Archive for Home Improvement

My Backyard Farming Adventure

Last summer I explored the idea of an organic farm in my backyard. I had Green City Growers come out and give me a quote, but just couldn’t justify the expense.

This year, a colleague told me about Square Foot Gardening.  This is the approach that the Green City Growers use.  Each raised bed is divided into a grid of 1 foot squares.  Each square has a different crop, and can be replanted several times throughout the year.  This approach takes very little space and is very easy to maintain.

I built 2 2×3 planters and planted with:

  • mixed salad greens
  • sumer squash
  • cucumbers
  • green beans
  • cherry tomatoes
  • big boy tomatoes
  • parsley
  • oregano
  • dill
  • basil

So far so good! I love going outside in the morning before work to water the garden and pick salad greens to bring to work for lunch.  It makes me feel really grounded and relaxed.

There have been some downsides lessons learned, but I’ll save those for another post…


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Good Jeans

As I mentioned in my New Year post, last fall I had denim insulation installed between my basement and first floor.  I made the choice to go with denim because it is:

  • non-toxic
  • made from recycled materials
  • a better insulator than fiberglass (according to Bill Nye the Science Guy)

There are a couple of  downsides, however, including:

  • the expense, which is significantly more than fiberglass
  • the blue fuzz that has covered my basement

Overall the benefits outway the downsides.  Government rebates and tax credits help offset the increased cost.  The blue fuzz is annoying but easily remedied by vacuuming.  When I get motivated I will put a layer of Tyvek, which will not only contain the fuzz but also add another insulating layer.

The best part, however, is how much more even the temperature in my house was this past winter.  My house is about 100 years old, and was very drafty.  When sitting in the living room, you could feel a breeze coming through the windows, even when they were closed and locked. The combination of the insulation in the basement, airsealing the foundation of the house and caulking around the windows almost completely eliminated drafts.  This allowed me to use less heat and overall made the house much more comfortable.  I would definitely recommend these energy efficiency improvements to anyone, especially while the government rebates and tax credits are in place!

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An organic farm in your own backyard

Newly Installed Farm in Brookline (Courtesy of the Green City Growers stream on Flickr)

Newly Installed Farm in Brookline (Courtesy of the Green City Growers stream on Flickr)

I found out last week that B.Good, one of my favorite Boston area food establishments, has done something that makes me love them even more.  In addition to their delicious mango smoothies and baked sweet potato fries, they have installed an organic rooftop farm at their Brookline location!  Yes, that’s right, an organic rooftop farm!

The farm was installed and maintained by a Somerville company called Green City Growers.  This innovative company installs raised-bed organic farms in urban areas.  They can use a space as small as 4 ft by 4 ft.  They will either teach you how to care for your farm yourself, or they will come and tend it for you.  It’s a great alternative to a CSA, and I’ve decided to look into it for my own backyard.  I have a consult set up with Gabe next week and will keep you posted as I find out more!

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My Green Gurus

Well its been about a week since my last post, but I have a good excuse.  My aunt and uncle were in from out of town and I had the pleasure of hosting them and showing them my version of Boston.  In addition to the Arnold Arboretum and the Mt. Auburn cemetery, we went to Harvard’s Museum of Natural History to see the glass flower exhibit and took a day trip to the Cape.  It was a great visit!

It was also a good test of my “greenness” since my aunt and uncle have been doing the green/sustainability thing since before it had a name.   In fact they are my green gurus, and much of what I know about sustainability I learned from them as a child, when my sisters and I spent summers with them.

They live on the West Coast in an area that was very rural until very recently, and was filled mostly with hippie transplants from other places when they got there in the early 1970’s.  They built their first home themselves, and lived there for years without running water or electricity.  Only after the birth of their second child did they move to a modest home on a small farm with a well and a septic system.  They reuse, recycle or compost almost everything.  They grow their own fruits and vegetables, raise their own chickens and sheep, and drive a hybrid.  Their washing machine is a front loader and their hot water heater is tankless.

Because they live on a farm with only well water, they are extremely conscious of their water consumption.  They were the first to introduce me to the concept of “If its yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.”  As a city kid I was horrified that there were people who didn’t flush the toilet every time they used it, and quite frankly even today I would rather save water in other ways.  I also couldn’t understand their obsession with shutting off the lawn sprinklers, until they were accidentally left on one night and we didn’t have water for a couple of days.

So when they asked if they could stay with me I was very excited to show them how much of what they had taught me I actually adopted.  The first thing I did when they arrived was give them the eco tour of my apartment, pointing out the counter top compost container, the compost bin the yard, the organic milk, eggs and vegetables in the fridge, the bowl filled with organic fruit on the dining room table, the CF light bulbs.  I was a little nervous.  Would they approve?  Had I done enough?

Overall, I think they were happy with what I had done, but my uncle pointed out my areas of improvement.  He followed me around the house shutting off lights that I had left on, and suggested that I put all of my electrical appliances on power strips and turn off the power strips when the appliances aren’t in use.   I thought those were great suggestions for next steps.  I have a long way to go before I get to their level of greeness, and I don’t ever picture myself living without plumbing and electricity. (To be fair though, at this point neither do they.   I think we would all agree that  home powered fully by wind and solar would be nice. )

I feel very lucky to have had them as such a strong influence in my life.  Everyone should have such great mentors to help walk them down the path to a green life!

