December Challenge: Green Gifts

The holiday season is a time for giving and a time for family. With a little effort and imagination, we can start giving back to the earth and instilling the values of sustainable living to our families, friends and community.

Let’s start with imaginative and creative gift wrapping.

I have a collection of heirloom wrapping paper, the kind I rescue after my family opens presents at Christmas. I carefully fold it and put it away in the attic for reuse on another occasion. My husband gets his birthday present wrapped in colorful Santa-themed paper that has a note scribbled to somebody else. And I am happier when the presents I get are wrapped in 5-year-old wrapping paper that’s been reused at least three times. It’s ironic that when I was a kid, my father’s business was to print and sell gift wrapping paper. Of course, we only ever used the misprinted paper at our household.

Lately, I have opted for using T-shirts, dish cloths, scarfs or other materials that are not disposable for wrapping gifts. The Sunday comics and brown paper from shopping bags also work. I have a banana tree in my kitchen that maybe this year will provide me with a unique, beautiful and totally green alternative to gift wrapping. For more ideas, check out these links:

Let’s make green choices this season so we may have our White Christmas in the future. I can afford to buy gift wrap, but I choose not to because of the amount of waste it generates. The statistics for the United States are staggering.

But don’t stop with the gift wrapping. To make your holiday season greener, you can buy less and look for locally made, repurposed or upcycled gifts, which are made from recyclable or renewable materials.

Other ideas:

  • Buy a live tree. If you take good care of it and pot it, you can use it next year, or plant it outside.
  • Be mindful of Christmas lighting and decorations. Sometimes less is more. Make your own cards from recycled materials.
  • Participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count
  • Take a nature hike
  • Decorate a tree for the birds with peanut butter and seed trays with black oil sunflower seed, wild bird mixed seed and nyjer seed bells



November Challenge: Gratitude

Thanksgiving dinner! I refuse to use canned pumpkin; in fact I refuse to use pumpkin at all because there are so many more interesting and tastier squashes. Wednesday before Thanksgiving Day is spent cutting up winter squash, scooping out the seeds and roasting them with rosemary, garlic, olive oil and salt. The first smell of a wonderful feast to come. And then comes cooking the squash, either boiling or roasting it and mixing it with eggs, butter, spices and of course, our uniquely north American sweetener, real maple syrup. The abundant apples this time of the year are sitting on the basket waiting for me to sit down with a paring knife to turn them into pie, and for my daughters to steal the slices while I am not looking. Two of my favorite pies, Apple and “pumpkin,” about to be baked with ingredients sourced from our local foodshed. I am grateful for every smell, texture and pleasure derived from our food.

There is much more than food to be grateful for at our table. Our northeast Ohio climate gifts us with beautiful sugar maple trees turning bright red, and red cardinals on snowy days. It also provides the earthworm, the pollinator insects, and the very complex web of soil life providing ecological services that make life possible. These are less visible and taken for granted. Feeling grateful for the very existence of the natural world, and by the connections to nature is environmental gratitude. Environmental gratitude is defined as “[A] finely tuned propensity to notice and feel grateful for one’s surroundings on a regular basis, which generates pervasive attitudes of concern for planetary welfare and commitment to contribute ecological benefits to the extent of one’s ability.” *(Loder, 2011)

This type of gratefulness is different than that involving human interactions, as there is no one to give or to accept a specific gift or service. This did not seem to inhibit a friend of mine. On a walk with him, he saw a beautiful flower. Before he cut it, he asked permission and then thanked the plant out loud. He does sound a little crazy. Plants don’t understand English, but expressing the knowledge that this was a gift was an important lesson to me. Environmental gratitude becomes a way of appreciating, respecting nature and taking action to make it better. “Environmental gratitude is a rich and complex moral response. It can evolve from fleeting feelings into a sustaining personal and public virtue…At its most varied and familiar best, environmental gratitude permeates overall attitudes and dispositions and commits environmentally grateful people to creative thinking about environmental problems. In its most diffuse forms, environmental gratitude percolates into character and becomes a way of seeing and responding.” *(Loder, 2011)

(Loder Elizabeth, Gratitude and the Environment, 2011 The Journal of Jurisprudence)

October Challenge: Leave the leaves alone

Lazy it is not, to leave the leaf creatures alive.

Enjoy the leaves, don’t waste time and money bagging them, burning or hauling them to the curve. It is like raking leaves in the wind, shoveling snow in a storm or digging ditches in the rain.

