Stacking Functions Garden

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Poverty: no longer just for the inner cities

Star Tribune reports today that poverty is no longer just an inner-city or rural area thing: Twin Cities suburbs now have a greater percentage of poverty than the inner cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Here’s the whole story.

The silver lining of this is that I see a real opportunity for the growth of community gardening initiatives in the suburbs.  With those huge lawns they’ve got out there, they could do some really awesome things.

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Book Review: Simplicity Parenting

Simplicity Parenting
Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and more Secure Kids
by Kim John Payne
& Lisa M. Ross

Here’s another book that is not overtly related to home economics at first glance.  But I found a lot to chew on here.

The premise of the book is this: by simplifying our childrens’ environment, we slow down their childhood to allow for the “essential unfolding of self… of identity, well-being, and resiliency.”

How to do this?  Payne recommends four areas of our modern lives that need to be examined: Environment, Rhythm, Schedules, and Filtering out the Adult World. Let’s look at each one individually.

Providing children with endless choices, endless sensory stimulation, is actually harming them by making them feel [sometimes] overwhelmed and [sometimes] entitled.  The fix?  Reduce the number of toys in your house.  Not just by half.  Most families, Payne asserts, can reduce their numbers by at least 75% before the kids will even notice.  He also provides a 10-step-guide to you, the parent, in deciding which toys to keep.

But he also recommends simplifying their wardrobes, and even simplifying your home.  I bet you can see where this is going, but he saves “screen-time” issues for part four.

Creating predictable rhythms and routines that kids can count on increases their sense of security and well-being.  One example of this is creating rhythms around simple, healthy foods.  He gives a creative reason for avoiding junk food: aside from the obvious health implications, giving a child “big-hit” flavors such as Doritoes, on a daily basis, can skew their perspective on what normal food ought to taste like.

My favorite idea from this section was creating one or two predictable food nights per week, for example, Friday Night Pizza, or Wednesday Night Soup.  If you’re a person who feels anxiety around meal-planning, you might even extend it to five nights a week.   Adam grew up with Sunday Night Tacos at his house.  It’s  something simple for the whole family to plan on.

Here’s another thing we all know is out of control: too many scheduled activities.  In his private practice, Payne likes to write a prescription for parents who overschedule their kids: “Boredom.  To be allowed three times a day, preferably before meals.”

Payne calls boredom a gift, and not just because it forces kids to come up with creative ways to entertain themselves.  In the short term, yes, this is a benefit.  But over the long term (and this was where, for me, the book started getting really interesting), boredom gives us another gift that he feels is missing from many kids’ lives: anticipation.

“When we open up our child’s schedules we make room for anticipation. Just as it’s hard to cherish a toy that’s buried in the middle of a pile, it is hard to anticipate something when we’re always busy, or when we’re trying to do everything now … Anticipating gratification, rather than expecting or demanding it, strengthens a child’s will.  Impulsivity, wanting everything now, leaves the will weak….”

He even goes so far as to say that too much activity — too much planned, scheduled, directed activity — can create a reliance on outer stimulation, a culture of compulsion and instant gratification; i.e. addictive behaviors.

Whoa.  Hold on there.  So signing my kid up for soccer after school means they’re going to grow up to be some kind of addict?  Nah.  He is making a point:  downtime is good for a kid.  And frankly, it’s good for parents too.  Frees up more time for you to bake bread!

He also talks a bit about how youth sports have changed, and admonishes parents who want their kid to be the next Tiger Woods: emotional intelligence should top our list of hopes and dreams for our children.

Filtering Out the Adult World
You knew this was coming, right?  Payne’s final section revolves around limiting a child’s screen time.  But he wants parents to cut back too, and for good reason: worry is now defining daily life for many parents, driving them to helicopter around their kids in fear of both real and perceived dangers.  And kids feed off those emotions.

He also warns against “too much information” — for example, maybe your small children don’t need to know many details about global warming.  Payne asks, “do you love the times you live in?”  For me, honestly, the answer is often no.  Do I need to complain about politics or other adult concerns incessantly in front of my kids?  Definitely not.

