Soil Conservation News and Tips
from Please Conserve

Dirt makes a comeback

Modern man has developed a fixation for poured concrete, a material that requires a huge amount of energy and water to produce and must be brought in from elsewhere. And, at the end of its life cyle, concrete cannot be turned into anything remotely as useful as its original purpose. But, what are the alternatives? What other building materials are local, don’t require much energy and can return safely to the earth at the end of their useful life?

The answer is right beneath your feet.

When we think about building a home or making an improvement, we generally see dirt as the waste to be hauled away after excavating, usually at great expense. But with a relatively ancient technology known today as Rammed Earth, that soil can stay on-site and become your new walls, floors and even your foundation.

The process involves mixing a combination of earth ingredients, such as clay, gravel, sand, straw, lime and cement with water, which is compacted by special machinery in a removable formwork, similar to concrete. This method produces a hardened stone-like wall that can be structural, such as a foundation, or used as exterior walls. Another practical use is for flooring, which is a beautiful alternative to smooth concrete or wood. In addition to being Earth-friendly, Rammed Earth structures are great thermal masses—they absorb heat during the day and release it at night when it is colder, which is an important aspect of passive solar design. Although some climates are preferable to others, Rammed Earth can be used anywhere, and it is especially beneficial in remote locations.

Stephen Dobson of Ramtec Pty. Ltd. (, an Australian contractor specializing in Rammed Earth construction, has seen Rammed Earth become an increasing trend. “It WILL rise to the forefront and become a dominant form of construction all over the world,” he says. “Sustainability will push it to the front.”

Though the Rammed Earth method is practical, it is also very labor intensive. In areas where labor costs are high, such as the USA, this method could be more costly to consumers. Dobson has a different perspective, however. “Sure, there is a lot of labor involved, but the materials cost way less, so the overall finished cost is OK.”

Another factor that can offset the cost is a do-it-yourself approach to Rammed Earth. In lieu of special machinery, it can be done by hand. “Improvisation is always possible,” says Dobson, “Tibetans pound [the earth] with wooden poles. Chinese use bamboo forms.” Non-toxic sealers such as linseed oil can be used to treat and seal the material once it has been pounded and formed.

As the importance of sustainability grows in the construction industry, this method will be a central practice for most contractors. But, despite its ancient roots, the technology still needs to be brought into today’s mainstream, Dobson says. Contractors need to invest in the technology. Architects and designers need to familiarize themselves with the construction method, as well, to educate and persuade their clients. But the true power lies with the consumer, he adds, for only they can be the ones that both demand and implement the best practices.

Soil, soil, toil and trouble

Until recently, dirt got no respect. The health of the soil reflects the health of the entire ecosystem surrounding us, and in many parts of the United States, the ground we stand on is being bombarded by many challenges. Changes in weather patterns, acid rain, contamination from air and water pollution seem beyond the control of individuals, but the reality is that every time you buy a fruit out of season, dig into your wallet to play a round of golf at a desert resort, or even rip out native plants on a hillside in favor of exotics to get year-round greenery, you can negatively impact the health of the soil around you and around the entire country.

Here in Southern California, a series of events, including drought and wildfire has left scarred and stripped hillsides vulnerable to erosion. The dry, Manzanita-covered hillsides and lush oak-dotted canyons are usually covered with a layer of fertile topsoil, created by the breakdown of organic materials. When soaking rain falls onto charred hillsides, it washes away the topsoil because the root systems that had held it in place have been destroyed. Downhill and downstream, the soils turns into mudflows that inundate residential developments and clog streams and storm drains. In the past, U.S. Forest Officials looking to prevent soil erosion following natural catastrophes mounted an aerial assault, coating the hillsides with an organic slurry — sort of a seed smoothie to help shore up the hillside by encouraging new growth to take hold. Unfortunately, most of the non-native seed mixes didn’t thrive, or impeded the regrowth of valuable soil-holding natives. Following the enormous 2009 Station Fire, which burned over 150,000 acres in the Los Angeles National Forest, the decision was made not to reseed, and instead to allow the soil and land to heal itself. A profusion of wildflowers blooming the next two seasons gives visitors hope that the decision was a correct one. You can find out more about landscaping with California Natives at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sunland, California. Home to an extensive plant nursery, the foundation hosts seminars open to the public. Visit the well designed website for more information.

