Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: January

Welcome back to "How Much Does a Garden Grow!"  This month, we begin looking at the garden from a business perspective. 

1/23     Burpee seed order          $54.35
1/23     Seeds of Change order   $24.49
Total Expenditures:  $78.84

As expected, the year starts off with expenditures in the form of seed orders.  I'm not quite done, either.  I want to make an order from Seed Savers Exchange, and I will no doubt buy some plants and onion starts later in the year.  I also need to buy some seed starting medium.  All of that will count as expenditure.  (Note:  I am only tallying expenditures that get "used up."  Capital improvements, like new fencing or tools, will count as household improvements and not be in our accounting.)

This year, I have been able to get many more heirlooms than ever before.  As always, there are some seeds that I want that are hybrids, and I don't have a problem with that as long as they aren't GMOs.  But I am trying to get as many open pollenated heirlooms as possible, both to preserve historic varieties and to allow me to save my own seed.

1 oz. lettuce:  approx. value $0.50
Total Income:  $0.50

Also as anticipated, there are very few harvests in January.  I was able to get a decent lettuce harvest one night, but everything is pretty much dormant in the cold weather and short days.  We are mostly working on our canned and frozen supplies at this point, although we are now buying potatoes and onions.

2012 Tally to Date
0.0625 lbs. harvested
-$78.34 loss to date
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Friday, January 27, 2012

The Organic Anti-Martha Fesses Up

I like to think of myself as the Organic Anti-Martha.  (Kinda has a ring to it, no?)  Perhaps I'm being unfair to the venerable Ms. Stewart.  After all, her media empire is a touch larger than mine, so she's definitely doing something right.  However, every time I pick up one of her magazines, generally on my airport-induced magazine binge that starts every vacation, I am struck by the message that anything worth doing is worth doing absolutely perfectly.  This message activates my OCD a little too much, and efforts to be perfect usually end with me in a weeping heap.

So, to be sure that my dear readers are not under the impression that I expect perfection either from them or from myself,  I wanted to revisit a few of my favorite sustainability projects and fess up to how often I do them/use them/attempt them.

I make my own make-up remover wipes (ersatz cotton balls):  I use these 100% of the time that I need a cotton ball at home, with the exception of working with ultra-staining things like nail polish/remover or sterilizing things, including new earrings or cuts and scrapes.  I use disposable cotton balls on vacation.

I use homemade hankies:  I use these about 80% of the time at home, with the exception of really bad colds of the sort that almost require you to sit with a box of tissues on your lap and then take bags of germ-laden tissues out to the garbage twice a day.  Mr. FC&G uses hankies (although we buy his) almost 100% of the time. 

I make my own laundry soap: I use this on all but the black load each week; that load gets special dark fabric detergent.  So, all but one of the 5-7 loads each week get the homemade stuff.  Additionally, Mr. FC&G will use store-bought detergent or individual use samples that I've tucked into his luggage when he is on a business trip and needs to do laundry.  This is largely a function of the fact that his need to do laundry while away often comes as a surprise when the trip is extended from one week to two with very little notice.

I make my own bread: I make about 1/4 of all of our bread.  Mr. FC&G regularly buys hamburger and hot dog buns, which I haven't gotten around to making, and we are in the habit of buying our rye bread, even though I know perfectly well how to make it.  We almost never buy white bread or multi-grain/specialty bread.

I make my own sour cream: I make sour cream about 3/4 of the time that we need it.  Usually, I will make it in bulk for a while when we are on a kick for chicken paprikash and homemade dumplings.  However, occasionally Mr. FC&G will want to cook a Mexican dinner or will want some for dipping chips, and he doesn't hesitate to pick it up if there is no homemade.

I make my own blankets and quilts: I am happy to say I have not purchased a blanket for our bed or for the couches, etc., since we've been married.  I've made them all.  I continually have a fleece quilt I am piecing, and I crocheted the last mid-weight blanket we needed for our king size bed.

