Category Archives: Lawn and Garden

A Real-life, Solar-Powered Chain Saw

Another step away from fossil fuel...

Another step away from fossil fuel…

I took a risk, and I think it paid off. I have an electric car, and a cordless electric lawnmower, and fully-functional battery-powered construction tools. But a chain saw? I was pretty skeptical, but I was also intrigued by the potential advantages—push-button starting, light weight, not having to mess with gasoline mixes, no finicky carburetors to keep adjusted. So I spent some time watching YouTube videos of electric saws, and decided that one of the larger ones might indeed work as well as my Jonsered gas saws.

So I took bit of a gamble, and ordered one from Amazon. It’s an 80-volt, 18-inch Greenworks saw, and comes with a 2-amp-hour lithium-ion battery and a 30-minute quick charger. I also ordered a second battery. Three days ago the package showed up on the porch, and I have to say, I’m really impressed with it so far, so much so that I’ve already made arrangements to sell the gas saws.

Ok, before I go on,  it’s obviously only indirectly “solar powered”, because I charge the batteries at home from my net-zero solar set-up. But that was one of my goals– to further reduce my fossil-fuel use. When I charge them at home, they are indeed solar powered. But back to the saw—

Without this being a full-on power tool review, let me give you some of my have-used-it-for-three-days thoughts— Continue reading

…And Now the Monarchs.

monarch

As with the honeybees, monarch butterflies are suffering catastrophic declines, for many of the same reasons—loss of habitat and pesticide use among them.

“Where are all the monarchs, Dad?” This, from my 10-year-old son, while out for a walk this past summer. I had been somewhat wondering that same thing myself, because I hadn’t seen any monarchs lately, either, but I didn’t think too much more about it at the time. But I’ve recently read articles that spelled it out—monarch butterflies have declined 90% in the last twenty years. There are a number of culprits here. The most important, perhaps, is a drastic reduction in the number of milkweed plants in the United States, which are the monarchs’ sole food for portions of their lives. The decline of the milkweed, in turn, has been caused by an increase in the amount of land under cultivation, and the all-too-common use of Roundup and other herbicides on GMO crops. These are some of the same problems that are affecting honeybees (post: “Bees: Our Problems in Miniature“). Monarch butterflies are also losing habitat in central Mexico, where they over-winter, due to illegal logging. I won’t try to recount it all here, but here are a few good articles, in Newsweek, and National Geographic, and there are plenty of others online.

monarch catapillar

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant, their sole food source at this stage of their lives.

The bigger question, beyond what has caused this, is what we can do about it? A few things come to mind right away—

— Don’t put pesticides or herbicides on your lawn. Ever. This one is a no-brainer. (See posts “Leave it a Lawn” and “Leave it a Lawn Part Deux“). And if you happen to own other land or rural property, consider not mowing it every year. We humans might think that a short green lawn or freshly mown field looks good, but nature doesn’t necessarily agree.

— Buy some organic food. Or buy lots of organic food. (Post: “Not with Your Mouth Full“). The dollars we spend as consumers are often our most powerful tools, and if you don’t like the effects of industrial-scale agri-business and the pesticides and herbicides they use, then don’t support those companies with your food dollars. On the flip side, do support those farmers and growers who are farming in ways that are far gentler on the planet, or even restorative (post: “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“).

Plant some milkweed. I just went out in the fields and gathered a whole bunch of milkweed seeds, and I’ll be planting them this spring, along with other wildflowers for the honeybees (and honeybees just happen to love milkweed nectar, too…). Seeds are available online, as well (and many are free). If you order seeds, though, make sure to get milkweed varieties that are native to your area and climate; there are about fifteen different types. And in the fall when the seeds pop out, give seeds to your friends and get them to plant them, too. When butterflies are adults, they eat nectar from flowers just like bees do, so flowers and flowering trees and bushes are also good choices.

Milkweed seeds...

Milkweed seeds…

— Lastly, consider donating to (or volunteering with) a group that is working to protect the monarchs. There are numerous conservation groups dedicated to this cause, such as Save Our Monarchs, the Monarch Butterfly Fund, and the World Wildlife Fund. These groups work to raise awareness, to plant milkweed plants, and to preserve other butterfly habitat, including the forests where they over-winter.

A nice little clip from PBS about the annual monarch migration–

So, I try to act, but I don’t often directly exhort others to. But, I’m going to make an exception today— DO SOMETHING. Be a part of slowing down our ongoing environmental destruction, in some way, in some fashion. Please. If not the monarch, pick some other area to get involved with, there’s no shortage. The world is changing quickly—if my 10-year-old is noticing change, then that should be a warning in and of itself.