My favorite bit of advice in the entire book was this:

“When your children are young, let the world of doing be their domain.”

We already follow a good bit of the advice in this book with our own kids — to me it just makes sense.  It was also how both Adam and I were raised, at least to some extent.  Here’s the thing though:  it’s super easy to do this now, when they haven’t gone off to school yet, or even daycare (we have a nanny when Adam is at work).  Outside influences are limited in our lives right now.

All of these suggestions are probably much harder when you have school-age children.  But I don’t think that Payne is suggesting that everyone follow all of this perfectly, step-by-step.  In his private practice, he does some radical transformations with families who are having lots of problems (I picture a minimalist version of SuperNanny).  Some of the anecdotes in the book are pretty powerful.  But for most of us, we can pick and choose which areas of our family life need the most help, and concentrate on them.

If this stuff interests you, there are some excerpts from the book and other information on Payne’s website,

So I guess I’ll have to think twice before I enroll the kids in the Junior Master Gardener program

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A few things

Well, the Master Gardener core course is keeping me insanely busy. I haven’t had nearly as much time as I’d like to work on the blog, so I’m going to condense a few things into one post:

Solar Shingles
Here’s a product from Dow Chemical.  Interesting… shingles embedded with photovoltaic cells that can be installed the same way asphalt shingles are currently installed.  Of course they are insanely expensive, and one other problem that I’ve always had with solar panels is they are made with some pretty toxic materials and therefore hard to dispose of at the end of their lifecycle.  Still, I can’t help but fantasize about being able to afford these next time we have to roof our house.

Yards to Gardens
A friend sent me a link to this brand new project, currently only in Minneapolis (and it looks from the map like it’s centered in the Powderhorn Neighborhood).  Have a yard that you don’t really use and would like a garden?  Like to garden but don’t have a yard?  This service matches gardeners and potential garden spots.

Barrel Depot
I’m adding a third rain barrel to my collection this spring.  We’re getting one of these beautiful oak recycled wine barrels from Barrel Depot, a Minnesota company.  I think we’ll put this one in the front since it is so much prettier than our plastic ones.

I can’t remember where I heard about this new website, but it is really cool!  You type in your starting point and your destination point and it helps you find the best bike route.  It’s currently only available in the 7-county Twin Cities metro area.  I typed in my work address, and it gave me an option I hadn’t really considered before: taking 18th Ave. all the way up to the Greenway, then the Greenway across the new bike bridge over Hiawatha, then the Hiawatha trail into downtown.  It’s only 1/4 mile further than the route I take now, and it would be paved bike path for half the distance.  I’m going to try it.

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Running home from work (literally)

Since the roads became treacherous the second week of December, I’ve been taking the bus instead of biking.  I had a nice long biking season for 2009 — approximately April 1 through almost mid-December.  I was only a couple weeks shy of my yearly goal of biking for at least 9 months.  Well, there’s always 2010…

In the meantime, I am desperately trying to stave off winter weight gain.  I was bad over the holidays: I can’t seem to control myself when faced with peanut butter balls, almond bark, and peanut brittle.

I decided that I needed to try running more often — I had been barely maintaining a minimum running schedule of short, easy jogs about once per week.  Since I’m very busy, why not combine exercise and transportation and run home from work a couple nights a week?  It only takes about 20-25 minutes longer than taking the bus (sometimes less).  I run the same route that I bike, through the neighborhoods of south Minneapolis.  It’s a little over 4 miles, total.

I’ve run it a few times now, and it’s slowly growing on me. Here I am after arriving safely home tonight.  It was a balmy 21 degrees F when I left work, so I wore a headband instead of a winter hat.  Note the frost covering the headband (it was black when I left work).

The only bad part about running in Minnesota in the winter is the footing.  It is absolutely awful.  Name the crappy road/sidewalk condition, and I run on it: slush, glare ice, packed snow, rough ice, rough ice with packed snow on top, huge piles of snow blocking the sidewalk, you name it.

