Thursday, March 31, 2011

Inexpensive Home Decorating: Tile Coaster

While often I focus here on procuring the essentials in life in a way that is Fast, Cheap, and Good, sometimes it is fun to look at how we can get the little luxuries without breaking the bank.  What you see above is a custom-made coaster, and it was one of my first DIY projects over a decade ago.

Obviously, what it is is a piece of bathroom/kitchen tile to which I affixed little felt feet.  You can typically get individual tiles for anywhere from a few cents to $5 or so for the really elaborate ones, and a package of felt feet will be another buck or so. 

What I like about this is the ability to bring some of the fabulous design that you find on tiles into rooms that usually wouldn't have a tile element to them.  This one perfectly matches our blue bedroom; I have others made from tumbled marble in the living room and still other painted beauties in the spare bedroom.  It is a quick and inexpensive way to add a design element to every room, and it fits my belief that the best interior design comes from putting something beautiful everywhere you look in a room.

The Analysis

Fast:  Sticking feet on a tile should take two minutes.  The time is spent in the tile or home improvement store, and that is the fun part!  Or, you can always use up extra tiles from another DIY project this way.
Cheap:  Even the most expensive tiles won't set you back much, so here is your chance to bring these little works of art into your home.

Good:  Bringing beauty into your home is sometimes just as nourishing as bringing in great food.
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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Device that Started it All

This is the device that really got me thinking more seriously about sustainable living:  my Misto oil sprayer.

I had always been interested in gardening and domestic projects, true, but a few years back I started thinking about those brand-name baking sprays.  Why was I spending $3 a bottle (albit occasionally) and potentially exposing my family and myself to breathing propellants when I could go a more natural route.  So, I picked up a Misto for under $10 and have never looked back.

If you are not familiar, the Misto can be filled with your choice of oil, then an air pump introduces enough air to allow the oil to be sprayed.  There are no propellants involved, the amount of oil used per spray is negligible (therefore cheap), and you have total control over what goes on your baking pans.

From there, the choices became more easy, as I decided to eliminate as many unnecessary "conveniences" as possibe in pursuit of a lifestyle I could sustain in more eventualities.  And it all began with my Misto.

The Analysis

Fast:  Using the Misto takes perhaps 15 more seconds than the commercial brands because you need to pump the mister full of air before you spray.  Think of it as a light mini-workout.

Cheap:  Once you make the initial investment of less than $10 in the device, you are set to spend a few pennies for the oil that used to cost you $3 or more in the commercial sprays.  Figure that the Misto has paid for itself after 4 refills.

Good:  Small steps that let you take control of your life and health are what we are all about here!

(Note:  This is an affiliate link below.  I am never compensated for product reviews; they are just things I like and want to share with you.  If you want your own Misto and want to support FC&G, consider shopping via the link below.  If not, feel free to shop around and support a local merchant!)

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Spring on the Micro-Farm

I once took part in a conversation poking fun at suburbanites who call themselves "farmers."  The idea of taking a suburban lot and equating one's effort there with what "real" farmers do, day in and day out, can sometimes strain the imagination a bit.

However, the more I get into providing for myself, the more I think that urban and suburban efforts to live sustainably should earn the title of "farmer."  Going to the land with respect and hard work in the pursuit of a better life perhaps should earn one that title; it is only a matter of scale, in many cases. 

In any case, I have occasionally stood in the truck bed outside our property fence (usually while unloading a half a cord of wood) to view our little backyard filled with gardens and raised beds, wood piles, a clothes line, and a small outbuilding that is shaped like a barn.  To me, it looks like a farm in miniature, and I often call it our "micro-farm."  And here is what is happening on the micro-farm this chilly day in March:

The cilantro is up, defying my plans by sprouting outside the raised bed rather than in.  It makes sense:  this is where the seeds from last year's crop would have fallen.

 The sage is also up, although in its proper place.  I love the sage, as it is officially one of my first "cash crops."  I have sold a smidgen of organically-grown sage to others, and I must admit that I was more excited with those few bucks than I have been with the income from either of my real jobs recently.  Nothing against good, creative jobs that pay the bills (and I do love my jobs most days), but selling the sage was just thrilling.  I marketed it as "no pesticides, no herbicides, no artificial fertilizers."  I thought about adding "watered by my own sweat and tears," but I thought that might be a touch melodramatic.....

