Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Foraged Berries and Other Frugal Things

Note as of 6/23/11:  Live and learn:  I may have a crop of faux strawberries here, although I do note that mine are somewhat sweet and make a good preserve.  However, the presence of the yellow flower makes me think that these may be of the faux variety, so be aware if you experiment with your own yard.

I promised myself I was going to explore foraging for edible greens and such, and this holiday weekend was the perfect time to add another foraged product to the diet.  (The first, you remember, was dandelions.)  This weekend, we got serious about foraging for wild strawberries.

Wild strawberries look exactly like domesticated strawberries in miniature, which makes them an easy choice for the novice forager.  However, we were cautious, and you should be too:  we read extensively on identifying wild strawberries, and then we spent all last season eating one at a time to be sure they were what we thought they were and we had no adverse reactions to them.  (Note:  You must make your own foraging decisions; I'm not advocating this practice unless you are 100% sure.)

You will note the characteristic strawberry leaves, the tiny blossoms, and the mature berry that looks just like a domesticated strawberry, but smaller.  The leaves at the top encase the berry until it is ripe, and then they burst open to show the mature berry.  The berry is not as sweet as a domesticated strawberry. We foraged in our own yard, as we have many areas of wild strawberries since we don't treat our lawn for "weeds" and we mow fairly high, allowing the ground-loving berries to grow.

I gathered about an ounce of berries, which amounted to maybe a third of a cup in volume.  I put them in the strawberry shortcake batter, and the baking made them a bit sweeter.

Other frugal and sustainable acts for the holiday weekend:
  • We mailed a shipment for Carrot Creations, which adds a little extra to the vacation fund.
  • I caught a good sale at JoAnn's for some fabric and yarn for new Carrot Creations projects.
  • We returned an ink cartridge to Staples for a $2 credit on my reward card.
  • We got the materials for painting a salvaged garden bench and constructing new tomato cages, with most of the supplies paid for by a gift card we had received.
  • We sold a bag of books back to the half price store and put $5 in the vacation fund.
The Analysis (Wild Strawberries)

Fast:  You won't find a ton of strawberries in your yard, most likely, so this is a quick project.

Cheap:  Foraging = free!

Good:  I'm always pleased to find a free food source, and I also think it is a good intellectual exercise to learn more about living off your own land, no matter how small or urban your plot is.
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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Not Quite: DIY Dishwasher Detergent

One of my continual fascinations, as you know, is attempting to discover cheaper and better ways to accomplish a goal, usually through doing something myself or eliminating a purchase.  This winter, my focus turned to trying to replace commercial dishwasher detergent, as this can cost nearly $4 a box and is a pain to lug home from the grocery store.

I researched online, and most sources suggested a 1:1 mix of baking soda and borax.  This makes sense, but it set off a long research project to determine whether I thought using borax to clean dishes was safe (even though that is one of the uses listed on the box).  I determined that I felt comfortable, and I gave it a try.

And the results were:  OK.  Not great.  Not a substitute for the real thing.  Good enough to get us through in a pinch if we run out of store-bought and don't want to make a special trip, but not good enough to be a total replacement.

(Note:  Things do not get better if you add a drop or two of liquid dish soap to the dispenser.  Let's just say you have a Brady Bunch-esque situation on your hands, and leave it at that.  Those of a certain age will know what I mean!)

To make matters worse, I have also uncovered, through reading other blogs and then experimenting with a cheap, phosphate-free store brand, that it may be the phosphates that account for so much of the cleaning power of my favorite OTC brands of detergent.  Crud.  I wanted to avoid phosphates if possible, so now I feel like I need to figure out what I want to avoid more:  phosphates, or hand-washing dishes.  Believe me, the choice is not an easy one.

The Analysis

Fast:  DIY dishwasher detergent is a snap to mix.

Cheap:  It is also far cheaper than the store brand.

Good:  However, it doesn't work all that well.  I'm going to keep a container of it around for days when I'm just running a load of glasses and relatively clean plates, or for when we run out of store-bought.  However, it isn't a substitute for my old faithful.  Sigh.

Readers:  What do you do?  Do you have a DIY recipe that really works?  Do you have to handwash your dishes, and if so, is that really less expensive? 
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Monday, May 23, 2011

Homemade Ketchup

Making your own ketchup is one of those homemaker stunts that seems impossibly hard core, kind of like making cheese.  But both of these processes are actually pretty easy -- with an edge to ketchup, because you can put it on the stove and forget it while it cooks down and you do something else. 

