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Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan's Posts


Reign of tarragon: How to start an herb share with neighbors


Inspiration may strike anywhere, but gardens seem to host a disproportionate number of epiphanies, don’t you think? Put Newton under an apple tree and bam, gravity. George de Mestral dreamed up Velcro after coming home from a nature stroll covered in burrs. And then there’s me in my backyard, picking through a patch of lemon verbena.

“Whatcha looking for?” my neighbor Adrian, who happened to be in the backyard at the time, asked.

“Dill,” I said. We needed the stuff for a new salad recipe, and I’d come out to check our yard’s communal herb patch. (Nobody knows who planted them, so they’re considered up for grabs.) Unfortunately, I was coming up empty.

“Oh, we’ve got some dill. Lemme see if it’s still good,” he said, disappearing into his kitchen and reemerging with one of those flat plastic herb cases.

“You sure?” I asked. “You don’t need it?”

“Nah, we used it for a recipe a few days ago. It’s kind of old, but” -- he gave the fronds an investigative sniff -- “I think they’re OK.” About half of the dill sprigs looked a little lackluster, true, a little yellow, but some seemed perfectly fine. I accepted the dill gratefully and turned back to my door. It was then that my inspiration struck.

Read more: Food, Living


Hot wheels: Tips for smokin’ bike dates

Christopher Harrison

You are: a thoughtful, eco-conscious romantic. You want: to make a good impression on that special someone next Friday night. You need: a bike date.

Seriously: What better way to stand out from the pack of would-be suitors (or just show your S.O. a good time) than planning a two-wheeled date night? It’s fresh. It’s fun. And you’re working your quads at the same time.

With all this in mind, I decided to cap off my summer of exploring urban cycling by taking my fiancé, Ted, on our first city bike date. Having survived a few rides and even handled after-hours pedaling, I felt ready to add a little romance to my riding resume.

Bike dates sound easy: Find date, hop on bike. But there’s a little more to a successful outing than that. Here’s what I’ve learned about the art of velocipede wooing. May you take these lessons to heart on your own amorous rides.

Read more: Cities, Living


Biking at night: How to avoid hidden dangers and arrive in style

night bicycle bike lane

You can do it on the way to the grocery store. You can do it in a deep maze of the city streets. But can you do it when the lights go out?

We’re talking cycling -- night cycling. Something funny happens to bikers when the sun goes down: Riders who will gleefully pedal all over town between dawn and dusk hesitate to saddle up for a moonlight roll. I’ve done a bit of after-hours cycling myself, but it’s typically been on off-street bike paths or quiet suburban roads -- never in the urban core. Having conquered both bike culture and daytime downtown cycling, it seemed I had yet another bike frontier to explore.

The perfect opportunity came this week, when I wanted to go to a rock show in a city neighborhood about three car miles away. My fiancé had the car we share, and infrequent late-night bus service meant it would take me more than an hour to get home if I relied solely on public transit. Why not become the mistress of my own destiny and take my bike?

Read more: Cities, Living


Six tips for safe cycling in the city

You'll feel mighty accomplished after your first successful city cycling trip.
You'll feel mighty accomplished after your first successful city cycling trip.

What does it take to truly join the elite tribe that is urban cyclists? Do you have to achieve Paperboy levels of expertise: master the left turn in traffic, negotiate vanishing bike lanes without missing a beat, learn to bunny-hop over open sewer drains? Or do you just have to successfully ride your bike in a city, even once? If it’s the latter, break out the champagne -- ’cause I’m in the club, baby.

I earned my spokes earlier this week, when I decided it was high time I got out of my relatively quiet neighborhood and into some real city traffic. I haven’t taken this step before because, frankly, riding into the morass of buses, cars, and trucks on the downtown streets freaked the hell out of me. But after getting inspired at a recent bike symposium, I steeled myself to give it a try.

If you’re standing where I was just a few days ago -- on the outside, looking wistfully at the urban bike crew -- let me be the first to encourage you to go for it. Get the basics down first, then lean a little closer. I’ll share a few of my hard-won lessons, too.

1. Think like a cyclist.

One of my biggest hurdles to biking anywhere beyond my neighborhood: the epic hill that lies between me and pretty much every other destination in the city. The shortest route downtown is particularly intimidating, careening straight down a slope that drops 250 feet over the course of half a mile. Um, no thank you.