I love the crunch of leaves under my shoes, especially the fragrant smell of the decay of leaves, slowly turning back to soil to feed next year’s plant growth.  The wind sweeps them over to the corners of buildings where I find the toads sheltering.   A thick layer of insulation provided by the leaf litter protects perennial plantings from the winter cold and freeze-thaw cycles. After the snow melts those same leaves provide weed suppression and moisture retention.  In the spring, a nice layer of mulch and soft compost remain where the leaves had accumulated.

While a thick layer of leaves might not be good for your lawn, a thin layer does benefit the lawn and raking the remaining leaves to corners and piles around trees or brushes provides huge benefits to our over-wintering creatures. Chipmunks, turtles, birds and amphibians rely on leaf pile dwelling creatures such as spiders, snails, worms, beetles, millipedes and mites for a winter’s meal. A couple inches thick of leaf layers provides a winter home to butterflies and moths.

Red-Banded hairstreak (Calycopis cecrops) Observation date: Sep 29, 2012 submitted by: janno Region: Clermont County, Ohio, United States

A dried leaf might actually be the cocoon of a Luna moth or Swallowtail butterfly. That pile of leaves serves as a blanket for the Woolly Bear and Great Spangled Fritillary catepillars. Oak leaves house the eggs of Red-Banded hairstreaks, a gorgeous butterfly. Insulation provided by leaves protects the mated bumble bee queen that burrows only a few inches underground. So, leave that nice pile of leaves right there where it belongs.

“In every change, in every falling leaf there is some pain, some beauty. And that’s the way new leaves grow.”
― Amit Ray


September Challenge: Save the tomatoes!

Why did we think it was a good idea to plant 10 plants or maybe 100 tomato plants?

Did we imagine ourselves surrounded by beautiful tomato salads or as Pablo Neruda put it in his poem Ode to Tomatoes:

the tomato

star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

Delicious Crown Point tomatoes and fresh cheese with balsamic, from Hudson’s restaurant at our annual Taste of Earth gala fundraiser.

It is now late summer in Ohio, and we see red when the avalanche of fresh tomatoes arrives,  not just red, but also yellow, orange, green, and the color of the fading sunset.  Eating all those tomatoes while they are fresh is a challenge. This is the time when we put summer in a can.

Food preservation may be an art but the science of it teaches us how to do it safely.  It deals with the process of prevention of decay or spoilage of food, allowing it to be stored in good condition for later consumption. Preservation ensures that the quality, edibility and the nutritive value of the food remains intact and that it is not contaminated by pathogenic organisms or chemicals and does not lose optimum qualities of color, texture, flavor and nutritive value.

There are many methods to preserving the harvest, amongst them freezing, drying, vacuum packing, salting and pickling, canning, bottling, smoking, fermenting, using sugar, and even burying in the ground.  So let’s capture that tomato essence and put it in a jar.

Food preserving may be ancient but the internet is not, and in that virtual world you will find numerous sites that teach you the proper way of preserving tomatoes and other summer produce.

Here are some suggestions:

10 Ways to Preserve Food from Ancient to Modern 

The National Center for Food Preservation

OSU Extension Food Preservation Resources

Shared Meals and Social Change

Summer is a time to enjoy the perfume of freshly mowed grass, the song of crickets on hot muggy nights, the moon that rises and the rain that falls.  The heat of the summer also seems to bring out the worst in us, the riots and the hate.  This summer has been challenging. We are in a season of divisiveness, of confusion, of lies and half-truths.
Who do we believe?  Who do we like? Who are we?
If you’re feeling unsettled by these questions, I challenge you to let the beautiful summer days be a time to surround yourself with people who are different than you, not just in color, age and gender but also in ideology.  Food can be a means of social change, bringing people together in a way that few other things can do. During the month of August, find ways to gather with friends and also with “strangers” to share food and cook a meal of understanding.


A few weeks ago, we welcomed Local Abundance Kitchen to Crown Point, for the most beautiful outdoor cooking class in our outdoor kitchen. Iraqi asylee, Eman, cooked 3 traditional dishes on the cob oven and rocket burners. Guests had the opportunity to chop, stuff, knead and connect through cooking, before taking a brief farm tour and then sitting down to share delicious picnic meal. Participants in the class left with their stomachs and spirits filled, and we look forward to hosting more cross-cultural experiences like this in the future.




Sharing a meal is undoubtedly one of the best ways for us to all come together, so I encourage you to make time for this in your own life while the weather encourages us to be outside and social. Nature easily shares with us in this warm season. The fruits of our labor are ready to be plucked from the vine or yanked from the soil. When all is green and growing, seedlings are turning into flowers and food. These are the miracles of life, painted large across the land, revealing how we are all connected through the earth we depend on.  We are the painters of this canvas, let it be our goal to coexist in a dignified way, in harmony with nature and other human beings.