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Thursday, May 19, 2016

My Cycles of Sustainability

I have a confession: Along with many other sustainable living experts, authors, and bloggers, I'm guilty of making it sound like sustainable living can be broken down into a lot of little projects, with a huge focus on gardening, food preservation, and vintage-style domestic arts.

This is true, to some degree. But, if you don't take a systemic view of your lifestyle, you may find that you have simply changed your daily activities without making a noticeable improvement in your life.

Remember our fundamental purpose: sustainable living means responsible use of resources. Resources include food, clothing, land, environment, time, money, health, or anything else that you may have a demand for that exceeds the supply.

To that end, I thought it might be useful to share the overall structure of my year, which I divide into three "seasons."

Season One (January-April): Focus on Earning
The winter months are cold and dreary around here, and, as you are probably painfully aware if you have been reading this blog for any amount of time, I am not exactly a cold-weather person. Therefore, I find it helpful to throw the majority of my energy behind projects that maximize my income, since it's too cold outside to do much in the way of gardening.

Major Activities
  • Work on as much writing for Hilltop Communications as possible.
  • Take on extra teaching assignments.  This winter term, I taught eight credit hours of classes in addition to my primary writing biz.
  • Add photos to the Cucumber Key Photography web site.
  • Continue to sell and work on restocking the Carrot Creations store.
Minor Activities
  • Start garden plants.
  • Do non-vegetable canning, like stock from meat bones.

Season Two (May-August): Focus on Saving
This is my favorite season. Nearly every day brings time in the garden, and I have more time to work on various projects. During this season, I focus on projects that will either generate income or save time or money in the coming months.

Major Activities
  • Keep the garden in full production. 
  • Make as many meals as possible from primarily garden products, reducing expenditures for food and improving health.
  • Preserve as much food as possible, reducing future food bills, speeding future meal production, and improving health.
  • Buy food I don't grow at the farmer's market, with lower in-season prices. Preserve any extra.
  • Institute energy saving projects, like drying laundry on the line, using passive solar heat to warm the house or open window to cool when possible, and taking advantage of long days to avoid using lights throughout the house.
  • Work on writing projects that will sell year-round, for a passive income stream. Right now, my focus is on my book-length projects.
  • Continue to maintain regular writing and photography work.
Minor Activities
  • Split wood for fall home heating, when there are many days we can heat exclusively or primarily with our wood stove.
  • Continue to stock the Carrot Creations store.
  • Catch up on seasonal home projects that weather or time constraints will make impractical later, such as weatherproofing, necessary home improvements, or even just washing and line-drying all the quilts and bedding in the house.
  • Conduct "expenditure audit," looking at things like cell phone plans, video streaming service (Netflix) useage, gym memberships, and the like, and cancelling or altering the things that no longer fit our needs.

Season Three (September-December): Focus on Processing
I've been in academia so long that I almost reflexively think the year begins in September. This is the season that many of the projects I've worked on all year pay off and I have time to think about the next cycle.

Major Activities
  • Process orders in the Carrot Creations Christmas rush. Crochet like a mad woman to continue to keep existing stock in the store as high as possible by replacing items as they sell.
  • Plan meals around canned, frozen, and still-growing garden products and other such preserved food (like chickens purchased "in season" over the summer at harvest time). Attempt to keep grocery bill low by relying on food in stock.
  • Pick up teaching load again.  Typically, my fall semester load is lighter than my winter/spring one, but that can change according to need.
  • Continue to write and photograph.
  • Institute heat-saving and -generating measures around the house, like use of the wood stove, venting the dryer inside, using passive solar heat, and getting those freshly sunned quilts out of the closet.
Minor Activities
  • Generate ideas for future writing projects.  Keep a OneNote file on each so that I can work on them year round as time permits.
  • Focus on non-food sustainability projects like rebatching soap.

And that's the system.  Is there a project or practice you'd like to see me detail in a future post?  Let me know in the comments or on the Facebook post.
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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What Happens to the Regrown Romaine?

I never imagined the degree to which my post on regrowing romaine would capture people's imagination.  It is well on the way to being the most popular post I've written, along with the post on the fleece unquilt.  This makes me happy, because, taken together, it indicates that there are a lot of people interested in making the most of things that others would throw away.

So, here are some answers to questions I've received from readers:

Q: Do you have to regrow your romaine heart in dirt?

