Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Oh, Jingle, Jingle, Jingle

(Hey, I lied!  I actually feel like a blog post today, mostly because it will allow me to procrastinate from a to-do list of mammoth proportions.  So, enjoy!)

Twas four nights before Christmas, and your faithful blogger is about to lose her mind. I have absolutely zero idea what this has to do with sustainable living, but I'm going to go with it.

I don't know when Christmas stopped being a holiday that took up the last half of December and started being an Olympic decathlon with events like "creative baking," "holiday card design," and "targeted gift purchasing," but every year, the pressure to pull off a spectacular Christmas seems to mount. And, just a reminder, Mr. FC&G and I don't have kids, so we aren't even engaged in the side of things that involves figuring out what the toy of the year is and how to hide it from inquisitive eyes, to say nothing of that super-creepy marketing ploy that is the Elf on the Shelf.  No, we just feel your garden variety pressure, and it is getting out of hand.

Now, many other bloggers who are opining about their Christmas tasks are going to blame the pressure on Facebook, with its uncanny ability to catalog all of your friends' most perfect milliseconds of life and throw them in your face at the moment you are about to start hurling bakeware across your kitchen.  ("Wait, little Billy, stop and hold that toy from Aunt Beth just so while I get a photo of you with the Christmas tree in the background. That should make all my friends insanely jealous of my perfect life, which, of course, is the true meaning of Christmas!")

No, this pressure goes back to Christmas carols, a fact of which I am now painfully aware since the radio station that I depended upon to play 80s New Wave decided to convert to the city's "Christmas Station" starting the day after Halloween.  I swear, if they back this holiday up any further, I'm going to be forced to sing Jingle Bells while I'm cleaning up from the Fourth of July cookout.

Anyway, listen to some of these things:

(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays (1954)
I met a man who lives in Tennessee
And he was headin' for
Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie

Think about that. The distance between Nashville, TN, and Harrisburg, PA, is 720 miles, or over 10 hours in the car, not counting rest stops. I don't know about you, but my pumpkin pie, although pretty darn good, isn't worth driving from the neighboring town for, let alone hauling butt for 11 hours in the car. It's tasty, but it always gets that crack down the middle.

Sleigh Ride (1949)
There's a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy
When they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie
It'll almost be like a picture print by Currier and Ives.
These wonderful things are the things
We remember all through our lives.

Currier and Ives, people!  We're supposed to create a Christmas that is so good that it doesn't just get recorded on our phones but is actually worthy of a lithograph!  I can't do that!  And again with the pumpkin pie - although, I must say, my coffee is pretty kick-ass, especially if you like your brew strong enough to strip paint off the walls and keep you up for three days.

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1963)
There'll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow.
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
Of Christmases long long ago!

OK, so now I see why we're starting this holiday at Halloween, because that's clearly the only reasonable time to toast marshmallows and tell ghost stories.  But tales of the glories?  What would you like to hear about? The time that I actually got the fudge to set up on the first try? (And what, exactly, is a "soft ball stage?")  See, I'm supposed to throw a Christmas so good that we have guests coming in at all hours, traipsing up and down the street signing carols, and it still will pale in comparison to past Christmases, which we will fondly recall.  ("I don't know, Jen, this pumpkin pie is good, but it isn't as good as that year you got everyone to come in from Nashville just for a piece.")

So I don't know, folks. These kinds of blog posts are supposed to end with some cheery pronouncement that "it's all worth it." But I have to go - I need to finish the calligraphy on the envelopes of my Christmas cards and try to take a perfect, soft-focus picture of the Christmas tree to post to Facebook.  Then, I apparently need to investigate some new pie recipes, because mine just aren't bringing the crowds to the door.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Taking a Short Break

Not a very Christmassy scene, eh?  But if you think I'm going to post a photo of the snow currently outside my window instead of my recent view, you're nuts!

Just wanted to let my loyal readers know that FC&G will be on a short hiatus until New Year's. (Unless I get my garden spreadsheets caught up, that is.)

I need a little time to think about the direction of this blog and how best to use this tool.  If you have comments or suggestions, I'm open to them!

Until then, my best wishes for the warmest holiday season!
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Friday, November 25, 2016

The Fast, Cheap, and Good Sustainability Gift Guide

Shameless self-promotion time!  If you're looking for sustainable living gifts this holiday season and want to support a small business at the same time, I present some of the offerings from the businesses owned by the author of this blog and her hard-working hubby.  (Of course, these are not affiliate links, but they do translate to profit for me.)

I would be remiss if I didn't start off with the book that this blog made possible.  Spanning the first three or so years of the blog, this book includes updates versions of our most popular posts in areas like recipes, food preservation, gardening, textile arts, household helps, and sustainable living philosophy.  It is available through my publishing-related Etsy site, where you will also find my other three books.

180 pp.
$10.00 (on sale)

Fast, Cheap, and Good

Fleece socks are a natural sustainable living choice, because the warmer your feet are, the less you are inclined to spend on heating the house.  We have a variety of fleece socks for men and women in our Carrot Creations Fleece Shop.  One customer calls our socks "like a hug for your feet." (Note: Our socks are sized to fit snugly, so you can wear them under boots.  If you want slipper socks, please size up.)

Fleece socks, $10.00

The Carrot Creations Fleece Shop

Yoga socks are our most popular item, and it's easy to see why.  They keep your feet cozy during yoga, Pilates, or belly dance class while keeping the balls and heels of your feet free to remain in contact with the mat.  They are also great for wearing under flip flops for pedicures. Available in acrylic, US-grown cotton, organic cotton, and a variety of luxury blends.

Yoga socks, $10.00-$21.00

Carrot Creations

No matter what your favorite team, keep warm in the stadium or gym with our team spirit cowls.  Suitable for men or women.

In this section, check out our writer's gloves: fingerless gloves that keep your hands warm in chilly offices or outdoors, while your fingers stay free to type or text.

Cowls, $10.00

Cowls and Writer's Gloves

And now for something completely different!  Support the health of the coral reefs and the animals that live there.  We offer a variety of sea cucumber-themed t-shirts through our Red Bubble shop that are ideal for academics (think marine biologists) or anyone who loves the ocean.

T-shirts, Price varies by type and size

Sea Cucumber T-shirts

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Stay Sustainable!
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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Orzo Masala

We're on a real "skillet dinner" kick here in the FC&G household. The Mr. and I have realized that we are unlikely to eat enough veggies in the winter unless we dump them into a pan full of other yummy things, so we've been experimenting with what we can throw together.

This weekend's experiment was Orzo Masala, and I have to say it turned out pretty good.  It is a great meatless dish, and it can be turned either vegan or meat-loving with very little effort.

Orzo Masala
1 jar Trader Joe's (or other brand) masala simmer sauce
1/2 cup lentils
1 half bag orzo, cooked
(All veggies cut up in small chunks and in whatever amounts you have available.  We had about a cup of each, except for having about a half cup of kale.)

Simmer the lentils in the masala simmer sauce until tender, while cooking the orzo.  You may want to add about a half a jar of water to the simmer sauce to make sure you have enough sauce to cover all of your ingredients.

When the lentils are tender (about 20 minutes), add the orzo and the veggies.  Cook until the peppers have started to become tender.  Serves about 4-6.

For Meat Lovers:  We found that this mix works really well with some nice sausage crumbles added.

For Vegan Option: You will need to use vegan pasta (or rice) and a vegan masala sauce.

The Analysis

Fast:  Skillet dinners are always quick, especially when there are two of you cooking.

Cheap:  We put this together entirely from pantry and fridge staples, plus some dribs and drabs of the remaining garden veggies.

Good:  A healthy and adaptable way to get dinner together.
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Friday, November 11, 2016

Tool Review: Kindling Cracker

This past June, I got seduced by a tool. That's not a metaphor; I just fell in love with this new tool called the Kindling Cracker, which you can buy here. (Note: this is not an affiliate link, and I bought the tool with my own hard-earned money, thank you very much.)

