Sunday, January 29, 2012

Seed starting, part 1

Today I put my new gardening strategy—using advanced tools only when they offer obvious benefits in terms of time and money savings—into effect. I've just started my first batch of seeds for this year's garden (parsley and coriander), using a system developed by my dad, with a few modifications. The components are:
  • A bag of Jiffy organic seed-starting mix, which we just picked up for $3.50 at Home Despot. (My dad recommended Pro-Mix, but no stores in the area seem to carry it. Interestingly, a search for it online led to the websites of a lot of amateur marijuana growers.)
  • An empty juice carton with one side cut off.
  • Eight four-inch lengths of PVC pipe, which fit neatly into the carton, four on each side. (Ten feet of the pipe—which should be enough to handle all the seedlings for our small garden—cost us $4.50 at the Home Despot, and Brian cut it to length at home.)
  • A tool made from a chunk of dowel slightly smaller than the pipe, which can serve as both a tamper (to tamp down the potting mix before putting in the seeds) and a pusher (to extricate the seedlings from the tubes when they're ready to go into the garden).
  • A narrow trowel, originally bought at a discount store for a buck.
  • An old dollar-store funnel with the tube sawed off so that it's just slightly narrower than the top of the PVC tubes, which helps keep the potting mix contained as I scoop it into the tubes.
  • A large tub, which started life as a cat litter box, to contain the dirt during the potting process.
  • A tiny watering can that cost a buck at IKEA.
So, all told, that's about ten bucks' worth of supplies so far. The one item we haven't acquired yet is a light fixture to supplement the light from our south-facing window. We checked out fluorescent tube lights at the Home Despot, but Brian wasn't sure yet how he'd be setting it up. His current plan is to construct a wooden frame that can sit on top of the table, with the seedling trays on the bottom and the light fixture mounted to the top (on a chain so that the height can be adjusted up or down). Then we'll hook it up to a timer (which we already have) to give the seedlings light from around 4pm until midnight. We're hoping that the combination of proper potting mix and extra light will give us sturdier seedlings than we got last year without a lot of extra money or effort. Watch this space for updates.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Putting nature back in gardening

In keeping with one of my ecofrugal New Year's resolutions, I've been spending a good part of this week planning next year's garden: choosing crops, ordering seeds, and trying to get together the supplies needed to start my first seedlings. I started flipping through our various gardening books (Square Foot Gardening, Jeff Ball's 60-Minute Vegetable Garden) for advice, and I found myself getting really annoyed with their suggestions. Mel Bartholomew, for instance, says you should first run your seeding containers through the dishwasher to sterilize them, and then plant your seeds in vermiculite—not soil, not potting mix, but pure vermiculite, a mica-based mineral that's an entirely nonrenewable resource. Then, he wants you to put them in a "thermostatically controlled seed starter" and check them every day, and the minute they sprout, move the container into strong light—a greenhouse or a "heated sun box" or, at minimum, a table kept under fluorescent light for 12 to 16 hours each day. Jeff Ball agrees that artificial light is essential and recommends building a special seedling bench, setting it in an area where the temperature stays between 60 and 70 degrees year-round, and rigging up an adjustable light fixture that you can move up or down to keep it at the optimum distance from the tops of the seedlings.

At first, I thought this was annoying me because it all seems like so much work, or because it's so expensive. But I finally figured out that my real problem was the insistence on doing everything scientifically—in other words, not naturally. And the problem isn't limited to seed starting; gardening "systems" like these seem built around the idea that if you want to grow your own vegetables, then the first thing you have to do is stop relying on the inadequate resources provided by nature. Don't try to till your own garden soil to turn it into a decent growing medium; instead, build raised boxes and fill them with a mixture of vermiculite, peat moss (another nonrenewable resource), and compost (which you can make yourself, but you have to sift and sterilize it before use). Don't let the rain water your plants; instead, install a drip irrigation system that you can run underneath a layer of black plastic mulch. Don't rely on what nature provides; instead, invest time and money in a system that you can control absolutely. Whatever happened to "all it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground"?

At its most basic level, gardening is an almost magical process. You take seeds (which you can often harvest from last year's plants), put them in the dirt (which is all around), expose them to the sun and rain (which come down from the sky with no effort on your part), and eventually, you end up with edible plants. You get something for nothing—proof that there actually is such a thing as a free lunch. And now these "experts" come along and say that the right way to garden is to replace these free, abundant natural resources with heat-controlled boxes and fluorescent lights and a drip irrigation system that also dispenses liquid fertilizer. Yes, I understand that they're just trying to take some of the uncertainty out of the process—to produce more reliable, consistent results and better yields. And when you balance the long-term cost of all the equipment they want you to buy against the value of all the fresh vegetables you could grow using their methods, it probably is cost-effective to do it this way. But it still seems wasteful to me to let the sun and rain and soil that I can get for nothing go unused so that I can substitute something that's easier to control. Spending money and time on something that I could get for free, with no effort at all, seems to me the exact opposite of ecofrugality.