So there you have it.  I'm not perfect.  I try to do as much as I can for us, and I try to make the most sustainable decisions possible, but sometimes I fall back on options that aren't quite as good.  I figure it is better to do something half or even a quarter of the time than to not do it at all.  I don't know if Martha would agree, but then again she has a staff to help her out while she decorates her chicken coops with rafia bows.
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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Homemade "Pop-Tarts"

So, I just discovered Pinterest.  I realize I am probably the last person on Earth to have figured out this social pin board site, and like everyone else, I love it.  There are tons of great decorating, recipe, and design ideas on there, and I can waste a good amount of time browsing them.  (You know -- the free time I have when I have finished reading everyone's Facebook updates.)

Anyway, one of the ideas that I came across was "homemade Pop-Tarts."  This amuses me to no end.  Now, I consider Pop-Tarts to be one of the major food groups (along with macaroni and cheese, Oreos, and Pepsi), but I know perfectly well that a Pop-Tart is just a pre-fab substitute for an actual breakfast pastry.  However, we are so conditioned (even those of us who have had to mostly swear off Pop-Tarts in our effort to avoid HFCS) by marketing that we barely take notice of "homemade breakfast pastry."  "Homemade Pop-Tart," on the other hand, gets our attention.

I looked at a few recipes online, and the commonality was the use of pie crust to wrap a filling of choice, usually jam.  I tried to make brown sugar cinnamon flavor.  Mine did not turn out picture-perfect, as you can see, which caused me some pause about whether I wanted to share these on the blog.  However, they were seriously yummy, and you can decide for yourself whether your result needs to be photogenic before attempting the project.

Homemade Breakfast Pastries
1 Pie Crust
1 stick organic butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar
sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg

Roll out your pie crust (Mr. FC&G made one of his sweetened versions for this) and cut into long rectangles.  Place these on a cookie sheet.

Cream together the butter, brown sugar, and spices, and place about a tablespoon of the mixture on the dough rectangle about a third of the way from an end and spread, leaving about two-thirds of the length without filling.  Fold the rectangle over and crimp the edges.  (This is where mine failed, so I got a fair amount of seepage.)  You can substitute homemade fruit jam in this step if you want fruit flavor.  I imagine you could also use fresh fruit cut into small pieces or fruit you froze over the summer and thawed for this project.

Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees or until pie crust is baked.  You can dress them with a simple drizzle icing, but the brown sugar cinnamon version really didn't need it.

The Analysis

Fast:  Certainly not faster than opening a cardboard box, which is really part of the reason that Pop-Tarts have crept into our lives.  This is a good weekend project.

Cheap:  Pop-Tarts are pretty cheap, so I don't know if these come in less expensive.  But they certainly aren't expensive overall to make.

Good:  Here's the benefit!  These are flaky and buttery and really good either warm from the oven or cold from the countertop (if you manage to have leftovers to store).  More important, you control the ingredients, so you won't be adding HFCS, and you can use organic butter and other natural ingredients.
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Friday, January 20, 2012

Use it Up, Wear it Out: The Lunchbox Edition

One of my favorite bloggers on the planet is Katy over at The NonConsumer Advocate.  Katy is an expert at avoiding the purchase of anything new while leaving no stone unturned in her search for additional income.  (After all, if you turn over a stone, you might find some loose change!)  If you haven't started reading her blog regularly, you will want to do so for some great ideas on saving money and spending only on what matters.

Katy has launched the "Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without" Challenge, in which she urges readers to get their last bit of value out of every purchase before looking for a replacement.  So, in honor of Katy (and her use of my favorite WWII homefront slogan), I present the saga of our lunch box.

Meet our old insulated lunch box.  Mr. FC&G informs me that he got this as a free door prize sometime before we were married, so it is at least 11 years old.  We have used it and abused it, as you can see.  It is ripped and torn beyond repair, and recently it tore so much that it became difficult to put in an ice pack or a relatively heavy glass container of leftovers.  It was time to let it go.

(Did we use it up enough, Katy?)