Garlic, another of my "cash crops," is up and thriving.  I overplanted this year (this is only part of the bed), so I should have plenty to sell and plenty to supply us and our families.  True riches!

Finally, the strawberries are bravely poking their heads above the mulch in the pots, promising me some fresh strawberries if I can keep the birds away.  Because there are only two pots of strawberries, most of them don't even make it into the house; they are typically a snack to munch while I weed and do chores.  I love to go out on a summer morning and weed the garden while I periodically stop for a couple of strawberries or a few fresh spinach leaves.

What is going on at your micro (or macro) farm?
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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wood Ash: Recycling to the Nth Degree

Sometimes, I get an insane amount of pleasure out of a perfect system.  The ideal example of this is my love for wood ash and the process that makes sure that nothing goes to waste.

It all starts with our fireplace insert and a stack of hardwood.  Because we don't heat exclusively (or even primarily) with wood, we don't need several cord of it.  Instead, we do just fine collecting and splitting our own tree trimmings and deadfall and buying wood from friends and neighbors who have removed a tree or had one fall in a storm.  The project of splitting and sawing wood is a continual one, and it provides a great workout while enjoying the outdoors.

During the winter months, this wood helps heat the house some days, while also creating a nice warm nook for letting bread rise or making yogurt.  We even bake potatoes in the dutch oven, so the fire does double duty most of the time.

What we are left with is ash.  And while this is already a relatively minimal amount of waste from a very efficient process, we take it one step further.  I collect the ash into an old canner, then use it a scoop at a time in the bottom of my compost bucket.  It serves to dehydrate and deodorize the food scraps, making the bucket more pleasant to deal with.  It also makes it possible to skip a day or two between trips out to the compost pile on those snowy and icy days. 

Ultimately, of course, the ash finally makes its way to the compost pile, where it contributes to creating the fertilizer that will help the garden thrive, giving us vegetables to nourish our bodies and give us the energy needed to saw and split more wood.  The circle continues.

The Analysis

Fast:  The most time-intensive part of this process is sawing and splitting logs, which takes a while, especially given that we still do it manually.  However, if you recharacterize this in your own mind from "chore" to "workout" and put in half an hour three times a week all summer (and we don't do that much by any means), you will be in shape and have a monster pile of wood.

Cheap:  We spend very little on wood, as neighbors with a downed tree are usually pretty generous about giving wood away if we will haul it.  However, we do try to pay them when they will accept money. 

Good:  There is no waste in this process and benefit every step of the way.  I enjoy this perhaps more than is healthy!
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Monday, March 21, 2011

Putting up the Greenhouse

Last weekend, we put up our pop-up greenhouse, and I just now have time to tell you about it.  For me, this is one of the best signals that spring is really here!

About five years ago, my folks bought us this pop-up greenhouse as an anniversary present.  It sits on a footprint that is six foot square, and we typically erect it in both spring and fall to extend the growing season.  This year, because we have the sunroom on the house acting as a greenhouse for seed-starting, we chose to put up the pop-up in the main garden.

So far, it has worked as planned.  After it was up for about five days (with the doors zipped shut), the soil was warm to the touch, and I planted peas and carrots.  I'm looking forward to seeing them sprout and get started growing with no interference from the rabbits and other critters.  I also think I can sneak an early tomato plant or two in there in a month or so to get a head start on that season. 

The Analysis

Fast:  The pop-up greenhouse goes up in about an hour, although it may take you longer the first time.  It is about the complexity of putting up a tent.

Cheap:  This one was a present, but I believe greenhouses of this size cost about $200.  I think it is a good addition to your garden, especially if it extends the growing season by 10 weeks (five on each end, conservatively).

Good:  I have enjoyed this greenhouse so much, and it has many years of life left!

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Food Waste Friday: How Many Pickles Do We Need?

I often enjoy reading the posts from The Frugal Girl, who includes a regular column called Food Waste Fridays in which she chronicles her food waste for the week, often in the form of tiny pieces of lunch meat or a half an onion that she forgot to use.  Other bloggers have followed suit, and it is fun to cheer their efforts to use all available food.

