Monday, November 29, 2010

Apple Butter Bread

Welcome to our newest challenge:  Do Something Sustainable for the Holidays.

The holidays always present their own time, budget, and sanity challenges, and it is hard to continue to practice sustainable living skills when the garden is finished (for most of us), the weather is cold (ditto), and every message in the world seems to say that your life would get better and your holiday merrier if you just spent a lot of money.

To counter that, between now and New Year's I will be suggesting a few ways you can Do Something Sustainable for the Holidays.  Note that we aren't going to try to do everything; just a few things that keep your sustainable living principles in focus during this busy time. 

Today's idea is
Apple Butter Bread

I've adapted my recipe from the following inspiration:  Rose Manor

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter (local if you can)
1 cup turbinado sugar
1 egg (local if you can)
1 cup apple butter (local if you can)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2/3 cup evaporated milk (one 5 oz. can)

Combine ingredients and bake in two greased loaf pans at 350 for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.  (You will note that I pared the original recipe down to one mixing bowl, and I have no negative effects from this time-saving move.)
I chose this recipe because I am in possession of some amazing local apple butter from the Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm, where my in-laws are regular volunteers.  A pint jar makes two batches, or four loaves.  For that matter, so does the large (13 oz) can of evaporated milk, with a few ounces left over that you have to put in your morning coffee so it doesn't go to waste.  (I'm always thinking about you, readers!)  Use local butter and eggs if you can, too, and you have a really local recipe.
The bread freezes beautifully, so for about an hour of effort you can double the batch, make four loaves, and have three in the freezer.  This means you have something already made to take out and serve to guests, take to the office pitch-in, or eat on Christmas morning. 
The Analysis
Fast:  For an hour's worth of effort, you can have a large chunk of your holiday baking done and have the results be sustainable to boot.
Cheap:  This depends heavily on the price of your ingredients; I got off pretty cheaply by having an inexpensive source of local eggs and the gift of apple butter.  Regardless, it won't be an expensive recipe, and you probably have most of the ingredients on hand.  (Many places have fruit butters for sale, although my preference, if you can, is to showcase a local product.)
Good:  This bread is yummy on its own and also good warm with butter.  I plan to try a pumpkin butter version in the future.
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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all the Fast, Cheap, and Good readers!

(The picture above has nothing to do with Thanksgiving; it is just a pretty shot of a bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco this summer.  I wanted to share it with you.)

Today is an oasis of quiet before the seasonal storms of merriment, religious significance, and outright consumerism our culture seems to put on the five or six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years.  Today, I'm not addressing any of that.

Rather, I wish you a holiday filled with joy; a day spent with family and friends (and don't forget, a holiday spent with a good book and a cozy fire also counts as time with friends!); and a celebration that makes you feel thankful for the blessings you have.

Let us all take this time to realize that, regardless of our circumstances or how tough the year may have been, we are all rich if we take the time to find and acknowledge our wealth.  Today is a day to take stock and gather strength before we head back out into the world to make our way.  We'll do it together, readers, and this holiday season and 2011 can be more sustainable, more independent, and more fulfilling than years before.

Happy Thanksgiving!

(And watch for the next post, when I will announce my new challenge:  Do Something Sustainable for the Holidays.)
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Monday, November 22, 2010

Sustainable Tool: The Santoku Knife

As an avid gardener, food preserver, and almost-vegetarian, I chop a lot of veggies.  And, I have amassed a lot of paring knives, ranging from expensive to dead cheap.  (In fact, my favorite paring knife is one that DH picked up at a big box retailer when he was out of town on business; I think he said it cost $3.)  On top of that, like most brides, I registered for the obligatory butcher block knife set when we married.  So, like most people of my age, I now have a drawer full of knives, each supposedly doing a different job, and each taking up space and having cost money.

All I needed to start was a santoku knife.

