An Interview with Karen Lee of EcoKaren

EcoKaren's bottle cap birds' nests

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Lee, Co-Team Leader of the EcoEtsy Street Team (a group of Etsy crafters who are dedicated to earth-friendly practices), and owner of EcoKaren, a company offering eco-friendly, green, and reusable products for you and your home.

Karen also writes a very thoughtful and timely blog on the green living, including environmental issues and eco-friendly products.

Please tell me about your company! What do you make? What types of materials do you use? And what is your focus/mission?

Ecokaren carries one-of-a-kind, handmade, eco-friendly items. No two items are exactly alike as I only use materials (resources) I already have. When I do buy any new supplies, I buy sustainable materials like organic fabric and yarn. I also use freecycle and thrift stores to repurpose items that people want to throw out. My latest project is handmade journals that incorporate leftover paper from my kids’ end-of-the-year notebooks. The journals are handmade using coptic stitching and Japanese binding methods.

Upcycled journal by EcoKaren

My mission is to use existing resources for functional and practical eco-creations instead of buying new materials. If I look around, I can always find things to make with them. So, my shop’s focus may not be “home decor” or “jewelry” or “fashion” but it’s whatever I find that’s available that I can make something with, at that moment. I have fun being spontaneous and coming up with things to make by looking at a heap of fabric scrap and notions. And to take it one step further, I try to make items that will help reduce waste, contribute to being green, and also save money… like reusable utensil holders that allow you to carry your own utensils instead of using disposable plastic ones. It cuts down on plastic usage, reduces waste and saves money since you don’t have to throw away utensils!

portable utensil holder by EcoKaren

What inspired you to start your company?

I am a “retired” chiropractor. I sold my practice to support my family full time. So, while waiting on the sidelines for my two active teenagers to finish their after school activities, I picked up knitting and crocheting again, after stopping for fifteen years. I gave away numerous finished goodies as Christmas and birthday gifts to family and friends and they suggested that I sell them. That’s when I found Etsy. I sold my organic knitted washcloths and repurposed plastic bottle cap birds nest magnets when I first opened my first shop, ‘ecogeneration’.

So you are a chiropractor! How has this background influenced your choices as a green mom/blogger and eco-crafter?

Chiropractic philosophy is very much in line with taking care of the planet – our mother Earth. The chiropractic tenet is based on the belief that power that made the body heals the body. If we screw up our body, only the body can heal itself. We can use external interventions to help the process sometimes but in the end, the body has to do the healing. The life force in our body has the power to heal itself. Well, I believe the earth is like the human body. Given a chance, the Earth has its own life force to heal itself too. However, we are constantly abusing the Earth that we are making it impossible to do that on its own. So, like the way our body needs external interventions, the Earth needs us to help it heal. I want it to have the best possible chances for it to do its magic and get better. Being a chiropractor, I see myself as a healer, or as a helper in its healing process, and not the destruction process.

Becoming a green mom, a blogger, and eco-crafter all stem from the same philosophy. I don’t consider myself an environmentalist by any means. But practically speaking, I have been living an environmentally responsible life because of my mother. She lived a very frugal life as an immigrant and she taught me how to save and reuse. She was being green even before it was a trend. So I learned from her how not to waste our valuable resources. In addition, as a Chiropractic Doctor (doctor means ‘to teach’ in Latin), I used to teach my patients on how to stay healthy. Actually, I used to talk about many of the issues I currently write about on my blog. I used to relate nutrition, industrial chemicals, farming practices, pesticides and herbicide to health. Environmental issues weren’t really labeled as such, but I was addressing them when I spoke to my patients about how their environment affects them. Now, I carry the same torch when I blog about these issues. Spreading the word and ‘teaching’ my readers on how to be green is my way of helping to heal the planet.

As co-leader of the EcoEtsy Team and an eco-crafter, what is your advice for new (and experienced) crafters who want to make their businesses more eco-friendly?