A: The post on regrowing romaine has been picked up by several other blogs, and many of them indicate you can regrow a romaine heart in water.  You probably can.  However, I choose to put the cut off heart in soil because plants generate some of their nutrients from the soil.  I want the healthiest product available, so it's no big deal to just jam the heart into some soil and watch it grow.

Q: Does the heart root?

A:  Yes, if you place the heart in dirt, it will start to develop roots.  This allows it to grow longer and produce healthier leaves.

Q: If you cut off the new leaves, will it keep producing more?

A:  Probably not.  None of the specimens I've tried have kept growing after I've cut off the new growth. I think this stands to reason.  Romaine is not a "cut and come again" style of green that you can trim and expect to regenerate.  Instead, romaine is a head lettuce, and the intention is for the grower to cut the head at the end of the season.  We are getting something of a "bonus" head of romaine by using this trick.

Q: What is the flavor like?

A:  Pretty good, actually.  Sometimes, I find that the new head is just slightly more bitter than the "mother" that it is coming from, but I find that appealing.  I like greens with some bite to them.  If you try a leaf and decide that you have a bit too much astringency for your taste, you can always use the resulting head as a "pot herb," stirring chopped up leaves into rice or soup just before serving. That adds some much-needed nutrients to your meal while changing texture and flavor to be more mild.
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Monday, May 2, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: April 2016

Finally!  We're back into production!

I'm hoping to write a post this week about the cycles of savings and income in our household, but it should come as no shock when I note that late spring, summer, and early fall are the prime times to save money on the garden.  In fact, that's where this column got it's start: I wanted to see just how much I was saving over retail with my garden, once factoring in the expenditures.

April starts the garden investment in earnest, and this month the expenditures stand at a total of $85.08.  That will go up quite a bit (probably to the $200 range) very shortly as I buy the last of the plants and seeds for the year.

The exciting thing, though, is seeing the harvest start to come in and reduce the expenditures on our way to showing a net decrease in our food bill.  This month, it was all about the baby kale (and a bit of baby romaine).  I harvested 5.5 ounces of greens for a net value of $4.84.  This is about the weight and value of a bag of prewashed organic greens from the store, so it isn't making a huge dent in the food bill yet, but it is certainly brightening up a few meals.  I've enjoyed a great deal of this in wraps that I've made for lunches; baby kale makes a great addition to some Swiss cheese for a nice vegetarian wrap, and you already know that I've put it on some pizzas.

I'm pretty sure the majority of the harvest through May will be greens as well, as I have kale, romaine, and mesclun already started, and I want to get some arugula started as well.

But for now, I'm plenty happy with my start to savings!

Cumulative Totals

Expenditures: $85.08

Harvest Total Oz.: 8.5 oz.
Harvest Total Lb.: .53125 lb.
Harvest Total Value: $5.59

Net Annual Savings:  -$79.49
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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Playing with Pizzas

So, lately, we've fallen in love with pesto as a pizza sauce replacement, and boy, is this a nice way of using some of the pesto in the freezer!

Pesto is a lovely replacement for the traditional red sauce, especially on primarily-veggie pizzas like the one you see at the right.  It allows toppings like sliced tomatoes to shine, and it is a nice balance for toppings of greens, like the fresh kale that I used.

On a standard pizza crust (I'm still playing with crust recipes, but this one is promising), put 1-2 ounces of lightly-salted pesto.  If you are making your own pesto, you probably want it more lightly salted than the pesto you would use for pasta.  Since I don't put salt in my pesto to freeze it, I was fine with it as is.

Use plenty of veggie toppings.  Because it is so early in the season, I splurged on some organic tomatoes and topped them with just a light sprinkling of cheese.  Greens are a nice touch if placed on as soon as you take the pizza out of the oven; they'll wilt but not overcook.  Use hearty-flavored greens like kale or arugula; fresh dandelion leaves might be nice too.

Voila, a whole different pizza taste.  I promise it won't disappoint.
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Monday, April 18, 2016

In the Aftermath

Well, we finally made it through the power outage around here.  Eleven days, but we came out the other side with a lot of really good improvements to the electrical system for the house. This seems to be our MO: we wait for something to break, and then we make all sorts of improvements when we fix it or have it fixed.  I've gotten a new roof and a couple of new floors that way, too.

