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A classic, in honor of Earth Day.

If you haven’t already, go do something nice for the planet. A few quick, easy ideas:

Replace an incandescent lightbulb with a CFL.
Take a shorter shower.
Shut off the water while you brush your teeth.
Bring your lunch to work in a reusable container instead of ordering takeout.
Consolidate errands to reduce the amount of driving you do.
Walk, bicycle, carpool, or take the bus when possible.
Try a vegetarian or vegan recipe.
Support your local farmers.
Shop at Goodwill.
Recycle.
Precycle.
Buy a Terrapass.
Calculate your environmental footprint.
Unplug the computer when you finish using it to reduce phantom loads.
Take your own reusable cloth bag when you go shopping.
Install a water filter on your kitchen faucet and use it to refill water bottles instead of buying more.

Emily

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April 15th is the last frost date for our planting zone, which means most of the gardeners in Tulsa will be busy getting their hands dirty this weekend.

If you’re planting this weekend, resist the temptation to put your peppers in the garden this early. Most crops will tolerate cool weather, provided the temperature doesn’t dip below freezing, but peppers do best if you wait until nighttime temperatures are consistently in the 50s or higher before you plant. Putting them out early won’t kill them, but it definitely stresses the plants, and it doesn’t do anything to speed up their growth; if anything, it slows them down.

I generally wait until early to mid May to plant peppers. Waiting a few weeks doesn’t hurt the plants (provided they’re not rootbound; if they are, just transplant them into bigger containers), and they get off to a much better start if you wait and put them out when it’s warm.

Emily

If you haven’t done so yet, now would be a good time to think about scheduling a service call for your air conditioner. If you wait until summer hits, you’ll have to pay more for a technician to come out and check on your air conditioner — if you can get somebody at all.

Before you run your air conditioner for the first time, clean or replace the filter. As a general rule, this should be done every three months; if you have pets that shed a lot, you’ll need to do it more often. A clogged filter can seriously drag down your air conditioner’s efficiency, and it can also shorten the life of the system.

Go outside and make sure there are no obstructions around the exterior unit. If the vents are blocked or dirty, remove any obstructions and hose off the unit to make sure there’s no dirt clogging things up. You want air to circulate freely around it for maximum efficiency. When you mow, make sure the mower is not blowing grass into the vents; if it is, turn around and approach the unit from the other direction.

If you have a recurring problem with grass and dirt clogging the vents, you may want to dig a trench two or three feet wide and a couple of inches deep all the way around the unit, place some edging material around it, and lay down mulch cloth and gravel to create a clean space so the vents stay clear.

Have a service technician check the system to make sure it’s in good working order. Make sure the ducts are not leaky, and find out whether they are adequately insulated; if they aren’t, you’ll want to remedy that situation promptly.

Make sure the technician you hire is licensed, bonded and insured, especially if you are in the position of having to replace your system. If you’re buying new equipment, make sure it has the Energystar label — meaning the government recognizes it as energy-efficient — and ask your installer for advice on how to make the system run as efficiently as possible.

Our air conditioner is pretty good, but it’s by far the biggest energy hog in our house. We can’t afford to replace it right now — nor does it really need to be replaced — but we’re planning to keep the thermostat at 78 or above all summer so we don’t waste any more energy than we have to.

Emily

Adopting a small flock of hens last spring was one of the most rewarding steps we’ve taken toward sustainability here at the House of the Lifted Lorax.

We got our chicks from the feed store and raised them in a large guinea pig cage with a deep plastic bottom and a heat lamp suspended above it. This was a good setup, but a large washtub or plastic storage tub with deep sides would have served us just as well and probably would have been less messy. (The girls got very good at flinging litter out of their cage as they learned to scratch for imaginary bugs.)

A brooder should be deep enough to protect very young chicks from drafts and heatproof enough that it doesn’t pose a fire hazard when you hang a heat lamp above it to keep the chicks warm. You can control the temperature in the brooder by adjusting the height of the heat lamp and/or switching to a higher or lower wattage lightbulb.

The temperature should be around 100 degrees when the chicks are very young. Lower the temperature gradually as they grow; by the time they’re six weeks old, they should be fine at room temperature.

The brooder needs some kind of litter (pine shavings are great); a perch; a feeder; a water dispenser; and a screen or hardware cloth lid to provide ventilation while preventing the chicks from jumping out.

Check the chicks’ food and water at least twice a day, replacing the water as necessary to keep it clean. When the chicks first came in, I changed their litter every couple of days. As they got older, I found it necessary to change the litter at least once a day to keep the brooder clean and dry. Chicks are very good at spilling water, so try to find a dispenser that won’t tip over easily.

When the chicks are about two months old, you can move them outdoors. We use a chicken tractor — a type of portable henhouse — to protect our girls from predators while giving them access to fresh pasture every day. This is a great system, as it allows us to move the hens around to prepare our garden plot before planting time. Hens are good at removing weeds, controlling pests, and fertilizing and aerating the soil.

