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Monday, April 30, 2012

"Free" Mulch and Getting What You Pay For


Sometimes, the most frugal and sustainable activities are ones for which you seize the opportunity; not all sustainable projects can be planned.  Case in point:  our "free" mulch and firewood.

Last Thursday, Mr. FC&G opened the door to a tree-trimming company who was in the neighborhood doing work for the power company.  They offered to do some work on our trees, which definitely needed it.  I don't know about your area, but in ours, the power company will only pay to have trees trimmed to the extent that it interferes with the electric lines, meaning that almost every suburban house has a tree that either angles off at an alarming tilt or has a hole cut in the branches mimicking Pac-Man.  We had a couple of those trees, and Mr. FC&G was happy to pay for the experts to be the ones to go several stories high into the trees, among the power lines, to set things right.

In the process, however, he realized that the tree trimming was going to throw off a lot of hardwood suitable for burning in our fireplace, and a lot of mulch.  Although it was an uncommon request (such that Mr. FC&G had to sign off on the work order so the trimmers wouldn't be questioned back at the home office), they agreed to chip the mulch and leave it on the driveway, and leave the larger logs for us to keep.

What you see above is the resulting mulch.  I am not very good at estimating poundage or cubic feet of mulch, but I can tell you that that is roughly a crap-ton of mulch.  It took us 7 hours this weekend to spread the mulch under trees and around flower beds, and to haul the logs into the back yard for splitting and seasoning (the splitting will have to happen after the garden is in).  There were approximately 45 wheelbarrow-loads of mulch.

Our lesson?  Always ask for the by-products of work that you can use.  We could never have trimmed those trees ourselves, and we did have to lay out some cash to get it done, but we also got a certain amount of "free" mulch and firewood that will offset some of the outlay.  In addition, we ensured that a lot of biomass that "belongs" to our property stayed there, a big concern for Mr. FC&G.

Second lesson?  Always spread your mulch as soon as you can.  We waited about 24 hours before starting to spread the mulch, which was comprised of chipped up branches from both hardwood trees and pines.  In that short time, the mulch had started to hot compost, and it steamed visibly when we cracked open the pile.  I don't know if it could have gotten any hotter than that, but my mother has stories of hay put away in the barn with some dampness on it, and the hay eventually catching fire from the process.  The interior of this pile was quite warm, but once it was spread to a depth of 2-3 inches, it was perfectly cool.  So, the lesson is to be careful with your pile of wood mulch, because decomposition certainly releases heat.

The Analysis


Fast:  Getting the mulch and wood was quick; spreading and hauling took some time, but we were happy to invest it.

Cheap:  Again, this is not a project that we undertook on purpose, but we certainly maximized our savings by asking to keep our tree-trimming by-products.

Good:  The flower beds and trees look wonderful with their new mulch around them, and I look forward to burning the wood in the year to come to keep us toasty in winter.

Readers, what is your best "save" from a contractor's project?






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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Walkability = Sustainability?

Recently, I came across coverage of Walk Score, an online neighborhood-assessment service that uses a proprietary algorithm to score an address in terms of "walkability."  In general, it takes into account the viability of doing daily errands on foot, so densely-populated urban areas, which might have a variety of grocers, book stores, coffee shops, and yoga studios within a small radius, score pretty highly on the 1-100 scale.  Not surprisingly, rural and suburban areas score poorly.

In general, the score tallies with what I know of the neighborhoods I am most familiar with.  My beloved Oxford, Ohio, where I went to college, has an average walkability score of 59, and it is easy to see why.  If you live in town and work at the university, you probably park your car in the garage and only take it out to visit out-of-town friends and relatives.  Everything is walkable in that town, and the university creates a demand for a number of nightclubs, restaurants, theaters, and shops that would not otherwise be present in a town of that size.  In Oxford, I have generally found it more difficult to drive than to walk, and if I lived in the highly-rural "exurbs" of the town and worked at the university, I would drive to a parking place, park, and then walk all day long until time to go home.

Similarly, my also-beloved Key West rates an average of 70.  Again, the town is actually more difficult to drive in than to bike in or walk, and the compact size of the island compared with the demand for amenities posed by tourists means that the only reasonable way to get around is to walk or bike.  I have not done an actual survey, but it would not surprise me to learn that there are more formal and informal places to park a bike than a car.

