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Blue Bungalow Farm

Heather Zydek writes about life on the east side of Tosa.

Grass Be Gone: Why I removed my lawn in favor of a perennial landscape

lawn care, grass, permaculture, monocultures, japanese beetles, grubs, perennial gardens

When Walt Whitman wrote lovingly of grass in his poetry collection "Leaves of Grass," he must have been referring to the showy, ornamental varieties, or, more likely, wild grasses swaying in summer fields. Surely he couldn't have been thinking of the kind of overly-watered-yet-still-thirsty, scalped, grub infested squares of lawn that form a patchwork quilt across suburbia. 

 
I am the owner of one of those green-brown patches – or used to be, anyway. Hard and compacted, riddled with Creeping Charlie and at least a few other varieties of herbaceous pests, my front lawn was covered in dry spots and infested with grubs and ants. It required constant coddling in order to be happy. Despite my best efforts to border it with beautiful perennial gardens, my lawn of shame ultimately rendered my small landscape ugly and unsightly. 
 
So after battling it for six years, I decided it was time for the grass to go.
 
My neighbors must have thought I'd lost it when I pulled a borrowed 12-amp electric rototiller from my garage and slowly tore into the front lawn. Two days later, it was a plot of exposed soil littered with roots and grass clippings. Piles of dead grass covered my property. The Lannon stone pieces I once used as edging for my perennial borders were heaped on my front sidewalk. My once-peaceful -- if ugly -- front lawn was now a hideous open sore. 
 
Let the healing begin.
 
I'm not necessarily against grass. But I don't love the idea of relying on herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, excessive city water and gas lawn mowers to keep it tidy and pristine. And while I like a lush green field of Kentucky bluegrass as much as anyone, I love admiring the rare suburban yard that contains no grass, favoring a landscape of varied perennials and hardscaping.
 
I'd been coveting such a yard for years. But every time I proposed this to my family, they scoffed.
 
"Where will the kids play?" my husband asked, as if our patchy front lawn were big enough for them to have small softball games.
 
Hardly. In reality, they run through the yard here and there on their way to the driveway or the neighbors' yards, or as a shortcut to our front door. 
 
But after this year's terrible drought, our lawn sunk to a new low: it was brown and crispy, with a few green weed clumps dotting the overall parched remains of bluegrass. At that point, my reluctant husband and daughters (who discovered that it's much more fun to play softball at nearby parks) gave me the green light to tear the lawn apart.
 
Aside from the sheer aesthetics of replacing a lawn with a front yard perennial garden, there are environmental benefits, including:
 
- Resisting monocultures. An expanse of grass bordered by a few day lilies and yews doesn't give bees and other insects much to pollinate, and it provides a haven for Japanese beetles, whose grubs feed on grass roots. Biodiversity is key to reducing pests by attracting the beneficial insects and birds that prey on them. 
 
- Conserving resources. Not having grass will, I hope, conserve water -- not just in terms of the city water used to give drink to thirsty grass during summer droughts, but also in terms of preserving rainfall. Deeper perennial roots will drink up more rain water, preventing flooding and run-off. 
 
- Protecting rivers and lakes. No grass means no need for herbicides and fertilizers. Rain washes at least some of the herbicides and fertilizers we use into our waters.
 
- Moving toward permaculture. Having a variety of plants in my yard is good for birds and bees, but it's also good for us. It means more space to grow useful plants like my currant bushes and herbs. This allows us to continue moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, one in which we grow as much of our own food as possible on our small city lot while also contributing to a healthier environment.
 
After rototilling the grass and painstakingly pulling up and composting all the leftover roots, I split overcrowded perennials in my small back yard, bought a few clearance mums, arranged the Lannon stone paths and then planted, watered, and mulched. This is one snapshot of the resulting grass-free front yard:
 
 
Now I am looking forward to next spring, when most of those divided perennials will take root and begin to blossom.

Hardwood floors or carpet?

hardwood floors, carpet, carpet recycling, indoor allergies, home improvement

Within hours of learning that we were going to host our very first family Christmas party in 14 years of marriage, I made plans to do something I've wanted to do as long as we've lived in our blue bungalow: rip out the dingy carpets in our living and dining rooms and expose the hardwood floors underneath.

