Living Lite

Create Your Holiday City Garden - In Pots!

November 20, 2018

My Container Garden Lines the Entry of my City Home (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) My Container Garden Lines the Entry of my City Home

This is the first part of my series on container gardening, because not only is being in nature, among trees, flowers, and fresh air, beautiful - but it is also critical for your physical and mental well being. And, of course, you can create your own bit of nature on your own deck, front stoop, or windowsill... even through the winter, which can be especially challenging, but exciting! I've been inspired by my Swedish mother who literally created forests wherever we lived, including today on her condominium's back deck. Here's how you can do it... and stay tuned for more ...

Being a city girl - without a yard - I've made it my mission to create a beautiful and lush forest boundary, every season of the year, separating my home from the city's stark pavement just a few feet from my front door, and from the city's grit, trash, noise, wires, meter boxes and pollution. How? Now that I'm on my third container garden, I've realized: Anything can grow in pots! Who wouldn't love having a beautiful lush garden year-round no matter your circumstances? Imagine... sipping your coffee with the paper, looking out onto a serene sea of nature - from your own townhouse, condo or apartment!

My favorite (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) My favorite "bird's nest" outside my front door, filled with evergreen succulents and surrounded by flowering vines - even now in the Fall!

Would you believe I have filled my container gardens with huge evergreens such as six foot magnolias, mountain laurels, hollies, and boxwoods, with heavenly bamboo, and succulents. Also, deciduous trees and shrubs including a ten-foot weeping willow arching over the walkway to one of my decks, pink and white variegated Japanese maples, pink, blue, lavender and white hydrangeas, violet azaleas. All mixed in with an abundance of annual and perennial flowers and herbs. I concentrate on varying shades of green, contrasting textures, and diverse sizes of leaves and plants. I focus on pinks, blues, and lavenders for subtlety, which I beieve is more pleasing in a small garden.

Even if you only have a deck, a front stoop, or a few feet of brick, you don't have to lose out on this essential pleasure. You can create your own "secret garden."

"A garden is as necessary to the human spirit as water and food are," wrote Rebecca Cole in her book, Potted Gardens: A Fresh Approach to Container Gardening. "A garden is a place where much more than a seed can grow. It is a place of solace, exploration, and experimentation," wrote Cole. And research bears this out.

Luis Mármol, Dumbarton Oaks Horticulturist and Garden Designer on the terrace overlooking the kitchen gardens at Dumbarton Oaks (Photo by: Luis Mármol) Luis Mármol, Dumbarton Oaks Horticulturist and Garden Designer on the terrace overlooking the kitchen gardens at Dumbarton Oaks

Studies show being among nature is critical for your health. For one, it "enhances immune function," according to a study in Frontiers in Psychology.

"The benefits of nature span a remarkable breadth of health outcomes with evidence for ... reductions in ... all diseases ... from cardiovascular disease, improved healing times, self-preceived general health, reduced stress, reduced respiratory illnesses and allergies... a reduced risk of poor mental health, improved social cohesion, and improved cognitive ability," according to the American Journal of Public Health.

Take these first 5 steps to creating your Autumn container garden, according to Luis Mármol, Horticulturist and Garden Designer:

1. Drainage: Either make sure your pots have plenty of holes on the bottom, or if there is only a small hole, raise the level of the pot with bricks, a piece of slate, or anything that will help the water drain through more freely. Potted plants need to be watered frequently, even through winter. If they dry out, since their roots have nowhere to go to find moisture, they will die quickly. If you don't have enough drainage, all of this watering causes deadly root rot, a common problem in pots. Proper drainage also wards off freezing the pot. This is especially important when you have expensive terra cotta containers.

Container by Luis Mármol - Echinacea, Kale, 'Scarlet' Cabbage, Strawflower, Viola, Chrysanthemum, Saxapahaw, Agastache (Photo by: Luis Mármol) Container by Luis Mármol - Echinacea, Kale, 'Scarlet' Cabbage, Strawflower, Viola, Chrysanthemum, Saxapahaw, Agastache

2. Mulch: It will protect the tender plants through the winter, but different plants might need particular protection. Surround tender herbs with gravel to help protect them from the cold winter and promote drainage. Use shredded leaves around the base of trees and shrubs, trying to keep the trunk free of mulch. "Don't create a mulch scarf for your tree," says Luis. For rosemary, if it is in one single container, place 3 or 4 bamboo sticks on the edge of the pot, then wrap the pot with burlap, making sure the top is open so the plant can breathe while reducing the chance of freezing. If the plant freezes, the strong winter sun, unprotected by tree canopies, can destroy the plant. An analogy Luis likes to use, "In the summer, you wake up with the drapes closed, but in the winter, the drapes are open."

3. Be Bold! "Think outside the 'container!'" as Luis says. Use colorful gourds, hay, cornstalks, pine cones or turkey feathers for Thanksgiving. Make the holiday theme be your temporary blooming flowers. Try holiday bulbs and use strings of lights through the darkness of winter. Add white birch branches to brighten, or red-twigged dogwood branches for colorful contrast, as did the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District (BID), "stretching from in front of the White House to Dupont Circle," an organization for which Luis consults. Make sure your decorations are organic. Avoid plastic, as it can crack or fade and make your display look less natural. 

