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Big Announcement – New Blog!

December 14, 2013

Although I’ve stopped blogging over here, that doesn’t mean my life as a blogger is over.  With my baby getting bigger and bigger, I wanted to start writing in public again.  I realized that I wanted to write about parenthood, but not be stuck in the “mommy blogger” niche.  So I launched “We’ll Eat You Up, We Love You So,” with a title stolen from Where the Wild Things Are, one of my favorite stories as both a child and adult.  As the literary title suggests, I’ll be writing about children’s books and other pop culture when I run short on adorable (or horrifying) baby stories.  I hope you check out my new home!

Guest Post on Simply Bike on Cycling While Pregnant

October 8, 2013

While I have stopped writing on here – at least for now – I did wrap up my bike blogging career with a post on Simply Bike.  Written by “S,” who I actually used to follow on the excellent fashion blog Academichic, Simply Bike has a series on Biking While Pregnant.  As reading these posts helped me gain back a lot of my confidence in my ability to bike while pregnant, I wanted to contribute! 

 

Check out my post: Cycling While Pregnant – Shannon from Washington D.C.

A Brief, Important Announcement

June 23, 2013

My husband and I are celebrating our baby’s one week birthday this week! I gave birth last Sunday at 3:15 PM to a beautiful, healthy baby. He’s just as wonderful one week later as the day he arrived.

To Everything There Is a Season

June 10, 2013

Writing this blog for more than two years has been a labor of love, with both parts of that phrase holding equal weight. There have been weeks when it was nothing but labor – wondering what topic I could possibly write about, then struggling to find the words to form a post. At other times, it’s been terribly rewarding – when people say they appreciate my posts, say they’ve been inspired by me, or when I just enjoy sharing an experience I’ve had. But now, I’m going to be putting this blog to bed.

My upcoming shift in lifestyle is the main impetus behind this decision. In the past few months, I haven’t been updating this blog nearly as often as I once was. I’ve only been posting once a week at best and missed a number of weeks altogether. With my due date tomorrow, I’ve had a lot of other priorities. Unfortunately, after our lovely son arrives, I’m going to be even more pressed for time.

In addition, my basic activities will be changing. I’ll still be gardening throughout the summer, but my chances to sit down and write about what I’ve learned will be few. My biking will be taking even more of a hit. Due to a combination of weather, needed bike repair, busyness, and the awkwardness of being late into my third trimester, I haven’t been outside on my bike since the Tour de Cookie a month and a half ago. I didn’t mean for it to be the last outdoor bike ride of my pregnancy, but it just turned out that way. Once I give birth, I can’t get back on the bike for at least six weeks and even then, my cycling will be limited. I can’t carry my son via a trailer or bike seat until next spring, so I’ll probably just be doing short spins around the neighborhood. Lastly, my volunteer time is going to be crunched. I’m not planning any rides this year like I have in the past; I’ll be happy if I can fit in one meeting a month.

But beyond the baby, I’m also running out of posts to write. It’s not like I’m completely out of things to say about these topics, but I’d like to develop some into more substantial essays for a magazine article or book. With others, I don’t want to be repetitive – there’s only so much I can say about biking the Millenium Trail or starting seeds. While I wish I could write about every ride in a hilariously stream-of-consciousness manner like Tales from the Sharrows (who himself isn’t actually doing that anymore), I’m just not that naturally trippy.

None of this is to say that I won’t miss the blog. I started it with three motives – to raise money for the Climate Ride, to be an advocate for the issues I’m passionate about, and to bring discipline to my writing. While I think I miserably failed at the first – I don’t think I earned an extra dime as a result – I hope I’ve been at least moderately successful at the other two. By framing my favorite hobbies as things that anyone can do, I hope my writing has inspired people to try gardening or biking. Honestly, I don’t know exactly what effect I’ve had on my audience, but I hope it’s been positive. The biggest effect I’ve seen is on my own writing. This blog is probably the most ambitious writing project I’ve even taken on, including my graduate thesis. Now, while my graduate thesis required months of research and a hair-tearing amount of editing, it ended up being just under 60 pages. In contrast, this blog has more than 200 posts totaling hundreds of pages. Also, unlike a single project with a deadline, it required constant commitment. Most importantly, it demanded this care and feeding while I have a writing-heavy full-time job that I love. All of this required me to develop a level of discipline in regards to writing thoughtfully that I’m very grateful for.

