The snow is here! We are in a cold snap, in sharp contrast to the fall weather of the past few weeks. I’m so glad we wound down the garden over the last couple of weekends, because now the ground is frozen hard.
When the boys and I went to work clearing out the garden two weeks ago, I thought the harvesting was mostly done already, so it surprised me how long it took to take out our final plants, and surprised me even more to find ourselves with a surprisingly large yield from it. It covered our back deck table and then some, and Sam kept commenting on our big crop. And though “big” is relative, our haul did include: kale, chard, beets, (small) cabbages, onions, arugula, a little bit of lettuce, sage, parsley (two kinds), cammomile, lemongrass (!), spearmint, thyme, and oregano. We left in just the brussel sprouts and a few kale plants, because they can last just a bit longer in the cold. We weren’t expecting much more food at this late stage, and it did feel quite bountiful.
We cleaned up a bit, and then got to the work of mulching. It was easier this year, having gotten rid of the grass in the spring. I didn’t have quite enough cardboard for a layer, but we used what we had. We layered the ground first with manure, then worm castings (like a super-soil, called black gold by gardeners), then cardboard and newsprint, then topped with leaves.
I had some leftover purchased worm castings from the spring, but mostly I got them from the basement. Mm-hm. I’ve got worms downstairs. I meant to tell you back in the spring that after attending a permaculture workshop, I came home with 20 red wriggler worms in a recycled yogurt tub. They lived there for a week, until I finally got the nerve to create a worm bin.
A worm bin! Sometimes green movement forward feels seamless, and sometimes a bit odd. I can tell you that for me making a worm bin felt kind of weird, but it was pretty fun. There are lots of online resources for doing it, but I relied on the information in The Urban Homestead and directions provided by my permaculture class. Basically, I took a rubber storage box, drilled holes in it for circulation, added worm habitat (dampened egg cartons (newsprint also works), a handful of earth (worms need the grit), the worms, and some worm food (most vegetable scraps work, as do plain grains).
I only have one bin (some people create tiers), so I only put a handful of scraps in every few days, and we still rely heavily on our Green Bin (municipal weekly composting collection). In more moderate climates, you can have a big composter outside, but here the worms will freeze. Maybe one day I’ll build a big worm composter in the basement, one that can really convert our food waste into rich soil, and help tighten the loop on our use of resources at home.
But I don’t know. Harvesting the castings (ie. separating the worms from their poo) can be tricky. I used these instructions because they seemed reasonable. Basically I stopped putting food on one side of the bin for a few weeks so that the worms would hang on the other side and I could scoop up the castings on the resting side. The thing is, there are always some worms on the resting side and I wanted to sort these out, because otherwise they’ll die in the garden. I enlisted the boys to fortify myself, because I’m not such a natural wielding wriggling worms.
The boys helped… for 10 or 15 minutes (and you have correctly guessed that the job took significantly longer than that). The worm bin doesn’t smell at all with the lid closed or even with it open, but digging around in there did release a smell (which wasn’t that strong), and Sam’s sensitive olfactory perception led him to the Lego pile. Then Nathaniel, my surer bet dealing with squirming creatures, was seduced by Sam’s siren song of Lego. Together they built plastic structures while I spent over half an hour picking out the worms.
But it wasn’t bad, really. I was squeamish at first, but it became strangely meditative as I went on. There weren’t many worms in the resting side compared to the working side (where there are hundreds and hundreds – my babies all, from just the twenty!), but there were still quite a few. I sorted a lot of them but I couldn’t do them all. There were lots of eensy weensy baby worms, so small they were hard to find (and harder to pick up and move), and I know there were worm eggs (in my open palm, above) in the castings. I saved some of these but knew there were more. The process was ethically inconsistent, but it was impractical and probably impossible to save them all. I did try, and many of them made it to the safe side of the bin. At some point, I called it a day, added more newsprint habitat to the empty side of the bin, and it’s back in the basement.
After all this, I did emerge with a good-sized tub of home-grown worm castings. I sprinkled these outside over our gardens. The process of getting this great garden material was a bit weird, but it was satisfying enough. It was then covered with cardboard and leaves, the boys helping where they saw fit. And with that, our garden beds have been put to bed, where we’ll await them in the spring.
