Friday, April 30, 2010

Softscaping for garden rooms

Design for fine living includes your outdoor space
By Jillian Steinberger
Contra Costa Times correspondent
Posted: 04/30/2010

 This overhead shot shows the various "rooms: in an Oakland backyard. (Bonnie Borucki/courtesy)

Merry Luskin harvests heirloom lettuces for the evenings salad after work. Her main veggie bed is on a berm over the oasis. The bed has a double function as a colorful ornamental border in which tall yellow-flowering Brussels sprouts intermingle with red mustard greens. These will soon be overtaken by summers marigolds and squash. Behind Merry, seven healthy, productive fruit trees grow in the orchard, which is all of 20 feet by 30 feet. (Bonnie Boruck/courtesy)

WHILE many of us get into a rut, spending most of our lives indoors at the desk, behind a computer, or in front of a TV, "California living" always has meant spending time in the backyard with family and friends.

That is also how the rest of the nation pictures us — out in the backyard, tipping back a cold one, lighting up the barbecue.

That image of California life is now an increasing trend in ecological garden design. Designers, landscapers and home owners are pushing to create gardens where people actually want to live, to take ownership of their own personal green space and to blur the line between what's outside and what's in.

In this age of McMansions, many people wish their homes were larger. Yet, many of us already have extra living space. Just outside the backdoor, there may well be a couple or a few thousand lonely square feet just waiting to be moved into.

Just like we instinctively assign specific uses to each room in our homes, creating places for dining, sleeping, playing and socializing, most gardens naturally include a range of spaces with specific purposes, whether or not they are landscaped as such. We typically do not think of these spaces as "rooms," yet that is what they effectively are even if they don't have walls.

The backyard is "decorated" with a gravel mediation path that separates a vegetable bed from the seven-tree orchard. A big blue-flowering borage is a favorite with bees and boosts pollination besides adding color. Bonnie Borucki/courtesy

Creating outdoor rooms can bring a sense of harmony and flow. And to accomplish this, it is entirely possible to go in with tractors and forklifts, move soil around and lay large concrete slabs to define space. But many of us aren't in the mood to invest the tens of thousands of dollars this type of installation requires.

And it's just as well — why pave paradise? With some thoughtful observation, a little ingenuity,and a small budget, you can uncover the natural structure of your yard and then "decorate" it to create a lovely, if rustic, space that enhances and responds to your life and that of your family's.

And if one day you do want to invest in a formal, permanent hardscape, you can. The softscapes are flexible. Natural materials — generally easy to tote — are used to separate contiguous areas and create structure. Hence, these landscapes easily change with your life's priorities, without the expense or disruption of demolition. You just move the rocks — well, maybe boulders — out of the way and let the Bobcats in.

Merry Luskin and Meredith Florian sit in a pocket park to bird-watch. The cozy nook is visually defined by its use of diminutive plant species, colorful toys and figurines, and a child-size bench. Bonnie Borucki/courtesy

However, you may be so thrilled with your softscape landscape that no matter your means now or in the future, you will love your yard as it develops over the years, so much so that you will spend more of your life outside, enjoying our famous, fabulous, Northern California terrain.

Getting started

A garden designer or consultant can help interpret the natural features of your landscape, brainstorm your ideal uses for it, and figure out how to get there. But softscapes are a great option for do-it-yourselfers.

First, ask yourself how you would like to use the space. What is most important to you: Relaxing? Al fresco dining? Entertaining? Can you see hosting cocktail parties or Fourth of July celebrations? What about growing food? Do you want to take your yoga or meditation practice outside? How about an outdoor office? Think about it.

Next, a little observation can help you assess your site:

•  Are there any large, immovable features? These might include existing hardscape, hillsides, boulders, large trees, shrubs and hedges. Possibly there's an outbuilding. Some Bay Area gardens even have daylighted creeks running through them. Dry creek beds are common.
•  What are the current softscape elements? Where are garden beds, lawns, and other plantings?
•  What are the climatic conditions, including sun exposure? When it rains, can you see any drainage patterns where water is pooling?
•  Are there natural proximities? For example, perhaps there is a flat spot convenient to the kitchen door that perfectly fits your outdoor dining table and chairs. Or, maybe you desire a private spot for contemplation, and it just so happens that there is a native oak with room for a bench and a birdbath.

The natural features you observe, together with your lifestyle goals, should determine the development of your landscape. So, whatever you've got, take note.

Maybe nothing is there but unused space. Perhaps you've stood forlornly, looking out the window at a big, flat, rectangular weed patch, with a "lawn" that is really just Bermuda grass, dandelion and oxalis. You are not alone.