When I joined EcoEtsy team as a new seller on Etsy, I was so inspired by the members’ creativity and their passion on being eco-friendly. I learned so much from reading the team’s blog, forum discussions, and team events. I was humbled by so many great sellers who cared about their eco-friendly crafts, business practices and educating others how to be green. So when the opportunity came along to become a co-leader, I took the challenge. I knew I couldn’t do it alone but I also knew that the members will be very supportive so I dove in head first. And guess what? I was right. The team is full of energetic, smart, and earth-caring members. We have a new blog, we had our first Earth Day Auction and raised over $450 (after expenses) to donate to the World Wildlife Fund, and I am planning our Fall event (already!). Being a member of EcoEtsy (and becoming a co-leader to give back to the team) was the smartest decision I ever made. And that is best advice I can give crafters who want to be eco-friendly – surround yourself with others who have the same mission. You need the support of others who think like you. You need to ask questions on what is more green, bamboo or organic, paper or plastic, reuse or buy new, etc. There are so many resources available on being green now that it’s almost impossible NOT to be green. And what’s better. It saves you money!! Imagine, never having to buy shipping supplies and being green at the same time!

One easy practical tip I want to share is to utilize your computer to the maximum. I save everything as pdf files and don’t keep any paper copy (saves paper). Do online banking and forget about paper statement (safer for identity theft too). Use e-mails and save them in a separate folder on your hard drive. Use internet shipping service and have the mailman pick up your goods to be shipped (no need to drive to the post office). There are so many things you can do online now that you don’t need to keep any physical files or papers or statements.

Once you realize the financial benefit of being eco-friendly, you’ll never go back to your old habits. Pretty soon, you will find yourself making the same changes at home too.

We recently celebrated the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day. What are your plans (both professional and personal) for the 50th Anniversary?

Professionally, I hope to continue to be blogging and sharing eco living tips, but also shouting about the discovery of smart alternative energy that does not involve destroying the environment. I hope we will be celebrating the discovery renewable and sustainable energy sources. I hope we won’t ever have to deal with the disaster that is going on in the Gulf again. I hope I’ll be blogging about that happy news.

Personally, I hope to be living off the land and getting off the grid. My hubby is not a farmer, but he’s so fed up with the current state of the environment that he’s willing and ready to learn to be one. We talk about moving up state NY and buying some land and not worrying about where our food is coming from or relying on unreliable utility companies for energy (we had two black outs this past winter). As I get older, I yearn for a simpler life. And in ten years, who knows? Maybe I will be able to.

Thank you, Karen! You can find Karen on Twitter, Facebook and Etsy. And I highly recommend you check out the EcoKaren blog.

Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate

On our recent travels through the west, we passed through Boulder (a place I definitely need to spend some time exploring in the future). We stopped by the Pearl Street Mall and took a walk around, looking for a good place to have lunch (we chose Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace, which turned out to be an excellent decision!).

image copyright Almightydad.com

We passed by cute boutique after cool-looking storefront. But the one that caught my eye was The Boulder Bookstore. It was filled with lots of books, fun gift items, and a surprisingly large selection of fair trade chocolates! I wanted a copy of Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring to read on the plane home, and figured this indie bookstore would have to have a copy in stock. I inquired at the desk, and was told that I could find it in the Ecology section. I found Silent Spring, and also made a wonderful additional discovery – Edible Wild Plants: Wild Food from Dirt to Plate, a new book by John Kallas, PhD, founder of Wild Food Adventures.

I have been on Kallas’ mailing list for over 2 years, but have yet to attend one of his amazing wild food events, which are mostly held in Oregon. So I was very excited to find a book through which I could glean some of his expertise in the field of wild foods.

While I love my collection of wild foods books by Euell Gibbons and Jim Duke, I was thrilled to see the detailed information provided on each plant profiled in Edible Wild Plants. Like Gibbons, Kallas goes into depth on just a few plants (only 15 plants, as this book is part of a series he plans to write over the next few years). And like Gibbons, he includes recipes for each plant.

However, Kallas’ book has the added feature of multiple photographs showing each plant during its various stages of development. This has been my major complaint with other wild plant books, in that it is often very difficult to identify a plant based on just one photograph. As Kallas points out in his book, “The same plant can look different not only in this book but in other books, depending on the angle of the photograph, the condition of the plant…” and “While moving through different stages of growth, a plant can transform so much that young and old versions look like different species.”

When I opened the book in the store, it fell open to the first of 17 pages devoted to one of my favorite wild plants, garlic mustard (which I wrote about earlier this year), including 16 photographs and two recipes. I knew I had to buy it!

Wineberry Surprise! A True Harbinger of Summer

Happy Summer Solstice!

After being on the road for 9 days, I was eager to survey my yard to see how the gardens were doing. Happily, they had fared well in my absence. But our white mulberry tree was completely devoid of fruit, showing no evidence at all that they had been there!