So I've decided I'm going to seek a middle ground. Since we haven't had much luck with our seedlings in the past, and since starting seeds is still more ecofrugal than buying plants, I'm planning to go ahead and invest some time and money in a proper seed-starting mix and some artificial light to supplement the sunlight. But aside from that, I'm going to stick to sustainable growing practices, such as
  • choosing crops that are well-adapted to our climate
  • using homemade compost, supplementing with bagged compost only as needed
  • letting Mother Nature do the watering, and watering by hand during dry spells
  • growing plants close together to keep the weeds down, and pulling those that do come through by hand
  • saving seeds for future use (storing them in the basement to keep them nice and cool)
And for future years, I'm going to look into more sustainable ways of starting my seeds, such as using renewable coir, or coconut fiber, instead of a peat-based mix. I'm also planning to try winter sowing techniques to avoid the hardening-off process, reduce water use, make better use of natural light, and possibly eliminate the need for a seed-starting mix altogether. I tried this method on a limited basis last year, and I got mixed results, but it seems like such a perfect example of ecofrugality (saving time, money, and natural resources all at once) that I think it's definitely worth exploring further.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Thrift Week Day Seven: Use Community Resources Day

Well, it looks like Thrift Week is ending not with a bang, but with a whimper. I was going to call this final day Visit Your Library Day, but I decided to expand it to Use Community Resources Day to cover more of the bases. Unfortunately, that didn't actually increase my options all that much. Since it was a rainy day in January, visiting the park wasn't particularly appealing, and local festivals usually take place on weekends (or occasionally on Thursday nights, when we can't usually make it). I did stop by the library, but there wasn't anything going on there except story hour for the kiddies. Since we're still in the middle of our Netflix trial, I didn't want to pick up a movie, and I'd already checked out the one book I particularly wanted to read last Friday. (I would have waited until today to get it, just to make Use Community Resources Day more useful, but it had just been checked in and I wanted to snatch it up before someone else got it.) So I just hung out for a little while, paging through magazines, so I could at least say I'd done something. Not very impressive, I must admit.

Sadly, the follow-up to my Shop Secondhand Day purchase isn't very inspiring either. I took the jacket to the local tailor shop this afternoon to get the sleeves shortened. At first she said she could do it, but once she turned up the sleeves and took a look at the lining, she claimed that in order to do the sleeves, she'd have to replace the lining as well—for $85—and she didn't think it was worth it. (This is the same tailor who told me last fall that it would be impossible to reset the sleeves in my lightweight coat. Honestly, you'd think this woman was going out of her way to avoid paying jobs.) So I'm going to have to see if I can manage to piece the lining together myself somehow, using my extremely rudimentary sewing skills. And after that, I'll see if I can find someone who's willing to shorten the sleeves for me—I suspect that job is beyond my abilities. Sigh. This $2 secondhand jacket is turning out to be a costly purchase. And I'm growing disenchanted with my local businesses....

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Thrift Week Day Six: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Repair Day

I wasn't really sure what I was going to do to for Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Repair Day. I'd done plenty of things along these lines earlier in the month, as it happens: we reduced waste on our last several shopping trips by using the nifty new mesh produce bags that we got in our stockings last Christmas, and we reused by disposing of a lot of unwanted items on Freecycle. The items we've unloaded so far include a box of Sweet 'N' Low packets left behind by a visiting friend, a copy of Your Money or Your Life that I picked up off the "free" table at the last library book sale, and an old IKEA microwave cart that we hadn't used since we moved to this house. (To date, I haven't found anyone who wants the two books of British crosswords, the 2012 "American Landscapes" calendar from my insurance company, or the giant "super liter" plastic mug I got as a souvenir at my senior prom.)

