Marking Mid-Winter

We’re halfway there.

To spring.

On Feb. 2, prognosticating rodents are hauled out of hutches and held high, their gloved handlers grasping them tightly around their furry mid-sections. Assembled crowds will wait to see if the groundhog casts a shadow, thus sealing our fate for six more weeks of winter or granting us an early spring reprieve.

The modern celebration of Groundhog Day, for all its silliness, coincides with solemn faith tradition observances including the Catholic celebration of Candlemas and the Wiccan observance of Imbolc.

For me, it marks the half-way point on the gardening calendar between the darkest night of the year — the Winter Solstice — and spring’s official start on the Vernal Equinox.

Even as the temperatures remain stubbornly low, the real story is more sunlight. Six weeks ago, on the Winter Solstice, sunset was at 4:30 p.m. Today, it is at 5:10 p.m. The midday sun appears a few degrees higher in the sky and feels warmer on my face. We’re picking up one more minute of sunlight daily. That rate will double to two minutes daily by the end of February.

A gardener friend told me about her grandmother’s traditional Groundhog Day garden walk, during which her grandmother would “wake up” the trees and plants with a gentle tap from her walking stick.

When I heard this folk tradition, it made sense to me as gardener wisdom.

Inspecting each plant and tree carefully gives the gardener opportunity to observe disease or damage and make plans for pruning, repairing or transplanting.

Groundhog Day also ushers in the sugaring season, when maple trees (other tree species work too) can be tapped with a spigot and the flowing sap collected with no injury to the tree.

It’s nice to imagine that a hard rap could wake up a sleeping tree and make the tree’s sap drip faster.

The truth is that sap flow is triggered by increased sunlight plus warmer days and cold nights. Maple sap looks and tastes like water, with only the slightest hint of sweetness.

It takes about 40 gallons of collected sap boiled down to produce one gallon of syrup. I’m looking forward to helping some friends tap their maple trees this month.

Groundhog Day is a time to spot spring harbingers. There might be early-blooming hellebores, snowdrops or early crocus varieties to see in sunny wind-protected spots.

Along my neighbor’s driveway, a witch hazel bush has tight, swelling buds that will unfurl into red, finger-like petals during sunny February days and curl back into a protective bud at night. If you look carefully, some maple trees already sport a red haze on their crown.

I’ll bring my garden notebook out to the yard this week and take a fresh look at each tree, bush and plant. I might even give them a rap with a stick.

For Your January To-Do List: Radon Testing

Growing up in central New Jersey, I’ve heard about radon but never gave it too much thought. The word is part of my background—like Superfund, Brownfield and asbestos—that comes with being a native of my beloved but environmentally beleaguered state.

While researching healthy home ideas, I discovered that January is National Radon Awareness Month and that a simple test can tell me whether my home has elevated radon levels. I was even happier to find out that the West Orange Health Department offers free testing kits and information to West Orange homeowners.

“There are health risks associated with radon, so it is beneficial to know if it’s in your home because there are things you can do,” said Theresa DeNova, West Orange Health Officer.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas, which has always been a part of the bedrock under New Jersey, DeNova told me. The invisible and odorless gas moves up through soil and can enter homes through foundation cracks and openings around pipes and drains.

The NJ DEP website explains that radon in the home presents health risks associated with lung cancer. The tiny radioactive particles can be inhaled and become trapped in the lungs, increasing the risk of developing lung cancer.

The site also has a fact sheet about radon exposure health risks and deaths. It says that, in New Jersey, of the annual 4,700 lung cancer deaths, as many as 140-250 may be associated with radon exposure. The risks are greater for smokers than non-smokers but both are affected.

The free radon testing kits—including processing and mailing—are made possible through West Orange’s cooperation with the Radon Awareness Program (RAP). RAP is a joint initiative of the Essex County Cancer Coalition (ECCC), the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

I picked up my test kit at the health department office. The instructions told me to open the small round metal container and place it in the lowest livable area, which in my case means the basement. After two to four days, I’ll seal up the container and mail it for processing in the postage-paid envelope provided. (Update: The test results were normal.)

As well as occurring naturally, radon contamination can also come from industrial sites. DeNova told me that she has been involved with radon since 1984, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remediated a former radium-processing site on the border between West Orange and Montclair.

West Orange is in the “moderate potential” range for elevated indoor radon levels, according to the EPA. Since The chance that any particular home has elevated levels of radon can be estimated, but the only way to know for sure is testing.

Radon is calculated in a measurement called a picoCurie per liter of air, abbreviated to pCi/L. The average U.S. indoor level is 1.3 pCi/L. Federal agencies recommend acting if a home’s radon level is greater than 4 pCi/L.