Homeowners who live on the edges of wilderness areas must rely on fire-safe landscaping to create a defensible space around the dwelling structure, as well as improvements in the building materials and design of the home itself. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s website,   contains valuable information and links about fire prevention and how to deal with its aftermath.

Pet owners and conservation

Picking up your dog’s poop in a plastic bag sounds like the right thing to do, but it is not without environmental consequences. Massive amounts of poop in plastic bags take up considerable space in landfills. But it is even worse to leave it behind, possibly close enough to pollute waterways or spread disease.

While it may not be the most pleasant practice for one’s nostrils, there is a growing trend among pet owners to compost their critters’ waste. For those who own two or more dogs, for example, composting becomes both an economical and environmental benefit.

It is a particularly interesting notion to compost animal waste, when considering that the Environmental Protection Agency recently estimated that the typical dog excretes three quarters of a pound of waste each day. That means one little doggie is creating about 275 pounds of poo per year for our landfills.

Environmentalists believe the total could be cut in half through composting efforts, which would save landfill space, cut down on the energy required to transport and dispose of the waste, while also replenishing lawns in the backyards of those pet owners.

There are some tips, and drawbacks, that nature lovers and pet lovers are quick to agree upon. First, you want to be sure to keep your dog and cat compost separate from any other kitchen waste compost bin. Second, avoid using the pet compost on garden vegetables as the waste contains highly toxic pathogens that the average garden compost cannot break down. This is true, even after dog or cat compost has matured. Third, be sure to keep your homemade dog or cat compost away from ponds, wells or other water sources.

Compost is created to enrich the soil for plant life, and its bin should be made of wire or plastic. Suggestions from pet experts call for taking a plastic garbage bin, drilling about a dozen holes into its side, and cutting out the bottom, so it stands as an upright cylinder. You then dig a hole deep enough to bury the bin, nearly to the top, allowing enough room for the lid to be snapped in place. Two to three inches of rock in the bottom of the bin provides drainage, and then add the pet feces, a septic starter (available in most supermarkets) and water. A “greener” compost is possible by adding sawdust instead of septic starter (basic rule is two parts of waste for every one part of sawdust). After placing the lid on the bin, all that is left is to add poop as it becomes available – which we know is daily.

Others recommend adding grass clippings to the dog waste for the effect of a high-nitrogen “green” material. When an appropriate carbon source is added to that mix, an effective composting material is created. Once the compost has matured for a few months, it is ready to spread and enrich the soil

While more pet owners are considering composting bins in their own backyards, it is also becoming more common to see groups take on composting projects to help the environment in their neighborhoods, at dog parks or doggie daycare centers. The next trend, quite likely, will be enterprising capitalists who would charge a weekly fee to pick up dog poop and compost it.

As an example of a city taking on pet waste composting, Tails magazine reported that municipal officials in Montreal, Canada, have been composting dog waste since 2004. The results? Approximately a ton of dog waste and 7,000 plastic bags are diverted from the landfill each year.

Pesticides from the pantry

Volunteer helping to prepare the organic pesticides. Photo by Maggie Puniewska.

The quick six: lemon grass, ginger, onion, garlic, pepper, and lemon juice. Dice. Put in blender. Voila! A homemade pesticide recipe. Because Cabanas Siempre Verde uses organic gardening methods, pesticides are no exception. “It’s actually not that much more work to use this organic pesticide,” said Marcos Garcia, founder of the organization. “Probably the most difficult part is to get all the ingredients and put them in the blender.” Even though this recipe lacks the harsh chemicals found in traditional pesticides Garcia assures they are just as effective and definitely more environmentally-friendly. Having eaten from the garden daily, I can attest that flavor was absolutely superior to that of our American grocery stores. Coincidence? I think not.

