Archive for March, 2012

Imagine Bloomington

I go to a lot of meetings, as someone who is interested in improving my community and willing to serve on committees.  Sometimes I have trouble getting excited about a particular meeting, which is what happened when I recently agreed to attend a public input session for updating the Growth Policies Plan for Bloomington.  I am fascinated by urban growth and excited to have a voice but it was the third night in a row of rushing home for dinner before heading out the door to yet another meeting…

Happily, I had a very nice time talking with a few fellow Bloomingtonians about the future of our fair city.  We were asked to brainstorm words & phrases that describe our city now and our hopes for Bloomington in the future.  The word cloud shown is our ideas for the future, and you can see how Will and I influenced our little group.

Okay, granted “sustainability” is pretty tiny but you can clearly see how we’ve been thinking about walking as a main form of transportation, both as a way to reduce our carbon footprint and to increase our general health.  We also mentioned better public transit, better access to trails, better opportunities for business development, and how to better integrate our diverse population that ranges from university students to retirees.

Will has been walking close to 20 miles a week and I hope to catch up with him when I end my contract in Columbus.  We also want to start biking more and are excited that the B-Line Trail is now complete and fairly close to our house.  However, access is still a big issue, especially in our neck of the woods where there are no side paths for a couple of miles.  It’s quite a design challenge, really.  The B-Line Trail used to be a railroad so naturally all the houses and businesses turned their backs to it and often put up fences to try and screen out the passing trains.  Now it’s a bustling trail filled with potential customers and businesses further north (in the downtown area) are adding patio areas, “walk-thru” windows, and back entrances that attract trail users.  Our neck of the woods is mainly residential with a few spurts of industrial/warehouse areas, which means there is less incentive to open up to the trail. (In the image shown, our house is the yellow star and the B-Line Trail is the long green line on the right.  Our closest access point is the railroad spur heading southeast that is marked with a dashed yellow line.  However, if we are headed north (towards downtown), we often walk one block further north on Rogers Street and cut straight east at Hillside.)

I am serving on yet another committee that is looking at how to develop the surrounding area into a park and I am hopeful we will be able to come up with some realistic access points to solve this dilemma.  For now, it’s easy for us to get on the trail to head north (towards downtown) but if we want to go south (towards Will’s business partners), we have to go up and then back down again.  Still, we’re glad to have the B-Line and are excited to see Bloomington get even better for walkers and bikers.

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Cozy Up Your Water Heater

maggie_water_heaterOne of my goals this year is to complete each “Task of the Month” suggestion proposed by Earth Care Indiana.  I think this is a great program because it is so achievable – simply complete one task per month for a year to significantly decrease your home’s energy usage.  Will and I have already taken a lot of these steps so my secondary goal is to create a “green belt” advanced level of tasks.


January’s task: Insulate Your Water Heater.

We did this already, although I can’t remember when and apparently did not think to write a blog post about it (*gasp*).  Probably it was in 2010 when we started the Energy Challenge.  It was very easy, except for the bit about crawling around in the crawlspace.  For gas water heaters, you have to be careful not to crowd the venting whereas with electric water heaters, you can wrap the whole thing up as snug as you’d like.  A friend suggested that a good way to evaluate the intrinsic insulation of your water heater is to put your hand on it and see how warm it feels.  Ours was a little bit warm but not very, so I think the insulation is a good idea but perhaps not as significant as it could be with an older water heater.

water_thermostatThe other suggestion from Earth Care is to lower the temperature on the water heater thermostat to 120 F.  Our water heater has two thermostats: one for the top heating element and one for the bottom heating element.  We initially turned them both down quite far, which saved us a lot of energy during the Energy Challenge.  In fact, I think we turned one of them completely off, which motivated us to take short showers before the hot water ran out.  Unfortunately, it also made me rather grumpy as I could not take a bath at all and my showers often ended on a lukewarm note.

About six months ago, I was feeling deprived and turned both thermostats back up.  I gloried in the decadence of hot water for the first couple of months but I have to admit, I took it too far the other way.  We really do not need scaldingly hot water.  This weekend I tweaked both thermostats to try and get them both around 120 F, which should be hot enough for baths and relatively long showers but not so hot that it can scald out of the tap.  We may have to keep finagling a bit.  (Note to water heater designers: Please do not design the cover of the thermostat to be attached with a Phillips head screwdriver and the thermostat itself to require a flat head screwdrive – that’s just annoying!)

As to coming up with an “advanced” task on this subject, the next logical hot water step should to install a solar hot water heater.  It could be a fancy solar hot water panel integrated with the house plumbing, or a freestanding 3-season backyard solar shower.  We are leaning towards the latter, although hoping to build one nicer than the camp shower  we experimented with in 2010.  The challenge is figuring out a good design and location – especially one that fits our budget and construction abilities.  I’m moving it up on the “To Be Designed” list.  Right after “chicken coop.”

