Thursday, February 13, 2014

Eco-friendly Gift Wrapping

This isn't a timely post, but I just found these pictures on my camera and decided to write the post I planned back in December when I was wrapping Christmas presents.

I've long been put off by the incredible amount of waste generated by wrapping paper, and over the past few years I've taken a few steps to try to mitigate that. This year, I thought I did a particularly good job at cutting down on the amount of wrapping I used on Christmas gifts, and thought I would showcase some of these strategies here.

While these are all Christmas gifts, most of the strategies work just as well for wrapping gifts for other occasions throughout the year.

The first is the prettiest. I took several smaller gifts for my mother-in-law and wrapped them in one package, to save on paper. For wrapping paper I used brown paper bags that I had saved throughout the year. It's rare that I buy breakfast or lunch at work, and when I do I often refuse a bag, but sometimes it's necessary, or the meal is bagged before I can say no. When that happens, if the bag is clean, I always save it. I rarely have any other use for these small paper bags, so I usually just save them until I have something appropriately-sized to wrap. Then I dug into the bags of wrapping paper and ribbons I've saved from gifts over the years, and found the perfect red ribbon to make the package beautiful and seasonal. In past years, I've also used brightly-colored yarn to make the bows for this type of gift wrap.

For other gifts, I just straight-up reused old wrapping paper. Many people who've gotten married recently will recognize the paper on the first of these gifts; it's from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. We registered there before our 2011 wedding, and I made a point of saving the wrapping paper from any gifts that were shipped to my home. (It didn't seem practical to do the same at my bridal shower, though I would have loved to.) My family all thought I was crazy, but it's been nearly 3 years now and I haven't had to buy wrapping paper once. I've been slowly reusing the nice, neutral paper for all occasions ever since our honeymoon. My big bag of wrapping paper has various other wrapping and tissue papers as well, and I used some blue tissue paper to wrap a gift for my husband.

The next strategy was to just pretty up the bag the gift came in. We bought a craft kit for our niece at the Build it Green! NYC holiday market. It came in a white bag, and all I did was add tissue paper (also BB&B wedding left-overs) and a bow. It still looked festive enough for Christmas morning, not much different from any purpose-made gift bag.

And finally, there's the plain-old wrapping-free tactic. One gift my husband received was a gift certificate to the movies, which was accompanied by boxes of theater-style candy. The gift certificate (from Swagbucks, incidentally - use that link to sign up and you can start earning gift cards, and I'll get a referral) went inside the card, and the candy just got taped to the other side.

I went a little further with the "no wrapping" on some other gifts, to the point that they didn't even merit a photograph. For my family, I just distributed unwrapped gifts around the dinner table. My secret Santa gifts at work were wrapping-free to the extent that I'm not entirely sure the recipient actually recognized that they were her gifts. I may have gone a bit overboard there; I suppose I could have sprung for a bow.

Still, having come across the statistic (which I cannot find at the moment) that 50% of waste generated in America is wrapping, I'm perfectly okay with my more modest wrapping techniques, many of which are just as festive and aesthetically pleasing as any roll of wrapping paper you can buy.

UPDATE: The statistic that 50% of trash by weight is packaging materials comes from Stanford University's page on recycling. H/T Kitchen Stewardship.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Potato Harvest

It doesn't look like I'll ever be a potato farmer, notwithstanding the generations of Irish peasant farmers in my ancestry.

I ordered organic fingerling seed potatoes last spring, and planted them in soil in two 5-gallon buckets, then used pine needles to mound up around the plants as they grew. It took me a long time to get around to harvesting my potatoes, but I wasn't worried; potatoes should be fine being stored in the ground. However, when Ben and I finally got around to it, we were sorely disappointed.

The entirety of my harvest amount to fewer than 2 dozen potatoes, most of them tiny. I had planted 1 lb of potatoes, a mix between French and Red Thumb fingerlings, and had believed promises that every pound of seed potatoes could yield 10-15lbs in harvest. I'm sure they could have, if handled properly; my parents planted a similar amount (from the same lot of seed potatoes) and had a much more substantial harvest.

I still have no idea where I went wrong.

