Toronto Star column – published March 21, 2015
Contribute to Community Well Being
Congratulations. You made it through winter. It doesn’t matter how you did it, just that you did. And as your shoulders begin to relax and you re-learn how to breathe deeply, taking in the scents of warming soil, it is time to enjoy the awakening of the community around you.
Yesterday was the first day of spring.
Have a look out the window as you read this and you will find, without too much effort I hope, signs that Mother Nature is ready to rock-and-roll. Tree buds are swelling, snow is gone from all but the north side of the buildings and there are gentle reminders here and there that dog droppings do not smell very good when they thaw out.
What a great time of year to consider this important question: what can you do to make your world a better place, beginning in your backyard?
I ask you this today as we are really on the cusp of a new year. The previous three months were just a sleepy time when we were dreaming about the year ahead: today marks the official awakening of the growing season and, therefore, life itself. It is called spring for a reason you know: this is when all gardeners spring into action and finally get back to work.
Whether you define yourself as a gardener or not I hope that you find my suggestions below helpful: these are my top four suggestions for making your yard, which is an integral part of the community around you, an environmentally better place for all:
1. Hang your laundry. Every Canadian uses an average of about 100 kilowatt hours of energy drying clothes in the clothes dryer, annually. Your clothes dryer uses as much power as 225 lightbulbs. In total, for all Canadians, this is roughly equivalent to 3 coal-fired power plants’ output per year. And to think that the answer to this excess is just blowing in the wind…! It is important to note that you can save up to $250 a year by drying your clothes out of doors.
Hills Clotheslines, the makers of a state-of-the-art clothes line available at Home Hardware, remind us that outdoor clothes drying not only saves you money and the world energy, but it is better for your clothes, too. Here are some clothes drying tips:
a. Hang your clothes inside out to preserve the colour.
b. The sun provides its own ‘natural bleach’ for a stain such as tomato.
c. Air drying can reduce wrinkles in your clothes. Hang sheets with the crease naturally in the fold over the line itself.
d. Air drying reduces static cling. I hate static cling.
e. To state the obvious, air drying is free. I know, I know. We take so much for granted. Like the CN tower, which I never visit until some out-of-town guests arrive [there is a great breeze up there: what a perfect place to hang laundry!].
f. If your clothes become stiff while hanging in the breeze add ½ cup of vinegar per load to soften them up.
g. Consider the therapy of clothesline hanging: the act of putting out the laundry on a beautiful sunny day, the smell of fresh air when you pull on a line-dried tee and the appearance of laundry gently flapping in the breeze. Anyone who enjoys sailing a boat understands.
Don’t let the nay-sayers get you down. The people who object to the appearance of hung laundry are the same people who think that vegetables should not be grown in the front yard and that feeding songbirds drags down their property values. Chances are, they are not doing yoga out there either [but then, neither am I].
2. Buy a rake. This suggestion is a not so subtle way of saying that you should definitely not buy a gas powered leaf blower. And if you have one, ignore it and let it hang in the garage until it rots. Giving it away means that someone else might use it and that would defeat the purpose. Two-cycle leaf blowers are the bane of our urban and suburban existence.
Nice, well-meaning people morph into grouchy old men and women when a neighbour’s leaf blower fires up. Have you ever noticed that people who use these usually wear ear protection? But, as they approach other people, they never shut them off? That is unless they are finished blowing dust and debris all over the neighbourhood. No, they continue on with their business, deep in thought about anything but the environmental and societal damage that they are causing from the other end of the blower.
I am not just against leaf blowers: I passionately, desperately, constantly find the idea of them objectionable.
If everyone who uses a leaf blower instead used a fan rake [on the lawn] or a broom [on hard surfaces], imagine… just take this moment to imagine how much quieter our neighbourhoods would be. And how much more satisfying yard cleaning could be for the workers.
3. Add Water and Don’t Stir.
Think of your yard as one patch in a patchwork of yards around your neighbourhood. And think of the patchwork of yards as part of a bigger whole that includes public parks, soccer fields and all other public green spaces. Got the snap shot in your mind? Now think of the positive impact that you can have in the sustainable bio activity in your neighbourhood by adding water to your landscape.
Environmentally speaking, still water [vs. a waterfall or fountain] provides more benefits to the ecology of your outdoor space than any single addition that you can make. And all it takes is a half barrel of water and a few floating water-lettuce or water hyacinths. A ground level pond is better still, where toads and frogs can play, drink, mate and live. Add dragon flies, salamanders, newts, toads and a myriad of small ground-dwelling creatures and you have a veritable zoo of biodiversity, all quite happy that you have provided an open bar of fresh water, 24/7.
Note that mosquitoes breed in still water. You can overcome this ‘problem’ by adding a few cheap golf fish who love to chow down on mosquito larvae.
4. Plant natives. As you plan your garden for this upcoming season, be sure to add some native plants to your mix. They are insect and disease free, for the most part, and they attract all kinds of pollinating insects, birds, and butterflies.
There are many perennial flowering plants that are very winter hardy and flower for a long period of time each spring and summer. Some of my favourites include bee balm [Monarda spp.], purple coneflower [Echinacea spp.], Canadian ginger [Asarum canadense] and Joe Pye weed [Eupatorium spp.] For more detail check out my new book, available here at the Star at www.??? titled ‘The New Urban Gardener’ [Jane: thought I would throw this in… is it appropriate? Title? ]
There is more that you can do if you wish to add to the environmental benefits of living in a neighbourhood. You can trade your gas-powered lawn mower for one of the new light weight, walk behind, manual reel-type mowers. They are improving the quality of these ‘machines’ every year and, when you use it at 6 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, your neighbour [who just fired up the bbq and poured a beer] won’t hate you for it.
Perhaps you have other ideas on the subject. If you do, I would love to hear from you. You can reach me through the ‘Contact Us’ link at www.markcullen.com I will respond to you just as soon as I get the laundry hung out to dry.