Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

Eating right

Buying and snarfing local foods has become an essential part of the green household’s agenda. And it’s curious how political that simple act can be in the age of agribusiness. For all those interested in the heavier implications of their dinner—social, ethical, environmental—the blog Ethicurean is a smart and relevant read.

“Chew the right thing” is the blog’s tagline, and topics range from odd Safeway ads promoting “robust” tomatoes (shouldn’t strength and resilience take a backseat to flavor and ripeness when it comes to tomatoes? asks the writer) to a Portland, Maine bookstore entirely devoted to food and wine reading. Comments intelligently discuss Barack Obama’s food and agriculture positions, and a conversation about food guru Michael Pollan’s latest book leads to the question of how social class impacts people’s ability to make good eating choices.

The best part? All this heady discussion (and links to other online reads) not only feeds your head but makes you hungry to boot—for homemade pasta, family-farmed pork, and herbs from the backyard. A healthy sense of humor is the blog’s most important seasoning. Read at—Erika Howsare

1/10 of an acre

That’s the amount of land used by a California family to grow enough vegetables to feed themselves and provide some income. The 10-acre plot surrounds their two-bedroom bungalow, which sits in an urban neighborhood in Pasadena. We spotted their story at; makes us want to drop out and get growing!

Up to bats

Let us remind you that mosquitoes are the ones feeding on your blood, not bats—despite their inaccurate rep as vampire-like villains. These creatures can actually be our summer savior against those other itch-inducing pests. Citronella candles and Off have got some competition: Bats can consume up to 1,000 mosquitoes in just one hour. All right, so now you’re thinking, how do I get me some bats? Two words: bat box.

No, this isn’t some creepy animal catching device. The bats like it, we promise. If you prefer, we can call it by its alternative name, bat house. Picture it as a flattened out birdhouse, constructed mainly of wood with an open bottom. If you pick one up pre-made, it’ll cost $25 to $60 and may even have a bat silhouette burned into it (so the birds don’t get confused, we assume).

Cute, eh? You’ll appreciate bats more when they make your yard less buggy.

Whether you’re buying a commercially made product (Southern States on Harris Street offers two different kinds) or feel ready to take this little construction project on yourself (there are numerous designs available at, here are some must-know pointers. It should be at least 2’ off the ground to protect our new friends from predators, in an area that provides sunlight during the day to heat up the box and within a quarter mile of water. The wood should be rough so the bats can cling easily, and an open bottom will attract fewer parasites to the box. Once you’ve got this baby set up, feel free to victoriously toss out your AfterBite cream.—Suzanne van der Eijk

Green furniture, green cause

For eight years now, Margie Shepherd has assigned the same graduation project to her Henley Middle School eighth graders: Organize a silent auction of their own arts and crafts and select a worthy organization for the proceeds. Called “Peace by Piece,” this year it benefited a well-building operation in Haiti and the Central American Solar Energy Project.

Handmade home stuff and a good cause: looks beautiful to us.

Swirling through the throngs of young teens and their families in the auditorium one May evening, I found myself in the middle of a bright bazaar of mosaic-tiled birdbaths and shell-encrusted mirrors, curly coasters cut from soda cans (really cool, actually), lots of sturdy tables and chairs decorated with peace symbols and T-shirts stenciled with Bob Marley and Bono.

Colorful slides of Guatemala and Honduras flashed on the screen above the stage while Caribbean carnival music played on the PA system. Kids were showing their friends and moms and dads the things they’d made and everyone noshed around the snacks table. It really was a better world. Support it by contacting Margie at to purchase assorted T-shirts and “Neither, thank you” cloth grocery bags until next year’s auction.—Cathy Clary

Cooking for a cooler planet

This summer in the kitchen, you can lower both the sweat factor and your carbon footprint with these tips:

Think cool foods. Cool the palate as well as the planet with cold soups like homemade gazpacho (local tomatoes only), fruit soups, salads, or raw veggies.

