Friday, August 31, 2012

The Container Potatoes are a Success!

I really enjoy growing potatoes, even though my results are pretty mediocre.  I love having an excuse to plant something in March, and I like to see how long I can keep myself from sticking my hands into the hills to find new potatoes.  I also love the Easter-egg-hunt quality of the harvest; you don't know what is down there until the vines die back and you dig into the hills.

But I have been harboring doubts that growing potatoes is the best use of our land.  We have put in a couple of rows of potatoes the past couple of years, and we really get maybe the equivalent of a bag of potatoes back.  This is after a lot of digging for planting by Mr. FC&G, and it is after injuring quite a few potatoes that, in spite of liberal additions of mulch to the hill, still seem to get embedded in the clay-y soil and then accidentally get hit by a shovel.  Truly, I have to admit that there is little ROI in this project.  It isn't Fast or Cheap, with the saving grace being a small supply of organically-grown specialty potatoes like the blue ones I so love.

So, this year I experimented as well with the container method.  I put about 6-8 leftover potatoes (maybe 3 Yukon Golds and 5 Blue) in the bottom of a large pot (about 2 feet in diameter), and I covered the vines as they grew.  When they got over the top, I just let them go and ignored them.

The vines lasted way longer than my other potatoes; I put these in the container sometime in April, and I just moments ago (that is, August 31) tipped the container over in the garden to see what I had.  I had what you see above and below:

The total harvest gave me 7 ounces of Yukon Gold and a full pound of Blue.  Not a huge amount, but that's a couple of meals right there, and I really didn't use up any land to do it; I just had that container sitting in a corner of the yard.  Also, all of the potatoes were perfect and uninjured, because I didn't have to stick a sharp shovel into their growing space to find them.

That's the way I'm doing my potatoes from now on.  I have the container ready again, and I have a handful of small Blue seed potatoes sitting out in the sunroom to green up.  Once they do, I'm planting another round, and hopefully I'll have a harvest in January.  The sunroom, where the container will ultimately reside, stays in the 50s year round, so I think the potatoes will love it.

The Analysis

Fast:  This was much quicker and easier, as far as prep and harvest, than the in-ground method.  Let's save Mr. FC&G's muscles for breaking more sod in the spring.

Cheap:  There is no cost difference with the in-ground method, but this method seems to give me larger and more potatoes per seed potato, so definitely a bigger payoff.  Also, if I can get potatoes growing year-round, that is a small additional weight off the food budget in mid-winter just when the canned and frozen goods start to give out.

Good:  I'm a pretty happy camper on this one.  From now on, my potatoes all go in containers.
Pin It!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sustainable Pin: Brownie Mix

Like many people, I am addicted to the social pinboard site Pinterest, and I have discovered a lot of great ideas.  And, like many people, I am having fun testing these ideas to see what works for me.  So, I thought we'd start a new occasional column:  Sustainable Pin.  This feature will take a look at a popular pin and rate it on the Fast, Cheap, and Good scale.

Our first Sustainable Pin comes from Fake-It-Frugal, with her fake boxed brownie mix.  Let's show this blogger some love and click on over to her site for the recipe; I'll wait.

OK, welcome back.  The purpose here was to recreate boxed brownie mixes so you have the convenience of the box without the expense.  I can definitely rate this one a winner.  The mix is incredibly easy to make up in bulk and store; as you can see, I mixed up several jars' worth and put them in the pantry this weekend.  They are really easy to grab and mix with the wet ingredients to get a fresh batch of brownies when you are short of time.

The brownies bake up just a little thin, which is common with the boxed mixes too.  I extended the cook time to 25-30 minutes, which may be due to my oven or to the fact that I have clear glass brownie pans.

The Analysis

Fast:  The mixes are easy to make, and this makes a fresh pan of brownies a possibility even in a busy day. I would imagine this would be a nice school night treat for busy families with kids, too.

Cheap:  Our original blogger put the mix cost in at $0.30.  I did not recalculate, but that sounds about right. Even once you add your farm fresh eggs, oil, and organic vanilla (which is how we roll here at FC&G), you should be able to get a complete batch of brownies for less than half the cost of the mix alone at the store.

