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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Four Ways to be Sustainable for the Holidays

Somehow or other, the holidays are creeping up on us already.  I don't feel particularly prepared.  I haven't even finished with my garden -- I still have a potted Red Pear tomato that keeps setting and ripening fruit out in the sunroom, and I keep believing it's still summer.

Well, until I try to get the mail in a pair of flip-flops and wind up courting frost bite.

Sustainable and frugal living columns are always a bit difficult to write around the holidays, because there's the temptation to head straight into "no one needs all that stuff" territory.

But this is not a minimalism blog (as anyone who has ever seen our basement can attest).  For me, how much "stuff" you need to celebrate the holiday of your choice is entirely up to you.  I just want you to be able to do so comfortably and with your own sustainability desires met.

So, my top five ideas for how to celebrate sustainably:

1.  Set spending limits.
Whether this has been a great year financially or you are feeling a little strapped, start now by making a budget and dividing the money you currently have on hand for the holidays among your gift recipients in a way you feel is fair.  Maybe that means that you spend the majority of your funds on your spouse and/or children and limit your participation in gift exchanges for a group.  Maybe it means you have the ability to buy something for everyone.  Just make your plan and then stick with it.

2.  Be generous with your goodwill.
Regardless of what holiday you celebrate or how much or little you have to spend, this is the time of year to tell as many people as possible what they mean to you.  One good idea is sending a New Years card instead of a Christmas/holiday one, and to take the time to write a special note to each recipient.  Yes, that's a lot of work, but your good wishes will come right when the celebrations die down and people need to know what they mean to you.

3.  Give gifts that match the recipient made with values that match yours.
It is oh-so-tempting to make that contribution to your own favorite charity in place of giving a gift.  But, if your recipient does not share your particular views (and it's harder to be sure than you think), you are just putting the person on a mailing list they don't want to be on and annoying them for the next twelve month.  Instead, match the gift to the recipient, but try to make sure the gift's production matches your values.  For example, I recently interviewed a local shop owner who sells chocolate that is manufactured without any labor that can be traced to human trafficking, not an easy thing to avoid with that kind of agriculture.  What a great gift that would be for my fellow chocolate lovers!

4.  Shop local.
One of the most sustainable things you can do is patronize local businesses, especially locally-owned ones.  You will cut down on transportation and overhead costs while helping a small businessperson and making sure money stays in your own community.  If you don't choose to shop local; shop local somewhere else -- pick your favorite vacation spot or hometown, and funnel some money into those businesses.  We occasionally order things from Key West businesses just because we want to see those same storefronts open when we next visit.

How do you make your holidays sustainable?  
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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Best of FC&G: The Fleece Patchwork Un-Quilt

In another update of a popular post, I wanted to update you on the fleece patchwork un-quilt.

I have wanted to quilt for years, but I will admit that I just don't have the patience.  I will never really be able to stand to do intricate piecing, use batting, and sew everything so exactly.  But I definitely want quilts of my own making.

Enter the un-quilt.  Constructed just like a fleece pillowcase with a patched top, this is one of the warmest and easiest blankets you will ever make.

I have made two quilts for our house and one for my parents, and they are all holding up fine.  Our quilts have been in use for about four years, and they have been used and used.  We use them for naps year round, on the bed in winter, and even on vacation. Our quilts have been to my college reunion to decorate our borrowed dorm room, to Key West when we stayed for a couple of weeks, and even outside for a picnic.  They are still looking great and keeping us cozy.

Classic Post:
For this project, all you need are remnants in fleece patterns and colors you like, plus a cut of fleece for backing.  Follow these simple steps:

1.  Cut the patchwork fleece into squares.  I use a 4.5 inch square quilting template because I like the look of random patches of regularly-cut fabric.  But feel free to get more complex or to try patterns like 9-patch squares (my next attempt).  Just remember that the more complex your patchwork, the more time it takes.

