The Five Takeaways of Gardening: Genie Gratto

Some of the best things in life happen by accident.  This was the case of Genie Gratto’s foray into the world of gardening.

“When I lived in the DC area, I tried to grow things and hadn’t been very successful.  My husband bought me an herb kit that had seeds, tools, pots, and an herb dryer.  I didn’t get anywhere close to having anything good that could even be dried!  Stuff sprouted up but couldn’t be used,” she sighs.

Gratto did not take up gardening again until she moved to Iowa City, a place described as having some of the best soil in the country.  Gratto put in a garden in 2006 and became fascinated with the idea of growing food.

“Gardening is a little bit miraculous to me – it amazes me that you can throw some stuff into the ground and have no idea what you’re doing, and then things, edible things, just grow out of there,” she says.

Gratto now lives in the Bay Area, and chronicles her adventures and misadventures in gardening in her blog, The Inadvertent Gardener. Below, are five takeaways gathered in conversation with Gratto.

1.  Gardening requires only a few basic tools.

Beyond the basics of seeds, soil, light and water, Gratto recommends a couple other tools.

“You need some kind of tool to dig.  It can vary based on the scale and size of your garden – for example a trowel for small containers, or a big shovel so you can move dirt around,” she explains.

“The other thing I recommend is having a sprinkly attachment for a hose or a watering can.  I thought they were silly at first, but I realized that if you pour a giant pitcher of water on a plant, it displaces the dirt.  You should sprinkle the water instead, let it soak into the ground, rather than creating runoff,” she says.

“If you want to get really fancy, a hoe is good to have to weed easily,” Gratto recommends.

2.  When planning a garden, remember that plants need their space.

“When you have a garden, you need to have a modicum of planning.  When you plant seeds into the ground, it’s easy to think ‘these plants will be small and cute,’” explains Gratto.

“However, most of the time, you don’t realize how big plants actually get.  For example, I had no idea how big zucchini plants would get. Artichokes are the same – they are these huge thistle-y plants that support one tiny artichoke, and they completely take over the space they’re in.  They consistently shade out the other guys,” she warns.

3.  Beware the guilt and heavy lifting of gardening.

Gardening, despite its geriatric and gentle connotations, has some minor hazards.

The first is a moral hazard.

“There is always that fear that you are killing things when you garden, and of course, guilt ensues,” says Gratto.

In one particular inadvertent gardening mishap, Gratto planted tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants under a tree that she hadn’t realized was poisonous – a black walnut tree.

“I had no idea how poisonous it was… I had never heard of this tree!  What happened was, as rain would run off the tree, the poison would run off with the rain and fall on the plants, and the plants were dying as a result.  This led to a transplant operation on a July 4th weekend – five tomato plants and two pepper plants were moved, but I left the eggplants under the tree,” she says guiltily.

On a more positive note, the post about the mishap ended up being one of the most popular storylines to ever hit her blog.

Transplanting operations also lead to the second hazard – that of physical hazards.

“There are standard physical things to be cautious of when gardening – remembering to lift from your knees and not your back, like when you’re hauling around piles of dirt or transplanting tomato plants.  There’s also a lot of resting on your hands and knees, so you need to remember to cushion all of that,” she recommends.

4.  Growing your food is the only way you can control what goes into it.

“One thing I do not understand is why someone would use something non-organic or synthetic in their garden.  Actually, a few years ago I caught my dad red-handed with a couple bags of Miracle-Gro, so I of course yelled at him.  This is your one opportunity to completely control what’s going in your food, without having to worry about government certification or about food miles.  This is the closest you’re going to get to your food source – why sully that?” exclaims Gratto emphatically.

5. After gardening for awhile, you begin to notice that plants have their own set of idiosyncrasies.

Michael Pollan discusses in his book The Botany of Desire, amongst other things, how certain plants have evolved in tandem with humans, how we both rely on each other for survival, and how some plants are quirky for a reason.  Gratto, while gardening, has noticed some of these quirks.

“One example is that of marigolds – if you plant them near tomatoes, it keeps the nasty bugs away.  There are also these flowers called Four O’ Clocks, which are both pretty and funny.  They have the name because they allegedly open at 4PM in the afternoon and after 12 hours, close again.  I planted them, and thought they were the lamest flower ever.  I would walk outside at 4PM and they were always closed.  However, one night when I walked out into the garden, they were actually open, and I thought to myself ‘how weird!  What kind of purpose does this have?  What kind of pollinating insects does it attract, how did it evolve into such a plant?’” explains Gratto.

There are certain things we will never answer, however Gratto nails on the head what it is that is so great about plants and gardening – that simple sense of wonder of caring for something and watching it grow.

Gratto’s The Inadvertent Gardener can be found at


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The Five Takeaways of Hula Hooping: Alexandra Malone

North Carolina is the unlikely setting for this week’s Five Takeaways.  It was where Alexandra Malone, the protagonist of our story, first saw people carrying something unusual down the street.  Hula hoops.

“I used to live in North Carolina, and hula hooping is really big there – it’s actually one of the main hooping centres in the US,” she says of the sparsely populated state.

“I ended up reading about it and thought it was interesting, but it wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa where I decided I needed a new hobby, and actually started hula hooping t here.”

Several years later, Malone is now a hooping teacher in Ottawa.  Below, she provides the five takeaways of hula hooping.

1.  There is more to hooping than flinging a hoop around your waist and awkwardly gyrating.

“The basic skill is being able to move the hoop around your waist.  To do this, you need a strong core, as well as balance and coordination, which you can develop through hooping.  The second move is bringing the hoop from your hips to your waist,” says Malone.

“Then there are a couple more advanced moves.  One is chest hooping, where you bring the hoop up to your chest with your hands above your head.  Then there’s shoulder hooping, neck hooping, and hooping with the thighs and knees.  There is also hooping ‘off the body’, where you are using your hands to spin the hoop or move it around your body,” Malone explains.