Buy local and organic. Shop the farmers’ market Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, or the local selection at Rebecca’s or Integral Yoga.

Keep a lid on it. Don’t peek when stovetop or oven cooking. Opening the door can lower the internal temperature by as much as 25 degrees. 

Gazpacho and other no-cook meals have big flavor with a smaller footprint.

Don’t preheat. It’s unnecessary in most cases.

Use a pressure cooker or Crock-Pot. Both help you get more out of the electricity you use.

If the pan fits, use it. A 6” pan on an 8” burner can waste 40 percent of the heat produced.

Cook double portions. Microwaves save as much as 75 percent of energy on reheating (don’t use plastic, though!).
Go the extra green mile. Buy a solar cooker!

Betty’s Smoothie
1 cup local fruits, like Berry Patch blueberries
1/2 cup Twin Oaks tofu
1/2 cup Seven Stars Farm yogurt 

Blend and toast to a better world, compliments of Betty!

Check out Better World Betty’s local green-living resource list and blog at

Yes, you can

Here’s what Tamara Sykes, who leads garden tours at Monticello and enthusiastically cans lots of local produce, has to say about her hobby:

“Everybody I know hates canning.”

True, it’s no day at the beach. But canning is fun in a different way. You’re giving your future self a little present: a portion of summer fruit or veggies that you can enjoy in darkest winter, secure in the knowledge that you yourself did the processing.

Empty vessels await the fruits of your labors: Think local tomatoes in December.

“The first time I canned I bought all the equipment—canning rack, tongs, funnel, aluminum kettle,” says Sykes. Later, she got rid of all that stuff and now improvises with other stuff: extra jar lids on the bottom of the kettle instead of a proper canning rack, regular tongs instead of the special canning variety. “I cut out the bottom of a small yogurt container and that’s my funnel,” she says.

With this modest setup, she cans jams, tomatoes, homemade maraschino cherries and a Bloody Mary mix that frankly sounds amazing (tomatoes, beets, green beans, spinach, peppers…). If you’re interested in learning to can, is a great place to start.

Sykes’ tips? “You can never have too much hot water going [for sterilizing equipment and jars],” she says. Also, “It’s just important to respect the heat of everything you’re doing. Just be prepared for a big mess, and be patient.”—Erika Howsare

Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

The sustainable sit

Furnish any color scheme with green

So you’ve got organic milk in the fridge, you just installed energy-efficient windows, and you recycle everything in sight. If you’re looking to take the next step in green-ing your home, investing in sustainable furniture may be a way to start. We talked with Paige Mattson at the Blue Ridge Eco Shop to get some advice about what to look for when buying green.

You can’t tell just by looking, but this sofa—part of the E Collection by Precedent, sold locally by The Artful Lodger—is more earth-friendly than your average couch.

Mattson says she defines sustainable as "not depleting anything." So, that means choosing wood products that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as being from sustainably harvested forests. These forests are continually being re-grown instead of being clear cut, and trees aren’t cut until they’re mature, meaning that more wood can be harvested. Beyond the wood, Matteson suggests being careful about what else goes into a piece, making sure that all the materials are organic—that means no toxic stains, paints or glues. Lastly, she advises, "look for quality—things that will last and withstand time, so that you won’t have to re-purchase"—and so that your new furniture won’t end up in the landfills after only a couple of years. 

Matteson has seen the trend of starting a sustainable furniture collection with children’s furniture, choosing to buy green when new purchases (like cribs) are needed. If you’re looking to start your own sustainable furniture trend, the Artful Lodger has a collection of FSC-certified wooden pieces, and starting in January will offer E Collection by Precedent, a new brand of all-natural upholstered furniture. Likewise, you can find mattresses made from all-natural latex as well as a line with cushions made from all recycled material at Kane Furniture.—Lee Vanderwerff

Easy Being Green

5 ways to reuse paper in the season of wrapping

The whole world’s getting papered, but you can spare some trees with a little creativity.