2.  Sew your squares together.  For me, I sew 14 squares to get the width; this is about five feet in width.  I like this width for a fleece quilt because bolts of fleece come in 58-60 inch widths, so this will fit the backing without piecing two cuts of fleece together to make the back.  That is difficult and unwieldy.  Five feet wide also allows me to put the quilt on my side of the (king) bed without disturbing over-heated hubby.

3.  Sew your width strips together to make about six feet in length.  Again, six feet is two yards of fleece, which is an inexpensive backing.  Alternately, you could patch the back as well, but that would be more work. 

4.  For this quilt, I bought a piece of bluish grey fleece for the back that was two yards long and about 60 inches wide.  It cost (after sale and coupons) about $14.  Place the backing and the topper with right sides together and machine sew on three sides, like you are making a pillow case.  For the fourth side (which would be open on a pillow case, turn the edges in and sew both sides together.  You can do this on your machine (remember, that is four thicknesses of fabric, so you may want to change to a heavier needle) or by blind stitch (which I'm going to do on my next quilt).

Voila!  A soft, warm "quilt" that really relies on the warmth of air sandwiched in two layers of fleece instead of the normal cotton and batting sandwich.  If you are crafty, you could easily sew one of these up as a Christmas gift (a lap quilt also would be nice and take even less time), or you could start one to keep your own toes toasty in the bitter months to come. 

The Analysis

Fast:  In quilt-time, this one comes together in a jiffy.  Cut squares while you are watching TV at night, and then sew together in a few bursts of sewing.  I like to work on one of these while I'm writing, because it gives me a chance to turn away from the computer and think for a few minutes while I assemble a few squares.

Cheap:  I put my first fleece quilt together for the cost of $14 for two yards of backing fleece, plus whatever I spent on remnants.  With the remnant bin full (as it is right now with everyone using fleece to make gifts), you should be able to bring this project in under $30 with some smart shopping.

Good:  The fleece quilt is one of the (very) few things I actually like about winter.  It is so soft and warm, it follows me everywhere:  downstairs onto the couch during the day, and upstairs onto the bed at night.  I can't wait to finish another.
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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: October 2014

I have been waiting and waiting to tally up the tomato totals, and I almost needed to wait longer than I have, because I still have tomatoes growing in the sunroom. But in the interest of planning next year's garden, here's how the tomatoes shook out this year now that the lion's share of the harvest is in:

Cuor di Bue (1): 187 ounces/$52.36
Box Car Willie (1):  153 ounces/$42.84
San Marzano (1): 195 ounces/$54.60
Super Sauce (6): 83 ounces/$23.24
Black Krim (3): 70 ounces/$19.60
Steakhouse (3): 201 ounces/$56.28
Amish Paste (3): 37 ounces/$10.36
Red Pear (6?): 78 ounces/$21.84
Volunteer (10?): 127 ounces/$35.56

The top three tomatoes listed above were single plants given to me by my best friend from college, who currently lives in Tennessee.  Those single plants out-performed all the other varieties, except for the Burpee Steakhouse.  However, it's important to note that I needed three Steakhouse to beat even one of these plants.  So, clearly, I need to have her start my tomatoes every year.

The remaining varieties were ordered as plants, with the exception of the Red Pear and the volunteer tomatoes.  The Red Pear were grown from seed, which is the reason I don't know how many plants I had -- sometimes, I'd plant two plants in a hill because that's the way they were in the starter pot.  Nonetheless, I was very pleased with these little, grape-sized salsa tomatoes.

The volunteers were also a success in my book.  Yes, I had a lot of them, because I pretty much try to keep every decent-sized volunteer I have room for, but I will take a harvest of $35 of free tomatoes any day.  Some of these were absolutely delicious, too, so I saved the seed in hopes of starting to get a line of plants that works in my microclimate.

Otherwise, the October harvest brought in just over nine pound of produce, but it was valuable stuff -- largely tomatoes and kale.  Our totals at the end of the month are respectable:

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,556.5
Pounds: 159.78125

Total Value of Harvest: $615.75
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $329.62

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Best of FC&G: Update on Ersatz Cotton Balls

I've been going through the "classic" FC&G posts with the idea of releasing some of the best in book form, and I realize that many of our current readers may have joined us mid-conversation and not had time to read all the back posts they might like.  Therefore, I'm going to occasionally release a "best of" post that updates an older column.

