UU Barn Blog

Ideas For Weathering The Winter


UUA Green Sanctuary –  Small changes made by many people make big changes for our world. Be part of it! 

Green Living Tip:  Ideas for Weathering the Winter
Adapted by Jen Fontaine

It seems only weeks ago that we were submitting ideas for staying cool. But as this week’s contribution goes to press, we’re expecting temperatures in the thirties tonight. Of course, we’ve still got some warm times coming; but it’s a good time to think ahead about the coming winter.

As a modest start, I’ve adapted a list of mostly inexpensive ideas from the Environmental Protection Agency’s site. These are small steps anyone can take, or at least explore.  We’ll have more ideas as the weeks go by—but for now, here are a few as starters:

  • Consider using non-toxic de-icing substances such as clean clay cat litter, sand, or fireplace/stove ash to avoid spreading hazardous waste from chemicals. Chemical de-icers can be harmful to pets, plants, and the environment. Antifreeze that leaks from car engines and chemical snow melters can pollute surface waters and groundwater.  It’s a good idea to try some safe alternatives.
  • Winterize your vehicle by checking your air filter and fluid levels, checking tires for tread wear and proper inflation, and checking the condition of your windshield wipers. Steps like these can increase safety, as well as preventing pollution when broken car components or escaping chemical waste end up on roadways.
  • If you have a wood-burning fireplace, save your ashes. Cold wood ashes make a great addition to compost, and eventually to the soil where we spread the compost.
  • Use electric snow removal products rather than gasoline-powered ones. Electric products do not emit greenhouse gases. Of course, if you don’t mind some winter exercise, snow shovels, ice crackers, and brooms work well and are even more ‘energy efficient’!
  • If you have a manual thermostat or no thermostat at all, one way to save energy and money this winter is to install a programmable thermostat. The EPA estimates that this step can save about $100 a year for many homes. Many people also find programmable lights very useful and energy-efficient.
  • Close the recycling loop. When shopping for clothing, check for labels on jackets, scarves, gloves, and boots, to find items made from recycled materials. Many fleece products are made from recycled plastic soda bottles, and some clothing and shoe manufacturers use recycled cotton scraps and rubber tires.
  • Winter storms often cause power outages. Prevent waste by keeping rechargeable batteries rather than disposable ones for emergency use. If you do use disposable batteries, reduce hazardous waste by buying batteries with low mercury content. And once again (note added by Jen), candles can be a low-tech alternative, assuming they can be monitored and used safely.
  • Recycle old newspapers by making rolled paper logs for your fireplace. Roll newspaper sheets around a broomstick, then soak your paper ‘log’ thoroughly in water. Dry the log overnight and use like ordinary wood. Always follow proper safety precautions with any fire, of course.
  • To make sure your heating system (boiler, furnace or heat pump) is operating at its most efficient, it is a good idea to have a regular servicing done before the serious cold weather sets in.

Source:  borrowed, edited and adapted from https://www3.epa.gov/epahome/hi-winter.htm.

Do you have a green tip, idea, comment, or story to share?  If so, please send it to jennfontaine@gail.com.

Dealing With Fall Leaves

Green Living Tip:  Dealing with Fall Leaves
By Jen Fontaine

If you’re worried about the pesky layer of leaves that is carpeting your yard at this time of year, you can take heart:  there are many solutions. Many areas offer a regular schedule of yard waste pickup dates, and if your township or borough offers pickup in biodegradable bags to be composted, this can be an easy solution to the leaf-buildup problem

However, there are other alternatives for the adventurous.  These leaves are rich in nutrients, and so there are many ways to take advantage of this natural resource. Use them as mulch, whole or shredded (see the note below on shredding); there are no seeds to worry about, so the leaves make a good moisture-holding layer while discouraging weeds.

Use them as cover for tender perennials: a 6-inch layer of leaves can protect vulnerable plants over the winter. One example: garlic planted in fall can sprout during warm winter spells; but a blanket of leaves will prevent that—the garlic will put down roots, but not sprout through the leaf cover. 

