Lessons Learned from Container Gardening

This is my second official season growing food and ornamentals in containers on a 130 sq/ft” deck. It’s a really nice outdoor space with a breathtaking, nearly unobstructed view of the Burrard Inlet, but it’s been tough learning the ins and outs of this little micro-climate, and has taken me the better part of 18 months of careful watching and experimental plating to begin having useful ideas about how to use the space.

A few things I have to contend with:

  • No direct sun until the late afternoon, thanks to the upstairs neighbors’ deck and our western view. This means that light is thin in winter, and blasting in summer.
  • No direct rainfall due to the above overhang. Plants not pushed up against the railing need hand-watering.
  • Glass railing. This makes it very difficult for bugs to get to our plants, who have to navigate up and over the railing to pollinate. (Or infest.)
  • Annual power washing. All containers must be moved from the deck every year for the building’s yearly cleaning, so they can’t be too big to move down a few steps to the parking lot or indoors. This means that 40-50lbs is about a heavy as a container, including plant, soil, and water, that we can manage.
  • Unobstructed view means we are extremely exposed and get the brunt of most weather. In the heat of summer, the deck bakes in the afternoon sun. In winter, frost hits us first. The temperature difference between us and the street just on the other side of the building, is enormous. (Big enough to the point where I will often go out with a jacket on, make it up the driveway, and realize that I don’t need it!)

These are difficult challenges for any gardener to overcome, let alone an amateur like me. Here are some things I’ve learned so far, though.

Sturdy Roots Are Key

I’ve had much better luck bringing home steeply discounted plants from the nursery than I’ve had in trying to start seedlings. For some plants, especially fruit and vegetables of specific heirloom varieties, I obviously need to search out and purchase as seeds because who’s going to have a Tom Thumb tomato start for me to buy? Not anyone around here!

My lavender, shade grasses, and rosemary were all salvaged from the discount shelf at a local gardening center and are doing wonderfully. (OK, so the rosemary could be doing better, but it’s not dying.) My theory is that small root systems on new plants are too fragile for the intense moisture/heat fluctuations on the deck, and that even a half-dead plant with good roots stands a much better chance.

Glass is Deadly

Or at least, damaging. The glass acts as a bit of a greenhouse insulator, but our plants grow towards it as that’s where the sun is. In this way, the leaves will usually end up pressed right up against it, trapping heat and moisture in a way that wood or another porous material wouldn’t. Leaves that grow against the glass almost always wind up unhealthy, and eventually die. So while it’s been tempting to push my box containers right up against the glass railing to give them a better chance at soaking up rainwater, I’ve had to pull them all back a few inches to avoid the glass problem.

Don’t Depend on Pollinators

After 2 years, I’ve only just seen my first honeybee poking around the deck this week. Yes, it’s taken that long to make it onto the local hive’s circuit, and I will have to plant more wildflowers to make sure they keep coming back. Until now, though I’ve had to hand-pollinate a number of my plants, including the strawberries, but I try to buy self-pollinating varieties where I can, or plants that don’t need to be pollinated to be edible, like leafy greens. My dwarf lemon tree, which will apparently live happily in a 2-4 gallon pot, is self-pollinating, as well.

Microclimates Matter

The afternoon sun we get is absolutely brutal, and combined with the lack of rainwater in spite of living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve quickly learned that this means I need to throw away everything I thought I knew about gardening in a zone 8b temperate rainforest, and think in terms of drought-tolerance and heat mitigation, since those are the most pressing concerns during my growing season. Passive watering systems, like ollas or self-watering pots, are a necessity unless I want to be out there watering 3-4x a day in the summer.  Unglazed terracotta and unlined wood is a no-go, and containers that have some kind of moisture barrier are a must.

You Can Compost Without Ground Access

Being both cheap and stubborn, everything I use on the deck gets recycled. This includes plant scraps, trimmings, and the soil itself. One of the big projects that I really wanted to see if I could tackle, though, was devising a completely earth-free composting system. I may have stumbled on one.

Bokashi seemed like a good place to start, but the bran is expensive, and didn’t like being stored in our highly exposed outdoor space. The $30 bag I’d purchased didn’t last long, but the nesting 5-gallon buckets I’d salvaged for the project were working, and half-full of half-rotted compost besides, so I continued to throw scraps in, including bamboo toothbrush handles and animal products, just to see what would happen if I left the bacteria to their own devices. I spent the better part of a year tossing the occasional organic scrap in, not turning it, not touching it, and covering tightly with a lid to see how the anaerobic process would do. (The lid went back on quickly – it stank pretty good.) In the meantime, I was treated to plenty of runoff from the bucket to use – nutrient-rich compost tea.

When the bucket was about 2/3s full, I let it sit for a while, untouched, tucked away in a shaded corner of the deck. Bokashi composting, for all its uses, still requires access to earth. At the end of the “pickling” stage, you’re to dig a hole someplace, dump the contents of your bucket, and cover with dirt for a time, after which it’s supposed to have turned into finished compost. So I thought, what if I just covered the compost with dirt (I used old potting soil) in the bucket, and left the lid off of it all winter?

Doing just that and checking again about 3 months later, the experiment was a success! All but the toughest bits of matter, like avocado pits and larger pieces of wood (the compostable heads of our dish scrubber, namely), all turned into fine, rich, finished compost.

In the future, I might get two buckets, since this process appears to take about a year, and I’d like to be able to alternate filling/finishing. I may also shell out for a bin that has a tap on the bottom, to make collecting the tea easier.

Composting isn’t the end-all be-all, though. Sometimes you have to get creative in other ways.

Be Prepared to Improvise

…or you’ll be spending a lot of money.