In addition to grass and weeds, our hens eat vegetable scraps, stale bread, crackers, lawn clippings, bugs, and anything else they can put their beaks on. We supplement their diet with commercially prepared feed. A growth-formula feed is good for young chicks, but once they start laying eggs, you should probably switch them to layer crumbles or pellets. For a treat, we give our hens some chops (chopped, dried corn kernels) now and then.

Our hens started laying eggs in mid-July, when they were not quite five months old. That’s a little later than normal, but we had record rainfall last summer, and the lack of sunlight may have slowed them down.

Six hens will produce an average of four eggs a day during sunny weather. They will also supply you with weed control, pest control, and constant entertainment … and once you’ve tasted fresh eggs, you’ll never settle for the store-bought kind again.

Given the nasty environmental impact of big factory farms and the innate cruelty involved in large-scale production methods, there’s something very satisfying about raising your own eggs in the backyard.

Emily

I’m not a vegetarian at the moment, although I have been off and on in the past, to varying degrees. I would never advise anyone to attempt a wholesale change in his diet overnight — it’s too extreme, too difficult, and too daunting a prospect to be sustainable for most of us — but eating less meat is a quick way to reduce your carbon footprint, so it’s certainly worth considering.

I’ve set a personal goal of trying one new lacto-ovo-vegetarian recipe and one new vegan recipe each week. I’ll post the best recipes here in case you want to play along at home.

Where possible, I’ll use local, seasonal ingredients, but this evening, I thought I’d give the environment a break by using up things I had on hand rather than making a special trip across town just to pick up ingredients for dinner … so I found a couple of falafel recipes and used them as a basis for improvisation. I was pretty happy with the results:

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Falafel

1 can chickpeas
Five or six baby carrots
Two ribs of celery, cut into chunks
Five or six cloves of garlic
1/4 c. chopped onion (I used frozen, and it worked fine)
1 tbsp. lemon juice
2 tbsp. cumin
1 tbsp. paprika
A little ground red pepper
3 tbsp. dried parsley
1/4 c. flour
Canola oil for frying

Put all ingredients except oil in food processor and process until smooth. Remove batteries from smoke alarm. Turn on exhaust fan. (These are important steps in my house, as I seem to set off the smoke detector every time I fry anything.) Pour about a half-inch of oil into a heavy skillet and heat for a few minutes. Form falafel mixture into 1-inch balls, flatten a bit to make small patties, and fry in hot oil until browned and crispy on both sides. Makes about 30 pieces.

Falafel is fine by itself, but you can also serve it with tahini sauce (2 parts tahini, 1 part water, and 2 parts lemon juice) for dipping, or stuff pita pockets with falafel, tomatoes, cucumbers, and tahini or tzatziki sauce to make a great sandwich.

(Recipe cross-posted from Red Fork State of Mind.)

Emily

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Here at the House of the Lifted Lorax, we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day with flowers and candy. We celebrate it with potting soil and seed packets.

Feb. 14 falls two months and a day ahead of the last frost date for our zone, which makes it an ideal time to start seeds indoors. We buy our seeds from Seed Savers Exchange, which is a great organization dedicated to preserving heirloom varieties of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, flowers and more.

Tomatoes are our favorite crop. You can buy a decent cucumber at the grocery store, and you can find passable squash, peppers, and eggplant at the farmer’s market, but nothing can stand in for a homegrown tomato, fresh from the vine … so regardless of what else we may or may not put in the garden, we always grow tomatoes.

Most years, I get a little carried away, trying new varieties, but this year, I exercised some restraint and confined myself to four varieties: two kinds of cherry tomatoes (Risentraube and Mexico Midget); Silvery Fir Tree (an early slicer with pretty foliage); and my all-time favorite, Black from Tula, which is a Russian heirloom that produces unspeakably ugly but indescribably delicious fruit.

I haven’t grown the first three varieties in the past, but I’ve yet to see a cherry tomato that wouldn’t thrive in all conditions, and Silvery Fir Tree just looked too beautiful to pass up, so we’ll see how they do.

There are two secrets to great tomatoes:

1. Horse manure. Find a nice person with horses and ask if you can scoop stalls in exchange for manure. A mix of manure, urine-soaked sawdust, and spoiled hay is the world’s finest compost starter, as the nitrogen-to-carbon ratio is as close to ideal as you can get without a chemistry lab. I’ve grown tomatoes the size of softballs, on vines that looked like kudzu, with the help of horse compost.

2. Deep holes. Use a posthole digger to dig down two to three feet. Most tomatoes’ roots will grow down until they hit hardpan, and then they start to spread out sideways. In hot, dry weather, the top layer of soil dries out very quickly, and the roots dry with it. If you dig a posthole to a depth of about one foot below hardpan, your tomatoes’ roots will be able to reach the moist dirt that lies below instead of spreading out to bake in the sun.

I’ll have more on the tomatoes as they progress, but at the moment, the seeds are tucked quietly into moistened potting medium in a seed-starting flat. As soon as I finish converting our potting table to a temporary cold frame, I’ll move them outdoors.

