Tag: environment

 Garden Irrigation Project

In late April, we had a pretty impressive hailstorm, which led to us getting a new roof and new gutters. The timing was somewhat fortunate, however, since I had already started putting together a system for catching rainwater that we could use on our garden. I found a 300-gallon plastic tote on Craigslist for $100, and had the gutter company reroute the gutters on the back of the house and combined three downspouts into one that drains into the tank. I really had no idea how long it would take to fill up, and I was astonished at our first hard rain when it took less than an hour for it to fill to overflowing. Now I wish I had bought more than one.

The next phase was intended to avoid the hassle of dragging a hose out to the garden to water it everyday. So instead I buried a “perma-hose” consisting of one hundred feet of 3/4″ PVC pipe from the house to the garden, with splitters on both ends. At the house, short pieces of hose connect both the rain tank and the faucet, so we can easily switch between them depending on whether or not the rain tank is empty. At the other end, another splitter means we can leave the soaker hose in the garden attached all the time, and still have an open faucet for watering our other plants. Because our yard slopes away from the house, the garden is about six feet below the level of the tank, so we have a pretty good head of pressure — not bad for only being gravity-fed.

Stay tuned for the final phase, which is to hook up a 55-gallon rain barrel on the upper patio that we can use to water our herb garden and some other potted plants.

 Home Cheep Home

In the middle of our other spring project, the timing was right to get our new pets, but that started the six-week clock for building them a place to live. Because, trust me, you do not want these critters living in your basement permanently. Noah helped me start the framing, and after a full weekend of work, we had the beginnings of a coop. After that, the weather stopped cooperating for a while, so it took a couple of weeks to get back to it. In the meantime, I stumbled across a ridge vent at Lowe’s on clearance for $2 that seems to work pretty good on top. I guess we’ll have to wait for summer to find out if it does a good job of keeping things cool inside.
My design was roughly based on the Catawba Coops design, with some modifications to increase the interior space. It’s also a foot wider at the base. Beware of these design changes, however! You will wind up with a portable coop that isn’t really all that portable — I think ours weighs about 150 pounds. I also got inspiration from the many designs available on Backyard Chickens. Ours combines features from several different ones.
After another full weekend, we were almost done with construction. One exterior wall and the roof got a coat of primer and two coats of exterior paint, while all of the other exposed wood got a couple of thin coats of Thompson’s Water Seal. I also sealed the edges of all the boards with silicone caulk. We ended up taking the fancy waterer back and just ordering some poultry nipples on Amazon and making our own from a couple of plastic juice bottles.
Now for some lessons learned. If you go with a design that involves a ramp, make sure it is no steeper than 45 degrees, and you will want rungs attached to the ramp every three inches, or your pullets will find it difficult to climb. My initial plan involved a removable wall made from a single sheet of half-inch plywood. After the first rain, however, this board warped pretty badly, so I ended up scrapping that and replacing it with hinged panels (patent pending) and some foam weatherstripping to keep the rain out. These have performed flawlessly so far. The most expensive material by far is the wire mesh (which is actually half-inch hardware cloth), but as we have learned from reading up on the subject, chicken wire only keeps chickens in, it doesn’t keep predators out. Another indispensable design item is the “poop tray” which is essentially a litter box filled with Sweet PDZ that completely eliminates the odor and makes collecting the droppings for your compost quick and painless.
We are lucky to have the OK Hatchery nearby for our chicks, feed, and other supplies, and as they have told us, “you chicken people are taking over the world!” Now we are just looking forward to gathering eggs! Stay tuned for pictures of our first omelets!

 Landscaping Project

This has been a busy spring. Thanks to warmer than average temperatures in February, we got a jump on our normal outdoor activities and started a couple of projects. The first was a little landscaping of the front yard, which involved giving the existing flower beds a facelift with the addition of a retaining wall. Now that the project is done, I wanted to offer a bit of advice to anyone planning something like this. If you choose to do it yourself, and not hire it done, the single most difficult task is properly estimating the amount of materials you will need. My initial estimates of the amount of bricks and top soil that I would need were off by a factor of two. So while the $60 delivery fee that Lowe’s charges is completely reasonable, to have tons of material delivered right to your driveway, it can quickly bust your budget when multiple deliveries are necessary (three in my case). As a reference, our retaining wall had about 65 linear feet, which is easy enough to compute, but it’s almost impossible to know in advance (without a landscaper’s years of experience) how many courses of bricks you will need to match the undulating topography of your yard and end up with something approaching a level wall. For ours, it took 220 bricks. That also equated to 180 40-pound bags of topsoil to fill in the space behind it.