The santoku knife, as you see above, is a Japanese-inspired (the real ones are Japanese), relatively flat-bladed knife with these little divots along the side.  The divots are what is magic; they keep the knife from sticking to the food, and therefore you can slice much more easily through whatever you are cutting.  Although I gather it is primarily a vegetable knife, it is definitely my first choice for cutting cheese or meat these days.  In fact, I usually don't put this one in the dishwasher but instead just wash it off and put it back in the drawer.  (I know, I know: you shouldn't put knives in the dishwasher at all.  But I am usually too lazy not to, so I have to work with my own reality here.)

I wish I had known about the santoku knife earlier, before I started amassing a collection of knives for all occasion.  If you are reading this and just starting to amass kitchen tools, I recommend you acquire knives in the following order:
  1. A santoku knife.  Pick a medium sized one that fits comfortably in your hand.
  2. A paring knife.  There are still a few things too small to do with the medium santoku.
  3. A bread knife.  The serrated edge will cut bread, cake, and other such things.
  4. A set of (usually six) steak knives.  This gives you good meat knives for four people with two left over to use to cut meat in the kitchen.
That's it!  If you are just setting up housekeeping, you can certainly get by a long time on just the first two, then add the last two.  You only need specialty knives, like a meat cleaver, if you are doing a specialty job frequently.  For example, I would keep my strawberry knife with the little curved tip, because it does such a good job of hulling strawberries and cutting stem ends out of tomatoes with minimal waste.

The Analysis

Fast:  Your "fast" benefit here is that you will have a far easier time cutting things with a santoku, so you save time there.  You also will have an easier time finding it in a drawer if you limit your knives.

Cheap:  I got the above knife for about $7 at Meijer.  You can spend a ton, but you really don't need to. (Don't tell the foodies I said that!)  If you are starting out, you can probably get the first three knives for under $25 total; this is a good thing to put on your wish list too, if you have people wanting seasonal hints. 

Good:  Limiting clutter with a good-feeling tool is always a pleasure.
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Monday, November 15, 2010

The First Lime

By George, I did it.  I grew citrus in Ohio!

As you can see above, I just harvested the first key lime from my dwarf tree.  It is nestled next to an apple for perspective.

I have long joked that, one way or another, I was going to grow citrus in my back yard before I die.  This really only allowed for two options:  move to Key West (still an option, I hope), or find a way to grow a dwarf variety of a citrus tree.  (The third option, which is to single-handedly bring on enough global warming to change the climate here, I deemed unaccepatable and irresponsible for a number of reasons.)

Last year, I bought a dwarf key lime tree from Stark Brothers.  The dwarf variety is a full-sized lime tree grafted onto dwarf root stock; you can see a notch in the trunk where the graft occurred.  The tree will grow in a small planter, but you have to be careful not to bury that notch, or you will get a full-sized tree.  I planted mine in a 12" planter filled with compost, and this spring she bloomed and ultimately set limes.  The tree lives happily outside during summer, and it moves inside to the south-facing dining room window in winter.

This is the first lime, which I photographed for you (you are always on my mind, dear reader!) and then proceeded to make a mojito.  The flavor of this fresh little lime, untainted by pesticides or herbicides and oh-so-fresh, was so complex I was able to leave the lime juice out of the recipe.  It was absolute bliss, and it came from a lime that I grew in our own little "micro-orchard."

The Analysis

Fast:  Limes take several months to mature, from blossom to ripe fruit, but you don't really have to do anything to them in this period.  I like to stop by and periodically encourage the tree to produce mojito fodder, but that is an optional step.

Cheap:  It will take many limes to offset the price of this tree, but if I plan to use these mostly for mojitos (and if you doubt that, you haven't been reading this blog for long), I will probably realize savings pretty quickly.  By using these limes, I will not be buying the expensive bottled lime juice, and I won't be buying a bag of key limes, only to use two of them and see the others go bad.  Since I am growing my own mojito mint, I'm really down to just buying rum and club soda, and making simple syrup.