Trees must be quaking in their boots (roots?) at this time of year: Not only are humans apt to come at them with rusty bowsaws while singing about something called a tannenbaum, but the holidays are prime time for paper use. How to cut down on your contribution to a sea of crumpled red and green?

1. Instead of store-bought cards, send homemade cards made from cereal boxes and decorated with collages made from those catalogs currently stuffing your mail slot.

2. If you size your cards appropriately, you can send them in the envelopes you already have—the ones that come inside credit-card offers. Hide the corporate logos with stylish stickers. 

3. Wrap gifts with brown paper grocery bags, and dress up with raffia, real holly or mistletoe.

4. When you throw a party, opt to use real dishes and cloth napkins—sure, there’s more cleanup at the sink, but you won’t be tossing a bag of garbage to rival Santa’s sack.

5. When someone else gives you a gift, save the wrapping paper and use it next time around for gift tags.—Erika Howsare

Seal it up

The new benchmark: guaranteed bills

How would you like to have your monthly heating and cooling bill cut by two thirds, then guaranteed to boot? Here’s more proof that area builders are stepping up their sustainability game: Local green builder Lithic Construction (540-718-3990) is offering guaranteed energy bills on new houses built according to specs from Texas-based engineering firm Energy-Wise, which will recommend insulation and HVAC systems guaranteed to heat and cool a 3,400-square-foot home for no more than $74 a month. The initial agreement is for two years and can be renewed with maintenance requirements such as changing heat pump filters every two months.

Lithic Construction’s Ned Ormsby shows off soy-based insulation that’ll help this new home stay energy-efficient.

One major key to structural energy efficiency is the insulation. Fiberglass products are cheap at the outset, but those loosely packed fibers let a lot of bucks filter through. Newer foam insulation costs more up front but with a consistency more like angel food cake than angel hair, it’s much more efficient at trapping heated and cooled air inside where you want it.

You can go one step further and cut out polluting petroleum products by using soy-based foam that does not come from imported oil. Anchor Insulation (295-9675) installs BioBased insulation and has partnered with Lithic in the production of two recently completed EnergyWise certified homes. One, at 604 Monticello Ave., is currently under construction and boasts a number of green features, from salvaged materials to Marmoleum floors.—Cathy Clary

Planet Now

Follow the yellow brick road

Plan a trip to Oz Wednesday, November 28, and skip on down to Richmond’s Science Museum of Virginia where the James River Green Building Council is sponsoring a trade show and exhibition that features all things green. "Building an Emerald City," which is free to the public, will be held in the museum’s Rotunda 2-8pm. The gathering brings together industry experts, businesses, government agencies and nonprofits to help you find your way through the maze of environmentally friendly products and services that has sprung up thick as poppies in the last few years.

Breakout sessions on recycling, landscaping, energy use and building materials will take place throughout the afternoon. More enticing for most average homeowners? Architects, builders, cabinet makers and home products retailers will also be on hand to display their work and services. First-time home builders and owners as well as businesspeople, builders and designers all should find something useful. Richmond’s Style Weekly hosts a reception 6:30-8pm where it will recognize local people and businesses that have taken initiatives to build and use energy in responsible, nontoxic ways.

For more information, contact (804-288-2950) or the Science Museum of Virginia at (804-864-1400).—C.C.

Deep heat

What’s the deal with geothermal?

Isn’t it appealing to think of warming your house with the heat of the planet itself? Geothermal power is an increasingly popular technology that uses the constant temperature of the earth to heat homes and drinking water. Curious, we talked with Mike Hall at Airflow Systems. As a contractor who installs both conventional air-to-air systems and geothermal heat pumps, Hall is very enthusiastic about the latter. He explains that geothermal pumps are very quiet and contain no outdoor unit. They can be installed just as easily in existing homes as in new homes, as the system connects to conventional duct work. The way it works: loops of pipes are installed below the frost line and transfer energy from the earth to a heat pump.