Renew in the loo

What comes in, must come out and it’s put to good use. Cabanas Siempre Verde encourages volunteers to use a compost toilet to take care of business, even though a regular toilet is provided. Sawdust is sprinkled after each visit, to mitigate the odor as well as enhance the composting process. After 4-6 months, the compost is ready to use.

“We use it for big trees as well as in the garden,” said Garcia. “It’s better for the Earth because you’re not using water and the springs are not getting contaminated.”

Eco-friendly and not at all smelly. Photo by Sonia George.

Always Green

A “Winter Wonderland” in Chicago? I think ‘tis a season more comparable to a winter inferno-land, minus the heat. There is absolutely nothing wonderful about blasting icy winds and sub-zero temperatures. In order to escape this scene of death, this winter I decided to lead a volunteer trip abroad to Costa Rica. Although the prospect of 80-degree sunny weather was definitely part of the allure, what truly captured my interest was the chance to work on an organic farm and really act on the green principles we try to encourage here at Please Conserve. Actions speak louder than words, right?

After two plane rides, 7 hours of layovers, and a 3-hour, slightly nauseating bus ride, I arrived with my group to the miniscule, yet vibrant town of Mastatal. Miniscule being a very accurate descriptor since this petit community cannot even be found on Google Maps. Yes, that is possible. So, here we arrived far from the wrath of the technology that engulfed our every day lives to a place of serenity and silence that we were not used to but by the end, couldn’t bear to leave.  And although I could chronicle the group experience, including everything from working on the farm to visits to the local bar (a frequent source of entertainment), I wanted to focus on the story of the organization where we volunteered, Cabañas Siempre Verde- from the uncertain beginnings to the passion that drives the will to continue.

The idea behind Cabañas Siempre Verde wasn’t your typical “this was my childhood dream” kind of story. As founder Marcos Garcia said, it just sort of…happened. Garcia had grown up on his family’s farm, the site of the organization today, so farming, and in particular organic farming, was always a daily part of life for him. In high school Garcia took three years of permaculture, an approach that teaches methods of sustainable land use. The next step was to go to a university, but this ambition was suspended due to lack of funds. Not wanting to remain idle, Garcia took courses in carpentry and English, which proved to be quite beneficial in his future endeavors. A couple years later, Garcia built the first cabaña, which is Spanish for a cabin. His particular structure was a roofed, open-wall dwelling, elevated about 10 feet off the ground. “The first cabaña was a test of my building skills,” said Garcia. “ I wanted to see how well I could do.”

Turning out quite well, Garcia decided to build a second cabaña and in 2005 took a stab at running a volunteer organization. “ I just put all my skills, carpentry, organic farming, and English, together,” said Garcia. And what a risk worth taking. The farm succeeds in attracting volunteers from all across the globe, all backgrounds, all ages. In fact, during my stay we were accompanied by a young couple from Belgium as well as a retired woman from Canada. “People continue coming and they come back,” said Garcia. “That inspires me to continue.”

During their stay, volunteers get the opportunity to work on a variety of projects, generally suited to their interests and abilities, and depending on what needs to be done at that particular time of the year. Because our group was quite big, we were split up into smaller teams who worked on everything from gardening, to digging, to building a compost toilet. And believe me, no experience was necessary. Volunteering to work on building a bench from scratch, I was reminded that my only carpentry skills were those I acquired in childhood…building with Legos. But with Garcia’s patience and natural ability to teach, I was able to build a fully functional bench and no one was injured in the process. Garcia says that he hopes that such experiences will allow volunteers to immerse themselves into the sustainable lifestyle and teach them practices that can be applied back home.

