Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lasagna Time!

Do you ever say to yourself, “If I had all the money in the world, I’d hire a landscaper to come turn that part of my lawn in to a real garden?” OK, maybe you don’t. But if you didn’t have to dig up all that grass and till the heck out of it, wouldn’t you like more garden space? If for no any other reason than it’s less grass to mow? Organic fruits and vegetables are expensive – new gardens are not. A little work now can open up your options this spring.

Last weekend, my husband and I were on our way to visit vineyards in Virginia. I was boring him to death by reading about the vineyards aloud until he gently told me he’d rather I didn’t. So I kept the next gem to myself. He, being the chief grass cutter and weed whacker on our estate, would have appreciated the Italian vineyards philosophy on the grounds surrounding your home.

The literature stated the vineyard was designed in keeping with the Italian tradition of everyone having their own groves, vineyards, and gardens at home utilizing all available outdoor space (OK, maybe they left room for a Bocce Ball court). They thought a “lawn” was a waste of natural resources (I’d have to agree). My husband came home from our visit cautiously considering putting in our own vines, and I arrived motivated to begin reclaiming our lawn for more productive purposes.

So first thing Monday morning I made a lasagna garden. I know I’ve written about lasagna gardens before, but just in case it didn’t have the life-changing impact it should have had, I’m going to refresh your memory.
A lasagna garden begins with any patch of ground. This ground can be an old garden, an underachieving garden, or an absolutely unadulterated lawn. I’m generally in favor of staking your claim on the useless lawn, but that’s just me.

After envisioning the size and shape of your garden, cover the desired area with a thick layer of newspaper. Yep, newspaper. Be sure to leave out the shiny colored circulars. It’s best if the newspaper you choose uses vegetable inks (the York Daily Record does). Try to choose a day when the wind is not whipping around. After you lay out the newspaper, wet it thoroughly and then begin your lasagna.

Lasagna consists of layers of “green” (compost, manure, grass clippings, basically anything rotting) and “brown” (leaves, straw, peat moss, mulch, pine needles, wood ash). Continue adding layers at your whim for a month or two and then leave the whole thing to “cook” over the winter. If it’s a dry fall, you may want to wet it occasionally to move the process along.

It may not look too pretty (until the first snow hides it), but by spring you’ll have rich wonderful soil, ready to garden. And you didn't have to lift a spade because you turned your lovely lawn in to compost for your new garden! If you want more detailed, technical directions, I highly recommend the book Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza. (buy it through the link below and you’ll make me 2 or 3 cents)

In my new lasagna garden this spring, I’ll add more blueberry bushes adjacent to our current blueberries – less hillside to mow and more blueberries to share with the birds (this year we’re going to buy a net….). I’m not finished adding lasagna gardens though, I’d love for this place to look like an Italian homestead.

I’m getting ready to harvest my fall peas and dig up the peanuts before setting the chickens loose to free range for the fall/winter (aerate the gardens and eat the pests – hopefully lots of stink bugs!). Maybe you’re getting ready to close up your gardens too, but before you do – don’t forget to start next year’s. October is time to plant your garlic, shallots, and spring onions. It’s also time to dream a little dream of all the wonders you can grow next year and get started on the lasagna.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Books, Books, Books, But Not A Moment To Read

This morning I spent some time considering walls. I’m looking for a spot for a new bookshelf. In my fantasy life, I’d have a library, but since I can’t kick any kids out of the house yet, there isn’t a room to spare. So a new bookshelf will have to do for now because the books are piling up. We have bookshelves in just about every room in our house, including two bathrooms (great place for a bookshelf, admit it!). My oldest son has an entire wall covered in bookshelves, and he has already filled it to overflowing.

I’m sure you’re imagining I’m a hoarder at this point. But I would argue that I don’t hoard anything (except maybe plants). I’m happy to get rid of things. Any book I won’t ever need again moves along out of my life. I keep the ones that still have things to teach me. The plethora of books on my shelves must mean I have much to learn.