Hall says that the only downside of installing a geothermal system is the initial investment—he declined to quote a price range, but other research indicates that a geothermal system for an average-size home typically costs around $3,500 more than a conventional one. But, Hall says, "That’s not really a downside because in the long term, it will pay you back." He estimates that it takes about 10 years to receive a full payback through lowered energy bills. Plus, Hall says, a geothermal heat system will last you about twice as long as a conventional one.

Many states even offer tax breaks for greening your home with geothermal energy—Virginia isn’t one of them yet, but as consciousness grows and realtors, builders, and homeowners become more geo-savvy, our fingers are crossed that the incentives to invest in geothermal will grow.—L.V.

By The Numbers

"Life-cycle-assessment research reveals that most significant environmental construction impact is not from the production of materials but from the operation of the building. Roughly 98 percent of a building’s energy is consumed in operating it."

—Patti Flesher and David D. Shepherd, in the October issue of Eco-Structure

Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

Tighten up
Local builders study up on efficient houses

It was an only-in-Charlottesville scene: a room packed with green-building enthusiasts, eagerly dedicating a day to the topic of spray-foam insulation. The seminar, held on March 22 at the Charlottesville Community Design Center, connected local builders and architects with the NASA-forged expertise of Richard Rue, a Texas-based mechanical/thermal consultant. Rue showed slide after slide of crawlspaces, attics and unfinished walls to demonstrate how spray-foam is best installed in order to maximize its advantages over the traditional pink-fiberglass insulation. Among his pearls of wisdom:
• If an energy-efficient feature will pay for itself (through reduced utility bills) in two years or less, you should definitely do it.
• If it will pay for itself in five years or less, you should probably do it.
• The way to tell if a house is air-tight enough is to flip it upside down and see if it will float.

Of course, Rue offered a host of more technical information as well, from the R-value (that’s the insulation rating) of wood to the proper installation of an under-house vapor barrier. Homeowners interested in the details of energy-efficient building can start by checking out (a Department of Energy site), or contact the CCDC at 984-2232.—Erika Howsare

Smart as dirt
Nonconformists turn to the earth for affordable, eco-friendly flooring

We never entertained the thought of having dirt floors in our home, probably because we reserved that type of interior decorating for medieval peasants and Frodo Baggins. However, the new energy-efficient and attractive earthen floors being installed in the homes of some left-coast types are a far cry from their archaic counterparts.

Just kidding! Dirt floors are actually quite durable, say proponents.

Earthen floors, which are made from different combinations of clay, sand, lime, straw and soil, are surprisingly durable: Once sealed, the floors can be swept or wet-mopped and are relatively resistant to stains. More importantly, earthen floor installation produces no construction waste and little or no pollution, and the floors serve as natural heat conductors—reducing your need for conventional heating systems.

However, dirt floors pose some major disadvantages. The floors are highly susceptible to scratches and punctures and flooding can mean sudden death for an earthen room. Although the materials are —excuse us—dirt cheap, earthen floor installation is highly labor intensive and time consuming.

One notable plus is that—even though dirt floors are virtually unheard of in our area—Virginia soil is optimal for earthen flooring. According to Bill Steen, co-author of Earthen Floors, all earthen floors require a percentage of clay in the mixture; Steen supposes the red clay-rich Virginia soil would be great for the job.—Stephanie Woods

So fresh and so green
New guide = no excuse not to eat local

Fact: the distance from farm to fork for your standard dinner is 1,500 miles. If that figure (or the corresponding gas usage and air pollution) disturbs you, there’s a good thing coming your way this spring. The Piedmont Environmental Council’s free “Buy Fresh Buy Local” guide will be a five-county treasure map of farm, winery and market goodies, and if you live in Charlottesville or Albemarle it will show up in your mailbox around the first of May.

