Saturday, September 20, 2008

Green building overdose?

People are getting sick of greener-than-thou buildings, and rightly so! Lots of designers seem to be missing the point as they compete to build bigger and more green buildings (green McMansion = oxymoron, as this writer points out). How about not building at all? Or renovating existing structures that sit derelict in many American cities whose residents have moved out to the suburbs (in Baltimore I’ve heard it called “white flight”). The light rail route along Howard Street in particular makes me sad: here is a row of once-beautiful specimens of architecture that have fallen into disrepair and neglect. A look at the photo book Baltimore: then and now by Alexander Mitchell illustrates how picturesque this and other areas of the city used to be. It’s a shame.

Last week I attended a lecture sponsored by the Baltimore USGBC chapter that gave me hope! John Knott, Jr., formerly of Baltimore, is a developer who understands the idea that creating sustainable communities can mean revitalizing existing ones as well as building new structures to fill the gaps. Check out his Noisette project in South Carolina. I’m happy to see that other developers around the country (and around the world, even) are catching on to this idea as well: this week the NCPC sponsored a conference in Washington DC that started off with a panel discussion at the National Building Museum. Leaders from the capital cities of Brazil, Sweden, and Oregon (from what I hear, Portland is one of the green capitals of the USA?) spoke of initiatives that they are implementing to create healthier, more sustainable communities. Now that’s good green news!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Trees in art

Continuing the tree theme, here's some art worth checking out: Tilt Studio joined forces with Baltimore's Urban Forest project to produce some striking banners to support TreeBaltimore this past summer. Check out their blog and images.

CORRECTION: The Urban Forest project is all Tilt! Thank you, anonymous commenter, for sharing this info.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Time to plant a tree

Fall is in the air, and you know what that means: swimming pools closing, kids going back to school, and time to plant a tree!

OK, so that last one is not yet an annual tradition, but it should be: the best times for tree planting in Maryland are October-November or March-April. I’ve heard that fall planting is better than spring, because the tree can devote more of its energy to developing a strong root system since the leaves are not an issue. Another plus is that you may be busy working up the rest of your garden in the spring (if you’re into that kind of thing), therefore you’ll have more time to plant and tend your new tree in the fall.

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” –Anonymous, from Maryland DNR TREE-MENDOUS program.

Why plant a tree?

-Trees are good for watershed health. They absorb runoff, mitigate soil erosion, and lessen the load on storm drains.

-Deciduous trees provide shade from the hot summer sun when you need it most, and then in winter the falling leaves allow the sun to come in. I wish I had a big tree outside my south-facing office window to keep it cooler: on summer days it gets toasty, even with the blinds closed! The green building term for this concept is “passive solar.”

-Trees are good for air quality. For that matter, so are plants in general: humans inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants do the opposite, and many filter out harmful gases in so doing. See? A nice symbiotic relationship. Go get some houseplants while you’re out getting your tree. (Tangent: houseplants that improve indoor air quality)

-Green is good for you. Think about it, which would you rather have outside your window: a noisy street full of traffic and hard surfaces, or a serene wooded area with lots of green? Which would make you feel more relaxed and happy? Perhaps this is why real estate agents say that trees add value to residential property.

-Read on for more good reasons

Why plant a native tree?

Naturescaping, xeriscaping, biodiversity… these are terms you’ll hear in reference to working WITH the natural plant habitat rather than trying to shape it into what society tells us a landscape should look like. Why enslave yourself to expensive chemicals and extra work to maintain plants that have no business living in your geographic region? Go native and reap the benefits of healthy, low-maintenance plants.

Where to get trees?

The Baltimore County Growing Home campaign is giving out $10 coupons for buying a tree from a participating local nursery or garden center.

Baltimore City’s program is called TreeBaltimore. Also check out the Parks and People fall tree sale (all Maryland natives - thanks Anne!).

Arbor Day Foundation: get 10 free trees and more with a $10 annual membership!

In case you're wondering what inspired this post, yep, I am planning to plant a few trees this fall: Serviceberry and River Birch. Got my $10 coupon, called Miss Utility, I'm all over it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Organic gardening tips

The end of summer is a bummer in many ways... but not in the mid-Atlantic garden! Right now farm stands and backyard gardens like mine are loaded with juicy red tomatoes. I have so many, especially cherry tomatoes, that I've been giving them away (so hey, email me if you're local and want some).

This bumper crop of mine would be even bigger if not for the slugs that have invaded. I figure that my soaker hose is a bit too effective at keeping the soil moist, and has created a damp haven for slugs. Perhaps this is also why my zucchini aren't thriving as usual? More on zucchini later, but back to the slugs. Like many humans, it turns out that slugs have a thing for beer. So I dug a little pit and filled it with a plastic dish of beer into which they could tumble to their alcohol-soaked deaths. At least they die happy, right? I caught two last week, and look forward to catching the others who keep attacking my lovely Big Rainbow heirlooms.

Before I get off the subject of tomatoes, did you know that marigolds make great companion plants? I've read that the scent repels certain tomato pests like whiteflies and nematodes, depending on which variety you plant... but at the very least, they look pretty.

Elsewhere in the garden, my zucchinis are plagued by powdery mildew. I have yet to find a good remedy for this: it seems that prevention is the best cure. Before I got religion on organic food and gardening, I tried chemical sprays that were semi-effective, but my latest attempt is a natural neem oil spray. This oil is used in holistic Ayurvedic medicine in India, and also makes a good bio-pesticide.

Another nasty zucchini problem is that of squash vine borers. These little buggers will tunnel their way into the stems and kill plants from the inside out. You'll know you have squash vine borers when your plants start to wilt for no apparent reason. Check the stem for what looks like piles of sawdust around dry cracks: that's where the larva is hiding. Slit the vine along the crack and extract it, then bury the wounded stem with dirt to encourage healing. Last year this trick worked for me, but this year I cut too deep and lost the plant. Be careful! Read more about garden pests and how to eradicate them at the University of Maryland's Home & Garden website. Their plant diagnostic page is most helpful.

While I'm on the topic of natural gardening products, have you heard of Terracycle? This is a great company that sells worm poop as garden fertilizer: my favorite part is that they use waste products for all aspects of their business, from the fertilizer itself to the containers in which it's sold. That, my friends, is recycling and eco-capitalism at their finest. As they say in Cradle to Cradle, waste = food.