Then, last weekend, I discovered a way to recycle something I'd previously thought was fit only for the trash-bin: textiles. There are plenty of outlets for disposing of clothing in usable condition, of course, including the local thrift shop I visited on Friday—but Brian and I tend to wear clothes until they're no longer wearable, and therefore no longer suitable for donation. Yet in many cases, there's still plenty of decent fabric left on them, stuff that someone with better sewing skills than mine could probably put to good use. My approach up until now has been to stuff all these items into a couple of drawers down in the basement in the hope that the fabric will come in handy for something (though I'm not sure what) one day (though I'm not sure when) when my sewing skills have improved (though I'm not sure how). But I finally admitted that this was an unrealistic hope and decided to find a way to unload them. So I did a little research and discovered that there's actually a recycling bin for textiles in the parking lot of the Edison public library, not two miles from our house. I pulled out most of the contents of one of the drawers, bagged it up, and stuffed it in this bin, from which—according to Repurpose New Jersey, the company that operates the bins—"All textiles are resold to a distributor with proceeds going directly to well-established local 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations."

But since I'd already done those things, I couldn't do them again, and I wasn't sure what kind of waste-reducing activity I could take part in on the day itself. And then, this morning, one of the window blinds in our office neatly answered the question by breaking when Brian tried to open it. Actually, it was just a tiny part of the shade that broke—the little plastic ring that holds the pull cord—but it's a crucial part, one without which the blind can't be raised or lowered. And as Brian noted with some irritation, the way the shade is designed, it's impossible to pull out the broken ring and replace it with an identical one, because both the ring and the loop it fits through are single, solid pieces. Clearly whoever designed this shade didn't really have long-term reparability in mind. (This seems to be a common problem with modern machinery—there's even a song about it by Martin Swinger, called "Little Plastic Part.")

So our best hope of fixing the thing was to patch the broken ring up with a bit of epoxy glue and then hope that it doesn't promptly snap again as soon as it's reinstalled. The epoxy join itself almost certainly won't break, of course, as the epoxy, once dried, will be stronger than the original plastic, but the ring could easily break on the other side. If that happens, we'll have to try and MacGyver a replacement for the ring out of a paper clip or a safety pin or some such device that can be split open, slipped through the fabric loop, and re-fastened. This will make our makeshift replacement device superior to the original, but if manufacturers insist on making these things so shoddily, what do they expect?

Postscript: After we got home from our dinner out, we reinstalled the shade, and it seems to be holding up for now. And, before going to bed, I did squeeze in one more celebration of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Repair Day. Since I ended up not spending anything for the home energy audit I'd requested as a birthday present, I decided that my new birthday gift to myself would be a Maggie Bag tote, something I'd had my eye on ever since my current handbag (a cheapo Merona purse from Target) started to fall apart piece by piece. Available in a wide range of styles and colors, these "eco-chic" purses are made from recycled seat belts, making them super durable as well as green. They cost considerably more than I'd normally spend on a purse (I don't believe I've ever paid more than $35 for one before), but on the other hand, my cheap bags usually wear out within a couple of years. These Maggie Bags, by contrast, come with a lifetime warranty. (It doesn't cover damage from accidents or spills, but the site faithfully promises that "defective or missing hardware, faulty zippers, and loose stitching of the webbing or lining of the bag will be repaired or replaced.") And since I found the bag I wanted on sale at Target, it only cost me around $70 total (including tax, with free shipping). Paying twice as much for a bag that will last ten times as long certainly seems like a good value to me—not to mention all the resources to be saved by buying one bag instead of ten. So with this purchase, I'm actually reducing as well as recycling—and treating myself as well. Happy Thrift Week to me!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Thrift Week Day Five: Leave the Car at Home Day

This morning we woke up to three inches of snow on the ground, with another inch or so of "wintry mix" expected. At first blush, that made today an ideal choice for the Thrift Week event I'm calling Leave the Car at Home Day. After all, there's no place we urgently need to go today, and why would we make an unnecessary trip in this weather? But then I remembered that my parents were planning to meet us here this evening and take us out to dinner for my birthday. I could, of course, choose a local restaurant; we have plenty of choices here in town, from Greek to Thai to Peruvian. But would we really want to traipse through the snow to get there?

Then I started to wonder: would my parents even want to drive up here in this weather? The snow had stopped by noon, but they were still predicting slippery roads until around 5pm. So we discussed it and agreed to reschedule for tomorrow. Now, it may seem like a cop out to take credit for leaving the car at home when all we did was postpone a trip until tomorrow. But we're already taking the car to the dentist's office tomorrow, which will put us about halfway to my parents' house already—so by heading directly over from there, we'll cut the total miles driven in half.