If  test results come back indicating a elevated radon levels, the issue can be taken care of with fixes like sealing foundation cracks or installing a fan.

For homeowners who do not wish to participate in the RAP program, the offers website offers a list of state-certified companies that provide testing services and do-it-yourself kits as well as vendors who can help lower the amount of radon in your home.

Green Living: Simple Steps to a Green Lawn

You know what’s really beautiful?

A healthy lawn that’s safe for kids and pets and people to sit on and have a picnic.

A space for playing and lounging.

A lawn that can handle going to sleep a little in the summer’s heat and flourish again in fall’s cool temps.

Not a chemically doused, fertilizer-pumped wastefully-watered monoculture turf lawn.

I’m passionately vocal about this topic because I care about the health of my neighbors, near and far.

I care deeply about the health of our waterways.

The simple truth is that what my neighbors do on their own property doesn’t stay there.

Fertilizer run-off and pesticide drift are real problems.

Weaning a lawn off chemicals takes some time.

And it’s not hard.

The results are worth it.


Simple Steps Toward An Organic Lawn



Green Business: NOAA Fisheries’ Congressional Cod Report

NOAA Fisheries officials presented 2012 first quarter data on the status of U.S. fish stocks to Congress May 15.

Read the 2012 Status of U.S. Fisheries report.

Coverage of the congressional report comes via

NOAA sustainability reports shows new gains

By Richard Gaines Staff Writer

NOAA made its annual report Monday to Congress on the status of the nation’s fish stocks, and noted that, in 2011 the so-called Fish Stock Sustainability Index — a kind of Dow Jones Industrial Average for 230 key fish stocks — continued improving for the 11th straight year.

The good news on top  is that progress is being made toward ending overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks, “due to the commitment of fishermen, fishing communities, nongovernment organizations, scientists and managers.”

Well enough.

But good enough, and more importantly, fast enough?

Probably not.

Here’s where things stand today with 2011 cod catch limits, and the forecast for next year:

Based on the 2011 assessment, the catch limit on Gulf of Maine cod for the 2012 fishing year that started May 1 is set at 22 percent lower than it was in 2011. But far more drastic cutbacks are expected from NOAA beginning May 1, 2013. The 22 percent cut is considered an interim measure.

It’s hard to stay positive about real, incremental positive improvement in recreational and commercial inshore stocks when offshore draggers are scraping the bottom of the Stellwagen Bank ocean clean of  fish. Read more on this.

How are these major commercial fishing operations getting away with this? By exploiting weaknesses in the Catch Share program rules. Read an article on some ways that draggers may be beating the rules.

It’s a very very complicated issue.

But at the end of the day, once the vastly diminished cod stocks are gone, they’re gone.

Ciao Cod.

Related article: If We Eat All the Fish, Whose Tragedy Is it?


Green Business: Why We Don’t Buy Green and Why We Should

Green marketing is just marketing.

I am fascinated by what activates each of us to make meaningful lasting change in our lives.

And by the shopping choices we make to support those changes.

If green marketing can play a role in helping Americans make buying choices that are healthier for themselves, their families and the planet, I’m all in.

So, how’re we doing?

A new Ipsos survey on green shopping shows, no surprise, that people don’t buy things that cost more and might not work as well.


Big Surprise: Most People Don’t Buy Green Products If They Cost More

So then what’s behind these results? Writ old-school, let’s start with the customers’ objections:

7 Reasons Why We Don’t Shop Green

1. Cost: They cost more up-front

2. Perceived Effectiveness: They think green products don’t work as well

3. Fear of Change: Don’t want to try something new

4. Status: Attachment to a certain brand or product feature (scrubbing bubbles! mountain fresh scent!)

5. Short-term mindset/Small-view perspective: “What happens in my home/yard stays in my home. My actions don’t impact others or the environment.”

6. Irrational defiance: “I know that fast food is bad for me but it is my right to buy it when I want it.”

7. Absence of urgency: “There’s plenty of water coming out of my tap so there really isn’t a need to conserve.”

8. Impatience: “I want the bathroom spotless in 5 minutes.”


4 Reasons Why We Should Shop Green

1. Personal health and safety

2. Belief in a better tomorrow

3. Concern for our neighbors, near and far

4. Positive feedback from longer-term gratification


I believe that our dominant American culture values short-term quick results over better long-term outcomes.

I also believe we can change this conversation for the greener.

What are your reasons for shopping green, or not?


Green Shift: Luring Bees to Green

I enjoy reading the EPA’s Greenversations blog because it offers a variety of voices and perspectives from EPA staff members.