Winterberry loses its leaves but maintains bright red berries through the cold, dark days of winter (Photo by: Winterberry loses its leaves but maintains bright red berries through the cold, dark days of winter

4. Color: Think of adding colorful seasonal peppers which last until the first frost and straw flowers, which tolerate some frost. Plant violas because they will come back in early spring (as opposed to pansies that are not as reliable). Protect the root systems with mulch, which could be as simple as shredded leaves.

5. Think ahead: Include plants that will bloom through the winter or will  have winter interest, such as Skimmia, Heather, and Kale. Evergreens are important for your winter garden, and do well in pots, but keep them interesting... Little Gem Magnolias, Mountain Laurels and Boxwoods. Soft Touch Hollies and Nandinas splash red berries through winter, Sweet Box display fluffy white flowers, Pyracantha sport bright orange berries (but watch out for thorns!) ... I really love evergreen ferns, which can be placed wherever you need fillers, and to hide less attractive pots.

More next time ...

Luis Mármol's Fall container with Red Twig Dogwood. The leaves will provide Fall color, but in the winter, the branches will become fiery red - with Johnny Jump Up Violas - at Dumbarton Oaks (Photo by: Luis Mármol) Luis Mármol's Fall container with Red Twig Dogwood. The leaves will provide Fall color, but in the winter, the branches will become fiery red - with Johnny Jump Up Violas - at Dumbarton Oaks

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A Gift From Washington Gas: A Freezing Cold Shower with a 600% Higher Price Tag

November 14, 2018

Washington Gas hasn't seemed receptive to many of us lately. In addition to the 62+ natural gas leaks in Georgetown since 2016, some of us have been over-charged for our gas, we're not getting legitimate, and paid-for services - or all of the above. Take me, for instance: Last year, Washington Gas charged me 600% more for gas than in years prior (I assume accidentally). My usual annual gas bill has been $600 to $700 (I live in a tiny house with an electric heat pump). Last year, I was charged $3,400. And to add insult to injury, I don't even have hot water. How is this possible?

A sad - but simple - story... 7 Acts in chronological order:

1. Washington Gas over-charged me by at least $2,700 in 2017 and has not refunded me,

2. On October 26th, after I became concerned about Georgetown's gas leaks, I contacted Washington Gas to inspect my home for any potential problems. After the technician thoroughly investigated my home inside and outside, he found no gas leaks on my property or issues with any appliances, including the water heater or stove. During the examination, he turned my gas and hot water off, and then back on with no problem. Before then and since then, my gas and hot water had been working perfectly - until Washington Gas paid another visit,

3. To explore the reason behind my excessive gas bill, the DC Office of the People's Counsel asked Washington Gas to analyze my gas meter. On November 7, Washington Gas came, cut off my gas, turned off my hot water heater, and took out my meter to take it to their facilities for a 24-hour test (I'm still waiting for the results),

5. The Washington Gas technician replaced my old meter with a new meter. He turned my gas back on, and it works as usual,

6. Regrettably, the Washington Gas technician was unable to turn my hot water back on,

7. Surprisingly, the Washington Gas technician said I would have to hire a plumber to turn my water heater back on. Apparently, he said, something must have happened in the interim - between turning my hot water off and a little while later, trying to turn it back on - causing my hot water heater's pilot light to become dysfunctional. "Only a plumber can fix it now," he said.

Follow-Up Questions:

1. My pilot light was working, and I was enjoying hot showers until the Washington Gas technician turned it off. If a plumber is needed for something a Washington Gas technician causes to malfunction, shouldn't Washington Gas provide and pay for said plumber? More than a week later, I do not have hot water.

2. Is there a rational Washington Gas executive who would quickly refund my (clearly accidental) overcharges and turn my hot water heater back on?

Solutions I've Tried & Next Steps:

1. I contacted the DC Office of the People's Counsel *, whose mission it is to advocate for consumers in relation to their utility services and bills*,

2. My sympathetic representative at the Office of the People's Counsel arranged for the Washington Gas meter testing, and for an employee of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia (PSCDC) ** to accompany and supervise the Washington Gas technician,

3. When my water heater would not re-light after it had been turned off by the Washington Gas technician, and I expressed confusion and frustration, the Washington Gas technician and the PSCDC employee dismissed my concern with, "Sometimes that happens... You'll need a plumber to re-light it."

4. I reported this to my Office of the People's Counsel representative who, upon contacting Washington Gas about my complaint, told me, "Washington Gas and the PSCDC said you need to replace your water heater." She went on to tell me, "They said you told their employees, while at your house, that you weren't getting hot water in different parts of your home before they came to do the testing."

  • Firstly: There is no dispute that my pilot light only malfunctioned after the Washington Gas technician turned it off.
  • Secondly: At the scene, I was told that the pilot light had to be fixed. They did not say, "You need to replace your water heater."
  • Thirdly: I absolutely had hot water throughout my house before the visit, and their claim that I said my "hot water wasn't working in parts of [my] house" is not true.
  • Fourthly: My house, gas, and hot water heater had been inspected and ok'd by a Washington Gas technician just a couple of weeks prior.