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Pruning & Protecting the Future Fruit

enterprise_appleThe daffodils are blooming, six weeks earlier than last year.  Is it global warming?  Is it the weirdness of Indiana weather?  I say “yes” to both.  Two weeks ago, I took advantage of an unseasonably warm day to inspect my fruit trees and do a little pruning.  I am an overly squeamish pruner so this year I decided to make up for years of neglect with some serious hacking at the trees I planted in 2009 (the ones that actually look like trees).  My 2010 and 2011 trees still look pretty twiggy.  They also suffered from severe nibbling by the local deer population, so my pruning focus for them was mostly surgical.

Once I was done cutting off bits and pieces, I determined that I really need more deer protection if I want these babies to grow.  The rule of thumb for trees (and all perennial plants) is that the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap.  I have several that are due to start leaping and I don’t want the deer to interfere any more than they have.  So, last weekend I installed random bits of fencing around all my fruiting trees and bushes, except the Nanking cherry bushes, which I think might take over the Earth if left to their own devices.  They have definite nibble marks but also have formed about 5,000 buds that look poised to burst into flower.

covered_fig_miniI also made the bold decision to uncover my fig tree from its winter cocoon of foam padding, leaves, and plastic bags.  Last year I waited until Easter and a week later it sent up new stems from the rootbud, which made me worry that the rest of the tree was dead.  However, the rest of the tree perked up a week later and looked just great so I’m hoping for the same results this spring.  Actually, I’m hoping for an explosion of growth and even more delicious fruit for me to enjoy.  (I ate about 15 figs last year – yum!)

Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve planted since we moved in.  So far only the fig has produced fruit but that’s pretty typical, as trees and bushes take awhile to mature (especially when they keep getting chomped on).  If you’re in a hurry you can plant some small fruiting plants – I did eat some alpine strawberries and huckleberries last year from plants I grew from Baker Heirloom seeds.  And of course, there’s always gleaning – I think I scrounged about three pounds of mulberries from my neighbors’ trees, as they don’t consider them “proper fruit.”  Whatever; they were delicious.  Anyway, here’s what is in my yard:

  • Apple, Enterprise, 2009, Trees of Antiquity
  • bare_fig_miniApple, Akane, 2009, Trees of Antiquity
  • Apple, Liberty, 2010 Brambleberry Farm
  • Pear, Seckel, 2010 Brambleberry Farm
  • Fig, Chicago Hardy, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Cherries, Nanking, 2010, Renaissance Farm
  • Chokecherry, 2011, Garden Fair
  • Pawpaws, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Gooseberry, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Jostaberry, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Trifoliate Orange, 2010, Brambleberry Farm
  • Currant, Black (I think), 2011 Brambleberry Farm
  • Black Raspberry, Jewel, 2011 Brambleberry Farm
  • Blackberry, Apache (I think), 2011 Brambleberry Farm

Plans for this Spring

  • Elderberry, grown by me from a cutting and currently in a pot indoors
  • Blueberries, varieties TBD, Backyard Berry Plants
  • Kiwi, Arctic, from a fellow permaculturist

Some day my yard will be full of delicious fruit.  Soon….

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How to Commute Like a Lady

lady_bicycling_cropI am in the early stages of planning a roundtable discussion with the working title “How to Bicycle to Work and Still Look Great – Tips & tricks from working women on how to look professional, stay safe, and have fun while traveling to work by bicycle.”  It will take place the evening of May 2nd at the Monroe County Public Library and I have recruited an excellent panel of ladies who are experienced at commuting by bicycle.

I hope to count myself among them by the time the roundtable happens.  Alas, I have a long way to go.  For the last six months, I have been driving to Columbus three days a week, racking up 300 miles a week on the odometer.  In February, I was also commuting twice a week to Indianapolis, bringing the grand total to about 500 miles a week.  Bleah.  Even with a Prius, it’s hard to justify that kind of carbon footprint. 

My contract position in Columbus expires at the end of March and I hope I can find long-term employment within bicycling distance of home, or at the very least a job within Monroe County.  The weather is becoming much more appealing as of late so I look forward to at least doing some recreational biking.  I’d love to become a bicycle commuter but if that doesn’t work out, my secondary goal is to be ready when the next “Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Bike Ride” comes around.  It’s organized by a couple of inspirational women cyclists who work for the City of Bloomington.  This year it was held on February 18th and promoted with the following description:

Rain nor sleet nor snow nor roving bands of zombies will keep us from the streets during Bloomington’s first annual Terrible  Horrible No Good Very Bad Bike Ride.  The 5-mile ride will traverse urban cycling routes around Bloomington to prove that it’s possible to bike in all kinds of weather.  Intended for both the fearful and the fearless.  If you can ride on this day, you can ride any day.

Alas, ever fickle Mother Nature ruined their carefully laid plans by providing a warm and sunny day but the 40+ folks who showed up all claimed to have a wonderful time anyway.  They talked about clothing options, bicycle fenders, and other techniques for minimizing the impact of icky weather.  Next year, I want to be a confident velocipedestrienne riding along with them, fearing neither cars nor rain nor roving bands of zombies.  My role models are the confident lady bicyclists who terrorized the streets in the 1860’s, as captured by the wonderful artist Kate Beaton.

Watch out, world.

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