Container gardening isn’t cheap, unfortunately. There’s a lot more to it than just dumping seeds in a pot and watching them grow. Plants grown for food need a lot of water, a lot of nutrients, and a lot of sun. The Vegetable Gardener’s Container BIBLE says that an average summer squash plant needs more than a gallon of water every day, even under ideal growing conditions. In blazing afternoon heat, evaporation takes its toll quickly.

Large, sturdy plastic can be used to protect individual pots. I have a soft plastic washtub that I’ve encased in one such bag to create a greenhouse to grow ginger and start seeds. I have… problems starting seeds indoors, thanks to an overzealous cat that loves windows. Lots of seeds have been wasted this way.

For certain plants, such as my oak sapling, I’ve taken a page out of the book of traditional indigenous agriculture techniques, and buried a small fish below the root ball when repotting. (Small frozen fish like smelt seem to be a good size for containers, and each individual one costs pennies.)

More specific nutrient deficiencies can be managed (with time and practice), through natural means also. Coffee grounds and pine needles can be used to acidify soil, for instance, and contribute nitrogen. Burying rusty bits of scrap metal can help with iron deficiency. Unscented epsom salt can alleviate magnesium deficiency. (Learn how to properly apply salts to your plants here.) Blackstrap molasses has a whole buffet of micronutrients plants need, and it helps to feed beneficial soil bacteria too. And I’m sure we all know about egg shells already. Really, there’s not much of a reason to buy a dedicated fertilizer product unless you’re growing on a large scale or have plants that need a fast-acting nutrient to save them – and even then, noncommercial methods still work pretty well provided you’re willing to entertain alternative approaches to horticulture in general. Odds are though, your kitchen cabinets are already stocked with plant food! Even urine and pet waste can be put to use instead of tossed in the garbage or flushed down the toilet.


I experiment a lot in the garden now. I didn’t at first, because I was still getting very precious about all my plants, and I hated to see any of them die, even weeds. I had to get over this quickly, as space and nutrients are at a high premium in a container garden. A few weeds or even a single caterpillar can be the difference between success and failure for many plants.

But that small, compact scale can be a boon for horticultural tinkerers, too. If just maintaining a container garden isn’t exciting enough, playing with dwarf varieties, cuttings, and companion planting keeps things interesting on a day-by-day basis. Shuffling pots around to create super micro-climates – seeing which plants benefit being shaded by others, which ones fare better closer to the radiant heat of a wall, or more exposed on, say, some stairs, etc – is also a fun series of challenges. One of my favorite things to do is set aside a pot just for the purpose of capturing wild seeds, and paying attention to what winds up growing there, how long it lives, and what succeeds it after its life cycle ends. I wound up with a pot of beautiful wild stonecrop this way, which is something of an ornamental weed around here. It’s also how I get my moss, which I distribute around the garden as a kind of green “mulch”.

You can see what happens when you let plants go to seed, because the odds of them taking over your garden are slim. You can see how closely together you can plant certain species, or test yourself to grow something that isn’t usually thought of as a container crop, like garlic or squash. (Speaking of, my first batch of hard neck garlic should be ready in the next few weeks. I’m very excited, though I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t have given them more attention.)

For what few readers I have left, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m not commenting yet on anything that’s going on. Honestly, I believe that most everything that needs to be said is being said elsewhere – that we are living in a crisis moment unprecedented in living memory, that the pandemic is a manifestation of nature’s hard limits on human activity, that there is a cowardly despot holding office of POTUS, that racism, homophobia, and transphobia are endemic to American culture, and that a riot is very much the language of the unheard.

If you’re browsing the internet and reading blogs in search of a balm for your guilt and existential worries, I don’t blame you. It’s not necessarily healthy, or right, but we all need a breather. I do hope that you’re getting out and getting your hands dirty as part of that process, though. Even when it comes to self-soothing, engaging our bodies is always a better strategy than trying to forget them. Take it from a chronic and lifelong dissociator: running away from your problems creates fewer solutions than you think.

Manual Mondays: Carpet Cleaning

Another Manual Monday! I know this seems like an odd subject, but seeing as how we have come into possession of a few rugs that are really too thin to be vacuumed (and that I just don’t like using the vacuum anyways), this seemed like a good one. After all, we’ve had textiles on our floors for much longer than we’ve had electricity – there’s gotta be some clever wisdom there on how to maintain them.

Here we go!

Isham-Terry House, Antiquarian & Landmarks Society – date unknown

To Restore Carpets to their First Bloom.
Beat your carpets with your carpet rods until perfectly clean from dust, then if there be any ink spots take it out with a lemon, and if oil spots, take out as in the foregoing receipt, observing to rinse with clean water; then take a hot loaf of white bread, split down the centre, having the top and bottom crust one on each half, with this rub your carpet extremely well over, then hang it out on or across a line with the right side out; should the night be fine, leave it out all night, and if the weather be clear, leave it out for two or three such nights, then sweep it with a clean corn broom, and it will look as when first new.

The Butler’s Guide to Household Management and Proper Behaviour, 1827

Washing. – The dye-houses have done some very satisfactory work on woolen carpets, but the process shrinks the carpet very much.

Cleansing on Floor. – Where oil is required to be removed, without taking up the carpet, pipe-clay thoroughly beaten into the carpet will absorb it within forty-eight hours, when it can be brushed off. This is just the opposite, in its action, from naphtha.  Water spilt upon carpets should be sopped up, not rubbed.

           – Carpet Notes, 1884

Modern manual methods are pretty much exactly the same as the old ones: rug beaters, carpet sweepers, soap and a little elbow grease.

Wikipedia on carpet sweepers:

A carpet sweeper is a mechanical device for the cleaning of carpets. These were popular before the introduction of the vacuum cleaner and have been largely superseded by them.