Ketchup is fundamentally spiced tomato sauce; that's all.  My recipe is adapted from the Everyday Cheapskate.  I've modified it to take out the corn syrup (who needs that?) and to reduce the water and therefore the cooking time. 


1 6-oz can tomato paste (go ahead and splurge on organic, because this is worth doing "right")
2 T white vinegar (you can use cider vinegar in a pinch, but don't omit, because this make it safe to can)
1 T brown sugar
1 t molasses
1 t garlic powder
1 t onion powder
1/4 t allspice
1 t salt
1 can water (rinse out all the remaining tomato paste with this)

Combine ingredients in sauce pan.  Cook until desired consistency, which should take about 20 minutes for this amount.  If you desire a longer cook time to better blend the flavors, add more water at the beginning and cook down. 

Pour into glass jars and store in fridge.  It will keep for a few months, but don't let it languish for a year like you might do with store versions that contain preservatives.

If you choose to can it, double or triple the batch; or go even further and get the super-big cans of tomato paste to put up several jars.  (This batch makes just over a half pint.)  Can in half pint jars; if you are a single person household or a family that doesn't eat a lot of ketchup, consider canning in the half-cup jelly jars.  Process in a water bath canner for 20 minutes.  Cool and store.

The Analysis

Fast:  I cooked a double batch in about 25 minutes, exactly the amount of time it took me to frost and decorate a cake for a family party.  If you choose to can a batch, it will be a bit longer, but this is a great mid-winter canning project since it doesn't depend on fresh veggies.

Cheap:  Catch a sale on organic tomato paste, and this will be way cheaper than store ketchup.  Not to mention, you won't have to read the label to make sure there is no HFCS.

Good:  Mr. FC&G and I like the flavor of this much better than store-bought.  It is a bit deeper and more nuanced.  And, of course, I get serious homemaker cred for making my own ketchup!
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Friday, May 20, 2011

The Busiest Time of the Year


My apologies for the slimness of the posts this week.  Mid-May is always a challenge, bringing with it the confluence of busy times with three of my jobs:  a flood of work for Hilltop Communications, the pre-graduation excitement and craziness over at the college, and the planting season for the sustainable living garden, which provides probably 80% of our veggies for the year.  Every spare minute is spent doing something.

So, while I take a short break today, I thought I'd share with you how the tomatoes I planted last week are fairing.  That little guy above you last saw looking like this. He did get a little sunburn on the lower leaves, and he wasn't happy about the week of 42 degree temps that followed the planting, but as you can see he is getting new growth and is settling in pretty well.  The lesson is to not despair when your tomatoes show a little transplant shock; they almost always come out of it.

Tonight I plan to make Stewed Students for dinner, with the addition of some cilantro that has sprung up and grown like crazy.  And, I foresee a few more hours of broadforking the garden and planting tomatoes.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sustainable Bookshelf: The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It

Some books are for pleasure reading only, but the purpose of my Sustainable Bookshelf recommendations is to give you an idea about the books I want to have around, in hard copy, just in case some emergency required us to get back to basics a little more quickly than we intend.  Luckily, The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It is both.

This beautiful book literally functions as a coffee-table book for me, not only because the illustrations are beautiful and plentiful, but because, combined with the text, they give all the basic information one needs to feed oneself, maintain one's home and environment, and generally enjoy life.

The book is divided into short sections that each treat a single project, like jam-making, that one might want to tackle to live in a sustainable manner.  The illustrations perfectly compliment the copy, giving you all the views you need when attempting a project unfamiliar to you.  (This is true of most of the DK books out there, so kudos to this publisher!)

I really recommend the purchase of this beautiful book.  It is a joy to read, and it is nice to have around when adding new projects to your sustainable living routine.

(Note:  the above is an affiliate link, which constitutes the only pay I get for this review.  Click on it to purchase if you want to support FC&G, or check out a local bookseller -- they'd appreciate your support!)

Special offer from Carrot Creations!  I am so sick of spring rain and 42 degrees, I am holding a sale.  If you would like a beat-the-blues pair of cozy fleece socks, a pair of kicky yoga socks, or any other sustainable living item from our Etsy store, use the code RAINSTINKS for an extra 10% off your order!  This offer is good through May 31, 2011.
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Friday, May 13, 2011

Planting Tomatoes

So, yesterday I talked about hardening your seedlings off.  Today, I want to tell you how I plant sensitive plants like tomatoes, just in case you are planning a gardening weekend.