Many people have a rectangle of patchy lawn with a table and chairs next to a barbecue. Unglorified though it may be, this is effectively your outdoor "dining room." And, most likely, it is convenient to the kitchen door.

If you're lucky, maybe there is that big native oak creating a "room" for quiet contemplation or romance. If there is a raised platform, you just may have yourself a yoga room.

If your kids enjoy sleeping outdoors on camping trips, you might create a "camping" area on that yoga platform. Or, if you're the one who likes sleeping outside, you could create a bedroom for yourself, using a hedge or shrubs to screen the area off and create privacy. You can even decorate it, just as you would indoors, but with garden art.

If you enjoy gardening, you probably have an area where half-filled bags of potting soil pile up along with stakes, old pots and other supplies. This may be the area where you transplant seedlings and work your compost. If you clean and organize it, this effectively becomes your own home nursery, a garden room that nurtures all others.

Say you have a handful of fruit trees planted near each other. Guess what? You've got your own personal orchard. And, if you have a pond, you also have the makings of an oasis.

So pull up an Adirondack chair, kick back, breathe deep, take in the scenery, and look at your kingdom. Or queendom, as it may be.

Hidden behind the orchard is a sukkah, a meditation space. The ground here is thickly mulched, which creates the look of a forest floor. Mulch also prevents weeds and erosion, and lets water percolate. (Bonnie Borucki/Courtesy)

Enjoy, and let your imagination be your guide.

Jillian Steinberger, a Bay-friendly qualified landscaper, owns and operates the Garden Artisan, a certified green business serving the East Bay. Contact her at

During the warm months, this might mean pole beans climbing up a "wall" of corn or sunflowers, with a short, pretty row of marigolds upfront.
In the cool months, you might interplant broccoli or brussels sprouts, which have beautiful yellow flowers that attract bees. Or try graceful, willowy, white-flowering arugula, and gorgeous red-leaf mustard greens (try "Red Giant").
•  Logs and branches: Before dragging that tree trunk to the landfill, ask yourself if there is anywhere you can use it in your garden. A log might provide seating around a firepit. It can be placed in the landscape for a forest floor effect.
Logs and branches can also be used to line paths and build raised beds.
Tip: Many tree care companies will drop off wood chips for free at your home. Just call around and ask. You'll be doing them a favor. Also, most local water agencies offer sizable rebates on mulch, so check with them, too.
Reuse and recycle
•  Scour garage sales for garden furniture such as Adirondack and wrought iron chairs, and structural features such as metal arches. You can plant veining edibles -- grapes, peas, beans and even cucumbers -- on them, or ornamentals such as a climbing rose.
A friend spent $8 for three used metal arches. Planted, they create a lush, welcoming outdoor foyer to her garden.
•  Look around your property for odds and ends that might be decorative or structural. Are there old pavers, steppingstones or flagstone? Rocks or boulders lying around in a pile? Chimes and garden art gathering dust in a box? Statuary, old teapots, antique chicken wire or fencing? They are now your craft materials and art supplies.
Bay-friendly approach
•  Permeability. By avoiding concrete, most of your yard will be permeable. This means rainwater percolates down into the soil where it belongs, instead of puddling on your property or running off into the storm drains, where it carries pollutants such as car oil and pesticides into the Bay.
•  Create and protect wildlife habitat: There are a lot more worms under mulch than concrete. The worms and other organisms improve the soil and attract birds and other pollinators -- in turn, giving you more flowers and fruit.
•  Save your soil: Without the Bobcats and other heavy machinery used in hardscape installation, you avoid compacting the soil. With good soil, you can have beautiful, thriving plants without using chemical products like pesticides and fertilizers.
•  Less to the landfill: If you reuse and recycle items from your own property or from thrift shops and garage sales, you give new life to them while also keeping them out of the landfill.
•  Conserve energy: Natural ground covers moderate soil temperatures, helping to prevent the heat island effect. Your property may stay cooler in summer without the glare that shines off concrete surfaces.
•  For more information, on Bay-friendly gardening, go to

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cheap Food in the City? Grow Your Own

City Dwellers Seeking to Save Money on Food Flock to Community Gardens

ABC NEWS Business Unit
June 4, 2008

When Janell Fairman and her husband moved to Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, they didn't have a backyard. So, Fairman secured a small plot of land in their local community garden and began growing cherry tomatoes, eggplants and more.

Approximately 2,000 people use community gardens in Los Angeles County. Rising food costs encourage more American urbanites to grow their own food at community gardens.   (Getty)

Gardening, Fairman said, has been a beloved hobby for years. And the 68-year-old retired archivist recognizes that growing her own produce could have economic benefits, too.