However, they continue to be used in home and commercial applications as they are lightweight and quiet, enabling users to quickly clean crumbs up from the floor without disturbing patrons, patients, babies and pets. (A very early appearance in film occurs in the 1914 Charlie Chaplin film Laughing Gas, where Chaplin uses it to clean the waiting-room floor of a dentist.) Carpet sweepers are still available in many parts of the world.

A carpet sweeper typically consists of a small box. The base of the box has rollers and brushes, connected by a belt or gears. There is also a container for dirt. The arrangement is such that, when pushed along a floor, the rollers turn and force the brushes to rotate. The brushes sweep dirt and dust from the floor into the container. Carpet sweepers frequently have a height adjustment that enables them to work on different lengths of carpet, or bare floors. The sweeper usually has a long handle so that it can be pushed without bending over.[citation needed]

The design was patented by Melville R. Bissell of Grand Rapids, Michigan, United States, in 1876. Bissell began selling carpet sweepers in 1883. They became popular in the UK after the first Ewbankmodel went on same on 1889.[1] New powered versions were designed at the beginning of the 20th century, with rechargeable batteries and an electric motor to spin the rollers and brushes.

Even though carpet sweepers have been mainly overshadowed by vacuum cleaners, their legacy lives on in floor cleaning robots that have limited suction power and rely on sweeping to collect larger bits of debris from the floor. While some research models of robotic vacuums only rely on vacuum motors, models on the market such as Roomba or bObsweep invariably combine suction and sweeping.[2]

Wikipedia on rug beaters:

A carpet beater or carpetbeater (also referred to as a rug beater or rugbeater, mattenklopper, carpet whip, rug whip, clothes-beater, dust beater or dustbeater, carpet duster, wicker slapper, rug duster, or pillow fluffer, and formerly also as a carpet cleaner or rug cleaner) is a housecleaningtool that was in common use until the vacuum cleaner became affordable during the early 20th century. Carpets, rugs, clothes, cushions, and bedding were hung over a clothesline or railing and the dust and dirt was beaten out of them. Typically made of wood, rattan, cane, wicker, spring steel or coiled wire, antique rug beaters have become very collectible. Modern mass-production versions can also be in plastic or wire.


Its use in cleaning has been largely replaced since the 1950s by the carpet sweeper and then the vacuum cleaner, although they are still sold in most household stores.

In Germany[1] and Poland,[2] an outdoor carpet hanger for beating is called a Teppichstange (carpet bar) or a trzepak (beater).

Since the 1990s, it is very rare to see anyone using a trzepak for its prime function. In the newest housing developments, trzepak are rarely installed. Some people preferred to beat carpets in winter on the snow – they laid the carpet face down and beat it. This method had some advantages – for instance, insects would freeze to death even if they were not expelled through beating – but it left a dirty and unpleasant-looking patch on the snow, and therefore some communities forbade beating on the snow for aesthetic reasons.

That’s all well and good, but what about dust mites? One of the primary reasons people clean the fabrics and fibers in their home is to control dust mite populations and their collective poop. And the only way to do that is with vacuum cleaners, air filters, and the like, right? Well, not necessarily.

Most mites survive vacuuming anyways – the only truly effective way to manage mites is with extreme temperatures, soap and water, and just staying on top of the amount of dust that’s in your home. All of which are doable with manual methods.

Some suggestions:

  • If space permits, beat rugs outside – the dust will get back out into the environment where it belongs instead of a landfill.
  • Wash upholstery instead of vacuuming – obviously, throwing cushion covers into the washing machine isn’t “manual”, but coupled with a manual laundering regimen, this is easy.
  • If you live in an area that gets frost, leave rugs outside overnight to freeze the mites, then beat them out in the morning. (This works for fleas at every stage in the life cycle, too!)
  • Buy and use allergen covers for your cushions, pillows, and mattresses.
  • Spritz eucalyptus oil infused water or alcohol onto unwashable upholstery to help kill mites.
  • On the more extreme end, maybe think of getting rid of the carpeting in your house. Carpets are made from synthetic fiber and can’t be composted with sweepings anyways. If cold floors are hard on your feet, wear slippers!
  • Get a latex foam mattress, or if you’re super adventurous, make your own. (I’m gonna try this someday because I hate mattress stores on principle, and refuse to buy one new anyways.)

So that’s mites – what about difficult messes like broken glass?

Turns out, you’re not supposed to vacuum glass if you have a bagless machine to begin with, because they can get lodged into moving parts and shorten the life of the vacuum or outright damage it. Good Housekeeping recommends using slices of sandwich bread; SF Gate recommends using tape to get tiny shards out of carpet.

(I’ve since had the “opportunity” to try out the bread slice method since writing this, and it works really well. When the bread doesn’t pick up any more glass, you can fold it up to two times to get a fresh side without really risking getting glass on your hands. Oh, I also recommend eating off the crusts if they’re stiffer than the interior of the bread.)

That’s about it, though. There were no special tools aside from the rug beater, just a few tricks for getting out dust and the occasional spill.

In the next MM, I’ll do a little digging into the topic of light.



I took an ecoprinting class last night at the Homestead Junction, a local joint here in Van that is pretty much one of my favorite stores in the world at this point. The class was taught by Caitlin Ffrench, a super nice, tarot-reading, punk-hippie local textile artist who started the class by acknowledging that Vancouver is, in fact, unceded Coast Salish territory, and that whenever we go out foraging for plant material to print with, remember that this is their land.

And then I proceeded to learn about ecoprinting, a technique developed by – if I remember correctly – India Flint from learning about traditional egg-dyeing in eastern Europe.