Although the work is challenging and the Costa Rican sun does not spare any mercy on Caucasian skin, engaging in such sustainable projects is immensely rewarding and proves that a green lifestyle is attainable. “You can be sustainable in every aspect of your life, especially food and work,” said Garcia. Garcia’s volunteer farm proves this point and this is something he truly takes pride for. What started as an unsure venture has turned into a green haven. How fitting then, that the other part of the name, “Siempre Verde” in Spanish means, “always green”.

For more information, visit:
The cabana, home to the volunteers. Photo by Sean Hill.

Just an everyday Mackaw sighting. No big deal. Photo by Sean Hill.

Help available for land buffers, tree planting and improving water quality

Trees Forever is an organization with a mission to plant and care for trees and the environment by educating organizations and individuals about the need for forests and promoting stewardship of our natural resources.

It’s also becoming common for organizations to create partnerships with Trees Forever as its initiatives gain momentum and, more importantly, the benefits of its mission become clearer.

Trees Forever has created numerous programs across the nation since its inception in 1989, pooling resources from donors and sponsors to fund and assist with grassroots projects.

One such project is the Illinois Buffer Partnership, a program in conjunction with the Illinois Farm Bureau, in which landowners can apply for funds to help create buffer projects on their land.

Farmers, rural land owners and those near watersheds find it a worthwhile program to slow runoff from fields, reduce soil erosion, filter and purify water, increase wildlife habitat, create visual screens, and, in turn, produce more farm income from that land.

When an applicant is accepted for $2,000 in cost-share funds, plus an opportunity to obtain seed at half-price, the landowner is required to host a demonstration day to share their knowledge with other landowners and encourage a buffer project in other regions.

Those interested have until the end of the year to apply for the funds, and will be notified in February if they have been selected as a participating landowner.
Another Trees Forever project in the Midwest is the Iowa Living Roadways Community Visioning program in which small rural communities in Iowa of 10,000 residents or fewer are eligible to get access to professional planning services for landscaping roadsides, entranceways and trails in their communities.

Iowa State University is a partner, providing teams of landscape architects, student interns, faculty and staff to assist in creating concept plans. Once completed, Trees Forever assists in carrying out the projects by providing funding sources or grants available for such work.

Communities that participate benefit greatly from the work of volunteers who are able to include environmental stewardship into concept plans and projects that essentially enhance the beauty and safety of areas in which residents drive, walk or bike daily.

Trees Forever has also made its mark in Iowa communities served by Black Hills Energy Co. with its Black Hills Power of Trees program, which provides matching grants and technical assistance for planting trees in parks, near schools, residential areas, gateways, trails, cemeteries and near libraries.

In addition to providing annual matching grants ranging from $500 to $7,000, Trees Forever helps with species selection, reviewing site plans, planting and caring for the trees, coordinating volunteers, and working with the media and fundraising.

It’s a global war – against soil erosion

Soil erosion hits close to home, and has global implications, as well. The United States has been leading the fight for nearly 80 years. The Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service can claim a long history of international involvement, dating back to when NRCS officials traveled throughout the world in the 1930s and 1940s to view soil and water conservation problems in other countries.

During that same time period, NRCS hosted international participants from other countries who observed what was taking place in the United States to combat serious soil erosion and land-use problems. This sharing of conservation knowledge led to an ongoing exchange of the best ways to address soil issues.

There is little doubt that international programs help all countries utilize natural resources without depleting them by sharing technical assistance, exchanging scientific and technical information, and helping promote economic stability at the same time.

In many countries, the care of soil results in better and widespread food production, which in turn helps reduce poverty and social issues related to hunger and poor nutrition.

To give an example of how important the fight against soil erosion is for the United States, consider this: AgriLife Reseach scientists in Texas are constantly working with the NRCS to combat soil erosion by using the country’s largest military installation at Fort Hood, Texas, as the “research lab.”