Even tastier when it’s local: Your guide to fresh food will be in the mailbox around the first of May.

Restaurants that cook with local ingredients will also be listed; that’s a double-dose of support for the Charlottesville economy. And there are more reasons to get psyched about this, selfless and selfish:
   1. Veggies and fruits to be shipped far distances are bred to withstand travel damage, meaning tough, thick-skinned (as opposed to, say, tender and juicy) crops are favored.
   2. The health quotient of fresh food is directly proportional to the time it spends getting to your table—in most cases, nutrient content starts dropping almost immediately after harvesting. Plus, the flavor that comes from harvesting foods at their nutritional peak is unparalleled.
   3. If you have environmental or health concerns about how your tomato was grown, you can just call up the farmer and ask; better yet, go see for yourself.—Katherine Cox

The origin of species
Organic gardening begins with seeds

Check the little “organic” label on the upper right: It means “better for the planet.”

If you’re going green in the garden, you’re likely to start educating yourself about the virtues of Bt and other friendly pest remedies. You might stock up on row covers and get a nice pile of compost ready to add to your soil. All well and good, but don’t forget to consider the tiny packets of DNA that will get your garden started. Many gardeners wouldn’t consider their plots organic if they planted non-organic seeds.

Why? Several reasons. One, seeds that are certified organic are guaranteed not to be genetically modified. Two, they’re often bred to do well under organic growing conditions, so they’ll be more likely to thrive than seeds raised with conventional practices.

Three—and maybe most importantly—buying organic tomato seeds is just like buying an organic tomato in that you’re voting with your dollars for eco-friendly farming. Seeds are a crop raised by agricultural companies, so you’re encouraging those companies to make green choices when you opt for their organic rather than conventional products.

Local sources for organic seeds include Eltzroth & Thompson Greenhouses on Route 29S, Whole Foods Market and Integral Yoga Natural Foods. Online, you can buy them at or—E.H.

From the ground up
Local interest in permaculture is blooming

Do you mulch your garden? Is there a trellis nearby that gives shade and props up viney plants? You’re already on the road to permaculture—if you want to learn more about it, there’s a new series of courses bring taught at the Rockfish Valley Community Center. The course focuses on designing one’s dwelling and property to harmonize the relationships between buildings, gardens, forests and the surrounding human community. Complex, yes, but with benefits beyond the satisfaction of being environmentally responsible: for starters, large amounts of money saved on energy and food.

Christine Gyovai is teaching locals how to make their houses and gardens truly green.

Students at the RVCC will receive a 72-hour certificate in the field and lots of hand-on time with a seasoned team of instructors, including Peter Bane and Christine Gyovai. Gyovai, principal of Dialogue and Design Associates, is a local whose current projects include building a straw bale house for herself and her husband. She’s excited about the success of the ongoing course: “We had an amazingly strong interest level for this course—over 35 people. It’s the largest class east of the Mississippi in 15 years.” If you want to sign up for the next series (coming this fall or spring of 2008) or get info on permaculture demonstration sites, workshops, or work parties, contact her at christinegyovai—K.C.

Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

Little house: the remake
ecoMOD3 saves, greens, and adds onto historic Fifeville home

John Quale says that for the historic house he and his students are renovating, "The worst possible scenario would be to beautify."

In 2004, the small, ramshackle house at 223 Fourth St. SW faced a bleak future. The City was considering demolishing it, along with one next door, to make way for three new structures. John Quale, a UVA architecture prof, expected to build one of those along with his students in the ecoMOD program, a six-year series of modular design-and-build projects. But then the house’s history came to light: It had been built in the mid-19th century, either as slave quarters or by a freed slave. A demolition permit was suddenly much less likely.