All in all, the technique is ridiculously simple: soak your fabric in mordant, find yourself some leaves and flowers, arrange them along the fabric as you fold it (so that no part doesn’t have stuff touching it), roll it up very tightly with a stick, wrap it very tightly with string, and stick it in a pot of boiling water for about 15 minutes for every inch in diameter your bundle is. Let rest, cut off the string, unwrap, and voila! A beautiful, utterly unique, and low-tech work of textile art.

Above is my piece, about 24″ square – perfect for furoshiki, for turning into a bag (to collect more plant material in), for wearing, to cut napkins or kerchiefs out of…

What struck me about this technique is just how low-impact and zero waste it is. It’s not wholly non-toxic – natural mordants, while often more or less safe for skin contact, should be disposed of carefully because they are solutions of metals – but it’s as green as fabric-dyeing can possibly get. And about as easy, too.

So I’m going to tell you how to do it!


You’ll need:

  • Water
  • Fabric
  • Mordant (see below)
  • Plant material: leaves, husks, berries, flowers, rinds, bark, etc.
  • A jar or large metal pot that won’t touch food ever again
  • A stick
  • String
  • Heat source

1. Buy or make a mordant.

Some mordants, like alum, need to be purchased, but others you can make yourself. Copper and iron mordants are easy enough to make at home, and I’ve read that you can even use an aluminum pot for your dye bath instead of alum, or just use plants that have a high tannin content – like crushed acorns, oak galls, pomegranate rind, juniper needles and others -as tannin also acts as a mordant.

But for now, we’ll stick to the basic iron/copper mordant.

To make some at home, grab a glass jar, fill it full of nails (for iron) or pennies (for copper; sorry Canadians, you’ll need US pennies), and fill the rest of it with half water and half vinegar. Set it sit until the metal starts to rust and the water starts looking really, really gross when you shake it. Strain out the metal pieces, and the resulting liquid is your mordant!

2. Pre-soak your fabric.

Gather up your fabric and throw it into a container that you can from here on out designate as not food-safe. Cover it with water and add a splash of mordant, letting it sit for a half hour or so.

3. Gather your plant material.

We used what Caitlin provided, which were leaves she’d collected in autumn and stored in a freezer. But green foliage works great too, and she even recommended going to florist shops and asking for their leftovers, especially when it comes to using plants from other climates like Eucalyptus. Leaves, husks, berries, and flowers will all work, assuming they have some kind of pigment to contribute.

4. Arrange your pattern.

Remove your fabric from the mordant, and wring it out. Lay it down on a flat, protected surface, and begin arranging your plant material onto half of the fabric (assuming something wider than 8 or so inches). With leaves, put the top-side facing down. Fold it in half, like a sandwich, and arrange again. Repeat this process of arranging and folding until you’re left with a long strip no wider than your dye container is tall. Arrange your last set of plants along the top of your strip.

5. Tie the bundle.

Grabbing your stick (which also shouldn’t be longer than your container is tall), start at one end of the fabric and wrap very tightly – as tight as you possibly can – around it. The fabric should still be wet, so it won’t loosen so easily if it’s sticking to itself. Then grab your string and wrap it around the fabric, also as tightly as you possibly can. the fabric doesn’t need to be covered with the string exactly, just tightly bound.

6. Prepare the bath.

There are a few ways you can do this part. We did ours in a huge stock pot on a hot plate, and the liquid was just remnants of some of the instructor’s other dye baths – she doesn’t like to waste dye! This is why the fabric turned out gray instead of stayed white. But dye isn’t necessary, and we could very well have used water too – or hell, we could have omitted the water altogether also, since this only requires heat, and not necessarily steam or boiling water.

You can do what we did, and boil your water on the stove or a hot plate, and set your bundle in the bath, and let it sit for about half an hour – roughly 15 minutes for every inch in diameter of your bundle – and remove it when done.

The other method is the one I’m interested in: using a jar. For this, get a heat-resistant jar, throw in your bundle, and cover in boiling water. Screw on the lid, and set aside for two weeks – this is similar to solar dyeing – and remove it when done.

7. Enjoy your beautiful fabric!

Once cool, unwrap your fabric and take a peek. That’s what so wonderful about this method: there’s no telling what you’ll get, and it’s almost impossible to get nothing. Every piece is unique. Caitlin said to let the fabric “rest” for a few hours or overnight before hand washing with dish soap and hanging to dry. After that, feel free to launder as normal.

In conclusion?

Ecoprinting and natural dyeing is freaking rad. It can be done on less than a shoestring budget, accomplished with random junk you find on sidewalks and in parking lots, done with fabric or garments you get at the thrift store (bedsheets, anyone?), and the results are impressive every time.

Oh, and it’s also a damn eco-friendly art form.

Give it a go!


There’s no place like home. It’s where we live, work and dream. It’s our sanctuary and our refuge. We can love them or hate them. It can be just for the night or for the rest of our lives. But whoever we may be, we all have a place we call home.THIS MUST BE THE PLACE is a series of short films that explore the idea of home; what makes them, how they represent us, why we need them.

Artist John Coffer had it all. A good-paying job, a nice house with a swimming pool, a sports car, and everything else you commonly associate with a “successful” life.

But over 25 years ago he gave it all up for a hand-built house with no power and a hand-drawn well.

Why? Watch the inspiring video to hear him tell his story.

Blurb from Walden Labs. Watch the video here.

On Fiber, Fermentation, and Shojin Ryori


I’ve got IBS. (Who doesn’t these days?) And I’ve been to my GP, seen the gastroenterologist, and gotten the same half-assed treatment that most other Americans with IBS wind up getting: “Eat lots of fiber, drink lots of water, take lots of probiotics, and don’t be afraid to keep some Imodium around if you need it. Next!”