Good:  We have eaten 3 pans of these in the past four days.  All in the name of testing a pin for you guys.

Pin It!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sustainable Technology

"Planned obsolescence" was a term coined by marketers in the post-WWII era to describe the process of creating items that the consumer would want (and later, need) to replace after a very short time.  After WWII, companies that had not been able to sell products either due to rationing, lack of money, or conversion to war materials production during the war enjoyed a boom in purchasing as their production capacity returned to normal and consumers released pent-up demand in the form of shopping.  And shop they did -- for cars, houses, appliances, and all the items we now associate with the "American Dream."

But soon, marketers feared that the demand could not continue, and the idea of planned obsolescence was born.  If you've ever wondered why appliances suddenly started changing colors every year or why the fins on 1950s automobiles grew larger and larger with each model, you can look to planned obsolescence for the answer.  One automobile exec of the period commented that he wouldn't be satisfied until the average consumer purchased a new car every year.

This is the long, history-instructor introduction to my point that technology has raised planned obsolescence to a new level.  Without pointing a lot of fingers right now (because most tech companies are guilty on some level), I will say that I am beyond frustrated with the pressure to buy new tech just because the screen resolution is better or the case is sexier.  And those sexy cases come with a price -- Apple's attempt to make their new devices slimmer has led to smaller dock connectors, requiring the purchase of new cords, new peripherals, or at least new adapters, and their beautiful new glass iPhone bodies have to be encased in an after-market rubber shell soon after purchase or they cannot survive a 12 inch drop onto a wood bedroom floor (not that I would know that from experience....ahem).

Anyway, I like new devices as much as the next girl, but I get even more frustrated when the devices that made my life better suddenly are unusable due to changes in software or operating system or connection.  That's why I was so pleased to finally be able to download the right drivers and software to resurrect my old AlphaSmart Dana and get her back into the writing process.

The AlphaSmart was designed in the 1990s as a laptop replacement for K-12 schools that couldn't afford to give each student a fully-functioning laptop to use during the day.  Therefore, the AlphaSmart solves a lot of problems:  it is cheap; it is virtually indestructible; and it really is only useful for writing rather than designing, illustrating, or formatting.  Because of these features, professional writers like me flocked to the AlphaSmart as a travel option -- it slides into a purse or briefcase, can withstand a drop or two, and is instant-on.

Now, all of these features (sans the drop-ability) are now supposedly offered by laptops and tablets, but let me tell you, nothing makes me as productive for certain types of articles as the AlphaSmart.  The keyboard lets me type quickly and with few errors, and the little screen makes me focus on the paragraph I'm currently writing rather than looking at the whole document or surfing out to Facebook or email when I get stumped.  For an article that won't require a lot of online research -- so, many of the articles I write based on an interview with a single subject matter expert -- I can just sit down, open my file of quotes for reference beside me, and focus only on creating the words I need.  Then, I attach the HotSync cable and upload the document into a Word file for editing and submission.

So far, I am reminded that I write better on the AlphaSmart, and I write quicker, too.  The other night, I wrote 600 words in 45 minutes, a number that would have taken about two hours with the distraction of a computer; last night, it was 400 words in 20 minutes.  I am producing my work better and faster -- and that's sustainable (and fast and cheap!).  I bought my AlphaSmart in about 2000, and I hope she lasts many more years.  Long live the AlphaSmart!
Pin It!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dilly Carrots

"How are the carrots this year?"

Every year, my father-in-law asks this eagerly, and for the past couple of years I've had to disappoint him.  The carrot crop has either been thin or extremely late, which has meant that I didn't have high quality carrots to make his favorite recipe, dilly carrots.

This is a creation of mine born of a little experimentation, and it is a great thing to do with extra carrots, especially the sweet round Ox Hearts I am growing this year.  It is a nice alternative to freezing carrots, especially if you like to snack on them year round.

Dilly Carrots
(Note:  this recipe makes two pints of canning syrup, which you won't need if you have two pints of carrots.  I tend to make too much because I like to pack my carrots loosely in the jar.)