The concept is simple. Instead of trying to split small logs into kindling using an ax (with which I would kill myself) or with a wedge (ditto), the tool constructs a safer way to split these small logs into kindling.  Basically, you have a cast iron frame that holds the log over an upside-down wedge, and then you can hit the log until it splits without having your hands or other body parts in any danger.

The tool was developed by a school-age child who wanted a safer way to contribute to the log splitting duties at her house, and it is indeed safe.  It is marketed as a tool to keep by your woodpile or your outdoor pizza oven, and the directions recommend using a 4-pound mallet to split the wood.  I used a sledge hammer because I use one frequently in the garden (plus it's a better workout), but I think either would work.  It is, indeed, safe enough for a young person to use to help their family out with the chores.

The tool is not without its drawbacks. It is tempting to put a too-large piece of wood in the frame, which will result in it getting caught as it splits. And, if you happen to get a piece of wood with a funky grain or a large knot in it, it won't split into beautifully straight pieces of kindling.  But, you probably already knew at least that last from experience splitting wood without the frame involved.

The best thing about the kindling cracker is that Mr. FC&G doesn't have to shoulder the entire job of splitting our wood by himself.  Oh, he still has to do the (literal) heavy lifting, including using the chain saw and the ax (neither of which were in operation anywhere near me that day, so don't worry about my rather casual work wear). But I can work on kindling and do the hauling of the wood while he works, and then we both can handle the heavy stuff.  And now that the miserable oak tree is down in chunks and ready to cure into firewood for next year, I will have lots of chances to use my new toy.

The Analysis

Fast: Someone stronger than me could make kindling faster, but at least I was getting the job done.

Cheap:  At $89, this is a bit of a luxury, but I think it is worth it, especially if you have responsible young people in your family who are ready to pitch in on this job.

Good:  Heating with wood that you split yourself rather than paying for gas and electric is always a good thing, especially for the pocketbook.
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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Bye-Bye to the Annoying Oak Tree

See that?  That's almost the end of the annoying oak tree, which has been increasingly encroaching on my garden with its shade for about five years, and which I finally have been able to have taken down. Yeah!

Now, I feel a little guilty trumpeting this triumph in a sustainability blog.  Aren't I supposed to be lobbying for more trees in the world? Trees pump out oxygen, help clean the air, and fight soil erosion. What's not to love?

What's not to love is the amount of shade in my garden. Look, I'm all in favor of more trees: in place of parking lots and shopping centers. You want to tear down a Walmart or a Chipotle and put in a bunch of oak trees, I will help you wield the shovel. Just yesterday, I saw yet another mini-lifestyle center being put up in our economically-tenuous area. The store on the corner outlot was so close to the road that it almost created a blind turn for drivers. We just really don't need that much retail around here. So, sure, more trees.

But not more trees in my tomatoes! I've spent the past five years with that little oak tree making a growth spurt that made it taller and wider, crowding the sunny part of my garden further and further out of the back yard. I've had enough.

With the tree gone, my sunny gardening area is nearly tripled, which I'm sure Mr. FC&G won't appreciate when it comes time to till the garden up, but which I will certainly enjoy. And, as a bonus, the west-facing windows on the house aren't nearly as shaded. That means our sunroom can go back to one of its intended purposes as a solar collector to help heat the house, and we don't have to feel like our bedroom is in perpetual gloom.

I've never really been one for dappled sunlight; give me some nice, direct sun that will tan my skin all summer and allow me to grow those veggies that need 12 or 14 hours of sunlight in order to produce. I have plenty of trees remaining on the property; the original owners really went berserk planting trees around here, so one fewer shouldn't really harm my eco-cred. And, as Mr. FC&G always points out, anything that increases my gardening decreases my chances for insanity, so it's kind of a win/win.
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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Playing the Heat Game

(Note: In this rare occasion, I swiped a meme from Facebook. If this is your image and you would like it removed, please contact me and I will do so immediately.)

Well, it's late October, and the temps around here are finally getting chilly. We were promised a mild fall, and so far, we are getting it. But, it's inevitable that we are going to get cold weather.

Cold weather, as you may have noticed, makes me crabby. And one of the things that makes me crabbiest is that I have to spend money to keep warm. I realize the reverse is true - I have to spend money in the summer to run the AC - but nothing bothers me quite like hearing the heat kick on and know that I'm working my tail off to pay the heating bills to make up for an outdoor temperature that I don't like anyway.

I've written on this topic before, but I recently posted the above meme to Facebook, and I was interested in the distribution of friends who also play the game of seeing how long they can last before turning on the heat. We do this every year; I try to make it to at least November 1 unless I have company coming over. One of my heartier friends notes that her goal is December 1.

Is this practice sustainable? Well, it is one of those "little things" you can do. Every day you decline to turn your whole-house heat on, you use less fossil fuel, and you pay less for your heating bills, thus making a small dent in both global resource usage and personal resource usage. I think it's a good practice overall.

Some ways to stay warm without turning on the dreaded whole-house heat:

  • Put on another layer. Your mom wasn't kidding; if you are cold, put on a sweater. It is far cheaper to keep your own body warm than it is to heat a whole house for your comfort. I have several "writing sweaters" I wear over my daily clothes when I am sitting at my desk.
  • Vent to the inside. If you can, vent your dryer to the inside of your house; I have written a long post on this, but there are baffle boxes you can buy that allow you to toggle your venting to the inside during the winter and the outside during the summer.
  • Bake. This is a great time to start making cookies, quick breads, roasts, and other meal items that have been too heavy to eat all summer and which require the oven to be on for an extended period. Don't forget to open that oven door when you are done and let all that lovely heat escape into the house.
  • Use area heat sources. This means using a space heater when you are going to be in a single room or using your wood stove to add a little heat to the house. Don't forget to close off the room you are heating from the rooms you will not be in, so you retain as much heat as possible where you are going to be.
Of course, I'll ultimately give in on the whole house heat. There will be a day that I crawl out of bed from under my flannel sheets, two blankets, two bedspreads, and three quilts*, and decide that I just can't live another day in the chill. But, until then, let the game continue!

*Really not kidding about the amount of covers I sleep under. I have the body temperature control ability of a reptile.
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Friday, October 14, 2016

A Nice Little Thing about an Airport

OK, when you think "sustainability," airports are not usually the next thing to pop into your head. In many ways, they are (very necessarily) temples to overconsumption of resources in the modern economy. Just look at all those heavy metal tubes with wings sitting out there, burning jet fuel like it rains from the sky. And then look around the interior, filled with food and drink in disposable paper and plastic (which you pretty much have to buy because getting anything reasonable through TSA is a nightmare). Finally, look at all the travelers! Business travelers headed to meetings they probably could have had over the phone, to say nothing of all those tourists who wouldn't have been expecting to vacation hundreds or thousands of miles away from home just a couple of generations ago.

I'm not a frequent traveler. One vacation a year is usually it. But recently, I actually went somewhere for my business, and I saw something that, to me, really worked.

In the Atlanta airport, I encountered a sign that told me that the concourses were spaced a five-mintue walk apart; in other words, if one had the time, one could travel between the very first concourse and the very last in about 30 minutes of walking time, instead of taking the much faster passenger monorail. Since I had arrived at the airport ridiculously early, as usual, I set off to take a 10-minute walk to my concourse.

Along the way, the airport had allowed artists to place art installations; the one you see above used light and carefully-shaped cut-outs to mimic the dappled light of a forest. A soundtrack accompanied it. Was it great art? Well, I'm not sure, but I would argue it was great art for the space. In a facility dedicated to rushing around and expending resources, I was invited by environmental cues to get a little exercise and to lower my blood pressure a little bit by enjoying the dim, dappled light and the nature sounds. It was only a few minutes, but it was certainly a better option than increasing my stress with a relatively-sedentary monorail ride.