Add them directly to your compost pile:  these leaves are rich in carbon, and can provide a balance to nitrogen-rich yard waste, such as fresh grass clippings. Just spread them directly in the garden; shredded leaves can integrate well and work to improve the soil: they lighten heavy soils,, and provide nutrients to feed earthworms and helpful microbes.

Let them sit for two years, packed into their own storage areas (cages, plastic bags with insulation holes), shredding is not needed. In time, the leaves will turn into “leaf mold,” which looks like light compost and can do wonders for soil (I’ve been told it’s especially helpful worked into a bed of carrots).  The second source below features a link to a helpful video on this process.

For some of these uses, it’s a good idea to shred leaves, which makes them less likely to block light, and makes their helpful contents more available.  A simple way to do this is to drive a lawnmower over the leaves several times.  The first source below gives more details—and warns against some relatively uncommon leaf types, like sycamore, which need to be composted before being used in the garden.

Please keep in touch; send any ideas, experiences, or questions you have to jennfontaine@gmail.com.

More on Lawn Alternatives

Green Living Tip:  More on Lawn Alternatives
By Jen Fontaine

It’s great to be back, after a week’s ‘break’ caused by the proverbial ‘circumstances beyond our control.’ Our last tip shared a few thoughts on how to deal with or replace the greedy lawns that so many of us maintain, at considerable cost in water, effort and fertilizer.  This week’s tip just goes one step further, looking at a few practical examples. 

Some nurseries offer grasses that require little care; one example, featured on the first site below, is a “No Mow” lawn, which consists of a mix of fescue grasses that forms a thick carpet: this combination is drought resistant, tolerates sun or shade, is recommended for our area, and needs no mowing (or at most one or two mowings a year, depending on the look you prefer). Another choice is Dwarf Mondo Grass, which grows only two to four inches tall and can be planted in both sun and shade.  If you’re hoping for a traditional grassy look, options like these might meet your needs while helping you save on water and lawnmower fuel.

Other plants come in a wide variety; the same nursery that lists the fescue grass combination offers eighteen other choices, ranging from tall plants, like ferns and sedges, too much smaller plants.  There’s no quick way to choose, since each variety has its own requirements, pros and cons.  So in this short column, we can only hope to give a few examples. An attractive choice is Bearberry, a native plant that is deer-resistant, grows at most an inch high, tolerates part shade as well as full sun, attracts butterflies  and other pollinators, and needs little water; but there is a down side:  this little plant likes sand or light soil, so won’t grow on heavy clay soils. 

Those with heavier soils might consider Wild Ginger, another native plant that again needs little water, is host to a type of swallowtail butterfly, and looks good planted along with native ferns.  Another plus: these plants can be spaced a foot apart and will still form a carpet in two to three years.  But there’s always a catch: wild ginger requires shade, or at least partial shade. Taller plants may be less suitable as lawn replacements, but can be used wherever foot traffic is light, or in borders.  An attractive example is Goat’s Beard, which grows up to 6 inches tall and produces feathery white flowers.  Once again, this plant attracts butterflies and other pollinators and can grow in a range of soil types;  but like wild ginger, this plant loves shade.  Also to consider: it spreads slowly, so would require more plants per square foot to fill in a space in a short time.

The list of alternatives is much too long to cover here.  If you’re thinking of replacing your lawn with an ecologically friendly substitute, do explore on your own, keeping in mind the factors we’ve been looking at: soil, light and water requirements, speed of spreading, height and appearance. Also important: check whether your favorite plant is a native.  Not all sites or nurseries provide this information, but a plant’s status can usually be discovered with a bit of detective work. The ‘native’ versus ‘invasive’ question may be tricky, though. One listing for Creeping Jenny, for instance, claims that this plant is “considered invasive in some regions of the country,” which does not give a clear answer for PA residents; a similar warning comes with Dwarf White Clover, which  offers the questionable benefit of being “less invasive” than some of its cousins.

