DIY: Sew Your Own Cloth Pantiliners

Cloth pantiliners from scrap fabric

Cloth pantiliners from scrap fabric

If you were to look at my academic record, you might suspect that I went after the least practical degrees on purpose. I didn’t: I just have impractical interests. Along with having a degree or two in English, I have a minor in theater arts — costume design. I used to make fairly elaborate Renaissance costumes. Now I hem, mend, and sew cloth pads. How far the mighty have fallen!

I mostly now use menstrual cups, which are less messy and lower maintenance than cloth pads, but I still like my mini cloth pantiliners from Mimi’s Dreams and don’t regret jumping off the disposable pantiliner bandwagon. I wanted a few more and have lots of fabric scraps kicking around, so I decided to make some for myself. I tried out a few different patterns, and came up with my favorite.

So, here’s a little tutorial on making your own cloth pantiliners.  They’re fairly quick and easy to make. These are tiny, thin, unobtrusive daily liners or light cup backup. You can make wider, thicker versions for cloth menstrual pads.

You will need:

  • Smallish amounts of fabric (OK to use old towels, the ugly flannel shirt you were going to get rid of, other things you have lying around the home). More detail later.
  • Thread. I like matching it to the fabric, but to be green, I should say: use whatever you already have.
  • Pins. Not the safety pin type.
  • Some type of closure. I like sew on snaps. There are also ones you can hammer in, buttons, and (if you really must) Velcro dots.
  • A sewing machine. The thicker the pad, the stronger your sewing machine should be. Lightweight is fine for these pantiliners.
  • An iron, preferably with good steam power. Ironing is not optional when it comes to sewing. Sorry.
  • Bandaids if you’re new to sewing and prone to klutziness. Pins are sharp and irons are hot. But I hope you won’t need those.

Step 1. Find or make your pattern.

cloth pantiliner pattern

There are lots of free patterns out there. You can also trace a disposable pad or make your own pattern. I knew I wanted something a little narrower and thinner than my Mimi’s Dreams minis, so I used graph paper to draw a pad that was 7″ long and 2″ wide, with 1.5″ wings (they need to be long enough to overlap by 1/2″ – 1″). This is tiny, by the way — most pads are 2.5″ across and often much longer. Then I added seam allowance to all sides, folded it in quarters so it would be symmetrical, and cut it out. If you make a pattern like this, be sure to have a 2″ straight edge that you can leave open to turn the pad inside out later. I’m using the side of one wing.

The insert pattern is just the pad without the wings or seam allowance (2″ x 7″, in my case). Depending on what fabric you use and how much absorbency you want, you may want more than one layer of the insert.

Step 2: Get your fabrics together.

cactus fabric

Cactus print cloth pantiliners!

Cloth pads usually have three layers:

  • a top layer of something soft and absorbent, like a cotton flannel or quilter’s cotton
  • an absorbent core  (cotton flannel, terry, natural fleece)
  • a moisture resistant or moisture proof backing, like polar fleece.

You don’t need very much fabric. About 1/4 yard of each will yield 5+ liners. I’m using a quilter’s cotton on top that was scrap from a friend’s project. (I realized only after cutting that a cactus print might not be entirely appropriate for its intended purpose.) The core is from a 1/4 yard cut of cotton flannel sheeting. The back is a black synthetic suede that is thinner than fleece yet offers some moisture resistance.

Wash, dry, and iron all your fabrics on the highest / hottest settings you are likely to ever use on your cloth pads. Even though I line dry 90% of the time, there are days on which I want (or need) clean liners now and send them through the dryer. Do not skip this step! Your cloth pads will warp.

Step 3. Cut out your fabrics.

If you’re testing out a new pattern, I would just make one, but it saves time to cut multiples out. Make sure your pattern is parallel with the selvage (the finished edges of the fabric), pin, and cut carefully around your pattern. You can also trace it and cut on your tracing lines instead.

For a thin, everyday pantiliner, I use two layers of flannel for the core, so cut two of the inserts for every one of the top and bottom layers.

Step 4. Sew the insert to the top layer.

Cloth pantiliner insert

Be lazy: sew straight lines!

Pin and sew the insert to the wrong side of the top layer. Some people sew ovals or squigglies. Sewing tight curves is a pain, so I just stitch two lines on the edges of the insert. Tip: if you sew in the same direction for both lines, you’re less likely to get wrinkles in your insert.