I sometimes think about what I put up on this blog, the selectiveness of it. Obviously, I focus on the positive here. Anyone who knows me a bit more than a bit (and anyone who lives with kids, and probably anyone else out there who thought about it at all) will know that this little cluster of kings (and queen) has its share of bumps on the road. Some of these are big, some of them are small, but they’re there.
We’re different in how we work with these. I’m something of an over-thinker by nature, and then an over-thinker by legal training, and honing right in on these bumps after a point really doesn’t help me much. I can’t always focus my mind away from mulling over these even when I want to, but I can keep myself from typing them out on this blog and having them in print for time immemorial, and generally I do.
But sometimes I feel like I should issue a reminder that highlighting what’s good here doesn’t mean that we’re free of the other. Last week, for example, I got around to painting a chalkboard on the kitchen wall. I bought the Martha Stewart chalkboard paint two years ago, and it felt great to finally do it, even if the coats were applied after midnight. Then I realized the green chalkboard paint didn’t show up the chalk well, so during another midnight I painted two more coats of black chalkboard over it. At which point I discovered there’s an aesthetic reason why big black rectangles in the middle of a kitchen wall aren’t popular, but we do what we do for fostering play and creativity for our children, right? Well, we would be if the chalk marks could be removed from the black paint, which they can’t, not even with water. Bonus: I painted knowing that we have no more of the original light yellow kitchen paint and that it’s been discontinued. So now it’s me and the big black kitchen wall rectangle that’s not a chalkboard for the foreseeable future.
That same week, I went against all my preferences and signed Nathaniel up for weeknight soccer lessons. He has fewer things on the go than Sam does (although at least as much as Sam did when he was five), and I want to make sure that Nathaniel gets (and feels like he gets) his fair share of whatever it is we have to offer around here.
We arrived at the indoor soccer field to learn that Nathaniel couldn’t follow the coach’s drill instructions to the class and anyway he just wants to play the game. Early intervention failed, and he stopped participating after eight minutes. He kicked and pushed me while I spoke briefly to a mother and then to the registrar to inquire into another class. When I wouldn’t buy him a chocolate bar on the way out, he first refused to go home, and then trailed behind me in the rainy parking lot, announcing at high volume that he would really prefer a different maternal parent and things like that.
In other words, even though you are unlikely to read much about them here, we have our flops (of course we do). I talk about them easily enough in person, but I don’t write about them much – for me, setting experiences into words gives them more form, where they somehow wield more power, and I don’t think my flops need more sway. In this written space, I generally prefer to harness my attention on what’s good and kind and working, to create and attract more of it, because I find this actually works.
The flops and the fabulous are happening, pretty much all the time. The angry boy in the parking lot is the same one who held me close and said he loved me before going to bed. Both feelings were real and have their place, but I don’t need to tell you which one feels more true. That’s what finds me most times when I sit here to write, so that’s what makes its way onto the page, where I hope form and power lie patiently waiting.
Rami: Sing ‘Happy Birthday’.
Me: [singing] Happy birthday to you…
Rami: Not that one.
Nat: I want to you to read this book.
Me: Nat, you won’t understand that one. It’s for much older children, older than Sam. Let’s find one that you can follow.
Nat: No, I want this one!
Me: You won’t understand it, Nat.
Nat: I want it. I want it!
Me: Nat, look at me. Tell me why you want to read this book even though you can’t understand the story.
Nat: Because. I like the sound of the words.
[I read the boy his book. And I will read whatever he wants from now on (except maybe certain comic and superhero books)].
At a TGIF restaurant after Great Wolf Lodge, before being served:
Sam: If I barf after eating, we’re never coming to this restaurant again.
Rami singing, on my lap at the computer, so I could scribe it:
Baa baa black sheep
Baa baa black sheep
Have you any wool
Up above the bathroom
Now I wonder
Like a diamond little star
Baa baa black sheep
Old cloth diapers make good rags, and I asked Nathaniel to wipe up a spill with one.
Natty: This is a diaper wiper.
Eating pomegranates with Sam during the homework window:
Sam: I’m so glad I’m alive.
Me: Why do you say that?
Sam: It’s just so pleasant.