That was two years ago, and I gotta say, I’m really not doing much better. In fact, I slowly discovered that fiber wasn’t the answer. Not only was it not the answer, but it seemed to make things worse. And then I self-diagnosed (with the input of my mom, who is seeing a functional doctor for the same thing) with Adrenal Fatigue, where I found out about the perils of overhydrating – of drinking too much water. If you have AF, then staying hydrated is tricky because of our body’s weakened ability to retain salt and other minerals, which can make us chronically deficient in magnesium and potassium. And that’s on top of the typical American’s baseline tendency to be minerally deficient.

I had long suspected that probiotics had become a racket, and knew that Imodium, while it technically worked, didn’t actually fix anything. So that left me with no good answers for how to go about dealing with my intestinal woes. Then a few days ago, I came across an interesting website: GutSense.org.



Now, the details are definitely not for the squeamish; suffice to say, I’ve experienced a lot of what the author explains. He’s affiliated with a few of his own interests, namely a book about the myths perpetuated about fiber as an essential part of the human diet, and a series of supplements to help reestablish gut flora after a colonoscopy, after surgery, or anything else that can kill off the bacteria living in your gut. To me, though, this guy seems to be more reliable than a lot of other homeopathic snake oil I’ve seen out there for a few reasons, namely that he cites actual sources for his claims. So I’m inclined to try following his advice.

What’s important about this site is what I wound up learning about fiber, and how it pretty solidly matched my own experience toying with fiber levels in my diet over the past few years.

In his IBS FAQ, he writes this:

Q. How come they recommend “Increased fiber intake for constipation,” if fiber is a well-known gas- and diarrhea-producing substance?

To me, that‘s either the biggest “medical mystery”, or the biggest “medical idiocy,” or simply outrageous negligence, or, perhaps, all of the above. In fact, to unravel this mind-boggling incongruity for myself and others, I wrote a book entitled “Fiber Menace: The Truth About the Leading Role of Fiber in Diet Failure, Constipation, Hemorrhoids, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease, and Colon Cancer”, and you are welcome to read it.

If you are a skeptical medical professional reading this, and, all things considered, I don‘t blame you a bit for being skeptical, consider the following two quotes from the American College of Gastroenterology Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Task Force [link]:

“Fiber doesn’t relieve chronic constipation and all legitimate clinical trials demonstrated no improvement in stool frequency or consistency when compared with placebo.”

“In the management of IBS, psyllium is similar to placebo. In fact, the bloating associated with psyllium use will likely worsen symptoms in an IBS patient.”

Psyllium is a source of soluble and insoluble fibers found in Metamucil-type laxatives, and their digestive properties are identical to all other types of fiber.

There’s a lot more on there. A lot more. Basically, he outlines the following timeline for how and why IBS develops, and how and why it never seems to get resolved:

  1. It all starts with a loss of bacterial flora in the gut. This can be from antibiotics (whether prescribed or from non-organic meat and dairy products), x-rays, bowel prep for surgeries, excessive use of laxatives, chlorine or arsenic in tap water, mercury in fish, and a whole host of other things. He calls this disbacteriosis, which, while the intestinal flora is considered vital to our health, is not a medically accepted term or condition for reasons unknown.
  2. Loss of gut flora results in harder, smaller stools, which our bowels aren’t really designed to pass.
  3. Constipation. Though because “constipation” means that you haven’t had a bowel movement in no fewer than 3 days, the author prefers to call this “impacted stools”. This stage is only apparent if you’re already on a low-fiber diet, apparently. Those of us who eat lots of fiber already have a harder time recognizing that we have a problem, though the problem is still there.
  4. Treat the constipation with more fiber. He writes: “Medical professionals and Dr. Moms alike recommend dietary fiber and fiber laxatives to “naturally” alleviate hardness, particularly when stools are small and dry. Fiber bulks up (enlarges) and moisturizes stools by either retaining water, blocking water absorption, or both.”

For the purpose of this post, I’ll stop there, since I want to talk about fiber.

What does fiber actually do? If you’ve ever made a flax egg before, then you already know. A gram of fiber can absorb many times its weight in water, and that’s exactly what it does in your body. This can actually dehydrate you, encouraging you to drink more, and inevitably results in loss of minerals through overhydration. And not only that, but it actively discourages the restoration of gut flora. The author explains so here:

The by-products of fiber‘s bacterial fermentation (short chain fatty acids, ethanol, and lactic acid) destroy bacteria for the same reason acids and alcohols are routinely used to sterilize surgical instruments—they burst bacterial membranes on contact. And that‘s how fiber addiction develops: as the fermentation destroys bacteria, you need more and more fiber to form stools. If you suddenly drop all fiber, and no longer have many bacteria left, constipation sets in as soon as the large intestine clears itself of the remaining bulk.

For some reason this point is causing intense consternation and controversy among the “experts” on all things fiber. If you are one too, and believe that I am stretching the facts to fit my point of view, please note the following:

(1) The operative phenomenon here isn’t that “fiber causes disbacteriosis,” — butexcess fiber’ — as in “the fermentation of excess dietary fiber.”

(2) Let me remind you that wine in the vat left for too long turns into vinegar, all the bacteria die off, and the fermentation stops. Bacterial fermentation in the wine vat, dear opponents, and in the pile of feces happens to be exactly the same process.

(3) Finally, consider this corroborating quote: “Colonic bacteria ferment unabsorbed carbohydrates into CO2, methane, H2, and short-chain fatty acids (butyrate, propionate, acetate, and lactate). These fatty acids cause diarrhea. The gases cause abdominal distention and bloating.” (Malabsorption Syndromes; The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy.) Let the diarrhea run its course a day too long, and disbacteriosis will soon follow. (God, I love those rare moments when Merck and I are singing the same tune.)

