Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April is the weirdest month

April is a singularly perverse time of year. T.S. Eliot called it "the cruelest month" for the way it reawakens our desires after a long, sleepy winter, but what I find far crueler is the mind games it plays on us with the weather. Only a week ago we had flannel sheets and a heavy blanket on our bed; today they're out on the clothesline, drying in the hot sun, while I'm sitting here with a fan pointed at my head.

Spring is supposed to be such a beautiful season, and so it would be, if it would just settle down and be spring for more than one day at a stretch. But instead, it seems to sway wildly back and forth between winter and summer. The magnolia trees, my favorite part of spring, bloom for only a week or so, and many years there's not a single truly temperate day during that week to enjoy them. It's either far too cold outdoors to sit down for five minutes, or else it's pouring down rain—and by the time we get one perfect, sunny day, the magnolias are overblown and scattering their petals in a slippery mess over the sidewalk.

Sometimes I wonder if it was always this way. Is my memory just playing tricks on me when I remember the lush, beautiful Aprils of my youth? Has April really become less lovely and less temperate than it used to be? Is global warming to blame? Or am I just imagining it?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Green Ideas

As usual, Earth Day this year feels like a bit of a letdown. Every twenty-second of April, I feel like I should make some kind of bold, dramatic gesture: planting a tree, swearing off bottled water, or maybe even starting a recycling program in my community. But our yard already has all the trees it can comfortably hold, our town already has an excellent curbside recycling program, and we never buy bottled water as it is. So as usual, I'm forced to settle for a bunch of tiny little gestures—most of them things that I do on a regular basis already.

However, it occurred to me that some of the green steps that are routine for me might actually be less so for some of you, and vice versa. So instead of posting about a big new thing that I'm going to do this Earth Day, I'm going to post a list of ten things that I've already tried, and that you might like to try too. And if you folks respond in kind in the comments section, maybe I can actually get some new ecofrugal ideas that I haven't already tried. So here is my list of Things to Try for Earth Day:

1. Check your carbon footprint. There are tons of carbon footprint calculators on the Web, each of which seems to use a different algorithm for calculating your individual or household CO2 emissions; when I tried calculating our household emissions a couple of years back, I got results ranging from 5.2 tons a year to 31 tons. However, while the sites all differed as to the actual number, they were pretty much in agreement that it was on the low side for an American household. So even if the number you get is only an approximation, it can at least give you a good idea where you fall on the curve. And some sites, such as Carbonfund, give you the option of immediately purchasing carbon offsets to match the exact amount of emissions you produce. Or, for a more complete picture of your environmental impact, you can check out a site like MyFootprint or Global Footprint Network.

2. Visit your local library. We go to ours all the time, although these days we seem to check out more movies than books. But that's okay; either way, borrowing them is much more earth-friendly than buying them. We also take advantage of the events our local library hosts, such as film screenings, poetry readings and the annual used book sale. A trip to the library is a great green alternative to a trip to the mall (and for many of us, it needn't even involve getting in the car).

3. Prepare a meal with seasonal ingredients. Around here (USDA Zone 6), seasonal produce at this time of year includes the earliest asparagus, spinach, and rhubarb. Those of you in warmer climates may have more to choose from. Bonus points if your ingredients are actually locally grown; double points if they're organic.

4. Better yet, try growing your own. Currently poking their heads above the ground in my garden are broccoli and cabbage seedlings, snow peas, and some wee tiny little sprouts of arugula. It'll be a couple of months before any of that is ready to eat, but it makes me feel nice and self-sufficient knowing it's there. If you haven't got a yard, consider starting a container garden with a couple of tomato or pepper plants on a porch or balcony. Even a sunny window is sufficient for a pot or two of fresh herbs.