True, it would be a lot more interesting if we'd chosen a day when we had lots of errands to run and then found creative ways to take care of them all without getting in the car, such as taking a bus or choosing local businesses so we could go on foot. But when you come right down to it, leaving the car at home by leaving yourself at home—finding ways to feed and entertain yourself that don't involve leaving the house—is just as effective, and can be just as satisfying. (Especially when your home-cooked meal is one of my husband's delicious homemade chicken pot pies—made with organic veggies and the leftovers from my birthday chicken—and your home entertainment includes anything available through a free trial of Netflix.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Thrift Week Day Four: Buy Secondhand Day

I must confess, I initially didn't have high hopes for today's Thrift Week event, Buy Secondhand Day. Our town's only used-book store just closed down (which, sadly, isn't that much of a loss, because the place was nice as a hangout but terrible as a place to find books). We do have a couple of secondhand clothing stores, but both have serious drawbacks. One is a high-end consignment shop that charges more for secondhand clothes than the cheaper chains do for new, and also carries hardly anything in my size. The other is a thrift shop run out of a dim and cluttered church basement, which has great prices (suit jackets for $2, shirts for $1, shoes for $2 a pair) but a limited and seldom-changing selection. It's also open only about 11 hours per week: Friday during the day and a couple of hours on Thursday and Saturday mornings. So I knew if I was going to make an attempt at secondhand shopping in my home town, it was going to have to be today, but I wasn't terribly optimistic.

Well, when I got there, I was pleasantly surprised. Apparently the staff had been at work tidying the place up, because I found that the whole space was much cleaner, brighter and better organized than I'd ever seen it before. There was plenty of room to move around, and I could see all the items at a glance instead of having to squeeze between the racks to paw through them. I glanced over the shirts and trousers and then decided, just for the heck of it, to have another look at the women's blazers. This is an item I haven't worn on a regular basis in years (when you work at home, every day is Casual Friday), but it has often occurred to me that it would be a useful thing to have for emergencies, and right now the only one I own is an ill-fitting black thing that I picked up for five bucks at a discount store. I'd looked through the jackets before with no luck, so I wasn't expecting much—but to my surprise, I found a black, two-button jacket, originally from Ann Taylor, in a reasonable size, which I was sure I'd never seen before. It fit beautifully except for the sleeves, but I figured those could always be shortened if necessary; it'll just be a follow-up to Tuesday's Support Local Business event. And even if it costs me $20 to alter a jacket that I only paid $2 for, that'll still be only $22 total for a jacket that probably cost $150 or more when it was new.

So, for two dollars, I've acquired both a new-to-me jacket and a useful lesson: never give up on a local business, even one that's been in bad shape for years. So long as it's still in business, it always has the chance to improve. (Too bad it's too late for the bookstore.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thrift Week Day Three: Conserve Energy Day

I've decided that the third day of Thrift Week is to be Conserve Energy Day, since this is such a perfect example of ecofrugality: you can cut your utility bills and your carbon footprint at the same time. You can visit any site devoted to energy use and see dozens of suggestions for simple, easy ways to conserve energy without a big up-front investment, such as
  • replacing all your incandescent bulbs with CFLs
  • installing a low-flow showerhead to save hot water
  • weather-stripping around doors
  • turning down the heat at night (or installing a programmable thermostat that will turn it down automatically)
  • washing your lightly soiled clothes in cold water only
...and so on. The problem is, since steps like these are clear no-brainers, we've already taken them all. And having gathered all the obvious low-hanging fruit, I was left uncertain as to what to do next to give me the biggest bang, in terms of energy savings, for my buck. Which is why I decided that my birthday present to myself this year was going to be a home energy audit. Up until this point, the high price tag (a few hundred bucks) had deterred me, because I wasn't sure whether the audit itself would identify enough potential savings to pay for itself. But I finally decided that it was worth it to me to know for sure.

So, today I bit the proverbial bullet and called up New Jersey Home Energy Solutions, a vendor that had been passing out coupons at our local "Earth and Health Fair" last spring. I talked to the proprietor, who informed me that yes, my half-price coupon was still good—but then he added that perhaps I might not want to use it. He explained that if I opted for a full-scale home energy audit, he'd be legally obligated to carry out a whole bunch of tests, most of which wouldn't actually tell us anything likely to bear fruit in terms of energy savings. So he suggested that I let him come over first and do a free "walk-through," examining the various parts and systems in the house to see which areas might be most likely to benefit from improvements—and then, based on the results of that, I could choose to have further tests if they were likely to be helpful. (I'm still not sure why he told me this, since it seems like he had nothing to gain by it—in fact, he'd just cost himself 200 bucks—but maybe he just finds the energy audits to be a time-consuming and not very profitable part of his job.)