There are at least some clear answers. Beware of English Ivy and periwinkle, both of which are dangerously invasive and can escape to forests where they crowd out local species.  Others may be tricky, like Pachysandra, which comes in two varieties, Allegheny and Japanese (you’ll easily be able to tell which is local from the names).  On the safe side, you can find dozens of phlox varieties, almost all of which are native.  Check out the last two sources below for a discussion of native ground covers.  The last is especially valuable, as it covers native plants for our area. 

Please keep in touch:  send comments, ideas, stories to share, questions or requests to jennfontaine@gmail.com.




Lawn Alternatives

Green Sanctuary
Small changes made by many people make big changes for our world. Be part of it!
Green Living Idea:  Lawn Alternatives
By: Jen Fontaine
Thanks to Beverly Wise, who sent us a note asking us to research this area; I’ve barely scratched the surface with the preliminary notes below, but it is an important topic, one that I hope we’ll all be able to think about when planning for our outdoor goals in 2018. 
When I go for an afternoon walk on a lovely summer day, I often see people mowing their lawns; but I don’t remember once in two decades seeing people enjoying their lawn; so it’s a mystery why people compulsively maintain these spaces that don’t seem to enrich our pleasure in life. Apparently, the lawn habit came across from Europe, where open grasslands signaled the wealth of aristocratic landowners.  But the habit took root in the U.S with Scottish settlers.  Now, lawns apparently cover up to 50 million acres of land in the country.  The NRDC site below provides some further sobering statistics:  “Every year across the country, lawns consume nearly 3 trillion gallons of water a year, 200 million gallons of gas (for all that mowing), and 70 million pounds of pesticides.”  The authors of this site go on to emphasize the harmful effects of pesticides; and they remind us that every acre of lawn means an acre where diverse habitat is unavailable for pollinators and other plants and animals. 
So it’s worth looking for alternatives to your water-greedy lawn; there are options, which can be practical in different areas of your property: 
  1. Plant natural turf grass that is left to grow wild.
  2. Plant low-growing turf grasses that require little grooming.
  3. Use native plants as well as noninvasive, climate-friendly ones that can thrive in local conditions. Many options are available for ground cover; they require a bit of nurture when getting established, but then need little support once established, and low-growing varieties don’t need mowing.
  4. Devote some space to edible plants-vegetables and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. 
You can change as much or as little as you like, even just modifying the shape and size of your traditional turf lawn, to reduce the stress on resources and on your personal workload.  But it’s worth giving a thought to the third option above: namely, looking at alternatives besides the lawns that many of us have taken for granted for decades.  The second site below covers some information about ground covers, which can provide a low-maintenance way to keep your yard green without the hassle and environmental cost of a traditional turf lawn.  I hope we’ll have more to share about ground covers in future postings.
It has been great hearing from people in the UUCNH community; please do keep sending notes, suggestions, and thoughts to jennfontaine@gmail.com
Some sources: 
Share Your Idea: To share your own experiments in home or garden, or to send us any other green tips that have worked for you, please email jennfontaine@gmail.com.

Home-Natural Cleaning!

