12 Easy Ways to Save Water Now

Kitchen faucet with running water.

Photo courtesy of kaboompics / pixabay

 by Heather Stone

No matter where you live reducing your water use is important. Water is a finite resource and we are using more of it than ever. Did you know that the average American uses 88 gallons of water a day at home? In comparison, Europeans use about half that and in sub –Saharan Africa persons average only 2-5 gallons a day. Now most of us aren’t likely to get our water usage to that level, there are many ways we can reduce our water consumption in the home.

When it comes to saving water, the little things do really add up. Here is a list of 12 easy things you can do in your home to reduce your water consumption and lower your water bill.

1. Repair leaks. Drip, drip, drip. This is the sound of a precious resource being wasted. Fix those leaking toilets and showers! This can make a big difference. The average family can waste 180 gallons per week or 9,400 gallons of water annually from household leaks. Nationwide, these household leaks can waste almost 900 billion gallons of water in a year. Not sure if your toilet is leaking. Place 10-12 drops of food coloring in your tank, don’t flush. Check back in thirty minutes. If there is color in the bowl, you have a leak.
2. Install water saving fixtures like faucet aerators and low flow showerheads. These low cost and easy to install items can significantly reduce water volume. If you have a little more money to spend replacing your old toilet with a low –flow model can save 50-80 gallons of water a day.
3. Don’t use your toilet as a wastebasket. Whenever you flush that tissue or bit of trash down the toilet you’re wasting gallons of water. Put it in the trash instead.
4. Take short showers instead of baths. Turn off the water while you are soaping up.
5. How many gallons of water go down the drain while we wait for the shower to warm up? Collect that water in a large bucket and use it to flush the toilet or water plants.
6. Turn off the water to brush your teeth. The average faucet releases 2 gallons of water a minute.
7. Fill the sink to shave instead of letting the water run.
8. Only run your dishwasher when it’s full.
9. Fill a basin with water for rinsing your dishes. Use this water to water your plants or flush your toilet.
10. Limit the use of your garbage disposal. Try composting those food scraps instead!
11. Wash your fruit and veggies in a tub or bucket instead of rinsing under running water. This can save gallons of water from going down the drain.
12. Only run your washing machine when it’s full and skip the permanent press cycle. Most machines use 5 gallons of water for that extra rinse.

Want to determine your personal water footprint? Check out this water footprint calculator.



The Importance of Soil

by Engrid Winslow

Let’s talk about getting your vegetable and flower beds ready for planting by preparing the soil. No matter how great your soil seems to be, your new plants will welcome a boost of vital nutrients. Tomatoes, onions, peppers and other vegetables are known as “heavy feeders”. This means they need (and therefore remove) lots of minerals from the soil they grow in. Without fertile soil many plants will struggle to produce those tasty fruits and vegetables, and beautiful blooms.

5 Tips to Improve your SoilHands full of rich soil.

1. Add compost: Make your own or purchase a quality one such as mushroom compost. You may also like chicken manure based, beer industry bi-products or even dairy cow manure. Avoid compost made from curbside recycling (who knows what is really in there) or anything with steer manure, usually very high in salt. Spend a little extra on better quality and your garden will thank you with beautiful vegetables and flowers.

2. Use fertilizers: A mild, organic fertilizer is best and can range from fish emulsion to compost tea or kelp. Seek out a liquid fertilizer that is a balanced mix of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Look for a label with low numbers for each of these 3 minerals. See below for example (3-3-2).Age Old Fish and Seaweed Liquid Fertilizer

3. Cover the soil all year: Use mulch (shredded leaves are perfect) and cover crops when you are not growing vegetables. This will help keep weeds at bay and adds nutrients to the soil.

4. Rotate vegetables: Don’t grow the same vegetables in the same place every year, especially those “heavy feeders” (mentioned above). It’s best to give the soil a three-year break between them to avoid diseases and soil depletion. Remember that some crops (peas and beans in particular) actually add nutrients to the soil they are grown in.

5. Encourage worms: Worm castings are expensive but have such great qualities that even a little bit is well worth it. The more you amend your soil over time, the better it becomes and somehow worms find their way to worthy soil.

A large bag of UNCO Industries Worm Castings.