Home, however, is a different matter, and again I understand why.  My house in the suburbs rates a 20.  We can bike to the nearest grocery super store, but it requires a relatively difficult street crossing made more difficult by the fact that bikes do not even appear on car drivers' radar around here.  I find that I have to actually make eye contact with each driver I want to walk or bike in front of in order to assure safe passage, so busy are they with their fumbling with cell phones, car radios, and jam-packed schedules that make stopping on red before a turn a mere suggestion.  We live in an area in which we pretty much have to drive anywhere we need to go, even if the distance is theoretically walkable or bikeable, because the roads are often too dangerous to navigate.  We are in the uncomfortable position of having to drive to the gym.

But I don't know if one's Walk Score is the end-all and be-all of sustainability.  Primarily, the Walk Score favors urban areas; if you plan to utilize an outside provider of some sort for all of your needs, from food to entertainment, then you will be happiest in a place with a high Walk Score.  In fact, the Walk Score seems to place a high value on amenities in a very small radius, so packing apartments on top of grocers and coffee shops will contribute to a high score.

But if you plan to try to live independently through gardening, using wood for heat, keeping chickens and rabbits, and even hanging your laundry outside, you will probably be happier in a suburb or rural area.  Yes, we tend to get in our car every day, but we also walk into our own yard to get a fair amount of our food, and we are able reduce our dependence on others through the use of our land.  We also have a house with enough space to run both of our consulting-type businesses, further reducing our need for long commutes.  And, should we decline to drive to the gym, we can certainly get all the exercise we want in the form of weeding the garden, chopping wood, mowing the lawn, and flipping compost.

So, my final assessment of Walk Score?  It is a good tool for a certain lifestyle, and I definitely would like to see more communities make human-powered commuting easier via bike lanes, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, and a culture that looks out for people who are not sheltered by cars.  But the Walk Score is not a complete proxy for measuring sustainability.  That, too, is a lifestyle choice.














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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Potato Update


Remember my experimental potatoes I am growing this year from "seed" potatoes purchased from the organic potato section at Trader Joe's?  Well, as you can see from this photo, they have sprouted and are growing like crazy. I anticipate pulling some more dirt down to cover some of the stems this weekend.  I couldn't be more pleased, and I can't wait to find out how many potatoes I can get from these cheapskate seed potatoes.

It isn't that I'm purposely trying to take money from the seed companies.  (Well, maybe a little, but only to the extent that it stays in my own pocket.)  I have planted some beautiful All Blue potatoes from Seed Saver's Exchange, and I hope they do wonderfully.

But my big takeaway is that sustainable gardening means relying on yourself for as much of your seed and other supplies as possible.  I do have some blue potatoes growing now that are the dried and sprouted leftovers from last year that went bad before I could cook them; hopefully, they will give me lots of potatoes to harvest, too.  In the best of all possible situations, I would have enough potatoes to eat all winter and still have some to plant in the spring.  Then, I would only have to go to the seed companies for varieties I want to try but haven't grown before.

I have certainly invested less in seed potatoes this year than last year (less than $20 this year, compared with over $50 last year), so it will be that much easier for me to turn a profit.  Plus, I will be slowly developing potato varieties that are ideal for my microclimate, all while relying on myself for more and more of my gardening supplies.  That's truly sustainable.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Join Me for National Hanging Out Day

Have you heard about National Hanging Out Day?  If you are like most of my readers and are embracing the sustainable living lifestyle, you probably call this another name, like "Wash Day."  For the uninformed, this is the annual "holiday" celebrating the time-honored tradition of hanging one's wash outside to dry.

Why celebrate something as simple as hanging your clothes out to dry?  It seems like celebrating cooking dinner, taking a walk after work, or other mundane things -- and that might be the point.  We seem to have lost touch with some of the more basic functions of living, to the point that they seem odd or even threatening.

Take the simple clothes line.  Although sun-dried clothes seem as nonthreatening and wholesome as possible, there are still suburbs and subdivisions that discourage or even disallow hanging clothes out to dry.  Reasons typically center around property values, which is something I've never understood.  A clothes line itself is not particularly unattractive or even particularly obtrusive, and to me it is an amenity that adds to the value rather than subtract.

And while I understand that it is unattractive to see a neighbor's clothes hang outside day after day, in the same way Christmas lights in March are annoying, I think the problem lies more in a mistaken belief that possession of a washer and drier indicates affluence.  I'm here to say, in 2012, it does nothing of the sort.

It is pretty easy to understand.  Until the 1940s at the earliest, most people hung their laundry on a clothes line, and laundry day, even with the early automatic washers, was still a chore.  But there was a poetry and a sense of community to it:  everyone, from farm to urban apartment, hung their laundry out to dry, and often the birth of a baby was "announced" via the diapers that appeared on the line.