Beautiful pictures in this post—my thanks to:
Top image credit: “Monarch Butterfly”, by Peter Miller, Flickr Creative Commons.
Caterpillar: “Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed”, by Seney Natural History Association, Flickr Creative Commons.
Seeds: “Milkweed Retching”, by Keith Carver, Flickr Creative Commons.

Leave it a Lawn, Part Deux

fowers 1

Look what pops up when you quit mowing…

Another short post here, a continuation, I suppose, of some of my previous lawn posts ( “A Matter of Perception” , “Leave it a Lawn” , and Mr. X’s humorous “Mr. X on Lawn Care” ). I decided, this spring, that we could get a lot of bang for our buck by mowing dramatically less lawn. The trend here in rural Vermont seems to be to mow an extra strip around the yard every year, until most people, by the time they’re in their 50’s, seem to be mowing five acres of grass every week (invariably while sitting aboard loud, exhaust-belching riding mowers). We could nip that trend in the bud, and save some lawn-care time. This decision was also related to the veritable ocean of beautiful dandelion blooms that filled the yard this spring, right when the bees needed that early spring food—I just couldn’t bring myself to mow them down. And finally, in some burst of Zen or Dao or feng shui inspiration (“Getting My Feng Shui On”), we decided to abandon the old semi-rectangular lawn format, and cut the edge of the much-smaller mowed area into sweeping curves, in free-forms around the house and garden, with adjoining curvy mown paths. (All with the electric mower.) The kids complained that the new plan was ruining their field hockey and football field, but we persisted. The relatives probably also think that the unmowed areas are a bit sacrilegious, but hey, we’re probably already beyond redemption in that department.

I’m happy to report that the results have been absolutely fantastic. After the sea of dandelion blooms turned to wispy seed heads, the newly-unmown areas looked a tiny bit ratty for a week or two, but then other wild flowers just appeared, as if by magic. White clover, red clover, buttercups, daisies, vetch and ground ivy, and flowers I don’t even recognize, all over the former lawn. And, all playing host to a huge number of bumblebees, and honeybees from the new hive.

So, win-win-win. Less work, more flowers, more bee and pollinator habitat, and some curvy spiritual calmness to boot. In the end, worth being an object of suspicion in that all-American quest to be just like everybody else.

flowers 2

Daisies.

 

Another 25 Gallons

The Neuton

The Neuton

Well, another one of those unexpected-homeowner-expenses—our lawn mower finally gave up the ghost, I think. This was probably breakdown number ten; I’ve been patching it up for years and years. Here’s my wife’s facebook post—broken mower

So, I decided to replace it with an electric mower. And one with a battery, not one with a cord… I had seen a few models at Lowe’s the other week, ranging from $150 to $350. But, we drove up there only to find that they were completely sold out, and back-ordered; apparently the mowers are selling like hotcakes. This is good for the planet, but wasn’t good for me. Home Depot didn’t have any cordless models, so I dropped by the DR Equipment store in Vergennes—bingo. They sell Neuton brand electric mowers, which I had actually heard of. So, this was the epitome of buying-without-research—we got there at 11 minutes to closing time on a Friday before a holiday weekend, with a wife at home who was pretty determined to mow, and mow soon. (She does the bulk of the lawn mowing). They had two models, basically large and medium, so I immediately told the salesperson that I’d take a large, at $399, and ten minutes later I was a Neuton mower owner.

My wife was pretty skeptical. Fortunately the battery was nearly fully charged. Unfortunately, the grass was somewhat high; due to broken mower. But the Neuton held its own. We decided that the max height setting (3 inches) was probably the closest match to how we cut it before, and experimented with the discharge chute and with the mulching arrangement. I was surprised with the mulching—I thought it would draw more power, but it didn’t seem to, and left virtually no clippings. (We don’t bag our clippings, unless I’m collecting up material for the compost pile). Even though it wasn’t fully charged, the battery lasted at least 45 minutes, and my wife got about a quarter of the lawn cut.

And, similarly to owning the Leafs—our rural off-grid situation is slightly atypical, and will require a bit more planning than a normal suburbanite might have to deal with. The lawn is largish, and rather than letting the grass grow quite a bit and then powering through it with the 6-hp gas mower, we’re going to have to cut it before it gets really high. But the mower is way lighter than the old one, and you can walk quickly when the grass isn’t high, so this should be about the same amount of total effort. And, we might need to buy a second battery (it pulls right out of the mower; easy) so that we can mow for two hours, instead of one. (My preference would be to go the “Minimalist” route and choose to not have such a big lawn, but I’m getting out-voted on this one). The batteries require at least eight hours to charge, so even with two it will take two sessions to get the lawn cut, no more 4-hour mowing marathons. (Again–I’d opt for a smaller lawn…).

