Monday, March 23, 2009


Soil: Part one in a three-part series

By Sarojni Mehta-Lissak

For Judy Frankel, a day without putting her hands in soil is like a day without embracing her young daughter. Though parenting brings her immense joy, it is gardening that keeps her tied to the earth’s seasons and cycles. Regular harvests also provide her with a steady stream of ingredients for her everyday cooking endeavors.

As a master gardener, home garden enthusiast, and fruit tree specialist, Frankel knows that a bountiful supply of home-grown goods doesn’t come without preparation. “It all begins with good quality soil,” she emphatically states.

Soil, the home for nutrients, water and other valuable elements for plants, requires time and attention; but the results are worth the effort. It is from this healthy foundation that garden vegetables can thrive.

In this three-part Q & A series, Frankel shares with visitors the steps in creating a home garden. Her expertise in this field comes not only from her hard work—but also from her training and passion for producing food grown in her own backyard.

S.M-L: What are the benefits of having a home garden?

J.F.: The benefits of having a home garden: PROXIMITY! It's great being able to walk into your own backyard and pick a carrot or a bunch of basil. It's great that it's so fresh when you need it; you can't beat the FRESHNESS! The TASTE is another reason: if you have sweet soil, you'll have sweet tasting veggies and fruit. Supermarket varieties are limited to what can travel well. And the VARIETY cannot be beat! You can grow so many more different vegetables than you could ever get in a supermarket! Some of the veggies are just beautiful, like purple kohlrabi. Try finding that at a VON's. So BEAUTY is another reason: it just looks pretty, in the landscape and in your house when you bring it inside! Then there's SAFETY: you know how it's grown, that the seeds are heirloom or open-pollinated varieties that haven't had any tampering with their genes, and that you haven't sprayed chemicals on the plants or used petroleum products to fertilize your soil (which produces inferior plant cell walls that are weaker AND less nutritious than organically fertilized food.) So there's another benefit: NUTRITION. There's the untold other benefits as well: EXERCISE for the gardener and THERAPY in terms of psychological benefits from being outside, in the sun and smelling the plants and soil. It's AROMATHERAPY and PSYCHOLOGICAL therapy!

S.M-L.: Where should a garden be located (sun orientation etc.)?

J.F.: Locate your garden in the sun, sun, sun! A southern exposure is great for most vegetables. There are a few things that can do okay in the shade: lettuce, spinach, some herbs like cilantro don't need a whole lot of sun, but will grow a lot faster if they get some sun. I've taken out trees to allow more sun to get through to my garden.

Taking out trees requires a certain amount of preparation, spiritually. I always do a little prayer and acknowledgement of the tree before removing it. All gardens have a special kind of energy about them, and you don't want to ruin it by being callous.

S.M-L.: What are the first steps in getting started?

J.F.: The first steps:
1. Find a location that has sun.
2. Decide whether you want raised beds or if you will be digging. Then build that raised bed or dig that existing soil to a depth of at least 8 inches, or follow double digging practices.
3. Get a soil test or sample the soil yourself.
4. Amend, amend, amend your poor soil or build your new soil according to my soil recipe (*posted at end of interview).
5. Plant and water

S.M.-L.: Why is good soil so important?

J.F.: Good soil is important because it is the foundation of your garden. Plants need nutrients from the soil and sun to grow properly. The soil provides macronutrients like nitrogen and micronutrients like copper via bacteria that does the work of digestion for the plants. The best way to think of it is that you're actually eating your soil. So whatever goes into the soil comes through the plants into you.

S.M.L.: How would a beginner know what kind of soil they have at home?

J.F.: To know what kind of soil you have, all you have to do is dig into it and feel it. There are only a few components that make up your ground. It could be mostly rocks, sand, clay, silt, and/or loam, or a combination of these. But soil isn't nutritious to your plants unless it also "has a life."

It needs to contain some more mystical elements: humus, for example, which is an elusive thing. It's what happens when compost is broken down to its maximum degree, yet it cannot be defined. It's the "soul" of the soil. It's what makes soil a living thing.

There are so many organisms and microorganisms whose only function is to break down decomposing matter: everything from earthworms to bacteria. These organisms are essential to good soil. If, while you're digging, you see strands of white, you're looking at a complex system of bacteria working synergistic-ly with plants' roots. It is the most elegant system of species working across living systems and yet helping each other.

S.M.-L: Do you recommend soil testing?