5. Go thrift shopping. This is actually a frustrating experience for me most of the time, because there are only two thrift shops here in town. One is a very smart, upscale consignment shop with a selection of very fashionable clothes from well-known designers, but the prices are higher than at low-end retail stores like Sears or Target, and there's practically nothing available above a size eight; the other is a dark, cluttered basement that's only open two days a week and has a fairly frumpy selection of goods that seldom changes (although on the rare occasions when gems do show up there, the prices are great). So if I want to have a real thrift-shopping extravaganza, I have to make a special trip to the nearest Goodwill store, which has a good-sized selection and fairly decent prices, but is twenty minutes away in an area we seldom visit for any other reason. So this tip may actually work out better for you than it usually does for me.

I was planning to try going for ten Earth Day ideas, but those five are the only ones that came to me right off the top of my head. Perhaps I'll post more tomorrow if any come to mind. In the meantime, please comment and tell me all about your favorite green activities. What am I missing out on?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Eco-freebies

Just a quick post to let you know that this Earth Day (Friday, April 22) you can get a free coffee at Starbucks if you bring in a reusable mug. Free coffee and no paper waste—an ecofrugal bingo.

A restaurant called Evos is also offering an Earth Day freebie (a free organic milkshake), but this chain seems to be confined to the Deep South: Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. (Sustainable culture takes root in the red states?)

Some less green, but equally tasty freebies will be available for Tax Day (Monday, April 18): free Cinnabon Bites (two to a customer) and mini ice cream sundaes at Maggie Moo's between 3pm and 6pm (with the caveat, "while supplies last"). And afterwards, you can go burn off the extra calories with a free workout at Bally Total Fitness. (If you're already a member, you can get a free half hour with a personal trainer.)

Thanks to Tip Hero for posting these.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Coupons revisited

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the results of my coupon experiment, in which I found that a $2 local newspaper would not pay for itself in useful coupons. Based on this experiment, I concluded that for me, couponing was not the best strategy for cutting the grocery bill. However, in the past week or two I've had cause to revise this position slightly, as I've had a run of better-than-usual luck with coupons. My recent (pardon the pun) coups:
  • First, last week Coupons.com spat out several coupons that looked potentially useful. These included a 50-cents-off-two coupon for Land O' Lakes butter and a $1-off-three coupon for Birdseye frozen veggies. I clipped these just on the off chance that I'd be able to stack them with sales—and lo and behold, this week's sale flier for the Shop-Rite revealed that both these items were on sale, the butter for $1.99 a pound and the veggies for 99 cents apiece (for packages averaging around 12 ounces). So I ended up getting two pounds of butter for $3 (the coupon doubled) and three bags of veggies for $2. That beats our usual price of $2 a pound for frozen veggies from Trader Joe's (though admittedly, theirs are organic), and even our usual stock-up price of $2 a pound for butter, by a significant margin.
  • The same sale at the Shop-Rite included 8-pound bags of World's Best Cat Litter for $6.99 apiece. That's still more than we pay for our regular Swheat Scoop litter, but I have sometimes wondered about trying World's Best to see whether it might be less prone to "tracking" (i.e., ending up all over the house). And what do you know, last week's TipHero incuded a link to a product rebate for World's Best, good for a free 7- or 8-pound bag. So assuming they honor the rebate (and if they don't, I'll sic the Better Business Bureau on them—I've done it before and never failed to get satisfaction), I'll have gotten about a month's supply of cat litter for 44 cents' worth of postage. (Well, and 30 cents for photocopying. I always keep documentation for these things because I'm paranoid.)
  • Coupons.com also provided two coupons for General Mills cereals: one for $1 off three boxes and one for 75 cents off one box. And once again, ba-da-bing, a sale popped up to stack with them, this time at the A&P. They were offering four boxes for $6, "must buy four." This is a deal that normally would be good but not quite good enough, since the largest box available as part of the sale was the 14-ounce Wheat Chex or Corn Chex, and a 14-ounce box for $1.50 still doesn't quite meet our normal 10-cents-per-ounce cutoff for cold cereal. (I came up with this guideline after calculating that it's roughly the cost of the ingredients for homemade granola, and I've never revised it because it just makes the math so easy.) However, my $2.50 in coupon savings (since the 75-cent one will double) reduces the total cost of the four boxes to $3.50—87.5 cents a box, or 6.25 cents per ounce—making this deal a definite bingo. Unfortunately, when we stopped by the A&P we found they'd been cleaned out of Wheat Chex and Corn Chex, probably by shoppers who had the same idea we did. So we had to take a rain check, but that's okay—as long as we can get back to the store before the coupons expire on the 24th, we're golden.
  • And finally, my Rite Aid Wellness Plus newsletter included a link to a store coupon for $5 off two Mitchum deodorants. Since Mitchum costs $4 for a small and $5 for a large at the Rite Aid, this works out to $1.50 each for the small size or $2.50 for the large. This would be a pretty good deal by itself, but what makes it a great one is that I also happen to have two 75-cents-off manufacturer coupons (one from my regular Smart Source insert, and one from the duplicate insert I got with the newspaper, which may end up paying for itself yet). So with these, I can get the small ones for 74 cents apiece or the large ones for $1.74. Not too shabby (and not a moment too soon, since the deodorant I bought during my last trial membership at BJ's is about to run out).
So with these minor triumphs, I've been rethinking my position on coupons a bit. And I've decided my new position is something along these lines: coupons can be worth the effort, but only if you don't have to pay for them or otherwise go out of your way to get them. In practical terms, this means that in future I'll give more careful consideration to the coupons I can get for nothing (from SmartSource, Coupons.com, and other freebie newsletters). Rather than dismissing them out of hand, I'll print out all those that I can see any potential use for (meaning those for which I'd be willing to take the product at any price). Then I'll examine my sale fliers more carefully to see if I can stack any of the sales with coupons I have to turn a so-so deal into a good one, or a good one into a great one. In other words, I'll follow pretty much the same strategy I've used in the past—just a bit more carefully.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Unnecessary objects