Before and after shots

 Our New Pets

We have welcomed four new pets into our home. Here’s a short video of them. Be warned: this video contains weapons-grade cute.

 I Bought A Cow

I challenge anyone to watch the documentary Food, Inc. and not be influenced to make at least a few changes in the way you eat. More than likely, you’ll change a lot. You’ll look at that half-pound chicken breast and wonder if the chicken was still able to walk, supporting its unnatural weight. You’ll wonder what dose of antibiotics you’re receiving in that burger you just ate. Most importantly, you’ll wonder if cheap food really is the blessing we all assume it to be, when you take into account the hidden costs associated with eating it.

And you may even go off the deep end, like we have, and buy your own cow. Actually, it’s only half of a cow, and it’s in our freezer. But it was raised eating grass on a Missouri pasture not too far from here, it was slaughtered on June 4, dry-aged, vacuum-wrapped, frozen, and delivered to our door today. We figure it will last us about a year and it cost less than five dollars a pound.

Without wading into the debate about so-called “happy meat” and whether it even exists, I’ll just say that the fact that grass-fed beef is healthier for you than grain-fed beef is enough by itself to justifiy the decision. And I believe this method of raising livestock is more sustainable, so there are environmental benefits as well. It may end up costing us more in the long run, but maybe that’s what beef is supposed to cost?

 I Speak For The Trees

[continued from Part 1]

After meeting with the contractor that Ameren dispatched to walk my property line and mark trees, he invited me to walk the line with him. I was glad I did. Not only did this give me an opportunity to recalibrate his understanding of easements, but it gave him a chance to come clean and admit that he had already marked a half dozen of my trees with orange spray paint — designating them for removal! These trees were nowhere near the easement, but he said that they look for trees that will become a problem in the next few years and remove them as a preventative measure. He was very reasonable, and agreed to cover up the paint so that Nelson Tree Service would not touch them. (If it were only that easy!)

In my second letter to Ray Wiesehan, I recounted all of this and included photographs of the trees that had been painted. I concluded by telling him:

I very much appreciate your time and attention in coordinating with me prior to the trimming activity. However, it will have all been a waste of time if this information is not communicated to the Nelson Tree Service crew who actually performs the work. I have erected four Private Property signs along my property line to aid the crew in determining where they are allowed to cut. I have done everything I can reasonably do to protect my property. Now it is my expectation that you will do the same.

It quickly became apparent that all of my work had been for naught. Despite my due diligence, there had been no coordination whatsoever on Ameren’s part. The showdown I had hoped to avoid occurred May 5, when Nelson Tree Service showed up with their Super-Axe-Hackers, ready to fell my beloved Truffula Trees. I explained the situation to their supervisor, Randy Jennings, and he was also a very reasonable gentleman, but his complete lack of concern for where his crew was cutting left me quite dismayed. I asked him if anyone had talked to him with regard to my property, or if he even had a map of the property lines. The answer, of course, was no, and obviously, without a map, easements have no meaning.

The irony is that Ameren’s own web site says, “Ameren may have to remove trees that we deem a high risk to electrical service … A contractor from Ameren will notify the homeowner regarding the need for removal.” This is nonsense. It is painfully clear that even if a homeowner goes out of her way to demand this kind of interaction, it probably won’t happen. No, the only way to protect your trees from Ameren’s hired vandals is to camp out in your yard and be ready to speak on their behalf.

 I Am The Lorax

I am not a fan of Ameren. Ever since I spent seven days without electricity in the throes of a St. Louis summer, there is very little that company can do to find favor with me. I’m sure I’m not alone. That incident in July 2006, where a half million residents lost power for days following some severe storms, actually gave Ameren enough of a black eye that they started to at least pretend that they cared about their customers. In response to the public outcry, Ameren launched an initiative to make their service more reliable. What they actually launched was a War on Trees.

