Natural Perspectives: True outdoor living in Southern California

Our lives just get better all the time. I stopped by Orchard Supply Hardware the other day to get a new pair of garden clogs. While I was there, I picked up a small outdoor shed for storing garden tools. That will eliminate a corner of tool clutter in the garage.

Vic and I made an upgrade to our patio three years ago with the addition of a fountain, outdoor rug made of recycled plastic and a table and two chairs for outdoor dining. I thought I was done with my deck makeover.

But while I was in Orchard Supply, I sat down on one of their patio furniture sets and did some thinking. And what I thought was how nice that set would look on our deck. We had a small table and two chairs for the two of us, and two swivel rockers for relaxing. But outdoor living has gone way beyond our 20-year-old swivel rockers with vinyl straps. Nowadays, people have outdoor sofas, loveseats and chairs with deep cushions, an entire set of comfy furniture complete with coffee tables and end tables. Setting up an outdoor living space with such furniture is the equivalent of adding a room onto the house.

So I bought the set — a loveseat, two chairs and a glass coffee table. The aluminum frames are painted to look like silvery-gray aged teak, a perfect match for our deck. The cushions are a rich, solid chestnut brown.

It took my long-suffering husband all afternoon to assemble the tool shed and unwrap all of the packing material from around the patio furniture. We filled the recycle bin with packing material. But wow, what a great improvement it made to our outdoor living experience. Now we can have people over to sit on the deck with us and enjoy al fresco dining.

I took a good, hard look at the other third of our deck/patio, and realized that over the years I had turned it into a potting and junk storage area. I'm not sure how that happened, but I was using prime deck space for purposes best relegated to the side yard. With the new storage shed in place, empty flower pots now had a place out of sight.

I moved the gas barbecue to a visually less conspicuous part of the deck and put the two swivel rockers where the barbecue had been. Some judicious rearrangement of plants nearly completed the makeover. The final step was the purchase of a lovely rex begonia and shiny brown pot from Armstrong Garden Centers. Set on top of the new smoked glass coffee table, the deep brownish-purple plant was a perfect foil to the brown loveseat and chair cushions.

Now we have all the elements needed for true Southern California outdoor living — a place to cook, a table and chairs for eating, a place to relax and sip wine while talking with friends, and something to do. Many people might think of croquet or badminton as "something to do," but for us, it's watching the farm. Our three hens are a constant source of amusement. And we like watching our tomatoes turn red. It's a lot more interesting than watching grass grow or paint dry.

All we needed was guests to help us enjoy the out-of-doors. That was easily arranged. Our old college housemate from graduate school days in Connecticut, Sandy Bernstein, was driving north from San Diego on vacation with his family. They stopped by to see our vegetable garden, fruit orchard and hens.

I made a locavore lunch, using eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, chard, mint, parsley, red onions and garlic from my garden, plus some home-baked bread.

The two teenaged Bernstein boys, Daniel and Ben, enjoyed feeding nasturtium leaves to our hens, while Sandy and his wife Laurie compared notes with us on gardening. They also grow much of their own food. They have a split-level lot at the edge of a canyon in San Diego, with a house and small yard at street level, and a large flat expanse down below where they have 19 fruit trees and several raised beds for growing vegetables. They also visit their local farmer's market every week.

Some of the positive things the Bernsteins do for the environment, in addition to growing some of their own organic produce and supporting organic farmers by shopping at their farmers market, are driving a Prius hybrid for errands, walking to work and taking public transportation whenever possible. But probably the biggest positive effect they have on the environment is their vegetarian diet. It takes a lot of fossil fuel and water to grow corn and soybeans that are then fed to animals. Consuming grains directly, even for a few meals a week, is beneficial to the environment and is better for our health than eating too much meat.

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Readers, you rock! Since our column came out in mid-July on the availability of free spent brewer's grain at Huntington Beach Beer Company, many of you have gone downtown to take advantage of the bounty for your home compost piles. In fact, when I went downtown right after that column was published, the grain was all gone by the time I got there. I couldn't be happier.

Brewer Greg Gerovac said the grain from two brew batches went completely to home composters recently. The more we all can compost at home, the less goes to the landfill. And it makes such great compost. My compost pile is now heating up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit with the addition of spent brewer's grain. That is allowing me to compost even more of the green waste from our yard and garden.

From growing our own food, to eating at least some vegetarian meals, to composting our yard and kitchen green waste, we can all take small steps to help the environment. Living green is living well.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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