“This house tells the story of affordable housing in Charlottesville,” says Quale. “It’s an amazing collage of materials; people with limited means, but building skills, [were] adding on and improving their home.” Now Quale and ecoMOD have returned to the site with the goal of preserving and restoring the historic house, while adding a second, modular (and green) unit behind it. The Piedmont Housing Authority will sell the two units as affordable housing. Quale’s hope is that a nuclear family could occupy the old structure with grandparents in the addition.

What’s green about this plan? “Historic preservation is inherently green,” says Quale —there are carbon emissions associated with new construction, and in this case materials will be reused whenever possible. Restoration will also include making the old house energy-efficient—which, of course, benefits both the planet and residents’ wallets. —Erika Howsare

Bigger savings
In the city, recycling options grow

That’s right, plastic in the recycling! It’s a brave new world.

Before you toss that empty soda bottle into the trash, remember that as of February, the City added plastics and corrugated cardboard to the list of stuff Charlottesville residents can recycle. This means your empty orange juice bottles and detergent containers belong in the curbside recycling pile, to be picked up on the weekday assigned to the neighborhood where you live.

All your recyclables can be put in the same recycling containers you’ve been using, and the different materials don’t have to be separated or sorted. (Unless you want to—”good citizen” contest, anyone?) And although you can’t recycle office paper curbside, that doesn’t mean you can’t you can take it over to the McIntire Road Recycling Center, or just flip it over and reuse it as scratch paper. To sum up, here’s what you can put in the bin:

Corrugated cardboard           
Plastics (PET #1 and HDPE #2)       
Glass jars and bottles
Aluminum and tin
Magazines and newspapers
There you have it—no excuses, folks! When your kids (or you) are done playing forts in that cardboard box the new refrigerator came in, you know what to do.—Nancy Chen

That’s right, plastic in the recycling! It’s a brave new world.

Winds of change
Rooftop windmills provide clean, low-cost energy

Rooftop windmills don’t exactly look quaintly Dutch, but they do gather energy from a time-tested source.

Want to get a little less talk and a little more walk into your eco-friendly lifestyle, without breaking the bank? Although solar panels may save you money in the long run, few people have $20,000 lying around to fund a full solar electric system. Luckily, if you happen to have the same environmental convictions as Brangelina and little of their bank, you can still make a difference. Introducing the rooftop windmill: a microturbine engine that generates energy from wind power and connects directly to your home.

Besides limiting your dependence on foreign fuels and reducing CO2 emissions—up to 1.4 tons of CO2 per year for an average rooftop system—these wind turbines also greatly reduce your energy costs. Depending on average wind speeds for your area, you could save up to 30 percent off your annual electricity bill. With the cheaper models costing upwards of $2,000, these windmills do demand an up-front investment, but pay for themselves in as little as five years.

Don’t worry about bothering the neighbors; the windmills are relatively small and produce almost no noise pollution. If you’re interested in buying, several different companies offer turbines and installation at competitive prices. Scottish companies Windsave ( and Renewable Devices ( offer windmills and installation for under $3,000. If you would rather opt for the deluxe models, U.S.-owned Southwest Windpower ( has quality turbines running from $8,000 to $10,000.—Stephanie Woods

Paper or plastic? No.
Five ways to avoid packaging, period

Trying to cut down? The bulk aisle’s where the magic happens. This one’s at Whole Foods Market; Integral Yoga Natural Foods has one too.

We’re hopefully all familiar with the bring-your-own-coffee-mug idea by now, but there are many more things you can do to avoid excess packaging. Check out the tip list—some adjustments require hardly any effort at all.