2 c. cider vinegar
2 c. sugar
1 head of fresh dill per jar (substitute 1/2 to 1 t. dill seed if your dill weed has finished for the season)
1/8 t. cloves
1 t. celery seed
2 pts. carrot rounds or sticks

Pack carrots and dill raw in sterilized jars.  Bring remaining ingredients to a boil, and fill jars.  Wipe threads and seal.  Process in water bath canner for 25 minutes.

The Analysis

Fast:  As far as a carrot preservation mode, this is faster than pressure canning and slower than blanching and freezing.

Cheap:  Normally, I compare things to their retail prices, but I have never seen pickled carrots on the store shelves.  Suffice to say, if you grow  your own carrots and dill, the rest is pretty cheap.

Good:  I think my father-in-law would agree, these are pretty yummy!
Pin It!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Silly Sustainability Products

I generally don't make a lot of fun of products for being unsustainable in nature.  For one thing, if I really dedicated myself to making fun of products, I'd be doing nothing but.  For another, most products have an ideal customer; what I think is silly you may think is a justifiable luxury or a downright necessity to getting things done.  However, I have recently found a couple of products I think are just really silly:

The Williams-Sonoma Garden Implements:  Oh, this is like shooting fish in a barrel to make fun of these garden implements from America's favorite gourmet cooking store.  While I applaud their extension of cooking into gardening (which should be a natural for foodies, anyway), I laugh at the prices.  This long-handled garden fork will set you back $299.95 at the top of the price range, boasting its copper-alloy head.  Instead, I think I bought the warren hoe you see at right for about $30 from Home Depot, and high-quality garden forks that weren't so decorative were available at comparable prices.  I shudder to think of blowing my entire garden savings for the year on something beautiful I would soon be sticking into the compost to flip it.  To be fair, some of the hand tools in the line are of a more reasonable price.

Ball FreshTECH Jam and Jelly Maker:  Again, my heart hurts a little to make fun, because I buy a great deal from Ball each year in the way of jar lids, canning implements, and extra jars.  However, this labor-saving device takes the cake.  All you have to do is add fruit, pectin, and sugar, and soon you are rewarded with fresh jam to eat, freeze, or can.  Except, all you ever do to make jam is add fruit, sugar, and pectin and cook it for a while.  Making the jam is not the hard part.  Actually, nothing about making fruit jam is difficult; the canning is the only process that takes any thought.  Buying a machine to do the stirring for me seems a little silly.

Water Genie Bottomless Watering Can:  So, let me get this straight.  In order to avoid unsightly piles of hose (why are people so ashamed of garden hoses, anyway?) and to avoid trips to fill up my watering can, you've figured out a way to make a watering-can-shaped hose nozzle?  For just $39.99 of my hard-earned dollars, I can have control over my water flow and avoid looking at my hose.  Or, I can keep coiling it up on our hose rack and use my $7 multi-function hose nozzle that is working just fine.

What is the least-sustainable sustainability product you've found?
Pin It!

Friday, August 10, 2012

What Would You Choose?

Sometimes, sustainable living sort of overlaps with discussions of what choices are the healthiest for us.  After all, it does no good to make a choice that you can keep up for a long time -- financially, effort-wise, or enjoyment-wise -- just to find out it is slowly killing you.

So let me do something a little different today and pose to you the problem I recently posed to my personal Facebook friends, and then I'll give you a bit more context:

You are in an all-day, closed door meeting. Bringing your own water bottle, for the purposes of this question, is not an option. The venue has provided a limited selection of drinks. Do you choose:

A) Regular pop in a can, with HFCS
B) Diet pop in a can, with aspartame
C) Water in a bottle, possibly leaching BPA and other contaminants
D) Dehydration

Here is the additional context:  Occasionally, I have to go on site for a long meeting for a client  These clients are typically very gracious and offer a selection of drinks, and the ones above are common.  I do not expect my clients to be waiting at the door with a Pepsi Throwback, nor do I want to interrupt the meeting flow with a tedious discussion of why I want tap water in a glass or ceramic glass.  I could bring my own water bottle, but I often forget.  This is my own dumb fault, but I constrained the question so we wouldn't all get into a discussion of how to sneak a water bottle or a can of Throwback into my purse, or what BYOB does to the flow of the meeting.