There are just too many books in the world and I can’t seem to resist them. Many of the books on my shelves are on my “To be read” list. It does make me a little anxious when I see them piling up, but then I remind myself that “someday” I’ll have more time and when that day comes, I’ll have plenty of good books to read.

I hear you “modern” people telling me to get a kindle, but I have an aversion to screens and can’t get beyond the need to feel the book in my hand. I buy nearly all my books used and there are tales to be told simply in the way a book has been worn – are the pages bent, the spine stripped with creases, or my favorite- are there notes in the margins? A pristine condition used book is probably not a good book. I underline in my books constantly – phrases that astound me, profound thoughts, clever metaphors, useful information. I write my own comments too, so I appreciate the thoughts of the previous reader. Finding an inscription and a date in a book leaves me to wonder about the gift giver and the receiver – what did this book mean to their relationship? Nope, there is no history in an e-book. Even with all my green issues, I’m not ready to go there.

Kids books present other challenges. My kids go through books like socks – constantly leaving them lying about, losing them, finding them, loaning them to friends, and there never seem to be enough. We do frequent the library, but with the overdue fines I pay, sometimes it seems cheaper to buy them at the Goodwill, so I do. Books pile up at our house worse than the dirty laundry and our shelves are bursting with so many books it can be overwhelming. I accept some responsibility for this problem due to the fact that I can’t ever say no to a book and I double the kids' money if they’re spending it on books (paying half for any book they want to buy with their own money).

Years ago, I came upon one solution to the multitudes of books. We had so many the kids couldn’t possibly appreciate them all – at least not at the same time. So I bought 12 hard plastic magazine files and labeled each one with a month of the year. Then I sorted books in to the files, choosing themes for each month. Some were obvious, like Halloween books and scary books for October. August is water, beach, and ocean books and April is anything to do with the nature and the earth books. Outerspace books are in June because that’s a great time to stargaze and snow books are in January. Books about love fill the February file and March is stuffed with Easter books. Over the years, the kids have looked forward to pulling out the month’s file. After not seeing them for a year, the books seem new to them.

This has been a great system for us as it lightens the load on our book shelves and creates ‘christmas’ moments each month as we looked through the ‘new’ books. The December file was replaced with a big bin because we had too many Christmas books for the file to hold. I still enjoy pulling out the new file with my youngest son each month. Before we put the last month’s file away, we sort through it and pull out books that are “too young” for him.

Which brings me to the next dilemma – what do you do with books your don’t want? I certainly hope you don’t sit on them. Books have the potential to open minds and foster creativity – they need to be read. I try to stay on top of our books, cleaning out the shelves on a regular basis. Books that aren’t in the being-left-on-the-couch-or-in-the-car rotation, might be ready for new owners. For this, I have to confer mostly with the youngest child as he is generally the last to read our picture books.

After he gives them the nod, I sort the books in to keep (to be read to the grandchildren) and give away. There are lots of deserving places for outgrown books. We generally divide them up between the school, the preschool, friends with younger children, Goodwill, and the library book sale. I like to keep the books moving along. It seems a shame for any book to sit unread on a shelf.

My book club has another really nice way to pass along used books. We each pick out a book we’ve finished and wrap it up at Christmas time for our gift exchange. It’s a fun tradition and a great way to pass along our books and our holiday wishes.

That tradition led me to try something new. All year I saved books I’d enjoyed but didn’t need to keep, putting sticky notes with the name of the person I though would most enjoy the book on them and keeping them in a box in the closet. At Christmas I gave people in my life a stack of gently used books with a note that said I’d donated to a cause in their name in lieu of new books. It was a great way to give a thoughtful gift and make a helpful contribution.