Last week I wiped out, and even though I was unhurt, decided that I needed to invest in a pair of these:

We bought Adam’s dad a pair of YakTrax a few years ago for ice fishing, and he liked them.  So, I bought myself a pair and put them on my running shoes.  It was a marked improvement.  I’m not going to say it was as good as running on dry pavement, but it was definitely less scary than my runs of the last few weeks.

And the weather finally warmed up!  My first few runs were in negative windchills, and that aspect was challenging.  I really had to bundle up.  Thank goodness my house is south of downtown, so the winter wind is at my back the whole way.

I’ve found that I really dislike carrying a backpack while running — maybe I’m just not in good enough shape.  Whatever the reason, I’ve usually just been leaving my stuff at work and running only with my cellphone and keys.  Then I take it all home on the bus the next day.

The best part: I save a $2.50 bus fare every time I run!  That could add up, over time…


All I want for Christmas is a cargo bike

(The above image is from a funny essay about Amsterdam bicycle culture.)

Ever since I went to Amsterdam in 2006, I have wanted a cargo bicycle.  One evening as we were leaving our hotel, we saw two little kids wave goodbye to their Oma, climb into a box just like the one pictured above, and ride away with their mom.  It was a very sweet scene, and I was amazed that I had never seen bikes like this in America.

That was nearly four years ago, and these types of bikes have exploded in popularity.  The Xtracycle seems to be the most popular option in Minneapolis.  I see them all over the place, and their owners rave about them.  An Xtracycle is basically a bike with an extra-long back end. Fitted with a board, it becomes a super long and sturdy version of a traditional rear bike rack.  It’s also one of the most configurable and affordable systems I’ve seen, though we’re still talking a good $500 to get started with a nice conversion kit for your existing bike.

The obvious, much cheaper solution is to just get a simple bike trailer, right?  We own a Schwinn carrier which we used quite a bit this summer.  It works well, but really only for one very specific purpose:  hauling one or two relatively small children.  My twins are 2, and already by the end of this summer they were borderline too big for it.  So what will we do next year?  I think they’re going to be a little young yet to ride tagalong bikes.

The cheapest option of all would be a DIY long-tail cargo bicycle. Warning: welding is involved.  Now lobbying Adam to see if I can talk him into this as a fun winter welding project.

If you, unlike me, have anywhere from $500 to $5,000 to spend on a custom cargo bike, check these out:

Xtracycle — one of the more affordable ones
Larry Vs Harry from Copenhagen Cyclery in Chicago — all kinds of Dutch bikes
metrofiets custom cargo bikes in Portland, Oregon — start at $4,800 for full-builds
Clever Cycles, also in Portland — lots of cool options here

There are many, many more options out there.  This post was inspired by an NPR story today about cargo bikes, and the fact that we’re due for a winter storm tomorrow. Biking season 2009 is now coming to a close.

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Making permaculture plans (but not for Nigel)


I have been so inspired by the book Edible Forest Gardens (by Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier) that I’ve been sketching and brainstorming about what we could do with our backyard, now that we’ve eliminated our problematic trees.  We’re nowhere near consensus on what we should do (or what we will be able to afford to do), but it’s fun to brainstorm.

I am inspired by many aspects of permaculture, but one of the most simple/profound is the concept of “stacking.”  Stacking refers to stacking functions: any element (plant, structure) that we put into our landscape ought to fulfill at least two functions.  The more functions you can stack on a single element, the better.  So planting something that looks great, but does absolutely nothing else?  Well, from now on I’m going to think twice about it.

Here are some examples of multiple-function plants, and their functions:

Dill: looks nice, attracts beneficial insects, edible (3!)
Apple tree: provides shade, looks pretty (esp. in the spring when in bloom), provides food
Trellis over your deck: provides shade & support for vines (plant useful vines like pole beans and you stack another function on)

I totally think “looks nice” is a valid function.  So I’m drawing up plans… lots of plans… coming up with ideas on how I can turn my backyard into a productive, enjoyable landscape.  Stay tuned.  Can you think of other good examples of stacking?


