going green

Growing a vegetable garden from seed is difficult — much more challenging than I expected.

This year I decided to grow a vegetable garden from scratch — starting with seed packets and potting soil.  I’ve never had my own vegetable garden. But I have some limited gardening experience from watching and helping my parents and grandmothers in their gardens.

Two months ago, I went to the local hardware store and loaded up on more than a dozen packets that promised a bountiful garden with pictures of red ripe cherry tomatoes on strong fuzzy vines, bulging beefeater tomatoes nearly touching the ground, big green garden pea pods, yellow-veined chard, slender Asian cucumbers and shiny green bell peppers, plus a few varieties of flowers.  My purchase also included potting soil, starter seed containers, fertilizer and various shiny tools.

With permission from the landlord to use a plot of land in the backyard, I started growing seedlings indoors. I figured I could get to digging the garden later because it would be a breeze, right? Wrong. But more on that later.

My first set of seedlings  was an utter failure. I did all of the things a rookie grower would do.

I over watered the plants which caused them to get moldy and drown. I didn’t make sure that the seedlings stayed warm all of the time or had consistent sunlight. Sometimes I even forgot to water the plants.

It probably didn’t help that I live in a basement apartment with limited sunlight.

So I scrapped the first batch (there was nothing really to toss out but soil because all of the plants shriveled up and died) and tried again. But this time I was aided with a sunlamp and an indoor grow lightbulb.

The plants did much better in my second attempt. The cucumbers grew strong and became viny, the tomato plants sprouted leaves that had that wonderful earthy ripe tomato smell when you pinch them. And my green pepper plants produced shiny waxy leaves.

But my busy schedule, time away from home and random cold weather kept me from tilling the backyard soil.

When I did finally put my shovel in the ground (or at least tried to), I found the earth was packed tight thanks to years of people walking on it combined with a thick network of grass and roots from nearby bushes. I had to jump on the shovel to get it in the ground each time.

Forty-five minutes later, covered in red dots of mosquito bites; with dark brown and grey smudges of dirt on my clothes, hands and face; I had only created a garden plot the size of a truck tire — if tires were square. In other words, it was tiny. *sigh*

But I persisted and mixed the slightly sandy soil with organic fertilizer and placed my little green metal garden fence around the border. The plot sat untouched for nearly a month.

Then my wonderful mother came to the rescue. Last night she helped me reshape the soil and plant the remaining seedlings (only a few tomato and bell pepper plants remained alive by then), plus a wonderful LARGE tomato plant she bought at the store.  It will probably be the only thing that survives.

Now all I have to do is water the plants consistently, keep bugs and other pests away as much as I can, and keep my fingers crossed that I will get to sample at least one vegetable from all of the work I put in this year.

Hopefully, it will be uphill from here.


I rent a basement unit with a deep stairwell to my front door that tends to be a safe haven for mosquitoes each spring and summer. This means that my legs and arms spend the summer covered in mosquito bites and being itchy.

In addition to being a rather unattractive sight on my skin, it means I spend a lot of money on anti-itch gels and other treatments for those bites.

In past years, I’ve used all kinds of bug killers and non-natural options to try to decrease their population, in addition to reducing/eliminating any puddles or standing water for them to breed in. But it hasn’t worked.

This year I’m trying a whole new technique, if it can be called that.

I’m building up my outdoor population of spiders to reduce the mosquito population. The way I see it, all those insecticides also killed of the natural predators of mosquitoes — spiders.

So this year, I’m not going to put down any pesticides in the stairwell or nearby ground. Moreover, I’m going to do what I can to keep my basement stairwell hospitable to spiders — leave a few leaves lying around, etc.

This tactic also solves another dilemma for me.

In living in a basement, I sometimes find a spider of substantial size in my bathtub in the morning. This usually occurs at least on weekly basis.  I guess they crawl in to get some water from the bottom of the tub and then can’t climb back out.

Instead of killing these spiders, I am now tossing them into my outside stairwell in hopes that they will set up home there. As of now I know of three different spiders that use my stairwell as home and it doesn’t bother me in the least.

I have seen one or two mosquitoes in my stairwell so far this year. The problem is that I can’t recall when in the spring/summer the blood suckers really start breeding. Therefore, I guess I won’t know if my strategy is successful until July or August.