Monday, July 22, 2013

I ate it

I've been very remiss on the blogging front lately, and I left readers hanging after the cliffhanger ending - will she or won't she? - of my last post. I know this, because I've had people I never knew read my blog coming up to me, at parties and weddings, asking if I ate the strawberry.

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer is that although I loved the idea of leaving a note, I published that post and then immediately left town for the weekend. By the time I got back, the strawberry had already reached and then passed ripeness, and had a couple of mushy spots. I could easily tell that, if its owners still existed, they were not going to harvest their strawberry, so I picked it, cut off the mushy spots, and ate it. It wasn't very good.

After that, I felt free to pick and eat and of the other strawberries when they ripened. (I think I got 3, total.) None of them were fantastic, but I wasn't expecting much from a plant in a too-small pot which got only afterthoughts of water all season. I'm still glad they didn't all go to waste.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ethical Dilemmas

Last summer, I was not the only gardener on our rooftop. Midway through the summer, three pots showed up, much prettier than my reclaimed versions. However, they were horribly overcrowded. 

The small pot in the back had four pepper plants, and the big one in the middle had both an eggplant and a strawberry plant. I can't remember what was planted in the medium pot in the foreground. When I finally ran into the gardeners, I didn't have the heart to tell them that they hadn't even planted their strawberries until long after strawberry season was over, not to mention that there was no way there was enough room in those little pots to grow all those different plants. Besides, I was pretty much a novice at this myself - who was I to correct someone else? I think they got one pepper on one of their pepper plants, and that was the extent of their harvest.

Now, I'm pretty sure that last summer's gardeners are not gardening this summer. I haven't seen them over the past few weeks, their pots haven't been moved an inch since I put them back after the hurricane,* and last season's dead stalks haven't been removed. But . . . they're not all dead stalks. The strawberry plant is still alive, and this year - in season - it's bearing fruit.

When I noticed it flowering, I started watering it occasionally. I haven't babied it, but whenever I've had a bit of extra water after I'm done taking care of my plants, I've given it a drink. Now it's got four strawberries, one of them approaching ripeness. 

Like I said, I don't think the couple who planted it are still paying attention. They may not even still live here. Or I could be wrong. I could have missed them. Maybe I've just been giving this plant extra water, because its owners have been taking care of it all along.

I'm pretty confident that's not the case, but I can't be sure. So the big question is:

Do I eat the strawberries?

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Doesn't it just look good enough to eat?

*Being the only person to spend so much time on the roof gives me a feeling of responsibility for it. When Hurricane Sandy was approaching, I pulled all of my pots in off the roof, but felt like I couldn't leave everything else up there to become projectiles, so I pulled in the other pots, too, as well as all of the chairs (whose origins and ownership are uncertain). Then I put it all back where it came from.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Gardening Resources: Your Local Library

Every time that I venture down to my local branch of the Queens Library, I make sure to do two things. The first is to stop by the "Go Green" shelves that are conveniently located right in the entrance. This is invariably full of books with titles like The City Homesteader, Urban Gardening for Dummies, and The Essential Urban Farmer.  I like to browse, and pick up whatever strikes my fancy. This has led to some spectacularly good reads, as well as some quite mediocre ones. (The Bountiful Container was an excellent resource; Paradise Lot was pretty good; and A World without Bees, despite the important subject matter, was barely worth the paper it was written on.)

The second thing to do at the library is to check out the bulletin board and the card rack, which advertise upcoming library programs. In the past few months, I've been to a program on backyard chickens, and one on growing mushrooms. Just today, I picked up cards for "Plant Propagation Workshop," "Bike Repair: Fix-A-Flat," and "Urban Cycling 101." There have probably been a dozens of other cool programs I couldn't attend but would have liked to. Most of these programs are free of charge, and lots of them even include free giveaways. Several people went home from the mushroom workshop with mushroom growing kits (I wasn't one of the lucky ones!) and apparently participants in the upcoming plant propagation workshop get to take home cuttings to grow at home, while both biking workshops are giving out flat repair kits.

Upcoming Queens Library workshops!