2.  Hula hooping is not really a competitive sport, but more about performance or fitness.

“Don’t get me wrong – there are competitions, Guinness Book of World Records “who can hoop for the longest duration” type events, but most hoopers are more focused on performance and teaching and sharing.  The performance aspect is the most prominent one – you’ll often see hoopers performing at festivals like Burning Man, or events like Cirque du Soleil, or even filming short hooping videos to post on YouTube” explains Malone. 

3.  Hula hoopers are mostly female, but beyond that there isn’t a specific age demographic.

“There isn’t an average hooper.  Basically anybody can hoop – it’s for all ages, shapes and sizes pretty much. The hooping community is mostly female, and anywhere from age 16 to age 60,” she says.  “That said, there are also some incredible male hoopers out there with very unique styles and impressive skills.”

4. Hooping is exercise cleverly hidden in nostalgia, self-expression, and amusement.

“Hooping has a whole range of health benefits – obviously it’s a good cardio workout and helps you strengthen your core, and increase muscle tone.  And it’s also really low impact, and helps with balance and coordination.  But beyond that, it reminds you of being a kid, and as you get more comfortable, it is extremely creative and people use it as a mode of expression, and even stress relief.  I’ve even seen people doing ‘meditative hooping’!” she exclaims.

“I’ve also taught people who are trying hooping for the first time and spend the whole hour laughing, so even if you don’t get the hang of it right away, most people want to keep at it because they’re having so much fun!” laughs Malone.

5.  Many hoopers make their own hoops (and it’s not that hard.)

Malone makes her own hoops for herself and sometimes for her friends.

“Some teachers have business making hoops and selling them.  It’s not that difficult – hoops are made out of polyethylene plumbing tubing, the kind that you use for radiant floor heating – and you can get them in all kind of weights and diameters.  There is a specific weight and diameter for a basic beginner hoop for adults, which is 3/4 inch 160psi.  If you’re more advanced, you get the tubing with a smaller diameter, and lighter weight, which makes it more difficult to control with your body.  Then, you cover your tube in pretty tape, and you’re done!” she explains.

Malone teaches classes at Fitness Fusion in Ottawa.  Find out more information at or by emailing

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The Five Takeaways of Bees: Dennis VanEngelsdorp

Bees have an aura of mystery and beauty to them.  The way that they work as a collective.  The reported health benefits of royal jelly and bee pollen, yet the harsh prick of a bee stinger.  The delectable sweetener known as honey that has been used for centuries, appearing in hieroglyphics and French cave drawings.  The strange phenomenon of colony collapse disorder.  The odd looking beekeeping outfits, and even the beautiful hexagonal honeycombs.

This brought me to Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a leading apiarist at Penn State University.

vanEngelsdorp stumbled upon beekeeping by accident during his undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph.

“I took a beekeeping course while I studied horticulture… and I bought some hives and did possibly everything wrong with them,” he laughs, remembering.

“So I went to go see the professor for help, ended up getting better at working with hives, and that’s when I became really interested in the work.  So much so that I ended up doing a Masters with that professor,”   says vanEngelsdorp.

The rest is history.

“Once you get stung, it’s in your blood, and you’re a beekeeper forever,” laughs vanEngelsdorp. Below, vanEngelsdorp provides his five takeaways of bees.

1. Be(e) relaxed and gentle with bees, because they know if you’re not.

“I can actually think of nothing more relaxing than working with bees – when you work with them you get into ‘the zone’.  Actually, when you use the smoker and open the hive you absolutely have to be calm – they always know if you’re not calm,” says vanEngelsdorp wisely.

“For awhile I worked in the Caribbean with boys who were in reform school, who were extremely troubled and had anger management issues.  Working with bees seemed to have a calming effect on them,” he explains.

2.  Hives are a female run affair – and not necessarily by the queen.

“It’s interesting to see how our understanding of the queen changed.  When Aristotle started looking at queens, he thought that the leader must be male.  During the French Revolution, the lead bee was called the ‘General Bee’ – probably because of the Napoleon connection.  It took scientists a long time to find out that the queen bee was in fact female.  In addition, people thought of the queen bee as a dictator, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The queen bee is essentially an egg laying machine.  She releases pheromones that controls the behaviour of workers, but otherwise is fed and pushed around by her worker bees.  They also choose whether or not to abort her young,” he explains.

“Also, all the worker bees are female.  Males play very little role in the hive. Drones, or male honey bees, are only produced at certain times of the year.  Their only role is to mate.  They fly out of the colony around noon, fly around 40 feet high into the ‘drone congregation area’, where they mate with the queen bees.  After they mate, they die, with their reproductive organs ripped out.  The ones that don’t mate are driven out of the hive in the fall,” says vanEngelsdorp.

Bees seem to take emasculation to a whole new level.

3. Bee beards can be a thoroughly uncomfortable situation.

Seeing someone with a bee beard is enough to make anyone shudder in fright.  This is when someone “wears” hundreds or thousands of bees on their face and neck, and sometimes other parts of the body, depending on their level of daring.  I asked vanEngelsdorp if he’d ever done it, and if so, how it worked.

“I did this while I was still at Guelph pursuing my Masters degree.  It was July, and I rented a Santa Claus outfit for fun.  They made me stuff cotton balls up my nose to protect it from any bees going in – actually what was disappointing was that they didn’t tell me that there was a cotton ball hanging out of my nose when the photograph was taken!” he laughs.

“How you do it though, is that you have to catch a queen and put her in a cage and tie her around your neck.  Then, you put the worker bees in a plastic sheet.  The queen bee releases her pheromones and attracts the rest of the hive.  It’s the weirdest sensation ever – can you imagine, these thousands of feet grabbing at you, with three to four pounds of bees on your face?  It gets very hot very fast,” explains vanEngelsdorp.