So, meet the new lunch box.  While Katy would have found a brand new one at Goodwill for $1.99 through judicious shopping (she would have been keeping an eye out from the time of the first tear, I think!), I went ahead and ordered one from L.L.Bean.  The lunch box was $29.95, but they were having a 15% off sale, plus I had $20 in coupon dollars from my L.L.Bean credit card, and I received free shipping.  Total cost to me:  $5.46

I expect this thing to wear like iron, or at least to wear as well as the old freebie did.  If we get another 10 years of use out of the new one, it will cost us less than 55 cents per year to tote our glass food containers, our cloth napkins, and our stainless steel water bottles around.  I should be able to recoup that cost by simply keeping my eyes to the ground looking for lost coins, just as Katy does.

Thanks for being an inspiration, Katy!  Readers, what have you used up, worn out, made do, or done without?
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Monday, January 16, 2012

Butternut Squash Spaetzle

As you might remember, Mr. FC&G recently made our own link sausage.  With a long, chilly weekend on our hands, it seemed a good time to cook up a few links and enjoy them for dinner.  I had planned to make gnocchi with butternut squash based on this recipe, but the sight of the sausage inspired me to embrace a more German influence and make spaetzle.

Spaetzle is just a small dumpling pasta.  To make the characteristic shape, take a fairly loose pasta dough and press it through a wide-hole cheese grater or colander (note: the mesh or fine shred kinds will not work).  Voila:  spaetzle to make any German grandma proud!

Butternut Squash Spaetzle
2 medium butternut squash
3 cups white flour
1 cup wheat flour
1 t. salt
3 free-range eggs
1 cup water (or more as needed, but the squash will add liquid)

Cut squash in half and remove seeds.  Bake butternut squash halves cut side down in a pan of water until the flesh is soft.  Scoop out flesh.

Add flours, eggs, salt, and water, and mix until you have a batter-like consisetncy.  Drop into a large pan of boiling, salted water by pressing batter through a wide-hole cheese grater or colander with the back of a spoon.  You should be getting small droplets of batter going into the water.  Cook until the spaetzle floats, then remove to a dish with a generous hunk of butter while you cook the rest of the spaetzle.

Serve with your favorite sauce and a side of sausage. 

The Analysis

Fast:  Pressing the batter through the grater takes some time, so this is a Sunday meal, not a week night one.  However, it does make enough leftovers to keep you going for a couple of days.

Cheap:  Squash from the garden stretches the already-inexpensive flour. 

Good:  This is another way to add some vegetables to your diet in the middle of winter.  It is also a far superior spaetzle than the dried stuff you can buy in the store.
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Friday, January 13, 2012

Fleece Curtain Panels

Cold weather is here for sure; it was 14 degrees last night with gusting winds.  We are grateful for heat that works and for a fireplace that supplements.  However, we still have a few windows that are original to the house, and they are not the most energy-efficient features any more.  Replacing them will be difficult because of the unique frame sizes and hardware that are really great architectural aspects of the house, so until we can get someone to replace the panes only, we have to deal with a little heat loss.

I actually forgot about this quick, easy project until we got our last gas bill, and the total was higher than the same period last year in spite of generally warmer temperatures.  The annoying thing about energy bills is that it is impossible to compare one year to another; even with temperature data, there is always something that makes each year unique.  However, when I saw a usage spike, I went looking for the answer.

As it turns out, I had forgotten to put my fleece panels up at the back windows.  These panels snuggle close to the lower side window in the back "picture" window, protecting the room a bit from cold air that escapes and falls to the floor.  I had noticed a bit of a chill to the room, but I forgot about my project.  I leave the panels out in the summer and pull the main curtains all the way back to be able to see the garden from all angles, but in the winter, I pull the curtains closer and install the panels.  I guess this year I wanted a garden view a bit longer and didn't properly do my winterizing.

If you have a window that needs a curtain panel, these are super-easy.  I cut a fleece remnant to size and sewed one end only to make a rod pocket.  There is no need to hem all the way around, because fleece doesn't fray, but you could line them in white if your window faces the street or the neighbor.  Mr. FC&G cut dowels to size and sanded the ends smooth, then we lay the rod with the curtain panel across two cup hooks.  If you put the cup hooks in "upside down" so that the rod rests in the back curve rather than the cup itself, the panel will stay closer to the window.  Bingo, curtain panels without having to buy tension rods or specialty curtains! 