"I think we eat better for the amount of money that we spend," she said.

As food prices continue to rise, many urbanites are beginning to share Fairman's reasoning. From Boston to Seattle, municipal officials and community organizers are finding an increased demand for plots in community gardens as more residents look to grow their own food.

For city dwellers who don't own outdoor space, community garden plots -- which are typically owned by cities or nonprofit organizations -- are their answer to suburban backyard gardens.

"You get these things, such as increasing food prices and the high cost of gas, and it really bites into a family's budget," said Rachel Surls, the county director for University of California Cooperative Extension, in Los Angeles County. Community gardens, she said, "are an easy way to respond to that."

Paying to Garden

Under a common type of community garden model, users pay an annual fee for the privilege of growing plants on a plot of land within a larger garden. In Portland, Ore., the fee for a 400-square-foot plot of land is $50. But the value of food grown on that land, according to Leslie Pohl-Kosbau, the director of the Portland Parks and Recreation community gardens program, can be many times greater.

"A person, if they're a really good gardener, can raise $500 to $1,000 worth of food on a 20-by-20-foot plot, depending on their skills and by the way they garden," she said.

Pohl-Kosbau said that, generally, it's the desire for fresh, higher quality produce that largely drives Portland's community gardeners. But the recent increase in demand for plots in the city, she said, is at least partly due to rising food prices.

More than 760 people are crowding wait lists, hoping to secure plots in Portland's gardens -- an increase from 578 last year.

In Boston, Valerie Burns, of the Boston Natural Areas Network, estimates that some 1,500 people -- an average of 10 for each of the city's 150 community gardens -- are also waiting for plots.

This time last year, Burns said, the Boston wait list was largely empty.

"Community gardening has always been a supplement to the family food budget," Pohl-Kosbau said. "I think this year, people are particularly mindful of the cost of food."

Cultivation or Construction?

Urban garden advocates hope that the new enthusiasm for community gardens will help save them from a grim fate: extinction.

"The idea that gardens are temporary just has to go away, because if we don't secure these places for generations to come, they will disappear to development," said Pohl-Kosbau.

In the last decade, many cities did, in fact, eye community garden sites for real estate development, said Duncan Hilchey, a senior research associate at Cornell University, who specializes in food systems and agricultural development.

"I think, with the higher food prices, there's going to be a renewed interest in seeing that those properties are secured for local food production and consumption," Hilchey said.

Of course, not all city property is best saved for farming -- at least, according to officials in Seattle.

Recently, the city's transportation department has taken pains to discourage people from planting crops on city-owned strips of land alongside highways and suburban roadways.

The city provides permits to people seeking to grow plants on such land, but Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Sheridan said that officials worry that food plants there might fall prey to contamination from automobile exhaust and storm water runoff.

"We're supportive of the idea of people growing crops for themselves," he said, but "not all land is necessarily the best land for urban farming."

Even if fumes and contamination aren't an issue, growing your own food in a city or elsewhere isn't easy.

Gardening School

Openlands, a nonprofit group that works to preserve open space in northern Illinois, offers urban agriculture classes every winter. Classes focusing on growing edible plants are the most popular, said Jamie Zaplatosch, Openlands' education coordinator.

Food plants, Zaplatosch said, can be more temperamental, especially in northern cities where growing seasons are less than ideal. Would-be urban growers learn which time is the best for planting different plants -- spinach, for instance, can be planted in the springtime, while tomatoes should wait until June -- and various gardening techniques.

"We're getting a lot of people in the city really interested in getting the most out of their small urban spaces as they can," Zaplatosch said.

In some cases, it's more than just the gardener who reaps the rewards of community gardens.

The nonprofit group Urban Farming has established some 500 gardens in Detroit and more in other cities across the country. The gardens, said executive director Taja Sevelle, are "borderless" and maintained by volunteers, ranging from retirees to church youth groups. Anyone, she said, can walk on to the gardens to harvest and pick food.

About half of the food grown at Urban Farming's gardens, Sevelle said, is picked by local residents, while the rest is donated to food pantries.

Sevelle thinks of the gardens as a throwback to the old Victory Gardens of the 1940s, when Americans grew food in their backyards to supplement the nation's food supply during a time of war.
"Our goal is to get rid of hunger in our generation," Sevelle said.

"We've had people come to us crying more than once on these gardens and thanking us," she said, "but this year, it's even deeper because food prices have gone up."

Detroit resident Cynthia Johnson, 55, is among those grateful for the gardens. Johnson volunteers at an Urban Farming garden right near her home, and already has plans to eventually make dinner out of what she's helping to plant this season.