I mean, there’s a reason that folks with severe IBS aren’t allowed any fiber in their diets at all. (A relative of mine isn’t allowed fruit and barely any vegetables for this reason.)

So what the hell am I supposed to do? How, exactly, does a vegetarian avoid fiber?? This is actually something I’ve been thinking about for some months now, and I may have to re-think a lot of how I approach food. Honestly, I’m glad to have an educated medical professional confirm what I was already beginning to sense happening with my own body, and not just that, but also provide a plan for getting back to normal. I may not have to deal with IBS forever. And that is definitely worth a diet change to me.

This means doing homework on cuisines that feature few, if any, high-fiber grains, with little emphasis on cheese and dairy products (for other reasons the website outlines; also for my Adrenal Fatigue). I need to be able to get protein from non-meat, fiber-free sources like eggs and tofu. If I do eat high-fiber vegetables, I should see about getting into the habit of pickling and fermenting them to break some of that fiber down, and also to maximize my ingestion of live cultures, which might help me to restore all that gut flora that I don’t have anymore.


Tsukemono market. Flickr

I was already into the whole fermenting thing after realizing that I could make kimchi at home, which was my gateway drug to the wide, wonderful, world of Korean pickles and Japanese pickles (tsukemono). Not fermented, exactly, but preserved. And then that research, of course, led me to finding out how to make your own miso paste and soy sauce.

I’ve also been dabbling in fermented drinks since that one time I made Sima, a fermented Finnish lemonade that uses baker’s yeast. (I know how it sounds, but trust me, it was good.) For a few weeks back during summer I was trying to get a ginger bug started so that I could make sodas, but for some reason they were all just not quite coming together. Then I read about how non-organic ginger is irradiated, killing all the natural yeasts present in the root and its skin, and gave it another go with some organic pieces. But that’ll be for another post – if I can get some sodas successfully brewed, that is!

But yes, saurkraut, kimchi, kombucha… these things are all in my future. ;]

Shojin Ryori


In thinking about what the heck I’m going to eat as a low-fiber, dairy-free, vegetarian, only one thing really stood out to me: Buddhist temple food, also called shojin ryori in Japanese. There’s an emphasis on simple preparation, simple flavor, and simple food all around. Seasonal ingredients, boiled, steamed, or fried, and served with a few equally simple sauces. With, of course, plain rice.

I learned a lot about Asian cuisine when I was going to college in NYC – my roomate and friends were Taiwanese and Korean, and we all had a special love for traditional Japanese food. I learned how to make miso soup, kimchi, and Japanese curry. We ate a lot of dim sum, and I wound up working on a little comic about dim sum, so I know my way around that type of food like the back of my hand too! But in my day-to-day, I really did eat a lot of Asian-style food. I had access to people who knew how to read Pinyin packaging, I had access to a really badass rice cooker, and so the big grocery store in Manhattan’s Chinatown became my go-to for cheap groceries. Gai Lan, a very healthy vegetable in the cabbage family, was usually 99c a pound, and I practically lived off the stuff. Bok Choi was similarly priced, and so soup made with that, some miso, dashi, and either somen or Korean-style noodles also became a staple.

In other words, aside from sandwiches and Mexican food (which is what I grew up with), far-east Asian cuisine is stuff I could eat – and have eaten – every day.

Curious about trying out Shojin Ryori with me? Until I get my hands on a book or three, I’ll be going by a guide from Tofugu.com, “How to Eat Like a Buddhist Monk”:

Part 1: What is Shojin Ryori?
Part 2: Shojin Ryori Ingredients
Part 3: Prepping Your Foundation
Part 4: Get Cooking!

Here are some more recipes from Sotozen-net. And here’s another website dedicated to exploring the food of the Zen monasteries – most blog posts are mindful meditations on and explanations of ingredients, or what’s going on in the culture of the cuisine, but there are some recipes too. And if you’re more curious about traditional Korean food, then there’s always my favorite resource, Maangchi.

This is not going to be very zero waste – as a lot of these ingredients will be packaged, and I may be buying shrink-wrapped produce (bleh), oh well – but it will be seasonal, it will be very easy to buy in bulk, and best of all, this stuff is easy for me to make. If it’s going to be a scale of “raw carrot” to “tempura”, then it’s no big deal. (Tempura is far from the most complex thing I’ve made.) And if all of this helps my IBS? I will definitely be letting the world know.

In the meantime, though, I’ve got some walnuts to contend with!

Cooking with Scraps from Food 52

I love Food 52. I don’t know how I originally discovered it, I don’t know what the 52 means, and I definitely don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to afford anything from their online store (I’d kill for that whetstone…).

What I do know is that it is a fantastic resources for foodies and zero-wasters like me.

Since “moving in” with my Canadian partner almost 3 months ago, I’ve come to realize that many of my go-to meals that I’d been using for several years before suddenly aren’t all that useful. What I mean is that me, being raised in a Latino household (or several of them, really) in Southern California has given me a completely different idea of what comfort food is, and it’s given me a special appreciation for certain ingredients. While on the other hand, my husband, being raised on steak and potatoes in the suburbs of what he calls “Canada’s Texas”, has a vastly different idea of what a good meal is. Add to that the fact that I have a really poor sense of smell while he has an exceptional one, and many things that I find to be essential to a basic meal (strong aromatics, onions, peppers, fresh herbs), are sometimes unpalatable to him. And then there’s the fact that I’m practically vegan up here because dairy and eggs are so darned expensive, and…

Well, you get the idea.

