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Green Guru
Advice for the eco-minded.


What are your recommendations for keeping a garden quenched without wasting water?
—Rachel Carter, Ludlow, VT

You can forget juicy tomatoes this summer if you don’t give your plants enough to drink, but the fact is, most people water their gardens wrong. Each year, from May to September, water use nearly doubles in parts of the country (mostly for keeping our backyards green), and about half of it is wasted through evaporation, runoff, and overwatering. You may not need to water at all if you use native plants, because they’re already adapted to a region’s climate. But if you are going to water, the first thing to do is assess how much your yard and garden really need, says Bernd Leinauer, a turfgrass specialist for New Mexico State University’s extension service. He suggests contacting your local university extension office for advice, since most people use too much water. Next, audit your sprinklers, which are often inefficient. “They throw water in the air, and you hope that it eventually lands where you want it,” Leinauer says. “It often doesn’t.” (For easy-to-follow instructions on how to do an irrigation audit, visit.)

Furthermore, using a drip irrigation system instead of sprinklers can cut your water use by a third or more, while other systems, including bubblers, microsprayers, and soaker hoses, work well for watering specific trees or plantings in a small area. Drip irrigation uses a grid system of hoses buried three to four inches deep, with holes every 12 inches, so water is delivered slowly and directly to the plants at root level, where they can use it most efficiently. Your plants will be happier and healthier, too; watering at the roots ensures the plants receive consistent moisture and makes them less susceptible to disease. Drip irrigation also keeps topsoil intact and nutrients in place so they can do their job. In the end you’ll have more time to lie back in your hammock and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
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Have any fast-food chains started making biodiesel from their used cooking oil? Is it difficult to do yourself?
—Amy Howard, Indianapolis, IN

Finally there’s a healthier side to the American love affair with fried food. The 4.5 billion gallons of fry oil annually left over from making those delicious greasy snacks that clog our arteries and add pounds to our hips could also cleanly power more than 10 percent of the nation’s diesel engines—more than 528,000 cars—for a year.

Matthew Howe, senior vice-president of McDonald’s UK, announced in 2007 that the company’s British fleet of 155 delivery trucks would switch to running on recycled vegetable oil collected from approximately 900 of the chain’s restaurants. McDonald’s spokespeople declined to answer whether the chain is considering something similar in this country. No other fast-food chain has made such an announcement (yet).

Even if burger chains aren’t pumping French fry fuel out back, some savvy fast-food purveyors have begun to show how it can be done. Robert Tomey, a McDonald’s franchisee in Amory, Mississippi, uses fry oil from his four stores to power his own VW Beetle and a Ford pickup truck. In addition to saving waste, biodiesel also scores points for being biodegradable, for creating almost no sulfur emissions (which cause acid rain), and for cutting hydrocarbon and particulate pollution from regular diesel emissions by up to half. Tomey says it has improved the performance of his vehicles, too.

David Hackleman, an engineering professor at Oregon State University who has driven cross-country in his fry oil–powered Dodge truck, says making your own fuel is simple—and costs only about a dollar a gallon. In addition to fast-food eateries, he recommends collecting grease from brewpubs and Japanese restaurants. With the proper know-how, do-it-yourselfers like him make their own fuel by mixing the collected oil with alcohol and lye, starting a chemical reaction that takes about an hour and a half to create biodiesel. The by-products are glycerine, an ingredient used in handmade soaps, and potassium hydroxide, sometimes used as fertilizer on farm fields. If making your own biodiesel sounds daunting (lye is corrosive, and the fumes from the chemical reaction can be dangerous if inhaled), Hack-leman advises letting someone else do the work. “People can also buy biodiesel from a commercial source,” he says. “It’s easier and encourages the growth of business.”
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My kids like to feed the ducks, but does this do more harm than good?
—Martin Meisenheimer, Los Angeles, CA

While your neighborhood mallards aren’t going to be swinging by the drive-through anytime soon, ducks, like people, love their junk food. They will happily gobble up white bread, refined sugar, and processed fats, but those foods are not as healthy for them as the leafy greens, acorns, insects, and crustaceans they would be eating naturally. Still, feeding ducks can be a fun family activity that might help spark a child’s interest in wildlife. If it’s an experience you don’t want to skip, try offering the birds a healthier snack, such as poultry starter with a crude protein content of 27 percent or more, which is available at farm stores.

Scientists who work with wildlife express additional concerns about feeding a flock because it causes ducks to gather in larger-than-normal groups. The stress of being in a crowd can make individual ducks more aggressive, and can even alter the group’s migration timing (or encourage the ducks not to migrate at all). Large bird congregations can also foster the spread of disease. “Infectious disease is opportunistic, and these emerging diseases are continually challenging wildlife,” says Milt Friend, founding director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.  If you skip feeding the ducks, don’t forget that kids can also learn from and enjoy water birds by watching their behaviors or taking pictures. Just leave the “Happy Meals” at home.

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Make Every Drop Count
How to see if you’re getting the most out of your sprinkler system.

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