Divine Energy at Shoshoni

I spent two days last week at Shoshoni, a yoga/meditation retreat in Colorado, where life goes on at its simple best — contemplation, exercise, nourishing food — and where solar energy plays a starring role. (Pun intended :))

Much of the organic food served at Shoshoni is grown on site in hoop houses.

Much of the organic food served at Shoshoni is grown on site in hoop houses.

With 300+ days of sunshine a year in the eastern Rockies, there’s plenty of solar power to put to work. Solar panels atop cabins and the main lodge heat water for bathing; south-facing windows on many buildings allow for passive solar heating, which can be blocked on hot days by pulling down thermal shades.

Solar and geothermal energies allow year-round gardening even when winter temperatures dive below zero for weeks at a time. Outside air moves through underground pipes (where temps stay in the mid-5os) and is warmed in winter and cooled in summer before being vented inside one hoop-style greenhouse.

Shakti has helped manage the gardens and grounds at Shoshoni for 3.5 years. Behind her is a hoop house and a shed for chickens.

Shakti has helped manage the gardens and grounds at Shoshoni for more than three years.

“A second hoop house will be outfitted this winter with solar panels that will heat water, which will run through underground pipes that will, in turn, radiate heat up through the soil,” said Shakti, who has worked on the gardens and grounds at Shoshoni for more than three years.

While the beets, carrots, peppers, kale, collards, and other food crops need solar-generated heat in the winter to survive, the chickens do not. “I chose heritage breeds,” said Shakti, “that are fit for Rocky Mountain winters.”

Heritage-breed chickens live perfectly well throughout Rocky Mountain winters.

Heritage-breed chickens, acquired only for their eggs at this vegetarian retreat, thrive even in Rocky Mountain winters.

Shakti’s name means divine energy, which if you ask me, is another way of saying solar power.

NOTE: Check out the outstanding recipes in Shoshoni’s cookbook.

Social Entrepreneurship at Home & by the Book

Anna atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, CO.

Anna atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, CO.

Last May I completed my first year at CU/Boulder as an environmental studies major. During my first semester, I took a class entitled “Sustainability and Social Innovation.” The main focus of the class was social entrepreneurship, a term I was originally unfamiliar with but discovered is a complex and sometimes even controversial concept. In time, I began to think of it simply as socially beneficial (“good”) work backed with a solid business plan.

I agree with Gregory J. Dees, a teacher of Social Entrepreneurship and Nonprofit Management at Duke, who claims that “… any definition of social entrepreneurship should reflect the need for a substitute for the market discipline that works for business entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector by:

• Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value)

• Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission,

• Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning,

• Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand, and,

• Exhibiting a heightened sense of accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created” (Forbes, 2012).


Anna has spent much of the last six summers working for Solar Mowing.

When my mom started Solar Mowing in 2009, I had no idea that she was on her way to become a successful social entrepreneur. By giving local homeowners the option to maintain their lawns without harming the environment, she created an alternative market with a clearly defined mission.

I have worked for Solar Mowing every summer since 2009 and have been lucky enough to see, firsthand, how the company has grown and developed over these five years. We continually update our equipment so that we’re using the latest battery technology, added a second vehicle with a highly efficient solar array, increased both our staff and customer base, and expanded our services to meet our customers’ needs. One thing that hasn’t changed though, is my mom’s dedication to her community and her determination to create real and measurable change. Since Solar Moving began, more than 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide have been prevented from entering the air we breathe.

I am honored to be part of such an outstanding company. I invite you to join us (if you haven’t already) as we work to improve our lives and our world.


The Scoop on Dog Pee

No, it isn’t your imagination. The grassy spot where your dog and the neighbors’ dogs often pee IS turning brown. You may have heard that only big dogs or females cause such spots, but that’s not quite right. Bigger dogs just expel more urine than small dogs, and while females squat rather than lift a leg on a fencepost or utility pole, young male dogs and some small adult males also squat.


Salts and nitrogen in dog urine can damage, and even kill, grass.

The best way to keep your grass spot-free is to train Fido to use a mulched or graveled section of the yard or my favorite command:  “Go in the ivy,” while pointing to my ivy-covered corner. Also, vary the path you take on walks, so your dog won’t pee in the same ol’ places.