Stop the Powdery Mildew Cycle this Fall

by Sandy SwegelPowder Mildew

Powdery mildew had a grand time in my garden this year. I often have a nonchalant attitude to it growing on a few leaves and don’t mind a little bit. But it started early this year on roses, then showed up on the bee balms and finished out the season inundating the sweet peas and squashes. By the time I paid attention, it was out of control.

But now it’s Fall and my inner lazy gardener says…ah well this season is over. Next year it will be different. But if we want to make progress against disease in our gardens, now is the time to act.

Powdery Mildew

Do you Want Less Disease in your garden next year? Then take these steps now:

In the Vegetable Garden
As your squash and cucumbers and pea plants are dying back, remove those leaves and put them in the trash. Not in the compost pile. Don’t let them overwinter and deal with it in the Spring. Fungus and disease spores are sitting passively on the backs of those leaves, just waiting for rebirth next Spring. They do not reliably die in home compost piles. Powdery mildew survives the winter by forming minute fruiting bodies called cleistothecia And tomatoes? I put the whole plants in the trash after frost. There are just too many diseases on them to risk.

In the perennial beds, leaves infected with powdery mildew like rose or phlox or bee balm often drop before Fall. Before the big tree leaf fall, I use the blower to blow the diseased leaves out of the bed and PUT THEM IN THE TRASH.

This vigorous sanitation is a good idea for all pests too. If you had bean beetles…get rid of those leaves that might have next year’s eggs.

But don’t be too clean.
That’s the important lesson here. In the non-diseased parts of the garden, lady bugs and lacewings and lots of beneficial insects are going to lay eggs and overwinter. We want them. I learned last year especially to let willow leaves be…there were dozens of beneficial babies at the base of willow plants last spring.

Powdery Mildew

And next year…be attentive to the powdery mildew. I now promise to treat early and often with something gentle but effective such as a horticultural oil or a baking soda. I lost a lot of production in my vegetables this year because I let the powdery mildew have its way. And the roses and phlox really took a hit. I’l do better next year. I promise.



Photo Credit:


Crickets in the Garden

by Sandy SwegelCrickets

The garden crickets have begun their mating calls.  Their singing melodies are the universal announcement that the end of summer is coming.  We also become aware that they have been living in our yards and gardens all year and we mostly didn’t even notice. They are just another part of the entire ecosystem of insects that we share our gardens with. In most gardens, crickets don’t do much damage and their summer’s end song calls up pleasant memories of summers past.  But what role do crickets play in our little garden ecosystem?


Crickets are detritivores.  The live in the leaf litter of the forest floor or your back yard, or in my case the area behind the shed, breaking down the leaves and plant debris that gather.  They eat the leaves and leave behind tiny little cricket manure that helps fertilize the soil.  There are even companies that sell organic fertilizers:  Cricket Poo and KricketKrap!


What garden crickets eat:

Crickets are omnivores.  They love their meat meals like small insects, eggs, pupae, scale and aphids. Some feed primarily on plant material. Other balance their diet with pollen and nectar. Crickets are also known to eat a lot of weed seeds.  Mostly they eat decaying plant material and fungi.


What eats garden crickets:

Crickets are an important part of the food chain.  (Another good reason not to use insecticides.)  The  list of who eats crickets is long: birds, mice, shrews, bats, rats, toads, frogs, small snakes, and salamanders. Other known predators of crickets are lizards, mantids, spiders, wasps, ground beetles and ants. And of course, people in some cuisines.  This is one reason you hear crickets at night…they are hiding during the day!

Garden Crickets

Be sure to leave a home for crickets:

The most important thing you can do in your garden and yard for crickets and for all of the beneficial insects is not to cleanup very well.  You can pick up lots of leaves, but leave some leaves scattered throughout the garden and in out-of-sight areas to give the crickets and ladybugs and lacewings and lots of other creatures a safe place to overwinter or lay eggs.







Weeds Are Our Friends

by Sandy SwegelDock Weed 

Say what? Well Spring weeds ARE my friends. August weeds not so much. But Spring is finally overcoming winter and the big leafy weeds are the proof.

So what’s to love about Spring Weeds? The most important thing is they are an abundant source of food for pollinators. They are also delightfully pretty if you don’t think of them as weeds. I especially love the wild mustards. Invasive in lawns and on bare garden soils, blue mustards’ very tiny blue flowers are everywhere and are an excellent food source for awakening bees. Bees can’t live on dandelions alone you know.

Musk mustard flowers
To a gardener, the best part about spring weeds is WEED TEA and COMPOST.