 
I had a few reasons for this:
  • Aesthetics: Our house was built with oak floors. Wall-to-wall carpets weren't in style in 1918. I wanted those original floors, obscured under matted carpeting, padding, and an ungodly layer of dust, to be restored to their original beauty. 
  • Health: I have pretty serious indoor allergies. I'm allergic to dust mites and certain molds. Carpets are a dust mite paradise.
  • Sustainability: Carpets degrade much faster than wood, needing replacement every 15 years or so. And they require frequent vacuuming. I'd much rather sweep than run an electric vacuum. 
Despite lusting after hardwood floors for over five years, a couple drawbacks prevented me from making this move:
  • CostOne online source says it could cost $3.75 - $5 a square foot to refinish hardwood flooring. According to that estimate, our 435 square foot area would cost up to $2,175 to refinish. This is not exactly an amount we'd planned to spend on something largely cosmetic – not at this time, anyway.
  • Disruption: Packing furniture into other rooms, ripping out and disposing of carpets, and staying out of a good portion of living space until the floors were sanded, stained, and polyurethaned wasn't something our busy family of five (plus big dog) wanted to do. 
  • Soundproofing: We wondered: would every foot placed on a creaking floorboard ring through the whole house?
  • Insulation: We worried that stripping out carpets would remove some needed insulation from our floors. Does carpet really retain heat better than hardwood floors? A little. "Carpeting will provide a modicum of insulation to a first floor over an unheated basement or crawl space," said an article in Chicago's Daily Herald.) 
Nevermind all those things. We're talking about hardwood floors here. Hardwood oak is natural, alive. The wood grain is complex and stunning. A refinished hardwood floor is a work of art. And hardwood floors are permanent: well cared for wood lasts a lifetime. No need to replace every 15 years due to changing styles and eroding quality.
 
I wanted to expose that wood. So I grabbed a razor blade, a hammer, and a couple of flathead screwdrivers and I ripped out the carpets myself. It took me about three days to cut and remove carpet and padding and then pluck out staples and nails. 
 
What we "unearthed," or uncarpeted as it were, was a LOT of stained, damaged wood. It was actually much worse looking than we anticipated:
 
 
We didn't plan on dropping a couple grand on this floor right before Christmas. So at first we tried take the DIY approach. My husband did some reading and learned that hydrogen peroxide is a safe, mild way to lighten deeply ingrained stains from wood, stains left by pets, harsh carpet-cleaning chemicals, and overflowing plant pots. 
 
The hydrogen peroxide did work – a little. Slowly. But after a couple days of dabbing the spots over and over with questionable results, and after finding that a few attractive area rugs weren't enough to cover the ugliness, we decided to seek estimates from professionals.
 
We chose an Oconomowoc company called Norwegian Wood Floors. Their bid was the lowest (approximately $2.50 per square foot) and they were recommended to us by a few trusted neighbors. We are very happy with the results:
 
 
From an environmental standpoint I really didn't have time in this hasty move to research the safety of the stain and polyurethane used on the floor, the fumes of which I'm still inhaling days after application. Yuck. And I feel awful about throwing away all that carpeting. I hoped that by placing the carpet strips curbside, some creative person would nab them in the middle of the night. This worked for us when we had to get rid of our old upstairs windows: we stacked them on curb and they were gone within hours. 
 
No such luck on the carpeting. So my husband packed the carpet strips into our van and drove them to the dump. Had I taken the time to do more research, I might have been able to find another use for the old carpets, like insulating a space in my house or building cat scratching posts. I don't have cats, though, and these dusty carpets aren't exactly something I'd want to keep around. 
 
At the time we disposed of the carpets I was unaware of the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE). According to CARE's website, a place called Lippert Tile Company, Inc. in Menomonee Falls recycles reclaimed, post consumer carpets. 
 
Facilities Manager Mike Scardino confirmed that Lippert recycles post consumer carpets for a fee: $1 per yard. Once they've collected a trailer-load of carpets they drive them to a recycling center in Indiana, where the waste is used to make new carpeting, concrete filler, and plastics.  
 
"It does not get wasted," Scardino said. "Nothing goes into the landfill."
 
Scardino noted that carpets are refused if they're full of debris like tack strips, or are so wet they would ferment in the trailer as they await their journey to Indiana. However, he said, rarely do they turn anyone away.
 
Why did Lippert Tile take on this recycling project, which they've been operating at a loss for the last three years? Scardino said the company's owner, Les Lippert, felt it was the right thing to do. Lippert is located near a "huge garbage dump" in Menomonee Falls. As Lippert watched the hills get bigger and bigger, he felt it was time to divert some of that waste. 
 
His carpet recycling service is just now starting to take off.
 
I wish I would have taken the time to research this when we had our own carpets to dispose of, but I didn't. As my mom used to say, "coulda, shoulda, woulda." I can't go back. All I can do is make sure I recycle any other carpets I rip out of my home (as of now our entire upstairs is still carpeted).
 