This week’s blog struck a chord with me. Author Lina Lounes obviously means well, and sincerely so, but she’s luring bees with vinegar.

Green Choices Are the Right Choices

Environmental protection takes hard work. Doing the right thing for your environment and your health involves tough choices. Whether you want to save water, save energy, protect natural resources, reduce toxic chemicals, all these actions involve making a choice between a greener option or a less environmentally friendly option. Let me explain.

The greenest option is not always the easiest. For example, you want to save water? You can’t let the water faucet run without end. You can’t take a shower mindlessly. Want some suggestions for water conservation?  Turn off the tap while shaving or brushing your teeth. Take showers instead of baths and the shorter the better.

Right. Wrong.

Hard. Tough.


These aren’t words that will lead people to greener choices.

What instead?

Demonstrate.  Facilitate. Implement.

I believe that people don’t care about special places and natural resources unless they experience them physically and viscerally. Pictures and words, even video, won’t do it.

Show your neighbors the splendor of a morning woodlands walk.

Teach a young friend to recognize bird calls.

Bring newcomers to nature.

Plant a garden and share the harvest.

Offer help and expertise.

Bring people along until they can do it themselves.

Connect *here* with *there* so that your friends understand the interconnected dependencies of our communities.

Being Green isn’t about sacrifice, in my mind.

Being Green is about expanding our appreciation and positive experiences with the natural world, in ways that preserve our natural treasures for future generations.

Because once you pave paradise, and put in a parking lot, who’s to know or mourn the loss?

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

So while we still have so much beauty to enjoy, let’s protect our shared world’s natural resources for all people today and future generations to come.


Green Living: Red Fish, Yellow Fish, No Fish

Hanging out in the shadows of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle club is the action that consumers and retailers don’t want to talk about: Refuse.

“Refuse” means not buying something instead of choosing a greener, better, more local choice.

For years, I carried around a little Blue Ocean Institute wallet guide to consult when I wanted to purchase fish. The card lists fish species as being Red, Yellow or Green based on how vulnerable or healthy the stocks and practices are for different fish species. Download the latest version. 

Recognizing that sometimes choice is confusing, Whole Foods Market has announced that as of April 22, they will no longer sell wild-caught salmon that are in danger of over-consumption or are brought to market in unsustainable ways. They’ve opted out of the consumption chain. They’ve refused.


Starting Earth Day, April 22, the natural and organic supermarket chain will no longer carry wild-caught seafood that is “red-rated,” a color code that indicates it is either overfished or caught in a way that harms other species. The ratings are determined by the Blue Ocean Institute, an advocacy group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

I’m with Whole Foods Market. At the end of the day, buying-better isn’t going to work as long as we keep buying-more-and-more. The way we eat fish, for the most part, is unsustainable. Reading the book “Cod: The Fish That Changed the World” helped me understand how the ocean’s former plenty has been plundered, almost to none. The world’s fish stocks cannot survive increasing demand.

There is some good news, in some places, on some fishing grounds. For a look at the progress that’s being made to stabilize fish stocks worldwide, read the Monterey Aquarium’s 2012 Turning the Tide report.

For me, I choose to Refuse, most days, most months. The times I eat fish are few but purposefully chosen, and preferably bought from the person who caught it.

Green Links: Water Awareness Is Global, State and Local

As the United Nations hosts World Water Day 2012 today, the world is reminded that clean water is vital for life and intrinsically linked to food security:

World Water Day

There are 7 billion people to feed on the planet today and another 2 billion are expected to join by 2050. Statistics say that each of us drinks from 2 to 4 litres of water every day, however most of the water we ‘drink’ is embedded in the food we eat: producing 1 kilo of beef for example consumes 15,000 litres of water while 1 kilo of wheat ’drinks up’ 1,500 litres.

In New Jersey, water quality protection is front-and-center as Governor Christie appears to be behind the controversial and sudden firing of New Jersey Highlands Council executive director, Eileen Swan.

Via NJ Conservation Foundation:

Politics trumps water protection in Highlands

The firing is the boldest salvo to date in what appears to be a concerted effort by the Christie Administration to undo the protections of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act (the Act), which was adopted in 2004 to secure the water supply for some six million people – over two-thirds of the residents of this state were in.

And right here in Essex County, Rutgers Cooperative Extension offers a highly affordable ($25!) for a professional two-day landscaping course on water-conserving and pollution-preventing Rain Garden Construction.


Attend Rain Garden Training Workshop
April 2 & April 3
Hosted by Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Garibaldi Hall at the Essex County Environmental Center in Roseland
The program is open to all, but tailored for professional landscapers.