So, realizing that my energy evaluation might turn out to be an even better bargain than I bargained for, I said sure, come on over. Within ten minutes he showed up and started off the walk-through by asking to see last January's utility bill, to get an idea of what we currently pay for heating. (Not a lot compared to most people in our area, apparently.) Then he proceeded to examine our ancient boiler, inspect the windows, admire the Shepard Fairey print hanging in our downstairs room, praise the job we'd done insulating the attic four years back, and finally offer the following conclusions:
  • If we hadn't already added insulation to the attic, his first suggestion would be to go up there and seal up all the cracks in that area to stop air infiltration before adding more insulation on top. But to do that now, he said, would require removing all the insulation we'd already installed, which wouldn't be cost-effective.
  • Likewise, if the downstairs room weren't finished, we could try to stop air leaks from the bottom rather than the top by sealing up cracks around the ceiling joists. But taking out the ceiling to do that, once again, wouldn't be worth it. The unfinished portion of the basement could benefit from a bit of sealing, but he quite candidly admitted that that was a job we could pretty easily do ourselves with a tube of that foam-in stuff from Home Depot. (Side note: Not Lowe's. We're currently boycotting Lowe's over their decision to cave in to pressure from right-wing groups and pull their ads from a TV show about a Muslim family in America. Other sponsors have also announced that they won't be renewing their ads, but their stated reason was because the show, frankly, isn't very good. That, I have no problem with. But Lowe's admits that the reason they dropped their sponsorship is that the show as a "lightning rod" for anti-Muslim sentiments, and they didn't want to get singed. Well, if they're worried about losing business, they can worry about losing mine.)
  • Although our boiler is ancient—probably original to the house, which we think was built around 1970—we're unlikely to benefit from replacing it because our heating bills are so low as it is. He notes that since it's a gas boiler, not an oil one, as long as it's kept tuned up there's no reason it can't run as efficiently as a basic gas boiler of modern vintage. Newer high-efficiency boilers, which include condensing units to recover lost heat, can do better—but because they're more complex, they're also more repair-prone. So he said there was no reason not to keep this boiler running until it reaches the end of its natural life, by which point (a) some of the bugs in the new high-efficiency models might be worked out, and (b) they might be the only available replacements, due to tightening federal efficiency standards. So actually, the longer we can keep this old boiler running, the better our chances of being able to replace it with a reliable high-efficiency one when it finally dies.
  • As it turns out, we did the right thing when replacing our water heater a couple of years back by going with an old-fashioned, but reasonably efficient, tank heater rather than an on-demand heater. With hard water like we have here, he explained, the on-demand heaters need to be flushed yearly with acid to keep running at peak efficiency—a procedure that costs about $150, which, he pointed out, is more than we probably spend on all the hot water we use in a year right now.
  • There's no good reason to replace our windows, which he said were in good shape and snugly installed. In fact, he noted, replacing windows is almost never cost-effective unless the old windows are totally shot.
  • While we can't block air coming into our house from the bottom or escaping out the top, we can do a bit to keep it from leaking into the living areas by sealing off gaps around the baseboards (for which he recommended a water-based caulk) and insulating our electrical outlets. So those are two fairly cheap fixes that might help a bit with our day-to-day comfort, even if they don't make a big dent in the fuel bill. (He noted that most of the small do-it-yourself projects that home energy auditors recommend, such as weather-stripping around doors, are recommended because they're easy to do and have a low up-front cost—not because they make a big difference in fuel bills. They can make a big difference in comfort, he added, because they stop the drafts that are easy to feel—but the bulk of heat loss is through the multitude of smaller air leaks that are harder to feel and more costly to eliminate.)
So, all in all, I think this free walk-through was a highly informative experience, and more than worth what I paid for it. :-) It's a little disappointing to know that there's not much we can actually do to lower our heating bills any further, but on the flip side, it's comforting to know that we're already doing just about everything right. And it's also nice to see that there are some honest contractors out there who will tell you candidly when you don't need their services. The guy from Home Energy Solutions concluded his visit by advising me to save my money and pass the coupon on to someone else in the area who might have more energy leaks to plug. (Note to readers in the central Jersey area: Anyone want it?)

Thrift Week Day Two: Eat Sustainably Day

Today's blog entry poses a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, it's day two of Thrift Week, but on the other hand, this is also the day when sites all over the Web are going dark as a protest against two pending pieces of legislation, SOPA and PIPA, that could be used to censor pretty much anything on the Internet. As best I can tell, these are well-intentioned bills meant to stop Internet piracy and copyright violation, which are legitimate problems—but they've been crafted by people who don't really understand how the Internet works. I don't really understand it either, but I've been reading what the folks who do have to say on the subject, and they claim that these bills won't succeed in stopping piracy but will impose massive, costly restrictions on content providers everywhere. So I'd like to show solidarity with the folks opposing the bill...but this is still Thrift Week, and that isn't an event that can just be postponed. So I'm compromising by writing this entry today, but scheduling it to post at midnight, on the 19th instead of the 18th. The seven days of Thrift Week will still be covered, but two of them will be lumped together on one day.