Iron.

Step 5. Sew the top and bottom layers together.

cloth pad project 006

More pins.

Pin the top and bottom layers together, wrong sides facing. (Lots of pins. Fabric likes to shift on you when you’re sewing.) Now sew the sides together, leaving at least a 2″ gap on a straight edge somewhere for turning.

Iron and then clip the curves (both concave and convex). Otherwise they won’t look nice or lie flat when you turn everything inside out.

cloth pad project 007

Clip those curves. The right wing has been left open for turning.

Step 6. Turn everything inside out.

This is the most miserable part of the process, because you’ll end up with something limp and misshapen and begin to think that paying $4 for a cloth pantiliner is a good deal. Plus it’s easy to not leave quite enough space to turn and have to wrestle with it. (2″ is the absolute minimum — the thicker the pad, the more you’ll need.)

Use your fingers or a tool to press the seams open, and then iron with lots of steam until it looks presentable.

Step 7. Topstitch around the whole thing.

cloth pad project 009

If you want the finished product to look nice, go slowly on this step. I manually adjust the foot around the curves because my current sewing machine has only two speeds: 0 and a whole lot faster than I want to be going. Be sure to tuck in and sew over the seam that you left open to turn the thing inside out.

Lines a little crooked? Oh well. It’s only underwear.

Step 8. Attach some sort of fastening.

I like sew on snaps, but you could also do buttons or some kind of tab closure. All done!

You can read about my earlier adventures in cloth pads here. I think having some basic sewing skills is quite green if you want to be able to mend old clothes or make new things out of scrap fabrics.

Do you use cloth pads or liners? Have you tried making your own?

Seafood Watch: Do You Eat Sustainable Seafood?

California Leopard Sharks

Leopard Sharks. Credit: MoonSoleil

I admired the jellyfish, the octopus, and the nudibranchs, but in the end, it was the California leopard sharks that won me over. They cuddled up against the diver and nudged their heads against her arm, taking squid gently from her hand. It was the first time ever a shark had elicited an involuntary “Aww” reaction from me.

I’ve been going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium since I was eleven. (Honor roll field trips FTW!) There are arguments against keeping animals in captivity, but for me, getting up close and personal with a leafy sea dragon reminds me why I care about this planet and inspires me to keep caring.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium earnestly promotes ocean conservation, particularly through its Seafood Watch program. Overfishing is one of the most critical issues facing our ocean ecosystems, and the MBA’s Seafood Watch Pocket Guide distills a whole lot of solid scientific data into a handy wallet-sized guide of which fish you can enjoy without guilt, and which you’re really better off avoiding. They take into account fishing practices, population, and impact on habitat. Your seafood choices matter! 

Seafood Watch. Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium

I’m vegetarian and have fond memories of my pet betta fish (RIP, Superfishy), but if you eat seafood, please download the free pocket guide or Seafood Watch app and tell your friends about it. There are different regional versions that address the choices you’re most likely to face at the supermarket or in a restaurant.  They’ve made making good choices as easy as possible.

Since I’m nosy, I got in touch with Ryan Bigelow, the Seafood Watch Outreach Manager, and peppered him with questions about Seafood Watch. Read on for his thoughtful answers.

Q: How did the Seafood Watch program get started?
A: Conservation has always been one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s founding principles. Back in 1999, we were looking at our internal purchasing decisions. (The aquarium goes through a lot of seafood to feed its animals!) We started putting out informational placards on our restaurant tables about sustainable seafood. When those started disappearing, rather than hiring more security guards, we came up with the Seafood Watch pocket guide. Since then, we’ve handed out more than 40 million pocket guides and worked with major companies like Whole Food and Aramark, restaurants, commercial fisheries, aquariums, and other conservation groups. Basically, we provide the science behind the sustainable seafood movement.

Q: How’s the ocean looking in 2013?
A: There’s room for hope, especially in US, Canadian, and Australian waters – places where government regulations have been driven by consumer consciousness. More and more fishermen are on board. We’re definitely not out of the tunnel yet, but there’s some hope, including for species like the bluefin tuna.