Maybe other airports are doing this as well: encouraging people to walk by posting information about time and distance. Maybe more experienced travelers already know which airports they are willing to walk and which they will not. But, for me, this little break was a nice surprise.  So, well done, Hartsfield-Jackson!
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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Sauteed Fall Vegetables

One of the saddest things about the fall garden is the quality of the produce just isn't up to summer standards. The tomatoes, especially, that were so wonderful raw in the summer have now become "cooking tomatoes," a little less flavorful and tender than their July counterparts.

So, Mr. FC&G and I have been positively ODing on sauteed veggies the past couple of weeks. By taking everything we have available and throwing it in a sautee pan, it makes a wonderful topping for rice.

Right now, we have peppers, tomatoes, green beans, and kale. The kale, especially, is a wonderful addition, since it gets sweeter with some cool nighttime temps.

The best thing? The only thing I pay for in this recipe is the olive oil, which makes it super cheap. For each veggie listed below, I used a handful of each; you can adjust to your own harvest

Sauteed Fall Veggies
2 T organic olive oil
Green peppers, sliced and split into small slivers
Green beans, snapped
Red tomatoes, cut into small pieces
Yellow tomatoes, cut into small pieces
Kale, cut into ribbons
1 T dried oregano

Heat olive oil and add veggies in the order above, giving each a chance to cook a bit and wilt.  This allows your most "solid" veggies time to cook and lets your kale just wilt and sweeten at the end. Cook a total of 10-15 minutes, depending basically on how firm you want your tomatoes. (They seem to be the decision-maker here; everything else can handle more or less cooking time.)

If you wish, add a handful of organic cashews at the end for a bit of protein. Serve over rice; we like organic sprouted rice.

The Analysis

Fast: 10-15 minutes of cooking time, and you are chopping your veggies while you cook.

Cheap:  Everything but the olive oil comes from the garden.  The addition of organic cashews and sprouted rice adds some protein and makes it a vegetarian meal.

Good:  Who knew I even like green beans? I've been avoiding them my entire life, and it turns out that it is just the cooking method - I don't want them boiled, I want them sauteed and crispy.  Yum!

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Friday, September 30, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: September 2016

Wow, I really feel like I ought to just copy/paste last month's garden tally column and just move right along. But that wouldn't be fair.

OK, so for the September report. September was really very much another August for me. My August, as you will remember, was horrid thanks to the diminished garden size from the shade of the totally-unnecessary oak tree. (I supposedly have an oak tree removal quote coming soon, but we'll see.)

September was more of the same, except I stubbornly held in there where my friends had given up.  Rat finks. Here they were on Labor Day, posting Facebook updates about how they were taking out the garden because they were tired, for heaven's sake.  They'd gotten enough tomatoes and enough beans, and they were calling it quits.

Folks, my beans didn't do anything exciting until mid-September, and my tomatoes are still producing in that completely-lackluster fashion they do this time of year. I'm getting all "cooking tomatoes," with not as much flavor as I would get when the darlings are exposed to warmth and sun and are ready to eat raw, but I will take them.

I'm also pleased that the "winter garden" seems to have kicked in.  We spent last weekend putting up the pop-up greenhouse and hauling the peppers and a lone tomato in there, then building a cold frame around some cucumbers.  Those, plus some potatoes and kale, all seem to be doing well.

So we actually realized a decent cumulative profit for the first time this month. Like everything I seem to do this year, it is taking more work than I would have hoped to make a dent, but every little bit helps.  I'm looking at you, green beans.

Cumulative Totals

Total Ounces Harvested: 1209.5
Total Pounds Harvested: 75.59375
Total Value of Harvest: $289.58

Total Expenditures: (-$232.88)

Total Profit: $56.70
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Friday, September 23, 2016

The Power of Yelling at Your Plants

Remember your elementary school science experiments? Because it tends not to be a good idea to let 8 year olds plan experiments involving caustic chemicals or live electrical wires, at least one class would always downshift into a project about the effects of talking to plants. The control group plants would be watered but otherwise ignored, while the experimental group would be talked to on a daily basis.

If the teacher were really on her game, there would be a second experimental group. For this group, the plants would not be talked to but yelled at and subject to verbal abuse. If you were lucky, you'd see results that demonstrated that kind words make living things thrive and abuse and indifference make them suffer.

Of course, there was always that killjoy that had to point out that the group that whispered sweet nothings to their plants were probably leaning in closer and marginally increasing the amount of carbon dioxide the plants were exposed to from juvenile exhalations. And, let's not forget that Mrs. Vandersnoot's south-facing classroom, which was roughly 117 degrees for the entire month of September, got an uneven pattern of light exposure across her windows, meaning the "ignored" group was actually in the shade part of the day or something.

Anyway, I seem to have replicated this experiment in a totally non-scientific way this year. Last year, my good friend told me that she had had success keeping her pepper plants in the garage and hauling them back out for a second season the coming summer. I think some of her peppers are currently on their third year. Anyway, I had to try it.

I saved three huge ceramic planters full of pepper plants in the sunroom. One died, but two were alive come spring, albeit looking a little rough. I hauled the remaining two out into the sun in the spring and hoped they'd produce.

At first, it looked like they would do so, but with not a great yeild; I'd get a couple of peppers once in a while all summer, which was basically fine for our consumption needs.

Then, about a month ago, I pointed at one of the second-year peppers and said out loud, "This thing never has looked healthy, and I'm yanking it at the end of the season."

Lo and behold, the darn thing proceeded to shoot up 6 inches over the course of a week, leaf out in places it was barren before, and set the most impressive set of peppers I have seen in a long time. I now have no choice but to make sure that this plant, along with two other containers full, is put into the greenhouse for protection during the fall, then haul it back into the sunroom or garage or wherever Mr. FC&G's back can stand to carry it.  At this rate, I could be harvesting peppers in November if I get all of these blossoms pollinated before I take them inside.

Maybe I should experiment by being nice to the peppers and bringing them into the house foyer. I haven't exactly broached this subject with Mr. FC&G. Wonder how good peppers are at healing lower back strain?
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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: August 2016

Right now, the garden is like a metaphor for my entire financial life.  With the exception of my primary business (thank heavens), every single one of my side businesses have taken simply forever to get into the black this year. The garden has been no exception. Where I should be ending August with over $300 in savings/profit, I'm actually ending the month just $13 to the good. That's pretty discouraging.

Part of it is the need for a complete garden overhaul. Mr. FC&G and I have been having a debate over the usefulness of an oak tree in the back yard.  When we moved in 15 years ago, this tree was small enough to allow two big areas of ground that received 14 or more hours of sunlight during high season. I was able to put a raised bed in one of the areas and a big garden in the other.

Today, the oak shades both areas so much that I have half the garden size that I once did, and the raised bed (and my clothes line) gets no sun at all. Mr. FC&G had the tree trimmers thin the tree out last year, but it is still casting a lot of shade. This is great if your dream is to have a shade-dappled back yard, but if you want as much sun for yourself and your garden as possible, it is a nightmare.

I want that tree gone.  We have two humongous pine trees, a mature sweet gum, at least one mature maple, and another mature oak elsewhere on the property. This tree isn't pretty, it isn't useful, and I want it gone. It may look like a lovely tree to some, but it looks like firewood on the hoof to me. Stay tuned.

The upshot is that the garden was not terribly productive. Oh, the tomatoes did OK; since I grew most of them from saved seed, they were profitable, and even the ones I purchased were largely profitable. Cucumbers and zucchini were my saving grace, even though my Straight Eight cukes failed this year, making for a very small pickle batch. The beans have grown and flourished and not given a single bean until last week (the middle of September), when the shade finally shifted so that they got more than 8 hours of sunshine during the day.

All in all the garden kept us fed, but it did little more. I'm still hopeful for my "winter garden" (with tomatoes in a container, pictured above) and the sunroom crops to boost us a little more into the black. But in a year in which we really could have used a robust way to slash the food bill, it just didn't happen.