Good:  A mojito is a luxury, and an occasional one at that.  But sustainability isn't just about finding ways to get your necessities in a resource-friendly manner.  Rather, it is about using sustainable principles to achieve both necessities and luxuries.  And what could be more luxurious than coming home from the second-shift job on a cold winter day and seeing a ripe lime on the tree, just begging to become a little taste of the tropics?
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Key West Sunroom/Greenhouse

For a while, I've been alluding to the addition of a sunroom to our house. This sunroom/greenhouse is affectionately known around here as the "Key West Room" because of our use of the island as inspiration for the decor. I have promised you a post on the project, and here it is! I wanted to talk you through our decision-making process for this major home project, and hopefully you can decide what will and will not work for you in a similar situation.

First, let me acknowledge that adding onto a house is not necessarily economical; every estimate I have seen indicates that home owners will only rarely recover 100% of the cost of an addition or renovation in the resale of their house, and I'm sure that is true in this housing market. However, we opted to add this sunroom because it would extend the true living area of our home, which is the kitchen, family room, patio (now sunroom) and gardens. We opted for a sunroom instead of, perhaps, a pool or a media room, because it would be a highly functional space. We also opted to wait until we had met certain financial goals we had, and until we had the money in hand, so that is why we have owned this house for ten years without adding a sunroom that we knew we wanted.

The footprint of the new room already existed on the house. The back patio was already covered by existing roofline, and the concrete pad of the patio nestled under the roof in an "L" of the house. Therefore, we were literally two walls short of a room. The concrete pad even already had a footer in place, so, by keeping to this existing footprint instead of extending out into the gardens (heaven forbid!), we had the most economical option possible.

We chose a patio room company that had two options: a three-season room wall system and a four-season system. The four season option was sturdier and better insulated, so we opted to go that direction. The room could easily be heated with a space heater, or baseboard heat could be installed if we wish. However, we don't intend for the room to be additional winter living space, so we have not gone that route.

We chose walls that were part slider and part transom window. The transoms allow us to better control air flow, and they should allow us to use the room effectively on rainy days. We have already enjoyed using the room on a cool day with just one or two transoms open for ventilation.

The walls are a unique configuration designed by my husband. Each wall has a sliding panel and a fixed panel. DH requested that the fixed panels include the UV protection and the sliding panels allow full spectrum light. That way, in the cool months, we can position our indoor crops and seedlings in front of the full spectrum windows and use the space as a greenhouse; these windows will also allow for more passive solar heat to come in to warm the space. During the summer, when the sliders are back behind the fixed panels, the UV protection of those panels will keep the room a bit cooler. A ceiling fan we already installed will also help with ventilation.

So far, the room is functioning just as we intended. In lieu of a "Fast, Cheap, and Good" analysis, let me offer the following benefits from the addition of the room:
  • Because of the unique combination of window glass detailed above, we have extended the growing season considerably. As I write this in mid-November, we have a large raised planter box full of lettuce growing happily, along with some mojito mint and some rosemary. I expect to be able to start my seedlings earlier in the spring and to start more of them as well, so I should get a jump on the season and be able to depend less on purchased garden plants. (Starting a whole garden worth of seedlings was tricky when I was trying to do it all under grow bulbs and south-facing windows.)
  • The room is acting now as a heat collector and a really good buffer between the family room doors and the outdoor temps. I have noticed the family room, to which this room connects, being warmer and cozier.  On some warm days, we have opened the interior door and allowed the sunroom to heat the family room.
  • We will be adding a removable clothes line to run diagonally across the space, so I will still be able to hang sheets and other large items to air dry. They should dry more quickly than in my lower level laundry room on drying racks.  This will save a little money by allowing me to avoid running the drier.
  • By choosing the four season wall option, we qualified for a tax credit. This lowered the price of the room dramatically. (The credit should be just shy of 20% of the room's cost.)
  • I also paid for the room on my LL Bean Visa card and earned reward certificates; with these, I was able to get a set of flannel sheets for our bed (retail price $65.90) for only $5.90. So, that will keep us warm this year as well.
  • Finally, we joke around here about the savings realized by not having to buy antidepressants in the winter.  Truly, for us, having a sheltered space to take in more winter sunlight and garden plants makes a huge difference in mood and quality of life.
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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cheap and Easy Spoonbread

(Apologies for the picture quality; it looked fine in the preview screen before we scarfed down our picture subject!)