Q: What are the most important factors that go into deciding how sustainable a species is?
A: Our scientists look at both wild seafood and aquaculture (farmed seafood) and evaluate their impact in a lot of ways. For wild seafood, we look at how a species is fished, levels of bycatch, habitat damage, overfishing, and more. For aquaculture, we go by what type of species is raised, what it eats, and how the farm affects the environment. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has 2,500 total recommendations, about 270 of which are online. A pocket guide has about 75. It’s incredibly difficult to condense so much information, but our goal was to offer enough information to help people make good choices without being overwhelmed.

Q: Would you ever put invasive species like Asian carp on the green list?
A: Yes, we absolutely would. The problem is that there is rarely an established commercial fishery for invasive species. And there’s potential that creating a market for invasives is that fisheries might not just fish until a species was gone – they might want to maintain it or even expand it.

Q: The pocket guide makes distinctions between fish raised or caught in different ways or places. What if we can’t get this information?
A: Sometimes consumers just won’t have the information they need, and this brings up issues like the need for better labeling. For example, wild salmon caught in Alaska might be processed in China before being sent back to the US. It can legally be called wild Alaskan salmon, but it’s probably not what you had in mind. Even though people won’t have all the pieces, we hope Seafood Watch gets people to think about the issues, ask questions, and start conversations. If you can’t tell if something is sustainable, we recommend not buying it. Most restaurants will have at least a few options that are on the green or yellow list.

Q: What about pet food? I have no idea what kind of tuna is in tuna for cats, much less how or where it was caught. Is there a way to buy canned fish responsibly for my cat?
A: We pay attention to what kinds of people are interested in our program, and pet owners keep coming up. The best answer I can give right now is that we’re looking into it. The problem with pet food is that it’s made as cheaply as possible, and that often means that sustainability was not a consideration.  A good rule of thumb  – not just for pet food – is that if it’s caught in an environmentally responsible way, it will be marketed that way. For example, troll/pole caught canned tuna is always touted as such.

Q: Why doesn’t the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommend just eating less fish?
A: That hasn’t been our message up to now; rather we recommend that people try to diversify the types of fish they eat, moving away from just tuna, shrimp and salmon . We work closely with fishermen and want to support those doing the right thing. We don’t want people to think that eating seafood is bad – we believe seafood can be sustainable if done well, and we want people to continue enjoying it.

Q: I’m a vegetarian. What else can I do to take care of our oceans?
A: Even if you don’t eat seafood, you can help get the message out, ask questions at restaurants and supermarkets, and advocate for the oceans. Any support is good support!

***

Thanks, Ryan! I hope you’ll take a moment to download the guide and tuck a copy in your wallet today. I’m planning to snoop around my local supermarket and see if they’re up to snuff and write letters if they’re not…

Do you eat seafood? Do you try to ensure that it’s sustainable?

The Crankypants Guide to a Green Holiday

This is my idea of a Christmas tree. Photo credit: Humboldthead

Around this time of year, my Twitter feed explodes with things like, “Eco-friendly tree decorations!” and “Greenest stocking stuffers!” and “How to make eco-friendly tinsel out of Capri-Sun wrappers!” It’s all well-intentioned (or mostly; some of it is still trying to sell you stuff you don’t need and will never want), but at the same time, I have to wonder: how green can you really make the highest-impact, most wasteful holiday of the year by replacing things you don’t need with slightly lower impact versions of things you don’t need? 

 

Uh. Sorry. I think my Grinch is showing. But tongue firmly in cheek, I came up with a list of revised suggestions for a [more] eco-responsible[-ish] holiday. You know, for grouchpuss greenies. Extreme? Nah…