Cumulative Totals

Total Ounces Harvested: 1058.5
Total Pounds Harvested: 66.15625

Total Value of Harvest: $246.49

Total Expenditures: ($232.88)

Total Profit: $13.61
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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

My Sustainable Car, Part II

I recently got a question on the blog about whether or not I still had my sustainable automobile. Looking back, I see that I wrote a post about all the things I do to preserve my car back when she had just turned 15.

Well, this October will be her 19th "birthday," since I took delivery of her on October 31, 1997. And yes, I do still have her, and she is still my sustainable baby.

Since I last wrote, I have retired her to being mostly a pleasure vehicle, so I literally am that cliched person who drives the good car primarily to the farmer's market. (Although, with the narrow parking lot and the aggressive shoppers, I'm not entirely sure I shouldn't be driving a bigger car; those people are fierce!) But Mr. FC&G and I have a nice system where he drives our everyday car unless the weather is bad or unless I need to drive a long distance, when I would be more comfortable with a more workmanlike automobile. I drive my car locally for errands and the like.

One thing I've added to my maintenance roster is fuel stabilizer. Both Papa FC&G and my cousin goaded me a bit this year, and I have to admit I was neglectful last year. Since I only run through a tank or two of gas a year and let the car sit in the garage during the worst of the winter, I needed to do something to maintain her internal health.

Fuel stabilizer, I'm told by Papa FC&G, keeps the gas from breaking down during storage and prevents varnish from forming on the fuel lines or injectors.  The brand I bought, Sta-bil, can be used in almost any engine, so we plan on using some in the lawn mowers once we are done with them for the season. Papa FC&G even recommends running a dose of stabilizer through the other cars that get more use, because he says it helps keep the engine in good shape.  For something like $14 for a 32 ounce bottle (which should do all of the cars and mowers with some leftover), it seems like good preventive maintenance.

A conversation with another cousin got me to thinking. So far, I've been lucky enough to buy all my cars outright; we try to never take a car loan (although that could happen). Because we don't like car loan debt, we have to try to keep our automobiles running smoothly as long as possible.  No, we're not driving the fanciest cars on the block; we don't have all the bells and whistles we would like to have. But we don't have the debt, and with a little preventive maintenance, we have reliable transportation. I'll count that as a win.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Sunlight and Vitamin D: Necessary for Public Health" An Academic Review

And now for something completely different, I'm going to nerd out and share an academic article with you. Don't worry, though, I'll make it painless; you really do need to know about this.

(Note for readers: if you want to reference the study I'm writing about, there are quotes in italics throughout and a link in the next paragraph.  If you just want my summary and opinion, that's in plain text.)

Writing in the recent Journal of the American College of Nutrition, a group of authors have published "Sunlight and Vitamin D: Necessary for PublicHealth."  Head on over if you'd like to geek out on the whole thing, but I'm going to give you the most important points.

Basically, the authors examine the fact that many recommendations from the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization, and the like, focus on encouraging sun avoidance and sunscreen use during the very hours of the day that our bodies are most primed to make use of the sun:

"Though these recommendations, all focused on reduction of skin cancer, are accompanied by brief acknowledgement of the importance of vitamin D for health, they persist in urging avoidance of the sun at the precise times when vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin—the hours between 10 am and 3 pm—and suggest that all necessary vitamin D can be obtained through food and dietary supplements."

And yet, there are compelling reasons to get your Vitamin D from the sun. Take a look at this introductory paragraph:

"These recommendations are understandable from the viewpoint of preventing the 3.5 million new cases of and 2000 deaths from nonmelanoma skin cancer in the United States each year, but they neglect the fact that we have a long cultural history of appreciation of the sun and use of UV radiation for healing purposes. Moreover, they neglect that we have evolved with physiological adaptations to help protect the skin from the sun when we are mindful of our exposure and do not burn. They neglect the fact that increased sun exposure, based on latitude, has been associated with protection from several different types of cancer, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases. They also neglect the fact that exposure to the sun induces beneficial physiological changes beyond the production of vitamin D. Though adherence to the current sun-protective recommendations would likely result in the reduction of nonmelanoma skin cancer, that reduction would likely be overshadowed by the potential reduction in deaths from other cancers and from cardiovascular disease, which could be achieved by doubling average blood concentrations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) to 40 ng/mL through a combination of sun exposure and supplements."

Let's break that down a bit.  Basically, we're saying that, in our zeal to protect ourselves from approximately 2000 nonmelanoma skin cancer deaths a year, we are turning our backs (no pun intended) on our cultural and biological adaptations that allow us to appreciate the sun and use it for healing. Additionally, we are increasing our risk of other types of cancer, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions.

For example, look at these benefits:

"When the skin is stimulated with UVA radiation, nitric oxide is released, stimulating vasodilation and lowering of blood pressure. During active exposure to UVA, diastolic blood pressure in one study fell by roughly 5 mmHg and remained lower for 30 minutes after exposure. A reduction of diastolic blood pressure by 5 mmHg decreases risk for stroke by 34% and coronary heart disease by 21%."

"Additionally, human skin produces beta-endorphin in response to UVB exposure; these opioid peptides have the result of increasing a feeling of well-being, boosting the immune system, relieving pain, promoting relaxation, wound healing, and cellular differentiation. Light signals received through the eye regulate production of melatonin and serotonin for circadian rhythm control and also play a role in seasonal affective disorder."

Short form: sunlight contains both UVA and UVB radiation.  The UVA radiation can lower blood pressure enough to decrease risk for stroke and coronary heart disease. UVB radiation can improve mood, help with certain depressive conditions, improve the immune system, relieve pain, and help with healing.

Are we sure we want to keep avoiding the sun?

Look, no one is going to tell you to go try to get a sunburn. And if vitamin D supplements make sense to you, go for it.  But the sun has been getting a bad rap lately.

And, there are reasons for seeking the sun:

"The full solar spectrum is essential to optimal health and well-being. Humans are physiologically adapted to produce vitamin D in response to sun exposure, specifically UVB radiation; other regions of the spectrum seem to confer benefit as well. Though some vitamin D comes from our diet (and more recently from supplements), we should not ignore the natural capacity that we possess to produce our own. We are of the opinion that moderate sun exposure (less than the time required to burn) to the arms, shoulders, trunk, and legs should be sought rather than avoided."

I agree with the authors.  Bottom line, the full spectrum of sunlight seems to confer many health benefits, and our bodies are designed to make vitamin D from this exposure. So go outside wearing a tank top and shorts. Mow the lawn, hang the laundry, take a bike ride. Do so between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm for maximum formation of vitamin D.  As long as you don't allow yourself to burn, you will very likely be helping your health far more than you might possibly harm it.

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Monday, August 15, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: July

Oh, my gosh.  Seven months in, and we're still not in the black!  But more on that in a minute.

One thing that's wonderful about July is the variety of veggies that start becoming available.  Of course, there was a really awkward few days when I was harvesting nothing but zucchini and blueberries, which was kind of confusing come dinnertime, but mostly I've been bringing in baskets that look like the one at the right.

Almost the full range of vegetables has become available, except for carrots and beans, for whatever reason this year. Some interesting highlights:

  • So far, I've harvested nearly $24 of greens this year, although most of that was before July. It's time to start the next round now that it is likely to start cooling down a bit.
  • The final blueberry tally stood at 81 ounces, or nearly $31 worth. As someone who just dropped $40 at the farmer's market on fresh fruit, I appreciate every bit of fruit I can get out of my little patch.
  • Zucchini and cucumbers are my big monetary producers as always, with over $31 of zucchini so far and over $25 of cucumbers. This is in spite of the fact that some of my cucumbers seemed to die from the heat wave we had. I'm experimenting with a late crop of cukes in the grow boxes.
  • We've had some early stand-outs in the tomato patch. A beefsteak plant I bought for $5 has so far given me over $15 of tomatoes, and an early San Marzano I also bought for $5 has given me $15 worth of fruit; that makes way for my later San Marzanos that I've grown from seed.
So why are we still in the red? A couple of reasons.  First is that the garden has shrunk by about a third due to the fact that an oak tree's shade now makes part of my patch too shady to grow anything. I have my eye on a pine tree out front that should come down and would make a lovely front yard patch, but that would be next year at the very earliest. I've tried to compensate with containers, but I haven't been able to make up the difference yet.