My room is warmer once again.  Yeah!

The Analysis

Fast:  We made these panels in less than an hour counting the oh-so-complex cup hook installation.

Cheap:  Fleece remnants + dowels + cup hooks = a set of curtain panels for around $5.

Good:  With rising heat prices, I would bet we save more than the $5 investment every cold month we use these.  And they bring some needed color into a gray winter world.
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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What I Learned Making Sausage

I have been making my own sausage for a while now, and I am really pleased with the result.  However, making bulk sausage is one thing, and making link sausage is another.

Last year for Christmas (that's 2010!), I received a meat grinder and sausage stuffer which sat on my kitchen counter, mocking me, until I geared up to stuff some sausage.  Being something of an academic, this means I had to do research aplenty before I would get started.  However, I'm pleased with our first attempt, seen above, and I learned some lessons along the way.

1.  Ask questions! A friend from high school recommended a place to get natural hog casings (more about that in a minute), and the day I was making sausage, a friend from the dance studio was happy to recommend ways to handle the casings and to process the meat. I have not yet followed all the suggestions, but now I know what I want to try next!

2. Get natural casings from the U.S. Natural casings are an animal product and are edible; they are responsible for that "snap" that you feel and hear when you eat some hot dogs and brats. Because of the threat of mad cow disease, I was advised to get domestic casings. It sounds like good advice, even though the overall threat is low.

3. Make a big batch, even your first time. I am accustomed to whipping up a pound of breakfast sausage at a time, but a pound of ground meat barely fills four links with some leftovers in the barrel of the grinder. Then, you have all that clean up to do for a meal's worth of sausage, not to mention the hassle of re-salting and storing the casing you didn't use. Next time, I will be doing at least ten pounds of sausage at a time.

Overall, however, I'm pleased with our sausage. I made a beef sausage of grass-fed beef with coriander and black pepper, and it was very tasty. We are hoping to expand into grinding our own meat for the sausage since we can control what we put in, then. I am pleased with the quality of the grass-fed ground beef we used this time, but it would be even cheaper to complete the grinding step at home. Plus, I can follow a suggestion to cut the meat rather than grind for a different texture.

The Analysis

Fast: Stuffing sausage is kind of like canning. You are putting in greater effort and time for greater control over ingredients and price. Make a big batch to make your time worthwhile.

Cheap: I would say I got about a pound of sausage links (grass fed beef, natural casings) for less than $6 total. The price of the beef alone was $5 per pound, so I'm really just rounding up for the casings and the pepper; the coriander was home-grown. This is competitive with sausage links that we buy in organic food stores.

Good: This was so yummy; I can't wait to do it again. And, when it gets warmer, we will probably try constructing and using a smoker. I'll keep you posted.
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Friday, January 6, 2012

Gypsies in the Palace, Redux

With the cold weather shutting down many of the "Occupy X" protest sites, it seems the national conversation over how we feel about the 1% is dying down a bit.  I'll admit that I am glad, because I think the news coverage on both sides of the issue oversimplifies.  On the one hand, becoming fabulously wealthy by working your tail off is part of the American dream and should be honored.  On the other hand, becoming fabulously wealthy by behaving in ways that crush the future potential of others is not part of that dream.

But this is not a political column, because I have news for you:  If you are reading this blog, you are probably part of the 1%.

According to this study reported on CNN.com, it takes only $34,000 (USD) after taxes for an individual to be among the wealthiest 1% of the world's population.  Half of these folks live in the U.S.  To put this in perspective, the median global income -- statistically, the global "middle class" -- is $1,225 a year.  If you are reading this blog from your own internet connection in a house or apartment on which you can pay the bills, you are almost certainly among the top 5% of the world's population.  Feeling rich yet?

This is not to discount the reality of poverty, even in a country like the U.S. or other first world nations.  And yes, there are many among us who have lost jobs, lost homes, and are wondering how they will make ends meet right now.  I cannot diminish that suffering.