With all of that in mind, I say goodbye to this blog and to my readers. I certainly won’t stop writing – I hope to do some freelancing for local and specialty magazines/blogs – but it will be fundamentally different.

My regular readership is very small, but I still appreciate every single one of you and your comments, even when it took me weeks to respond. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading and that your future involves a good deal of enjoyable bicycling and sustainable, delicious food.

Alliums For the Win!

May 28, 2013

Onions and garlic are the basis for nearly all of my cooking, whether it’s Asian, Italian, or generic “American.” From pasta sauces to curry, they are endlessly useful. Despite that, they’re surprisingly hard to find at the farmers’ market. I suspect that people aren’t willing to pay enough to support the farmers because these particular vegetables are so cheap at the grocery store. Because of my love for and versatility of these ingredients, I’ve tried to grow them for the past few years. Even though other people told me it was simple, until now, I’ve had limited success.

Garlic and onions are some of the few vegetables that overwinter well, surviving even hearty frosts. If you plant garlic in the springtime – as I did the first time I tried to grow it – it actually grows much less than if you plant it in the fall. In areas like mine that have sporadic hard frosts in the winter, the garlic will sprout during warmer times and carry through the colder ones. In areas that have consistent frosts, the plants will go dormant in the fall and then sprout in the spring, growing quickly in the cool weather. In contrast, planting them in the spring doesn’t give them enough time to grow before the hot weather hits, which abruptly slows down their output. In fact, spring-planted garlic may never form bulbs in warmer locations because the plants need to be exposed to one to two months of temperatures between 32 and 50 degrees to even start forming bulbs. I found out the truth of this when I dug up my spring-planted garlic last year. Even though it seemed ready to harvest after a whole summer of growing, it barely produced more than the single bulb I had planted. So this past fall, after I laid down my layers of leaves, newspapers, and LeafGro, I planted garlic. Ideally, I would have used a local variety from the farmers market, but I ended up grabbing grocery store ones from the counter and sticking them in the ground. While I don’t have personal experience with it, planting onions in the fall seems to have similar advantages.

In theory, you should harvest both garlic and onions in late June or early July. But this being Washington D.C., the Nation’s Capital built on a sticky mess of a marsh, we had 90 degree temperatures in April. And then again in May. While neither stuck around for long, it was enough to definitely affect my plants.

My onions bolted, shooting up flowering stalks. When vegetable plants bolt, they start putting their energy and resources (like water and nutrients) into reproducing rather than agriculturally productive activities like growing me vegetables. Unlike other plants such as basil, which you can stop bolting if you break off the flowers, bolted onions are a lost cause. You have to dig them up and use them right away. You can usually store onions in a root cellar or another cool, dry place for months. In contrast, bolted onions not only stop producing once they bolt, but start breaking down, compromising the ability to store them. Unfortunately, I only had two onions that actually came up, so it didn’t matter all that much. On the other hand, even they were a pleasant surprise, as I have no idea when I planted them. I dug them up over the weekend and already used one to make nut burgers and hope to use the other one soon.

Most of my garlic didn’t bolt, but it was definitely starting to die back. The leaves on several of the plants were yellowed and dry, a guarantee the bulbs aren’t going to grow any more. Even though not all of them were as far gone as possible, I dug up all of it so I could make space for my newly arrived sweet potato starts.

garlic

For the most part, I was pleased with my garlic harvest. They came up easily, so I didn’t damage any of the surrounding plants digging them up. Because I pulled it so early, most of the bulbs were rather small, but about the same size as normal supermarket garlic. While some of them had some funky white mold on them, I easily removed it by brushing off the soil and peeling off the outermost layer of skin.

Unlike the onions, I’m hoping to store at least some of my garlic. I do love using it, but five full bulbs could take quite a while! To prepare it for storage, I’m drying it. From my research, it seems like the best way to dry garlic is to gather it together and hang it somewhere relatively dark, as sunlight can change the flavor. Currently, I’m hanging it in my basement, where it’s dark and relatively cool. I didn’t want to run the risk of hanging it outside and it being exposed to both the elements and wildlife. The chances of it rotting or getting nibbled on were too high to risk.

While I’m pleased with my crop, I feel like it could have been much more extensive. Although I don’t want garlic to take up half of my garden, I harvested it so early that I feel like I could have planted much more and still had enough space. In the future, I’ll probably plant it much closer together. Either way, I know I’ll be enjoying some wonderfully garlicky tomato sauce straight from the garden when my tomatoes and basil start producing.