If your books are piling up, maybe it’s time to sort through them. Keep the ones that you need, but remember there are lots of opportunities to release their power on the world. Books can inspire, challenge, teach, and change us. But they can’t do any of that collecting dust on a shelf.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

We're In the Same Herd

Humans don’t hold the patent on meanness. Animals can be just as cruel. And depending on your view of evolution, maybe that’s where it originates. This morning I opened the barn door expecting to find a dead chicken and discovered that little Kernel (a pretty Buff Orpington who tends towards the broody side) was still hanging on. For reasons, unknown to us, the other chickens attacked and pecked out her eyes. I don’t lay very tall odds on a blind chicken. In order to survive, a chicken needs to be able to retain the whereabouts of her food and water. Sadly, this is beyond the capabilities of the average chicken. My daughter gently showed Kernel where to find her food and water and Kernel promptly forgot. (or maybe she’s just not interested)

Kernel’s plight saddens me, but what really breaks my heart are the endless stories of bullying and meanness amongst humans. We humans have brains. And we are capable of compassion, creativity, and logic. Why is it we don’t evolve any further along than my flock of chickens when it comes to how we treat each other?

There is no need to be mean. It does nothing but hurt the other person and poison your own heart. I believe it takes much more effort to be mean, than to be kind. When I hear my own children being cruel to each other, I admonish them that they are on the same team. They look at me, roll their eyes, but generally back off. Watching my youngest son’s game yesterday it was funny when three players wearing the same jerseys fought for a ball and ultimately knocked each other over, forfeiting the ball in the process. “You’re on the same team!” yelled a coach, shaking his head. Why is that so hard for us to grasp?

Just like the sports teams in the intramural league my kids play in, we are all thrown together pretty haphazardly from all walks of life. The only thing holding us together is the fact that we play for the same team. Humans have survived in a harsh world over time, not because we have brains, but because we have used those brains to cooperate and ban together. Without a community, no life would have taken hold in the original colonies. We need each other.

We have to believe we’re in the same herd. This morning when I was working my horse, I thought a lot about that idea. I learn much more from animals than books. This particular horse is a five-year-old sissy. He’s afraid to leave the other horses. He wants to be with his herd ALL the time. (Never mind that his “herd” are two geriatric ponies that avoid being within hoofshot of him) In the past month, I’ve been trying to convince this horse that we are a herd of two. I tell him this all the time, tapping him on the forehead and then tapping my heart, as I remind him, “You and me, we’re a herd of two.” I don’t really expect him to understand my words, but I think he senses my commitment. He’s learning that he is just fine when he’s with me, there’s really no reason to high-tail it for home simply because a branch cast a shadow or a squirrel shimmied up a tree. It’s not really that scary. Thankfully, he’s beginning to refrain from doing “stupid” things just because he’s scared without his herd.

I think we do lots of stupid things when we feel like we have lost our herd. Everyone wants to be a part of a herd. We may believe we are independent souls, but really we all want to be part of something. We don’t want to be alone. Even if our herd is just two. And once we find our herd, we consider others who are different, who are not a part of our herd, to be a threat. So we lash out. I think that’s one reason for unnecessary meanness. People are afraid of others who are not like them, who don’t belong to their herd. Somehow we need to begin to see that we’re all a part of the same herd. We play for the same team.

I think the other reason for meanness goes back to that old, wise adage – “monkey see, monkey do”. Truer words were never uttered. When we are children, we do the same thing that the other people in our “herd” do. If we hear adults pointing out another person’s differences, or complaining about others, we do it too. I think we as parents need to be incredibly careful when we talk about others, lest we set an example of judgment.

Children are watching us. They see the times when we are patient with the grumpy sales clerk, the inconsiderate neighbor, or the driver who forgets to signal. And they also watch when our frustration gets the best of us and we say or do things we shouldn’t. Monkey see, monkey do. If we go out of our way to be pleasant and kind, they will too. This sounds like a very simple, easy parenting philosophy, but I’m here to tell you, it ain’t. I growled at my youngest just this morning because he dawdled away the morning and never ate his breakfast. No big deal, but what am I teaching? I didn’t need to be mean, his stomach will point out his mistake by 10:00, no doubt.