Also, since I lost the space to the shade, I've had to get rid of some of our less-loved but more profitable crops, like the butternut squash. Those always were worth a lot, but we didn't crave them quite as much as we do some of the summer veggies.

Regardless, even if we're not canning as much as I would like, we are certainly eating veggies like crazy. I'm hoping that the lack of a robust buffer of canned goods doesn't hit our budget too hard this winter.

Cumulative Totals:

Expenditures to Date: (-$204.08)

Total Ounces Harvested: 564.5
Total Pounds Harvested: 35.28125
Total Value of Harvest: $144.20

Total Profit (Loss): -$59.89

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Monday, August 8, 2016

Sustainable Sanity: The Pacifica App

(Part two of our discussion of sustainable sanity!)

Do you ever have one of those days? You're in a foul mood for one reason or the other, and someone goes and does it: they post a meme to Facebook or Twitter that says something unbearably chirpy.  You know:

  • I think you're as happy as you make up your mind to be!
  • Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life!
You know the memes.

Now, before I scare all of my optimistic-meme-posting friends away, let me say that I get it.  I do. There's a lot of truth in these sayings. You can do a lot for your mood by just deciding to try to put a positive spin on things; those of us who are lucky (or hard-working, or both) enough to have found or made jobs we enjoy are certainly in a better place than those who just intrinsically hate their jobs.

But man, some days, there's nothing like being told that your bad mood is the result of poor emotional control or lousy life choices to really kick you when you're down.

While I think there's a lot you can do to think yourself into a good mood, I really believe that it's a lot easier to do so when you have factors set up in your favor. And so, I recently started using a mood-tracking app called Pacifica, available on Apple's App Store and on Google Play.  I believe one of their tag lines is "no judgement, just data," and that's what they provide.

The app is designed to use the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to help manage anxiety and depression, but I think the app is useful for anyone, as I can attest.  On the the free version, you have a screen that allows you to set certain generalized goals in certain categories, as you can see on the screen shot; the categories are sleep, exercise, eating, water, caffeine, and (not shown) outdoors, and medication.

But the beauty of this is that you set your own goal, and there's no nagging involved. You can see above that I have set a goal of two glasses of water a day, which I hadn't met when I took this screen shot. I picked two because I drink a lot of other liquid and eat fruits and vegetables that are loaded with water, so I felt pretty good about trying for two glasses of clear water or seltzer; the app did not nag me to try for eight, which would be unrealistic for me right now.

Or take something like exercise.  I'm going for 60 minutes a day, but the app doesn't nag me to say that so much of that has to be cardio or that it all has to be yoga; I'm in charge of what I count as exercise and how.  The same is true for eating; it operates on a very general scale of poor to perfect, but you are in charge of what that means in your life.

On another screen, you can track your mood on the same sort of generalized scale, and you can record multiple mood entries per day.  Over time, you will start to amass enough data to see if your best mood days correlate with certain behaviors in your life.

So, for me, I've seen that my best moods are on days that I've gotten eight (and ideally 10 or more) hours of sleep, have been outside for an hour or more, and have exercised for an hour or more.  I don't think this is a surprise to me, but now I have some tools at my disposal. If I'm feeling my mood slip, I can think about whether I need a workout or a nap or something else that might help bring me back into balance.

Now, this is all going to be challenging in the winter, when there is no sun and very little chance to exercise outdoors, but it certainly means that I'll be taking advantage of every acceptable day to at least take a mile walk and breathe some fresh air, and I plan to reactivate the gym membership when gardening (and outdoor exercise) is over for the year and start treating myself to my favorite classes.

Your mood is as much a sustainable resource as anything else, so it makes sense to treat it as such.  I encourage my readers to try this app; you may learn something that makes you happy enough to post all sorts of memes to Facebook!

(Note: This is not a compensated review; I downloaded the free version of Pacifica and have shared my own opinion.)
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Monday, August 1, 2016

The Power of Going Outside

Normally, this blog focuses on sustainable use of resources like time, money, food, and fuel; all important things. But for the next couple of posts, I'm going to focus on something else that's easy to use up and hard to get back: your sanity. Because I've become at least half convinced that our modern lifestyle is killing us.

Think about what we do every day. Now, I'm lucky, in that part of the year I have the freedom that comes with self-employment and good weather to take a bike ride to the grocery or to see a client, but the majority of us are stuck for several hours in a day sitting in a chair behind a desk staring at a screen. Everything is square and backlit and makes strange beeping noises, particularly when you get email that explains why this deadline has been moved up or that client needs something right away or another person needs something fixed. These things may be our financial lifeblood, and they may even provide a degree of career satisfaction, but, no matter how benign, they take a toll on our health.

Take this new study out of Australia that goes a long way toward quantifying our need for nature in our lives. According to the research, if everyone visited a park for just 30 minutes once a week, there would be "seven percent fewer cases of depression and nine percent fewer cases of high blood pressure."  That's pretty specific, but it does point out that we can get a lot of benefit from even a little exposure to nature. It also maybe suggests that if corporations were really serious about employee health, they'd make sure they had some green space and encourage everyone to use it.

Of course, it's difficult sometimes. In the winter, I often think of Papa FC&G, who used to work in a windowless office. In the winter, he'd go to work in the dark and come home in the dark with only glimpses of the sun. Needless to say, my sun-loving father always had trouble with this arrangement.

The fact is, our bodies -- and that includes our minds -- need the outdoors. We evolved to want the warmth of the sun and the development of vitamin D in our skin. We spent millennia evolving a comfort with irregular, organic shapes and leafy green canopies above our heads. We have a visceral memory of the comfort of salt water, the salinity of which is echoed in every cell in the human body. We love nature because we evolved to be a part of it.

Now, I'm not arguing against progress. Believe me, I like central heat and ready supplies of food and electronic gadgets as much as the next person. But we all have to take time to touch base again with nature. Our minds will thank us for it.
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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Cheddar Dill Zucchini Cakes

Are you getting enough zucchini in your diet?  If not, you're probably not growing them. Or, you are having a bad zucchini year. Otherwise, you are no doubt looking for recipes for zucchini all the time.

These zucchini cakes are based on the traditional recipe for salmon croquettes (which we call salmon patties) that is my favorite. They will bake up a little soft because of the zucchini and cheese, so let them sit a bit before serving. They reheat for lunch like a dream.

Cheddar Dill Zucchini Cakes
1 medium zucchini, shredded
1 T. canning salt
1/2 sleeve saltines, crushed
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. mustard powder
2 tsp. dill.

Preheat oven to 350. Shred zucchini, salt with about 1 T. canning salt and let wilt about 10 minutes; rinse thoroughly.

Combine zucchini with other ingredients and place on greased baking sheet in baseball-sized, flattened patties.  Cook 30-35 minutes, flipping over at the halfway point.

Makes 5-6 patties

The Analysis
Fast:  These are quick to put together, especially if you just have to run out to the garden for a zucchini.

Cheap:  Basic ingredients keep our costs under control here.  Pay up for the free-range eggs and organic cheese, if you can.

Good:  Good as a dinner side dish; even better the next day.

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: June 2016

It was all about the blueberries this month in the garden!

I love a June garden. July and August can almost be an embarrassment of riches (and I love that, too), when you are hopefully bringing in baskets of produce and trying to figure out ways to cram more veggies into your diet and more time for canning into your schedule.  But in June, harvests come on one by one, and you gorge yourself on one thing while hoping eagerly for the next.  There's nothing like having a cereal bowl full of blueberries every night while you obsessively check the garden to see if you can get a single zucchini yet.

