.5 volts). Just because the bulbs or batteries have been depleted does not mean they are harmless.

Fortunately, there are safe ways to dispose of such toxic tihngs.  I recently learned that Ikea accepts both batteries and fluorescent bulbs for recycling.  So even if you don’t normally go to Ikea, you can take your used bulbs and dead batteries in.  Have a look around.  They have some great product.  While you’re at it, pledge to switch to rechargeable batteries to power your portable electronic devices.  Staples and Home Depot also accept batteries for recycling.

By the way, lead-acid (car) batteries should never ever be put in the landfill.  Always contact your local repair shop for proper disposal,  or (in Calgary at least) you can take them to your local fire department handling household hazardous waste.

For more information about batteries and battery-disposal, take a look at Calgary Fasteners & Tools Ltd.  Granted, this applies mostly to the batteries used in power tools, but they are hazardous and should also not be put in landfill.