  • Be poor if you can possibly help it. (And if you can’t, I have to think that you’re not trying hard enough.) Poverty is the single best way to cut down on decorations, gift-giving, traveling, and impulsive holiday buys, like the bouncy inflatable Santa my neighbors down the street have. I’m finding that it also forces me to be more creative. Instead of buying stuff this year, I’m reusing, doing without, or coming up with creative workarounds and unusual presents (dress altering services, anyone?). Also, I hope you really, really like my pottery.
  • Stop traveling to see people you don’t like. Sharing DNA is not a good reason to spend your time or your carbon dioxide on people you can’t stand. I don’t recommend this as a networking strategy, but it works amazingly well if you want some extra time and peace for the holidays. And in the same vein:
  • Stop buying presents for people you don’t like. With regards to the people we don’t know well or like much, yet still feel obliged toward…can’t we just come to a non-gift agreement already? A plate of cookies and a card, maybe? A handshake to imply goodwill without the transfer of material goods?
  • Put off inessentials until the last minute. If you’ve waited till now to get up your Christmas lights, you might as well not do it at all because it’s so much effort for a two week show. I’ve had finals up until yesterday, so I’ve been putting off everything, with the end result that I am not likely to bake cookies, write cards, or make a mix CD this year. It’s okay. Every couple years is fine.
  • Try a non-meat-based holiday dinner. Taste-wise, Tofurky is somewhere between a rubber tire and a salt lick. But if you’re already feeling glutted (Thanksgiving was only a month ago) or guilty about the impact of your holiday ham, there are lots of tasty, meatless, or low-meat alternative holiday dinners. How about pumpkin and sage pot pies? A mushroom and tarragon pate? I have my eye on a couple of veggie holiday recipes to try this year.
  • Draw a line between doing things out of tradition and doing things that are meaningful to you. As the daughter of an angry ex-Catholic schoolgirl mother and a vaguely Confucian father, I can’t say that my family ever went all out for Christmas. But we did do the tree, the presents, the holiday ham. As a tree lover, I can’t bear the thought of cutting down a live tree just for decoration. As a tree hugger, I can’t see myself getting a fake tree. And as a vegetarian, I’m not about to go for the Christmas ham. So that leaves presents (but not many of them, because I’m poor), which I genuinely enjoy taking the time to choose or make, wrap, and give. Kevin and I also like to go for a drive in the redwoods on Christmas day, which isn’t very green, but has become a tradition that we’re willing to swap out others for.

My bottom line is the same as it usually is. Cut out the stuff that doesn’t actively, actually make you happy. Enjoy the stuff that does. And don’t let social expectations bully you into doing otherwise. Happy non-denominational winter holiday of choice!

I’m off school until the end of January, which is exciting because chemistry gobbled up all my brain bandwidth and left me gibbering about acid-base equilibria and stoichiometry and volumetric flasks. (You know this if you follow me on Twitter.) I have a few posts that I just haven’t had the brain space to write, so I’ll get those up and catch up with your blogs and resume normal functions until the next semester starts. Hope you’ve been well!

Breaking up with eco-perfectionism

Tea ball. Evil incarnate? Photo credit: Jlodder

For the first six months of this year, I skirmished daily with my tea ball. Actually, make that tea balls. I am outnumbered 2 to 1. One has a tiny metal latch that you need to thumb closed. The other is spring-operated and shuts with the predatory snap (if not the force) of a bear trap.

Convinced as I was that my daily tea bag habit was trashing the planet, I was resolved to give up tea bags altogether in favor of loose leaf tea. Every morning, I awoke determined to conquer these simple kitchen gadgets that would make me a better greenie.

Yeah. And pretty much every morning, the score card looked like this: Tea ball: 2; Jennifer: 0.

These things are evil.  So evil that I am tempted to start calling people I dislike ‘tea balls.’ They sneered at my attempts to close the latch in my pre-caffeinated total lack of motor control. They snapped shut on my fingers. They leaked out bits of tea (rooibos was the worst) so that every cup ended with a gritty mouthful of dead leaves. They were a pain to clean, so I left them in the sink. In the morning, I would blearily dump out a sodden ball of tea leaves, attempt a quick swipe with a sponge, and start the whole process over again.

In June, I signed up for a class that required me to be out of the house and awake enough to drive by 7:30am every day. About halfway through, I made some quick triage calculations and caved. I went for a box of 100 Irish breakfast tea bags for the following reasons: 1) I am exactly the kind of tea drinker who scoffs at boxes of 20 bags; 2) Irish breakfast has a lot of caffeine; and 3) the more bags in a box, the less likely they are to be individually packaged.

Now it’s October. I’m not sure where my tea balls have gone. I secretly hope the dishwasher has eaten them.

I’ve struggled for a long time with whether tiny personal actions matter. My response has usually been to say that they matter in a symbolic way, as daily, personal reminders to live consciously. What I never thought to ask myself is this: what is the trade off of agonizing over spinach bags, tea bags, plastic dental floss boxes, the occasional disposable paper coffee cup (used to hold tea, of course)?