Bicycle safety: the bottom line

When it comes to bike commuting, there is a lot of really great advice out there about how to stay safe.  But there is one simple way to boil that all down, and greatly increase your safety:

Design a bike route that you would never, ever drive.

What does this mean? Let me show you my bike route, to illustrate (click on map at right to enlarge).  The gray line represents my former bike route, and also the way I take when I drive my car to work.  It follows Park Avenue, a one-way street with an on-road bike lane in south Minneapolis.  Portland Ave, a one-way street 2 blocks west of Park, is the route home in that case.

Park and Portland are VERY busy roads.  Most suburbanites and all Minneapolis-ites know them as a very quick way to get through the south side when 35W is clogged.  These streets have a speed limit of 35 mph, and it’s not uncommon to get passed on your bike, very closely, by cars and trucks going 40-45 mph.

So what’s so great about my new route (in blue on the map)?

By biking on mostly residential streets, I minimize the number of cars that I come into contact with — cars don’t take these streets because it would be ridiculously slow for them.  For a large part of my ride, I’m cruising down tree-lined residential streets, saying hello to people, and watching out more for kids running around kicking soccer balls than for cars.  I only go through a handful of stoplights (mostly in and near downtown); however, I do have countless stop signs.  But because most of the intersections I’m crossing are minor, I can do a “California stop” (car drivers do it too, so don’t even start) and be on my merry way.

It sounds like a much slower way to ride, right?  Actually, it takes the exact same amount of time as my former ride (around 20-25 min), but it is different.  My overall speed is slower, but I stop less often and for shorter amounts of time.

I devised this route over a period of a couple of weeks last summer, partially out of a desire to ride past Powderhorn Park and see the lake every morning.   I ride right down the middle of the road, eliminating any risk of being doored, reducing the risk of hitting a pedestrian crossing the street, and ensuring that any of the slow-moving cars that I meet or that come up behind me definitely see me (I move to the side to let them pass immediately).  I ding my bell the entire way through the one or two dangerous intersections.

This summer was the first time that I biked an entire season, morning and night, on the new route.  And I had the fewest number of close calls that I’ve ever had.  I still had a couple, but overall fewer.  And my rides quickly became the most pleasant part of my day.  I’ve always loved riding, but now, well, I love it even more.

What do you think, readers?  If you ride, do you stick to residential streets, or are you one of those crazy bikers that I see riding down Lyndale or Cedar Avenues?  Bike paths?  I wish there was a quicker all bike-path way for me to get to work, but my current schedule doesn’t permit the extra half-hour each way that it would take.

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CSA Week 18

It’s here, boo-hoo. Our final week of CSA for 2009:

1 bunch kale
2 stalks of brussels sprouts
2 heads broccoli
1 bag saute mix
1 large butternut squash
2 bunches radishes
2 bags of herbs for transplanting or using fresh
4 onions
4-5 apples
1 pie pumpkin
4 truffles (a thank-you gift for last csa week)

I’m really sad to see our CSA come to an end.  It has been so great getting all this fresh produce every week.  Combined with what we grew in our garden, we had very cheap grocery store trips all summer long and into the fall now.  I don’t know whether we’re getting a CSA or not next year; depends on if we can find someone to split it with us.

Standard CSA info:

What is a CSA?
Where do we get our CSA from? Food 4 Thought.
See all of my CSA posts

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CSA Week 17


1 head romaine lettuce
1 pie pumpkin
5 apples
1 “sugar baby” watermelon
2 tomatoes
3 heads broccoli
2 squash – “heart of gold”
A nice handful of parsnips
3 onions
4 really cute little gold turnips
2 kohlrabis (one purple, one green)

Well, this is almost it.  The second-to-the-last week of CSA.  I absolutely loved getting a box of fresh produce every week for the last 17 weeks.  And I think we actually got a really good deal — if we had purchased all of this from the store I feel certain it would have added up to more than what we paid for our half-share.  What’s more, we’ve eaten way more fresh vegetables this summer than I ever thought possible, and what a treat they all were.  Having the CSA also enabled us to do more preserving of the stuff we grew in our garden, so now we have food laid out for the winter as well.