But—I’d guess that we have been using about 25 gallons of gasoline a season, just cutting the grass. Perhaps more; it seems like every other weekend one of us is making a special trip to the gas station in the gas-powered vehicle (pre-Leaf) just to fill up the gas can. Here’s the Neuton handouts that came with the mower—

neuton cards

I suppose these points pretty much sum it up. In the end, 25 gallons saved is a just a fraction of the 1,000 gallons a year we’ll save with the Leafs. But, another step in the right direction. And my wife will just have to live with the plastic wheels.

Image credits: Me

Update: I really like this mower. This is something I didn’t expect; in the back of my mind I was prepared for a constant compromise to be fossil-fuel free in the mowing department. But the more I used it today the more I liked it (I did buy a second battery). It’s lighter than the old one, and way easier to “refuel”; no more messing with funnels and gas. Plus, it occurred to me that the 25-gallon fuel savings, every year, will pay for the mower in about five years. And that’s just not something that happens with a gas mower, period. And I don’t have to wear hearing protection when I mow. Yay.

Update, May 2016: We’re on year four with the batteries, and they’re starting to lose a little of their oomf (technical term). At $100 each, I’m thinking about changing over to one of the new Greenworks lithium-ion 80-volt models with quick-chargers. I’ll make sure the current one gets to someone who will use it…

Mr. X on Lawn Care

lawn sprinkler

Ha, Mr. X acually seems to (almost) agree with me fully about my “Leave it a Lawn” post. Somewhat unusual. To celebrate, I’ll actually “let him speak” today, because his reply has a certain humor that will be lost if I paraphrase. So, Mr. X on lawns, in his own words–

“Speaking as a standard subdivision dweller with a well-tended, good-looking lawn, I can say without reservation that lawns are, well ….. stupid.  At the moment it would be difficult for me to think of a more futile, wasteful exercise than maintaining an attractive lawn.  The beautiful lawn has something for everyone to hate; wasted time, wasted money, wasted water, all with a strong dose of pollution thrown in.  Really, beyond weekly mowing, and possibly trimming, a lawn shouldn’t be such a resource-sucker in our lives.  But yet we spend untold time, dollars, and petrochemicals trying to defeat Darwin in our backyards.  We can’t be satisfied with the naturally hearty, drought resistant green things that automatically populate our yards.  No, we feel the need to make weak, loser species of plants flourish on our patches of dirt.  And to do this we have to supply them with copious amounts of a very precious resource (the stuff we drink), and then try to fight off regular nature with all manner of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides.  Now, I personally feel that well-engineered (to degrade rapidly) pesticides and insecticides are an important — if unfortunate — and necessary part of feeding the world.  But that’s on a farm that produces a very important product, i.e., our sustenance.  So, putting them on a lawn?  Come on — exactly what part of humanity are we helping by making sure the Kentucky Bluegrass defeats the dreaded Chickweed?  One need only look at Las Vegas — home to some of the finest lawns in the world and also a rapidly disappearing water supply — to understand the absurdity.  Now, having said all that, my spouse and neighbors don’t exactly share my views — the Bluegrass must triumph — so a middle ground is necessary that keeps me married and not booted out of the neighborhood.  So here’s what I do — skip all pesticides, they just kill the earthworms and don’t help the lawn in any way that I can tell.  Don’t bag the grass — wastes time and effort and the lawn is better with it.  For fertilizer, I sparingly apply dried, bagged wastewater treatment biosolids (dried bacteria/sludge).  Admittedly, it doesn’t work quite as well as the engineered petroleum-based fertilizers, but it works well enough.  And I don’t water — even the wussy Bluegrass seems to have a good dormant/regrowth cycle.  Now, the interesting thing is that my closest neighbors seem to be following us — we have a decent-looking lawn without constantly spraying it with something (water or chemicals) and we don’t bag, so I see more of that around us.  But we’re still a long way from accepting a “weed lawn.”  Gotta start somewhere.  Just say “no” (slowly) to lawns.”    -Mr. X.

So, I have to say that I like the part about the neighbors following suit; changing cultural expectations is on my “to blog” list.