I think there is a cost, actually. Speaking for myself, I’ve always had a finite amount of head space. (Go ahead, make a crack at my intelligence.) I am totally the Anti-Multi-Tasker. If I’m concentrating on my blog, I can’t work on my novel. If I’m fully engaged at work or school, I can’t really do justice to my blog. There’s just not enough time or space in my head to go full tilt at everything I’m interested in at the same time. And what I’ve come to realize is that fretting about the small stuff leaves me with less energy, time, and headspace to do things that might actually benefit this planet. Like plant trees, volunteer with my local native plant society, get involved with local conservation. For me, the fact that there’s always more to fix in my own life has been a sort of excuse not to get outside of it. And finally, there’s the danger of that ‘OK, I’ve done enough’ complacency when I have arranged my life to relatively green standards.

It’s true that there is plenty of room for improvement in my own life. I still have a car. I still haven’t made an attempt to vermicompost indoors. I still haven’t switched to cloth toilet paper. I still use tea bags. But…you know what? I’ve been a vegetarian for years. I’m not having kids. I travel maybe once a year. I don’t shop much. I live with another person and share resources. For a developed world citizen, I’m doing okay on most of the big impact lifestyle habits. Actually, I’m tired of futzing around with the little stuff that might reduce my negative impact ever so slightly, and am finally maybe-kind-of-ready to leave my armchair.

My growing issue with focusing on green living is that it tends to start and end with one’s own life, and the problems we’re dealing with are so much bigger than that. They require education, research, legislation, and communication.

I’m delighted to announce that I am finally getting close, after much haranguing with my condo association, to planting a new tree outside my window where the last one was removed. Planting a tree is a small first step away from the armchair. Getting myself fully scientifically literate is another. And after that? Who knows?

What’s your relationship with eco-perfectionism? Has it changed over the years?

Guest Post: Our Exotic Urban Forest

This is a guest post by Nancy Nordman from Our City Forest, San Jose’s urban forestry group. Our City Forest is a non-profit organization that provides free trees and tree advice to San Jose residents and promotes greenery in our urban environment. They’ve planted some 65,000 trees in San Jose! Here, Nancy takes us on a tree walk of the urban forest around San Jose’s Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum. Why not poke around and see what’s growing in yours?

When I first started as an AmeriCorps member at Our City Forest, I probably couldn’t name even ten different tree species, let alone classify the species I was standing under.  I knew plenty about how trees used photosynthesis to make food and I definitely had an appreciation for the benefits trees provide to us and the environment.   But ask me to tell the difference between an Ash and an Elm?  At that point, your guess was as good as mine.

Once I found out I would be leading tree tours around the city, I began to poke around looking for any information that could help me – field guides, the internet, and my enthusiastic co-workers.   I found there to be incredible diversity just among the 65,000 trees planted by Our City Forest. I  began to see opportunities everywhere I looked for more greenery to be added to this city to make it healthier, more efficient, and more beautiful.

At Our City Forest, we are often asked why we allow any planting of non-native trees.  While we are a strong advocate of planting native trees, there are numerous situations where planting non-natives actually makes more sense.  As the city of San Jose has grown, urbanization has drastically altered the native environment, so some natives can no longer thrive in the urban setting.  Oftentimes we plant drought tolerant non-native trees from similar Mediterranean climates that can handle harsh urban challenges such as smog.  Species diversity is also incredibly important to maintaining the health of an urban forest so that if a disease comes through, the tree population can make a comeback.

The wonderful thing about all this diversity is that you don’t need to go somewhere special to see a bunch of different trees!  I encourage you to take a walk along your street and just try to notice the urban forest around you.  To get you started, here are some great trees to check out at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose.  (There are around 50 different tree species within the grounds of the Rosicrucian Museum alone!)

Canary Island Palm. Photo credit: Our City Forest

Canary Island Palm (Phoenix canariensis)

Where better to start than a “tree” that is not really a tree?  Palms are technically classified as grasses.  Unlike true trees, palms do not undergo secondary growth and therefore do not produce true wood, but rather a fibrous trunk structure.  There are also differences in their growth and structure as well as their root system.