The point is that I’m having to get creative unless I don’t mind resorting to PBnJ’s for dinner. Which I do mind. A lot. (We generally try to stay away from wheat and bread as often as possible. It’s bad for my hypoglycemia, and it’s bad for his metabolism.) And ordering pizza gets damn expensive.

So, kitchen burnout happens. And when I need ideas, I turn to sites like Food 52. Here are some of my favorite finds:

In addition to recipes, the site has a good number of articles on what to do with scraps or otherwise inedible plant leftovers.  I think you can all agree with me that kitchen waste sucks.

PS- My favorite recipe organizing app for the Android thus far is Chef Tap. I tried a number of them on my iPhone, even one that cost me $5. But this one is, hands-down, the best so far. The tagging system is amazing, and no more having to find and look up recipes from only your phone, let alone from just the app’s database, because there’s a desktop-friendly site that lets you manage your recipes.

Little Things

Some little things I’m learning.

1. Save seed from the (viable, non-hybridized, non-GMO) fruit and vegetables that you buy. Give the seeds away or plant them.

2. Grow some kind of edible or medicinal plant.

3. Regrow your green onions.

4. If it can be rooted in water, take a cutting home.

5. With careful maintenance, many trees can be matured in a container and grown from seed.

6. Japanese maples cost a lot of money for some reason.

7. Don’t buy granola bars; you can make them for a fraction of the cost in minutes.

8. Don’t use the ramen packet. Make your own powder or dashi broth; that way, you’ll know exactly what you’re eating.

9. Nutritional yeast is good in almost everything.

10. Raw desserts are just as good as baked ones. Save some time, energy, and electricity, and let those cookies set in the fridge instead of the oven.

11. Don’t let anyone convince you that cold-brewed coffee is any more difficult than hot. All you need to make some is a lidded jar, ground coffee, water, and a few hours.

12. Shop the discounted/old produce section first. You never know when you might walk away with a dozen very ripe avocados for $3.

13. Brush with baking soda. The toothpaste industry is a racket and it’s no harsher on your teeth than anything else you’d brush with.

14. You’re never too old to dumpster dive.

15. Visit your local community gardens and mini free libraries often.

16. Bokashi bran can be sprinkled onto cat litter to help with smells.

17. Apply tea tree oil directly onto blemishes before bed time. It’ll dry them out and reduce the redness.

18. Play more card games.

Tidying, Japanese-Style


Well, I’m in Canada. Finally. Sort of. For the most part.

Some of my stuff is here, but most of it is still kind of en-route… basically it’s at an uncle’s house in Oregon and I plan on making small trips to get up here bit by bit. The hubs had only sorta moved in back in April, mostly waiting for me to come so that we could both really settle in together.

Not surprising, though, is that a few spats have occurred regarding the number of things we own (though mostly him) and how much space we now have to put them. This sort of thing has happened plenty of times before with us, but this time we mean business: this is basically the apartment of our dreams, and it’s the last place we plan on living before buying up our land and heading off the grid, and we don’t expect that to happen for at least another 10 years down the road.

How did we get here?

Well, I married a collector; he collects toys and memorabilia from his favorite franchises (mostly 80’s stuff). And when we met, I was a collector too. Or at least, I was trying to be… sort of hard when you’re in college and wind up moving 6 times in as many years, having to almost start over every time for a number of reasons, some legitimate, and others not so much.

And in a roundabout way, global warming happened. The BP oil spill. The disappearing Greenland Ice Sheet. Memories of the weather patterns in winter being different back home, growing up, than what they are now. Memories of hail storms and Santa Ana Winds that don’t seem to happen anymore. Bisphenol-A happened too. And rising gas prices. Then, the dawning realization that humanity was making a huge mess and refusing to clean it up. And then after that, the understanding that only certain, special, parts of humanity were predominantly responsible for that mess.

So I started doing a lot more reading about all sorts of subjects that an environmentalist might find useful. The waste stream; food production; conservation; green tech; social alienation; advertising; capitalism; colonialism.

And like my about page says, I eventually found Bea’s Zero Waste Home via an episode of the How Stuff Works podcast, in which they talked about refrigeration, and the feasibility of living without it. Her book was mentioned more or less in passing, but after doing a bit of my own research and happening on a copy at a local bookstore, I bought it and was hooked.

It spoke to me as someone who was deeply unhappy, and was for a long time. I was diagnosed with major clinical depression in 2012, which validated many, many, years of feeling just slightly “off”. Not sad, but distant and somewhat hopeless; I was prone to bouts of explosive anger, was a chronic complainer, and sometimes found myself so inexplicably mad, frustrated, and self-loathing, that I would cry myself to sleep and wake up despondent.

Ever since I could remember, I’d felt like a square peg in a world full of round holes. Very little about the outside world or the dominant hegemony of society ever made any sense to me, and I had a very hard time imagining myself as an adult navigating that world. Not being able to imagine any kind future for yourself takes its toll, and as a child and teenager I roamed around in some very dark places, flirting with self-harm and suicidal ideations. What’s interesting to me is that I was never in a place of despair and trying to escape by hurting myself or ending my life; I think for me, those were some of the only ways I knew how to reconcile my lack of an imagined future with the real world. If you’re 12 or 13 years old in the US and can’t picture yourself being 30, or having a job, or a household, then what is there to imagine? I couldn’t picture myself existing under those terms. So, nonexistence, death, is what’s left. In a sad and twisted way, that was the only way (along with artistic self-expression) that I could prove to myself that I was a real person that was capable of having a future, even if that future was truncated by something terrible– that terrible thing was something that I at least knew could probably prove my realness when it seemed nothing else would.