4.  Many honeybee species have gone extinct without us even knowing it.

“In Pennsylvania, there are approximately 400 species of native bees.  The ones that have been studied most are the honeybees that were brought over from Europe, which we need for New World crops such as apples.  Farmers like to use honeybees because they are efficient pollinators – typically they will be moved in for two weeks and then they are moved to another farm.  A study done at UCDavis said that the most successful farms, measured by the quality of the fruit set, have been those that have the presence of both native and European honey bees,” he explains.

“That being said, the most important thing is that we don’t know much about these other 399 species of bees and the many others in the world – and they are disappearing.  Three species of bumble bee have gone extinct in the last three years.  For instance, in Pennsylvania, 17% of bees that we have a record of, we haven’t seen them since 1940,” says vanEngelsdorp chillingly.

5.  There have been many conspiracy theories about colony collapse disorder but very few verifiable answers.

vanEngelsdorp is renowned for his research in the area of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is a phenomenon where worker bees disappear suddenly from a hive.

“It’s really important to realize that honeybees have been in trouble in the US for a long time – since the 1940s, a number of colonies have been in steep decline, but there has been a recent loss because of parasitic mites.  These were introduced in the 1980s, and have spread viruses and other things.  Colonies that die in America die from known causes.  Yet there are others that are dying away from the hive, leaving large sheets of brood, or baby bees.  This symptoms based condition kills a minority of bees every year.  Altogether, CCD and all the other things killing bees adds up to about 1 in every 3 colonies dying every winter for the last 3 winters.  That’s a lot of bees!  However, why it is so significant is that it poses a huge risk to large scale beekeepers, who are responsible for a lot of agriculture in the US.  They move bees from state to state, and we are highly dependent on them,” says vanEngelsdorp.

I ask Van Engelsdorp what he thinks the cause is for CCD.

“The past three years when all this information broke about CCD – there were a lot of suggestions why this was happening.  Alien abduction, The Rapture, imported Russian bees with a gene that Russian spies could beam satellites through….. another one that caught on was cell phones.  German scientists did a study on cordless phones and it somehow got translated into cell phones – we don’t think it’s that.  We have to concentrate efforts into known areas.  Unfortunately, we can’t test the hypothesis that CCD is caused because aliens are coming back in 2012.  Our hypotheses need to be things we can test, so we have concentrated on three basic areas – first, new or newly mutated pathogens, potentially an introduction of a virus.  The second area is pesticides, and the third are environmental factors – things such as the genetic diversity in bees, changing weather patterns, whether or not bees are getting enough food.  Some of our findings were not what we expected,” says Van Engelsdorp.

“What is interesting about this is that maybe 4 years ago, I would’ve thought that there was only one cause and one solution – but it’s more complicated than that.  There’s a lot of things killing bees, and it’s a complicated network that we are still trying to understand,” explains vanEngelsdorp.

For more information on Dennis vanEngelsdorp’s research at


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The Five Takeaways of LEGO: Nathan Sawaya

Nathan Sawaya has the job that every kid dreams of having.  He’s a LEGO Artist, a Certified LEGO Professional.  What does that mean exactly?  It means he spends his days in his New York studio building awesome things out of LEGO.  A casual scroll through his website reveals things like a LEGO replica of Stephen Colbert; a scale model of a Blackberry with a working screen, a giant set of LEGO milk and cookies, an anatomical heart, a life sized cello, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Han Solo encased in carbonite.  Pop art, but in LEGO format.

How does one exactly do this sort of thing?

“I started doing large scale sculptures out of LEGO bricks about ten years ago.  I had sculpted with more traditional media, but I wanted to explore using a toy from my childhood as an art medium.  The sculptures got a pretty good response from friends and family, so I put photos of them up on my website.  Soon after, I was getting commissions from folks around the world.  Within a few years, I was a full time LEGO artist.”

Below, Sawaya provides his five takeaways of LEGO.

1.  LEGO can take you anywhere.

“Since becoming a Lego artist, I have put together museum exhibitions and gallery shows all over the globe.  I have been asked to send sculptures to Hong Kong, Dubai, Paris, London, Singapore, even Kansas City.  I never dreamed that creating with LEGO would take me to places like Hawaii, Stockholm or Appleton, Wisconsin, or even as a guest on the The Colbert Report and Mythbusters.  I got to design a LEGO room on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.  And weirdest of all, my LEGO artwork actually became a category on Jeopardy!” he exclaims.

2.  There is no such thing as cheating in LEGO.

“I don’t know how many times folks have come up to me and said ‘Are you gluing your bricks?  Well that’s cheating!’  And I wonder to myself, ‘Are you the LEGO referee?’ he laments.

“The thing is LEGO bricks hold together remarkably well.  They are an amazing construction tool.  But my sculptures are shipped around the world.  And the shipping process can take a toll on any artwork.  I find that museums get kind of grumpy when I ship them a sculpture and they receive a box of loose LEGO bricks, sometimes with a note reading ‘some assembly required’.  So to make sure my sculptures arrive in one piece, I glue them together.  This is not cheating.  Anything one does creatively with LEGO cannot be considered cheating.  In fact, the only way there might be cheating in LEGO is if one was to use only Lincoln Logs,” he says of the building toy made with wood that comes with instructions.

3.  There is nothing that cannot be built out of LEGO.

Sawaya sees infinite possibilities with Lego.

“When I was a child and wanted to get a dog, my folks didn’t let me, so I built myself a dog.  It was multi-colored, and of course being built out of those rectangular bricks, it was a bit boxy in places.  I called it a boxer,” he jokes.

