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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 http://www.theinadvertentgardener.com.

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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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