Heading deep into fall, it is time to start eating some of those preserved goods that we worked so hard for this summer, and a great use for frozen corn is spoonbread, a kind of soft cornbread that includes whole kernel corn.

This quick recipe makes use of Jiffy cornbread mix.  I like Jiffy mixes as the base for quick recipes; they are always cheap, and the ingredient list is generally pretty healthy and pretty much in line with what you would use if you made the recipe from scratch.  This spoonbread requires:

Cheap and Easy Spoonbread
1 box Jiffy cornbread mix ($0.47 on sale)
1 egg ($0.13, farm-raised; score!)
6 oz. milk ($0.32, local and expensive, but worth it)
1 pint frozen corn (from freezer)

Mix ingredients and spread in an 8x8 greased baking dish.  Bake 25-30 minutes; longer baking creates a more bread-like product, while the lower time leaves it soft.

This is a great side dish for a meal, or a really good light meal.  Eat the leftovers heated up in the mornings with butter and honey or maple syrup, or wait for lunch and add cheese (and maybe some diced chiles if you have them in the freezer and feel like some heat).

The Analysis

Fast:  One bowl, 4 ingredients, and about 32 minutes of prep including the baking time.

Cheap:  $0.82 for about 4 servings; even if you add ingredients to make a meal, it is still well within budget. 

Good:  Yummy and healthy, this is a great light meal or snack.
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Friday, November 5, 2010

2010 Garden Review

The main gardens have been taken down, and we have spread as much mulch as we have had time for to date (we use pine needles or shredded leaves, depending on supply and location).  So, I thought it would be fun to wrap up the week with a success/failure analysis of the 2010 gardening year. 

Note:  I am gardening in southwest Ohio, which is on the border of zones 5 and 6.  I have always counted myself a zone 5 person, but after a couple of years of extended seasons, I'm going to start following zone 6 Almanac dates next year.