A few months ago, I was in just such a situation.  I didn't think to supply myself with a beverage of choice, and I was in a long meeting with a very gracious selection of beverages, each of which raised its own red flags:

Regular pop with HFCS?  Well, I try to stay away from HFCS, and all I could think of is that the HFCS almost certainly is made with some if not all GMO corn with incredible pesticide and herbicide exposure.

Diet pop with aspartame?  In this case, I know that I underwent a torturous few weeks several years ago getting myself off of aspartame because of possible health threats from it.

Water in a bottle?  Some bottles can release BPA, potentially dioxin, and God knows what else, particularly when heated.  I had no way of knowing if my bottle had been sitting in an overheated truck or not.

Dehydration was not an option for me that day, although I am pretty good at it.  (Ask me sometime about the 12-hour travel day that included a layover in the Pittsburgh airport.  I do NOT go to the ladies room in Pittsburgh.  Sorry, Pittsburgh readers -- the rest of your area is quite pleasant.)

Basically, I think I concluded that anything I drank had a downside that day.  So I wound up having a diet pop and then a bottle of water.  (It was a long meeting.)  Even after getting off the diet pop, I allow myself one per quarter, so I just counted this one as my "treat."  The water I figured was the best choice beverage-wise, and that I would simply have to hope for the best with the container.  The regular pop I dismissed because I just don't like the flavor after switching to all products made with natural sugar

However, I find it a little sad that, of the mainstream products available for hospitality, every one has a potential health consequence even BEFORE you factor in things like connections with obesity, etc.

So, sound off.  What would you have picked?

Pin It!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: July

July was all about the zucchini,, as you can see from the super-close shot to your right that was meant to show them and the cucumbers off without showing you my currently-messy kitchen counter.  We finally started bringing in some produce, and when we did, it was the zucchini show.

Zucchini:  With a harvest coming in at 31.75 pounds and the price still hovering at $2.99 a pound for organic zucchini, this was my food staple for the month.  I shredded and froze a whole bunch, and I put zucchini in everything we ate.  Almost literally.  I mean, check the July blog posts, and that isn't even the half of it.

Potatoes:  The Yukon Gold potatoes, which I planted from store-bought organics, gave me just 4.3125 pounds, while the first harvest of the blue potatoes was just 13 ounces.  I still have a half a row of blue to account for in August, and a container that I think will beat them all, but for right now, I'm going to say that I think potatoes are a luxury crop that really gives me an excuse to garden in March but otherwise does very little else.  Even the specialty potatoes in the store come in at $1.40 a pound, although I will admit that organic blue potatoes have been impossible to find.

Tomatoes:  Most people I've talked to throughout the Midwest feel their tomatoes are about two weeks behind, and I sort of do too.  We harvested 3.875 pounds of tomatoes in July, enough for a lot of salads, but no canning until just recently.  Store prices for organic tomatoes are $2.99/pound.

Carrots:  3.1875 pounds here, with prices for organics still at $2.99 a pound (recognize a theme in our grocery stores?).  Most of this came from finally finishing out the small bed that I started last year, so most of these were really last year's carrots.  I promptly reseeded the bed, because who knows how long this next crop will take?

Cukes:  3.25 pound harvested in July, and they are yummy.  The low yield thus far is my fault.  For years, I have grown Burpee Pickler and Straight Eights, but this year I got fancy with some heirlooms and grew another kind of pickling cuke.  They are yummy, but they are tiny.  I have a small secondary row of the more traditional varieties warming up, so maybe August will give me some canning cukes.

Onions:  1.875 pounds, mostly pulled an onion at a time for dinner.

Beans:  3.5 ounces.  This is NOT my fault.  The critters really leveled the beans during the drought, even though we put out water for them and put up screens, so the beans have taken a while to recover.  Again, I have a secondary crop coming up and plan to put in a tertiary crop where I just took out the potatoes.