The other key resource at the library is the request function. Although my small branch doesn't have every book I need, the Queens Library system has almost everything I could imagine.* Whether I'm looking for Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed or Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, I can request it and have it at my library in days. (Or sometimes, in months - someone must keep renewing Wild Fermentation, because I've been at the top of the queue for months now and still haven't received it!)

If you're a gardener on a budget, you don't need to go out and spend a fortune on gardening books. Your local library may offer everything from classes and workshops to fun and interesting books to practical instruction guides.

*I recently used WorldCat to discover that a book about my great-grandparents' Italian hometown exists no closer than Switzerland, but I suppose you can't have everything!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Form and Function

I spent last weekend at my parents' house, which is in the suburbs. When we pulled in on Friday evening, Ben remarked on how pretty it looked. In the dark, I was hard-pressed to understand what he was talking about, but the next morning it was obvious. There were tulips blooming in front of the house, and low, bushy flowers creating carpets of color along the driveway.

We spent some time on Saturday afternoon helping my mom fill hanging  pots with flowers, and it was a glorious day. The sun was shining, and I even have a bit of a tan to prove it. There's just something so much more enjoyable about gardening in a pleasant, beautiful environment, as compared to my dreary, mostly barren rooftop. The soundtrack to our work was birds singing and insects buzzing, not the intermittent roar of the 7 train.

I approach my rooftop garden with a pretty utilitarian viewpoint: yes, I love it, and I love the process of creating it, but I put most of my limited time, energy, and resources into plants that provide at least some return on my investment, whether that return be in the form of tomatoes, carrots, beets, lettuce, zucchini, basil, or even just attracting pollinators to my otherwise infertile roof.

Last weekend had me doubting that approach for the first time. Maybe my vegetables would do better if I spent more time on the roof, which I'd be more likely to do if the roof was a glorious oasis in the middle of the city - or at least had some pretty flowers. Maybe I'd spend more time outdoors, and less time watching Netflix, if my little outdoor space was a more pleasant place to spend my time.

A week has passed, though, and the memory of that beautiful sunny day with the chirping birds has begun to fade, while budget concerns remain pressing and a particularly busy week and some very full weekends have proved that I have even less time to devote to my garden than I thought. The thought of spending money on ornamentals, and then having to find extra time in which to tend them, has started, again, to feel like a bit of a wasteful luxury. And after a few sunny days early this week, in which I could barely find the time to water, and a few rainy days following them, in which I didn't even bother to visit the garden because I knew I didn't need to be there to water, I checked on my plants Friday morning, and wasn't sure what I needed decorative plants for at all. After all, what's more beautiful than a pot full of arugula, newly sprouted? What's more enjoyable to watch than carrot seedlings turning into carrot plants? What's nicer to look at than spinach that finally looks like spinach?

Friday, May 3, 2013


I haven't had a lot of luck with my cool-weather crops so far this year. The collards that surprised me by overwintering bolted almost immediately. (I cooked them up for dinner, buds and all.) Something is eating my baby bok choy seedlings, and only my baby bok choy seedlings, and yet I can't find anyone living in that container. And all of the new collards I planted this year have failed to come up, or have died immediately.

However, I have a number of bunching onions that seem to be doing well, although I think they could use a little fertilizer. (If only my worms were quicker with the compost - don't they know I have plants who need nutrients?!) My beets and carrots are still tiny seedlings, but so far they're doing well. And I have some lettuce seedlings that are doing better now that they're getting full sun on the roof (they had been mostly in the shade on the balcony), but I fear they won't last very long once it starts to get hot up there.

I'm hoping for better luck with my warm-season crops. I have a successful little tomato seedling that I hope to transplant into a larger pot soon, and another one that seems quite happy but is in no rush to develop its first true leaves. I also planted a bunch of squash and melons from saved seeds - watermelon, zucchini, and spaghetti squash. The spaghetti squash and the watermelon both got super-long only a couple of days after planting. I hadn't though that a seedling could get leggy before it developed its first true leaves, but the squash in particular is 6-8 inches long and floppy. Now that it's in a sunny windowsill with a light added, it seems otherwise quite happy, and I'm not sure whether I should be starting over or just seeing where these seedlings will go.

I'm also trying something new this year by planting potatoes. I ordered seed potatoes from, and am excited to see how they do!