In contrast to the equally common Mexican Fan Palm, Canary Island Palms are shorter and stockier and have pinnate feathery leaves instead of the fan palmate structure of the Mexican Fan Palm.  If you still aren’t sure which palm it is, look underneath the feathery stalks hanging down and you can usually see what looks like a large pineapple.   The Canary Island Palm does in fact come from the Canary Islands and is highly ornamental, sporting large, orange, edible dates.

Jacarandas in bloom. Photo credit: Frank Reyes

Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia)

If you are looking to see some color in our urban forest, keep your eyes peeled for the gorgeous Jacaranda trees!  Though found all over San Jose, these trees originate from the tropical environment of Brazil and Argentina and have since been introduced all over the world.  Their popularity is thanks to the large showy violet flowers that appear in late spring or early summer.  Also interesting to note is the large brown clamshell seedpods and the fern-like compound leaves.  These trees are located throughout the museum grounds, but are mainly located near the obelisk.

Irish Yew. Photo credit: Our City Forest

Irish Yew (Taxus baccata)

On the side of the museum directly across from the Starbucks, you will see two short stocky bush-like trees.  But don’t be fooled, they may look tiny but these trees are some of the most formidable trees on the whole grounds!  Bearing toxic wood and leaves, these trees are also extremely long-lived, up to 4000 years!  It is said that bow makers and other wood craftsmen would get sick from working with this wood.  Originating in Europe, this tree was often planted in cemeteries as a symbol of transcendence after death.  They can be identified by their flat dark green leaves and red seeds, which are very much enjoyed by bird species that don’t find them toxic.

White mulberry. Photo credit: Our City Forest

White Mulberry (Morus alba)

If you cared for silkworms in elementary school, you may know that they will only eat mulberry leaves.  The White Mulberry is appreciated here in San Jose for its fast growth and ability to handle pruning.  Less known but certainly more impressive is its ability to shoot out pollen at 350 miles per hour — one of the fastest movements in the plant kingdom!  There is a particularly great White Mulberry on the museum grounds next to the Akhenaten Shrine and near the Peace Garden.

Olive tree. Photo Credit: Our City Forest

Olive (Olea europea)

Possibly my favorite tree yet is the Olive tree, mainly for its incredibly beautiful silver-gray leaves and whorled trunk.  You likely know this tree for its production of olives, or perhaps from its history of use for crowns in ancient Olympic games. The Olive tree does very well in San Jose’s climate because it originally comes from the Mediterranean Basin, making it quite drought tolerant.  Worldwide, the olive tree stands for peace and wisdom and the museum has dedicated a large section of the grounds to these magnificent trees.

Dawn Redwood. Photo credit: Our City Forest.

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

Tucked in a corner by the library and rose garden of the museum, you will find a gem of a specimen—a huge Dawn Redwood!  These fantastic trees were actually widely thought to be extinct, but as they were attempting to classify fossil records of the leaves, a matching specimen was found in an area of central China.  Similar to the ginkgo, this tree is considered a “living fossil.”  Don’t be surprised if you find this tree looking dead in the autumn and winter.  The Dawn Redwood is the only living deciduous redwood species and so it will turn a beautiful bronze color and then drop its feathery leaves, taking on a skeletal appearance.

Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwilli)

To the left of the main entrance to the museum are a couple of Bunya Pines, which are an interesting evergreen species from Southeastern Queensland.  Take a close look at the branches which have tufts of leaves at the ends and few by the trunk — but do watch for large falling seed cones!  The edible cones get as heavy as 10-15lbs, so during fruiting season this tree can be quite dangerous!  From far off, it is very pretty with its branches forming a rounded dome structure toward the top.

***

I hope you enjoyed this brief tour of the unique non-native trees you can discover in San Jose!  As I continue to learn more about trees, I find my appreciation of their beauty and function is constantly growing.  Trees are already working hard filtering pollutants out of the air, cleaning our water, and providing home for critical wildlife species.  I hope you will join Our City Forest in advocating for a vast and healthy urban forest!  If you wish to learn more about trees and urban forestry, check out the Our City Forest website, like us on Facebook, come out and volunteer with us, or consider getting a tree from our nursery!  We also have free educational tree tours and classroom presentations.  Our City Forest is a nonprofit that has been providing free trees for residents, schools, and parks across San Jose since 1994.  For more information on our planting, tree care, and educational programs, visit our website or call (408) 998-7337.