J.F.: There are at least four ways to test your soil:
1. Quick and dirty: dig into your soil and notice if it's sticky and heavy with clay, or sandy, or feels like you're cutting through chocolate cake. The recommendations are the same, no matter what soil you have, so you may decide not to go for the full-on testing, and instead just do a pH test. pH is important to know so that you can adjust it according to what you will be planting there. For example, blueberry bushes and gardenias like acidic soil.
2. Soil test kits can be purchased at the local garden center and will measure nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as well as pH.
3. Public lab tests, run by the state can give you more accurate results and more information. Refer to: to find out more about using the UC Extension program's testing lab.
4. Or, private labs can give you even more detailed analysis, especially if you are concerned about your soil having a specific toxicity based on previous use. For one such lab, go to: Keep in mind that these labs and their specific tests can be quite costly.

Even if you do a soil test, you will not necessarily have all the information you desire because testing in one spot of your property means you only know what is going on at that exact spot. Soil varies from one area of your property to another, which is why it is important to realize that the prescription is going to be the same no matter what kind of soil you have.

Soil test reports almost always come back with the same recommendation: add organic matter! This addition is even more important if your soil is primarily made out of clay or sand.

S.M.L.: What are the necessary components to creating good soil?

J.F.: The most important components of healthy soil are the following (my recipe for good soil):
• Organic matter
• Air and water
• Macronutrients: like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur
• Micronutrients: Minerals like iron, boron, manganese, copper, zinc, and molybdenum
• Microorganisms: Bacteria, beneficial fungi, and the like.

Most soils just need a regular addition of compost (organic matter) or kitchen scraps to stay healthy. But some soils are so compacted, especially our clay soil, that without digging and mixing with compost, they cannot support healthy plants.

Conversely, if you build a raised bed and just add compost, you will be missing many of the other ingredients that go into healthy soil. You need to add peat moss or perlite to improve aeration and moisture retention, especially if the compost is not well broken down, like a lot of the free compost that comes from municipal composting operations.

I had six raised beds filled with compost and realized, after adding the peat moss and perlite, that I was going to have to bring earthworms in or else I wouldn't have worms in my beds.

Some soils, where only synthetic fertilizers have been used for years, may have few if any micronutrients because these minerals simple are not found in non-organic fertilizers. If you've been growing plants with the types of fertilizers that say 20-20-20 on them, your plants may be slowly taking away all the micronutrients, leaving little for future generations of plants.

Micronutrients can be added in one pass, but you will have to establish a deficiency with a soil test first, because adding too much is harmful. When you do add micronutrients, you have to follow the soil test's recommendations. If, however, you consistently add compost and organic fertilizers or manures to your garden, you will have a steady supply of micronutrients. The easiest way to be sure to have enough, but not too much, is to use fish emulsion and/or liquid seaweed, because these fertilizers have trace amounts of micronutrients.

Macronutrients can be added easily by purchasing either Whitney Farms or Kellogg's products. Of the two, I prefer Kellogg's. These two companies do an excellent job of using crop residues, animal residues, and beneficial microorganisms in many of their mixtures. The resulting slow-release organic fertilizer will provide your plants with the best nutrients possible, while also providing the bacteria and fungi necessary to process the macro and micronutrients, making them available to the plants.

When plants take up organic fertilizers, the resultant cell walls are stronger and hold more vitamins and minerals, thus providing us humans more nutrition and a more powerful flavor as well. My veggies always taste better than standard supermarket fare because they're organically grown.

S.M.L: When is the soil ready for planting and starting a garden?

J.F.: If you follow all the basics for getting soil ready, it's not the soil that dictates when to plant, it's the type of things you're planting. You have to plant specific to the season and the zone you're living in. You can plant peas in September or October through December in So Cal, but in zone 6, you'd be hard pressed to get them into the ground in April, even though that's when they should be planted.

S.M.-L.: What can a gardener do on a regular basis to keep the soil fertile?

J.F.: My number one recommendation is to COMPOST. If you regularly add your green waste back into your soil, you will decrease the amount of inputs you need to bring from the outside. Save your kitchen scraps in a bowl or container right on your kitchen counter. I used to put my container in the fridge overnight to prevent smells and fruit flies from accumulating. Now, I just put a lid on the container at night, and when it fills up, I dig a hole somewhere in my garden and dump it right into the ground and cover it up with soil.

In the summer, when the flies do accumulate, they like to sit right inside my compost container. I shut them up inside the container and release them outdoors, then bring the container inside and keep it closed most of the time.