1. Bring your own bags. Everywhere. And don’t bag up all your fresh produce!  For those that actually need bags, take a look at the produce-preservers at
2. Designate your Tupperware, glass jars or plastic tubs as homes for dried beans, rice, and such, and buy them in bulk. When they’re empty, just take them with you to the grocery store and fill ‘em up again. The cashier will happily weigh your containers before you shop.  
3. If you’ve got to buy something packaged, buy the largest quantity available, and don’t buy individually wrapped anything—divvy up chips and snacks in reusable mini-containers for school lunches.
4. Tweak your eats: Buy bulk granola or oatmeal instead of boxed cereal, loose instead of boxed salad greens, homemade cookies made with bulk-bought ingredients. Be creative.
5. Tweak your drinks: Get a filter for the tap; don’t buy bottled water. Or have it delivered! You can have 5-gallon bottles delivered to you for $5 each, and rent a cooler for $5 a month, from Shenandoah Spring Water ( Get a juicer. Oh, and drink what’s on tap at the bar. Mmm.—Katherine Cox

Stink-free indoor compost?
Yes! All you need are a couple thousand worms

You can actually make compost indoors, and it doesn’t stink! Turn your veggie waste into nutrient-filled fertilizer with 2,000 new friends—specifically, earthworms. Try it out:

Cute little guys, eh? Well, maybe not, but they’ll do a beautiful job making compost in your basement.

1. Find wooden or plastic boxes—one large (i.e. a big dresser drawer) or several small, 8-10" deep—and drill about 10 half-inch holes in the bottom. Set on bricks to raise the bottom off the floor, and place a plastic tray underneath.
2. Fill box(es) 3/4 full with a combination of shredded newpaper, fall leaves, straw, or other similar materials, and a few handfuls of dirt, then moisten very lightly (think wrung-out sponge) and lift up the mixture gently to create air spaces.
3. For 1 lb. per day of food waste, add 2 lbs. of worms (about 2,000). You might want to calculate your daily waste first for space purposes. Cover box with burlap.
4. To add scraps (no meat, wheat, or dairy—stinky!), move a corner of the bedding aside, stick them in, and replace bedding over top.
5. Continue, checking on worms, moisture, and bedding periodically for 10 weeks.  Liquid that drains to the bottom tray, or “worm casting tea,” is excellent fertilizer, notes local permaculture teacher Christine Gyovai. At the end of 10 weeks, separate worms and place in new bedding.

For information on where to get your worms, check out—K.C.

Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

Green Scene: News and ideas for sustainable living

Changes in latitude
Want to help stave off global warming? Plant a native tree

Unusually warm spells this winter feel nice, but not quite…right. The National Arbor Day Foundation’s newly released Hardiness Zone Map reflects quite a shift in temperature for many areas over the past 15 years, and that can mean changes in the tree species that flourish.

A wide stretch of northwestern Virginia parallel to the Appalachian mountain ridge has been bumped up to Zone 7, meaning its lowest temperatures range from 0 to 10 degrees. They were formerly in Zone 6, which starts at -10 degrees. For now, Charlottesville and Albemarle County remain where they’ve been—in Zone 7.

The buzz is that climate change might actually alter the meaning of “native species.” If you find that vision unappealing, fight back by planting established native trees like redbud.

There’s a simple action you can take to help: Plant trees, especially those native to Central Virginia. Trees zap CO2—a major contributor to global warming—plus, they help cool down cities in summer and ease chilly blusters in winter, reducing your year-round energy usage (and bills!). The good folks at Ivy Nursery have some suggestions in regard to native trees: Black gum, serviceberry, red maple, witch hazel, redbud, redcedar, river birch, and sycamore are all regulars around these parts. Native trees are also great choices because they’re more drought-resistant than others.

For other planting suggestions, or to take a look at the Hardiness Zone Map, go to They’ll even send you 10 trees for your $10 six-month membership…cheap, and green.—Bird Cox

More green houses in the pipeline
EarthCraft building seminar packs ’em in

If you’re planning to build or remodel a home in the next few years, and you’d like it to be green, you might worry about finding a qualified contractor. But if you’d been at last month’s EarthCraft House training session in the Albemarle County Office Building, you might feel more hopeful that “green house” has more than entered the lexicon; it’s entered the mainstream. About 40 local homebuilders and inspectors packed the joint to learn about energy-efficient, eco-friendly house construction.