“LEGO is a versatile medium.  As a toy, it lets your imagination rule the day.  Growing up, if I wanted to pretend to be a rock star, I could build myself a guitar.  If I wanted to pretend to be an astronaut, I could build myself a rocket,” he explains.

“As an artist LEGO is a great medium for creating anything I can imagine.  I still use those same rectangular plastic bricks that I had as a child, but now I try and use them in a way that hasn’t been seen before.  I have an entire museum exhibit touring North America that is very popular with both kids and adults, who are attracted to the idea that there is artwork that is created solely out of LEGO,”  Sawaya says.

4.  Having 1.5 million LEGO bricks is not enough.

At any given time, Sawaya’s New York studio has 1.5 million bricks stored in it.

“The LEGO company says that there are 62 LEGO bricks for every person on the planet.  That means there is a pretty big group of people who are missing some bricks all because of me.  As an artist, I want to make sure I have enough bricks on hand that I can build whatever I can think of, at any time.  That means I have to keep an art studio full of bricks in all shapes and colors.  They are all arranged by size, and are in clear plastic bins lined up on shelves based on color.  Walking into my studio is a little like walking into a rainbow.  I need all those bricks because who knows what I might be creating next:  a life-size human form, a dinosaur skeleton, maybe even a full size boat?  As I use the bricks up, I have to keep that inventory up to date, so I am ordering new bricks monthly.  I don’t know if that means there are less or more bricks for everyone on the planet,” he ponders.

5.  The LEGO art movement has begun.

“One of the most common questions people ask me is ‘How can I get your job?’  I tell them just to go do it.  I am an independent artist, and I use LEGO bricks as my art medium.  It can take weeks to create a LEGO sculpture, but I’m so passionate I fall into a near-trance while I’m working and creating.  Many of my works centre on the phenomena of how everyday life, people and raw emotion are intertwined.  Often my art is a reenactment of my personal feelings.  I am inspired by my own experiences, emotions and the journeys I am taking,” he explains.

But being an artist, why did Sawaya choose LEGO as his medium?

“I like using LEGO as a medium because I enjoy seeing people’s reactions to artwork created from something with which they are familiar.  Everyone can relate to it since it is a toy that many children have at home.  I want to elevate this simple plaything to a place it has never been before.  I also appreciate the cleanliness of the medium – the right angles, the distinct lines.  As so often in life, it is a matter of perspective.  Up close, the shape of the brick is distinctive.  But from a distance, those right angles and distinct lines change to curves.”

If pointillists worked with round dots and it looked like curves from afar, then the LEGO must be a cubed, three dimensional version.

Sawaya is optimistic about the future of LEGO art.

“Many people write to me and tell me they are going to become LEGO artists themselves.  They send me photos of their sculptures and creations.  It looks to me like a new art movement has begun.  I call it the LEGO art movement, and don’t be surprised if five or ten years from now they will be teaching it in art classes.”

More of Nathan Sawaya’s work can be found at his website, Brick Artist.


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The Five Takeaways of Waste: Tom Szaky

The words “waste” and “garbage” have always had such negative connotations.  “You’re a waste of space.”  Schoolyard taunts about smelling like a garbage picker.  The phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” which refers to something made with low quality materials that will also yield a low quality final product.

Tom Szaky, the 28 year old CEO of Terracycle, sees waste differently.  While he has brought garbage into his company, it seems that the outputs have been nothing short of valuable.  Szaky started Terracycle as a 19 year old Princeton student.  His idea?  Taking food waste from Princeton’s cafeterias, having worms digest it, and producing fertilizer on the other end.  The products were contained in old soda bottles.  After nearly going broke, he was helped out by an investor, which led to the company getting orders into two major retailers.

The worm poop became so popular that even some of the big guys began to feel threatened.  Terracycle was sued by Scotts Miracle Gro in 2007, of which Terracycle won the lawsuit.  In recent years, Terracycle has been focusing on aggregating various forms of waste from consumer packaged goods companies as raw materials, and selling them to different manufacturers to be upcycled.  Items such as juice pouches have been turned into bags, wrappers have been turned into kites, and the company has even been considering what product to turn cigarette butts into.

“There is no waste that can’t be turned into something else useful,” says Szaky.

Below, Szaky provides his five takeaways of waste.

1.  Waste doesn’t exist in nature.

In nature, there is no such thing as waste.  Let’s take leaves for example – if a leaf fell off the tree, it would fall on to the ground.  Provided that an animal or insect didn’t eat it immediately, the leaf would eventually biodegrade and provide nutrients for the soil, which would then in turn provide nutrients for the tree.  In that whole spiel, everything had a use, and there was no waste.  Contrast that with something like a takeout container.  It would be manufactured, sent to a restaurant, where you use it to take away your dinner for the evening.  Then, depending on the type of plastic it was, it would be thrown away or recycled.  In the throwaway scenario, the waste would be created immediately, perhaps left sitting in a landfill for thousands and thousands of years.  In the recycling scenario, this product would be recycled and recycled until the fibres were too short, and that in turn would turn into waste to be thrown into a landfill.

2.  Waste is something that has only emerged in the past 100 years.

“Waste is something that man created over the last 100 years – with the development of complex polymers, it created something that nature can’t deal with,” explains Szaky.

This explains things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and landfills.

“Excess consumption is also to blame – we consume more than we need to.  100% of waste can be attributed to the fact that we buy too much stuff.  By no means am I anti-consumption, and it will never go away – but we have to start buying more expensive, durable things,” suggests Szaky.

3.  Waste is the only commodity that has negative value.

“Waste is the only thing that we pay people to get rid of.  Why are you paying for something that you have to buy and then pay to haul away?  It makes no sense.  For example, why not turn your yogurt tub into a planting pot?” suggests Szaky.