Weeds, especially the perennial ones like dock and thistle, are an excellent source of nutrients because of their deep tap roots. To capture these nutrients in a usable form, you have to break down the plant tissue. The easiest thing to do is just keep throwing the leaves on the compost pile. This time of year your compost bin has too many “browns” anyway with all the dead winter material. The “greens” of spring coupled with warm weather jump starts your pile.

But if you want to really get all those nutrients available to your plants and soil, you’ll want to make some Weed Tea.

Weed Tea RecipeWeed compost tea

Get a big container . A Rubbermaid garbage can works, or make a small batch in a 5 gallon bucket. Put in all the weeds you can gather. I throw in cut leaves and whole plants. Put this container someway far away from your back door where you can’t smell it!

Here’s what’s going in my bucket:
Yellow dock leaves…these are everywhere.
Pulled or dug thistles.
Comfrey if you have it….these are especially full of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Nettles. Wear gloves.
Crabgrass with clumps of dirt still attached.
Dandelions, salsify, prickly lettuce, even bindweed if it’s up already. Nothing’s going to survive this stew.
Pond scum.

Compost tea

Now fill your container with water at least 12 inches over the plant material. And let stand until it is a disgusting gooey stew of fermented and stinking rotted material. Stir weekly. That smell is anaerobic decomposition. If the weather is warm, this takes maybe 10 days or as long as 4 weeks if it’s cooler. That’s it. You’ve made the best fertilizer you will ever use. Capture the liquid to use to pour directly (I dilute about 1 part weed tea to 4 parts water) on your garden beds. Strain some and put it in a sprayer for foliar feeding. Hold your breath and throw the stinking mess of weed material on your compost pile.

My favorite use of weed tea is to use it as a foliar feed and watch the treated plants green up overnight. This is especially good on tomatoes.  Spring Weeds really are a gardener’s friend!


Photo credits





Growing for Chickens

What to grow for your chickens

By Sandy SwegelChicken Eggs

Reading our Facebook posts lately on how yummy eggs from backyard chickens are got me thinking about what makes home grown eggs taste so much better than store eggs.

A varied diet helps a lot. Commercial chickens pretty much get a straight corn-based diet with vitamins and minerals added in. Happy home chickens can still eat commercial food, but they usually gets lots of food scraps too. That’s when the eggs start tasting better. When the chickens get lots of protein like bugs and worms, that’s when the eggs get really good.

Here’s what my chickens love:

Kitchen Scraps

Chickens eat kitchen scraps

Any and all scraps go to the chicken. Even meat if it is cooked. (The shocking secret I learned about chickens is that their favorite food is chicken….especially the scraps from fried chicken.) Chicken aren’t terribly smart in general, but they are savvy about food. If something is moldy or too full of pungent foods like onions, they just scratch it aside looking for bits of fruit or tomatoes or meat. Their favorite foods are things kids like. Noodles are a big hit. So are cherry tomatoes.

Weeds and Garden Waste
All the crab grass, dandelions, seed heads, dock leaves, grass clippings etc go into the chicken run. They go for the greens and seeds first and push the other stuff around. Grass is apparently yummier in the Spring than in mid-summer when they just look at me and say “Meh.”

This is the best secret to having delicious eggs….lots of proteins especially from living crawling things. All those kitchen scraps and weeds that don’t get eaten get raked into the corner and turn into compost with lots of earthworms. At some point in their random scratching, the chickens figure this out and turn the compost pile with great delight. Somehow plenty of earthworms manage to survive. I throw in extra bugs too: slugs, cabbage worms, box elder bugs, maggots, anything I don’t want in the garden. One other icky-to-think-about critter they really love to eat are mice.

Spent beer grains
Our local breweries put out their spent grains and hops for farmers and gardeners to recycle. These grains are usually a bit fermented which makes the chickens very very happy. The fermentation adds extra nutrition, happy, slightly drunken chickens make delicious eggs.

More greensChickens in compost bin
My chickens have to stay in a fenced run because of the large number of fox and coyotes in our area. So I plant food all around the edges of the run so they can reach their heads through the fence to nibble but not actually destroy the plants by pulling them up. Currently growing are comfrey, chard (their favorite, I think they like the salt), kale, and wild grasses and dandelions (they like the flowers).

So plant for your chickens and they will reward you with the best tasting eggs and lots of entertainment.