Emily

I know it’s a little early to be thinking about lawn care, but spring will be here before we know it, and some of us will be in the market for new lawnmowers.

One terrific — and easy — way to reduce your environmental impact and save a lot of money is to use an old-fashioned reel mower instead of a gas-powered mower.

Contrary to popular belief, a properly maintained reel mower is a delight to use. Lightweight, quiet, and efficient, they use no gas, require no effort to start, can be used without remorse on ozone alert days, and are much safer than gas-powered mowers, as the blades work in only one direction, making it virtually impossible to cut yourself while mowing.

A decent reel mower can be had for less than $100 at most hardware stores. (If the big boxes don’t carry them, try your local mom-and-pop.) Try to find one with a U-shaped handle, rather than a T or Y-shaped handle, as they tend to hold up better.

The biggest complaint I hear about reel mowers is that they are hard to push. This is true of dull mowers, but it’s a non-issue if you keep the blades sharp. If the mower starts getting a little balky, simply use a kit (available online for $25 to $30) to sharpen the blades.

You’ll also want to be aware that reel mowers are not good at handling very tall grass, so don’t neglect the lawn for three weeks and then expect your reel mower to do the work of a sling blade.

If you want to save clippings to use in your compost pile, many models come with grass catchers, which can also be purchased separately for around $30 apiece.

It’s been our experience that you can get about three seasons out of a reel mower before the gears start to wear out, although this obviously will depend on the size of your yard and how often you mow it.

I’m not sure I’d want to use a reel mower on a large property, but for a typical suburban backyard, I consider it an ideal tool.

Here is a quick, free way to eliminate tiny drafts around the house. I learned it from my mom when I was about 4, and I’ve never forgotten it:

1. Save the polystyrene trays that are used to package meat, mushrooms, and other foods. (Polystyrene egg carton lids will work for this purpose.)
2. Take the plastic cover off an electrical outlet.
3. Use the cover as a pattern to make a polystyrene cutout the same shape and size as the cover.
4. Put the cover back on the outlet, wedging the polystyrene cutout between the cover and the wall.

Do this on all your outlets — especially those on exterior walls — to help reduce heat loss.

This seems insignificant, but it really helps, it doesn’t cost anything, and it’s an easy way to recycle polystyrene that otherwise would end up in a landfill.

If you have a lot of styrofoam trays, you could even make some of these for your friends.

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As I think we’ve mentioned before, we keep a half-dozen backyard hens here at the House of the Lifted Lorax. We usually keep them in their chicken tractor — a kind of portable henhouse — to give them access to fresh forage while protecting them from the neighborhood cats. (You can see our chicken tractor to the right in the photo above.)

During extreme cold, the hens need a little more protection than the tractor offers, so with forecasts calling for temperatures in the teens on Tuesday night, we spent this afternoon finishing up a project I started a couple of months ago: a passive-solar, biodegradable henhouse.

We started by arranging six hay bales  to form three thick walls:

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(You can see another view of the chicken tractor to the left in the picture above.)

Next, Ron cut a piece of half-inch plywood to fit over the top. I think the dimensions were something like four feet by five feet.

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I used some leftover spray paint from other projects to seal the plywood, which hopefully will help keep it from delaminating in wet weather.

Using L-brackets and T-brackets, I screwed some 1x2s together to form a simple frame that’s reinforced in the center. I attached two hinges at the top and stapled some half-inch hardware cloth to the back side of the frame to make a screen door. (You could probably use chicken wire, but we thought the hardware cloth would be a little sturdier.)

I screwed the hinges to the plywood, we put two more hay bales on top, and — voila! — a little house:

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I will run out to the hardware store later and pick up a roll of clear Frost-King plastic and a couple of cinder blocks. I’ll use about a yard of plastic to cover the door, stapling it to the plywood to make a flap we can raise and lower as necessary to regulate the temperature inside the henhouse. The cinder blocks will be used to secure the door, as there’s not much way to attach hardware to hay bales to make a latch.

I’m guessing our girls are probably the only hens in Tulsa County who will be spending the coldest nights of the year in a passive-solar house with an R-value somewhere in the neighborhood of 45. 🙂

I’ll pick up a couple of thermometers at the hardware store this afternoon and take some readings inside and outside the henhouse to get an idea of how it will perform. Stay tuned….

Emily

Big ice storms that knock down branches and destroy power lines are really terrible … unless, y’know, you happen to own a woodstove, a chainsaw, and a pickup truck:

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We’ll have to rent a splitter to bust up some of the really huge pieces, but we’re not crying about it. Four ricks of free firewood, all laid in for next year, and all Ron had to do was spend a couple of afternoons driving around the neighborhood, gathering it off the curbs. It’s all too green to burn right now, but by next winter, it will be seasoned and ready to go.

If you have access to a truck and a saw, you can be a big help to your neighbors (and every taxpayer in your community) by removing branches from curbs in exchange for the firewood after a storm. Most people don’t have a fireplace or woodstove … so if you do, they’ll be happy for you to come and haul away their storm debris in exchange for the wood.

Emily