Technologically, “We’ve made huge strides in all elements of life in this country except housing,” proclaimed Chuk Bowles, a white-haired and jovial presenter. Bowles went on to predict that, despite the home construction industry’s backwardness, “By 2015 you’re going to see whole subdivisions with PV [photovoltaic] arrays.”

EarthCraft is an Atlanta-based program designed to move builders closer to that goal, by offering a set of guidelines and a point system, through which individual houses can be certified. This seminar—covering everything from humidity levels in crawlspaces to indoor air quality—was part of its current expansion into Virginia.

If you’re interested in hiring a builder knowledgeable about EarthCraft standards, one place to start is the Virginia Sustainable Building Network, at Judging by the attendance at this seminar, in coming years there will be more and more green builders to choose from.—Erika Howsare

Turn on the savings
Fluorescents are efficient, but how do they look?

Lately, everybody’s lighting up with excitement over fluorescent bulbs. No less a corporate behemoth than Wal-Mart has made a commitment to sell 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) a year by 2008. Locally, meanwhile, the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) has launched its “Enlighten” campaign, encouraging Virginians to pledge they’ll substitute CFLs for traditional incandescent bulbs. The hope is that total energy savings due to CFLs will convince Dominion Virginia Power there’s no need to build a controversial new high-voltage power line through Northern Virginia.

The stats on fluorescents are impressive: A CFL uses 75 percent less electricity than a standard bulb. It lasts 10 times as long and results in 450 fewer pounds of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. So why haven’t we been buying these things in droves since they first came on the market in 1979?

What is this alien object? Why, it’s a $30 energy savings.

There are several reasons, but the biggest is probably aesthetic. Everybody knows that fluorescent light looks like absolute death. It’s green and unflattering to people and paint colors alike. Or is it?

We picked up a CFL at the Downtown CVS (for $4.99, as compared to $1.99 for four standard incandescents) and screwed it into a bedside lamp at home. The verdict? While not quite as warmly reminiscent of firelight as our trusty incandescent, the CFL cast a glow that was perfectly acceptable for reading—and nothing like the cold, podiatrist’s-office light we’d feared. When we considered it’s expected to save us $30 over its lifetime, it looked even better.—E.H.

Five Guys and one truck
One local driver reduces his household’s footprint

“A bit of an engineering project.” That’s how Brad Stoller describes the conversion of his 1995 Dodge Ram pickup truck from a diesel-burning engine to a diesel-or-grease-burning engine. For the sake of reducing fossil-fuel usage, Stoller bought a conversion kit from the website and installed it last June. Assorted mechanical glitches aside, he’s happy with the results: “It runs pretty much the same” on vegetable oil as it does on diesel, he says—and gets the same mileage per gallon (17).

The kit involves a second tank in the bed of the truck, a heating system for the grease that uses hot fluid from the truck’s radiator, and a set of valves that allow the truck to switch from diesel to grease. “You have to start it on diesel and warm up the engine,” Stoller explains. “The radiator fluid gets hot and heats up the oil. When the viscosity is a certain level, after about five minutes,” the truck’s ready to run on grease.

Hamburgers and transportation are gloriously married in the modern grease truck. Brad Stoller’s been running his on restaurant waste since last summer.

Stoller collects grease from his local Five Guys in Hollymead, then filters it using two 50-gallon barrels. A separate shed to house these barrels (built using salvaged materials, natch—from the set of Evan Almighty!) keeps potential spills contained. Fancier conversion kits, Stoller says, allow oil to be filtered on-board the vehicle as it’s running.

At $1,200 for the greasecar kit and $200 for the filtering system, the veggie-vehicle project hasn’t yet paid for itself, says Stoller, though it will in time. But other rewards have come. “It’s been good,” he says, “to do something to change my dependency on the oil business.”—E.H.