4.  Ninety-nine percent of what consumers buy gets thrown away right away.

In addition to finding ways to reduce or reuse, what consumers buy gets thrown away very soon after its purchase.  Let’s use a pen for example.  The pen comes in a cardboard backed plastic container, which is thrown out.  You use the pen on paper.  The pen runs out of ink, and then the whole thing is thrown away.

There was also the waste that went into creating the product.  Szaky provides a sobering stat:

“For every pound of garbage, there was 60 pounds of waste used to make it.”

5.  Waste is riddled with systemic issues.

“The first problem with waste is the cultural issue of consuming more than we need to,” he explains.

“Second, recycling is fragmented.  There isn’t a Wal-Mart of recycling – garbage is mixed together, and very few waste streams are collected,” Szaky says.

“There also isn’t a collection system.  It is so fragmented that usually the lowest common denominator, or the lowest value items, aren’t collected,” he says.

“There is also a commoditized marketplace for waste.  For example, recycled plastic is more expensive than virgin plastic, because among other reasons, the demand is higher.  Recycling facilities permanently closed their doors when plastic prices dropped and petroleum went cheap,” explains Szaky.

With capacity reduced, this doesn’t help in the long term sustainability of waste facilities, who depend on revenues for selling the waste they have collected.

“And lastly the incentives to reduce waste are not there – why can’t we do in the US what governments in Europe or countries like Turkey are doing – a packaging tax.  Why not try it here?”

Find out more information about Tom Szaky at Terracycle, Garbage Moguls, and through his book, Revolution in a Bottle.

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The Five Takeaways of Olive Oil: Art Kishiyama

Olive oil tasting is a strange custom.  Beyond the fact that you’re sipping oil from cups, there is also all the noisy inhaling, sloshing, and sucking sounds coming from all areas of the room.

It was Art Kishiyama who initiated me into this strange practice.  Art is the owner and grower for Olio Nuevo, a farm that specializes in artisan crafted extra virgin olive oil in Paso Robles, California.  On Kishiyama’s farm, where he lives with his wife, he also raises a herd of alpacas.  Not surprisingly, the man with the colourful present also had a colourful past:  Kishiyama spent 26 years in the U.S. Air Force and retired as a Colonel, then spent 15 years working at Walt Disney, building theme parks and attractions.

So how exactly does someone go from the military to building theme parks, to olive oil and alpacas?

“The simple answer – it was the first time we had acreage, and we wanted to grow something.  Since I was entering retirement, I chose not to do grapes as with all my neighbours and friends, although if I was 10 years younger, I would’ve done it for the challenge!” he laughs.

There was also a business reason.

“Olive orchard farming is much less intensive that vineyard farming.  There is an abundance of vineyards in Paso Robles wine country and in California. Our domestic demand for olive oil is growing in double digits and nearly all of the olive oil consumed in the U.S. is imported.  What it boils down to is, there is a growing demand for high quality, locally produced olive oil.”

Art Kishiyama provides his five takeaways of olive oil below.

1.  There are hundreds of types of olives, however three are best for oil.

“Olives have been grown since 3,000BC in Syria, and since then hundreds of varietals have evolved, adapted to specific climates, usages, and taste.  Some do best as table olives and others do best as oil, and then some are good in either way.  In California, the most common varietals are Ascolano, Sevillano, Mission, and Manzanillo, for canning.  Mission and Manzanillo olives are also used extensively for oil because of their high, mostly over 20%, oil content.  More recently, super-high density farming techniques have favored Arbequina for oil,” explains Kishiyama.

“However, it’s hard to say what is best – it’s like asking what fruit you like best, apples, oranges or bananas?  Or alternatively, what wine do you like – Syrah, Pinot, or Chardonnay?  It’s strictly a matter of taste, preference, and usage,” he says.

2.  Olive oils can be like fine wines.

There are several ways that olive oils can be like wines.

First, is the environment in which olives are grown, which is much like wine grapes.

“You need a ‘Mediterranean’ climate – warm and dry days, cool nights – identical to wine grapes.  You also need good water, and the absence of hard winter freezes.  Generally, soil doesn’t have to be too fertile – olive trees seem to thrive in poor soils,” explains Kishiyama.

The taste of olive oils is also measured similarly to wines.

“The taste of good olive oils will strike a balance between fruitiness or the aroma, bitterness or the taste in the mouth, and pungency, or the peppery finish.  And, like a wine, it makes certain foods taste better, and will push the natural flavours of food such as fish or vegetables, without being intrusive,” says Kishiyama.

And lastly, olive oils, like wines, can have some health benefits.

“Good olive oils have a lot of monounsaturated fats and polyphenols, or anti-oxidants, that the body needs for nourishment.  Last year, we analyzed our olive oils for polyphenol content and found that it had about 288 mg/kg of caffeic acid.  Compare that to blueberries, which average around 225 mg/kg, and typical olive oil, which is usually around 150 mg/kg.”

Such high scores can be attributed to when Kishiyama picks the olives.

3.  Within the very involved process of creating olive oil, the timing of the harvest matters most.

“The key is the timing of the harvest, or the relative ripeness of the fruit.  Our olives are hand picked by a picking crew, which is really hard work.  The greener the fruit, the more intense the flavors, or rather, the riper and softer the flavours.  Also, the greener the fruit, the higher the anti-oxidant content, since the polyphenol content peaks well before full ripeness.  Immediately after picking, the fruit begins to oxidize, so the faster it is milled, the better your oil will be,” says Kishiyama.

The rest of the process is pretty involved, and Kishiyama explains below.

“The milling process goes something like this – first, the stems and leaves are separated out.  Then the fruit is washed and then milled into a thick paste with the skin, seed and fruit all together.  After that, a process called ‘malaxation’ is done – this is where we stir the paste until the oil begins to separate and the aroma builds.  Then, we move it to a horizontal centrifuge where the liquid oil and water are separated from the paste – the solids are removed as compost.  Then, the liquid is moved to a vertical centrifuge, which separates the oil and the water, and the water is discarded as waste, and the oil is captured as extra virgin,”  he explains.

