Apr 26, 2007

Why I Didn't Send You Flowers

Wait! Is that the drone of helicopters? Does anyone else smell DDT?

We're under quarantine again, this time courtesy of the light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana), an invasive species native to Australia. This innocent looking little guy (maybe it's the nail through his neck) destroys, stunts or deforms young seedlings; spoils the appearance of ornamental plants; and injures deciduous fruit-tree crops, citrus and grapes. All in all, the LBAM (can we call him Bam-Bam?) has a taste for some 250 species of plants.

The quarantine was implemented on March 22, about a month after a retired entomologist found a couple of LBAMs in his backyard. Bam-Bam has been established in Hawaii for a while now, but this is his first appearance on the mainland. Santa Clara county was added to the quarantine zone on April 20, after being detected in Palo Alto and Los Altos a week earlier.

Because Bam-Bam doesn't have a very long flight range, he's mastered the art of hitchhiking. The California Department of Food and Agriculture was quick to develop this brochure to explain how you can thwart his travels. The good news is, Bam-Bam is also vulnerable to organic controls, including pheremone disruption, Bacillus thuringiensis and parasitic wasps.

While the state rushes to keep LBAM from spreading (which would be, um, BAD for our sizable agricultural exports), the rest of us can keep a lid on our green waste, not bring host plants (i.e. plants, period) to non-quarantined areas, and call CDFA if we see Bam-Bam.

After, of course, giving him a one-way ticket ¡STRAIGHT TO HELL! with a nail through the neck.

(Thanks to Ron and Joe for their reporting at SFGate.com.)

Apr 24, 2007

Pollan Nails It... Again

If you haven't already, please read Michael Pollan's recent piece, "You Are What You Grow," in last Sunday's New York Times. In his usual brilliant voice, Pollan describes why today's national "farm bill" -- you know, the one that pays farmers to produce (or not) our ingredients -- is almost directly at odds with our health and our waistlines -- and our childrens'. Although short on action steps we can take to remedy this archaic legislation, Pollan's article will raise your eyebrows, and your conscience.

By the way, it's worth mentioning that this isn't Pollan's first trip down the anti-Big-Corn aisle... his 2003 essay Is Corn Making Us Fat? is well worth the download.

Apr 21, 2007

Happy Earth Day

"If people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth...."
--Anousheh Ansari, Iranian-American space tourist who flew last year to the international space station.

Apr 13, 2007

Biodegradable Artificial Lawn

OK, I've got it: why not manufacture synthetic turf out of cornstarch or some other biodegradable polymer, like the packing peanuts?

Obviously you don't want it to degrade in a day, but couldn't the lifespan be about a year if just enough insoluble fiber or milk proteins or something is added? Or some marginally stable organic compound that doesn't decompose in the presence of water, but rather hydrogen peroxide? And for that matter, couldn't you imbue it with microbiology to keep some semblance of soil food web going down beneath the drain rock?

Boy, the syn-turf companies are really missing the boat on this one. Annual maintenance or infill replacement be damned -- just sign up for the scheduled annual replacement! And they wouldn't have to mess with all those 5- and 10-year warranties... I can see the marketing now: "place your order now to have your brand-new BioLawn(TM) delivered just in time for spring training!" Installation would be a cinch, just staple the new one down on top of the old.

Seriously, is plastic really the only thing we can make grass out of?

Apr 12, 2007

The drought is coming! The drought is coming!

Given that San Francisco's rainfall during the 2005-2006 season was about 157% of normal, it's a little weird to me that after one dry winter the PUC is raising the specter of voluntary or even mandatory water restrictions. Nevertheless, numbers don't lie (or do they?), so we better get thinking about how to reduce our water usage.

Which brings me back to the ultimate water hog, lawn. Brian of Mauby All Natural was kind enough to suggest he could "improve soil condition to a point where water use can drop by 75%." Brian's primary product seems to be compost tea, which is an excellent amendment and one whose regular use I regularly recommend for my clientele who are serious about improving the overall health of their soil. But turfgrass being turfgrass, I'm hard pressed to understand how it could thrive on 5,000 gallons of water a year instead of 20,000.

So what's better: spending 12,000 gallons (I'll give Brian partial credit) of our precious Sierra snowpack on irrigation each year, or tossing 750 square feet of plastic into the landfill each decade? I honestly don't know the answer. If you do, please share with the class.

Apr 4, 2007

How Green Was My Valet

Just in case you don't agree with the folks who believe that "the most sustainable product is the one you never bought in the first place", soon HauteGREEN will offer you a chance to shop "the best in sustainable design for the contemporary home, showcasing furniture, lighting, and accessories that are both aesthetically pleasing and eco-friendly."