My Bike-Free, Work-Free Bike to Work Day

May 23, 2013

I have a complicated relationship with biking to work. On one hand, I enjoy it, especially on late spring days like this past Friday. On the other hand, it’s 20 miles one way and takes me about two hours, almost twice as long as it does to walk to the Metro and take the train. As a result, the only time I’ve consistently biked to work is when I was training for the Climate Ride. Nonetheless, I’m a strong supporter of both the concept and the official day that encourages people to do it more often. That’s why I woke up even earlier than I do for my job and schlepped myself to the closest Bike to Work Day pit stop to volunteer last Friday.

While I’ve participated eagerly in the past – despite some logistical issues – I wasn’t participating this year for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, I had the day off and wasn’t going into work just for the sake of biking there. Secondly, I’m far enough along in my pregnancy that biking 20 miles anywhere is completely out of the question, much less at the speed I need to get to work in a reasonable amount of time. Walking home from the Metro often winds me these days.

So instead of participating, I decided to spread the word. I volunteered at one of four pit stops in my town, in a great location right next to several major places of employment. I brought along postcards and flyers for the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee and told people about how we advise the city and the activities we offer. I’ve tabled with so many different activist groups that I’ve got my elevator speech down pat. I also lent my expertise to a few people who were wondering about the best ways to get various places to and from Rockville by bike. While I’m an expert on getting from my neighborhood into D.C., the question of how to get from Gaithersburg to Rockville stumped me. I’ve tried it myself and it’s unpleasant at best.

BIke to Work Day at Rockville Town Square

My fellow RBAC volunteers!

In addition to information, Bike to Work Day offers participants all sorts of physical perks. Our local grocery store offered both bananas and chocolate muffins – while I should have stuck with the banana, the chocolate called me. Registrants get a nice bag full of goodies, including a water bottle and t-shirt. I even won a prize – a really nice set of lights! Perhaps it was karma for volunteering. I already have a set of lights, so Chris will be able to have a set as well. Either way, we’ll both benefit, as it’s nice to be able to ride in the late afternoon/early evening and not worry about getting stuck in the dusk.

Bike to Work Day Rockville Town Square

Mark Pierzchala, a town councilman who supports biking, speaking at the stop

The only disappointing thing was that I expected more participants at our stop. The weather was in the mid-70s and sunny, perfect for riding. Rockville was competing with Frederick, our neighbor to the north, for the most registrants, so I was afraid this would bode poorly for our little contest. However, Rockville had four stops in total – one of them new – so I suspect that even if each stop individually had fewer, we had a substantial increase in riders. We’re still tallying the results, so I’m not sure which one of us won the contest.

Regionally, Bike to Work Day was a huge success, setting a record number of participants. Across the D.C. area, more than 14,000 registered! This infographic from the Washington Area Bicycle Association is a great summary of the event:

Bike to Work Day infographic

Overall, a great event that I was glad to help with even if I couldn’t be an active participant.

Did you or have you participated in Bike to Work Day? What was your experience?

A Weed by Any Other Name

May 17, 2013

Most gardeners have heard the saying or perhaps dictionary definition, “A weed is just a plant growing where it isn’t wanted.” Except that isn’t quite true. It’s certainly true in the common usage of the term, but it’s false in the suggestion that a plant is only a weed because of our perception. This saying implies that these plants would stop being weeds if only we embraced their potential. But the fact is, there are a number of common characteristics that make weeds both successful at invading our gardens and essential to their ecological niches.

Many plants we think of as weeds are “pioneer plants.” These are the plants that are first on the scene after algae and moss. They make their claim on rocks, sand, extremely poor soil, and areas that have been recently disrupted. Whether after a fire, flood, or landslide, they are essential to starting the process of building new soil. Their seeds can often survive the harshest conditions, waiting until it’s just right to sprout. Once they do, they physically break down the soil, their roots shooting through the rock in search of water or nutrients. If their roots host nitrogen-fixing bacteria, they can chemically access nutrients that would be otherwise unavailable. They basically transform a formidable landscape into one where other plants can start to grow there as part of secondary succession. To meet these evolutionary needs, pioneer plants grow fast, have either very deep or shallow but wide root systems, and are capable of pulling nutrients efficiently and quickly from even the poorest conditions.