"I think it's very inspiring," she said. "To know that you can come to a garden and pick food if you need it, without penalty, is a blessing."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Good Intentions Always in Season at Farmers Markets

Health, Science & Environment

Although shopping at the farmers market may or may not reduce your carbon footprint, these community bazaars offer benefits beyond efficiency.

By: Elisabeth Best  | March 20, 2010 | 05:00 AM (PDT)

Farmers markets can be a great way to educate and provide people with biologically diverse food options. (Richard Masoner /

The coming of spring means different things to different people. For college students, it’s the debauchery of Spring break. For baseball fans and TBS audiences, it’s the return of Major League Baseball. For Midwesterners (and, this year, Washingtonians), it’s in a welcome respite from winter storms. But for farmers across America, it means the return of the farmers market.

If you’ve never been to a farmers market, close your eyes and imagine an avenue of folding tables brimming with vibrant vegetables and fruit and spilling melt-in-your-mouth local products like cheese, hummus and fresh-baked bread. In California, at least, it’s an open-air bazaar where, rain or shine, local farmers and artisans sell their goods back to their community with an idyllic synergy reminiscent of a simpler time (that probably never existed).

The concept underlying farmers markets is to get eaters in touch with those who produce their food. In a highly processed, dollar-menu world, that’s an admirable goal, and it draws a diverse group of customers, from low-income shoppers looking for cheaper produce to high-minded professors hoping to support local agriculture and eco-friendly foodies seeking out the best ingredients for their quinoa salads.

To hear some locavores talk, farmers markets sound like the be-all end-all of solving the Earth’s problems. Their logic: The food at these markets travels a shorter distance to get to your kitchen than the food on your grocery store’s shelves, which significantly reduces its (and your) carbon footprint. By supporting local agriculture, you’re pumping money into your local economy. And by eating locally available foods, you’re also eating seasonally, which is not only sustainable, but can have dietary benefits, too.

Farmers markets can be a great way to educate and provide people with biologically diverse food options, including but hardly limited to the heirloom tomato (the posterproduce of food biodiversity) or the heirloom apple. As Emily Badger noted in her article, “We Gotta Eat ‘Em to Save ‘Em,”, eating biodiverse foods is one way to ensure that Broad-Breasted White turkeys won’t gobble up the Earth.

Farmers market champions cite their ability to improve public health, lower food prices and, perhaps most contentiously, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Can farmers markets single-handedly save the world? Probably not. But they embody a growing thread in an increasingly “global” world: a focus on the local.

Farmers markets are sprouting like weeds: Since 1994, the number of farmers markets in the U.S. has increased from 1,755 to 5,274. There was a 13 percent increase between 2008 and 2009 alone.

It’s important to note, however, that farmers markets still represent a relatively small piece of the pie. In 2008, there were approximately 85,200 grocery stores nationwide (this number includes both supermarkets and convenience stores), which means that there are still more than 15 grocery stores for each farmers market in the United States.

As they’ve grown in popularity, farmers markets have also undergone changes. Gail Feenstra, the food systems coordinator of the University of California, Davis-based UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, describes the change as a slow buildup over a number of years.

“In the very old days, they were more or less produce,” she said. “Maybe 15 years ago, you started seeing more value-added products — dried tomatoes, peaches, jams and other things. That was stage two. The next stage, I would say, tended to be increasing the variety of the kinds of foods you would see at the markets. Then you would see more types of different foods; now you have the fish guy, the pig man and the milk man. Proteins in particular are much more common, and there has also been an increase in the amount of dairy present. Today, I can get almost everything I need at the farmers market.”

Feenstra attributes the growing popularity of farmers markets to an increased awareness about climate change and public health. “When it looked like the global supply of energy was going to be limited, people immediately started looking more locally. They started asking themselves, ‘How do I create a more resilient local-food system for me and my family?’”

She noticed that around 2000, people started looking for ways to eat better. They realized that farmers markets offered a lot of vegetables and saw them as a good place to start. “Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, spread the movement to a much larger portion of the population,” she said. “Popular education and awareness kind of exploded there.”

In the United States, research suggests it costs significantly more to eat healthy than to eat processed. As Food, Inc. points out, when a family has a few dollars to spend on food per day, why would they buy a few apples if they can buy a Big Mac for the same price?

Farmers markets may help mitigate that problem. In Canada, Kristian Larsen and Jason Gilliland found that the addition of a farmers market to a “food desert” — an urban location with poor access to healthy and affordable food — significantly reduced the cost of eating a nutritionally balanced meal. Another team of Canadian researchers found that local food environments can lead to obesity and suggests that improving access to natural food — farmers markets, anyone? — can combat this trend.