Among the highlights of last year's expo was Daniel Michalik's Cortica, a 72" chaise longue made entirely of renewable and recyclable cork. (Which I suppose would have the added benefit of floating should it fall into the pool.) I'll be interested to see whether there are any truly cradle to cradle solutions, or just more marginally recycled/recyclable crap none of us really needs to buy. I am, however, encouraged by the curators' criteria for evaluating sustainability:

Submissions must address one or more of the following.
  • Recycled/able. The product makes use of recycled or repurposed materials, it itself readily recyclable, or both.
  • Renewable. The product makes use of organic materials that can be regrown, is readily biodegradable, or both.
  • Substitute Materials. The product is less damaging as a result of toxic materials or components being replaced with safer ones.
  • Stewardship Sourcing. The product makes use of raw materials from fairly-traded sources or low impact sources such as FSC-approved forests.
  • Alternative Energy in Manufacture. The product is manufactured using a renewable energy source.
  • Efficiency in Manufacture. The product’s manufacturing process is efficient in its use of energy, water, and materials.
  • Efficient Transport. The product is designed to optimize space and decrease energy use in transport.
  • Locality. The product is produced locally using only locally-sourced materials.
  • Utility. The product has increased efficiency by providing greater utility for the user, such as multifunction products or rented products.
  • Durability. The product is more efficient in materials usage as it has a longer functional lifespan.
  • Efficiency. The product is more efficient in its use of energy, water, and materials.
  • Alternative Energy in Use. The product uses renewable energy to function.
  • Dissassembly. The product is designed to be easy to disassemble for repurposing, composting, and/or recycling.
  • Communication. The product communicates information that leads to a better environmental performance, usually by changing the behavior of users.
  • Social Improvement. The product is designed and/or manufactured by people that take social profit from the work and/or money created.
  • Conceptual. The product communicates a strong message about sustainability, consumption, and/or eco-design, through a conceptual framework. This category specifically applies to works/ideas that are not intended to be commercially viable products at this point.
  • Write In. If you believe your product is sustainable in a way that is not described above, please describe it to us in the submissions form.

    OK, I'll write one in. My product is sustainable because it consumed no resources in production or, for that matter, conception. Its raw materials are infinitely available and durable. Its transport is nonexistent, or rather, it is omnipresent, yet so completely unobtrusive as to render disposal completely unnecessary. It is open-source, freely available and customizable, accruing profits to no one but the consumer; although it is not really consumed at all. Demand for my product is universal, and it is available immediately without so much as a mouse click. Without further expenditure of electrons: my product is… nothing.

    I mean, really — I appreciate the spirit of HauteGREEN, but do we really need more stuff?
  • Apr 3, 2007

    April Showers

    Actually, we should be so lucky as to enjoy some rain this month. Despite a few late storms, the National Weather Service records that San Francisco has gotten about 73% of its usual precipitation this season, and San Jose, 60% (and Los Angeles, 18%… wowch). Whether or not it's truly global warming, it's at least a reminder that the Golden State truly has a mediterranean climate, whose bone-dry summers begin about now and can last well into November.

    To make sure your plants have the water they need — no more, no less — set your automatic irrigation system on a regular schedule. Unfortunately, your utility bill is about to become a two-pronged source of pain: you will see a spike not only in water usage but also in electricity, the power your irrigation valves need to open up and let that water through. (Ironically, water-thrifty low-flow systems need longer operating times, further increasing your electric bill.)

    Short of replacing your new landscape with rocks, there are a few things you can do to stretch your water budget a little farther. First, waste as little as possible: water before sunrise, when the air is cool and calm, and adjust any spray heads to prevent overspray onto hardscaping or structures.

    Second, encourage deep, drought-resistant plant roots by watering less often — only every three to five days — but for longer times. And help keep that water from evaporating by mulching with fir bark or compost, two to four inches deep.

    Finally, and this is the big one, consider using plants that require less water to begin with. You don't need a "California native" garden to save water: plenty of gorgeous, non-native trees, shrubs, and perennials can get by with much less water than you might imagine. (If you would like suggestions for some un-thirsty plants that would be perfect in your garden, just let me know.) Lawns are a different story: they are, by nature, resource hogs. But unless you truly need a turfgrass lawn — for kids to play on, or for polo competitions — I can recommend some great alternatives that will be just as easy on your eyes as they are on your water bill.

    Surviving our hot, dry, long summers actually is not difficult; but since only 2% of the world shares our climate, it does require some creativity. Start thinking now about how you might reduce your water needs and usage — and keep your fingers crossed for a few April showers to prolong the inevitable.