Jennifer: Do you know what’s growing in your urban forest? On my street are maples, ashes, sweetgums, olives, birches, redwoods, redbuds, gingkos, and Chinese pistachios, just to name a few. Going on a tree walk with a knowledgeable local is a great way to learn about the forest you live in. Thanks, Nancy!

Support the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Plan

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly. Image credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

I recently attended a mushroom talk held by my local California Native Plant Society chapter. (No, mushrooms aren’t plants — they are more closely related to animals than to plants, which is why it’s hard to treat fungal infections — but it’s cool.) One of the things that came up at the talk was a project that has been in the works for the past decade to preserve a good chunk of open space not very far from me. The various cities and counties involve will be voting on it this October.

I had never heard of the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan before. Which is silly, because I’m reasonably up to date on deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia and a number of other areas around the world that are threatened by human economic and population expansion. Yet in my own backyard, here’s a unique ecosystem under pressure from urban development. It’s easy to say, “Save the rainforest!” when you don’t live in one and your economic future doesn’t depend on encroaching into that land. It’s harder when you have to measure the economics of your area against the long term benefits of habitat preservation.

Even so, I am definitely in favor of protecting more open spaces from being paved over and turned into a condos. In the Bay Area, we’ve already done a whole lot of paving, and have already lost a lot of habitats and species. Time to learn how to share.

San Joaquin Kit Fox. Image credit: USFWS Endangered Species

What’s so special about the 46,000 acres that the Habitat Plan would protect? They include some unique serpentine ecosystems. Serpentine soil is rocky and low in nitrogen, potassium, and other things plants like. But it’s far from barren: some extremophile, highly adapted plants and animals have evolved here and live nowhere else. Endangered native wildflowers, burrowing owls, checkerspot butterflies, and kit foxes all thrive in the Bay Area’s shrinking serpentine ecosystems. 

The Habitat Plan would ensure long term protection for these 46,000 acres of open space while directing urban development back within cities and towns. You can learn more about it at their website or on Facebook.

Santa Clara County, Gilroy, Morgan Hill, and San Jose vote on the plan between October 9 and October 23. If you’re local (and even if you’re not), I hope you’ll join me in urging elected officials to approve the plan.   I’m trying to work up the courage to attend some of the city council meetings, even though I am totally the kind of introvert who would rather do almost anything than speak in public.

I firmly believe that conservation should extend to, and maybe even start at, home. Checkerspot butterflies may not be as sexy as jaguars, but that doesn’t make them less worth protecting.

What local conservation projects are happening around you? If you don’t know of any, I challenge you to find out!

Weird things we do to food plants (other than genetic engineering)

Mutant carrot. Photo credit: Joebeone

Here’s an embarrassing confession: when I was eight, the cartoon Attack of the Killer Tomatoes gave me nightmares. Seriously, what could be scarier than giant mutant tomatoes with teeth? (Don’t answer that.)

I’ve been thinking about these killer tomatoes a lot recently in the context of GMOs. Genetically modified organisms probably do seem about as unnatural and just as frightening (if less overt) as these tomatoes. It is scientists playing God. It is taking genes from one organism and sticking them into another. It is definitely unnatural.

But is it significantly more unnatural than other things we do to food plants?

I wanted to talk about some of the other weird s*** humans do to plants in this post, because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about how we develop crops. Unless you survive strictly off foraging, we all eat mutant plants every day. (That is, if you eat fruits and vegetables, which I hope you do.) Virtually all of our food plants are mutants, clones, or freaks, and about as far from their natural state as they can get through intense human meddling. Here are a handful of the ways we grow and eat mutants.

Corn: pretty much unrecognizable from its wild grass ancestor. Photo credit: photofarmer

Cherishing Mutants

Plants don’t evolve to be edible. (Quite the opposite, generally.) Many, in their unmodified state, are toxic, unproductive, hard to get, or just plain unappetizing. If you take a look at the wild ancestors of things like corn or tomatoes, you will almost certainly come to the conclusion that our ancestors must have been damn hungry to eat that. Corn is a great example. It started off as a wild grass with 5-10 extremely hard kernels per spike. Now, we don’t know the whole story, but we guess that when our ancestors found a mutant plant with softer kernels, they saved them to grow more mutant corn plants, maybe bred them with each other. This particular mutation is bad for the plant (soft kernels = seeds are all eaten by predators), but good for humans. Lots of crosses and some more chance mutations later, we have corn. Mutations, which are the raw material of genetic diversity — and which result in novel proteins — still happen. So does cross-breeding. Kevin Folta, a plant geneticist at the University of Florida, estimates that between 10,000 and 300,000 genes are affected when we breed plants the traditional way. We definitely don’t eat what our ancestors ate, and in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing.