Standard CSA info:

What is a CSA?
Where do we get our CSA from? Food 4 Thought.
See all of my CSA posts

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Book Review: Freedom Manifesto

The Freedom Manifesto
How to free yourself from anxiety, fear, mortgages, money, guilt, debt, government, boredom, supermarkets, bills, melancholy, pain, depression, work and waste
By Tom Hodgkinson

That’s a bit of a tall order, isn’t it?  Hopefully it’s obvious to anyone who picks this book up that most of the advice within should be taken with a grain of salt, and preferably, a large glass of wine.

There are so many one-liners in this book, it was hard to choose the best ones.  For example:

“I am anti-crime, but not because I morally disapprove of law-breaking — in fact, I am attracted to criminals… I am against crime because it feeds straight into the government system: for every crime committed, there is a tenfold attack on personal liberties… Therefore, the real anarchist should avoid criminal acts at all costs.”

Each chapter of this book easily stands on its own as an essay, and maybe it’s better to take them that way: some of them directly contradict each other.   For example, one chapter encourages you to embrace melancholy, while the next chapter tells you to quit whining and get on with your life.

But he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  In particular, I liked what he had to say about gardening (naturally), which he brings up many times.  He sees gardening as one of the keys to finding contentment, saving money, and —  best of all — giving the finger to supermarkets, which he piles a whole chapter’s worth of hatred on.  He also highly recommends the combination of drinking and gardening, and I can testify to that.

Hodgkinson is VERY well read.  There are no shortage of long-winded passages from many different philosophers from Nietzsche to Tomas Aquinas to the Sex Pistols.  He talks endlessly about the wonders of “being idle” but it is very clear that he actually keeps quite busy.  It’s just that he’s busy doing the things he wants to do (such as gardening, baking bread, drinking, and reading).

So how does one go about achieving this elusive freedom?  Basically, it’s about embracing thrift so that you don’t have to work so damn hard.   Quit your job and work part-time.  Sell your car.  Ride a bike.  Plant a garden.  Throw out your television. Give up the bourgeois ideals of career and large home, embrace simple pleasures.  (The sustainability aspect of this is also not lost on him.)

One of Hodgkinson’s central arguments is that people actually knew a lot more about personal freedom in the middle ages than they do today.  Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  But many aspects of medieval society did encourage more personal freedom:  for example, charging interest for loans was a sin — usury — punishable by the church.  Think about that for a minute.

I’m not so sure that life was a giant party in the middle ages, as Hodgkinson seems to think, but we have in many ways lost sight of things that medieval people valued, and we constantly sell ourselves short by accepting crappy food, crappy jobs, and crappy entertainment without question.

Hodgkinson has a real problem with the Reformation (in a hilarious way), and tears down all those pillars of common [puritan] sense, from John Calvin to Benjamin Franklin, of whom he says this (in a chapter about throwing away your watch):

“Time and money, which the medievals tried to hard to keep separated, have come together into one thing.  How did the change happen?  Well, as in other areas, I am going to blame that dastardly toiler and moralist Benjamin Franklin, who invented or expressed an entirely new way of thinking about time in the eighteenth century.  Time was no longer a gift from God.  Now, time was money.”

Some other advice that I absolutely loved:
– Instead of worrying about how clean your house is, turn off the lights and dine by candlelight
– Throw out your TV and spend the money you save on alcohol
– Don’t waste your time being jealous of rich bankers, because they’re going to hell anyway.  They deserve your pity (see the sin of usury, above).

I loved the irreverance of this book.  The only thing that made me a little bit sad and bitter was this fact: England, the home country of the author, has a much more hospitable environment for being a part-time freelance worker for the simple fact that they have national healthcare.

But just because I must continue to work does not mean I can’t live for every moment outside of work that is available to me.  As Hodgkinson says (quoting William Blake), “Indeed, the manacles are mind-forg’ed.”

Why NOT embrace thrift?  Why NOT embrace community?  I love it.