Plus, as Jaydee Hanson argues, eating locally has food safety perks because it minimizes the number of places your food has been. “It won’t keep you from getting sick,” she said, “but at least you’ll know who made you sick.”

Unfortunately, in food as in politics, things aren’t always what they seem, and it’s important to read the fine print. Simply going to the farmers market isn’t a guarantee that anything you buy has been grown by a local farmer. At many farmers markets, local chambers of commerce have given the go-ahead to commercial growers, who sell customers the same vegetables they likely could buy cheaper at the grocery store.

A 2009 Mother Jones article by Danielle Duane highlights the pressure faced by farmers market managers to grow the markets. And grow them they do, with street performers and restaurant booths selling breakfast burritos and doughnuts, with the only local ingredient most likely being the person making them.

Although theoretically these attractions might bring a new breed of shoppers to support their local farmers, one study found that they simply cater to a different clientele. Some markets focus on prepared foods, targeting the people who make the farmers market a Saturday morning activity. Others focus on different types of shoppers, ranging from the casual browser to the serious buyer. Either way, the markets self-select their customers, and not all of these customers are all that interested in locally grown food. (Neighboring retail stores hoping to lure farmers market shoppers are out of luck, too — the same study found that the markets are a one-stop shop.)

But Feenstra sees the prepared food at farmers markets as a good thing. “My opinion is that it brings more people to the market,” she said. “Sometimes those people don’t end up buying stuff from vendors, but sometimes they do. Just being there increases awareness. If they go there enough, they’re going to start understanding and experimenting.”

When market managers were asked in the USDA’s 2005 National Market Manager Survey why people came to their markets, the top three reasons offered were freshness, taste and access to local food, which suggests that the main draw of farmers markets may be the superior taste of the products.

But isn’t it more efficient — and therefore better for the environment — to buy local food at the farmers market? The short answer is not necessarily.

First off, what exactly does “local food” mean? Does it mean food grown in your city, state, country or backyard? There is no universally accepted definition. One study from Iowa State University found that more than two-thirds of participants defined local food as having traveled 100 miles or less (as the locavore Web site does); Feenstra says that for growers, local is anything that they can do in a day’s drive.

With the typical American meal consisting of ingredients from five or more countries and the average fresh produce in America traveling 1,500 miles or more, the connection between “food miles” and greenhouse gas emissions may seem obvious.

But food miles aren’t the only way to measure your carbon forkprint. Researchers in the United Kingdom argue that food miles aren’t even a useful way to measure the environmental impacts of food production. Instead, they say, the entire production system needs to be taken into account. Was the produce grown in a greenhouse? How were the livestock raised? These on-farm practices can have as big an impact on greenhouse emissions as food transport — and in some cases, an even bigger one.

Research aside, the reality is that with the average farmers market customer spending about $10 per trip, very few people survive entirely off their farmers market purchases, which means that the farmers market potentially is an extra trip in a gas-guzzling SUV that might not otherwise be made.

A New York Times article points out if a strawberry producer in California ships his berries to Chicago in a truck, the fuel used per carton is relatively small because the truck bed is carrying thousands of them. If, however, the same strawberry farmer takes a much smaller quantity of the fruit to his stand at the local farmers market in his pickup, he might use more fuel per carton than would the berries shipped to Illinois.

And although people may be willing to pay more for locally grown food, they aren’t necessarily willing to pay more for food with a lower carbon footprint. Feenstra said a carbon footprint is only one of a few factors that can attract someone to the farmers market. Getting the freshest, tastiest produce and supporting local agriculture also attract customers.

And efficiency isn’t the only factor that influences a farmer’s decision to sell at the farmers markets. Most farmers sell at a number of outlets to “hedge their bets.”

“Some growers who love selling directly would never not do it, but it is costly in terms of the time they have to spend at the market,” Feenstra said. “In terms of efficiency, it may not be the most efficient way to sell local produce, but it has benefits beyond efficiency that cannot be understated.”

So if green is your goal, it might be more productive for you to reduce your meat consumption (save the phosphorus!) than become a locavore. If, however, you are looking for a more sustainable way to eat, engage in your community and boost your local economy, supporting your local farmers market can be a good first step.

“Increasing awareness of local agriculture is important in effecting change in public policy,” Feenstra said, “and wanting to support local agriculture is as important as wanting to promote efficiency.”

Monday, April 12, 2010

How to Build a Rain Barrel

By Jane Morse, Environmental Horticulture Extension Agent, and Allen Garner, Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Coordinator, University of Florida Extension - Manatee County.