The Disappointments:
  • The rabbits were killing me this year.  At one point, I nicknamed two of them Roundup and Napalm, so good were they at removing vegetation.  I watched the rabbits eat every bean seedling from two different plantings this year, so no beans.  They also wiped out an entire dill crop.  Sadly, they also ate most of three plantings of carrots, so that we have had only a few homegrown carrots this year and about a pint to freeze.
  • Erratic weather made the tomatoes behave badly.  I loved the big Oxheart tomatoes that weighed in at between one and two pounds each, but I didn't get as many all at once as I wanted, so I didn't get to can as much as I usually do.  The best performing tomato plant out of the 30 or so in the garden was, as always, a volunteer that came up and gave me sweet, juicy, golf ball-sized tomatoes for weeks.
  • When I wasn't cursing rabbits, I was cursing zucchini.  I got beautiful large plants that flowered for weeks.  Unfortunately, all the flowers were male, so I couldn't even go out there and help them pollinate.  I ended the year without a single zucchini.  Next year, we plan to put the zucchini in a new bed that has less rich soil than the main garden.
  • The birds took every single blueberry from the first cropping year of our bushes. The lesson:  the day you think, "oh, those will be ready tomorrow," either go ahead and pick them, or make sure you have impenetrable bird netting.
The Triumphs
  • This was definitely the year for herbs, starting in early spring.  The cilantro reseeded itself so that I had an abundance by April.  The sage also came back and threatened to take over the herb bed (as you see above).  Basil (particularly common and Thai) also did very well.
  • My experiment growing feverfew to help my headaches was a roaring success.  The feverfew cut my headaches so dramatically that my husband commented that the entire cost of the new herb bed in which it grows was completely worth it just in quality of life improvement.  I agree.  (As always, if you are contemplating trying a medicinal herb, don't do it solely because you are reading this or any other blog.  Do your own research; it is your body.)
  • For that matter, the front herb bed was a huge success.  I saw lots of people slow down and look, and when I was out with it I waved and said "hi" to more neighbors than any other year.
  • Potatoes were a huge success.  I cellared four pounds of them!  Yeah, I know, laugh it up, but I only put a few seed potatoes in the ground to see what would happen, and I would say I got an eight-fold yield back.  Plus, I discovered how much I love to dig potatoes; it is like an Easter egg hunt!  Next year, there will be many more potatoes. 
  • This was also the first year for garlic, and it was amazingly successful.  Out of a narrow, rocky bed that was never good for anything else, I got 33 head of garlic to cellar.  The heads are a little on the small side, but the flavor is amazing.
  • This was an expanded year for leeks, and they may be one of my new favorite veggies.  Although my leeks didn't get super-fat like the ones you see already trimmed and wrapped in plastic and foam (yuck!) in the grocery, they were crisp, juicy, and mild.  We had them in soups, casseroles, and on pizza for about three whole months.
  • The cucumber trellis continues to be the only way to grow cukes.  For the second straight year, I grew so many that not only did I put up some pickles, I also had cucumbers for lunch and dinner literally every single day for over two months.  Before the fence, my harvest season would max out at six weeks.  This year, I finally relented and sent the last of the cukes to work with my husband, since we had made as many pickles as we would use, and my digestion was in full revolt from eating that much water and fiber for that long.  (OK, gardener's TMI; sorry.)
What Continues
  • In the new sunroom (I owe you all a post on that project), we still have baby Simpson lettuce and romaine growing to extend our veggie season.  I just used some last night to add some freshness to a veggie sauce.  (Bonus tip:  throw some coarsely chopped greens into a tomato sauce at the last minute before serving.  It adds crispness and vitamins.)
  • Also in the sunroom is mojito mint and rosemary, both doing fine at the moment.
  • In the dining room, cozied up to the south-facing window, we have the "orchard" -- the key lime and nectarine trees.  The key lime is covered with little limes, and I expect we will be harvesting some before Christmas.
  • Finally, I have a big planter of thyme in my foyer (where we dragged it before the first frost).  It may wind up with the "orchard," but either way it seems to be healthy.
Growing your own vegetables:  Fast, Cheap, and Good!
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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reuseable Swiffer Cloths

The good folks at Swiffer were really onto something when they created the Swiffer mop.  Sure, there had been other mops that could be used to dust or scrub, depending on the amount of liquid you used, but the Swiffer mop had one feature I'd never encountered before:  that universal joint that attaches the handle to the head.  It gives me the most delicious feeling of "hey, I'm mopping the floors really fast!"  (I know, I need to get out more.)  It also reaches into corners and around round things in ways you wouldn't expect from a blocky rectangle head.  You can see above that I've worn mine until the handle is about to snap.

What I don't love is the disposable cloths that you use once, throw out, and buy again and again.  Part of me wants to make a high-minded argument to you that it is not environmentally responsible to keep buying cardboard boxes and plastic tubs full of dust cloths and floor washing cloths, only to send them to a landfill about 2 minutes after you use it.  But the whiner in me was just really tired of paying for the things, lugging them home, and then lugging them to the curb later (OK, hubby does that last part, but you get the point).

Enter the fleece substitute.  As you may know if you have been with me for a while, I can solve anything with fleece.  It is the duct tape of fabrics, and right now there are many remnants of fleece -- bolt ends and miscuts -- in a bin at your local fabric store.  Go get a remnant for less than you would pay for a single box of Swiffer refills (I regularly get about a yard for less than $2 in the remnant bin), and cut into about 6" by 10" rectangles.  They fit onto the head beautifully.  Spray with whatever cleaning fluid you like, or none; the fleece does a great job of dusting.  Then just wash them with sheets, towels, jeans, or whatever heavy-duty load you have.

(As an aside, as an instructor of advertising history, I am fascinated by the number of products that are currently sold with the message "use once and throw the dirt/germs away."  It will be interesting to see how this evolves as our societal germ-phobia comes up against the increasing interest in sustainability.)

