Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tapping the Maple Tree

Before Ethan Roland began the Sustainable Suburbia workshop, he asked, "Are there any maple trees on the property?"

We weren't sure but he pointed out one to us, right in front of South Church. "It's not a sugar maple, but you can tap any maple."

We gathered around and he thanked the tree before tapping it.

Later he taught the children the chant "maple tree, maple tree, please please please please please please drip."

He showed us how to tap the tree and we took turns turning the drill.

We tied a milk jug to the tap and left it there for a few hours.

By the end of the day there was sweet "maple water" for us all to drink.

The Lenape would freeze this liquid to separate the water from the syrup, Ethan explained.

People and animals would drink this at the end of the long winter. And so we did, too. It was refreshing--like cold water with just a hint of something sweet.


            Composting during the winter months can be a challenge, at least for me.  Adding table scraps to an outside bin that is alternately freezing and thawing for several months can—when the final thaw comes—just end up a gray mushy (and often anaerobic) mess. To avoid this, some of my friends freeze their table scraps during the winter and then, when spring comes, add them little by little to their other compost material.  We don’t have that kind of extra freezer space.  So, as an alternative, we got more worms.

            I’d first set up a worm bin early in the fall as part of my Master Composter Recycler training.  There we’d each taken a small plastic bin, drilled a few holes into it for air space, lined it with some dirt and shredded newspapers, sprayed the lining material so that it had the consistency of a sponge that had just been wrung out, and then added three or four red wigglers.  I brought the bin home, stuck in about a third of an apple core, and put the bin in a kitchen cabinet.  

Worms can eat about ½ their weight a day, so three worms didn’t need much food.  And, if you’re lucky, they double their number every two months, so the worms in that bin weren’t going to be eating much more food in the near future. 

            In November, as the outside composting began to slow down, we discussed the possibility of increasing our vermicomposting. We decided that, rather than just adding more worms to our small bin—an option I’d learned a fellow Master Composter was about to take— we’d move to a bigger bin.  If we’d had time we could have made such a bin fairly easily, but instead we decided to buy one.  There are so many options out there—worm farms and worm cans and worm benches and more.  We eventually chose a three layered system that could easily fit in the corner of our dining room.  We set it up, layering coir and wet newspaper into the first layer of the system.  The two pounds of red wigglers we’d ordered arrived a few days later and we were good to go.

            Each day or so since, we cut up any large table scraps that we have, add the smaller scraps and put them in our worm bin.  We cover most of the food with the newspaper, coir, leaves, or dirt in the bin and the worms begin their work. Worms will eat most fruit and vegetables, as well as stale bread, pasta, rice and paper of various kinds.  We’ve learned though that worms—or at least our worms—still have preferences for what they’ll eat first. If given a variety of choices ours will choose banana peels or melon rinds any day and will only move toward potato peels as a last resort! 

            One way to tell if your worm bin is working correctly is by the smell –or more accurately, the lack of smell.  If you’re near our worm bin most days, you smell absolutely nothing.  If you take off the lid and put your nose close to the bin, you’d notice a fresh earth type smell.  But one morning I opened the lid and there was an unpleasant smell, telling me something was off.  I checked the collecting tray at the bottom of the bins and there was liquid in it, telling me that the bins had too much moisture in them.  I corrected the problem by adding some dry shredded newspaper to the bin to absorb the water.  The unpleasant smell quickly disappeared.  For a few days afterwards, to make sure the problem was gone, I also avoided adding food like tomato or melon that have extremely high moisture content.

            Little by little this winter, the food we’ve been adding has changed to vermicompost.  These worm castings are extremely nutrient-rich and work as a wonderful organic fertilizer, both for houseplants and outdoor vegetation.  When it’s time to put our seedlings outside in a month or so, we’ll have a good amount of environmentally friendly, beneficial vermicompost to topdress the soil in which they’ll be growing.


Welcome to all who attended Sustainable Suburbia

This past Saturday's workshop, Sustainable Suburbia with Ethan Roland, was a fantastic event!  We all walked away feeling that we'd learned a lot about sustainable options for our land, and that we’d connected with others interested in shifting to a more resilient way of life.

we all loved
Farmers Market Soup
A few highlights from my notepad…                    

Our vision for sustainable suburbia:  sharing, cooperative, beautiful, interesting, intriguing, thought-provoking, healthy, production, nourishing, lush, fertile, abundant, frugal, resourceful, intergenerational, community-rich, zero-waste, respectful, caring.

Ethan Roland’s definition of permaculture:  “doing what meets human needs and increases eco-system health.”

Four goals of edible landscaping:
  1. grow food everywhere
  2. use organic and biological resources
  3. choose multiple functions
  4. design for beauty and diversity
Ethan showing the children
how to tap a Maple tree
How do you know if your compost is good? “If it smells good, use it. If it smells bad, don’t.”...  “All forms of composting work as long as you do them right.”

A good number of people asked us if we could organize a “sustainability support” group. A place to talk about what was and wasn't working in their gardening, composting, beekeeping, etc.  Know that this is in the works.