Rain barrels are a great way to reduce stormwater runoff and to save water for a dry spell. If you have gutters on your house, you may be able to collect 55 gallons of water during a ½ inch rain by directing a downspout to a rain barrel or cistern.

Included below:
  • Tools
  • Supplies
  • Instructions
  • Alternate: How to make a rainbarrel from a trash can

 This is the left side of the rain barrel (hand-painted by Jennifer Barrineau)
This is the right side of the rain barrel (hand-painted by Jennifer Barrineau)

 Drain spigot at bottom of rain barrel

 Gutter downspout into top of rain barrel (unscreened)

•    Electric Drill
•    Drill bit ½-inch to 1-inch
•    Drill bit 3/16-inch
•    Drill bit 1/8-inch
•    Jigsaw     •    Marking pen
•    Phillips screw driver
•    Pocket knife
•    Work-bench
•    Extension cord
•    Safety glasses

Plastic drum (55 gal. is best). Barrels that have carried food products are recommended. Some cleaning product barrels are OK after rinsing. Do NOT use petroleum or toxic chemical barrels.

The following are all PVC fittings:
•    Two-inch male adapter
•    Two-inch male slip x 3/4-inch female threaded adapter
•    3/4-inch male threaded x 3/4-inch female threaded elbow (3/4 inch street el)
•    Four inch long 3/4-inch threaded nipple
The following can be either metal or plastic:
•    3/4-inch female sillcock or hose bibb
•    PVC cement
•    Teflon™ tape or Teflon™ pipe joint compound
•    Silicone sealant
•    Three stainless steel sheet metal screws #10 x 3/4 inch
•    Stainless steel mesh with plastic rim kitchen strainer (4 to 6 inch diameter)

1.    Turn the barrel so that the end with no openings is facing up.
2.    Fit the strainer on the end which is facing up so that it lays flat.
3.    Mark around the perimeter of the strainer, remove strainer and draw another line about ½ inch inside the perimeter line.
4.    Drill a pilot hole using the large bit just inside the inner drawn circle.
5.    Using the saber saw follow the inner circle line until the circle is removed. Remove the circle if it has fallen into the barrel. This is a good time to make sure the barrel is clean inside.
6.    Drill pilot holes in the strainer flanges and handle using the 3/16-inch bit. Place the strainer on the barrel and mark the hole locations on the barrel.
7.    Drill pilot holes in the barrel using the 1/8-inch bit.
8.    Partially screw into the strainer the #10 screws. Check to make sure the strainer holes match the barrel holes.
9.    Apply silicone sealant to the strainer rim and place the strainer into position. Tighten screws until just snug. (Pat yourself on the back, you have just completed the first part of the barrel).
10.    Place the barrel on its side. Unscrew one of the plastic filler plugs in the other end of the barrel.
11.    Apply PVC cement to the two-inch male adapter sleeve and place the two-inch male x 3/4-inch female threaded adapter inside and press together for a few seconds.
12.    Insert street el into the 3/4-inch hole of the adapter. Use teflon tape or sealant on all threaded parts.
13.    Insert 4 inch nipple into street el.
14.    Screw assembly into barrel. Four-inch nipple will work as a wrench to tighten first two fittings.
15.    Connect water faucet to 4-inch nipple. Hand-tighten to proper position.
16.    Place barrel on level, sturdy base. Direct downspout over the strainer. (Hooray, you now have a functioning rain barrel).

 Diagram of rain barrel

There are booklets available from from the University of Florida/IFAS Sarasota County Extension office at 6700 Clark Road, Sarasota, FL.

You may view and download the Southwest Florida Water Management Districts Rainbarrel Guide for Homeowners. Click here.   (

Southwest Florida Water Management also has an excellent page that includes a video. Click here. (


If you are unable to obtain a pickle barrel such as the one shown above, you still have some options.  The links below all discuss how to make rain barrels from trashcans.  

Rain barrels: Rain barrel made out of a 32 gallon trashcan, soaker hose, two outlet valves, silicon gel and two cinder blocks . Total cost about $12. The rain barrel will water plants about 4~5 days. 

Trash Cans can be used; however, for the back pressure to occur completely, the top should be sealed with duct tape.

Plastic trash cans are usually too thin to be good barrels.

55-gallon barrel with closed top or 30- to 44-gallon heavy duty plastic trash can.

VIDEO - How to make a rain water storage barrel from a plastic trash can. Step by step instructions with a complete layout of the few simple parts needed to make a rain barrel.