While not pioneer plants, other “weeds” are from very competitive ecosystems that have a premium on light or nutrients. As a result of a fast-paced evolutionary race, they are lean and mean, the sprinters of the plant world. Oddly enough, from my observation, this is actually the case in the Amazonian rainforest. Unlike what most people think – including myself before I visited, despite my ecology background – the rainforest actually has very nutrient-poor soil. In most forests, topsoil forms over many years through the decomposition of organic matter, like leaves, branches, and other dead things. However, the rainforest never has the chance to build up nutrients, because the rainy season washes it away annually. This is one reason why “slash and burn” methods of turning the rainforest into agricultural land are particularly destructive – the soil is so poor that the farmers can only use it for a year or two before they have to cut down more rainforest. As a result, the rainforest plants are constantly battling back and forth to claim the few nutrients left. This is in part why there is so much diversity in the rainforest – every plant tries to establish its own ecological niche that others can’t fill and once established, defends it to its last.

Considering the biological characteristics of these plants, it’s no wonder that many of them adapt so well to human civilization! The dandelion poking up through the concrete sidewalk is just fulfilling its evolutionary role of breaking up impenetrable surfaces. Tilling to plant seeds disrupts and exposes soil, allowing these weeds to drop their own hearty, fast sprouting seeds and move in right away. Using easily absorbed chemical fertilizers or nutrient-dense organic ones (including compost) allows weeds to quickly draw up a maximum amount of nutrients and choke or shade out less competitive plants. Basically, everything we do under normal gardening routines actively encourages weeds.

So how can we create an environment that’s far less weed-friendly? One word – permaculture. As I’ve mentioned before, permaculture is all about applying ecological principles to gardening (or more broadly, to living in general). It combines cultivating the land in a way that encourages the environments the plants we want will thrive in with choosing plants that are suited for the environments we already have. Based on these principles, I have three long-term weed busting methods. While weeds do invade my garden some, I spend far less time weeding than most gardeners. I usually weed a little bit every few days or if I let things get away from me (like last summer), a couple times during the summer for a few hours each.

1) Build good soil.

Weeds are ecologically adapted to grow in nutrient-poor, compacted soil. Unfortunately, this is pretty similar to my yard’s base soil, which is mostly clay. In contrast, weeds aren’t suited for soil that is rich and requires a slow uptake of nutrients. I build soil by using lasagna gardening, a technique that mimics the natural pile-up of organic matter in a forest or field in an accelerated fashion. You can also get similar results by planting a cover crop in the late fall, like clover or rye, and then cutting the tops off of the plants in the spring. Because the organic matter takes all season to break down, weeds have difficulty drawing up the nutrients quickly. In contrast, slower growing plants do well and have the chance to establish themselves before the weeds move in.

2) Minimize exposed soil.
Because I lasagna garden, I haven’t tilled the soil since I first broke ground for the garden. Even when I plant seeds or seedlings, I plant them in small clumps of LeafGro surrounded by leaves rather than doing a lot of digging. Because there is little exposed soil, weed seeds don’t have anywhere to plant themselves. If you don’t lasagna garden, one way to carry this out is to mulch your garden after you plant. Rather than using wood mulch, I recommend using something that will break down and contribute to building your soil, like leaves or straw. Plus, I find wood mulch creates too many air pockets where crafty weeds can send roots and runners to establish themselves in new places.

Tomato seedling mulched with leaves

A tomato seedling surrounded by leaves, which serve as a mulch.

3) Fight fire with fire.
Have a particularly weedy area? Plant evolutionarily-adapted plants you want that can legitimately compete with the weeds rather than being smothered. For example, one side of our yard always gets covered with weeds. The first year, we tried and failed to keep them back with wood mulch. Last year, we planted two perennials that we knew could hold their own – mint and strawberries. While the strawberries haven’t yet fulfilled their potential, due to being root-bound when I first planted them, the mint has given the weeds a serious run for their money. Besides mint, other useful plants that are highly competitive include horseradish, blackberries, and bamboo. I wouldn’t plant these in a garden where they could take over other sections, but they can work great if you have a separate area where you can allow them to thrive.

Mint plant

This mint started from one little plant last year…

With a little ecological knowledge, knowing weeds’ environment and avoiding it as much as possible can be more powerful in a sustainable way than many herbicides.

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