So with that out of the way, let's talk about today's event, which I'm calling Eat Sustainably Day. Sustainable eating, as I see it, takes several forms, most of which I've discussed on this blog before. Sustainable food can be any of the following:
  • Seasonal, because food that's in season doesn't have to be shipped long distances, or grown in hothouses, or kept in cold storage, all of which require energy.
  • Locally grown, because fewer "miles to market" means less fuel burned, less CO2 emitted, and fresher food, to boot.
  • Organic, because using fewer chemical inputs (fertilizers and pesticides) means less pollution and healthier soil.
  • Fair-Trade, because a truly sustainable food system has to protect the interests of those who grow the food.
  • Low on the food chain, because plants produce less waste and greenhouse gases than animals, and small animals produce less than big ones.
  • Humane, because the animals we eat (or eat the products of) are part of our food system too.
I tried to come up with a nifty mnemonic for all that, but I couldn't seem to spell anything with the letters SLOFLH.

I'm observing Eat Sustainably Day in several ways. The main course of tonight's dinner will be a free-range chicken from Whole Foods (given to me by my best friend as what was, I must say, the single most practical birthday present I've ever received). It receives a score of 2 on the 5-point Animal Welfare Rating scale used by Whole Foods, which means that the animals can be kept indoors as long as they are "provided with enrichments that encourage behavior that's natural to them." (This isn't quite up there with living on pasture year-round, but it's a darn sight better than what your typical supermarket chicken has been subjected to.) This will be accompanied by a salad of organic greens, which, remarkably enough, were priced exactly the same at the supermarket as the conventional ones—and when Brian got to the checkout with them, actually rang up for less than the price marked, making them even cheaper. (Is it possible that organic farming is actually turning out to be more cost-effective for some products than the "traditional" methods that came into fashion in the last century?)

But the real pièce de résistance of tonight's frugal menu will be my after-dinner activity: planning my vegetable garden for next year. After all, you can't get more local than your own back yard, and now is the time to choose my crops and get my seed order in if I want to be able to start my seedlings in February. I know I'll definitely want some sugar snap peas, lots of tomatoes, and two—but no more than two—zucchini plants, but beyond that I'm uncertain. I'd love to grow some winter squash, but all my previous attempts to plant it in the actual garden (as opposed to letting it run wild in the side yard next to the compost bin) have been abysmal failures. I've had good luck with arugula, mixed results with lettuce, and no success at all with spinach; my green beans produced only a small crop, even when I managed to keep the groundhog from getting at them; and my cucumbers did great the first year and were anemic the next. So I'm at a bit of a loss. Maybe I need to try new varieties...or maybe I should consider other crops I haven't grown before. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

This post postponed

My post marking day two of Thrift Week has been postponed as a gesture of solidarity with other sites on the Web expressing their opposition to Internet censorship. The entry for day two, along with that for day three, will appear tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Thrift Week 2012: The green version

Happy Thrift Week, everyone! When I first instituted the celebration of Thrift Week here on the blog two years back, I noted that the 20th-century version of this holiday included different themes for each day of the week (Have a Bank Account Day, Invest Safely Day, Carry Life Insurance Day, etc.) When I was trying to think of topics for this year's Thrift Week series, my first idea was to take these old themes and talk about ways to update them for the 'teens (such as changing Have a Bank Account Day to Dump Your Big Bank for a Credit Union Day). But last week, I came up with what I think is a much better idea while shopping. What, shopping? Well, allow me to explain.

It happened like this: A new comic-book and game store just opened up here in town, so naturally I had to stop in and browse. (What can a comic shop possibly have to do with thrift? Just wait, I'm getting to it.) During that first visit, I ended up spending ten bucks on a small game—something that's out of character for me, since I definitely didn't need it, hadn't been actively looking for it, and hadn't shopped around for it. But I soothed myself with the thought that even if it wasn't strictly necessary, it was worthwhile to support local business. From there, it was but a short step to, "You know, that really ought to be some sort of national holiday, Support Local Business Day." And then, with a flash of inspiration, I realized: wait a minute, there's already a perfectly good national holiday going unused, with seven whole days in it that could all be devoted to different aspects of the ecofrugal life.