“There are usually small pieces of fruit, skin and seeds suspended in the oil, but it naturally settles out in the transport drums, and the oil is transferred into stainless steel containers called ‘fustinos’ for long term storage, and then it is bottled on demand for freshness,”   he says.

In a year, Kishiyama will produce from 500-800 gallons, or about 6,000 to 7,200 bottles per year.

4.  Olive oil is a great substitute for butter or margarine in baking.

Kishiyama likes to substitute butter or margarine in baking with olive oil, which is a healthier alternative and adds some flavour.

“I’ll usually make cookies or cakes using this equivalent table, which is at a 4:3 ratio for butter/margarine to olive oil,” he explains.

Of course, just be careful not to put a really strong tasting olive oil in foods where you don’t want that flavour, such as icing.

5.  The mass-produced olive oil you get at the grocery store could be quite old, or might actually not even be olive oil.

“An article in the New Yorker in 2007 about olive oil fraud really caused a big stir in food and food safety circles, and raised awareness of the issue,” he says.

“Some of the olive oils you can get at the grocery store could be two or three years old, or it might not even be pure olive oil.  Some packages have misleading information such as, ‘bottled in Italy’, but actually contain inferior oils from Tunisia or Morocco.  In some cases, extra virgin olive oil has been ‘cut’ with refined vegetable oils and sold as extra virgin olive oil.  ‘Light’ olive oils or ‘olive-flavoured’ oils are usually the product of such labeling.  In California, that’s the reason why a certification process is so important,” says Kishiyama, who gets his olive oils certified.

More information about Olio Nuevo can be found here.

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The Five Takeaways of Logrolling: Jamie Fischer

For many a Canadian child growing up in the 1980s, the Log Driver’s Waltz by Wade Hemsworth and the accompanying cartoon short created by the National Film Board of Canada are a classic slice of Canadiana. The premise of the Log Driver’s Waltz is that log drivers, who would typically drive felled logs down the river by using their balance and agile feet, could be compared to great dancers.
While we were enjoying this cartoon in the Great White North, down in the US, Jamie Fischer was actually honing his logrolling skills.
“We knew of the Log Driver’s Waltz in the US, but the more popular song for us was I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay by Monty Python,” he laughs.
Fischer’s great grandfather was a lumberjack, and picked up logrolling, only to pass it on to his grandpa, then to his dad, then to Jamie. You might say that the Fischer family has a logrolling legacy.
Fischer was encouraged to take his logrolling professionally, and started Lumberjack Enterprises, a company which serves to increase the popularity of lumberjack sports in local communities.
Below, Fischer provides his five takeaways of logrolling.

1. The historical practice of logrolling was extremely dangerous.
“Logrolling was traditionally a way to transport logs – essentially, after they were felled in the spring, the logs would be put in the water, and rolled down to the city. Competitions emerged when say, two opposing camps would finish for the day and see who was better or faster at logrolling,” explains Fischer.
“At the time, log rolling was very dangerous – since it was the spring, the water was ice cold and there were risks of hypothermia. Literally, there would be chunks of ice floating in the water. Also, the logs were huge – if you fell, you could potentially be crushed between two logs, and drowning was very common at the time,” he says.
Occupational safety was probably not at the top of everyone’s list then. Nowadays, competitions take place in fairly temperate places where there aren’t any waves, large boats or logs, or exceptionally cold water.

2. Logrolling is a predominantly east coast Canadian and Midwest American tradition.
Not surprisingly, logrolling is popular in areas that used to or continue to be areas for heavy forestry activity.
“The Midwest of the United States is probably 95% of the world’s logrollers. The west coast of the US has some, and Japan used to have some in the 1970s. But overall, you’ll find that most logrollers are from the Midwest,” says Fischer.

3. The best logrollers are either small and quick, or big and strong.
“In order to win a logrolling competition, we’ve seen either those small people with quick feet to roll the log, or bigger people who have a lot of strength, who can control the log. However, we’ve noticed that people who compete in logrolling competitions usually weigh 200 lbs or under. That way, the log doesn’t just sink if they stand on it,” explains Fischer.

4. There is a whole host of lumberjack related sports.
Within lumberjack related sports, there are two categories. Water events, and chopping events. Birling, or logrolling, is one of these water events, while the other is boom running.
“In log rolling, competitions involve two logrollers standing on a log and trying to roll the other off without going touching the centre line or touching their opponent– whoever falls off first, loses,” says Fischer.
“Similarly, boom running is like logrolling. A bunch of logs, maybe half a dozen, are tied to a dock on one side and the person has to run to the other side and back again without falling into the water.”
The booms were originally put in to build a barrier, or a giant bridge to prevent logs from scattering across the river.

The other events are chopping events. There is an event to see who can chop down a tree faster, or nowadays, chopping a block of wood horizontally and vertically. There is also a ‘Crosscut saw’ event, where two people cut logs into specific dimensions or lengths, where the object is to cut a disk off of a horizontal log, forming a block that resembles a “cookie”, in the shortest amount of time.  An event called  ‘Hot Saw’ is similar, except competitors use saws with modified engines.

5. Logrolling, if you can find somewhere to do it, is physically and mentally challenging exercise.
After Jamie Fischer finished college, he wanted to start his own company to increase the availability and popularity of logging programs, which turned out to be Lumberjack Enterprises. Since then, he has gone around the country introducing these programs at different community centres and universities. There, he trains staff and faculty, and then encourages them to take over the program. To date, he’s started 25-30 programs around the US.
Learning how to logroll can be tough, though.
“When you’re learning, there is a huge learning curve. It looks really easy, but it’s actually very frustrating at first. Usually, people stand on the log for three or four seconds, and then boom! You end up falling in, wondering ‘why can’t I stay on the log?’”
However, those that do stay with it find that it’s extremely challenging, both mentally and physically.
“It is a great form of exercise when you get the hang of it, and at the end of the day the camaraderie you build, and the people you meet are a lot of fun to hang out with,” he says.