A rain garden is a landscaped, shallow depression that captures, filters, and infiltrates stormwater run off at the source. A rain garden removes source pollutants from tstormwater runoff while recharging groundwater. Rain gardens are an important tool for communities and neighborhoods to create diverse, attractive landscapes while protecting the health of the natural environment.

Bid on Artist-Decorated Rain Barrels
The Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program is coordinating the “One Barrel at a Time Co-op,” where artists beautify rain barrels to be auctioned off to the public.

Green Living: Fix that Leak

In honor of the EPA’s national “Fix a Leak Week” (yes, that’s a thing), here’s a household tale of a quick flood and a slow leak.

I don’t know why my husband and I decided to come home early, but I’m glad we did. The second we opened the door, we both heard the ominous sound of running water.

We bolted down the basement stairs to discover about an inch of water covering half the basement floor.

The supply tube that brings clean water into the downstairs toilet had given way and water was spewing out across the floor. A quick turn of the stop valve right next to the wall stopped the flood so we could survey the damage.

We were lucky that we got home so soon after the flood started. Mopping up took only an hour. With a new $5 supply tube from the local hardware store, we were back in business.

It got me thinking about how much water we wasted that day down the drain and how much impact it would have on our monthly New Jersey American Water bill.

That math was complicated by my discovery that the upstairs toilet also was wasting water with a slow leak from the tank into the bowl.

The EPA says that an American home can waste, on average, more than 10,000 gallons of water every year due to running toilets, dripping faucets, and other household leaks.

Considering that one out of 8 people on this planet do not have access to safe drinking water, that’s a crime.

An easy way to check for tank leaks is to place a drop of food coloring in the toilet tank. If any color shows up in the bowl after 15 minutes, you have a leak. (Flush immediately after the experiment to avoid staining the tank.)

Since I wanted to know how much water I was wasting, I checked the water meter before and after a set period when no water was being used.

In one hour, the meter showed three gallons of water gone.

Three gallons of water doesn’t sound like that much, but over a week, it adds up to over 500 gallons of clean, processed water gone literally down the drain. At a few pennies per gallon, over a month, that’s another $5 on my monthly bill.

Fixing this problem required a few tools and a $15 replacement valve and float kit from the hardware store. No more running water, no more leak.

To learn more about fixing common indoor leaks, visit the EPA’s WaterSense site and download New Jersey American Water’s Water Leak Detection Kit.

Green Living: Greener Cleaning

If you want to know what is in your cleaning products, and what might be a potential health risk for your family, pets and the environment, I suggest you do some homework.

I started at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services database listing ingredients in common cleaning products with potential health effects and safety and handling instructions.

To help American consumers select less-toxic choices, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers a safety rating that permits certain consumer products to carry the Design for the Environment (DfE) label.

According to the EPA, “When you see the DfE logo on a product it means that the DfE scientific review team has screened each ingredient for potential human health and environmental effects and that — based on currently available information, EPA predictive models, and expert judgment — the product contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class.”

I have issues with the words “least concern” and “based on currently available information” but at least the DfE rating is based on a consistent scientific approach.

All good-sized supermarkets offer cleaning products with the DfE label. You can use the links above to investigate ingredients before you buy.

Here’s where I net out on chemical safety: while one particular chemical might be rated as “safe” for most people, pets and places, I have concerns about the accumulated load of chemicals we all breathe and consume in regular life. Plus, some of us are hardier than others. It just makes sense to lighten the load where possible.

Even better than buying green is to make your own cleaning solutions.

Use plain white vinegar for cleaning, disinfecting and shining and baking soda for scrubbing. Due to its high acidity, white vinegar can be used straight to combat germs and mildew and diluted half-and-half with water to clean countertops and hard surfaces.

Adda few drops of essential oil to a vinegar and water mixture in a spray bottle for a personalized scent.

Baking soda is an effective, gentle abrasive cleaner when mixed with water into a paste. Let time do the hard work by leaving it on overnight for baked-on food or stains.  A neat tip is to put baking soda into a shaker designed for pizza cheese, so it’s handy and ready to use.

Bleach is the big guns, meant to be used sparingly, cautiously, diluted and in a well-ventilated area. Never mix bleach with anything other than water. Bleach’s best partner is time. You can get the same results with a one-tenth bleach solution as with straight bleach if you let the diluted solution sit for 10 minutes. Mix up just what you need for each cleaning session because diluted bleach breaks down after 24 hours. Remember to rinse the cleaned area with water, taking care not to let the bleach solution touch your skin. More safer bleach use tips.

If you come to my house, I can’t promise that my counters will be spick and span, but at least they will be safe and clean.