But from a sustainable living perspective, those couple of weeks were a bit of a disaster. I should have repotted my tomato plants, but it was sleeting outside and 52 degrees in the house and I had no grow lights or warm mats for them to sit on, so I left them in their baby pots. So, that means that my tomatoes are now a couple of weeks behind. I just repotted this weekend, and they are enjoying their first days in the sun.

We also are trying a new experiment this year: asparagus. Assuming it takes, we won't, of course, be able to harvest any for a year or two, but I figured it was time to try this crop. Every year, I've wanted to put in asparagus, and every year I say that we won't be living here for the next season, so why bother? Maybe the act of actually planting some asparagus will get us to be able to move.

Gardening season is ramping up quickly, though. We're enjoying lots of fresh baby kale on sandwiches, and I'm hoping to plant some pots of mesclun tonight. Pretty soon, we'll be making a dent in our grocery budget once again, which will be a welcome event. I plan to tell you about the way we rotate our seasonal projects very soon.

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Prepper Dress Rehearsal

So, all the good "prepper" books and web sites tell you to be sure to practice with your gear once in a while so you are ready for emergencies. Mr. FC&G inadvertently have been running a little dress rehearsal for the past week, which, heaven willing, is almost over even as I type.

It started when we began to lose power to certain parts of the house. The local tree trimmer was working near the power lines, and we naturally assumed something had been hit or dislodged, and we waited until they were finished to call the power company.

Well, the power company came out and said that our 50 year old meter box (unsurprisingly) had taken some damage over the years, and it needed replaced. And then they unhooked all the power to the house and said to give them a call when it was fixed and took off.

So, while Mr. FC&G did the repairs (thank heavens for marrying an electrical engineer!) and we waited for an inspection, we've been living rough. But along the way, we have gotten the "opportunity" to test our preps. Some lessons:

1. It's always the first world problems that get you.
If unplugging the house meant that the entire world were unplugged, we'd have had a much easier time of it. Most of our anxiety involved running a generator to drive, in part, the computers and internet access we would need to work our jobs. Our second problem was running the refrigerator and freezer. I've been in the process of converting more of my food storage efforts to pressure-canned food for this very reason, but our expensive meat from the CSA requires us to keep running that freezer so we don't take a loss.

2. Thank heavens for the fireplace insert.
I used to hate the look of a fireplace insert until I weathered a few power outages around here. Then, I started loving the fact that I could heat the lower level main room and even cook meals on the thing. If you have a largely-decorative fireplace, I'd say a stove insert is one of the best things you can buy.

3. Your gear is not irrelevant.
Every time I buy prepper gear, I feel profoundly stupid. But every time I have to live without power, I'm grateful. In the photo above, we got out the small cast iron skillet (the large one is theoretically packed safely away in the garage in some location that we can't remember!) and the two-cup tea pot. That made things a lot more bearable.

4. I'm just putting it out here: you need more underwear.
I've wanted to buy some "travel" underwear for a while. You know: the easy-wash, quick-dry stuff you can take on vacation and wash up each evening. I figure, I'm getting tired of packing 20 pairs of undies to take a week long trip to Key West (hey, don't judge...), and 5 really washable pairs would take up less room. After spending this week waiting for a sunny-ish day to wash my unmentionables, this has risen to the top of my list.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: First Quarter, 2016

And we're back with another installment of "How Much Does a Garden Grow."  I've left this column alone for a quarter because there really wasn't much to report over the winter, but we are getting started now.

This is the season of expenditures, and thus far I've spent $53.78 on seed starting and plant orders.  I'll need lots more, of course, but this is a good start.

The interesting things is that I harvested 3 ounces of tomatoes from the plant I brought inside last fall.  I know I got about that much last year after harvest time too, proving that it is probably not worth it to purposely try to nurse a tomato plant through the winter in our climate.  However, if you have one in a container with fruit on it and a place to put it, like I did, it makes a fun diversion.

The beans did not fare so well over the winter, so I won't do that again, and the jury is still out on the pepper plants I brought inside.  They are looking rough, but they are alive.  We'll see if I manage to get them to come back this spring.

Otherwise, I have greens about ready to harvest, and I'm getting ready to plant peas in containers.  As you can see, the tomatoes are ready to be transplanted too.  So, the garden is seriously underway!


Total Expenditures: $53.78

Harvest: 3 oz./0.1875 lbs.
Harvest value: $0.75

Cumulative savings:  ($53.03)

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