Composting outdoors is a commitment, but local organizations often give free composting classes that will help you get started. The main point is: adding organic matter is the same as regular exercise. It will keep your garden healthy. Use compost that the city gives away for free or make your own. I use compost as a mulch, and every time I plant a new rosebush, tree, bramble, or plant, I mix it into the planting hole.

Stay tuned for part two in this series...

Thursday, June 26, 2008


by Heather Melcer

We're all familiar with the typical feng shui buzz nowadays: wealth corner here, relationship corner there, water fountain, crystals, north, south, etc. But there is a much more natural level of feng shui energy flow that meanders through our environments, and the more in tune we get with it, the more easily things will open up and flow in our lives.

Our homes are truly a mirror reflection of what is going on in our lives and the way you interact with your space is also an indication of how the rest of the world is interacting with you. Literally translated feng shui means "wind" and "water" and a good place to start assessing the energy is imagining these two aspects of Mother Earth flowing through your home - how do they flow?

Now let's take a look at how you and your things are affecting that flow of energy. Literally, how do you flow, or rather walk through and utilize your space on a daily basis? Finding balance in the personal flow of actions through your home is just as essential a part of creating good feng shui energy as what to put in what corner where. I'm talking about the really simple things that together add up and create blocks of energy flow, and in turn, block in the movement of your life.

For example, when you wake-up in the morning and reach for your bathrobe, where is it - a natural, easy place close by? You go downstairs to make your morning coffee, where are the mugs and coffee beans - right next to the coffee maker or the other side of the kitchen? From another angle, where do you naturally throw down the mail when you walk through your door each day? Surely we all have that place we intend it to go, but don't we all have that "natural" place that things just somehow wind up and flow to? In a case like that, it's good to honor that area and get a nice basket or container if that's where it naturally ends up.

Sure, overall it's nice to have things all neat and put away, but you have to find balance between what looks good and what is creating natural and unnatural flow in your everyday life. I know we all desire to live in a pristine, everything-put-away, model home atmosphere these days. However, no one really actually has a life in a space like that, it's an energy of emptiness in some ways at that point.

So take some time to assess and become conscious of how much extra flow exists in your everyday routines. Notice all the little ways you are constantly swimming upstream against the current of your life. When you can find the balance and go with the natural flow of the physical structure, it is then that you can achieve an important aspect of fFeng sShui and open up to easier flow of successes in your life.

Copyright 2008, Heather I. Melcer

Heather I. Melcer is a certified feng shui practitioner providing on-site consultations in Southern California, introductory workshops and monthly tip e-mails. With a diverse background including publishing, marketing, graphic design, writing, an MFA degree and personal metaphysical studies, her unique gifts blend together to creatively assist people in bringing true harmony and success to their lives. Her intuitive and practical approach integrates this ancient art form into a modern world.
Contact: (562) 437-9003