So that's the theme of this year's Thrift Week celebration: instead of focusing on specific topics related to money management, each day will focus on a specific topic related to the ecofrugal life. Moreover, this year, I'm planning to do more than just talk the thrifty talk: I'm going to walk the thrifty walk as well. Each day this week, I'm actually going to go out and do something specific in keeping with that day's theme. And we'll be kicking off the week with the one that started the whole idea in the first place: Support Local Business Day.

What exactly is ecofrugal about supporting local businesses? Well, first of all, it means less driving. In a town like ours, you can shop for a lot of things—food, toys, office supplies, some kinds of clothing—without getting in a car at all. Even if you live in the boonies, though, the more local your businesses are, the less you have to drive to reach them—and that means less gas burned and less CO2 emitted. Also, supporting local businesses helps keep them afloat, which helps ensure that there will still be businesses in walking distance in the years to come. And in a more general way, having places to shop in town helps tie a community together, and close-knit communities are better at providing a lot of the amenities of the ecofrugal lifestyle (a topic we'll be discussing more on day 6 or 7).

So how did I celebrate Support Local Business Day? Well, I could have gone out and bought yet another new game, but that would be kind of stretching the definition of ecofrugality. So instead, I ran a more practical errand and brought my watch, which was in need of a new battery, over to Jimmy's Watches on Raritan Avenue. This little hole in the wall not only sells watches but actually repairs them, a service that's becoming increasingly difficult to come by in the modern world. With many local businesses, better service comes at the cost of higher prices and smaller selection, but Jimmy's is a rare exception; this tiny store actually has more choice and better value than I've seen anywhere else in our area. I popped up there on foot, handed over my stopped watch, and walked out with a working watch in five minutes. (From there, I went on to visit my local Baskin-Robbins, but that doesn't really count as supporting a local business, since I didn't buy anything; I just stopped in to pick up my free cone, courtesy of the Birthday Club. Birthday freebies—my favorite kind.)

So, that's how I celebrated Support Local Business Day; how about you? (It's a bit late for today, but Thrift Week lasts until the 23rd, so you can make a local shopping excursion at any time this week and still count it as part of the event. Then leave a comment to say how it went, and we can all celebrate together.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Price Check: The siren song of the dollar store

An amusing article in last Wednesday's New York Times tells reporter Jesse McKinley's story of his growing addiction to shopping at dollar stores. McKinley says that far from being solely purveyors of useless plastic junk, dollar stores now offer a wide assortment of useful and attractive objects, such as spices and herbs, canned goods, cleaning supplies, dishes and glassware and various kitchen gadgets. However, he also mentions the chief peril of dollar store shopping: it's easy to find yourself throwing everything into your cart willy-nilly, buying things you don't actually need and will never use, because what the heck, it's only a dollar. However, he doesn't mention another, less obvious hazard: the fact that for some items, at a dollar a pop, you may actually be paying too much.

The thing about a dollar store—a traditional dollar store, that is, as opposed to the "$1 and up" stores starting to pop up in various areas (what kind of selling point is that, anyway? Everything in the store costs at least a dollar? How is that a bargain?)—at a traditional dollar store, everything costs a dollar, regardless of what it would cost elsewhere. A dollar is such a small amount these days that it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that this is the best deal you can expect to find on anything, but in many cases, it just isn't so. Consider:
  • At the dollar store, a one pound-box of baking soda costs a dollar. At Aldi, a discount grocery chain, it costs 50 cents.
  • At the dollar store, canned goods of all kinds cost a dollar apiece. At the supermarket, some of those items might cost more than a dollar, but others might cost as little as 75 cents. (Not to mention that supermarkets have sales and dollar stores don't—so if you bought a dozen cans of veggies at your local dollar store this week, you'd pay twice as much for them as you would at the Shop Rite, currently in the middle of its annual "Can-Can Sale" on all types of canned goods.)
  • At the dollar store, a bottle of aspirin costs a dollar—but it may contain as little as 20 tablets, for a per-pill cost of 5 cents. At your local chain drugstore, you could pay as little as $4 for a bottle of 500 tablets, which works out to less than a penny a pill.
Then there's cleaning supplies, which one dollar store owner describes as the "gateway product" that gets many of their customers in the door. Surely you can't expect to do better than a dollar for a bottle of knock-off Windex, right? Well, not at your local grocery store—but if you just save the empty bottle you've just used up and fill it with a 50-50 mixture of vinegar and tap water, it'll do the same job for significantly less. (In fact, as my latest Tip Hero newsletter notes, there's a homemade version of just about every cleaning product imaginable, most of them mixed up from common—and cheap—household ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, rubbing alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide.)