And watching our talk about others is even harder. I recently found myself saying some pretty judgmental things about another adult, things that were completely subjective, and, in all honesty, unfair. My oldest son commented, “Wow, that’s pretty harsh.” Smack. I needed that smack to the heart. How do we learn to stop passing judgment? It is not possible to like, let alone, love, all the people in the herd that is our community. But we can be nice. We don’t need to be mean.

I don’t know that Kernel is going to make it. And I don’t know that we won’t lose the next weakest hen soon after. But they are only chickens (don’t tell my kids I said that) and they don’t know better. We do. We can choose to show how much we’ve evolved by watching what we say around our kids and demonstrating kindness at every opportunity. The anti-bullying curriculum the schools teach is great, but it doesn’t have a chance if children see a different message at home in their own herd.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Color My World

I don’t know about your house, but at our house Halloween is already beginning to take shape. Costume ideas and potential target neighborhoods are being considered. Living where we do, there is no “neighborhood”, so my kids must attach themselves to friends who live in developments for the festivities. In our town, Halloween is being celebrated on Saturday October 30, because the 31rst falls on a Sunday this year. I believe there are religious reasons behind this decision, but I’m certain the local school system is overjoyed with this move since that gives the kids an entire day to process the candy that will overload their systems.

I try to run an organic ship here, but on Halloween all bets are off. My past attempts at “organic” candy and treats have all been met with eye rolls and annoyance, so this year I’m quietly planning on making some chocolate covered popcorn and leave it at that. Lucky for us and, if my children are to believed, the local kids, because our house sits too far from the road and civilization for anyone to ever knock on our door on Halloween. Just in case your house is one that gets many visits from tiny ghosts and goblins on that fateful night, here’s some food for thought.

Children love bright colors. Every year there are thousands of new, exciting brightly colored candy and food marketed to our children. And they eat it up, literally. Food dyes are one of the most common ingredients in candy and processed food. Synthetic food dyes don’t add a scrap of nutrients, but they do entice us, and our children, to eat. Synthetic food dyes counter the natural color loss that occurs in processed food when it is exposed to high temperature, light, moisture, air, and, lengthy storage. There’s a reason a cheese curl is just as brightly orange at age 18 months as is was at age one week (and probably will still be at age 100!). Manufacturers even inject orange skins with dyes to make them brighter so we buy them. Pretty much any processed food you pick up is loaded with synthetic dyes which are petroleum based.

But really, what’s so bad about a little food coloring? Well, here’s what a recent news report had to say –

“…an analysis of 21 of the most conclusive studies found compelling evidence that, indeed, artificial dyes could contribute to hyperactivity, restlessness, and attention problems in some children – particularly those with ADHD. What's more, the studies suggested that removing dyes from those children's diet was a quarter to half as effective in reducing those symptoms as giving the kids Ritalin or other stimulants. In other words, certain kids with ADHD might not need drugs if the artificial dyes were removed from their diets.”

Just three dyes – Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 – account for 90% of the dyes used. The Center for Science in the Public Interest evaluated studies and reports from countless scientists, Universities, and labs and here are the “Health Endpoints of Concern” that they listed for those three -

  • Hyperactivity – Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6
  • Compulsive aggression/violent behavior – Yellow 5
  • Eczema, hives – Yellow 5 and Yellow 6
  • Asthma – Yellow 5
  • Irritability – Yellow 5
  • Sleep disturbances/insomnia – Yellow 5
  • DNA damage in gastrointestinal organs, colon and urinary bladder in mice – Yellow 5, Red 40
  • Reduces serum and saliva zinc levels (increased susceptibility to infection and impaired cell-mediated immunity) – Yellow 5

 If you want more information, read the entire report at .