Thursday, April 17, 2008


By Irene Guoz

1. Our home is powered by solar energy. We have enough sun power to run the whole house and business.
2. Solar attic fan
3. Electric scooter, zero emissions vehicle
4. Electric lawn mower
5. Rain water collection barrel collects 60 gallons of rain water for our plants.
6. Composting all of our natural food scraps
7. Organic gardening (pumpkins, tomatoes, peaches, lemons, oranges). This year we had volunteer pumpkins!
8. Low-flow shower heads and low flush toilets to save water.
9. Energy-efficient windows
10. We turn on our "daylights," by opening the blinds and letting in the natural light.
11. Energy Star central air conditioning, refrigerator, dishwasher and washer/dryer units. Dishwasher and laundry units are water savers.
12. White shingled roof keeps the house cool during the summer.
13. Light color house paint keeps the house cool.
14. Biodegradable vegetable-based cleaners for the dishwasher, clothes washer, dishes and hand and body soaps. All non-toxic cleaning. No phosphates/bleach. We use vinegar and water to clean most surfaces.
15. Cloth napkins and handkerchiefs
16. Cloth towels instead of paper towels.
17. Wash full loads of dishes and laundry to save water and energy
18. Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) throughout the whole house.
19. PRECYCLE: Don't buy anything that comes in a package that cannot be recycled, such as juice boxes and mixed paper/plastic/foil.
20. RECYCLE: We recycle all plastics 1-7, plastic film, bags, foil, cans, paper and cardboard.
21. FREECYCLE: We are members of This is a great way to give to others and receive things in return. The goal is to keep usable items out of the landfill.
22. REUSE: For every disposable, there is a reusable. We buy used instead of new.
23. REDUCE: We try our best to reduce our consumerism and waste.
24. REFUSE: Stop taking the free stuff you don't need. Refuse paper and plastic bags.
25. RETHINK: Think before you buy. Hmmm?... Can this be recycled or freecycled when I'm finished with its use?
26. We visit Household Hazardous Waste Round Ups for disposing of batteries, e-waste, and any broken electronics that could contain hazardous materials if dumped in the landfill.
27. Use rechargeable batteries. Especially great for all of the kids' toys.
28. Walk to and from school & leave the car at home. Ellora rides her bike and Mom rides the scooter.
29. Buy in bulk, avoiding over-packaged items.
30. Green gifting from earth-friendly companies.
31. Reusable cloth gift bags. We no longer use paper gift wrap.
32. BYOB: Bring your own bags! We refuse plastic bags when we go shopping and bring our own reusable bags, even on vacation. We use Bio-Bags for trash, not plastic.
33. Soy candles, and bees wax candles. We no longer burn paraffin.
34. We buy organic and local foods when possible, such as local farmers' markets.
35. Our printer is filled with recycled paper. We print on two sides.
36. We buy unbleached 100% recycled paper toilet paper. Some companies are cutting down ancient trees from the Boreal Forest for virgin wood pulp. They are destroying old growth forests and endangered species habitats, just so we can have soft tissues and toilet paper. I must admit, it is soft, but is it worth it? Kleenex has been dubbed the name KLEERCUT on along with some other diaper companies. As long as there is a demand for it and people keep buying it, they will continue to clear cut forests.
37. We support earth-friendly companies by voting with our wallets for the products we want.
38. Our 1995 Saturn SL is awaiting electric conversion.
39. Our 2007 Ford Focus Wagon is a PZEV. It only emits 25% of fumes compared to other cars. This car is on the Clean Air Car List from the California Air Resources Board and South Coast Air Quality Management District.
40. We drive around the neighborhood in a fully electric Ford Ranger. We are trying to find batteries so it will hit the freeway again.
41. We combine errands to save gas and cut down on pollution.
42. Telecommute & work from home!
43. Tell others what we are doing and how they can help at work, home and school.
44. We share our movies, "Who Killed The Electric Car?" and "An Inconvenient Truth."
45. Eat less meat.
46. We are members of Carbonfund, and offset 70 tons of carbon pollution yearly. More than we produce.
47. We give at least 1% of our annual sales to the natural environment through 1% for the Planet at
48. Our website and downloadable catalog are tools to educate people about the environment and social change.
49. We donated our mini-van to Cars For Causes and 50% of the sale went to the Zoological Society of San Diego for our animal friends.
50. We are teaching our children about social responsibility by buying products that benefit people's lives instead of big business
51. We support USA made products to keep America working.

Irene Guoz is a stay-at-home mother of two, a soy-candle business owner and a passionate champion of the Earth. After seeing Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," she and her husband, Jaime, vowed to make positive changes in the way they live. In doing so, they hope to inspire others. Visit Irene's business at:

*Reprinted with permission from the author.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


by Sarojni Mehta-Lissak

"Going solar" is gaining momentum as more and more people want to harness the sun's energy for their home's needs. But before stepping on the solar path, it's important to know typical electricity usage--and that comes from reading and understanding an electric bill.

Todd Fanady, with Ameco Solar in Signal Hill, Calif., helps decipher the mystery of all those words, numbers, and figures that show up on monthly bills. It is knowing habits and usage that determines the best solar system for your home. In the Q & A below, Fanady explains the importance of being a smart consumer.

SM-L: What's the greatest misunderstanding about an electric bill? Or--what do all those numbers, percentages and words mean?

TF: The pretty hieroglyphics found on your electric bill are the power company's latest work of abstract art. They are an obtuse representation of what they are charging you and why. The greatest misunderstanding is that you should be able to understand it all.

SM-L: Why is it important for the consumer to understand a bill?

TF: It's important to understand [a bill] so that you have an idea of how your electrical usage habits affect what you pay.

SM-L: Where is a good place to start when looking at a bill to detect usage habits?

TF: The place to start is the total kWh (kilowatt hours) used in the month. On tiered rate structures, such as Edison's, this number breaks down to different amounts used in each tier.

SM-L: What are tiers? How much is the SCE customer charged in each one?

TF: A tiered rate structure, like Edison's, charges a progressively higher rate per kWh the more electricity you use. Some utilities, such as LADWP, charge a simple flat rate per kWh regardless of how much you use. Edison's residential rates have 5 tiers. The lowest is called Baseline and is about the first 10 kWh used per day. The present rate for baseline electricity is about 11 cents per kWh. Then the subsequent tiers are approximately:
Tier I (next 3 kWh) .14/kWh
Tier II (next 7 kWh) .23/kWh
Tier III (next 20 kWh) .26/kWh
Tier IV (all usage above 40 kWh) .30/kWh

SM-L: Please describe kilowatt hours.