Green Sanctuary
Small changes made by many people make big changes for our world. Be part of it!
Green Living Idea:  Clean Naturally!
By Jen Fontaine
If you’ve been hoping to get rid of the potentially toxic cleaning substances in your cabinets, you are in luck; there are dozens of sources that can offer you ideas for safe, natural, non-toxic replacements.  Many use common ingredients like baking soda, white vinegar and rubbing alcohol.  The list below is not exhaustive, but gives a quick idea of the useful things these can do.
White vinegar seems to lead the list of natural cleaners.  Sprayed on full strength and allowed to soak, white vinegar can disinfect and deodorize most surfaces in the bathroom and kitchen.  Mixed with water, it provides a great cleaning fluid for windows and mirrors; combined with warm water and allowed to stand in a sink or tub, it can loosen hard-to-remove stains.  Diluted with water, sprayed onto a shower curtain and left to soak, it can remove stains.  One cup of vinegar in a gallon of warm water can be used to mop bare floors-and does not have to be rinsed, saving time over commercial cleaners.  White vinegar is also said to work well on carpets.
Rubbing alcohol can be used to make handy disinfectant wipes; just add it to a pack of chemical-free baby wipes.  It can also be used with a cloth or cotton swab to clean metal surfaces such as faucets. Baking soda mixed with water can be used to clean porcelain surfaces; use it to clean the toilet as well, by just sprinkling it into the bowl and scrubbing as usual a bit later. A fourth common ingredient in recipes for natural cleaning is essential lemon oil, which can be used, among other goals, to remove hard-water stains on metal surfaces.
In case you’ve already been using the simple ingredients above, we found a few tricks you may not have yet tried.  For baked-on kitchen grime, for instance, try using a crumpled bit of aluminum foil; or actually, better yet, stock up on the practical and lovely scrubbies made by our own Craft Group at UUCNH.  To clean sticky bits from pans, sprinkle with salt and scrub with half a lemon.  Lemon juice features in at least one recipe for cleaning glass surfaces; as does witch hazel.  Oh, and when you wash those windows, do use an old t-shirt or other clean rag, to save by not using paper towels. If you have a fireplace that’s gathered some soot and smoke smudges, try a paste of cream of tartar and water: apply, let dry, and scrub off.
To avoid using commercial furniture polishes, which contain petroleum-based ingredients, try mixing two parts olive oil with 1 part lemon juice; this will polish wood surfaces nicely, and smells much better than toxic store-bought polishes, which tend to contain petroleum-based ingredients. And speaking of smells, if you’re painting inside your house, try scattering small dishes of vinegar around the room; changed each day and left in the room for a few days after the painting is done, these can absorb the paint odor.  Polishing tarnished metal?  One concoction for this purpose uses salt, vinegar and flour in equal amounts to make a paste.
The second site listed below also suggests that we consider saving cleaning time by living in smaller homes.  In 1970, new homes averaged 1,500 square feet; in 2001, the average was 2,300 square feet.  If you’re planning a move, check out this figure for any prospective new home. 
Thanks to Kristen Clarke for suggesting this topic, and for also sharing her plan to use natural cleaning substances in the UUCNH nursery. 
You might also find fascinating information, for instance on specific products, at this link, first posted in a previous Green Tip:  Consuming – Med – Help eliminate toxic, cancer causing, and endocrine disrupting chemicals from our products and food | Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills.
Share Your Idea: To share your own experiments in home or garden, or to send us any other green tips that have worked for you, please email jennfontaine@gmail.com.

Green Living Idea:  Natural Pest Control

Green Living Idea:  Natural Pest Control
By Jen Fontaine

It’s easy to rush out to the home supplies store to find chemical solutions to get rid of pests in your home or garden.  But the first site below warns that these “may be more harmful to you and the environment than the pests” you wanted to get rid of in the first place.  So today’s ‘Green tip’ contains some suggestions for avoiding the harsh chemicals that can damage both your health and the environment.

For the home:

There are hosts of natural ways to control pests in your home.  Take the simple ant, an invader that often plagues us, especially in kitchen areas.  You can spray them with soapy water.  And it turns out, ants don’t like the following:  cucumbers, mint tea, cayenne pepper, citrus oil, lemon juice, cloves, cinnamon or coffee grounds.  Try any of these, placed or sprinkled strategically on the invader’s preferred pathways or entry points.

The first reference below includes specific remedies for ants and four other common household insect pests.  The solutions range from using simple household products, to more adventurous remedies such as providing bat houses (Who knew that some bats can eat 500 to 1,000 mosquitoes in a night?)  The site also provides links to other articles, and a warning note on the dangers of DEET, a widely used component in chemical-based insect repellants.

One substance that is often mentioned in connection with pest control is diatomaceous earth.  The second article below deals with this powder, which is made up of fossilized remains of prehistoric freshwater organisms.  This powder kills all insects indiscriminately, so it’s best used only indoors; used in the outdoor garden, it will destroy beneficial insects as well as harmful ones.