Because Fort Hood covers 214,000 acres and endures the largest concentration of armored tanks and vehicles conducting training sessions in the country, researchers are dealing with compacted ground, loss of plant cover and accelerated soil erosion that results in excess sediment in streams and lakes.

The research resulted in the creation of 30 more sediment retention ponds, construction of numerous small rock dams to block gully erosion, and the practice of plowing deep into the ground on a regular basis to prevent soil from becoming too compacted for plant life.

When compost and grass seed can be added to new contours of previously rough terrain, it results in vegetation buffers and far less water run-off.

Research like that at Fort Hood leads to new land management and agricultural practices that spread around the world, saving countless acres from erosion that renders them useless.

Bag or drop off those household batteries

It is possibly the easiest item to just mindlessly toss into the garbage can because as you are discarding them your mind is usually focused on the task of replacing them at nearly the same moment.

But they are just as easy to recycle, thus cutting down on the chance of polluting lakes and streams, and exposing the environment and water to lead and acid.

Household batteries contain all sorts of heavy metals – cadmium, lead mercury and nickel – which are a detriment to the environment when they turn up in landfills.

It has been estimated that more than 2 billion batteries end up in landfills every year in the United States. When you consider that Americans buy billions of dry-cell batteries every year to power radios, toys, cell phones, watches, laptop computers, and portable power tools, it is apparent we are nearly overrun by batteries.

In addition to keeping harmful elements out of the land and air by recycling batteries, it can also result in saving resources by recovering the plastics and metals that can be used to make new batteries.

Alkaline batteries, the everyday household batteries used in flashlights, remote controls, and other appliances are prime candidates for consistent recycling efforts, as many cities and counties have recycling programs and several reclamation companies now process these batteries.

It is most tempting to just pitch those small, round “button-cell” type batteries found in items such as watches and hearing aids – but they contain mercury, silver, cadmium, lithium, or other heavy metals as their main component. Button cells are increasingly targeted for recycling because of the value of recoverable materials, their small size, and their easy handling relative to other battery types.

Many states have battery-recycling laws in place, but a habit of recycling your household batteries can aid the environment, regardless of any mandated regulations. In other words, you don’t need the government to explain how easy it is to recycle batteries.

Check to see if your city or county has drop-off locations for old batteries. Many cities allow battery recycling by simply placing the old batteries in bags and putting the bag on the ground near your regular recycling bin.

In many states, the larger lead-acid batteries from autos, boats, and sump pumps can be taken to any store that sells these batteries. The stores will take these batteries for free or a small processing charge. Then the batteries are totally recycled, including lead plates, battery acid, and the plastic cases.

Green and mean

From all the praise and adoration that organic products receive, you may think that by consuming them you’re the next best thing next to Rachel Carson. Not so fast, my amateur environmentalist. It has been shown that organic products may be better for health, that is true. But a recent study has shown that when it comes to being eco-friendly, organic farming may be sub par. Research from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, reveals that in some instances, organic pesticides can be more detrimental to the environment.

The study says that it is wrong to assume that just because pesticides are organic, means that they are better for the environment. In fact, the opposite may be true. Oftentimes, growers have to use larger doses of the organic pesticide to get the same effect as using synthetic ones. The study measured the effects of six pesticides used to kill soybean aphids: four pesticides were synthetic, two were organic, one mineral and one fungal. Using criteria such as toxicity to humans and wildlife and leaching rate into soil and water, the study concluded that the mineral and fungal pesticides were less effective and more destructive. One particular harm noted from the organic pesticides is that they were harmful to ladybugs and flowering plants which are necessary controllers of aphid population.

This example is only one of hundreds in which organic products could have an unexpected flaw. It is important to pick products that are natural, but they should also promote environmentally friendly practices. This case illustrates perfectly how the end product could be deemed organic, but the practices in place to attain the product are less than green. Moral of the story: organic doesn’t always equal eco-nice. It’s best to evaluate both the product and how it is made, cultivated, etc. in order to make a more green decision.


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