Thank you Ethan Roland, and everyone that attended Sustainable Suburbia.  If you are reading this, make sure that you sign up to receive our online newsletter so that we can keep in touch. The opt-in box is on the right of this page.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sustainable Suburbia on March 12

Learn how to make your backyard beautiful and productive this year with Ethan Roland of AppleSeed Permaculture, the Hudson Valley’s #1 Edible Landscaping Firm

Saturday, March 12, 10 AM - 3 PM
at South Church, 343 Broadway in Dobbs Ferry

Topics covered:
  • Edible landscaping
  • Sustainable lawn care
  • Design for beauty and diversity

Approach your garden differently this year. Get a head start by choosing the right herbs, flowers, greens, roots, fruits and berries for your site and the best ways of planting them. Learn simple tools and techniques to reduce the amount of money and time you spend on your lawn. Take home ways to create a yard that’s beautiful and productive.

Reserve your spot HERE

Suggested donation $30 in advance / $45 at the door
Includes Farmers Market Lunch of soup, bread, salad and cheese
No one turned away for lack of funds
Questions? Contact us here

Soil Testing

One of the first steps we took before laying out the Roots & Wings labyrinth, on the front lawn of South Church, was to test the soil. The most common tests to have done are the nutrient levels—particularly the pH—and for heavy metals like lead.

Sheet mulching involves creating layers above the grass.
We decided to just do the nutrient level test as we were sheet mulching and the plants' roots would not touch the existing soil.

  • We used Agro-One Services to test the specific soil on South’s front lawn for nutrients (they can also test for heavy metals).  You can obtain forms and directions here or pick up sample boxes and forms at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County, 26 Legion Drive, Valhalla, NY 10595. The boxes and forms are free, the test is about $10.
  • Lea Culled-Boyer, Hastings resident and Managing Director of the Green Guru Network, recommends Environmental Working Group to test for heavy metals and Westchester County’s own testing facilities. She says, “EWG's tests are more affordable.”
  • Susan DeGeorge, Roots & Wings member, recommends She says, “This gives the geological history of an area, different soil horizons in the area, parent material that the soil is made from, how far down the water table is, etc.”
  • Our pH level is excellent, at 6.3, and everything else looks fine.

Some of us still wondered about the possible presence of lead and the aluminum that showed up in the soil (too much active aluminum can kill plants by inhibiting root growth).

Susan asked her soil science teacher David Bulpitt who is both a soil instructor at the New York Botanical Gardens and a  principal of Brookside Nurseries in Norwalk (which specializes in soil and soil mixes for horticultural uses). Here's what she learned.

“For aluminum: a pH above 5.5-6. or so should take care of the problem since it can't be water soluble in a neutral or alkaline soil.  For heavy metals (lead, etc.) a higher pH also means they're less soluble.   Applying that to our soil sample, I think that means we should be okay as long as we keep the pH where it is (since it's just a little above 6).  We need to watch doing things that could lower the pH though."

If you have additional questions regarding soil testing procedures, contact Jerry Giordano at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Westchester County at You may also contact Agro-One directly through Dairy One at 1-800-344-2697 x 2179 or x 2172 or email

starting seeds at The Children's Village Greenhouse

Many of the plants for the Roots & Wings labyrinth garden will be started from seed in The Children’s Village Greenhouse. The seeds get planted this week! Here’s a note from Linda about her first trip there.

Hello Friends,

I just returned from visiting Claire Cornish at The Children’s Village Greenhouse! What a nice adventure. I never knew it has existed for over 25 yrs. 

We calculated how much space our seeds would take up and it's one full table.

The boys come in several times a week. Claire invites us to plant with them if we can. She loved that they would be helping us plant the seedlings into the Roots & Wings garden. 


seed shopping list


Friday, March 4, 2011

Composting Bins

As we work on Roots & Wings over the next few years we're hoping to create a lot of compost, so we used the winter to plan and prepare. Among the factors we used to decide what kind of compost system to create were the following:
  • we committed ourselves to leaving all the leaves that fall on our church property ON our property;
  • we hope that lots of people connected with the project who live in apartments and can't easily begin composting themselves will begin to bring us appropriate food scrapes for our compost pile;
  • we had a set space available to us to do our composting. It wasn't huge but it was big enough for more than a tumbler or a single bin composter.
Given the amount of material with which we'll be dealing and the space and location, building a three-bin system behind South Church seemed like the best choice. 

 That means that once we kick off our composting with a workshop a little later this spring, we'll begin to create a pile of "browns" and "greens" in one of the outer bins. Once that bin is filled, we'll aerate it by moving it into the middle bin. It will continue to decompose while we start a second pile in the outer bin. When the second pile has been completely built, we'll move each bin again so that the pile we started first will be on the other outer edge. That will be the pile that at that point should be almost ready to be used. If we time it all correctly once we've been up and running for a while we'll have one pile building, one pile rotting, and one pile ready for use.

To build our bins we started with pallets donated by Readers Hardware Store. We wrapped the pallets in chicken wire, which will allow air and water to get into the bins but keep the composting material from falling out between the slats. We hammered in metal posts that both hold the pallets in place and allow us to raise and lower the front pallets when we need to shovel the composting material from one bin to another. 

 Once the compost system was basically completed, since we aren't going to start the composting until the weather warms up, we filled all three bins with shredded maple leaves. Over the winter these will break down into leaf mold that we'll be able to use in our garden in the spring.