In the meantime, my husband and I are very excited about our beautiful new floors. We can't stop looking at them, admiring the way the light hits the wood grain at different times of the day. The planks of wood serve as reminders of the beauty of nature during these winter months.
 
Are you trying to decide what to do with carpet-covered wood floors? You might find the following resources helpful:
 
 

Lawn of Shame

lawns, grass, white clover, lawn alternatives

 I did it: I successfully ended another gardening season. From June on was able to harvest everything from strawberries and currants to grapes, carrots, and zucchini. Now I'm enjoying watching my pumpkins finish growing and admiring the last blooms of the season from my mums, sedums, and other fall blooming perennials. 

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Suggestive Selling in the Doctor's Office

Pharmaceuticals, Health Care, Perpetual Economic Growth, Suggestive Selling

Years ago, when I worked in the food service industry, servers were encouraged to engage in something called "suggestive selling." "Have you tried our new cheesy jalapeno poppers?" we were supposed to ask our customers. "Would you like seasoned fries instead of regular fries with your burger?" This was a way for restaurants to increase profits and for servers to boost tips.
 
According to the consumer research firm Mercantile Systems, suggestive selling -- also known as "up-selling," or "add on selling," "uses value-added suggestions to add items to your customers' original purchase."
 
Not a bad idea, right? Take a willing customer ready to spend money on your products or services and coax them into spending a bit more on products they didn't know they needed, but might enjoy. Indeed, the above website mentions that despite its somewhat dubious reputation, suggestive selling is "one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to increase revenue, profit and customer satisfaction."  
 
Suggestive selling has become standard practice in recent decades, penetrating almost all industries. One of those industries is healthcare. The trouble with suggestive selling in healthcare is that there is a big difference, ethically, between suggesting a customer upgrade to innocuous seasoned fries and suggesting a patient try a prescription to an anti-depressant drug as a cure for the blues, or take an antibiotic for a mild infection a healthy body is capable of fighting on its own. 
 
Part of the problem with suggestive selling in the healthcare industry is that when a medical professional makes a suggestion to a patient for a procedure or prescription, most of us aren't armed with the knowledge to say no. We trust our doctors implicitly. We take what they offer and worry about how to pay later. Doctor knows best, right?
 
Further complicating matters is exactly who is doing this suggestive selling in the doctor's office. Is it the doctor, or an unseen player hovering behind the scene? Who gains from a patient partaking of a product (e.g. a drug) that might not be needed but that brings increased profits to…well, who, exactly? And how are patients to know whether purchasing a suggested prescription drug is really in their best interests? 
 
These questions beget other a more fundamental, serious question: Whom can a patient really trust if the bottom line isn't healing, but financial gain? How can we trust that a physician will aim to "avoid the trap of overtreatment" if overtreatment promises increased profits? 
 
The practice of up-selling by our most educated, trusted authorities is designed to go unquestioned. Its methods are much subtler and more successful than that of the restaurant server touting extra side sauces. At a restaurant, a customer knows that a server stands to gain from adding pricier food items to the bill, thus increasing his tip. You know that when the server begins suggesting expensive add-ons that you're subjecting yourself to the art of persuasion on the part of the sales person. Depending on how hungry you are and how much money you want to blow, you have the power to choose whether you want that side of guacamole or not. 
 
Not so in the doctor's office, where subtle suggestive selling starts before you even see a doctor. Enter a doctors' offices of any stripe (general practitioner, dentist, even veterinarian) and you'll undoubtedly find yourself a captive audience for 10, 20, 30 minutes or longer with little to do but be taken in by propaganda disguised as informative posters and brochures on a variety of health concerns. After this period of indoctrination, many a doctor enters her office ready to hand out costly prescriptions to frightened patients.
 
Case in point: recently, I brought my five-year-old golden retriever in to the local vet for a rabies booster. I also wanted the doctor to take a quick look at a self-inflicted wound my dog incurred while being cared for by relatives when we were on a recent vacation. My dog has separation anxiety, and he has a perplexing habit of licking and biting his hip when we're away. This behavior caused a small wound that, at the time of our vet trip, was just beginning to heal. 
 
When we first arrived at the vet's office, the receptionist reviewed our files. She said that in addition to a rabies booster my dog needed a laundry list of other services, from boosters to a fecal exam. The full cost of these services was $120 or so. I opted out of one or two but accepted the rest, simply because they sounded important. 
 