But then I realized: Man, you’re thinking like a driver. Just because that hill is the easiest route for a car doesn’t mean it’s the best way for your newfound urban cycling self. It was an answer so obvious I didn’t even see it at first: Find another way.

Read more: Cities, Living


Mean streets: A bike lover braces for cycling in the city

bike lane blur

As any kid with a brand-new two-wheeler could tell you, riding bikes is fun. It’s also cheap, healthy, and non-carbon-spewing, yes, but fun is the keystone principle here. I love riding my bike. I love cruising around, traversing my neighborhood quickly without sealing myself away in a car, and blazing by all the suckers who can’t find a parking space. But confession time: Since I’ve moved to the urban wonderland of Seattle, my butt-in-bike-seat time has dramatically declined. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t change that.

I used to be a hell of a bike commuter. Lest you question my commitment, know this: I once won a free bike light from my boss for cycling to work the most days in a row. In fact, I even sacrificed my left front tooth on the altar of the two-wheeled commute. One cold winter’s morning, when less fervent riders were hiding out in their cars, I pedaled off to the office and flew over my handlebars in short order (I could tell you this happened because of icy conditions, but really, it was because my mitten got tangled in my iPod cord). I even rode my bike to the subsequent root canal appointment (true story).

But that was in the flat and suburbanesque town of Boulder, Colo., where an extensive series of wide, well-kept bike paths snake through town, granting easy, traffic-free access to any place worth going. Street riding was minimal, and even then, it was never so congested as to dissuade me. It wasn’t without its hazards -- kamikaze prairie dogs and Spandex-encased racers who’d knock over a toddler if he was slowing them down* were chief among them -- but generally, biking there was an easy way to get around.

And now, Seattle. We do have an impressive bike lane system in this city, but they’re not everywhere -- meaning there’s some degree of tangling with hulking buses and impatient cars required on some pretty narrow streets. Even when you do find a blessed bike lane, odds are decent you’ll run into some construction that’ll force you into uncomfortably close communion with traffic. My fiancé, Ted, once noticed a cyclist bravely forging on next to the bus Ted was riding in a hard-hat zone. “I could have reached out the window and patted that guy on the head,” he said.

Read more: Cities, Living


The garden plot thickens: Taking guerrilla gardening to the next level

woman hat spying grass
Dorky hat not included.

Tip: When attempting any technically not-legal tactical endeavors, it helps to start with a checklist. For some rebels, I imagine this list would include items like spray-paint and rotten eggs, maybe an iPod stocked with mood music by the Sex Pistols. Me, I’m taking a greener approach with my list: potting soil, water bottle, trash bags, low-maintenance plants, and one classic terra-cotta planter.

I assembled these items one recent evening in preparation for my first attempt at serious guerrilla gardening (that’s reclaiming a piece of underused public land by planting it, to you). I’d dropped a few wildflower seed balls around the city, sure, but those little bombs are a bit of a crapshoot. This would be the first time I’d leave anything undoubtedly living and green in my wake. And besides, seed bombs are easy to fling unnoticed; an entire pot brimming with succulents is a bit trickier to assemble in secrecy. Better add “nerves of steel” to that checklist.

My chosen site could certainly do with a little extra love. Located along a long pedestrian staircase linking a major bus route to the neighborhoods on the top and sides of a hill, the spot was overgrown with weeds and littered with bottles and granola bar wrappers. Ugly black construction netting encircled two sinkholes next to the stairs; the only decoration was the graffiti crawling up the sidewalk and across the site’s lone bench. If there was another spot within a two-mile radius of my apartment that needed some horticultural refinement more, I sure hadn’t found it.

So I loaded up my pot, my plants, and my soil, convinced my fiancé to ride shotgun, and set out to guerrilla garden the hell out of that neglected site. Or at least, leave it a little nicer, a little greener, than it was before.

Read more: Food, Living


Plotting a revolution: Inside the mind of a budding guerrilla gardener


It’s time.

I’ve practiced my craft at home. I’ve experimented with tamer, safer tactical maneuvers. But now it’s time to go deeper. To risk more. To slink off into the night, leaving the urban landscape forever transformed in my wake.

In other words, it’s time to guerrilla garden. Where I once simply lobbed wildflower seeds into vacant lots and hoped for the best, now I’ll plant an actual array of botanical delight in a neglected corner of the city.