Once post-war consumption made a washer and drier a symbol of the American Dream (along with a car in the garage, a tract home, and a lawn mower to take care of that postage stamp lawn), hanging clothes out to dry meant being a bit behind the times, perhaps a bit poor.  And I would imagine that the sense of poverty correlated with what you hung on the line.  It is easy to justify hanging sheets outside for that summery smell, and they are relatively attractive, but hang underwear outside and you mark yourself as perhaps not having a drier and, just maybe, not fully participating in the American Dream.

Well, I have an American Dream too, and it includes keeping as much of my money for myself and my family as possible.  It includes the luxury of taking time out of my day to stand in the sun with a basket of clean clothes that I snap across the line and pin while I soak up some Vitamin D and some fresh air.  It includes the freedom to admit, yes, we wear underwear -- and we wash it regularly too.  (Aren't you glad?)

My drier is now enjoying its summer vacation while I hang my laundry outside to dry whenever possible.  National Hanging Out Day is just the start of that.

Readers:  What is the craziest objection you've ever heard to line drying your clothes?  How did you counter it?
















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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Pierogi Shells

OK, if you are on a low-carb diet, you might just want to skip this post.  For the rest of us, I give you.....pierogi shells!

I love pierogis, those little ravioli filled with mashed potato, cheese, and onions, but I don't have time to make my own pasta dough and stuff the pierogi on a regular basis.  So I developed this recipe with inspiration from some similar recipes that did not seem to have such hearty flavor to them.  It is a great treat to make when you have lots of potatoes in your cellar!

This is an adaptation of my pierogi lasagna recipe, which just substitutes layers of lasagna noodles and stuffs them with the potato filling.  This week, the grocery only had the large shells available, and I'm glad.  I think stuffing the shells, even though it is a bit more work, gives a better product.

Pierogi Shells


1 5lb. bag Yukon Gold potatoes (or similar quantity from storage)
1/2 cup milk
12 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, plus a couple of handfuls for topping
1 box large pasta shells
1 oz green onions (about 3)
1 oz Swiss chard
thyme
cracked black pepper

Boil pasta shells until al dente; you want them to still have some body to them.  Drain and set aside.

In the meantime, peel and boil the potatoes and proceed to make mashed potatoes with the addition of a half cup of milk and 12 oz. of sharp cheddar cheese.  Whip the potatoes with an electric mixer for the creamiest texture.  Add chopped green onions, Swiss chard, and black pepper to taste.  (While the green onions are standard, I added some chard for extra green and flavor.  You could add any of your garden greens you like.)

Stuff the pasta shells with about 1-2 tablespoons of potatoes and place in an oiled baking dish.  It doesn't matter if you over-stuff.  Sprinkle with remaining cheese, black pepper, and thyme to taste.  Bake at 350 until cheese is melted.

The remaining potato stuffing will reheat well or make good potato pancakes!

The Analysis


Fast:  Probably an hour and a quarter total prep time, but much of that is because I am not very fast at potato-peeling.  Certainly, this is faster than making my own pasta dough too.

Cheap:  The recipe relies on potatoes, green onions, and chard, all of which can come from your garden.  I did have to buy potatoes because I had such a bad year last year.  You will always have to buy the shells and cheese that this depends on, unless your cheese-making skills are such that you have wheels of cheddar in your cellar.  (In which case, we need to be friends!)

Good:  The whole recipe made two pans of carb-coma-inducing goodness, enough for about 5-6 servings with some potato pancakes later in the week.














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Monday, April 9, 2012

How Much Does A Garden Grow: March

Oh, goodness, you guys!  I'm so sorry -- I was out of the office the past week and had a blog post all queued up to run in my absence, but something happened and it didn't post.  Then, when I tried to post it remotely, the combo of an iffy wi-fi system and an iPad meant that I actually erased the post and couldn't reconstruct it on the road.  Mea culpa.

Anyway, it is time for the March gardening summary!  Again, March is a month of expenditures rather than profits, as I get the garden in gear.  I succumbed to the temptation to order two more trees for the dwarf micro-orchard, a banana and an olive.  My parents "babysat" the new trees while I was gone, and they say they are growing already.  Now:  Must. Not. Buy. More. Trees!  Total expenditure for the month:  $42.93 for trees.

As far as harvests, just four ounces of produce:  one of chard, two of lettuce, and one of green onions.  Total harvest:  $1.58.  Really am ready for months of huge harvests to come.

Anyway, I am pleased with the way the garden is coming along, with tomato and pepper seedlings in the sunroom and potatoes popping up in the garden along with progress from all the other plants.  We will be seeing a significant harvest one month soon, I just know it!

2012 Tally to Date
0.375 lbs. harvested
$2.58 value of harvest
-$157.67 loss to date


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