And that's pretty much how June was around here. During the month, we brought in 61 ounces of blueberries, nearly a half gallon.  (Spoiler: we'd pass the half gallon mark the next week.)  I don't think that's bad for two mature blueberry bushes and one tiny one. Mr. FC&G had blueberries on ice cream almost every night, and I ate them straight out of a cereal bowl. Going by the prices at my local farmers' market, I harvested $23.18 worth of blueberries.

We also had some other produce come in: a few cents worth of peas that came from a plant I started from leftover seeds in utter gardening frustration in about April, and a regular influx of greens.  I've been letting the kale take a break lately, but it is almost time to start cutting on it again.

With no expenditures this month, we are clawing our way toward profitability.  Totals are below:

Cumulative Totals:
Total Ounces Harvested: 90.5
Total Pounds Harvested: 5.65625
Total Value of Harvest to Date: $45.18

Total Expenditures: ($204.08)

Net Profit (Loss) to Date: ($158.90)
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Friday, July 8, 2016

In Praise of a Clover-Filled Yard

I was talking to Papa FC&G the other day, and he recounted a story from his grandfather ("Pop").

When my dad was building his first house, Pop told him that he should be sure that he mixed plenty of clover in with the grass seed when he seeded the lawn. According to Pop, the clover would "sweeten" the soil, which was a desirable thing to have happen.

When did we start hating clover in our lawns?  Pop was right, you know. Clover is one of the crops that fixes nitrogen in the soil, making it easier for other nitrogen-loving plants to grow.  In fact, we are often happy to see some clover creep into our garden, although we usually have to get rid of it to make room for veggies.  However, when we do, we use the hoe and cut it off at the surface, leaving those nitrogen-filled root rhizomes in place.

Clover is pretty, too. Remember picking your mother a bouquet of clover and bringing it into the house? I sure do.  I loved to follow those slender stems down to the ground and picking the fluffy little white flowers, which Mom would always put in a special tiny vase (which I believe was a crystal toothpick holder).  And I spent countless summers looking for a four-leaf clover. If you have kids, you should have at least one huge patch of clover just for the entertainment value.

And the bees! We all know we've had problems in this country with colony collapse and a lack of bees to pollinate our fields and gardens. Growing a special "bee and butterfly" garden of flowers is great, but if you also let the clover grow in your yard, you will attract bees like crazy. In fact, we have one special patch of clover just outside the garden that we tend to "forget" to mow about every other time, and it attracts bees to the flowers. From there, it is a short hop over to the cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes, and I regularly find bees nestled in the veggie flowers. Yes, I get stung about once a year, but it is generally from a bee that I've stepped on, which seems fair to me. The bees that are already happily gorging in the veggie flowers usually leave me alone if I do likewise, and they tend to be docile, sated, and amenable to a gentle brush of the hand to move them if I really need to get into that plant.

Finally, clovers is a very economical kind of ground cover. Unlike grass, clover simply doesn't grow very high, so the more patches of clover you have in your yard, the less frequently you have to mow and the easier the job is. We have one side of our yard that is currently about half covered with clover, and it is the easiest section to mow and the one that needs it the least.

My temptation when I started this piece was to rail against herbicides and growing grass in monoculture, and I probably will do so another day.  But, on this fine summer day, I'm going to enjoy looking at my yard full of clover. Pop was right: in so many ways, it makes the yard sweet.
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Monday, June 27, 2016

It's All About the Greens and the Blues

June has been all about the blueberries and the greens, two crops that are insanely expensive to buy at the grocery and the farmers' market.  Around here, a 5 oz. clamshell of pre-washed organic greens can go for about $4, while a pint of blueberries at the farmers' market this week was $6.  That makes these two early crops some of your best bets for saving money while boosting nutrition and eating more locally, to say nothing of the boost to your self-sufficiency.

We've talked about growing greens already this month, but growing blueberries can be fairly low-effort as well.  Your biggest task will be protecting the fruit from birds, which we will discuss.

Blueberries come in early, mid-season, and late varieties, and many growers like to have a mix to extend their blueberry season.  As it turns out, the only blueberry bushes I have that survived a couple of icy winters are early varieties, so that's what I'm going with.

Often, your bushes will need pollination from another variety, so be sure to check the tag or the catalog description to make sure you are buying enough varieties to secure a good crop.  I like Stark Brothers as a source for my fruit trees and bushes, because they are so good about telling you what varieties to buy together.

Blueberries famously love an acidic soil, so they can be challenging in lower parts of the Midwest like where I live.  I mulch them once or twice a year with pine needles, which will acidify the soil a bit over time.  Currently, I have one really large, mature bush and two that are just a bit smaller. From just these three bushes, I've been bringing in somewhere between three and six ounces of blueberries a day for a couple of weeks, which is enough for me to have a cereal bowl full of blueberries every night and Mr. FC&G to have some on his ice cream.  It may not sound  like a large harvest, but if I bought this amount at the farmers' market, I'd be spending around $1.50 a day on blueberries.  It adds up, especially when you are a writer with a variable income and delusions of needing to buy beachfront property.

The one task you will have is protecting your ripe fruit from the birds.  Mr. FC&G has experimented with several netting and cage designs, and I think he really hit on a winner this year: a three-sided structure made out of tall garden stakes and fine-gauge fencing, with netting over the top and front.  I can just push the netting aside to go into the enclosure to harvest.  Right now, that structure is over just one bush with an old pop-up tent over the other two, but I have plans to, ahem, encourage him to expand it.

Blueberries do take a couple of years to get large enough to bear fruit, but once they do, they will be an early-season source of savings, sustainability, and self-sufficiency.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What You Need to Know about Growing Greens

For this post, I have to give an anonymous shout-out to one of my friends who asked about techniques for growing lettuce, or, more specifically, greens. (I use the term "lettuce" to mean only certain varieties of leafy greens, while "greens" to me also encompasses the tasty, hearty leaves that are sometimes called "potherbs" because they cook up well.)

If you grew up in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s, your mental picture of lettuce is probably of a head of iceberg lettuce. While this kind of thing is ideal for cutting into wedges and making a "so old it's hip again" lettuce wedge salad, head lettuces of any kind are often not your most efficient use of your gardening time or money, to say nothing of the fact that you are neglecting an entire group of greens that will just grow and grow for an entire season.

Let's talk a little about the basic types of greens, or lettuces.  Most common, as I suggested, is the head lettuce. Iceberg is one such variety, but so is romaine and bibb.  These lettuces grow a head that you then cut off at the soil line. The benefit, obviously, is that you have an entire head to make a large, family salad, and many of these lettuces have highly-desirable flavor profiles that are mild enough to make them great for sandwich wraps and to serve as a background for the traditional tossed salad. The downfall is that, once you cut the plant off at the soil, it is probably done. Romaine will often regrow at least once, and some of the others may send up a few additional leaves, but your primary harvest is done.

The second type of green has the homey name of "cut and come again." These are greens that do not form heads, but instead send up individual leaves for you to harvest. These include some of the heartier, more flavorful greens, like kale (seen in the photo), spinach, and arugula. The downfall of these greens is that you may be standing over your lettuce bed trimming and trimming and trimming to get a decent-sized salad.  The benefits, though, are incredible.

Let's start with the fact that these greens let you really customize how much you harvest. Instead of taking the whole head, you can easily pop outside and get a handful of greens for your sandwich, something I do almost every day. They also really let you decide the stage of development at which you like your greens best. Here's a tip: if you think you don't like kale, grow some and harvest it when it is no bigger than a silver dollar instead of waiting for the big, thick, curly leaves. The flavor is actually sweet, with just a little bit of bit. It has many of the benefits of microgreens, just a little older. These greens are also very container-friendly, so you can easily grow a pot full on a windowsill or a back patio as long as you get a lot of sun. (Note: I do grown greens in the winter, too, since they are very cold tolerant, but they grow much more slowly in our sunroom, even with a grow light over them.)