Above info thanks to: 

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Recycle the Rain: A how-to for installing a rain barrel

Harvesting rainwater using a small rain barrel helps supplement irrigation for a small cost. Storing rainwater also helps reduce stormwater runoff, which can lead to reduced levels of pesticides and fertilizers in our water.

Start with a drum
Many people make rain barrels out of inexpensive 50-gallon food-grade drums that were used to carry juices, olives, pickles, etc. Often you can find barrels for around $10 from drum and barrel suppliers.
Be sure to get a heavy-grade plastic container that won't let in light — clear or translucent barrels can speed the growth of algae, which can clog pipes.

Learn how to make a rain barrel

The water savings from using stored rainwater rather than municipal or well water can be substantial over a period of time. A rain barrel can also help reduce the amount of water that may settle around the foundation of your home.

Uses for collected water

•    Connect to a soaker hose (with the pressure-reducing washer removed)
•    Fill a watering can and hand-water plants, flower beds and gardens
•    Keep your compost bin moist
•    Rinse off gardening tools

How much rainwater can I collect?

A typical 1/2-inch rainfall will fill a 50- to 55- gallon barrel. Figure about a half gallon of water per square foot of roof area during a 1-inch rainfall. A 2,000-square-foot roof can collect about 1,000 gallons of water (accounting for about 20% loss from evaporation, runoff and splash).

What about filtering?

Leaf debris, bird droppings and chemicals from roof material won't likely be harmful to plants. Use a window screen or wire mesh to keep out debris and insects, and clean the tank periodically to remove any settling.

Do I need a permit?

Check with your county to see if a permit is required to install a small rain barrel for landscape watering. Some subdivisions with deed restrictions prohibit them. You can also check your local plumbing and health codes for guidance.

Stay away from plumbing

It's important to keep your rain barrel independent from existing house piping or sprinkler system piping to prevent a cross-connection to your potable water.

Rain barrel supplies

To find barrels or drums to convert into rain barrels, check the phone book or on the web. Make sure you purchase plastic food-grade containers. You can also get ready-to-go rain barrels; they come with an inlet and outlet already installed.

How it works

Catch rainwater...

...from a roof with gutters.

Store rainwater... barrels, both big and small, which can be plastic, fiberglass, concrete or metal, so long as it's nonporous and smooth — even a garbage can will work.

Use collected water...

...either by filling a watering can or attaching a soaker or garden hose to water plants.

Who's doing it?The Hillsborough County Courthouse has a 15,000-gallon container. Rainwater is collected from the roof and stored in the underground tank, later to be used for watering the landscape.

The Florida House Learning Center in Sarasota has two water tanks that each hold 2,500 gallons of rainwater. One is used for irrigation, the other for flushing toilets and irrigation.

Many Extension offices have rain barrel demonstration exhibits and information on plants, gardening, composting and water conservation. Most even offer workshops on these subjects.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The White House Garden is thriving!

Exclusive Video: White House Garden Survives, Thrives in Washington Winter
from the Daily Flotus by Lynn Sweet, 3-26-10

Despite a harsh Washington winter -- two blizzards and several feet of snow -- the recently harvested White House garden yielded a bounty of lettuce, spinach, and a lot of turnips.
"Nobody thought that the garden would survive," said Kass.
It not only survived, it thrived, making First Lady Michelle Obama's signature project a four-season source of fresh produce.
The plants grew over the winter covered by white plastic stretched over hoops, trapping the heat of the sun by day and keeping the plants warm at night. But even Kass was not sure the "hoop houses" would work. "The fact of the matter is we didn't know."

The video shows how the hoop houses exceeded expectations. The harvest included robust looking lettuce, spinach and arugula, Kass said leeks will be ready in the spring, garlic and peas will be picked later, as will carrots, planted but not harvested.
Ground for the 1,100-square-foot garden on the west side of the South Lawn was cleared on March 20, 2009 and first planted in April, with a "perfect" southern exposure.
"The planting of this garden was one of the first things I wanted to do as First Lady here at the White House," Mrs. Obama said at an earlier harvest on June 17. At the opening of a Farmers Market on Sept. 17 in Washington, Mrs. Obama said the garden was "one of the greatest things I've done in my life, so far."
The garden was been wildly successful, growing into Mrs. Obama's anti-childhood obesity campaign.
Kass, gesturing toward stakes already in the ground, says in the video "we are going to be expanding our garden this year, at the request of the First Lady." The plan is to "build a couple more rows of beds," Kass said.
In assessing the harvest, Kass said it was "more humble" than a summer picking, "but I think we did pretty great."

