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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.

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

May 7, 2013

I miss hills.

That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. But yet, there it is – I miss their challenge, the hard breathing, the adrenaline, the thrill when you reach the top. Admittedly, it’s not the hills themselves I miss as much as the ability to push myself almost to the limit.

In general, I’m a fan of hard exercise. While I was never very good, I participated in competitive sports for six years throughout middle school and high school. Competing against other people never got me excited, but beating my own time and knowing I went as hard as I could did. While I stopped competing in college, I still felt compelled to get outside or to the gym for a run, ride, or rowing session on a regular basis. Hard exercise provided a mental and emotional release, a time for me to focus on maximizing what my body could do. Proving to myself that I could overcome discomfort to accomplish something physical was fulfilling in a way that complemented the mental challenge of schoolwork. In addition, there’s nothing quite like the wash of the “runner’s high” – that potent mix of hormones that makes you smile through a grimace.

As an adult, I’ve switched to activities that I enjoy more and less actively cause pain (I almost never run anymore), but I still push myself to the limit. As much as I inwardly groan when faced with a near-endless hill on the bike, the sense of accomplishment when I get to the top of it is irreplaceable. Pushing hard on a flat is even better, providing a potent combination of hard work and speed.

But all of that ground to a halt about three months ago. That’s when I switched my gym membership from the rock-climbing gym to my gym at work. Understandably, my gym at work requires a doctor’s approval to begin if the person applying is pregnant. Much to my surprise, the doctor’s note said that I was approved to exercise but only if I didn’t allow my heart rate to rise above 140 beats per minute. While she previously said “moderate exercise” was fine, it immediately became obvious that her definition and my definition of “moderate” were from two different life dictionaries.

Even though I’ve tried to stick to this guideline as best as possible, this guidance has been problematic for two reasons. One, pre-pregnancy my heart rate was usually pretty high compared to the difficulty of the work I’m doing. If I went with the heart rate range gyms often recommend, I’d never get a workout in that fulfilled those mental, emotional, and physical needs I described earlier.

Two, this discrepancy between my heart rate and my intensity has only gotten much worse in the second half of my pregnancy. Part of this is just the simple biology of being pregnant. Of the 25 to 35 pounds that women should gain (more or less depending on the personal circumstances of the person) during pregnancy, a full four pounds of it is blood volume. To push this blood around your body without your blood pressure skyrocketing (part of a very bad condition called preeclampsia), your heart has to work much harder than usual. Adding to this issue is that because I’ve tried to keep up my cardiovascular health during my pregnancy, a lot of activities that could make other women this far along out of breath don’t affect as me much.

The combination of these two factors means that it’s become much harder to determine my heart rate from my level of intensity. By the time I start getting a little out of breath or breaking a sweat, my heart rate is 10 or 15 beats per minute higher than it should be and I have to come to a near-halt. Only the most moderate exercise keeps it below that maximum. As a result, I’m a little obsessed with keeping my heart rate low enough, making for a tedious and annoying workout. Especially at the gym, there’s no variety, just one endless slog of easy. In addition, it strips away the few things I enjoy about exercising inside – being able to go hard and watch the numbers rack up in a satisfying manner. Being outside is a little better, but moseying along even loses its charm after a while, especially when I’m by myself.

Because I want to follow my doctor’s orders as best as possible, I’ve avoided allowing my heart rate to stay too high for the sake of both my health and my baby-to-be. Obviously, those requirements come first. But needless to say, I’m looking forward to building up speed and tackling some hard hills on my first ride back.

Has there ever been a time you’ve had to scale back the intensity of your exercise? Did you miss it or was it a relief?

Growing in Hope

May 1, 2013

I’ve tried to establish a zen-like level of low expectations for my garden. Of course, I work hard and hope for it to be successful. But I’ve also come to realize that gardening has its risks, especially organic gardening. Sometimes seeds don’t sprout, bugs eat your fruit, or plants die mysteriously. All of which is to say that it’s lovely when things turn out much better than planned.