I have one more tactic to try.  I will buy plants that attract birds and put out a squirrel-proof bird feeder. I’ve heard that having lots of birds in one’s yard is also a natural defense against mosquitoes and other flying pests.

What tricks have you tried to reduce the bug population?

I need it to snow this year. I need to feel the cold flakes melt on my skin and tramp through dirty slushy sidewalks.

You see, I’ve become seriously concerned about the moderate temperatures we’ve had this year.

Where have all the cold winds gone? And why was I cheated from a blisteringly hot summer in DC this year?

Anyone who has lived in DC for the last several years DC will admit, the weather has been wonky these last few weeks. It was so warm on several days that my neighbor felt compelled to turn on his air conditioning, he told me.

For my part, I insisted on bringing my coat with me — in a futile attempt to convince the “weather gods” that they need to check their calendars.

What concerns me most is that I can’t recall an October where I didn’t need to wear gloves, a coat and a winter hat by the time Halloween rolled around.

Yet we’ve had high temperatures in the 70s and lows in the 50s (if my memory serves me right).

This summer wasn’t much better. Never did I feel so hot that I desperately craved an electric fan on my face or a long dip in the local pool. I feel cheated from my summer.

I love the seasons. I like feeling the changing seasons, smelling the change in the air (crisp in winter, mossy in the fall, fresh grass and field flowers in the spring and wet hot air in the summer). While in the heat or cold of the most extreme days I may complain of frozen digits or sweaty clothes, it feels natural to have such extremes.

What doesn’t feel natural is how temperate the weather has been so far.

There is one other side-effect of mild temperatures.

I haven’t felt the urge to pick up my crochet needles.

I realized last week that my cue to start crocheting winter gifts was the onset of cold weather. The cold weather would make me want to make a new scarf to protect against the wind. It hasn’t been cold enough to drive that urge this year.  So sorry friends, you may not get a crochet item this season.

I have some completely hypothetical ideas for why we’ve had such mild weather. My instinct tells me its due to global warming.  And yet there is little more I can do.

I already take public transit and recycle. I’ve reduced my meat consumption and I’m seriously considering gardening next year and starting a compost barrel.

To offset my carbon footprint, which has increased ever since I started dating my boyfriend who lives an hour away, I’ve even ceased eating meat during the work week.

But I feel helpless. Worse, I’ve realized how complacent society is determined to be. Almost everyone I’ve talked with was thrilled to have a reprieve from harsh weather for a few more days.  Still others seemed to say it was just the usual fluctuations that this area is famous for.

But I don’t know.  All I know is it hasn’t been cold enough for me to pull out my winter boots yet and I think it’s about darn time for the weather to get on track.

I need to see snow, lots of it, this year to feel slightly reassured that the world’s condition is not so dire as it’s beginning to seem.

I need a reason to believe that we still have time to turn the clock around.

So, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Today I’m taking a reprieve from writing about fundraising for the Master Chorale of Washington to talk about my recent wrapping paper find. Yes, I said wrapping paper.

When I’m sad I’ll either slip out of the office and spend my lunch break at the National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum staring at my favorite works of art, or I’ll spend time in Martin Luther King DC public library and return to the office with a stack of books, half of which I’ll never have time to read.

I needed such a mental break a couple of days ago. While waiting in line to return a tall stack of books, I started looking at the $1 sale rack nearby and before I knew it my right arm was barely able to hold the books against my side. Yes folks, I bought five hard-back books. But my prize find was several scrolls of topographical maps of West Virginia on sale for $1.50 each. I’m going to use them for wrapping paper. I’ll be recycling and saving money on wrapping paper. Yay.

It seems the MLK library is a fantastic place to shop for travel books, kids books, old classic library-bound books from the early 1900s or for nearly any other book. One of the librarians told me MLK receives more book donations annually, and sells more annually than the number of items that are checked out each year.

So I’m now full-throttle into my Freecycle addiction and I think I’m being pretty successful.

Before I offer to take something…. I make myself question whether the item up for grabs is something I want. I make myself envision where it would go. And I make myself question whether I would be able to fit it in/tie to top of my car.

Tonight I’m picking up a tan wood wine rack/end table which will work wonderfully at the end of my couch.