Some mail-order catalogues make me feel a lot like Diogenes. He was the ancient Greek philosopher who believed that the key to happiness was to eliminate all desires, so he lived like a beggar with no belongings. According to one story, he once went walking around a country fair, looking at all the things for sale, and marveled, "How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes has no need!"

Now, I don't believe in taking simple living to the same extreme as Diogenes, but I do often see products in catalogues or on websites and wonder what kind of person would actually believe that these objects would make him happier. This is even true, more often than not, of "green" products that are aimed specifically at eco-conscious consumers. For example, yesterday I got an e-mail from Green America (an environmental and workers' rights group of which I'm a member) that offered a 25 percent discount on an assortment of "natural home products." The items featured in the e-mail were all attractive and, as far as I could tell, well-made, but I couldn't actually see myself needing any of them. They included:
  • A $30 stainless-steel compost crock. This might be useful if your compost pile is located a fair distance from the house, so that you want to collect a big batch of scraps before making the trek out there. In that case, although you could just use any old container for your kitchen waste, you'd probably prefer something that will look decent sitting out on your counter, with a nice tight-fitting lid to contain odors. But since we put our compost bin right outside the kitchen door, we can just toss the scraps right in as soon as we've finished preparing a meal—even in the middle of the winter. And if we did need a larger, sealed container, we'd probably go with an empty bucket from paint or joint compound (something we have lots of on hand) and just stash it under the sink between meals.
  • Reusable mesh bags for fruits and veggies ($5 for a set of 5), so that you don't need to take plastic bags from the grocery store for this purpose. These make sense in theory, but the thing is, a certain number of plastic bags invariably find their way into our house anyway—from bread, bagged produce, newspaper inserts—and so it makes a lot more sense to reuse these than to buy special, reusable bags and throw the plastic ones away.
  • Bamboo-handled, stainless-steel kitchen tools, including a pizza wheel, bottle opener, and spaghetti server ($5 to $7). We already have one of each of these, so I don't really see how it's green to discard a perfectly good tool and replace it with a new one just because it has a bamboo handle. Not to mention that it's perfectly possible to slice pizza with a knife, open bottles with a fork, and serve spaghetti with two forks.
  • A $5 bamboo "trivet" (which isn't technically a trivet, because it doesn't have any feet; it's simply a table protector). We already have several table protectors that we've received as gifts, but if we didn't, we could put hot dishes down on top of a potholder, a placemat, or a napkin—or just leave them on the stove and serve ourselves from there.
How many "green" things there are in the world of which an ecofrugal person, with just a little bit of imagination, has no need!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Looking for cover, part 2

