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Shades of Green

Small ways you can make your city home more environmentally friendly

Photos by Rob Bartlett
Actual things actually grown by the author: parsley (top) and tomatoes (above).

Sizzlin Summer 2009

Cruel Summer City Paper's Sizzlin' Summer 2009

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Broke-Ass Summertime Fun Hey you with no money maybe you could use some ideas? | By Emily Flake

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Factory Girl Greetings from York County, Pa., the factory tour capital of the world | By Michelle Gienow

Shades of Green Small ways you can make your city home more environmentally friendly | By Erin Sullivan

Balls Up Let's hear it for Baltimore's favorite (but perhaps not homegrown) summer treat | By Henry Hong

Stay Frosty The City Paper I-Team™ once again searches for the coldest beer in Baltimore

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 5/20/2009

A few years ago, when I first bought my rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore, I had lofty plans: the house was small, maybe 1,100 square feet, so I figured it would be within my reach to think about eco-friendly renovations--solar panels on the roof, maybe concrete countertops in the kitchen, a tankless hot-water system.

I had saved some money for renovation, but when I started pricing out some of the items that seemed like they should be within reach for the average homeowner, it quickly became clear that even just doing the basics--some solar, tankless hot water, energy-star appliances, bamboo cabinets in the kitchen--would set me back significantly. In a neighborhood where rehabbed houses routinely sell for $150,000 or so, it's just not cost-effective to invest $50,000-plus in solar panels and thousands more for more efficient heating and cooling systems, high-end appliances, bamboo flooring, and the like.

Thus, for a lot of people like me, the dream of converting an older 1950s rowhouse into a sustainable, eco-friendly home of the future goes right out the drafty window, along with the warmth in the wintertime and cool air in the summer.

But just because big-ticket items and major renos were too pricey for my house, I was not going to be deterred. I decided to think a bit more creatively about what it meant to live in a "green" home. Here's a short list of things I've done--or plan to do in the near future--to reduce the impact my home has on the environment.

Buy Secondhand Stuff: With the exception of two new beds (I couldn't bring myself to purchase used mattresses) and a couple of odds and ends, the majority of the furniture I bought when I moved into my house is someone else's old stuff. Fortunately for me, I happen to like old things, and I prefer the look of a mid-century end table or stereo unit from the late 1960s to the mass-produced new stuff found in most furniture stores.

When I moved into my house, I didn't order a new dining room set or buy a new couch right away--instead, I took my time looking for gently used castoffs. I found a couple of fantastic and sturdy chairs upholstered in a green and gold striped material at an antique store in Cockeysville; a unique black-vinyl cocktail couch at a warehouse specializing in mid-century-modern furniture in Catonsville; a minimal Danish modern dining room set and a Telefunken console stereo cabinet in great condition at the Salvation Army; and steel shelving for my basement from a salvage warehouse in downtown Baltimore. All told, I probably spent less on all the furniture in my house than some people spend on the furniture in one room, but even better: I recycled.

Grow Your Own: Eating local is far more sustainable than eating whatever produce is shipped to the supermarket from Chile, California, Mexico, or wherever (recently I saw garlic at the supermarket labeled "grown in China"--I have grown garlic myself in Maryland, I cannot fathom why one would need to ship it in from China).

Food grown somewhere far from home--even if it's organic--has a negative impact on the environment when it's got to be shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to your supermarket. So growing some food in your own backyard--or on your porch, if you don't have a yard, or in a few small pots in your kitchen if you don't have any outdoor space at all--does contribute to greener living, as long as you don't overload your backyard garden with chemicals.

I have a small backyard, and each year I clear a little space along the side of my house where I grow tomatoes, radishes, carrots, basil, rosemary, squash, green onions, and whatever else I can squeeze into my limited gardening area. One year I grew garlic. Another year, leeks. This year I planted some pole beans, and I might try to find a good spot for some potatoes as well. Later in the fall, I'm thinking about shopping around for some kind of fruit tree that'll look pretty in the yard and (hopefully) provide some fresh fruit in a few summers.

Composting and Mulching: Why buy fertilizer for your garden from Home Depot when you can make your own at home? Composting organic matter from your trash (fruit and vegetable waste, coffee grinds, apple cores = good; meat, bones, oils, grease = bad) creates a nutrient-rich material you can add to your garden soil to nourish your plants. Yes, I know, composting sounds like a bad idea for a city dweller. Taking the organic materials out of your trash and tossing them into a pile in the yard is likely to attract unwelcome attention of rats, pigeons, cats, dogs. But for a small investment of a couple of hundred bucks, you can purchase a secure composting bin that will make it possible for you to air your compost, turn it regularly, and make it inaccessible to vermin. (You can check out composters.com for prices. Baltimore County also holds a composter bin sale in the spring. This year they sold $100 bins for just $35.)

But if you're still concerned about tempting the wildlife, you can just use grass clippings, leaves, and other clean yard wastes to create mulch that you spread on top of your soil regularly. I collect all of my grass clippings and leaves in a ventilated bin under my back stairs, turn it regularly, and add some to the soil in my garden. Every fall and spring, I take as much of the decomposed stuff as I can and work it into the soil to give it back some of the nutrients that the garden devours.

Rain Barrels and Reusing Water: Water is too precious a resource not to conserve. Yet even in times of drought, people waste so much of it watering their lawns, ornamental plants, and gardens. You can water your greenery without turning on the tap, if you so choose. "Greywater" recycling--reusing water you've already used to do something else, washing the dishes, say--is one way to conserve. Another way, easier and probably more palatable for most, is to create a rainwater catchment that'll collect water for you every time it rains.

A clean 50-gallon plastic barrel with a cover, placed beneath the downspout from your rooftop gutters, will do nicely. You can use a piece of cheesecloth (or even an old T-shirt) to cover the mouth of the downspout to keep debris from getting into your water supply. If you're handy, you can rig a spigot toward the bottom of the barrel, which you can use to attach a garden hose with which to conveniently water your lawn and plants. If you're not (or if you're lazy) you can just take the top off your rain barrel and fill up a watering can and water the old-fashioned way. If you've got some cash burning a hole in your pocket, you can buy a pre-made rainwater collection system online; check some out at cleanairgardening.com/rainbarrels.html. They even have a cool rain-water redistributing mechanism that attaches to your downspout and will send water wherever you want it to go when it rains.

Planting Native Vegetation: If you go to your local garden center and shop around for plants, chances are you have no idea that most of the stuff they sell is not native to our area. Why would you, since most of the stuff we plant in our gardens seems so common and unobtrusive? However, non-native fruit trees displace native fruit trees, for instance, which help feed our native wildlife. Non-native rose bushes, hardier and more floral than our native roses, tend to create thornier, thicker bushes that are difficult for birds to nest in. English ivy, an aggressive climber, can completely cover native trees, weakening them and eventually pulling them down. If you want to help conserve the local environment, think about adding some native plants to your garden. They use less resources, like water and fertilizer, since they're already adapted to our climate; they provide food and shelter for birds; and they'll help propagate more native Maryland plants. Some native plant species you can incorporate in your yard and garden include Black-eyed Susans, white trillium, American holly, some kinds of crabapple trees, box elders, and red chokeberry trees. For exhaustively researched information on native Maryland plants, check out the Maryland Native Plant Society web site at mdflora.org. You'll never look at a Bradford pear tree the same way again.

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