I’ve always been a fan of trees. Spending your entire childhood right next to the woods surrounding a creek will do that to you. The value of a tree is difficult to quantify when you consider all of its benefits. Beyond the sheer beauty, there are the obvious environmental benefits, not to mention the financial benefits of a shade tree that makes your air conditioner more efficient. In our current house, I’ve discovered that the abatement of noise and visual nuisances is one of a tree’s most valuable functions. I’ve also discovered that unless you are willing to speak in defense of your trees, you are likely to lose them to people who do not care.

So let’s ignore for the moment that Ameren is a monopoly that acts as an agent of the government (which by itself is plenty of reason to despise them), and focus on just the impenetrable bureaucracy of a public utility. In March I received a notice in the mail from Ameren that they were once again beginning their quadrennial assault on our arboreal assets. In response, I fired off a letter to Ray Weisehan, “Onceler” of Vegetation Management, asking that he direct his chainsaw mercenaries (Nelson Tree Service) to carefully consult their maps before setting foot on my property so that they would know which trees were in the Ameren easement, and which trees to leave alone.

To my surprise, Ameren actually responded by dispatching a Jared Rielson from the Utilimap Corporation to walk my property line and mark the trees that should be targeted. One might expect that a contractor from a company called Utilimap would have consulted an actual map before performing his duties. One would be wrong. It also came as a surprise when I told him that Ameren’s easement extended a mere five feet on either side of their electrical lines, and not the ten feet that he had been led to believe. But the last surprise was on me when we finally walked the property together…

[continued in Part 2]

 Stop Draggin’ My Car Around

Last year I wrote about the state of the electric car market, so I wanted to revisit the topic and provide an update. I’m still planning to buy an electric car one day, so this is something I have been following pretty closely for years now. I previously wrote about how GM started advertising its electric hybrids in 1969, and given that a New York City taxi driver was jailed for speeding in his electric car in 1899, I think it’s important to note that electric cars are not a new technology by any means. Cars that run on batteries are as old as cars themselves. So, as I lamented last year, what is taking so long?

Well, the good news is if you live in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas or Washington, you can buy an all-electric Nissan Leaf today. Likewise, Chevy’s plug-in hybrid, the Volt, is available now (in somewhat limited numbers).

The bad news? Standby for sticker shock. These cars start in the mid-30s, with some variants topping $50K. And let’s not even talk about the Tesla Roadster‘s price tag of $100K each. I suppose if enough buy them, the prices on these unique vehicles will eventually come down. But I’m tired of waiting. Come on people, go out there and buy some electric cars, so I can afford one!

 Garden 2.0

expanded gardenLast year’s garden was a big success, but it didn’t take us long to realize that it wasn’t big enough to produce all of the food we wanted. So we started this season by expanding it to twice the size. Photos from the construction are available in my album. Our success with the garden last year has also led us to expand the number of crops as well. I have the utmost confidence in Farmer Dixie, and look forward to more bountiful harvests.

 The Principled Dr. Seuss

I did not read much Dr. Seuss as a child, so it has only been since I’ve had children of my own that I’ve really been exposed to his stories. I am both pleased and surprised to see that, concealed within the fanciful illustrations and anapestic tetrameter, he covers some pretty heady subject matter. Beyond the playful mischief of The Cat in the Hat, Seuss delves into topics such as equality, racism, and the environment. And I appreciate that these are powerful tools for teaching these concepts to children.

But for me, Yertle the Turtle carries the most powerful message of them all — that sometimes those in positions of authority go too far, and the importance of the individual in overthrowing a government. Some may disagree and say that I’m reading too much into the story of a megalomaniacal King Yertle who forces his subjects to use their own bodies to elevate his throne and the lowly turtle named Mack at the bottom of the stack who has the courage to question the king’s authority to do so. Whether Yertle’s action are supposed to symbolize absolute despotism, or simply the evils of taxation, the result is the same: his government is oppressive and unjust. Whether Mack’s actions are supposed to symbolize civil disobedience, or inciting a full-blown revolution, the outcome is the same: his government is toppled and his fellow turtles are set free to live their lives as they see fit. The moral of this story is clear to the kid reading it (or having it read to them): Yertle bad, Mack good.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely want to raise my children to be Macks instead of Yertles.

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