Once your plants are hardened off, dig a hole deep enough that you will bury the roots of your tomato plant and most of its stem; tomatoes will grow additional roots along the stem that you bury.  Don't do this with other plants, because they don't do the same thing.  Make the hole about twice as wide as it is deep.

Take the dirt you removed and put it aside; it is a nice addition to the potato patch to hill the potatoes.  Instead, fill the hole with sifted finished compost (humus) and top dress the soil around the plant as well.  The compost provides nutrients, helps the health of the soil, and also provides a bit of protection against diseases and noxious bugs.  The top dressing will allow nutrients to sink into the soil with each rain.

The Analysis

Fast:  It takes a little extra time to sift the compost (ain't it purty?), but it is worth the effort.

Cheap:  My 83 cent tomato plants stay 83 cents, since I have added no chemical fertilizers or commercial soil

Good:  Now, it is just a 70 day count down until tomato juice, salsa, sauce, and yummy sliced tomatoes.
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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Hardening Off Seedlings

If you are like me, you have been nursemaiding some garden seedlings throughout the long winter, making sure they are warm, well-fed, and in comfortable pots.  With spring finally here and the last frost date past for zone 5B/6 (maps differ about which zone we are in), it is time to plant the tender crops, like tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers.  I will be rolling these out into the garden over the next couple of weeks, time permitting.

First, however, the plants have to be hardened off.  All this means is that the plant has to be given the chance to get used to being outside in the sun and wind before you plunk it in the ground.  This is not a difficult process, but it can be scary your first time out. 

First, make sure your seedlings are well-watered, look healthy, and are of a size that you wish to plant in your garden.  Hopefully, you have been slowing exposing them to open windows and increasingly direct sun just as a result of the change of seasons.

Then, take your seedlings and put them outside in a place where they will get part sun, part shade, and some breeze if possible.  Above you see my tomatoes sitting by the house on our bench, getting a lot of sun but the occasional shadow from the house.

Leave them there for 2-4 hours the first day, checking occasionally that they don't look wilted or burnt.  You will know a sunburn if the thin, tender leaves become papery, dry, and a little brown.  If that happens, bring the seedlings inside immediately.  The plant will recover from a burnt leaf or two, but just like you, they don't want a sunburn all over.

The next day, increase the time outside, and do so again for another day or two, until you would feel comfortable leaving the plant outside all the time.  And there you go:  your seedling is "hardened off" and ready to go into the garden.

The Analysis

Fast:  Hardening off is the last step in growing your own plants from seed, and it really doesn't take long.

Cheap:  This is all part of the money-saving strategy of growing your own garden plants.  This year, it looks like I will have more than two dozen tomato plants grown from about 5 packs of seeds (because I wanted different varieties).  That means I'm getting each plant for about 83 cents, which I could not do at a commercial greenhouse.

Good:  There is something very satisfying about starting from seed and ending with the crop.

Check back tomorrow, when I will share my tomato-planting process.
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Monday, May 9, 2011

A Difference in Philosophy

Our yard is never going to win us any awards for "Suburbanites of the Year."  As you can see above, I have a patch of violets that blooms every spring.  Clover grows outside the garden, often distracting the bunnies for a bit and keeping them (temporarily, alas) out of my tomatoes.  Wild strawberries grow everywhere, showing off pretty red berries.  We eat the young dandelions, and just this weekend I discovered a small patch of low-growing, white flowers that were so pretty. 

However, this means that our yard is not an uninterrupted swath of evenly-textured, supremely manicured blue grass or the like.  Don't get me wrong: we mow.  I think it is an implicit agreement (actually, backed by law around here) that if you live in a suburb, you need to keep your lawn under control, and that means mowing.  However, I hate to "weed and feed," because that would destroy my little patches of flowers and edible greens, all while dumping a load of nitrogen and herbicides on our yard to run into our gardens and ultimately into the groundwater. 

However, I missed the discussion on this topic the other day when I was at the gym and Mr. FC&G answered the door to find a representative from a local lawn service who saw the dandelion fluff in our yard (it had rained for a week, mind you) and thought we were ideal candidates for a little chemical treatment.

"I can make your yard look a lot thicker," he told Mr. FC&G.  Being a kinder soul than I, Mr. FC&G refrained from pointing out that the last thing we needed after a month of near-daily rain was a lawn that grows faster and thicker.

"It's a difference of philosophy," Mr. FC&G said.  "We like our violets and our clover, and we don't want to put chemicals down to get rid of them."

Undeterred, the rep pulled out his trump card:  "But what about all of these dandelions?"