The Analysis

Fast:  Not counting time for a trip to the fabric store (because that's pleasure, right?), a stack of these took about 10 minutes to cut.  I wasn't particularly exact about it.

Cheap:  I cut these before I started tracking my fleece prices for this blog, but I'm pretty confident I got a stack of these made for less than $1.  I still purchase the disposable wet cloths occasionally, but I have purchased one box this calender year, compared to probably one every six weeks plus a nearly comparable amount of the disposable dusting cloths before I started making these reusable ones.  Let's do the math on this one:

Before reusable cloths:
9 boxes wet cloths per year @ $5.09 ea. (Costco) = $45.81
6 boxes dry cloths per year @ $4.42 ea. (Amazon) = $26.52
Total = $72.33

With reusable cloths:
Stack of fleece reusable cloths = $1
1 box wet cloths = $5.09
Total = $6.09

Savings:  $66.24 for about 10 minutes of work

Good:  They work just as well as the commercial variety, and to date (since February) I have thrown away only one.  (And that one was just nasty from a one-off cleaning disaster.)
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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sustainable Bookshelf: Country Wisdom & Know-How

Periodically, I like to feature a book that I recommend you buy for your bookshelf.  My criteria for the Sustainable Bookshelf picks are:  1) they are worth buying to use as a reference day-to-day or at least in a given season, and 2) they would be a book that you would wish you had if suddenly you were living a totally sustainable, independent life and for some reason couldn't buy or borrow books or surf the Internet. 

Today's selection for the Sustainable Bookshelf is Country Wisdom and Know-How: Everything You Need to Know to Live Off the Land.  While that subtitle may be a little optimistic, this certainly is the go-to reference for some of those oddball intermediate-to-advanced sustainable living questions you may have.

Published in about 6 point font (so get out your reading glasses), this no-frills book has a wealth of information on gardening, farming, raising livestock, butchering, cooking, building, making medicines, carpentry, laying tile, and a few arts and crafts for your "free time."  I have gone to it time and again to answer questions that range from academic to practical, like:
  • What is the difference between a tincture and an infusion, and how do I make them?
  • What is a new recipe for [pick your favorite crop]?
  • How do you skin a rabbit?  (OK, give me a break:  I saw three of them mowing down my beans that day, and I figured it didn't hurt to know one's options....)
One caveat for this book (other than the eye-punishing font):  this is not a book you sit down and read cover-to-cover for enjoyment, and it isn't your first sustainable living book.  If you are brand-new at gardening, for example, you probably won't be able to start on the first page of the gardening section and easily work your way through your steps in chronological order.  However, if you have specific sustainabililty questions and wish to learn the answer, this is the encyclopedia for you.  I'm glad to have it around as a physical reference I know I can depend on to answer my questions.  And with a few tips and tricks from the masters, I'm able to build a better bean fence.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cream of Leek Soup

Today's recipe, for cream of leek soup, is not only a hearty soup for a chilly day; it is also an exercise in sustainable cooking.  For sustainable cooking, it is less important to collect a ton of recipes, and more important to learn basic formulae that will allow you to use up what you have.

This recipe is the same one we used for Cheesy Potato Soup.  If you analyze it, you will see that the basic formula for this soup is:

3 cups stock
1 cup cream, half and half, or whole milk
2 cups cheese

In this case, I simmered an onion and two cloves garlic in butter until translucent, then added 3 cups of ham stock I made this Easter and the last of the leeks from the garden (about 6 small ones, but you would do fine with 2 large ones).  I added a cup of half and half that we needed to use up, along with 2 cups of shredded Swiss and Gruyere I bought from Trader Joe's (the only thing I didn't already have that was waiting to be used up from pantry, fridge, garden, or cellar).  Since the flavor of the onions, garlic, and leeks was strong, the only spice I added was cracked black pepper.

You can spin this recipe several ways.  I can see a pepper cheese soup coming about with green peppers, spicy chiles, and cheddar cheese.  You could try a cream of tomato with mozzarella, Parmesan, and tomatoes (you may want to blend that one, or not if you like a chunky tomato soup).  I have made a cream of potato and carrot as well.  If you have a "failure" or a combo you don't like, it isn't a tragedy.  However, you will probably like what you cook as long as you like the ingredients you put in.