That said, I’m having a hard time sticking to my second half of my personal deal–to get rid of stuff.

Last week I was able to get a queen-size air mattress (self inflating) for free. My intention was to  get rid of the futon in my living room when I got the air mattress. But then when I got this 4 ft x 5 ft antique rug for the living room I was able to rearrange everything so it looks lovely and cozy, not crowded at all with a couch, futon, rocking chair, bookshelf, TV and trifold. Now I’m happy with the room.

The problem is that I’d already advertised the futon to give away on freecycle. Worse, someone wants it and they need it for a bed.

So on Saturday I will have to let the futon be carried out of my living room.I’m trying to believe that it’s a good thing because it will give me an opportunity to get more stuff. I’m thinking next I’ll look out for a love seat.

I’m also finding there are unexpected positive side effects of getting this new stuff.

1. I seem to be upgrading the quality of things I own. 

2. With each item I take home, I become inspired to clean or reorganize. Yay.

3. Finally, I’ve noticed that the things up for grabs are often seasonal and holiday based. I can’t begin to tell you how many people have asked for and offered to give away Halloween items and costumes this week.

This financial crunch has left me looking for creative outlets to scratch my shopping itch. More specifically, it has made me revert to my previous loves of flea markets, auction houses, yard sales, second-hand stores and free item recycling websites.

Most dangerous of all has been a local yahoo group called Freecycle-Silver Spring.

It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for you NOT to check out such a group. It’s freaking addicting.

In “Freecycle Silver Spring” people post things they want to give away or list things they want. All I have to do email the supplier before anyone else does and then arrange when I can pick the item up and/or check the item out in person.

Luckily I’ve not been successful so far.

But just today I put in bids in to pick up a kitchen cherry wood table with five (somewhat damaged) chairs, an old-fashioned handmade bird feeder and a set of long cherry wood side tables. So far only one of my emails has beat everyone else to the punch or else I’d be spending tonight driving around Takoma Park, Wheaton and Silver Spring to get things that I could have lived without.

Tonight I’m going to check out the table and chair set.

The truth is I need to get rid of stuff, but it’s all small stuff … ok with exception to the futon wasting precious space in my living room.

I don’t want to remove the futon until after Christmas because my sibling(s) might be visiting and in need of using the futon. I think when I get rid of the futon on freecycle I’ll invest in a good air mattress for guests instead.

I have been successful many times over in trying any of these venues (including friends who no longer wanted the items or who were moving away) I add here that there are some benefits to never moving out of the area.

Now that I think about it, about 25% of the number of things I own I either got from friends, from auction houses or from yard sales. Some of my prize items include a red cushy rocking chair, a futon, gold-rimmed crystal wine glasses, a piano, an old-fashioned song bird umbrella, my clothes drying rack, an everyday small blue flower pattern china set, at least 1/5 of my wardrobe, my bedside stands and a set of pink flamingo earrings (which is the best topper to any 80s costume).

OK so in return, I’ve decided to start filling a garbage bag EVERY WEEKEND with stuff I can either donate or freecycle. I must keep the chain of giving moving or else I’ll be forced to rent another apartment.

I’m not someone you would classify as a clean freak. In fact, I often have a hard time motivating myself to stay home and clean house instead of going out and being social.

Well, I came across a list of tips for cleaning the other day and it inspired me to try a few of the ideas. I’m also going to list an idea or two I’ve learned over the years.

The most useful tip was to clean in sets of three. Pick three things up and put them away, fold them, file them, wash them, etc, until you are ready to vacuum, mop, wipe or sweep. This worked wonderfully to help me feel like the task of reorganizing my bedroom closet was easier and it even inspired me to work on my bedroom when I was done.

Another tip was to listen to a book on CD while you clean. Well, I already do that and sometimes I also listen to NPR while I clean. I also listen to books on CD when I’m crocheting.

Another was OHIO (only handle it once) when cleaning.

I also read somewhere that it’s a good idea to keep a goodwill bag in the trunk of your car and add stuff to it each time you clean until you have enough to donate.

I keep a cloth wholefoods bag hanging in each room of my apartment for recycled goods. Then the night before the recycling truck comes around I carry the bags out to the recycling bins in my yard and sort the stuff there.

But I’m still hungry for more ideas.

What tricks do you use when cleaning?

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