Guerrilla gardening, for the uninitiated, is all about reclaiming abandoned, underused, or just plain ugly land around you and using it to raise veggies, herbs, flowers, and, depending on your tastes, perhaps the occasional garden gnome. It’s taking a plot of soil you don’t technically have the right to plant and planting it anyway, letting your rebellion against wasted space grow alongside your illicit community tomatoes.

Sounds like fun, right? I sure thought so. I was so overcome with enthusiasm for this next foray into guerrilladom that the other day I very nearly just took off with a bushelful of plants, sure I’d find the perfect site and have my garden growing strong before happy hour. It was only when I realized I don’t actually, ya know, own any gardening tools that I paused to think.

Now that you mention it, I didn’t really know what types of plants would work best, either. And that perfect site? Not all patches of dirt are created equal.

A little prep work was clearly in order.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


Unleash your inner seed demon: Three easy ways to grow herbs at home


They’re up.

I repeat: They are up. My fragile seeds have sprouted into tiny proto-herbs. Miniature leaves unfold by the hour; little stems reach toward the sun. It’s alive, I tell you! I have created life!

Forgive me for going a bit mad with power -- I’m just so excited that my very first foray into growing from seed is actually working so far. Sure, I’ve managed to keep a series of windowsill plants alive in pots over the past few years (bless you, you affable succulents). But I bought all of them as hearty young plants, already strong and bushy and requiring little more than water from me. It’s like adopting a high-achieving college kid -- with all the hard work already done, you can’t exactly call yourself parent of the year.

But my recent seed-bombing expedition awakened something in me. I haven’t yet seen any sprouts from the secret seed bomb I snuck into a corner of my backyard -- my cue to check on the seed-filled clay capsules I lobbed into vacant lots (maybe the dry spell of the past few weeks is to blame?). So while I’m waiting for my guerrilla gardening luck to kick in, I decided to try growing herbs from seed for the first time.

Read more: Food, Living


Flower power: Fighting the Man with guerrilla gardens

seed bomb
Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

I’ve never thought of myself as much of a rebel. You generally won’t find me smashing car windows or setting garbage cans aflame. (Let’s get real: You probably won’t find me speeding. Such are the depths of my rule-following nature.) But I realize now that all along, I’ve just been waiting for the right weapon with which to battle The Man.

Wildflowers, of course. More precisely: ping-pong ball-size globs of clay and compost laced with wildflower seeds called seed bombs (or green grenades -- military nomenclature is a must). The other day, I stood in front of a fenced-off lot on a busy stretch of asphalt, fingering the tiny seed arsenal I’d packed into a Ziploc bag. I looked back and forth, took a deep breath, and let one fly over the chain links; the ball came to rest on a scrubby patch of dirt in the sun. “Take that!” I muttered under my breath.

Finally, I was beginning to understand the rebel thrill. This must be what Marlon Brando felt like.

Read more: Cities, Living


What I learned from a month of eating vegan

vegetable face plate

A little more than a month ago, I expanded Team Greenie Pig to four and set out on a month-long challenge to eliminate animal products from our diets. Would we discover an entirely new way of eating? Experience a miraculous increase in vitality? Or crash and burn spectacularly over an irresistible salumi plate? And would any of us end up converting wholly to veganism?

One thing we all agreed on: We learned a lot. Now it’s your turn: I encourage -- nay, dare -- you to try the vegan experiment yourself. It’s challenging, surprising, and utterly worthwhile. But before you do, here are some of those lessons we learned along the way.

It’s hard.

Surprise, surprise: Departing from the eating and cooking habits you’ve developed over decades -- particularly if you developed them in contemporary, fast-food-lovin’, steak-and-potatoes-havin’, pizza-partyin’ America -- is challenging. I normally eat meat sparingly and front-load my plate with veggies anyway, and still I found the strict vegan thing to be hard.

It’s the little things: I missed butter and cheese (way more than meat). A bunch of my favorite whole-grain products were blacklisted for their honey content. I struggled with suddenly becoming the “difficult" guest at dinner parties and evenings out. Convenience foods got a whole lot less convenient. And eating well requires research: “The real start-up cost to veganism is a massive increase in the amount of time it takes to evaluate, plan, and execute great food,” notes my fellow vegan-for-a-month, Matt.

I’m sure this gets easier with practice. But insisting that a paradigm shift in dietary habits isn’t hard is a real disservice to anyone who’s struggling to adjust to it.

But not that hard.

Read more: Food, Living