Those who have been reading this blog for a while may recall my consternation last June on the subject of ground covers. I was trying to find a suitable ground cover for our small front yard, which is a real nuisance to mow because of its placement (up a flight of stairs from the back yard, where the mower is stored). The problem was that every plant I could find was in some way ill-suited to our yard, which has a western exposure (meaning full sun in the afternoon) and rich but heavy clay soil. The few I found that were capable of tolerating these conditions (such as creeping jenny and blue-star creeper) were all described as invasive by at least one source.

Well, I've done some further research on the subject, and I've come up with a few alternatives that look like they might be workable. None of the choices is perfect, but they look like the best of a bad lot. The candidates are:

1. Herniaria glabra (commonly known as green carpet or rupturewort). This plant is native to Europe, but it's described as a fairly "sedate" plant that's easy to keep under control and unlikely to become invasive. Although it's slow-growing, sources indicate that it will eventually form a nice, dense, low-growing mat that will do a good job keeping out unwanted intruders. It can grow in just about any soil, is drought-tolerant, and, according to some sources, can handle foot traffic nearly as well as grass. And, as a bonus, it provides "winter interest" by turning a nice reddish hue in the fall. Its only drawbacks are that (1) it's not a native plant, (2) its "sedate" growth means that it will probably take quite a while to become fully established in the yard, and (3) despite its many advantages, it's not that common as a landscape plant, which could make it hard to find. I might have to order it online and hope the plants don't suffer too much in transit.

2. Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides). Like the rupturewort, this plant forms a dense, low-growing carpet that can stand up to foot traffic. It can tolerate clay soil and grows in full sun or part shade. Some sources describe it as drought-tolerant, while others say it requires consistently moist soil. It's evergreen and produces yellow flowers from spring through early summer, which is a nice feature, although not quite as nice as adding winter interest (since blossoms aren't in short supply at that time of year). This plant actually is native to the northeastern U.S. and thus can't literally be described as "invasive," but one of my garden guides, The Philadelphia Garden Book, describes it as a "relentlessly overbearing" plant that shouldn't be grown outside a container. On the other hand, that aggressiveness could be a benefit in some ways, since I'll be trying to grow it in such unfavorable conditions. Like the rupturewort, this plant doesn't seem to be widely available, and the sources I've found online charge $5 or more for a single plant, so planting the whole yard with it could get rather expensive.

3. Lastly, we have the humble Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens). Many gardeners view this plant as a troublesome lawn weed, but others love having it in the lawn because it grows easily and is a nitrogen-fixing plant that serves as a natural lawn fertilizer. I do have some clover in my yard already, so this is the one plant of the three that I know for a fact will grow in my soil. It does indeed produce nice, lush, green growth, and it doesn't get too tall to walk on. Like the barren strawberry, it flowers in the spring, although I don't consider its blossoms very attractive. Some sources say it can't take a lot of foot traffic, but I'm not planning to ride a horse across it; I just need to be able to step on it occasionally while pruning the cherry tree or weeding the flower beds, and it seems to be able to handle that much. It's also the cheapest option of the three, since it's fairly easy to grow from seed. White clover is native to Europe (although it has naturalized throughout the entire continental U.S.), and the USDA warns that it "can be weedy or invasive." However, the Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health describes clover as being a "troublesome weed" only in certain southeastern states.

So, ecofrugal readers, I put it to you: which of these is the best choice? Is an aggressive native plant a better choice than a non-aggressive, non-native plant? Is the inexpensive, easy-growing clover an ecofrugal choice, or is it an invasive weed? Which one will make the best carpet for my yard? Or is my best option to buy some of each, plant them all together, and let them try to cover all the ground among the three of them?

Friday, April 1, 2011

April snow

Between the date on the calendar and our first harvest of spring greens on Tuesday, I guess I got to thinking it must be spring. April Fool!