However, as I was checking out the tomatoes (which had not been there when I left), I noticed a spot of red next to my tool shed. On closer inspection, I discovered some wild wineberries in the making!

In the past couple of years, we have discovered a few choice raspberry foraging areas throughout Virginia, and have been eagerly awaiting the time when they will be ready for the pickin’ – there are few things as delicious as raspberries straight from the bush. So it was a huge thrill to find the domestic raspberry’s Asian relative right here in our yard. The vine appears to have climbed up under the fence from the neighboring property. I have included a photographic showing the unromantic reality of my wineberry bush’s existence below. I love how tenacious nature can be!

Since childhood, raspberries have been harbingers of summer to me. We had a single raspberry bush in our backyard in Connecticut, and I looked forward to fresh raspberries for dessert in late July/early August. We also had friends with a large untamed property who had dozens of raspberry bushes, with plenty of fruit for the taking if you didn’t mind getting pretty scratched up in the process. I thought it was worth it! To me, raspberries taste like the epitome of summer.

And now I have to wait patiently for another week or two before the berries are ready to be harvested. Let me know if you have any favorite wineberry recipes. I plan to make something fun out of them, if there are any left by the time we get home from our foraging adventure :)

[Note: after receiving a comment from a reader, I added some info to this post, and changed the title from "Raspberry Surprise!" to "Wineberry Surprise!" Thank you to Amelia of Gradually Greener!]

Love Potion No. 9

In the past couple of weeks, two different friends told me they are planning trips to Rome (lucky them!). Because I visited Rome two years ago, they had asked me to suggestion some interesting, non-touristy places to visit. One of my absolute favorites was an apothecary that carries only products made by monks. Many of the herbal products are made using centuries-old recipes.

Rather than try to describe this amazing store, I sent them links to the following post, which originally appeared in my old blog, Becoming Your StellarSelf

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the things that has struck me about Rome is the interweaving of the sacred and the profane in every part of the city. An example of this was my discovery of an incredibly unique and wonderful store called Ai Monasteri, which features products made in the ancient monastic tradition. This beautiful store, set up like an old pharmacy, carries a variety of handcrafted essential oils, wines, liquors, preserves, honeys, beauty products, candies and teas produced by monks from 7 different monasteries throughout Rome. In addition to these more typical souvenir-type products, they also carry a variety of elixirs and remedies, made from ancient recipes. When the store was established in 1894, herbal remedies were their focus. And many of the products are made from recipes dating back to pre-Christian Rome, which were preserved through the writings of the monks during the Middle Ages.

There are remedies for all that ails you, including stress, joint pain, weight control, melancholy, sleep disorders, fatigue, eyesight, cholesterol, circulation, digestion, skin health, coughing, smoking cessation and much more.

photo copyright Ai Monestari

One of the elixirs that caught my eye was the Elixir Dell’ Amore, which is described as: “The formula and modus operandi used for this “Love Potion” dates back to the 16th century. It was rediscovered in the Ricettario Senese (Sienese Book of Prescriptions) by one of our ancestors at the end of the 19th century. Only ten bottles of this exclusive liqueur are made each year, as it requires an extremely careful, drawn-out process. People were told to drink this elixir when they were not in the mood for love to arouse desire and give them energy. It is made by carefully adding officinal plants during the long distillation process, making this drink extremely tasty and effective.” I have to say, that while in Rome, elixirs aren’t necessary – the city is a natural aphrodisiac :)

The other elixir that sparked my interest was the ‘Elixir Della Felicita’, described thusly: “Happiness is quite easy to find. Sometimes, often by chance, our thoughts return to the past and we remember and re-live happy moments. Sitting in a comfortable and quiet corner of your home in a peaceful moment with a glass of this herbal liqueur in your hand will almost certainly help you to dig up such lost moments.”

If you are interested in Ai Monestari’s products, they can be ordered through their website. Their PDF catalog contains detailed descriptions of their many wonderful products.

Trastevere neighborhood in Rome.