The FDA is charged with protecting consumers from dangerous foods, and as such they have approved only 9 synthetic food dyes for human consumption (Yellow 5 & 6 and Red 40 amongst them). Realizing that there is no nutritional value to food dyes, the FDA is pretty rigid in their testing. Kudos to them. There’s just a few problems with their tests – 1) most of the studies were commissioned and paid for by the dye manufacturers and 2) most of the studies lasted no longer than 2 years. Plus, none of the studies tested the interaction of multiple dyes.

Still, the FDA has established legal limits for cancer-causing contaminants in dyes and FDA chemists test each batch of dye to confirm that the tolerances aren’t exceeded. That should help you sleep at night, right? Not me. The FDA’s process has all kinds of kinks. The tolerances were based on 1990 dye usage and I’m sure you’ve said to your kids plenty of times – “They never had that when I was a kid!” Because they didn’t. The number of products and foods that use food dyes has increased five-fold. It may have been harmless to eat one product with a teeny bit of food dye in it, but what happens when you eat twenty products with just a teeny bit in them? We are eating at least five times as much dye-riddled food as we did in 1990 when the levels were established.

In addition, the FDA has not considered the fact that children ingest even more of these dyes and their bodies are much more sensitive to carcinogens and consume more dyes per pound of body weight as adults. Bottom line - The FDA needs to consider the cumulative risks of synthetic dyes and they don’t.

The European Union and the British Government have both taken steps to eliminate synthetic dyes from their food supplies asking manufacturers to voluntarily remove dyes from their products before they begin this year to require a warning label on all foods that contain dyes that says “may have an adverse effect on the activity and attention in children”. This is because studies have overwhelmingly shown that synthetic food dyes do increase hyperactivity and attention issues in children, particularly those who have ADHD. Just what we all need – more hyper kids!

Here’s what pisses me off, though – some products made by McDonald’s, Mars, Kraft, PepsiCo and other big names have already removed the dyes from their products in the United Kingdom, but continue to use synthetic dyes in the US. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA to ban all the widely-used food dyes because of their impact on children’s behavior. Sadly, if history is to be our guide, our children's health doesn't stand a chance again big business lobbyists.

So why don’t all manufacturers switch to natural food colorings (like beta-carotene, paprika, beet juice, and turmeric)? At least in the US, they don’t have to and synthetic dyes are cheaper, more stable, and brighter than most natural colorings. Besides, no one’s demanding that they switch. At least for now, but the public push for more natural products may finally send them in that direction. Pigments from natural sources are exempt from FDA certification.

As I considered all this information I couldn’t help but connect a couple dots – when I was a kid it was rare to hear about a child being diagnosed with ADHD, but these days it’s rare to find a family without at least one. Our children have been raised on “fun foods” like lunchables (full of synthetic dyes in the US, but not in Europe!), colorful candies, and even cheese curls that make your mouth change color. Studies seem to prove time and again that sugar doesn’t make kids hyper, but what about sugar loaded with synthetic food dyes? Just a little colorful food for thought.

So, what’s a parent to do? You don’t want to be the house where they give out raisins! I’d suggest you start doing your research and reading labels and getting creative. There must be some products out there without the dyes – start looking. The FDA does require that they be listed in the ingredients.

As for the rest of the year, you know what I’m going to say – don’t eat processed foods! Eat whole foods which are better for you and you’ll avoid the whole toxic mess. Maybe you can’t cut processed foods out completely, but you can cut them back and you can look for healthier alternatives. There are lots of companies out there getting on the “all natural” bandwagon. Read labels and make smart decisions. The simpler the food, the less likely it has dangerous additives. Just about everything you buy at Trader Joes is free of synthetic dyes.

By choosing to purchase foods without synthetic dyes you can vote with your pocket book. You can help send a message to the companies that are willing to compromise your children’s (and your) health for their bottom line.


 And if you want to do more, send your congressman a note and tell him you expect him to pressure the FDA to ban the use of synthetic dyes in foods in the US.