Photo credits:


Composting in Winter

by Sandy SwegelComposting in Winter

Composting in Winter

Few things are sadder to a gardener than perfectly good food scraps not getting turned into compost. Once winter hits here, the ground is frozen solid. The compost pile gets frozen too. I’ve tried throwing the scraps onto the compost pile, but that seemed to invite every raccoon in town to come dine in my compost bin.

How to make a compost trench

My best idea for composting in winter is to make a trench compost. This requires a little work in the Fall, but produces amazing results. In fall, I dig a long trench right in the garden….about a foot deep and a foot wide. I leave the soil heaped right next to the trench with a rake nearby. All winter long, when I have a little bucket of food scraps, I dump them in the trench and rake the heaped soil over the scraps. Snow comes and goes but I can usually get to the trench.

Composting in Winter

What’s amazing about this process is that it attracts all the worms to the trench. Some composting takes place in the Fall, but most waits till early Spring. By early May, the trench is significantly decomposed and filled with hungry worms. By the end of May, when it’s time to plant tomatoes, the compost is broken down enough that I can dig big tomato holes right into the trench. Tomatoes are hungry plants that thrive on growing right in compost. This saves me the trouble of hauling compost over to fertilize the tomatoes. If it was an especially cold winter and the compost isn’t finished, I just plant right next to the trench.

Some people like to compost in trenches all year round. They set up a three-year rotating system where they compost one year, plant the next, and use the area as a walkway the third year. Pretty clever.

Another way to save time and labor in the garden.



De-weeding the Compost Pile

by Sandy Swegelde-weeding the compost pile

Playing in the dirt is of course the most fun reason to garden. This week I’ve been playing in the compost which is doubly fun because I get to play with the earthworms too.

De-weeding the compost pile

My compost style is very passive. I keep three big bins going. Starting the bin is easy. I make sure there’s a couple of inches of finished compost at the bottom to inoculate the pile. Every week I clean up something in the garden and throw it on top of the compost. I generally don’t put in sticks unless I feel like cutting them up into smaller pieces. The most important addition to the pile is vegetable scraps and greens like grass clippings. I put those in the middle and tuck them down under the dried up spent foliage. The vegetable and green scraps invite earthworms in so my pile is breaking down in the traditional way that browns and greens break down and earthworms are doing their thing at the same time. Sometimes if there’s too much organic matter, I throw in a shovel or two of soil. I water the pile if we haven’t had rain. In Fall I throw some leaves on but also have separate bins for straight leaf mulch.

de-weeding the compost pile

This is Cold (or Warm) Composting. This is not the fancy layering and turning that extension services advise composters do to kill all the seeds and disease. The pile gets hot in the middle, but without the regular turning and fine-tuning of ratios of browns and greens, my weed seeds don’t all get killed. I don’t put diseased foliage into the pile. But with a minimum of work, I get a lot of compost.

So what do I do about the weed seeds?
Basically, I get them to germinate then cut their heads off. De-weeding the compost pile.

Sometime in August or September, I scrape off the completely uncomposted material and put them into another bin. Then I vigorously turn my pile and mix it together. It’s about 80% finished. I leave it alone except to water it if needed. Each week all the weed seeds germinate into little green plants and I shovel up that top two inches of little weeds, breaking their necks and put them back into the compost pile. The next week, more seeds have germinated and I break them up too. Usually after about three weeks, the weed seeds have mostly all grown out and the compost is ready to get spread on the garden after the soil freezes.

Easy and not much work.





Straw in the Garden: Be Careful!

by Sandy Swegel

Straw bales are one of my favorite garden tools.  They are useful to the gardener in so many ways.  All nicely tied up, straw bales are like giant Lego blocks that can be stacked to make so many things. I’m using the term “straw” bale, but old “hay” bales have the same great features.  Three bales make a great compost bin.  A row of bales makes excellent walls that double as sitting places.  Open the bales up and you have the perfect mulch to keep strawberries or squash off the ground or to make a path protected from mud.  Give the chickens one bale and an hour later they have spread it evenly over the coop floor in their pursuit of worms or food in the bale.  A square of bales with some plastic thrown over is an excellent cold frame.  And I haven’t even begun to touch on the usefulness of bales as a fort.

So it was distressing this week to be reminded that we can no longer just trust the wonderful bales that we scavenged in the past because modern agriculture has rendered hay, straw, and even the gardener’s best friend, manure, unsafe for growing food.