How to Make Your Own All-Natural Pesticide

This year, we planted a vegetable garden and have been in constant amazement at the miracle of life happening in our back yard. I was so enthralled with my first full-grown snow pea, that I had to take a picture of it to share with you. However, in addition to the life that is our plants, there is other not-as-welcome life: the inevitable garden pests. Critters with teeth have been nibbling and insects have added decorative holes to our greens.

creatures are camouflaged, yet evident, on the leaves of my broccoli

Wanting to keep to our commitment of maintaining a natural garden, we refuse to buy pesticides, and have planted thing like marigolds and hot peppers, which are supposed to deter interlopers. However, it became apparent that we had to take a bit more aggressive action, so I pulled out the neem oil, which I keep in stock for the production of some of my bath and body products. Neem oil is extracted from the tropical neem tree. I had read a while ago that it is a very effective insecticide, miticide and fungicide, and is listed as okay for use in organic production.

According to Plant-care.com, neem oil has the following features:

• Broad spectrum insecticide/fungicide/miticide

• Controls insects and mites including whitefly, aphid and scale

• Controls fungal diseases including black spot, rust, mildew and scab

• For indoor/outdoor use on ornamental plants, flowers, vegetables, trees, shrubs and fruit and nut crops.

Mountain Rose Herbs says that neem biodegrades rapidly in sunlight and within a few weeks in the soil. Neem oil has very low toxicity to humans and pets, but it is not recommended for internal use.

I had also read that rosemary and lavender are effective pesticides, plus they smell better than neem, so I decided to include the in my natural pesticide.

Here is my recipe: Mix 1 gallon of water with 2 tablespoons of neem, and ½ teaspoon each rosemary and lavender essential oils (I used organic version of all the oils). You can also add a couple of tablespoons of phosphate-free liquid dishwashing soap. Mix thoroughly and pour into a spray bottle. Spray over every part of your plants, mixing frequently to keep the oils and water from separating.

By the way, these Sprayco spray bottles, which I buy at my local family-owned hardware store, are made in the US from recycled materials and provide jobs for handicapped individuals.

Parkberry pie: Making use of the season’s mulberry abundance

Last month I wrote a blog post on the wonders of Yard Salad, that is, salad made exclusively from ingredients found in my yard. In the same vein, today’s post features another seasonal, wild harvested ingredient – the mulberry.

The berries of the Red Mulberry look a lot like blackberries. We have a White Mulberry in our yard, which has the same type of fruit, only pure white. For some great photographs and interesting information on the mulberry, The Natural Capital blog has a wonderful post.

Our local park has several Red Mulberry trees, which are considered a weed. But I had read in Euell Gibbons Stalking the Wild Asparagus that mulberries are an excellent and underappreciated fruit, and I wanted to give them a try. So my husband and I went foraging in our local park/nature trail and found several trees that were full of the deep purple fruit.

The ripe berries easily fall off of the tree. Sometimes too easily — we lost many dozens to the stream that ran next to the trees. I was also grateful that I had worn a purple dress, since the ripe berries are very juicy and will stain your skin and clothes.

We easily gathered a quart of berries, enough to make a pie. I found several mulberry pie recipes online, and came up with a combination of ingredients that I thought would result in the best flavor and texture. The lemon juice was definitely a good call, since mulberries are sweet in the way that figs are, without any real tartness. The lemon juice balances out the flavors nicely. Anyway, here is my recipe:

  • 3 cups of fresh mulberries (thoroughly washed)*
  • 1 cup of evaporated cane juice
  • ¼ cup flour
  • Juice of 1 lemon (strained)
  • Double-crust pie shell**

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Combine the first four ingredients in a bowl. Mix well. Pour mulberry mixture into an unbaked pie shell bottom. Top with the other shell and poke holes to allow the contents to vent. Bake the pie at 400°F for 15 minutes. Lower the temperature to 350°F and bake for another 30 minutes until the crust is lightly brown on the edges. Allow the pie to cool before serving.

Although I have not made many pies in my life, this was a fairly easy process. And while my pie was not worthy of a cooking magazine cover shot, it tasted great and was a huge hit with my family.

*I did a Google search to see if I needed to remove the stems, and came across a recent blog post on The Southern Urban Homestead that showed that others have been on the same quest! I was happy to learn that I didn’t need to remove the stems, since that would have been hugely time consuming and would have resulted in many squashed berries. The stems didn’t exactly dissolve, but they became tender and unobtrusive to the texture of the pie.

**I found an easy pie crust recipe, which I made. But I ended up using a frozen premade whole wheat shell when I realized that I needed to chill the dough I had made for at least 4 hours.