Image credit: mrtwister / 123RF Stock Photo

Leave it a Lawn

rain and cars

I was discussing the other day how buying an electric vehicle (EV) is “low-hanging fruit” with regard to making changes. Well, another piece of low-hanging fruit might be as close as our front doors—our lawns. Which are related to water-quality, which is also related to… EV’s, in a great big circle.

To back up a bit, the center of this particular story has to do with where storm water goes when it rains. Fifty years ago cities regularly built their wastewater treatment systems so that storm water from their streets would flow into their wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). These were called “Combined Sewer” systems. The reasons were obvious—all the oil and chemicals, and trash, for that matter, that ended up on the streets would get filtered and treated before it was dumped back into rivers and streams (or the ocean, in coastal areas). But, when all things were taken into account, these systems had more drawbacks than positives, because the volume of water that flows into them during heavy rains results in what water engineers refer to as CSO, or Combined System Overflow—the system can’t treat the water fast enough, and it all just flushes straight through into the environment—the storm water and the sewage.

So cities have avoided this combined design, and very few or none have been built in the last 40 years (Only about a quarter of US cities have combined systems today, and most of those are trying to move away from this process). Which is good, because they can do a much better job treating sewage without dealing with storm water. BUT—the downside is that in the vast majority of places all across the U.S. (I’m not sure how Europe does it), anything on the street, or that washes into the street, goes directly into the environment when it rains.

Now, let’s go somewhere else for a second—the Gulf of Mexico. Where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf, and up and down the coast in Texas and Louisiana, are huge areas where oxygen levels are so low that fish and other marine life have a very hard time surviving, if they can survive at all. It’s called the “Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone,” and can affect as many as 7,000 sq. miles of water (it’s worse in the summer). And the dead one is caused by, mainly, fertilizer runoff. So, this is all a topic for another day, but the short version—almost 2 million pounds of potassium and nitrogen fertilizers wash into the Gulf of Mexico each year. (And the same problem exists in coastal areas worldwide, but the Gulf of Mexico dead zone is one of the worst).

NASA image of polluted runoff at Mississippi River delta

NASA image of polluted runoff at Mississippi River delta

Which brings us back to lawns. When you look at it per unit of area, Americans put 40 times more chemicals on their lawns than U.S. farmers put on their fields. And when it rains, those chemicals and fertilizers, the second they hit pavement at the edge of a lawn (or drainage of any sort), are sluiced into the environment in a flash. And that 2 million pounds of fertilizer in the Mississippi River? A full ten percent of it comes from lawns and gardens (and my guess would be that the “garden” part of that figure is probably relatively small).

In the end, all those pretty lawns across America—they’re pretty disastrous in the big scheme of things. If you have a lawn—please quit spending your money buying bags and bags of “Weed and Feed” and such, and then dumping those chemicals straight into the outdoors. For that matter, quit bagging your clippings—if you quit taking the nutrients off of the lawn, you wouldn’t have to be trying to put them back with chemical fertilizers. If you just can’t stand not to bag your clippings, then start a good compost pile and spread the completed compost back on the yard. Upon reflection here, lawns are definitely some “low-hanging fruit”. We could save time, and we could save money, and we could use that saved money to redirect demand in some positive way, and we could help the bees, and we could have a huge effect on water quality, and we could help the shrimp, and the crabs, and the fish, all by “leaving it a lawn”.

And those EV’s? Well, they don’t drip oil onto streets, because they don’t have engines, or transmissions. Just like our environment, the solutions tie together in a great big web.

 Opening image credit: inganielsen / 123RF Stock Photo

A Matter of Perception

dandelion field

Time for a simpler post. Try this—dandelions are beautiful. They make pretty yellow flowers that bees depend on at certain points in the early spring, and the entire plant is edible. This business of spreading herbicides on every other lawn all across American to kill dandelions and the “wrong” kinds of grass is just patently ridiculous. It kills the grass, and the bees, and then washes into streams where it kills the fish, frogs and amphibians. Speaking of completely wasted money, effort, and wealth… Speaking of sending the wrong kind of demand signals to the market… Buying these products and then willfully spreading them around in the environment, on purpose, for no real gain, is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Nissan Leaf update—The Nissan dealerships seem to be sold out for the moment. I guess that’s good news for the planet in the big picture. My wife met a guy in town who was driving one, and he seemed to love it. The dealer in Burlington expects to have more in a few weeks, and I’ll go look at them then.

I love these images from 123RF, some of them are so beautiful that the image alone could suffice as a post. Keeps us reminded of what we’re trying to protect. (Completely unsolicited endorsement).

 Image credit: fyletto / 123RF Stock Photo