But the statistical analysis reported in the CNN story has some bearing on how we view our sustainable living behavior.  I refer back to a short piece I wrote on this blog in 2010 called "Gypsies in the Palace."  I think the point is relevant here as we consider our use of economic as well as environmental resources.

I tend to think of responsible stewardship of resources -- money, food, fuel, time -- in terms of the Jimmy Buffett song "Gypsies in the Palace."  In it, Buffett tells the story of going off on tour, leaving his house in the care of two men (one of whom is named "Snake").  The housesitters waste no time shooting the lock off his liquor cabinet and throwing a clothing-optional party for the neighborhood, especially the attractive women from the nearby condos.  When they get a call that Buffett is returning home early, they waste no time shutting down their party and faking a bunch of wholesome industry, including mowing and raking the lawn.

In my original piece, I contend that how we use resources can be likened to housesitting for God.  Yes, the homeowner wants you to make yourself comfortable, but throwing a kegger and trashing the house is out of the question.

The same is true as we look at our responsibility as part of the global 1% (or 5% or 10%, or wherever you fall -- statistically, you are probably still pretty lucky).  Yes, we should use the resources we need to live our best possible life.  And yes, sometimes that means that we will achieve in ways that others cannot, either through hard work or luck of birth or some combination of factors.  That's OK.

But the idea behind sustainability is living in a way that is sustainable -- that is, using resources in a way that they will last until they can be replenished.  So ask yourself, this new year, if you are being truly responsible with the resources you have been given, or if you need to cut back a bit here or there so that resources of all types are available for you and others to thrive in the long term.  For all of us who count ourselves fortunate, there is surely a place that we could behave more conservatively.

It is all a matter of perspective whether we believe we are fortunate or deprived.  That's why I chose the photo above.  If you thought that was for a charity food line, perhaps from the Depression, think again.  I took that photo in a large bakery in San Francisco.  It literally is the sign for the line to buy sourdough baguettes, which we ate in the company of throngs of statistically very wealthy people, especially when viewed from a global perspective.  How you see things depends a great deal on context.

So, metaphorically speaking, I think we global housesitters should feel free to enjoy the property that we're watching.  We just might not want to take our behavioral cues from friends named Snake.
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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On Doing Nothing

I'm not very good at just "doing nothing," especially when it comes to a project like living sustainably.  Boy, that sounds like a lifestyle to me!  I want to do something!  I am never so happy as when I am hanging out the laundry or canning veggies or weeding the garden.  It just feels so good to be working toward a goal.

What I need to work on is my contentment with doing nothing, which is also a part of sustainable living.  Proper use of resources (time and money included) often means not using the resource when you don't need to.  Therefore, the best course in some cases is doing nothing.

January and February are the prime months for this.  They are typically two of my highest earning months, and, of course, they are pretty light on gardening and other truly fun stuff.  However, this often means refraining from doing things more than it does taking action.  For example, this week so far:

  1. I refrained from doing a load of laundry just because I wanted one item in that load clean.  I will wait until the load is full.
  2. I refrained from ordering a really cute dress on an after Christmas sale.  No guarantees that I will never order it, but I find that if I delay ordering things by a week or two, I often lose the urge to have them.  Those that I really want I enjoy even more because of anticipation.
  3. At the same time, I refrained from buying new books (a weakness -- yes, I know about libraries) until the ones on my night table are finished.
  4. Although it did take a phone call (an action!), I confirmed that our Blockbuster unlimited rental pass had been cancelled since our local store was closing.  We will do nothing for a while, then decide if we want a mail order service.
  5. I thought about picking up dinner for myself when Mr. FC&G was out of town yesterday, since I hate to cook for one.  But I came home and ate the leftovers.
All of these things feel like inaction to me.  But what they really add up to is a savings of time and of resources.  We will want the money saved for later.  And the time is better spent earning, because it is true that one should "make hay while the sun shines."  I'll want to have my time free this summer to hang my laundry and weed my garden and (God willing) can my tomatoes in pretty jars.  To do that, I need to hunker down now, do my paying work, save my money, and just concentrate on doing "nothing."
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