Salts and nitrogen in the urine seem to be the twin culprits here, and watering the spot is the best, and really only, remedy. Don’t waste your money on dog supplements that claim to prevent the spots or sprays or powders that are supposed to make the spots disappear.

Keep your dog watered as well as this will help dilute his/her urine. And if you have brown spots that won’t recover, let Solar Mowing clean and reseed them this fall.

Compost Tea … If it’s Good Enough for Harvard

Dylan Reilly works for Solar Mowing. He’s applied to the Landscape Architecture Graduate Program at the University of Maryland for the fall. 

The idea to make compost tea has been on a back burner, so to speak, since I read about Harvard University’s transition to organic care of the Harvard Yard. This time-honored landscape includes brick pathways, stately old trees, and a good deal of grass.

It began in 2008 when Harvard compared two plots of lawn: one treated organically and the other treated conventionally as a control. Both plots were tested for percolation, pH, and other metrics to assure a fair comparison. The conventional control plot received synthetic nitrogen/phosphorus liquid fertilizers, some pesticides, and annual aeration/reseeding. The organic plot received aeration, reseeding, topdressing of compost, pelletized organic fertilizer, and a special amendment called compost tea.

Compost tea is a mix of organic nutrients (nitrogen, potassium), actively aerated water (by oxygen pump), and compost (such as chicken manure, grass clippings, decomposing leaves) that steep together in a fine mesh bag that allow microbes, but not soil, to pass through. Harvard’s recipe mixed seven pounds of compost, eight ounces of molasses, eight ounces of liquid kelp, eight ounces of fish hydrolysate, and a half cup of vegetable oil into a 30-gallon container of water that was then steeped for 24 hours.

The heart of compost tea is not the nutrients from the various ingredients, but rather the biology that is harbored by the steeping process. This is where the aeration comes in. To create beneficial microbes for a healthy lawn you need food to help beneficial bacteria from the compost grow and air to help them breath and that is exactly what brewing/steeping compost tea does. Once brewed, it should be applied as quickly as possible to take advantage of that biology.

Dylan sets the compost tea bag in place and fires up the hydroponic oxygen pump. He'll apply about three gallons of compost tea to his lawn.

Dylan sets the compost tea bag in place and fires up the oxygen pump. He’ll apply about three gallons of compost tea to his lawn.

In my experiment, I applied about three gallons of compost tea to our one-eighth-acre of grass, which is actually more than recommended. About a month later, I have not noticed any particular uptick or decline in our lawn’s growth or health, which is not surprising for one application. But the brewing was definitely an education. I used a 30-gallon trash bin to brew my tea, along with a store-bought 400-micron teabag, oxygen pump, and homemade aeration grate for the bottom of the bin. I dispensed the tea with a one-gallon hand sprayer.

In February 2009, Harvard put out a report on the project, detailing successes from the organic lawn care system, such as increased root depth and less required watering. A few months later, 25 acres of Harvard’s campus was converted to organic practices. With a 45K investment in composting facilities, compost tea brewers, and associated equipment the cost of the new maintenance plan is about the same as their conventional system.

The take-away for folks with lawns is this: It has never been a better time to start an organic lawn care regimen. Compost tea has become a bit of a waving flag in the past few years, but it really appears to be the synergy of compost topdressing, aeration, reseeding, organic pelletized fertilizer, compost tea, and careful management that allowed Harvard Yard to go green.

SolMow Customers Grow Much More than Grass

Growing food at home or in community gardens has increased 17% in the past five years, bringing the total of U.S. households growing edibles to 42 million, according to the National Gardening Association. That means 35% of American households are engaged in food gardening!

It’s no coincidence that many Solar Mowing customers are in this group. Who wants a gasoline mower chugging around the eggplants and tomatoes planned for tonight’s dinner?

Using emission-free mowing keeps the air cleaner, and growing food organically keeps these home gardens free of pesticides and herbicides. Here’s a photo gallery of the organic edible gardens of several Solar Mowing customers — and two photos from my own wee plots.

Grown at Home...had to add netting to keep the bunnies out.    But the squash plants look healthy.    I’ve been pleased with them.