(link to article: 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Locally Grown Organic Food

Making affordable, locally and regionally-grown organic food available to all, rich, middle-income and poor, must become a top priority for city and county governments across the nation. We are very pleased to say that we were able to change the front yard landscape ordinance in Sacramento CA to allow diverse plantings which can include fruits and vegetables.
More local organic food is beginning to be available with every new front and/or backyard home garden. New community gardens and local farmers markets are also supplying fresh local organic produce.

Making the transition to organic food and farming stimulates the local economy, improves public health, sequesters enormous amount of climate destabilizing greenhouse gases, and protects the environment. As global warming intensifies, scientists warn that a continuation of current "business as usual" practices will lead to a catastrophic 8.6 degree Fahrenheit temperature rise by 2100. Our only hope is to make energy-efficient and climate-stabilizing organic food and farming the norm rather than just the green alternative.

Tim LaSalle, Ph.D., CEO of the Rodale Institute, explains how organic farming techniques pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in living soil—an overlooked, but significant, route to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. More at

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Case for Mandatory Composting

It works in San Francisco. And it could work in Boston.

By Aubin Tyler
March 21, 2010

Living in the country, I have the luxury of a backyard compost pile. Right now it’s overflowing with acrid slop, but eventually it will yield dark, rich soil nutrients for the garden. If my potato peels, leftover rice, and parsley stems had been buried in a landfill, deprived of sun or air, those same scraps would have given rise to methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Nationwide, there’s a lot of potential in all that slop. In 2008, Americans generated nearly 32 million tons of food waste, and less than 3 percent of that was composted, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Scattered households with compost heaps won’t make a dent in this problem. But local governments can, and should. Last summer, San Francisco passed the first large-scale municipal composting law in the nation. (Seattle actually began mandating composting earlier, but it exempts businesses and apartment buildings.) Today, San Francisco collects 500 tons of food waste a day, picking up from 225,000 homes and apartments and 7,000 businesses. Scofflaws can be punished with fines from $100 to $1,000.

On pickup days, kitchen scraps get dumped into tightly covered green curbside bins, alongside black ones for trash and blue ones for recyclables. Squeamish customers can line their compost bins with compostable bags. The food waste goes to a processing facility, where it’s turned into high-grade compost. That, plus recycling, is expected to keep about 75 percent of San Francisco’s trash out of landfills this year. For 2020, the goal is 100 percent, or zero waste, which to many people would have been unthinkable not that many years ago.

Besides reducing landfill waste and methane emissions, composting enriches soil and reduces the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Could a composting law work in Massachusetts? It turns out, it can, and it does. Nantucket has mandated composting for more than a decade, ever since the island’s landfill started running out of space. Food, yard waste, and other organic matter -- about 50 tons a day -- go into a 185-foot-long “digester” that accelerates decomposition to accomplish in three days what normally takes Mother Nature six weeks. Over the past decade, the composting has kept more than 60,000 tons of methane out of the atmosphere, says Nantucket public works director Jeff Willett.

For island residents, it’s now second nature to divide trash into two streams: recycling and organic waste. They can haul it away themselves for free or pay for a pickup service. “For every 100 tons of trash that comes into our facility, only 8 tons go into the landfill,” Willett says. That’s a 92 percent diversion rate. What’s left? Mostly film plastic, like plastic bags.

Voluntary programs, while helpful, have limited impact. In Cambridge, residents unloaded 44 tons of food scraps last year at two drop-off centers, and 60 Cambridge businesses and institutions compost their food waste through a curbside collection program funded by a grant from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Through another MassDEP program, some 200 supermarkets and groceries across the Commonwealth compost about 27,000 tons of food waste per year, saving each store $20,000 to $40,000 annually in disposal costs. But that’s nothing compared with the estimated 1.1 million tons of food waste produced each year by Massachusetts businesses and institutions. (In its forthcoming 2010 solid waste master plan, the state environment department is considering a ban on landfill and incinerator disposal of all commercial food waste.)

Last year, the city of Boston issued a call to the private sector to gauge interest in developing a type of digester operation, pioneered in Toronto, which captures methane gas and then uses it to generate electricity. But Boston environment department director Bryan Glascock says the economic downturn has “sucked a little wind out of the room.”

So why wait for the private sector? The city already pays $80 a ton for private haulers to pick up its 200,000 tons of residential trash annually. That’s about $16 million a year in garbage fees.

So far, San Francisco and Seattle are the only major US cities that require residential organics collection, according to the December issue of BioCycle, although more than 90 cities and towns offer some type of food-waste collection.

Maybe zero waste isn’t a fantasy, after all. Now if we could just do something about those plastic bags.