Which brings me to the primary point: these greens are ultra-sustainable. Cut them (without killing an entire plant, hence the snip-snip-snip technique), and they will regrow and regrow for months at a time. You've done one planting for a good 6-8 months of harvesting. And these greens are really economical: this bed full of kale that you see above comes from a single pack of organic seeds (that I bought at Whole Foods, so I'm hardly low-balling this calculation) that I bought for $1.89. Bags of pre-washed, organic, baby greens sell around here for about $0.88 per ounce, and I've been bringing in a half ounce to an ounce every day.  I only need to harvest three ounces to be in the black with this crop, and I passed that the first week I could harvest.

So, there you have it. Hopefully, most of what you ever wanted to know about growing greens, sustainably!

The Analysis

Fast: These greens grow quickly in the summer, ready for initial harvest in 3-4 weeks; they take longer in the winter.

Cheap: See the calculation above; these are almost instantly profitable.

Good: Not only are these little guys tasty, but they give you a lot of nutrition and will keep doing so for the entire summer and well into fall!

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Random Thoughts on a Wednesday

Today, just some random thoughts about the sustainable lifestyle we try to lead around here:

  • Feverfew (seen at the right) is so pretty, I'm starting to expand my plantings from just the medicinal ones that I have in the back garden to some more decorative ones out front that are allowed to bloom. I have my eye on a spot that has been a pain to deal with for a couple of years; some perennial feverfew ought to do the trick. And it is so pretty to bring into the house for bouquets!
  • What a lovely week it has been for biking! You know (oh, boy, do you know!) that I'm not a big fan of this part of the country, but I am glad that we live within biking distance of the grocery, the post office, and the college where I teach. It is so nice to bike to those places during warm weather.
  • My two-year-old leeks are about ready to bloom, which is either a beautiful addition to my front yard flower bed or an indictment of me not being able to get myself to go harvest them this winter and throw them in a stock pot. At this point, they are far too woody to be used in anything else.
  • If you believe the news reports that the economy is in good shape, just do a financial audit on your non-essential services. I've started reviewing things like video streaming, DVR, gym membership, and the like, and cancelling the things we aren't using. Almost every one of those calls that I have made have included the company offering to "pay my bill" for a number of months if I need a break from it. That tells me that there are a lot of middle and upper middle class people who are looking for places to cut costs.
  • We are starting to bring in blueberries and peas, and the thought occurs that harvesting is so satisfying that it must be hardwired into the human brain. Along with visual, olfactory, and taste cues, there must be a tactile component to food that makes us instinctively focus on keeping ourselves fed.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: May 2016

So May is gardening in earnest!  And, I swear, I didn't think I was ever going to get that garden in! It was so cold and rainy, and I had this pile of plants waiting in the sunroom to go out, and I was going nuts! The only thing that kept me even partially sane was that my neighbor, who raises probably 50+ beautiful, textbook-looking tomato plants every year, just got his in the ground this weekend too.

With everything going in late, I expect some of the harvest to be delayed too. I do have a few really large tomato plants I've been buying one at a time from a guy who reputedly grows some of the heaviest-bearing tomatoes in the area, so we'll see. My container tomatoes, which went in on May 1 and were protected by a makeshift cold frame, are also doing really well.

As you can see at the right, the cold didn't really hinder the herbs. I'm already drying sage and feverfew, which are very important to the overall system. Feverfew, especially, is critical, because I've found that it works for migraine prevention for me better than prescription medications with fewer side effects. (Note: always talk to you doctor, not your blogger, about treating your migraines.)

Overall, the harvest was limited to kale and spinach, of which we harvested 7 oz this month.  That's more than a bag full from the grocery, so definitely a savings.

But I'm so looking forward to June!  I hope that we really get to get into some harvests and start making (saving) some money! Let's get this garden in the black!

Cumulative Totals

Total Expendatures: ($204.08)

Total Harvest Ounces: 15.5
Total Harvest Pounds: 0.96875
Total Value of Harvest: $11.75

Net Savings to Date: ($192.33)
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Thursday, May 19, 2016

My Cycles of Sustainability

I have a confession: Along with many other sustainable living experts, authors, and bloggers, I'm guilty of making it sound like sustainable living can be broken down into a lot of little projects, with a huge focus on gardening, food preservation, and vintage-style domestic arts.

This is true, to some degree. But, if you don't take a systemic view of your lifestyle, you may find that you have simply changed your daily activities without making a noticeable improvement in your life.

Remember our fundamental purpose: sustainable living means responsible use of resources. Resources include food, clothing, land, environment, time, money, health, or anything else that you may have a demand for that exceeds the supply.

To that end, I thought it might be useful to share the overall structure of my year, which I divide into three "seasons."

Season One (January-April): Focus on Earning
The winter months are cold and dreary around here, and, as you are probably painfully aware if you have been reading this blog for any amount of time, I am not exactly a cold-weather person. Therefore, I find it helpful to throw the majority of my energy behind projects that maximize my income, since it's too cold outside to do much in the way of gardening.

Major Activities
  • Work on as much writing for Hilltop Communications as possible.
  • Take on extra teaching assignments.  This winter term, I taught eight credit hours of classes in addition to my primary writing biz.
  • Add photos to the Cucumber Key Photography web site.
  • Continue to sell and work on restocking the Carrot Creations store.
Minor Activities
  • Start garden plants.
  • Do non-vegetable canning, like stock from meat bones.

Season Two (May-August): Focus on Saving
This is my favorite season. Nearly every day brings time in the garden, and I have more time to work on various projects. During this season, I focus on projects that will either generate income or save time or money in the coming months.

Major Activities
  • Keep the garden in full production. 
  • Make as many meals as possible from primarily garden products, reducing expenditures for food and improving health.
  • Preserve as much food as possible, reducing future food bills, speeding future meal production, and improving health.
  • Buy food I don't grow at the farmer's market, with lower in-season prices. Preserve any extra.
  • Institute energy saving projects, like drying laundry on the line, using passive solar heat to warm the house or open window to cool when possible, and taking advantage of long days to avoid using lights throughout the house.
  • Work on writing projects that will sell year-round, for a passive income stream. Right now, my focus is on my book-length projects.
  • Continue to maintain regular writing and photography work.
Minor Activities
  • Split wood for fall home heating, when there are many days we can heat exclusively or primarily with our wood stove.
  • Continue to stock the Carrot Creations store.
  • Catch up on seasonal home projects that weather or time constraints will make impractical later, such as weatherproofing, necessary home improvements, or even just washing and line-drying all the quilts and bedding in the house.
  • Conduct "expenditure audit," looking at things like cell phone plans, video streaming service (Netflix) useage, gym memberships, and the like, and cancelling or altering the things that no longer fit our needs.

Season Three (September-December): Focus on Processing
I've been in academia so long that I almost reflexively think the year begins in September. This is the season that many of the projects I've worked on all year pay off and I have time to think about the next cycle.

Major Activities
  • Process orders in the Carrot Creations Christmas rush. Crochet like a mad woman to continue to keep existing stock in the store as high as possible by replacing items as they sell.
  • Plan meals around canned, frozen, and still-growing garden products and other such preserved food (like chickens purchased "in season" over the summer at harvest time). Attempt to keep grocery bill low by relying on food in stock.
  • Pick up teaching load again.  Typically, my fall semester load is lighter than my winter/spring one, but that can change according to need.
  • Continue to write and photograph.
  • Institute heat-saving and -generating measures around the house, like use of the wood stove, venting the dryer inside, using passive solar heat, and getting those freshly sunned quilts out of the closet.
Minor Activities
  • Generate ideas for future writing projects.  Keep a OneNote file on each so that I can work on them year round as time permits.
  • Focus on non-food sustainability projects like rebatching soap.