Customer Chris installed a 3’6″ x 6’6″ raised bed in her backyard with the help of Grown at Home. Besides the squash, basil, and tomatoes seen here, she has peppers growing in a box on her deck. “We had beans in the garden, too, but the bunnies ate them,” says Chris. “I’ve since installed netting with smaller holes.”













Potatoes (red, white, and blues), radishes, turnips, carrots, and broccoli are among the many plants in Jen’s backyard garden. Jen surrounded the bed with chicken wire and bird netting. A tarp at the bottom keeps weeds under control.


In her side yard, Jen grows herbs, tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons, and eggplant. Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, currants, figs, and peaches grow elsewhere on this quarter acre. “The garden/farm provides our family of four with 90% of our vegetables and berries,” says Jen. “What is left over, we freeze or can for the winter.” A sign on the fence says that Jen’s property is certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a wildlife habitat.



Garlic, basil, peppers, and tomatoes are among the offerings in Elisa’s garden. She built the raised beds from a kit.


Cucumbers are ready to pick in Elisa’s garden.


springtime lettuce

Compared to these plots, my own garden offers scant nourishment. Staples include springtime lettuce followed by …




First springtime lettuce, then blueberries….

… summer blueberries and strawberries. I pick basil and parsley from warm spring to cool fall, and a five-year-old pot of bay leaf grows indoors (except when taken out a few months in summer), providing year-round spice.


If you have a garden you’d like showcased in a later post (even if you’re not a SolMow customer!), please send photos here. And if you’ve thought about starting your own food garden, here’s a good guide to help you break ground. Not all planting needs to happen in the spring. In the DC area, late July and early August is a good time to plant carrots, kale, radishes, turnips, and more for an early autumn harvest. Here’s a local planting timetable for many vegetables in our area.


Grasscycling and Haymaking

Some of our urban and suburban homesteads are getting downright countrified. Here and elsewhere, folks in increasing numbers are raising chickens and growing more of their own food. And so the question has come up: Can grass clippings be used to make hay? That’s hay as in food for chickens, rabbits, horses, and other animals. Not the “hay” that is the thing we must make while the sun shines, whatever that is.


Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field

The answer, in short, is no. Hay is dried grass, but the only way to make it from our urb/suburb landscapes is to let our lawns grow realllly long (like a foot high) and cut it with hedge clippers or a scythe as Homer’s veteran does in the artwork, at left, or as Frost does in the poem, below. Not terribly practical — even before you spread it out and let it dry for weeks. (A lawn mower — gas or electric — cuts it in too many small pieces.)

While not good for making hay, grass clippings can serve us well if we just let them lie. Mulching plugs in Solar Mowing’s machines finely chop the clippings and distribute them evenly across the lawn. Made up mostly of water, these clippings quickly break down and return key nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus) to the soil.

Grasscycling, as it’s called, helps keep our lawns healthy. Here in the urb/suburb, cut grass serves as a valuable natural fertilizer, but as a source of hay? Nay.


There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Robert Frost, 1913

We’re Not Ready for Roundup Ready II

Farmers put the first Roundup Ready seeds in the ground in 1996. Genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate, the herbicide in Monsanto’s Roundup, the seeds — soybeans, then corn and now alfalfa, cotton, sugarbeets, and other crops — grew despite applications of Roundup, which killed everything else around them.

Fast forward to today, and the once-doomed weeds are beginning to turn up their collective noses at Roundup — and live! What’s a chemical company to do?

RoundupCreate a superweed killer, that’s what! Dow Chemical’s Enlist Duo is a mix of glyphosate and 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used in the Vietnam War and linked to hormone and reproductive disruptions, kidney and liver damage, and cancer.

Genetically modified (GM) crops would need to be further tinkered with, of course, so they can withstand doses of 2,4-D. (The only way to avoid GM foods is to read labels carefully — and choose organic foods, which are usually GM-free.)

The good news: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to approve Enlist Duo, and the agency is accepting public comments through Monday, June 30. Weigh in here.

The most commonly used herbicide in the U.S., glyphosate has been showing up in breast milk, urine, and drinking water supplies. Scientific studies have linked exposure to birth defects and cancers.

Its widespread use is also killing milkweed, causing “significant ongoing harm” to monarch butterflies, says the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group has petitioned the EPA to review glyphosate and limit its use.