I have never tried to do that with this blog, partly because I don't like a regular schedule of column topics, but mostly because I don't clean out my fridge that often.  (Hey, at least I'm honest!)  But yesterday I cleaned out the canning pantry, and I had to share with you the massive amount of waste I am about to send to compost.

Apparently, in 2005, I had a bumper crop of cucumbers, most of which I preserved in the form of dill pickles.  I do remember making a lot of dill pickles early in our garden expansion efforts, but clearly I way overshot the mark, especially considering that I'm the only one in the house that eats dill pickles, and I go through maybe two jars in a good year.  Seriously, there are enough dill pickles here to feed an army of pregnant women in a bad 1960s sitcom, and, since I preserved them as spears rather than whole pickles, they are sure to be mushy as all get-out.  While they technically might be OK to eat (the seals are all still good), the quality is sure to be marginal, and I'm ready to let them go.

Sigh.  OK, I learned my lesson.  I know now that two jars of dill pickles per year are the max (I have two jars from 2010 in the canning pantry right now); the rest of the cucumber excess needs to be made into bread and butter pickles (a favorite of both families, so a good gift any time of year) and cucumber relish (the base of tartar sauce).  Last year, that is just what I did, along with eating so many cucumbers fresh that I actually got sick of them, which is hard for me to do.

Anyway, there is your bonus lesson for the week:  when you are setting your canning goals, lean toward products with multiple uses, like canned fruit (pies, cobblers, yogurt toppings).  Hold back on those single-use products.  After all, there are only so many meals that are improved with a dill pickle spear.
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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sifting the Compost

So, you've dutifully built a compost pile and have been feeding it throughout the winter.  Now that spring is here, what do you do with it?

It is time to sift the compost!  I know I'm a little weird, but I must say this is one of my favorite spring tasks.  There is nothing better than getting out there, flipping off the top layer of yet-to-decompose items into the neighboring compost bay, and literally unearthing all of that lovely sweet-smelling humus.  But in order to get the finished product pictured above, you need to do one final composting step:  sifting.

You can certainly buy a sifter from a commercial outlet; most of these look like large gold-hunting pans, and I imagine you are supposed to fill them and then shake them until the finished material sifts out the bottom.  However, this sounds an awful lot like work to me.  So we use our own homemade system.

What you see above is the sifter build by Mr. FC&G for just such a purpose.  Basically, it is a wooden frame on which he stapled some fairly rigid screen.  We dump some humus into the top, then use the back of an old child-sized rake to encourage the finished humus through the screen while leaving the twigs, leaves, and stray eggshells behind.  These all get dumped into the "working" compost bay, and then we shovel a few scoops more into the sifter and repeat the process.  Yes, it is good exercise, but we do it standing up instead of kneeling and shaking a pan sifter.

So far, this has been a good year for compost, if such a thing can be said.  While last year it felt like we struggled to get enough compost for all of the pots, planters, and garden, this year we quickly sifted about four wheelbarrow-loads in less than an hour, and there is plenty more out there.  I'm looking forward to getting back out in the pile tomorrow and sifting a load to top dress the carrots and peas I will be planting.

The Analysis

Fast:  Certainly, buying compost is faster than sifting your own, but c'mon:  compost is the ultimate freebie that even comes with its own workout!

Cheap:  The more compost I can produce and sift, the less manure and potting mix I have to buy.  It is really a one-for-one replacement for both potting soil and fertilizer, and it is all natural.

Good:  I have said this before and will repeat until everyone believes me:  the smell of finished compost (humus) is the most wonderful, alive, Spring-like scent there is.
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Monday, March 14, 2011

Strawberry Shortcake

Spring is taunting us here in the Midwest, with temps in the upper 50s one day and the lower 30s the next.  I'm cruising into spring on fumes, just trying to get through until the next warm day, and what I need is what they used to call a "spring tonic."  Only, I'm not jonesing for nettle tea; I want strawberries.

Of course, my plants have only started to send up hints of green, and it is far to early for a visit to the u-pick.  Thank heavens last summer I put up several quarts of frozen goodness, just waiting for me to need a pick-me-up. 