For once, my indoor seed starting appears to be a roaring success. Although I worried at the beginning that none of my seeds would sprout, everything but some very old pepper seeds came through. Even the broccoli, which I used just because the seed package was three years old, had a surprising rate of germination. Being very generous with the number of seeds I planted really paid off, especially with older seeds that I can’t use next year anyway.

On top of the sprouting, the extra effort and money to build our own seed starting set-up seems to be paying off. The tomatoes are huge and stocky, far heartier than they’ve ever been in the past. The peppers look better than the ones offered at the farmers’ market, with large, shiny green leaves. The plants for both were getting so crowded that I split up most of the tomatoes and peppers into new containers. Despite that change, now even the transplants are yearning for more space. The broccoli grew so much that when I gave them a long overdue transplant on Monday, they were totally root-bound. The eggplant are the slowest growing, but even they look strong enough to survive outside. We’ve been hardening them off on the deck for a couple hours a day, so they should be ready to transplant this weekend.

Started vegetable seeds growing indoors

My beautiful starts!

On the other hand, my outdoor seed starting has followed the pattern of previous years – unfulfilling. I planted carrots, spinach, and parsnips a few weeks ago, after our ridiculously hot and cold spells passed. I used a wet mix of my precious worm castings, seed starting mix, and Leaf-Gro. Despite this potent combination, the results haven’t been promising. Much like years past, my spinach seems to have done absolutely nothing so far. In fact, I can’t even tell where I planted. (This would make sense in a normal garden, which is all dirt. In mine, where I plant on top of a layer of leaves, I should be able to see the mix.) I found one place I planted parsnips, crumbled the soil a little, and saw loads of unsprouted seeds doing absolutely nothing. My carrots seem to be a little better, but I honestly can’t tell the difference right now between carrot sprouts and weeds, so my hopes may be all for naught. I replanted the spinach using more soil and am crossing my fingers.

Planting seeds into a lasagna garden

Not exactly the neatest, unfortunately.

This past weekend, I just planted corn and basil. I planted about 10 spots of corn, which still might not be enough to pollinate. Because corn doesn’t self-pollinate and has male and female flowers in different locations, you need a lot more corn plants to get fruit than you do any other type of vegetable. As it looks like my sweet potato starts may have gotten lost in the mail, I’ll probably plant a few more corn plants in their place. I’ve also started sprouting beans, so those will be inter-planted with the corn once they’re ready.

I’m hoping I can have all of the parts of my garden in place over the the next week or two. It’s getting increasingly difficult to lean over and sit on my knees enough to plant and transplant. Also, it’s just exhausting. Chris is helping me, but there’s just so much that needs to be done that it’s difficult to find the time. But I know it will be worth it when next winter, I’ll be able to feed my child carrots I’ve grown myself and stored.

C is for Cycle and Cookie!

April 20, 2013

Biking and good food are two of my favorite things in the world. So when I heard about a charity bike ride with cookies at every stop – one that I didn’t personally organize – it was imperative that I sign up. There was only one minor glitch – I’d be seven and a half months pregnant. Back in the winter when I first heard about the event, I had no idea if riding a bike would even be a possibility that far along. Fortunately, good balance and good weather prevailed and I was happily able to participate in Rockville’s Tour de Cookie last weekend.

The day started out bright and early, as I needed to get to the start around 8:30 AM. While I left the house with my bike, I sent Chris out to deliver cookies to the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee’s cookie stand, about 2/3 of the way through the short route. As I had baked the cookies by myself, I figured he could at least deliver them.

For a first time ride, the Tour de Cookie had an impressive level of participation. Assisted by the pleasant spring weather, they had more than 300 people pre-register alone. Much to my surprise, there were a good number of people participating in both the short (14 mile) and long (40 mile routes), with a mix of spandexed, experienced riders and families with kids. I saw parents dragging trailers, children on tag-alongs, and kids on their own little single-speeds.

After an opening speech by the Montgomery County Commissioner and the President of Montgomery College’s Rockville campus, the riders took off. Because I was busy taking photos, I ended up being one of the last people to leave. Nonetheless, I moved up quickly, carefully passing lots of little kids and inexperienced riders clustered together.

Start of Tour de Cookie Rockville

The starting line.