Mr. FC&G thanked him and sent him on his way.  The poor rep is lucky I wasn't home.  I would have told him, in regards to dandelions, "that's not a weed, son, that's a crop!"

The Analysis

Fast:  Skipping that weed and feed step certainly is a time-saver.

Cheap:  It also saves a ton of money.

Good:  It is, indeed, a difference of philosophy.  Yes, we live in the suburbs, and we mow.  But there is no reason that we can see to force a grass to live in monoculture when there are so many lovely "weeds" that are doing no harm by growing in our yard.  I'll pick my violets, enjoy my clover, and eat my dandelions. 
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Friday, May 6, 2011

The Ultimate Fuel-Efficient Vehicle

Last year, I wrote about my intention to walk occasionally to my second-shift job.  That idea worked for a few weeks, until we went on vacation and I hurt my knee doing so much touristy walking.  (My knee is great that way.  I can dance competitively and spend the weekends hauling compost to the garden, but it will balk at too much low speed walking.  Go figure.)  That was the end of the walks to work for the summer.

The walk is nice, but there was another reason that it wasn't working as well as I would have liked:  it took about a half hour each way on the mile and half trip.  This meant that I needed to find an extra hour in my schedule on days I wanted to walk, which philosophically shouldn't be a problem, but in reality meant that I couldn't walk on days that I planned to leave work at 5:30 and be at a dance class at 6:00, for instance.  It also limited the distance I could "commute" by walking.  I could make it to the college, but it wasn't terribly realistic to walk to the grocery store that is less than a mile further on, then make a 45 minute trek back home carrying a bag of frozen food.

Enter my new bike!  Those of you who live in biking-friendly communities already know how absolutely cool it is to do your local errands by bicycle, but Midwest suburbs are not particularly known for creating an environment that encourages biking.  I understand that; these suburbs are built to be fairly spacious, and bike paths and bike lanes cost money, but it means you have to get creative about your routes.  I actually sat and read Ohio law until I was confident that I was OK riding on the sidewalks.

Anyway, the biking is working out beautifully when it is not raining, which has not been very often recently.  However, every day that it is 60 or above and I need to go to the college or grocery for a few things, I ride.  Since those two errands constitute about 50% of my time driving a car, I'm substituting a little bit of fresh air and emissions-free exercise for the cost of gas and wear on my precious, almost-but-not-quite-a-classic car. 

The Analysis

Fast:  It takes about 5 minutes to drive to the college, with most of that being taken up backing out of the driveway and parking once I get there.  It takes 10 minutes to bike, with 7 minutes of that being actual ride time.  (Yes, I timed it.)  Even on the busiest days, I can find an extra 5 minutes on each leg of the trip so that I can bike.

Cheap:  The last time I was at the gas station, gas was $4.14, so a 3-mile round trip saves me 52 cents.  It will be a long time to pay for my bike this way (which was $165, including the snazzy basket, bell, and water-bottle holder).  However, this is more about the principle of the thing.

Good:  I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying the little mental break that biking affords me.  I put my iPhone in the bottom of my basket with the volume at full blast so I can hear a little bit of music while I ride, and I take off and enjoy the scenery.  It is a good lifestyle improvement, and I think this one will stick.
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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Worrying about Potatoes

It is a lazy writer who stoops to describing recent rains as "Biblical" in nature, but that is seriously almost the only adjective I can think of.  It has rained here in Ohio for days and days.  If you have a basement, it has flooded at least once.  We do not, but we've already cleaned a flood out of the garage once.  The people whose hobby it seems to be to create lawns that look like golf courses are cursing  the 8-inch high grass in everyone's yard; it is simply too wet to mow.

And I have been worried about potatoes.

I planted my seed potatoes about a month ago.  (This is after an embarrassing incident on vacation in which I was checking my email while sitting on the beach and saw a shipment notice.  Without thinking, I blurted out,
"Drat, the seed potatoes are sitting on my porch!"  I think this may have branded me a rube in paradise.)

I planted them as soon as we got home, and then it started to rain.  And I became convinced that I had just purchased $55 of really expensive compost in the form of seed potatoes.  I have been walking around the house fretting ever since.

But what you see above, in the midst of the mud and the weeds I can't go into the garden to get, is the first sprouts of potato plants.  See the pretty teal leaves?  They are all over my potato "patch."  It looks like at least half of my crop has sprouted, and if I can ever get out there into the garden, I will plant a few more potatoes I have sitting around that need a place to go.

We may get our potato crop yet.  Sometimes, the best thing you can see after a rain is not a rainbow, but a potato plant.
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