Concerns and Questions: What does one do when representatives - such as the one from the PSCDC who are supposed to help consumers - miscommunicate the facts? I did notice what I believe to be an inappropriate collusion between the two employees, an obvious deference of PSCDC toward the Washington Gas technician's point of view without investigation or thought. I was disheartened by the PSCDC employee's too obvious lack of interest and consideration in solving my problem objectively and fairly.

Georgetown's Gas Leak Advocate, Edward Segal, did warn me, after all, when he told me, "The PSCDC did nothing after a year of submitting my request for information and transparency about the gas leaks; they simply passed my grievance to Washington Gas, which did not respond. No meeting or contact with any PSCDC commissioners, no discussion, or solutions took place... The PSCDC and the DC People's Counsel should read their own mission statements!" added Segal.

What could my next step be? When I tried to suspend paying my gas bill quite a while ago, Washington Gas cut my gas off for several days.

Who can I turn to about my more than $2,700 refund? About turning my hot water back on? A genuine commissioner of the PSCDC? A bona fide Washington Gas analyst? A rational Washington Gas executive? Georgetown's Ward 2 DC Councilmember, Jack Evans? Jack Evans' Constituent Liaison Officer, Sarina Loy? DC Mayor, Muriel Bowser? President Donald Trump? Ivanka Trump? Jared Kushner?

My Water Heater (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) My Water Heater

My water heater, with some dirt wiped away on top (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) My water heater, with some dirt wiped away on top



Mission Statements of the DC Office of the People's Council and the Public Service Commission of DC:

The Office of the People's Counsel is an independent agency of the District of Columbia government. By law, the Office advocates for consumers of natural gas, electric and telephone services. The Office also represents the interests of District utility ratepayers before the DC Public Service Commission, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Federal Communications Commission, other utility regulatory bodies, and the courts. The Office is mandated to conduct consumer education and outreach, and may represent individual consumers with complaints related to their utility service and bills.

Through this mission, the Office of the People’s Counsel is Preparing Today for a Brighter Utility Tomorrow for the benefit of consumers in all eight wards, as well as the betterment of the economy of the District of Columbia, the conservation of natural resources and the preservation of environmental quality.


** The mission of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia is to serve the public interest by ensuring that financially healthy electric, natural gas and telecommunications companies provide safe, reliable and quality utility services at reasonable rates for District of Columbia residential, business and government customers. 

We do this by:

  • Motivating customer– and results–oriented employees
  • Protecting consumers to ensure public safety, reliability, and quality services
  • Regulating monopoly services to ensure their rates are just and reasonable
  • Fostering fair and open competition among service providers
  • Conserving natural resources and preserving environmental quality
  • Resolving disputes among consumers and service providers
  • Educating consumers and informing the public

The Commission has identified three goals for carrying out its mission: 


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Today's Lunch: My Take on the All-American Hot Dog

November 12, 2018

Hot dogs! The all-American classic. My favorite version is a hot dog with mustard & onions. How in the world did I come up with that as a go-to meal (besides it being fast and easy)? Who knows! I never liked hot dogs, or mustard, or onions growing up. But, my tastes changed as I grew up. Children have a natural "neofoodphobia," that is, they're afraid of new food. But we grow out of it and experimenting with new foods can become a pleasure (uh, well, with most adults anyway!).

I still don't really care for hot dogs, but I've discovered chicken sausages that are lighter and even tastier. They come in all kinds of different flavors: sweet italian, spicy italian, sun-dried tomato and basil, and more. I've never liked regular yellow mustard, but when I tried honey mustard, I was hooked. My Swedish mother swears by Swedish mustard, and I like its mild and slightly sweet flavor, too.

So, this has become my "take" on the All (~90%)-American hot dog with mustard & onions. I start with a chicken sausage, which I heat in the microwave.

Chicken Sausages come in wonderful arrays of flavors (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) Chicken Sausages come in wonderful arrays of flavors

My "bun" is usually a toasted 100% whole wheat English muffin, because that is what I keep on hand for everything, from creating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (the peanut butter melts in the nooks and crannies!) to fried or scrambled eggs. Of course, to fit on the english muffin, I slice the chicken sausage/hot dog.

100% Whole Wheat English Muffin - They're always in my frig to toast with fried eggs, peanut butter and jelly, you name it! (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) 100% Whole Wheat English Muffin - They're always in my frig to toast with fried eggs, peanut butter and jelly, you name it!

I discovered these wonderfully succulent and sweet mini onions at Quaker Valley Orchards found at either Rose Park's or Dupont Circle's Farmers Market. They get chopped and tossed on...

Mini Sweet Onions from Quaker Valley Orchard (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) Mini Sweet Onions from Quaker Valley Orchard

Next, I squirt some swirls of Swedish mustard (I believe it was bought at Ikea) over the top of everything...

Swedish Mustard (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) Swedish Mustard

I slice up some fresh tomatoes. The Japanese Kumato tomatoes from the grocery store are great this time of year. Add some fresh rosemary from my garden... And Voila!

Bon Appetit!

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