Barely a mile in, the first stop was mobbed. Rather than traditional water stops, the Tour de Cookie has cookie stands every few miles. When you receive your bib, you get 25 “cookie credits” good towards cookies or other food at the stands. The groups running the stands donate the cookies, so that most of the registration fees go towards the charity organizing the ride. Rockville’s ride benefited the Tree House, a non-profit group that works to prevent child abuse and provide health services/advocacy for abused children. A clearly worthwhile cause. The first stop had a variety of cookies, but they were clearly starting to run out, so I only picked up one. They were quite fantastic – Heath bar chunks embedded in chocolate chip dough.

Riding away from the first stop, towards the Millennium Trail

Riding away from the first stop, towards the Millennium Trail

The ride moved onto the Millennium Trail, my go-to route if I’m being uncreative and pressed for time. I know it so well that I completely ignored the map and cue sheet. Unfortunately, my blissful ignorance caused me to completely miss the third stop! It certainly didn’t help that there was no indication of the turn – I’d definitely like to see better signage next year. From there, I worked my way around the trail, managing to actually put some space between myself, the families with small children, and the faster riders up ahead. While riding by yourself isn’t always fun, it was nice to be out of the crowd.

I hauled my butt up one of the two major hills in low, low gear – I probably would be faster if I walked, but it was a point of pride. Not long after, I was rewarded with another cookie stand. This one had some very enthusiastic marketers, with one kid yelling, “We’re the only non-corporate stand!” While I tried to inform him that the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee was also a community group, I realized later that he really meant “family-run.” As it turned out, the stand was run by a few families who decided bake a ton of cookies – five different kinds – for this event. Oddly, they promised people that if they ate all five, they would get a free jump rope.

Bicyclist with a Cookie Monster jersey

I saw this dude at the second stop, with his very appropriate jersey. He said he bought it second-hand a few years ago, after they had stopped making it!

But soon, disaster struck. While I ignored the “click-click-click” noise coming from my wheel at first, it then began to concern me. While I originally thought it was a minor issue, I spotted a much bigger problem – one of my spokes was totally unattached to the rim. So I rode it slowly to the next stop, aware of the annoying noise with little I could do about it. Thankfully, the Girl Scouts ran the next stop, and like their male counterparts, came prepared for anything. They gave me a length of duct tape I wrapped around the spoke and rim, temporarily holding it in place. I also ate some tasty Girl Scout cookies, accompanied by the background music of “C is For Cookie.”

With my bike as repaired as possible, I carefully rode to the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee’s stop, which was the second to last on the whole ride. We had a primo location – right off of the trail and hard to miss, but also adjacent to a community center with a bathroom. Besides the location, we also had the boundless enthusiasm of one of the RBAC volunteers, Carl. Carl had thrown himself into supporting the ride, from providing detailed route feedback to ensuring that our group’s cookie stand was going to be the very best of all. While I knew he was passionate about it, I didn’t realize quite how far he would go until I rounded the corner and saw him in a full-body Cookie Monster suit. Much like myself, everyone – kids and adults alike – were joyfully surprised to see him, grinning irrepressibly. He was probably in hundreds of photos that day.

Cookie Monster at the Tour de Cookie

C is for Cookie!

I spent the rest of the ride volunteering at the RBAC booth, nervous that the loose spoke would cause significant problems if I rode further on it. I already planned on having Chris pick me up, but I had to call him earlier than anticipated because we started to run out of cookies. Except for the one very enthusiastic family, most of the cookie stands weren’t telling people that they could have more than one cookie. So when people came to ours and we told them they had 25 credits for the whole ride, many people took three or four cookies. Despite baking more than 300 cookies, we still had an hour and a half until the end of the ride and only a few dozen left! Fortunately, Chris was able to pick up several more dozen, saving us from the embarrassing position of having a great stand with everything but the baked goods.

Tour de Cookie Rockville Bicycle Advisory stand

With nearly all of the riders through and only 20 minutes until the awards ceremony, we packed up the car and headed to the finish line. Even though my bike failed me, I picked up my finishers medal anyway out of pride for what I was able to accomplish. I was also very proud of the award I shared with my fellow RBAC volunteers – best cookie stand. A very sweet ending indeed.

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