I like to eat the berries plain, but they are a treat over shortcake.  If you didn't have the foresight to freeze some berries last summer, you may be able to get some good deals on fruit at the store (although it is likely to have come from a far-off place, like Chile, so eat these imports sparingly if you must).  Or, I must confess, a little buttercream icing turns shortcake into a heck of a breakfast roll.  Either way, the cake itself is pretty healthy, with very little sugar.  With berries, it is just the thing to tide me over to warm days and gardening season!

Strawberry Shortcake

1/4 c. turbinado sugar
2 c. unbleached white flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 c. organic butter, melted
1 egg (farm fresh, if possible)
2/3 cup milk (hormone free is my choice)

Mix ingredients and spread in greased (I use lard) 6x8 baking pan.  Bake at 450 degrees for 15-18 minutes or until done.  Top with strawberries and enjoy!

The Analysis

Fast:  I like this recipe because it is quick enough to mix one up right after dinner or while I work in the morning.  It also is pretty much a one-bowl recipe, so not that many dishes to wash.

Cheap:  I haven't done the math, but I figure this is a cheaper, healthier solution to our sugar cravings.

Good:  What a great vehicle for the last of the previous year's strawberries!
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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Selling Scrap: Frugal, or Just Plain Cheap?

When I was little, I had this thing about selling aluminum cans.  My Dad and I would walk our neighborhood armed with a bag and a magnet to collect discarded cans.  (Note to my younger readers:  1) This was during an era when "out the car window" was a perfectly acceptable method for disposing of trash, and 2) It was also when some beverage cans were part or all steel, so the magnet told us which were aluminum because it wouldn't attach to an aluminum can.)  At least we didn't go so far as to pick up the pop tops.  (Another note to my younger readers:  Cans used to come with pop tops that removed and were discarded separately.  You can Google that if you want to find out exactly what Jimmy Buffett stepped on when he blew out his flip-flop.)

Anyway, once I had a bag full of cans, Mom would drive me to the aluminum collection point.  As I remember, this was only available periodically at rotating collection points, like the firehouse one month and somewhere else another.  My days as scrap metal entrepreneur ended one day when the rotating collection point was difficult to find, and, after a morning of driving around town, I became car sick.  Let's just say that Mom did a little environmental impact calculation of her own and vetoed the project.

Anyway, Mr. FC&G and I have recently started collecting our own scrap aluminum, which is mostly pop cans.  And while the most economical thing to do is to just avoid soda entirely, we thought this was a good way to recoup some of our costs on this junk food luxury.

And the answer is:  I'm divided.  After several months, we had $21 of aluminum, most of it from cans, but part from some industrial scrap aluminum that Mr. FC&G also sold.  As it turns out, the cans net the most per pound (78 cents, at this writing) because they are a known composition and grade, but they don't weigh up very fast.  It is only a marginally practical endeavor because the scrap dealer is located on the way to work for Mr. FC&G (so no extra transportation costs), and because he is still selling off industrial scrap.  I think once the industrial stuff is gone, saving cans may not be a great use of our time. 

The Analysis

Fast:  Throwing cans in a bin is easy, but you do have to factor in time to crush them and sell them.  I estimate that therefore we probably made $5-7 an hour on this one.

Cheap:  Cheap, or cheapskate?  While I still love the idea of making money from something I would otherwise "donate" to my curbside trash/recycling service, this has to be a low priority project.  Anything else is not an efficient use of time.

Good:  Then again, I do really like the $21 in my farmer's market jar, which is a jar of cash that we keep for farmer's market trips.  There is nothing worse than seeing an array of seasonal berries and local, cage-free chicken meat and realizing you have $10 in your wallet.  At least I will turn something unhealthy (pop) into something very healthy. 
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Monday, March 7, 2011

Roast Chicken

I tend to have this list in my head of things that I should be able to do to be called a "real housewife."  I suspect a lot of us have this list, even if we don't want to admit it.  Our culture has gone through a period of really devaluing the homemaking arts, and that leaves many of us (guys and gals) searching our history for touchstones that tell us if we are really doing a good job around the ole homestead.  I just watched an episode of House Hunters on HGTV in which the young male homeowner said that he viewed buying a lawnmower as a rite of passage; to him, he had reached true homeowner status when he could go out and mow his own lawn.  Presumably, a lawn service wouldn't -- pardon the pun -- cut it.