Today, we have what I call "ersatz cotton ball," or make-up removers.  I was very proud of this project back in January 2010 when I came up with the idea.  I'm even prouder of it now, at the end of 2014.  Many of the fleece make-up removers that I made over four years ago are still white and still in service.  I've cut a few extra from time to time as I get a scrap of fleece that is suited for nothing else, and I've thrown a few away that were indelibly stained.  But overall, most of my stash is still in service.

Best of all, I've purchased about one bag of cotton balls a year for the past five years, instead of four or five per year without the wipes.  You can see the original post for the original math; things have only gotten more expensive since then, so the savings is even greater.

Have you tried this idea?

Original Post
Hi, my name is Jennifer, and I have a fleece addiction.

Let me back up a bit.  In previous posts, I talked about finding sustainable replacements for the kind of disposable items that are so annoying to pay for.  For me, one of these is cotton balls.

I know, I know.  They aren't that expensive.  But cotton balls are one of those inherently disposable items that slowly leach money from your wallet while they add to the landfill.  So, since I use cotton balls primarily as makeup removers, enter the ersatz cotton ball.

This requires another slight digression:  I love the remnant fabric bin at my local fabric store, and winter is the time that this bin is filled with fleece.  After everyone spent Christmas making homemade Snuggies, that bin is full of mis-cuts, unwanted yardage, and the ends of bolts.  So, if you aren't ultra-picky about the patterns you buy (and make no mistake, there are some cute ones and some wonderful solids in there), you can usually pick up fleece remnants ranging up to a yard and a half in length, all for 50 to 70 percent off.

I have been raiding the remnant bin for months to find pieces with which to make fleece socks, so I happened to have some white fleece ends left over, but any color would do.  Simply cut your fleece remnant into 2"x2" squares, and there you have it -- make up remover pads, otherwise known as ersatz cotton balls.  Fleece doesn't fray, so you don't have to worry about hemming, which makes this a fine no-sew project.

 Yep, it's that easy!

I hang a mesh laundry bag on the back of the bathroom door, and when I have a reasonable bag full of dirties, I toss them in the white load.  I don't up the amount of detergent I use, and the weight of these is so negligible that I don't think my machine is adding more than a few cents extra water.  In the summer, I'll be hanging that mesh bag out on the clothes line to dry, so they will dry for free.  Best of all, I can use these again and again.

The Analysis

Fast:  I think it took me 10 minutes to make a jar full of ersatz cotton balls, enough to last me a while.  On a busy grocery day, it could take me that long to slog my way down the make-up aisle to get cotton balls.

Cheap:  I raided my own fleece stash and used pieces too small for anything else, but assuming you buy light-colored fleece for this project, you should be able to make all you need for about a quarter of a yard.  If you get your yardage from the remnant bin, you should not be spending more than 50 to 75 cents.

The closest analog to these is disposable make-up remover pads, which Rite-Aid has for $1.69 for 80; jumbo cotton balls should come in for about the same price for 100.  Assuming four to five purchases of each over the course of a year, you will spend $8.45 on your makeup remover pads if you buy the disposable, compared to about 75 cents for the reusable kind.  That leave $7.70 of pure savings, plus the warm fuzzy of knowing you didn't contribute these bits to the landfill.

Good:  I would say these are just as soft or softer than cotton balls, and they remove makeup just as well
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Quick Singapore Noodles

Recently, I had the pleasure of having Singapore noodles at a local Thai restaurant.  This dish was right up my alley, being rice noodles and veggies in a yellow curry sauce, so I knew I had to try to replicate it.

It was also a great chance to create a low-cost, vegetarian dinner that comes together quickly, thanks to the purchase of just one packaged item. In this recipe, I used whole wheat spaghetti in place of the rice noodles, and I used Trader Joe's yellow curry sauce, along with fresh garden veggies.