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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my approach to greening my life is to start with small changes that will be easy to implement but whose impact can be quite significant.  One of these measures was to place a plastic bottle filled with water into the tank of my toilet to instantly turn it into a lower flow toilet without having to spend money or send the old toilet to the landfill.  Easy, right?

Not so fast.  My first attempt at this failed miserably.  I didn’t have the 2 liter bottle suggested on the video clip I saw on Planet Green, but I did have a 16 oz one.  No problem, I thought.  I’ll just start small.  I filled the bottle with water, placed it in the tank and was very proud of myself.  The first few flushes went just fine, and I was really happy to be saving 16oz of water with each flush. (Little things make me happy).

Just when I was sure that everything was fine, I was proven wrong.  I flushed the toilet, left the room.  A few minutes later it was still flushing.  I opened the tank to find that the bottle had flipped over and wedged itself under the stopper (not sure that is the technical term, but that’s what I will call it).  With that one flush I flushed away enough water to negate everything I had saved by putting the bottle in the tank in the first place. Ughh!

Not being one to give up after one small defeat, I decided to try again. This time it was a 1 liter bottle.  Bigger and more stable, this worked well for several months.  Today, however, I was twarted again!  I was having some plumbing issues elsewhere in the house, and called a plumber in.  I figured that while he was there I should have him take a look at the toilet, which just didn’t seem to be flushing as well as it used to.  The plumber opened the tank, pulled out the bottle of water, and said “The first thing you need to do is get rid of this!”  So much for my effort to be green : (

According to the plumber, each toilet is designed to work with a certain amount of water.  If you place something in the tank to displace the water, the toilet may not perform well because quite simply it doesn’t have enough water moving through the system to effectively do its job (if you know what I mean).  The plumber’s recommendation was to replace the toilet with an actual low-flow system, which I plan to do in the future (i.e. when I can afford it).

So much for saving water.  It feels like one step forward, two steps back!

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How Green is Green?

About six months ago, I had some work done on my house.  Some of the beams holding up the structure were rotted out from water damage and there was no insulation between the garage that sits under the house and the first floor.  I wanted to make sure that however I handled the project, that it was green.  However, how green is green?

No matter what types of products we used, at the end of the project my carbon footprint would be reduced. That was certain, since I was insulating an area that had not been insulated before, and which let in a lot of cold air during our long New England winters.  As a result, the major decision was whether or not to splurge on a full on greenovation.


  • Contractors in my area didn’t seem to be on the sustainability train. During the bidding process, I met with several contractors, none of whom had heard of denim insulation or low VOC paints. One was vaguely aware of cellulose insulation, but for the life of him could not understand why I would consider paying more for it.  This posed a problem since we all know that finding a good contractor is nearly impossible, and when you get one that is highly recommended by people you know and available when you need them you have to snatch them up.  My dilemma was whether or not to search for a green contractor who was unknown and my or may not be available, or use a non-green contractor who I knew would complete the job on-time and on budget.
  • There’s a lot of conflicting information about what products are safer and more effective. I did some online research and found a lot on conflicting information about how much better denim and cellulose insulation were as compare to fiberglass in terms of R value and safety.  While denim and cellulose are touted as safer, some sites I read said that fiberglass is just as safe if installed correctly.  No matter what, my house would be more insulated than it was before the project.
  • Where to source green materials. In my area, there are starting to be more places to source green materials ( and, but six months ago, I didn’t know where to find then.  My contractor looked totally stumped when I suggested he do it and having just started a new job I didn’t have the time to do it either.
  • Cost. Because sourcing was an issue, I couldn’t make a good comparison on cost.  However, from the vague information I was given by one contractor it would be 20-30% more for cellulose insulation.

The decision:

After a lot of soul searching, number crunching, internet research and talking to friends and family, I chose a contractor based on recommendations who was priced competitively, reliable and does great work.  He was fantastic.  His guys showed up on time and the work was high quality and his price competitive.   I also chose to let the contractor use fiberglass insulation and regular waterproofing materials, plaster and paint.


In the end, I have been happy overall with the outcome of the project.  My house was much warmer this year as a result of the insulation, and I no longer have a garage that floods when it rains or snows. More importantly, my house is on a solid foundation and not at risk for falling down.  However, if given it all to do over again I would have pushed my contractor to use green materials.  The main reason for this is the off-gassing from the heavy duty sealants he used in the garage.  One evening during the project I came home and the fumes had seeped into the house and were pretty overpowering.  They were so bad that my upstairs neighbors considered staying in a hotel for the night.  Even now, six months later, I still wake up in the morning with burning eyes.  In hindsight it would have been worth it to spend a couple thousand dollars more to have more peace of mind and to be free of the effects of the harsh chemicals.

When I think of my original question: “How green is green?”  in this case the answer is that it was not green enough!

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