For the Garden:

Here, too, there are many options, some of which might surprise you.  Tomato leaf spray kills some garden pests because the leaves of all nightshades (like tomatoes) contain alkaloids that are harmful to many insects.   But other options for the outdoor garden include garlic oil spray, hot pepper spray, and simple soap spray (one tablespoon of dish washing soap dissolved in a gallon of water).  Also, check out the site below for some innovative recipes for preventing powdery mildew (milk; baking soda spray), and even weeds (vinegar, boiling water). 


To share your own experiments in home or garden, or to send on any other green tips that have worked for you, please email jennfontaine@gmail.com.

Clean Water – Easy – Make Runoff Cleaner I-B Prevent Motor Leaks, Dispose of Fluids Properly

 Green Living Idea 

UUA Green Sanctuary – Small changes made by many people make big changes for our world. Be part of it! 

Green Living Idea:   Easy – Clean Water – Make your runoff cleaner – Part I-B – by Connie Hester 

The greatest threat to our water quality is polluted runoff. We can make a big difference!

Oil, heavy metals and other toxic materials that leak out of motor vehicles and equipment are washed by rain into the nearest storm drains which lead to our rivers. They harm the environment, water life, animals and people.  They also get in our drinking water.

If 700,000 cars each leak 10 drops of oil a day that is over 28,000 gallons of oil per year. The EPA estimates 200 million gallons of used oil are disposed of improperly. Recycled properly, that oil could generate enough electricity to power 100 million homes for a day. 2 

1) Maintain your vehicles and motor equipment.  Do your part to reduce the chances of oil and other hazardous chemicals entering our water ways.

  • Check your vehicle and equipment for drips and leaks regularly. Fix them promptly.
  • If you spot a leak, use ground cloths or drip pans to collect the fluid
  • Collect used oil in a leak-proof container with a tight-fitting lid. Recycle it, often for free, at auto supply stores and car care centers.
  • Never dump motor oil, antifreeze, transmission fluid or other engine fluids into road gutters, storm drains, ditches, soil or inside your home sinks or drains. Safely store the fluids for a hazardous waste collection day.
  • Dispose of all hazardous waste properly. According to your municipality requirements. See scheduled collections and municipality requirements here on the UUCNH Green Sanctuary webpage.

References: 1) https://www.awapa.org/
2) http://www.delawareestuary.org/manage-stormwater-runoff/

Share Your Idea: Have a green living idea that works for you? Please forward to jennfontaine@gmail.com  for inclusion in an upcoming newsletter.

Clean Water – Easy – Make Runoff Cleaner – 1-A – Pick Up After Your Pet

 Green Living Idea

UUA Green Sanctuary    Small changes made by many people make big changes for our world. Be part of it!

Green Living Idea:   Easy – Clean Water – Make your runoff cleaner – Part I-A – by Connie Hester

The greatest threat to our water quality is polluted runoff.  We can make a big difference!

Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that animal waste is to blame for 20 to 30 percent of water pollution in America. There are 80 million dogs. They each make half a pound per day of waste.  It really adds up. And, that is just the dogs.

When animal waste is left on the ground, rainwater or melting snow breaks it down and washes it into our storm drains or directly into our creeks. This contaminated water, which contains disease-causing bacteria and worms, is unsafe for everyone and causes larger environmental issues. Pet waste increases algae blooms and excessive aquatic plant growth, which robs the water of vital oxygen need for fish and other aquatic life. 2

 1) Clean up after your pets.

  • Bag it! When going for dog walks take a compostable baggie or a plastic bag. After your dog does its business, turn the baggie inside out over your hand and use it as a glove to pick up the waste
  • Treat pet waste like human waste. Flush it down the toilet so it can be treated appropriately. Be sure not to flush the baggie!
  • If you can’t flush your pet’s waste, throwing the filled bag in the trash is an alternative. Never put waste into storm drains!
  • Check to see if your neighborhood and local parks have baggies available. If not, talk to your local civic association about installing a pet waste station to reduce “poo-lution” in your area.

References: 1) https://www.awapa.org/  2) http://www.delawareestuary.org/manage-stormwater-runoff/http://s3.amazonaws.com/delawareestuary/pdf/stormwater-guide.pdf

Share Your Idea: Have a green living idea that works for you? Please forward to conniemhester@yahoo.com for inclusion in an upcoming newsletter.