In the years since my diagnosis, I’ve come a cross a lot of literature, academic and non-, theorizing about what depression and anxiety really are. But one of the proposed explanations that has always stayed with me is that depression is a symptom of the alienation that our capitalistic society has constructed. Without which we wouldn’t have such a need for things like self-help books, beauty products, drugs, and countless other products designed to capitalize on that inexplicable gnawing emptiness that seems to characterize and propel so much of Western civilization.

The author of the piece, The Problem With Society Isn’t Greed. Greed Is a Symptom of a Deep Need Going Unfulfilled, nails it:

All aspects of our culture conspire to strip us of our connection and belongingness. Let me name a few more:

– Religious indoctrination into self-rejection.

– Schooling that keeps children indoors, fosters competition, and accustoms them to doing things they don’t care about for the sake of external rewards.

– Hygienic ideology that fosters a fear and rejection of the world.

– Immersion in an environment composed of standardized commodities, buildings, and images.

– The alienating effects of living among inorganic shapes and right angles.

– Property rights that confine us most of the time to our homes, commercial environments, and a few parks.

– Media images that make us feel inferior and unworthy

– A surveillance state and police culture that leave us feeling untrusted and insecure.

– A debt-based financial system in which money is systemically scarce: there is never enough money to pay the debts.

– A legal culture of liability in which everyone is assumed to be a potential opponent.

– Patriarchal belief systems that oppress the inner and outer feminine, confine intimacy, and make love a transaction.

– Racial, ethnic, and national chauvinism, that makes some of our human brothers and sisters into Others.

– An ideology of nature-as-resource that cuts us off from our connectedness to other beings and leaves us feeling alone in the universe.

– Cultural deskilling that leaves us as passive, helpless consumers of experiences.

– Immersion in a world of strangers, whose faces we don’t recognize and whose stories we don’t know.

– Perhaps most importantly, a metaphysics that tells us that we are discrete, separate selves in a universe of Other.

18 months after hungrily devouring Zero Waste Home, I know now that what I was sensing in its pages wasn’t an asceticism, but this.

The book came into my life at something of a crucial period. I was a few years out of school, living with a relative for very little rent, in a neighborhood I practically grew up in, and most importantly, I had a job. Like, a real, grown-up job. It still didn’t feel quite real, thanks to the aforementioned depression, but having a good-paying job was half the equation of adulthood. Moreover, I could afford practically whatever I wanted. I was  beginning to surround myself with furniture that wasn’t made of plastic, clothes that didn’t come from Target or H&M, foods from health food stores. I was acquiring so many nice, quality, things that I’d previously only been able to dream of owning.

So why was I still unhappy?


Bea’s book hinted at the answer in living her life for experiences, not things.

But as someone who had gone so long with so few meaningful possessions, how would getting rid of all my stuff help? Wouldn’t I feel just as transient and place-less as I did in college with all that moving around? I wanted to feel grounded!

I quickly learned that weighing myself down with stuff is not a substitute for having a sense of place.

I know that in my bones, now.

The problem is, how to reconcile this new understanding with finally cohabiting with my husband?

Well, I happen to have a friend who has a problem with acquiring junk; actually, both she and her fiance do, and they have for years, but it’s something they’re making a concerted effort to work on. So I told her about the issue, and she told me to get a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and OrganizingAnd wow, I could not have gotten a better recommendation.

The author, a life-long organizing and cleaning aficionado, came up with a method called KonMari (based on her name), that she swears has worked for every single one of her clients since she came up with it. It is both rigid and subjective at the same time, and basically is as follows:

1. Going through your things category by category, and everything within those categories all at once, get rid of everything that “doesn’t spark joy”

2. Once you’ve gotten rid of the excess, put everything back in its place

I love this, and the hubs does too. There’s no endorsement of fancy, expensive, organizing gadgets and systems. (In fact, she actively disparages them.) There’s no emphasis on meeting quotas or other rigid systems that require you to take inventory of the number of X things you have. In fact, she encourages readers to think of our possessions’ feelings as we go about our day, and to talk to them.

That’s because the book is heavily rooted, intentionally or not, in Shinto philosophy, something both the hubs and I found to be very refreshing. We don’t want to get rid of stuff because we hate stuff, we want to get rid of stuff because we want to love that which really means the most to us, all the while giving us room to breathe in our own home, and fewer reasons to stay inside on a beautiful day. We want to respect our things. It’s win-win-win.

I feel like this is a big deal for someone like me. For the first time, I have a sense of who and where I want to be in the future; I can imagine it. I can picture myself living my ideal life, and I can know for certain that such a life will never again involve mindless consumerism, clutter, things that weigh me down, things that would tear me apart if I were to lose them. There’s a lot more to being alive than any of that!

I have so much hope for this new life, in fact, that I can see myself not being on anti-depressants at some point in the foreseeable future. If only I’d known sooner that my lifelong depression was caused in no small part by the culture and society that I live in; if only I’d known there was a way out.

But hey, at least I figured it out at all, right? And at 26 no less?

I thought that I’d done all the purging that I needed to do, that it was up to the hubs now. But reading Kondo’s book made me realize that I still had a ways to go; not just in terms of number of things, but psychologically as well. I’ve got some emotional housekeeping to do, you might say.

My mom is flying up to visit at the end of the month for Canada Day (and to bring my cat for me!), so I expect that hubs and I will have started “tidying” the KonMari way in preparation before that. I would love to do something of a “house tour”, Apartment Therapy style,  at some point after all the purging and organizing; that way you all can see our zero waste systems and decor aesthetics in action.

If you’re interested in reading Kondo’s book but don’t have the money to buy a copy, email me and I might be able to work something out for you. ;]