Enlist Duo is harmful and unsustainable, and it’s not the way forward. That’s the message I gave EPA. For two more days, you can add your message here


New Study Links Gas-powered Mowers to Breast Cancer

There it was in black and white. A new study, perhaps the first of its kind, listed potential breast carcinogens, and near the top of the list were chemicals found in exhaust from gas-powered lawn equipment.

The peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that “gasoline and chemicals formed by combustion (e.g., benzene and butadiene) are among the largest sources of mammary carcinogens in the environment,” and that exposure to these chemicals comes from “vehicles, lawn equipment, tobacco smoke, and charred or burned food.”


Dear friend and breast cancer survivor, Susan, savors a Lake Michigan sunset.

That environmental factors play a large role in causing cancer is not in dispute. In Molecular Biology of the Cell (2002), referenced on the National Institutes of Health website, it is estimated that “80-90% of cancers should be avoidable, or at least postponable,” if certain environmental factors are avoided.

Indeed, the authors of the breast cancer study offer steps women can take to reduce their exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. One such step is to “use electric rather gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and weed whackers.” (Though as pointed out in an earlier post, the pollution avoided is personal only; charging your electric equipment with kilowatts from coal still pollutes.)

To the two key reasons to use Solar Mowing — to reduce air and noise pollution — you can add a third: to protect your breasts and the breasts of the women you love.


Waking Up to No Wind Energy

It was a punch to the gut — the email on January 31, 2014, from Clean Currents, my wind energy provider, stating that “effective immediately,” we would be “returned to utility service,” which in my case means coal — as it does throughout much of the Mid-Atlantic.

We’ve purchased wind energy for our home for the past six years. Not only does my business rely on this wind energy to supplement the solar energy collected by my trucks’ panels, but I have grown to feel that it is my right to buy renewable energy. Thinking that it might be taken away made me feel, weirdly, violated.

Just two weeks earlier, toxic chemicals used at coal plants spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River, poisoning the water supply of hundreds of thousands — the latest in a string of coal/oil/natural gas-related calamities. I didn’t want to go back to fossil fuels.

EElogoAs it turned out, I didn’t have to. Within hours, I knew I had other wind options, and in a matter of days, I had signed up with Chevy Chase-based Ethical Electric. (Check out their rates, but here are other local options: Washington Gas Energy Services [highly reputable affiliate of Washington Gas] and Groundswell [offers collective purchase of clean energy].)

WGESLogoAnd don’t think buying renewables is risky business that could leave you powerless. Wind customers still receive their electricity through PEPCO, BGE, or whatever local utility is in the area — and like with the Clean Currents situation, you’d be covered. The problem was that Clean Currents, a relatively small company with less-than-cavernous pockets, couldn’t cover the hugely inflated prices during last winter’s polar vortex. Likewise, smaller coal-fired power companies went offline.

GroundswellLogoThe beauty of all this: We have a choice. Deregulation throughout the Mid-Atlantic and elsewhere has opened up the energy market to competitive — and renewable — suppliers.

Choose wisely, friends.

Good Government

GreenBizTransBkgrdThe two men sat across the dining room table from me and asked what time of day I buy gasoline for my truck when air quality is poor. They asked how much water and what kind of soap I use when washing my equipment. My answers — late in the day IF I must buy gasoline on code alert days and little water and biodegradable soap some of which flow into the rain garden adjacent to my driveway — were met with approving nods. These men were not members of Friends of the Earth or a neighborhood association. They were Montgomery County officials, looking over my equipment and my application to be a county certified “green business.”

To those of us running green businesses, the certification is a stamp of approval from local government, which shares our values for environmental stewardship, conservation of energy and water, carbon and waste reduction, recycling, and environmentally responsible purchasing.

Consumers seeking to hire green businesses can go the county website and search its directory. For local business owners wanting to green their operations, the Program offers resources to help them.

“Grass clippings that land in the street need to be blown up onto the grass,” Doug Weisburger, Program Manager reminded me, “Otherwise, they’ll make their way down storm drains and add to nitrogen pollution of the Bay.”

That’s my County talking.

At exactly 9:50 a.m. on June 20, 2013, Solar Mowing was certified as a “Green Landscape Business,” a distinction that is valid for three years.