And that's the system.  Is there a project or practice you'd like to see me detail in a future post?  Let me know in the comments or on the Facebook post.
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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What Happens to the Regrown Romaine?

I never imagined the degree to which my post on regrowing romaine would capture people's imagination.  It is well on the way to being the most popular post I've written, along with the post on the fleece unquilt.  This makes me happy, because, taken together, it indicates that there are a lot of people interested in making the most of things that others would throw away.

So, here are some answers to questions I've received from readers:

Q: Do you have to regrow your romaine heart in dirt?

A: The post on regrowing romaine has been picked up by several other blogs, and many of them indicate you can regrow a romaine heart in water.  You probably can.  However, I choose to put the cut off heart in soil because plants generate some of their nutrients from the soil.  I want the healthiest product available, so it's no big deal to just jam the heart into some soil and watch it grow.

Q: Does the heart root?

A:  Yes, if you place the heart in dirt, it will start to develop roots.  This allows it to grow longer and produce healthier leaves.

Q: If you cut off the new leaves, will it keep producing more?

A:  Probably not.  None of the specimens I've tried have kept growing after I've cut off the new growth. I think this stands to reason.  Romaine is not a "cut and come again" style of green that you can trim and expect to regenerate.  Instead, romaine is a head lettuce, and the intention is for the grower to cut the head at the end of the season.  We are getting something of a "bonus" head of romaine by using this trick.

Q: What is the flavor like?

A:  Pretty good, actually.  Sometimes, I find that the new head is just slightly more bitter than the "mother" that it is coming from, but I find that appealing.  I like greens with some bite to them.  If you try a leaf and decide that you have a bit too much astringency for your taste, you can always use the resulting head as a "pot herb," stirring chopped up leaves into rice or soup just before serving. That adds some much-needed nutrients to your meal while changing texture and flavor to be more mild.
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Monday, May 2, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: April 2016

Finally!  We're back into production!

I'm hoping to write a post this week about the cycles of savings and income in our household, but it should come as no shock when I note that late spring, summer, and early fall are the prime times to save money on the garden.  In fact, that's where this column got it's start: I wanted to see just how much I was saving over retail with my garden, once factoring in the expenditures.

April starts the garden investment in earnest, and this month the expenditures stand at a total of $85.08.  That will go up quite a bit (probably to the $200 range) very shortly as I buy the last of the plants and seeds for the year.

The exciting thing, though, is seeing the harvest start to come in and reduce the expenditures on our way to showing a net decrease in our food bill.  This month, it was all about the baby kale (and a bit of baby romaine).  I harvested 5.5 ounces of greens for a net value of $4.84.  This is about the weight and value of a bag of prewashed organic greens from the store, so it isn't making a huge dent in the food bill yet, but it is certainly brightening up a few meals.  I've enjoyed a great deal of this in wraps that I've made for lunches; baby kale makes a great addition to some Swiss cheese for a nice vegetarian wrap, and you already know that I've put it on some pizzas.

I'm pretty sure the majority of the harvest through May will be greens as well, as I have kale, romaine, and mesclun already started, and I want to get some arugula started as well.

But for now, I'm plenty happy with my start to savings!

Cumulative Totals

Expenditures: $85.08

Harvest Total Oz.: 8.5 oz.
Harvest Total Lb.: .53125 lb.
Harvest Total Value: $5.59

Net Annual Savings:  -$79.49
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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Playing with Pizzas

So, lately, we've fallen in love with pesto as a pizza sauce replacement, and boy, is this a nice way of using some of the pesto in the freezer!

Pesto is a lovely replacement for the traditional red sauce, especially on primarily-veggie pizzas like the one you see at the right.  It allows toppings like sliced tomatoes to shine, and it is a nice balance for toppings of greens, like the fresh kale that I used.

On a standard pizza crust (I'm still playing with crust recipes, but this one is promising), put 1-2 ounces of lightly-salted pesto.  If you are making your own pesto, you probably want it more lightly salted than the pesto you would use for pasta.  Since I don't put salt in my pesto to freeze it, I was fine with it as is.

Use plenty of veggie toppings.  Because it is so early in the season, I splurged on some organic tomatoes and topped them with just a light sprinkling of cheese.  Greens are a nice touch if placed on as soon as you take the pizza out of the oven; they'll wilt but not overcook.  Use hearty-flavored greens like kale or arugula; fresh dandelion leaves might be nice too.

Voila, a whole different pizza taste.  I promise it won't disappoint.
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Monday, April 18, 2016

In the Aftermath

Well, we finally made it through the power outage around here.  Eleven days, but we came out the other side with a lot of really good improvements to the electrical system for the house. This seems to be our MO: we wait for something to break, and then we make all sorts of improvements when we fix it or have it fixed.  I've gotten a new roof and a couple of new floors that way, too.

But from a sustainable living perspective, those couple of weeks were a bit of a disaster. I should have repotted my tomato plants, but it was sleeting outside and 52 degrees in the house and I had no grow lights or warm mats for them to sit on, so I left them in their baby pots. So, that means that my tomatoes are now a couple of weeks behind. I just repotted this weekend, and they are enjoying their first days in the sun.

We also are trying a new experiment this year: asparagus. Assuming it takes, we won't, of course, be able to harvest any for a year or two, but I figured it was time to try this crop. Every year, I've wanted to put in asparagus, and every year I say that we won't be living here for the next season, so why bother? Maybe the act of actually planting some asparagus will get us to be able to move.

Gardening season is ramping up quickly, though. We're enjoying lots of fresh baby kale on sandwiches, and I'm hoping to plant some pots of mesclun tonight. Pretty soon, we'll be making a dent in our grocery budget once again, which will be a welcome event. I plan to tell you about the way we rotate our seasonal projects very soon.

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Prepper Dress Rehearsal

So, all the good "prepper" books and web sites tell you to be sure to practice with your gear once in a while so you are ready for emergencies. Mr. FC&G inadvertently have been running a little dress rehearsal for the past week, which, heaven willing, is almost over even as I type.

It started when we began to lose power to certain parts of the house. The local tree trimmer was working near the power lines, and we naturally assumed something had been hit or dislodged, and we waited until they were finished to call the power company.

Well, the power company came out and said that our 50 year old meter box (unsurprisingly) had taken some damage over the years, and it needed replaced. And then they unhooked all the power to the house and said to give them a call when it was fixed and took off.

So, while Mr. FC&G did the repairs (thank heavens for marrying an electrical engineer!) and we waited for an inspection, we've been living rough. But along the way, we have gotten the "opportunity" to test our preps. Some lessons:

1. It's always the first world problems that get you.
If unplugging the house meant that the entire world were unplugged, we'd have had a much easier time of it. Most of our anxiety involved running a generator to drive, in part, the computers and internet access we would need to work our jobs. Our second problem was running the refrigerator and freezer. I've been in the process of converting more of my food storage efforts to pressure-canned food for this very reason, but our expensive meat from the CSA requires us to keep running that freezer so we don't take a loss.

2. Thank heavens for the fireplace insert.
I used to hate the look of a fireplace insert until I weathered a few power outages around here. Then, I started loving the fact that I could heat the lower level main room and even cook meals on the thing. If you have a largely-decorative fireplace, I'd say a stove insert is one of the best things you can buy.

3. Your gear is not irrelevant.
Every time I buy prepper gear, I feel profoundly stupid. But every time I have to live without power, I'm grateful. In the photo above, we got out the small cast iron skillet (the large one is theoretically packed safely away in the garage in some location that we can't remember!) and the two-cup tea pot. That made things a lot more bearable.

4. I'm just putting it out here: you need more underwear.
I've wanted to buy some "travel" underwear for a while. You know: the easy-wash, quick-dry stuff you can take on vacation and wash up each evening. I figure, I'm getting tired of packing 20 pairs of undies to take a week long trip to Key West (hey, don't judge...), and 5 really washable pairs would take up less room. After spending this week waiting for a sunny-ish day to wash my unmentionables, this has risen to the top of my list.

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