More information can be found at Lumberjack Enterprises and the US Logrolling Association.


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The Five Takeaways of Touring: Mustard Macklovitch

If you’re a music aficionado, you’ll certainly know who DJ A-Trak is.  In a nutshell, DJ A-Trak was a Montreal-born  DJ prodigy who won all the major DJing championships in his teenage years.  Years later, he became Kanye West’s touring DJ, started a record label called Fool’s Gold with Nick Catchdubs, and became well-known for his live shows, remixing, and producing.  He is also a prolific blogger, regularly documenting his travails and travels, and posting up the odd hotel review.  A-Trak has spent plenty of his almost 15-year career on the road.
A recent addition to A-Trak’s shows is his trusty steed, Mustard Macklovitch. Mustard Macklovitch first appeared in summer 2009, when he accompanied A-Trak on his 10,000 lb Hamburger Tour across North America. They toured and trotted together for a month, explored the whole continent, and of course, made new friends together.
However, don’t be fooled by the cuddly exterior.  Mustard, with some guidance from A-Trak, is a touring warrior.
“Sometimes when I meet people they ask me for some travel tips. They say they want to hear it from the horse’s mouth… I guess that’s me,” he neighs.
On break from touring and at home at the Fool’s Gold stables, Mustard Macklovitch provides some advice and his five takeaways of touring below.
1.  See as much of you can of each city.
“It’s so easy to just stay in your barn and sleep until showtime, but every time you make the effort to go out and explore it’s instantly gratifying,” he explains.
“If you’re a clotheshorse like me, you can often find some unique pieces on the road.  It’s good to get to know the history of the places you visit too, it gives you a better understanding of local customs.  I love discovering new cuisines.   Sometimes when we’d pass a fast food chain, some of the other guys on the bus would settle for that yucky food, saying things like ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.’  First of all that’s a terrible thing to say.  And second, once you make the effort to find the good local spots, you build up these great memories of the cities you visit,” he whinnies.
2.  Take care of your body: eat well, sleep well, exercise.
“Touring is exhausting.  Your days fly by so fast, you can literally forget to eat sometimes.  You can go out after the gigs, get carried away with some horseplay and end up sleeping 3 or 4 hours every night.  That’s not good!  You have to take care of yourself, and it’s not that hard.  All you need to do is prioritize these basic things that you body needs.  As long as you sleep decent hours, eat your apples and whatnot, you’ll be fine.  I’m lucky, I actually like to exercise.  I’m trying to get A-Trak to run laps with me but he’s always playing with his Blackberry.  Next time he does that I’m going to eat it,” he neighs.
3.  Be nice to the people you meet.
“They’re so appreciative when you’re kind, and it’s simply the right thing to do.  I’m not asking you to put on a whole dog and pony show.  Just be courteous, get off your high horse and you’ll quickly realize that the people you meet aren’t that different from you and your friends.  There’s nothing I enjoy more than making friends,” he explains.
4.  Pack light.
“The rookie mistake is to show up with 2 massive suitcases packed with every saddle you think you might need for different weather conditions.  Then you just end up wearing the same 3 outfits on the whole tour and you find yourself lugging these big heavy bags for no reason.  When you’re getting your bags ready before leaving home, resist the temptation to bring useless stuff.  If you get that urge, hold your horses.  Bring your essentials and leave a bit of room for things you might buy too!” he nickers.
5.  Blog.
“I’m a modern horse.  I embrace Web 2.0.  I take a lot of pictures with my new friends and love sharing my experiences with the world.  There are lots of people out there who might know one or two things about you, but when you really start writing about experiences, the bonds that you build are so much stronger.  Now I really feel like I know a lot of you even though we may have only met for a few hours.  What’s more, all my memories are crystal clear since I wrote about them!”  he whinnies.
Mustard Macklovitch adds some closing thoughts.
“I just wanted to mention that this is my first interview and I’m so excited about it!  I hope to continue making new friends, you’ve all been so nice to me.  As long as I continue to travel, gallop on new trails, meet nice folks and eat local delicacies, I’ll be happy.  So long!”
Mustard has a Facebook Fan Page.  More about his owner and friend, DJ A-Trak, can be found here.


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The Five Takeaways of Craft Shows: Benita Hsueh

Many of us dream of one day quitting our day jobs and doing what we love instead.

Several years ago, Benita Hsueh did just that.  She worked at a large computer company, and decided that she was tired of working for the man.  Instead, she decided to craft.

“It all started when I was little.  When I was growing up, I would make paper cutout dresses for my dolls – either doll clothes were really expensive to buy, or I always found something wrong with what was out there and wanted to make something I liked,” she explains.

All this designing and experimentation led Hsueh to build House of Hsueh and We are Wedges, her bag/accessory design and stuffed toy ventures, respectively.  Craft shows have been an integral vehicle to showcase her work and to earn a living.  To date, Hsueh has participated in over fifty craft shows, and is something of a Toronto craft show veteran.  Below, Benita provides the five takeaways of craft shows.

1.  The best time to do a craft show is hands down, Christmas.

When I ask Hsueh when the best time is to participate in craft shows, the question is a no-brainer.

“Christmastime!  Christmastime!” she says emphatically.

“Spring is okay, there’s more browsers then.  But Christmas, the time from September to the end of December, people are always looking for unique or odd gifts.  Any other time of the year is pretty hit or miss.”