We were then led into the doctor's office, where, naturally, we had to wait for about 10 minutes. That's not terribly long – it was just enough time for us to be able to take in the half dozen "public service announcements" plastered to the walls. Every single one of them (including a few models, e.g. a plastic dog heart with plastic heartworms pouring out of the center) was sponsored by a pharmaceutical company.
 
One striking ad involved roundworm. Did you know that your dog's untreated roundworm infection might cause your small child to go blind, or your infant to contract a horrid skin disease? To prevent this frightening parasite from ravaging your perfect children and killing your dog, remember to treat your canine friend with brand X roundworm drug. That is what the poster would have you believe, anyway. Of course, I am guessing the odds of a child getting a roundworm infection from the average dog are slim. 
 
I had just enough time in the doctor's office to read the scary informational posters before the doc came in to examine and immunize my dog. One of his first questions was whether I use an anti-flea medicine such as brand Y. I told him I did not. I used to pay for these products by default, simply because, well, the vet told me to. And who wants fleas? The thing is, though, I'm not comfortable putting an expensive pesticide strong enough to repel fleas and ticks for a whole month on my dog's skin. And since my dog rarely socializes with other animals, I figured doing so was probably unnecessary. I made that decision years ago. Our five-year-old puppy has never had fleas. 
 
The doctor then took a look at my dog's separation-anxiety-induced wound. He couldn't really get a good look at the scab under the dog's fur, so he asked if he could shave the dog's bottom. I agreed. He removed a round section of fur about the size of a dinner plate and then examined the wound. "It's infected," he said. "You'll need both an oral and a topical antibiotic."
 
Knowing how often antibiotics are needlessly prescribed by doctors, I stared at him in disbelief. 
 
"Really? Is an oral antibiotic really necessary?" 
 
I looked at the wound. The 10-day-old scab was almost gone and resembled an irritated abrasion. It appeared to be healing.
 
"Yes," the doctor said. "If you don't give him an oral antibiotic he could get a blood infection."
 
A blood infection? Yikes. That sounds pretty scary.
 
I was quiet for a moment. Was I the worst dog owner in the world for asking the next question?  "How much is that going to cost? I'm already spending over $100 just for the vaccines. I didn't expect to spend that much today."
 
I could tell he and the vet tech were uncomfortable. He didn't answer my question. Instead, he kind of back-peddled. "Do you have Neosporin in your house?"
 
"Yes."
 
"Just put that on the wound."
 
Wait, what? First I was potentially subjecting my dog to a horrible-sounding blood infection if I didn't consider medicating him. Next I was told that a little Neosporin applied twice daily would do just fine.
 
It's not that I wouldn't have paid the money for my dog to be treated with an oral antibiotic if he truly needed it. But my gut told me he did not need the extra medicine. 
 
The doctor proceeded to inject my dog with two syringes full of expensive vaccines and sent me on my way. I paid for the visit and left, my wallet $108 lighter.
 
This is not the first time I've been offered possibly unnecessary meds by doctors within minutes of entering their offices. Every time I go to the vet I end up being talked into vaccines, designer foods, and procedures I don't really think my dog needs. Our beloved dentist has suggested on more than one occasion that I pay to have a protective plastic coating put on my kids' teeth, even though the three of them rarely drink pop and have never had cavities. I've always declined. I once had a doctor so enthusiastic about pharmaceuticals that by the end of the visit she had arranged for me to have about four different prescriptions, all of which seemed unnecessary. The worst was when a former general practitioner offered one of my children a prescription for Ritalin and almost insisted that I take him up on the offer because my daughter would "go from Cs to As in school" by using the cocaine-like drug. I opted for behavioral modification techniques and two years later she seems to be thriving.
 
Let it be known that I am not against Western medicine. A very capable surgeon saved my life two years ago when he removed my cancerous thyroid. Without a thyroid I will have to rely on synthetic thyroid hormone for the remainder of my days. Levothyroxin is something I can no longer live without, and frankly, I feel it has done me a lot of good. My thyroid level, unlike before, is now regulated. I have been able to lose some weight as a result, my concentration is better, and I have more energy than I've had in years. I am thankful for modern advances in science and medicine.
 
And I don't mean to entirely dismiss, on an individual level, the hard work of medical professionals, nor even those who engage in pharmaceutical sales. I know a couple of folks in the business of selling pharmaceuticals, as well as a few pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, and I respect them a great deal. I don't even blame the patients who accept or, sometimes, beg for the drugs doctors often distribute like candy. We're all part of this problem. Each of the aforementioned groups is an important cog in this machine. What fuels the machine are two American ideologies operating in tandem: perpetual economic growth and comfort as an inalienable human right. I would argue that both of these ideologies are illusory and damaging to a healthy, sustainable way of life.
 