Quick Singapore Noodles
Whole wheat spaghetti -- enough for four portions, boiled
1 bottle Trader Joe's yellow curry sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
4-8 ounces of carrots, cubed
1 large handful kale, roughly chopped
1 T. olive oil

In large sautee pan, cook chopped onions in olive oil until translucent and carrots until soft.  Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti.

When onions and carrots are cooked to taste, add noodles, curry sauce, and kale.  Cook until kale is wilted and sauce is hot.

Serves 4

The Analysis
Fast:  This took about 30 minutes from the time I hit the garden to pull the carrots until I put the dish on the table

Cheap:  Very inexpensive.  The most expensive element is the prepared curry sauce, and that cost is spread over four servings.

Good:  This was a pretty close copy of the Thai restaurant version.  I liked the dish better with whole wheat noodles than with the rice noodles, but obviously you can play with using any noodle you like.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Saving Bean Seeds

This year, we had a bumper crop of pole beans that I grew on a tepee-like structure on the edge of the garden.  I was not very organized about letting some of the bean pods mature to save seeds, but when I went to cut down the vines, I was pleased to see many pods near the base that I had missed, leaving me with lots of seed for next year.

Saving bean seeds is one of the easiest ways to start saving seed for your next garden, thus preserving heirloom lines and saving you money.  For beans like this (either pole beans or bush varieties), simply wait until the seeds are mature inside the pod.  You can tell because you will be able to both see and feel the bean seeds as "bumps" in the pod.  At this stage, some people call these beans "shellies" or "shell-outs."

Ideally, you harvest your shellies when the pod is dry, but I had to take a few handsful when they were still green and let them dry on the kitchen counter.  When they are dry, pop open the pods and pop out the seed.

Bonus tip:  When you cut down your bean vines, don't pull up the roots; cut the vines off at the soil line.  The roots of legumes like beans and peas fix nitrogen in the soil in little nodules on their roots.  Leaving the roots in the soil means richer soil next year.

The Analysis
Fast:  Just as fast as harvesting beans to eat!

Cheap:  Saving your own seed will save you the seed cost of your crop next year.

Good:  Saving seed also helps us preserve biodiversity of garden crops, as you will be continuing a line of heirloom seeds that slowly becomes adapted to your microclimate.
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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: September 2014

As expected, September was a much slower garden month than was August.  With only $65 worth of produce harvested, it is starting to look like this year's garden will be of a smaller monetary value than last year.

However, I'm not disappointed, because the variety of produce has been much better.  As I've mentioned, last year's garden pretty much lived on the production of cucumbers and zucchini.  That was very helpful, but it didn't give quite the variety we might have wanted.  This year was much better. 

This year, we had much more in the way of tomatoes.  I plan an entire post about the tomatoes once they finish up, but as of now, these are the varieties that gave me 10 pounds (160 ounces) or more:
  • Cuor di Bue: 187 ounces from one plant
  • San Marzano: 191 ounces from one plant
  • Steakhouse: 158 ounces from three plants (very close!)
As I will detail in a future post, the best performers by far came from my good friend in Tennessee.  I now need to figure out whether it was the early start or the growing method while young that made the difference.  One thing is for sure:  I'm growing these varieties again.  Also, I'm definitely using Neptune's Harvest (an organic seaweed fertilizer) while they are young.

Also notable on the tomato front was the production from volunteer tomatoes.  Granted, I did have nearly a dozen volunteers in containers and in what I called "volunteer row," a semi-shaded garden row that I didn't have anything else planned for.  Nonetheless, I got 117 ounces of volunteer tomatoes to date, and they are still growing both outside and in containers in the sunroom.  

Other important crops this month were peppers, carrots, and potatoes.  Carrots and potatoes add very little value to our overall savings tally, but they are very important to us as far as nutrition.

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,408.5
Pounds: 150.53125

Total Value of Harvest: $574.47
Expenditures: -286.13

Total: $288.34
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