Sustainable cooking is about using what you have on hand, and the quickest way to do that is memorizing not recipes but formulae.  What variations on this theme sound good to you?

The Analysis

Fast:  This recipe regularly comes in under 45 minutes. 

Cheap:  Knowing that I had items in cellar, fridge, and garden to use up, I only bought cheese on my last TJ's visit to tie this all together.  So, I spent less than $4 for two lunches and two dinners.

Good:  I am a big fan of soup as budget saver and a body-warmer.

The Fall Thermostat Challenge -- CLOSED!
OK, I officially gave up on November 1.  With day temps in the 50s and nights around freezing, there is no longer any way I can heat the house with passive solar.  I could probably squeeze a few more hours by building a fire and spending my days in front of it, but work prohibits that approach.

Since Labor Day, I racked up 858 hours without whole-house AC or heat, a total of 35.75 days, or just over five weeks.  With the 49 days I saved this spring, I have avoided whole-house climate control for 12 weeks this year!  How cool (or warm) is that?!?

Why do this at all?  In addition to the fact that heat and AC cost money (and therefore are annoying to pay for, in my book), I think it is a good exercise to make us remember that these utilities are resources we use to make ourselves comfortable.  We don't need to live in bubbles that never deviate from 72 degrees; the heat and AC are luxuries that help keep us from freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer, but they are not essential during relatively large chunks of the year, even to keep comfortable.

Stay tuned for my next challenge, and feel free to post ideas if you have them!
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Monday, November 1, 2010

Sustainable Tool: The Broadfork

"Oh, I knew I never should have let you read those Little House on the Prairie books," my mom laughed when I posted this picture to Facebook.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the FC&G's household's new broadfork.

A broadfork is kind of a pitchfork on steroids.  What is difficult to see in this photo is that those tines -- which appear sturdy enough to last a lifetime, requiring only occasional changes of handle (although those feel pretty sturdy too) -- are curved, just like a pitchfork.  They are also much longer than those on a pitchfork. 

The beauty of this is that one can jam those tines in the ground, then pull back on the handles and not so much flip the soil as loosen it.  This is instrumental since we have started "lasagna gardening," a strategy in which you do not plow/rototill your soil so that you keep the various strata intact instead of destroying the work your beneficial flora and fauna have done to your soil over the year.  This should keep down the presence of annoying insects and diseases. 

You do this by continually mulching the soil, allowing the mulch to compost in situ.  I like to think of lasagna gardening as the "I hate to rototill" method.  If you keep mulching through summer, it theoretically keeps the weeds under control too, although I didn't succeed in doing that effectively this year.  However, the weeds I did get were much easier to pull, so this might be the "I hate to weed" method too.

In any event, if you practice lasagna gardening, you need to loosen that soil periodically, and this is what the broadfork is for.  It is fun to use, although my husband is more effective at it than me.  It is a great workout, as you might imagine, and it is certainly going to outlast a gas-powered rototiller, not to mention have a much smaller impact on the environment.  I love my broadfork, and I think Pa Ingalls might have been proud.

The Analysis

Fast:  In early experiments with the broadfork this fall, I suspect that it will do a quicker job of "tilling" the garden than would a rototiller, once you factor in the inevitable spring ritual of calling every hardware store in the area, going to rent one, trying to make sure you have the proper fuel, letting it jerk you around the garden for a couple of hours, and then cleaning it for the return.

Cheap:  This was $99 plus shipping from Lehman's, my favorite store for sustainable stuff.  The shipping was pretty expensive (about $25) as you might expect.  However, we have a theory around here that sometimes it is better to invest in a really good tool rather than simply having the money in the bank.  Preparedness and the ability to do a good job are a kind of savings, too.

Good:  Early indications are that this will be better for the health of my soil and for the size of my waistline.  Sustainable tool win!
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