2.  Participate in the established shows – if they build it, people will come.

“To figure out what show to participate in, I check with the organizer if the show is established.  The way to know is if these people know what numbers come through to the show each year, or the ones that I see who do advertising, both online and in any popular local papers,” she explains.

Otherwise, there are craft shows where the only thing moving through the aisles are a couple of tumbleweeds.

3.  Never underprice your work.

“I definitely encourage people to craft, however when doing this, I recommend that people don’t underprice their craft.  Selling for under cost doesn’t help anyone – you, because you’re not making your money back, and second, because it’s damaging for people who make a living out of this kind of work,” says Hsueh.

4. Etsy is often used as a supplement to craft shows, and can be both a bane and a boon.

Many crafters often use the website Etsy to create an online presence beyond craft shows.

“Etsy has made it really easy to set up an online store, and it is very user friendly.  The nice thing about it is that it makes the world your market.  However, Etsy is something you have to work at.  There are millions of products on Etsy, and there are so many new products every day that you have to pour hours of work into it.  It’s hard to keep up.  Also, if you’re trying to make original items, it’s really hard to keep it original, and it’s often a place where your ideas can be taken.”

5.  Lastly, at craft shows, never forget tape (especially of the duct variety), a pen, change, and coffee.

For those people who prefer to stick to physical craft shows, the above items have been necessities for Hsueh in a variety of scenarios.  Duct tape is good for sticking and fixing.  A pen is great to jot down information.  People always run out of change, and coffee is a godsend for early mornings.

And of course, don’t forget your crafts.

More information about Benita’s work can be found at House of Hsueh and We are Wedges.  Benita’s work is also going to be at the One of a Kind Show in Toronto.

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The Five Takeaways of Soapmaking: Teresa Mak

Soap is something that we often take for granted, yet it’s something we can’t live without.  We pick it up at the pharmacy for a couple dollars, it cleans, and somehow melts away, only for the process to be repeated again.  Soap has existed for centuries, yet the average person knows little about how it is made, save for glimpses of the process in the movie Fight Club.  Of course, there’s no better way to create interest in a hobby than having Brad Pitt’s face attached to it.

Brad Pitt was not the reason that Teresa Mak, my sister and an engineer by trade, got interested in soapmaking.  Teresa was given a gift of handmade soap several years ago, and she realized how much she liked it – it lasted much longer and was much more moisturizing than a conventional bar of soap.  However, upon a return trip to the store to pick up another bar, she was dismayed to find that the soap was no longer available.

What else is an engineer to do?

“I decided to make my own soap.  It turns out that if you had the ingredients and you experimented enough, it wasn’t so hard, and actually it was really fun!”

Leave it to my sister to find soapmaking fun.  She ended up turning this side experiment into a sometime business venture called Sherlock Soaps.

Below, Teresa Mak provides her five takeaways of soapmaking.

1.  Basic soap is made from a combination of a base and fat.

The essence of soap making is a process called “saponification”.  As Mak describes, “Saponification is where a strong base, the lye in this case, reacts with fats to form soap.  As a by-product, glycerin is formed, and it naturally occurs within the soap.  I’m not sure how true this is, but apparently in ancient times the way that soap was discovered was that ashes were accidentally mixed with animal fat and then formed suds, and Romans would wash their clothes with this mixture.”

The miracle of the whole process is that the mixture of strong bases and fats, which on their own seem so useless, can create something so useful.

2.  Most commercially distributed soaps are made of unsavoury fats and/or strange chemicals.

Soaps these days rely on the supply of cheap fats, in which today it is often beef fat, palm oil, or petroleum by-products.  Which seems odd, considering that these products on their own are things that one wants to keep away from their body.

“I’m not sure how comfortable you are with rubbing saponified beef fat onto your body, but essentially that’s what it is when you’re using Ivory Soap,” explains Mak.

So much for that pure image of a baby bathing with Ivory Soap.  Mak prefers to use fats like olive oil or coconut oil.

If not strange fats, then commercial soaps also contain a whole range of synthetic chemicals.

“In a commercially available soap, detergents help to clean, sodium laureth sulphate helps to bubble, and artificial fragrances help to make it smell nice.  This combination creates something ‘soap-like’, but isn’t quite soap,” says Mak.

3.  Making a bar of soap takes about an hour, but the whole process can take a month before it is completely finished.

If you are one of those people who are interested in making your own soap rather than buying it off the shelf at the store, Mak explains the soapmaking process below.

“The process of getting the soap to react initially takes about an hour.  Here, you have to melt the fats, add lye, and mix until initial saponification.  After you ‘cook’ the soap, you pour it into the moulds, after which it goes through the gel phase.  As the name suggests, the gel phase is where the soap goes through a crazy reaction where it gets very hot and starts looking like gel.  After about an hour, it cools down and turns into a harder piece of soap.  What it hardens, that’s when I cut it into smaller pieces.  As for curing the soap, after I cut it I let it sit for about a month before it’s ready to use.”

4.  You can tell if a soap is done by tasting it.

The prospect of tasting soap does not sound particularly tempting, considering that many years ago washing your mouth out with soap was considered a punishment.  However, Mak assures me that tasting your soap is the way to tell if your soap is done.

“Glycerin is slightly sweet, and nice hand formed soap with glycerin should taste sweet.”

5. Always remember to keep some vinegar at hand for any safety mishaps in soapmaking.

If the above process hasn’t deterred you from making your own soap, it is important to remember that when making soap, lye is a very strong base and should be treated with caution.

“I recall one time I tasted a bar with what I thought was glycerin on top, but it was actually lye.  Gross!”

Vinegar, an acid, helps to neutralize any lye splashes.  And of course, when the soap ingredients are mixed, it is close to neutral.

Barring burns, the time commitment, and labour, making your own soap is a great way to build an appreciation for something we so often take for granted.  Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all.

You can also keep yourself clean with Teresa’s soaps, which can be found online at

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