Clean Water – Easy – Part III-A Reduce Waste Water during rain and ALCOSAN alerts

 Green Living Idea

UUA Green Sanctuary:  Small changes made by many people make big changes for our world. Be part of it!

Clean Water – Easy – Part III – A Reduce Waste Water during rain and ALCOSAN alerts – by Connie Hester

 In our area as little as one-tenth of an inch of rain can cause raw sewage to overflow into our rivers and streams at hundreds of locations in Pittsburgh.

1) We are having a water event any time it is raining, has rained or ALCOSAN has issued a soak alert. Sign up for ALCOSAN soak alerts here.  Remember when the rain stops the runoff flow has not yet peaked. 

2) When we are in the midst of a water event minimize the amount of water that goes down the drain. Avoid the following or use as little water as possible.

  • Doing laundry
  • Taking a shower or bath
  • Washing dishes
  • Emptying your spa or swimming pool
  • Brushing your teeth, washing your face, etc.
  • Cleaning that requires water, the kitchen sink, the bathroom, or any cleaning that requires frequent rinsing of your tool
  • Flushing – use the low flush, if possible.

 3) When we are in the midst of a water event avoid increasing runoff water from your property. Avoid:

  • Watering your lawn
  • Washing your car
  • Hosing down the driveway

 4) The more rain that falls and the faster it falls makes it more important for you to help particularly if your output causes local flooding of homes and businesses.  I’m in Girty’s Run watershed where basement flooding over one foot (less than that is considered normal and not counted) in Millvale continues and is increasing. Anything I send down the drain during a water event may end up in someone’s basement.

References: 1) https://www.awapa.org/ 2) http://www.delawareestuary.org/manage-stormwater-runoff/ http://s3.amazonaws.com/delawareestuary/pdf/stormwater-guide.pdf

Share Your Idea: Have a green living idea that works for you? Please forward to conniemhester@yahoo.com for inclusion in an upcoming newsletter.

Clean Water – An overview of water pollution in our Area

Green Living Idea

UUA Green Sanctuary:  Small changes made by many people make big changes for our world. Be part of it! 

Clean Water – An overview of Water Pollution in our Area – By Connie Hester

Tassi sent me to a Girty’s Run Status meeting. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. And, I didn’t know there is a lot each of us can do to make a difference. This will be a multipart series. Each part will have sections: A-?

  • Part I – Make your Runoff Cleaner,
  • Part II – Reduce your Runoff, and
  • Part III – Reduce your Waste Water.

The greatest threat to our water quality is sewage overflow and polluted runoff. This area has enough combined sewer systems to cause significant problems when it rains. The combined system has only one pipe that carries both storm water and sewage.  As little as one-tenth of an inch of rainour average is one-quarter inch—can cause raw sewage to overflow into our rivers and streams causing serious problems. Polluted runoff comes from water or melting snow running off of parking lots, driveways, lawns, industrial facilities and agricultural operations. As it drains off the land, it picks up pollutants and carries them to our waterways and drinking water.

Both sewage overflow and polluted runoff affect your drinking water, property, neighborhood, fish, wildlife, health and safety. Local flooding damages homes, businesses and natural spaces like creeks and riverbanks.

Look where this Untreated Sewage Overflow, Dog Waste, Engine Fluids, Fertilizers, Herbicides, Contaminated Dirt, Motor Oil, Pesticides, Road Grit and Litter go when they leave us. 1   First it affects our streams, creeks and roads. Then homes and businesses in the path as it makes its way to our local rivers. Eventually, some of your pollution ends up in the Gulf of Mexico along with the pollution of another hundred million or so people. When you think about the massive amounts of pollution that goes into our waterways it is amazing that our environment is as resilient as it is.

The Allegheny water shed map is below and Enlarged here. Once the water flows into the Ohio river, many additional rivers feed into it along the way. It flows southwest to the Mississippi and out into the Gulf of Mexico. 

References: 1) Allegheny Watershed Alliance  2) Local watershed map