When will we say no to suggestive selling in the doctor's office? When will we ask our doctors to say no to pharmaceutical sales people? When will sales people say no to the corporations pushing them to increase sales without regard for ethics? When will we, as consumers, as addicts, stop assuming that we need pills to satisfy every aspect of human discomfort and protect us from every ill, even the most remote? 
 
My dog's doing much better now, by the way. Below are before and after shots of his wound. The first was taken on Friday, August 26, just after I returned from the vet: 
 
 
We applied Neosporin to the wound for about two days but stopped when we realized he almost immediately licked off the ointment every time. Despite this, he seems to have healed almost completely, as revealed by this photo, taken today:
 
 
I monitored him for signs of blood infection throughout the healing process and he never exhibited any abnormal behaviors or symptoms – all the while he was his same energetic self. I think he's going to be just fine. 

Garden to Table: Dinner from the Yard

Garden to Table, cooking, recipes, blackberries, cabbage

It's a simple pleasure that I believe everyone should be able to experience: eating food harvested from one's own yard (or balcony, or kitchen window for that matter). 
 
All year round I try to grow at least one or two things I can cook and eat. In the winter, that means mostly herbs like basil and oregano. In the summer, it means a lot more – especially in August, when most plants yield their fruits. Yesterday I harvested:
 
- blackberries: This is the first year I have a bumper crop of the very tart, juicy aggregate fruits.
 
 
- carrots: I usually wait a little longer to pick them, but I wanted to make soup, so I pulled a few of the carrots with big orange tops protruding from the soil.
 
- cabbage. I started a few cabbages from seed in the spring. Due to the cold, dark "sprinter" we had this year in Milwaukee, most of my seedlings took forever to come to fruition. I am just now starting to see tomatoes and my eggplants haven't even flowered yet. And I now have about two small cabbages that look like they are ready to be harvested.
 
 
- grapes: I think I jumped the gun on harvesting them – I've never harvested grapes before, as it's taken a few years for these vines to bear significant fruit. I harvested a bowlful but left most of the grapes on the vine. 
 
Though our fridge is rapidly emptying of store-bought sustenance, I am holding off on grocery shopping for as long as possible by using produce from my yard. This is fairly doable as long as I have eggs, milk, and flour, and coffee beans on hand.
 
Last night for dinner I decided to make cabbage soup. I sautéed onions and garlic in a large soup pot, stirred in peeled, chopped carrots and cabbage leaves, added about six cups of water, vegetarian vegetable bouillon cubes, and a bit of pepper, garlic powder and parsley. I brought everything to a boil and then let it simmer. A few minutes before serving I added about 2/3 c. Marsala cooking wine and salt. I served the soup with shredded mozzarella cheese and bread. 
 
For dessert I thought I'd try preparing a dish my friend shared with us a year or two ago. It was a kind of flan, but firmer, more like an eggy cake. Problem is, I lost the recipe and couldn't remember the French name of the dish. So I made up this recipe instead. I call it "Blackberry Crepe Cake" because of the recipe's similarity in texture and taste to crepes:
 
Blackberry Crepe Cake
 
8 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c. milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. vegetable oil or melted butter / margarine
1 c. sugar
2 c. flour (I use a mix that contains 50/50 unbleached white and whole wheat flours, with a little ground flax meal thrown in)
1/4 tsp. salt
2 c. blackberries (or other blueberries or raspberries or any tart berry combination)
 
[Stir all ingredients together. Batter will be slightly lumpy. Pour into greased 9  x 13 pan. Bake at 350 for about an hour. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm or chilled.]
 
 
Both the soup and the "crepe cake" (which, I'm sure, has a proper name) were yummy. I'm definitely going to make the cake again, though I have so many zucchinis I am going to be making chocolate-chip zucchini muffins for weeks before I make any other dessert. 
 
 
Incidentally, for those who take this blog post as a boast of my mad homemaking skillz, be assured that I am not much of a "Susie Homemaker." Most of those who know me can attest to the fact that my house is always a mess, and many of our meals, including yesterday's lunch, came from a box. As I work my way toward complete self-reliance, a little Roundy's mac-n-cheese comes in handy now and then. Of course, when the mood strikes I can be a decent cook. But believe me when I say that I probably rely on convenience foods as often as any other working mom. I have a long way to go toward living off the land! 

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