TF: Watts x hours are watthours. One kilowatt hour (kWh) is one thousand watt hours. A 100 watt light bulb turned on for ten hours uses one kWh of electricity.

SM-L: What are the most expensive energy hogs in a home?

TF: The largest user of electricity in a home is typically the refrigerator, since its pump draws a good amount [of electricity] and is constantly cycling on and off 24/7. Pool pumps use a lot, as do electric space heaters, stoves, ovens, air conditioners and big screen TVs. Most new appliances are substantially more energy-efficient than ones 10-years-old. "Phantom loads" can add up to a lot of kWh, too. These are small electrical draws from appliances that are turned off but still use a little electricity, anyway. TVs, DVDs, stereos and computers are typical culprits. If you plug them into a power bar or surge protector with an on/off switch, then you can completely switch off several of them at once. You can also just pull the cord.

SML: How can a user move into the lower tiers where the charges are cheapest?

TF: Cut kWh usage! This can be done by using more efficient appliances and lighting sources, by consciously reducing wasteful habits like leaving lights on in vacant rooms, by getting rid of that extra freezer you don't really need, by swapping a full-sized fridge for a small one if you're single, by turning computers off when not in use, by cutting back pool pump hours in the winter and by investing in a solar or wind (in windy rural areas) electricity generating systems.

SM-L: Do you have any other advice you'd like to offer?

TF: Solar systems are a great investment of your hard-earned money because they will save you a lot over many years. The money you save can be used for much better purposes than on [paying for] energy that you could be producing yourself for free from a renewable source that does not pollute our planet. However, before you spend on costly ways to supply energy, look at ways to save it. Most homes waste a great deal of electricity where they need not. That 100 watt bulb burning for 10 hours each day would take about $2,000 of costly solar panels to offset!

About Todd:

Todd Fanady grew up in the Bay Area and moved to Long Beach about 10 years ago. In high school he studied architecture and the use of solar energy in this field. Years later, after college, he had his own marketing business that focused on the automotive industry. After reading Al Gore's book on climate change, "Earth in the Balance", Fanady decided he was on the wrong side of a great battle. So he rekindled his interest in solar and found his way to AMECO four years ago. He is now very happy designing and promoting solar energy systems for all kinds of homes and businesses.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

7 Steps to a Greener Business

Are you having trouble thinking of ways to make your workplace green? Going green is not only good for the planet it is good for the bottom line. Implementing an environmental plan encompasses conserving water and energy, preventing pollution, and reducing waste. Here are some suggestions that can help you get started.

1. Help save the trees by using treeless or recycled paper and print double sided. Use the blank side of printed paper for drafts. Go paperless and reduce clutter by e-mailing documents instead of printing or faxing them. Use biodegradable cups, plates, utensils, and other products used in the office made from renewable sources such as corn or sugarcane stalk, and potato starch.

2. Switch to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind power, biomass, biogas, geothermal or hydrogen. Replace incandescent bulbs with Energy Star Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs). Turn off lights and electronics when not in use and install timers and light sensors. Turn off computer monitors in lieu of using screen savers. Make the most of skylights and windows for natural sunlight.

3. Provide incentives to employees who take public transit, carpool, walk, ride their bikes, or who drive hybrid, electric, bio-diesel or fuel-cell vehicles. Purchase alternative fueled vehicles for company cars.

4. Offer locally grown organic vegan options in the cafeteria and for catered business meetings. Raising livestock for food is responsible for water shortage, water pollution, destruction of rainforests, production of methane and nitrous oxide which are greenhouse gasses 21 and 296 times respectively more powerful than carbon dioxide. Producing meat uses ten times the fossil fuels and spews ten times the carbon dioxide than a plant-based diet.

5. Conserve water by installing low-flow toilets and faucet aerators. Fix water leaks. Incorporate water efficient landscaping using native and drought resistant plants.

6. Set up a workplace recycling program to include paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum, and plastics.

7. Switch to non-toxic and biodegradable cleaning supplies, soy-based ink toner cartridges, and green office products made from renewable materials.

Adopting sustainable business practices reduce operating costs, increases long term profits, promotes environmental regeneration, and makes for a healthier world for future generations.

© 2008 Elizabeth Kiely, Founder, The Green Recruiter

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