Upon waking up to a big hug with Rami:
Me: Good morning, baby.
Rami: I’m the boy, Mom.
Me: I know you’re a boy. But can you still be a baby, for Mommy?
After reading the Grimm’s fairy tale called Three Wishes to Nathaniel, I asked him what he would wish for if he could have three wishes.
Natty: I wish my whole family could live forever. I wish our house was filled with Captain Underpants books. I wish our house was filled with trophies.
Sam: Mom, what’s Medieval Times?
Mom: It was the time with knights, a long time ago.
Sam: Like the 1980s?
Sam: [eating noodle soup] Yum! Mommy, can I have seconds? Mom, can I have sex [secs]?
As you may know, I contribute for a parenting blog called 4Mothers. One of the perks of writing there is that we sometimes get products for possible review on the blog. I’ve been introduced to some great books, games, and gifts this way. My latest discovery through this means are soap nuts, which are used for laundry.
If you’ve been reading here for awhile, or know me pretty well, you’ll know I’ve been making my own natural laundry detergent for a couple of years. I’ve had to tweak to make it right and add more soap to our large loads, but I really like the environmentally friendly laundry powder.
But I was also excited when I got some soap nut samples to try out. Unless, of course, they were to fall into my lap, which they did.
What are soap nuts? For starters, they’re not actually nuts, but the fruit from a tree, and they’re sometimes called soap berries. They are used for various kinds of personal cleaning because they contain high amounts of saponin, which is a natural surfactant. As a natural, bio-degradable item, their effects on the environment are benign. They’re quite new to North Americans, but are yesterday’s news in many parts of the world where they’ve been used for millenia. Grown largely in Nepal and India (there are some efforts to see if they can be grown elsewhere), their importation carries a carbon footprint, but being small and light (the dried berries are about the size of a cherry) this imprint is fairly small. Also, because they’re so small and the companies that distribute them tend to be eco-conscious, their packaging is minimal.
They’re also a cinch to use. You just put 4 of 5 of the dried berries into the provided wash bag and throw it in the wash. The laundry comes out fresh and clean, and it still quite amazes me that the naturally occurring saponin in these soap nuts is doing such a brilliant job on the clothes, including diapers. You re-use the berries for several washings until they dry out, and then they go in your compost. The only imperfection I can think of is that the little wash bag can get hidden among a pile of wet clothes. But even if you forget to retrieve the bag and it goes through the dryer, the soap nuts can still be used so it doesn’t really matter much.
They’re a wonder, basically. And it’s not just me who thinks so – Ben likes them too. He’d never heard of them before and after seeing our laundry asked, “Can we become a distributor?” Conversion in a sentence, that’s what that is.
The experience motivated me to do what I have never done before, which is to do a costs comparison, throwing in a commercial detergent for fun. The results from my homemade laundry detergent (made with soap flakes, washing soda, baking soda, and borax) may not be entirely accurate but is close enough for me (I measure my loads in cups while the ingredients are sold by weight, and I estimated how much the cups of ingredients weighed based on a conversion measure for flour). This is what I discovered:
Eco Nuts, $12.99 for 100 loads: 12.8 cents/load
Homemade laundry detergent: $5.17 for 40 loads (5 cups at 1/8 cup per load): 12.9 cents/load
Tide Ultra Powder Detergent: $10.99 for 30 loads: 37 cents/load
Who knew? Facts are so handy. Firstly, I always assumed that my eco-detergent cost more than leading commercial brands, but it costs only about a third as much. Also, the homemade laundry detergent and the Eco Nuts come out basically neck-and-neck, which really was a surprise, as I assumed soap nuts were kind of an expensive niche option. Not so.
I love my homemade stuff, but if it costs the same and is easier and is at least as eco-friendly, then it’s hard to think of many reasons not to switch. Soap nuts aren’t local, but there is necessarily an environmental impact of my natural laundry powder too, especially because I use borax, which may have some negative impacts on health and the environment (minor compared to commercial cleaners). I’m not sure how the impacts of the soap nuts weight out against the homemade powder.
I think I might just be reluctant to switch out of… laundry loyalty. Now there’s something I never thought I’d see myself write or feel. And so it goes.