Expenses:  None!

But, but!  We're still not profitable!  Man, this is taking some time, and I really want to show that gardening will help beat the economic woes.  But we still aren't there.

"Don't forget the foregone psychiatry bills!" Mr. FC&G said in his yearly joke.  Yes, that's true.  Plus, I need to figure out how I'm going to account to you for culinary herbs harvested and some medicinal herbs, like Feverfew and St. John's Wort, that would be pretty expensive if purchased.

Still, one of my unfortunate take-aways is that gardening requires upfront investment that doesn't pay back for a fairly long time, and if we are going to use it as a society to help those that are the most impoverished (as I still think we should), we are going to have to support community gardening, rooftop gardening, and other types of communal local gardening that may have to have the upfront costs paid by an outside organization, like a charity or other philanthropic organization.  Luckily, I see more and more of these springing up.

2012 Tally to Date
58.65625 lbs. total harvested
$131.84 value of harvest for July
$166.14 value of harvest for 2012
$185.39 expenditures for 2012
-$19.25 loss to date
Pin It!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Why the Drought Means You MUST Garden

As you are no doubt aware (even if you've gotten a break from hearing about it by the wall-to-wall Olympics coverage), most of the country is fighting a serious drought.  Farmers are predicting low yields on the corn and soy that seem to find their way into every grocery store product, and prices on meat and dairy are expected to go up because factory-farmed cattle (unnaturally) eat mostly the corn that is in short supply.

Frugality blogs and news stories are responding with hints about ways to stock up and find deals in the coming months.  While these tips are generally very helpful, I'm going to take a different position and say that, in difficult growing times, you MUST plant a garden.

Why do I think you can succeed where large farms cannot?

  1. Your microclimate:  Even if you are sitting in the middle of the worst of the heat wave and drought, your own microclimate may lend itself to production of vegetables large farmers can't grow.  A shade tree, a porch for your container garden, or just a slightly low spot in your yard can all make a degree or two difference in temperature and can have different water needs.
  2. Your irrigation needs:  Factory farmers simply can't irrigate as much as they would need this year, and they sometimes are growing crops so closely spaced that their water needs are even more. You, on the other hand, can surely pull out the watering can or hose to douse your small garden.  If you are putting in a fall crop, space your plants a little farther apart so they have more root space to dig for water.
  3. Transportation:  Once farmers harvest their paltry drought-damaged crops, the crops have to be transported multiple times for processing and sale in your area.  In case you haven't noticed, fuel prices aren't dropping either, so you will also pay your portion of those increases.  Why pay to transport crops out of the drought area to your store if you can just go outside and grab your dinner from your yard.
  4. Flexibility:  The large farmers have to grow certain varieties of crops that can grow densely and can withstand the treatment they get, which in many cases mean they grow GMOs and other questionable hybrids instead of heirlooms.  A lot of this is driven by economics and scale on which they operate.  You, as the small gardener, are not confined in this way.  This year alone, we have grown carrots over the winter in a raised bed protected by a cold frame, are growing more carrots in the main clay-y garden by choosing a short, stocky heirloom variety, have a crop of leeks that will probably mature in winter (again protected by a cold frame), and are growing potatoes in a container with plans to repeat the process over the winter.  You can do likewise with your space. 
None of this is meant as a diatribe against individual farmers in the large farm system.  In many cases, I think these hard-working men and women wanted to hold onto a traditional way of life and have been slowly squeezed by governmental, economic, and corporate pressures into farming highly-modified varieties of crops in monoculture -- ironically, exactly the recipe for failure in any kind of temporary shift in the weather.  It will take a culture change to fix those problems.

In the meantime, those of us with small gardens can relieve some of the demand and help our own budgets by growing locally.  If you are a southern gardener, now is the time to plan for your fall/winter gardens; middle and northern gardens should be planting crops that will mature before frost or be safe under row covers or in cold frames.  All of us can be thinking of crops that we can put in large containers in sunrooms, in sunny windows, and under grow lights.  But now more than ever, you really need to garden.
Pin It!