Mutagenesis: plant breeding through radiation damage. Photo credit: ssoosay

Making Mutants (MOARRR MUTANTS!)

Right. So mutation is the rough material of genetic diversity, but we can’t control where and what kind of mutations will occur in nature. If we’re trying to get a new a trait into a plant, we can a) damage its DNA through chemicals or radiation and hope that some of the resulting mutants will have good traits; b) insert the gene in through genetic engineering; or c) try to get it through traditional breeding. Believe it or not, we’ve been using the first (mutagenesis) for the past 80 years. Wiki notes that, between 1930-2007, more than 2540 mutagenic plant varieties have been released. These mutants are fairly common in our food supply and include varieties of grapefruit, pear, sweet potato, rice, peppermint, citrus, and yam. No label required. Yay for DNA damage!

A grafted tree. Photo credit: Jbcurio

Attack of the Clones

Not to take down a childhood hero or anything, but Johnny Appleseed probably left behind a lot of apple trees that produced gnarly inedible apples. Apples don’t breed true from seed (since they are not self-pollinated, a Golden Delicious tree will only pass on half its genetic data to its seeds), so in order to get an orchard growing, all the same type of apple, you need clones. Every Honeycrisp apple tree in the world is genetically identical.

One of the really weird things we do in order to clone trees is to take a branch, cut a slice in an existing, related plant, and bind them up until they grow together. This is an age old technique known as grafting. You can end up with at tree that bears several types of fruit! They’re called ‘fruit salad trees.‘ In the photo, you can still see where one tree started and the other left off, yet they’re part of the same tree. Sort of. These guys are the real frankentrees, in my opinion.

Seedless watermelon…nope, definitely not natural. Photo credit: stevendepolo

Polyploidy

Would you be insulted if I called you a diploid? I’m one, too. So is your mother. So is my cat. It just means that we have two copies of each of our chromosomes (23 pairs in humans, for a total of 46 — get this, the adder’s tongue fern has 1440!).  Some organisms have just one copy of each chromosome, like bacteria, where others can have four, six, or even more. When something has more than two copies of each chromosome, it’s a polyploid.

Humans have figured out how to induce polyploidy in plants by treating them with a certain chemical (colchicine). We’re not just adding a couple of genes — we’re adding a whole extra genome. (You’ll remember that even one extra copy of one chromosome in humans — 3 copies of chromosome 21 — causes Down syndrome.) And in fact, polyploidy is how we get things like seedless watermelon and seedless bananas. (I know, right? A seeded banana??) First we treat them to get tetraploid plants, which are crossed with regular diploid plants to produce sterile (seedless) offspring. Think about that the next time you eat a banana without spitting out seeds.

***

Bottom line: humans do lots of weird things to plants, most of which have the potential to result in harmful, toxic, or allergenic foods. We don’t have long term safety tests for most of the foods we eat, including things like hot dogs, goji berries, and root beer (one component, natural sassafras flavor, was found to be carcinogenic fairly recently). Given that almost all of these techniques (except cloning, of course), result in much greater genetic changes than genetic engineering, I think it makes sense to be, if anything, more worried about mutagenesis and polypoidy than genetic engineering.

…Or, if you’re lazy and have a family history of heart disease and cancer anyway, you could be like me and eat lots of fruits and veggies and not worry too much about the other stuff. Just an option.

On a side note, I’m back in school, and my brain is inundated — and I mean polyatomic ions are coming out my ears — with chemistry and biology at the moment. I’m hoping to pursue a graduate degree in botany or plant bio once I’ve beefed up my wussy language arts background. Having this blog has made me realize that it’s time to get out of my house and brain and start doing something about the many problems we face. It’s starting not to be enough for me to sit behind my computer and fret over the miniscule impact of forgetting to bring my reusable bulk bin bags. I want to be doing something. I’m not an activist — I don’t like ideology or emotions — so science it is. I hope you’ll wish me luck and forgive me my erratic postings in the months to come. Peace.

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