This conversation came up because tomatoes are very sensitive to herbicide damage.  The most common cause of herbicide damage extension agents used to see, was from “herbicide drift” where chemicals sprayed nearby go airborne and are spread by wind onto your garden.  But my experience this week was with tomato plants, a very susceptible plant – sort of the canary in the mine.  After considering dozens of diseases from virus and fungus and bacteria that might be stunting a friend’s tomatoes and keeping them from setting fruit, we had to face the likelihood that the culprit was last year’s straw that was liberally mulched throughout the garden.

08.03.15 tomato herbicde damage2

Hay and straw become hidden poison bombs in the garden when farmers use the new generation of weed killers (that are very effective on weeds) like Milestone or Forefront or Curtail.  Milestone is aminopyralid it is a very persistent killer of broad-leaf plants.  Farmers like it because it kills weeds and because unlike other weedkillers, they can feed treated pasture to their animals without any waiting time.  The label says clearly that while animals can still feed on the pasture, the herbicide survives being eaten by the animals, and it survives composting.  So even year old hay that you’ve composted or nice old manure from free range animals on pasture still has enough herbicide in it to kill your tomato crop.

The bottom line is you can’t just get straw at the feed store or old hay or manure from a neighbor’s barn to use in your garden, unless you know how the original pasture was treated this year and last year.  It’s another sad but true example of the destructive environmental impact even small actions such as applying some weedkiller can have. And it’s not even just the farmer who has to take care.  Grass clippings are a gardener’s favorite mulch…and some of the new weed killers or weed and feed products contain these long lasting poison time bombs.  It’s easy to want to kill some thistle…but you have to read the very tiny small print to see if you are destroying your own garden by using the organic practices of mulching with grass or hay or straw that generations of gardeners have sworn by.  It’s not your father’s straw bale anymore.



My Number One Secret for Growing Tomatoes

by Sandy Swegel04.24.15black-krim


A local grower and I were chatting today about all the ways people grow tomatoes. My friend was laughing at somebody who had an elaborate setup with walls of water in the snow. I don’t necessarily use walls of water, but I understand our local Zone 5 competitions to have tomatoes by the 4th of July. The walls of water do help warm the soil and of course entertain the gardener.

There are many “secrets” to growing tomatoes. Some people put their hope in fertilizers and supplements like epsom salt. Others do a lot of pruning of “suckers.” And there is no substitute for regular consistent water that doesn’t let the soil dry out.

But for me, the most important part of growing tomatoes is digging and preparing the hole you’re going to plant in. I generally plant little plants…2-1/4 inch pots…somewhere around May 15th. And I do believe in planting deep so roots can grow all along the stem. But back to the importance of preparing the hole you’re going to plant in.

My secret for great tomatoes is a big humongous hole at least half full of compost.

Step One. Take a five gallon pot (a bucket can work too) and dig the hole so big that the bucket fits completely in the hole. That usually means you have to keep going back and widening the hole to get the bucket all the way down. And it’s usually a pain digging into that subsoil. If the soil is very clay like, I loosed up the bottom and sides by slicing cuts in both for draining. I fill at least half the hole with finished compost. I put in some finished composted manure if I have it. I throw in some rather unfinished compost too. I mix in an organic fertilizer that includes phosphorus. I’ll also add any other goodies I have like kelp or alfalfa meal. Leaf mulch if I have some. I don’t mind if a worm or two ends up in there too. I then fill the rest of the hole with original soil and mix it well. I water it.

Only now is the hole ready for the tomato. I pluck off its lower leaves and plant the tomato up to its neck. I put the trellis or whatever support I’ll need now. And that’s it. I personally run a drip line with a time since it’s so dry here and I don’t want my sporadic memory to sporadically water. I’ve done comparison tests year after year with people who dig holes only large enough to squeeze the plant in. They never get the quantity of tomatoes I get. My large composted planting hole means the tomato puts out a huge rootball that gobbles up all that good compost and fertilizer food produces a huge crop of tomatoes. If you only have a shovel-sized hole in the ground for your tomato, you only have little roots to feed the plant. If you don’t believe me, when winter comes this year, pull up your tomato and see how big your rootball is.

So if you want a lot of healthy tomatoes this year, take out your shovel and work up a sweat preparing that soil!

Photo credit:

World Tomato Society