Anyway, one of the things on my list has been learning to roast a chicken.  This is actually an important skill for me to learn, because our schedules depend on me and Mr. FC&G cooking something that throws off about 6 meals every Sunday.  (That is, we need to feed ourselves that day, and then have leftovers for a couple of dinners and a couple of lunches for him.)  Sunday is our last real opportunity to cook before Wednesday at the earliest, given that we pretty much go immediately from work to dance practice Monday and Tuesday.  If there aren't ready leftovers in the fridge, we will descend quickly into grabbing junk food from the pantry on the run. 

Summers are easy:  Mr. FC&G will grill out a load of burgers and dogs on Sunday night, and with the garden, that is probably the cooking for the week.  Winter is harder, because the garden is not there and grilling out can be miserable.  Enter the chicken.

I bought a fresh four pound chicken from Trader Joe's that they said was cage free and hormone free.  It came in at only $5.24.  If I get six meals (servings) from this, and I will, I will be very happy.

Anyway, buy your fresh chicken, open 'er up, and remove the giblets.  If you are a novice like me, learn from one of my mistakes:  DO NOT freeze the thing on Friday and then decide on Sunday that you are in the mood to cook it after all!!  I spent over an hour thawing that thing in warm water and then prying the bag of giblets out of the cavity with my fingernail, where it was frozen to the ribs.  If you buy a fresh chicken, either cook it in the next day or two, or remove the giblets to the stock bucket before you freeze it.

Anyway, once that nasty job was done, I just stuffed the cavity with onion, sage, garlic, and butter, and spread some of that yummy mix on the top.  I baked it for 20 minutes for each pound, then another half hour with some Yukon Gold potatoes in with it, soaking up those drippings.  I served it with biscuits and homemade preserves and some greens from the sunroom.  I even made chicken gravy (drippings whisked and cooked with flour, for those of you who, like me, had to look that up).

Presto:  dinner for the two of us, at least three or four lunches/dinners for Mr. FC&G, and some bones and giblets to make stock.  And a much freer week for me while I try to conquer the world through my keyboard instead of in the kitchen.

The Analysis

Fast:  Not fast, precisely, but certainly a low-effort thing to enjoy while sitting around on a Sunday afternoon.  It takes even less time if you don't make my frozen-giblet error.

Cheap:  The chicken itself comes in at less than $1 per serving, so this is the basis for a week of cheap meals.

Good:  The chicken was moist and yummy, and the potatoes were to die for.  Seriously, this is a homemaking skill to acquire!
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Thursday, March 3, 2011

And the Pillows Lived to Tell the Tale

Today's tip is either going to function as a major revelation for you, or a complete "duh!"  And I realize that depending on your perspective, this will either make you think I am genius or a little late to the intellectual party.  I'm OK with that.

I just figured out that I can wash bed pillows.

Mr. FC&G and I use a lot of pillows.  I mean, seriously a lot.  We have 6 standard bed pillows, a couple of body pillows, and a couple of specialty foam/bead pillows. We like our pillows. 

But this, of course, means expense.  The six standard pillows take a lot of wear, and even though we have a rotation scheme where the person who likes them the fluffiest (me) gets a set first, and the sets get demoted down to the person who likes to roll pillows into a ball (Mr. FC&G), we still probably replace each of those pillows once a year.  At an average cost of $12 per pillow at our local grocery-and-everything store, this is $72 on pillows each year.

I've always meant to experiment with washing my pillows, but I think I was afraid that they would burst open and spew fiberfill all over my washer. But the other day I finally gave it a try, and I'm super-pleased with the results.  The nasty set of pillows that I was getting ready to toss came out clean-smelling and lofty.  I think the secret was washing them on the "comforter" setting on my machine, then drying them with my dryer balls in the dryer.  I'm happy.  And the pillows lived to see another day.

The Analysis

Fast:  I could wash two pillows at a time in my high capacity washer, so the time invested was only the amount of time it took to run the machines.  And it isn't like I sat there and babysitted or anything.

Cheap:  For the cost of the electricity and water, I extended the life of these pillows.  For each month's extra use I get out of them, I save about $1 in new-pillow cost.

Good:  I'm very pleased with the results; I'll bet they turn out even better when I can line-dry them in the summer, so they have all that sunshiney smell and have received that extra boost of bleaching and disinfecting from the sun.
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