None of this is meant to knock dollar stores. Dollar Tree is one of my favorite chains, and I'll frequently poke my head in there when I'm just passing by, even if I'm not looking for anything, just to enjoy scavenging through the shelves for unexpected bargains. But while I think dollar stores are great for treasure hunting, I wouldn't treat them as a one-stop shop for all my needs. I'd still expect to find better prices and selection for groceries at the grocery store, drugs at the drugstore, and hardware at the hardware store. I'd only make the dollar store my first stop for household doodads—picture frames, coffee mugs, shower curtain liners—that don't need to be of particularly high quality. Because let's face it, while it may be possible nowadays to find some decent-quality merchandise at dollar stores, it's still a lot easier, even now, to find useless plastic junk.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Flame hazard

We may be about to see some "flame" messages on this blog. That's because, perhaps foolishly, I included a link to it when I posted a comment on another blog, this one belonging to Green America, explaining why I was not planning to lobby the Obama administration to oppose the extension of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Here's what I wrote:
Although I agree that it is important, in the long term, to reduce our dependence on oil, I cannot oppose the Keystone pipeline on those grounds. The fact is that this oil *will* be extracted, one way or another; it’s worth too much to leave in the ground. So the only real question is, will the oil thus extracted go to the U.S. (where it will reduce our dependence on oil from uncertain allies in the increasingly unstable Middle East), or to China (traveling there by tanker, a process that will create more emissions than the pipeline will, not to mention the risk of spills)?
We must face facts. Our nation is going to remain heavily dependent on oil for the near future, and putting the kibosh on this pipeline is not going to change that. All it will do is ensure that the oil we do use comes from less reliable sources, while Canada’s oil goes abroad. Sorry, I can’t help you on this one.
I have a feeling these comments, although made in what I hope was a respectful manner, are not going to sit well with regular readers of the Green America blog, who may choose to pop over to this blog to express their disapproval. And I'm perfectly happy to discuss the topic with them in a reasoned and respectful manner. But I fear that some of the responses may not stick to these guidelines, so I wanted to give regular readers of this blog fair warning: it might get hot in here. (I've just checked and found that I do have the ability to delete comments on this blog—it's never come up before—so I'll remove any that I think are really over the line, but I might not get to them immediately.)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Can money buy happiness? Sometimes.

This weekend's Washington Post had an interesting article on "happiness economics," a hot new field in which researchers try to apply modern methods of analysis to the age-old question, "Can money buy happiness?" The best answer they've come up with so far, apparently, is "Yes, up to a point." But it's the ifs and buts surrounding that answer that make it so intriguing. The article cites several specific discoveries the happiness economists have made:
  1. Increased income does correlate to an increase in "day to day happiness," up to around $75,000 per year. Beyond that, there's no link between more money and more happiness.
  2. However, "life satisfaction" does go up with increased income, no matter how much you were making to start with, because getting a raise makes people feel more successful. This is a pretty startling conclusion when you think about it: beyond the $75,000 cutoff, more money doesn't actually make people happier, but it makes them think they must be happier. Thus, people may continue to pursue ever-increasing incomes, even beyond the point when working longer hours to earn more money actually starts to impair their quality of life.
  3. While people may increase their "life satisfaction" as a result of making more money, they won't increase it by spending more money on material goods. Humans' amazing ability to adapt to new situations means that we quickly adjust to any change in our standard of living, for better or worse. This is good, because it means that when we suffer a financial setback, we get used to it pretty quickly and our reduced circumstances don't seem so bad. But it also means that when we buy a new toy, the pleasure we get out of it is pretty short-lived. Then we adjust to the new situation and start taking it for granted. Or, as my favorite financial guru, Andrew Tobias, puts it, "A luxury once sampled becomes a necessity." (Well, if it's a luxury you actually like, at least. No matter how many times I sample fine wines, they all just taste to me like grape juice that's gone off.)
  4. However, people can get long-lasting pleasure by spending their money, not on stuff, but on experiences. That's because, first of all, they can get pleasure out of recalling and discussing them with friends in a way that they don't tend to discuss, say, a new TV set; and second, it's harder to make direct comparisons between your experiences and someone else's. If you've bought a new large-screen TV and your neighbor goes out and gets one that's even bigger, you may no longer feel as happy with yours—but if you went backpacking in Utah while your neighbor went surfing in Malibu, who's to say whose experience was "better"? It's easier to enjoy looking at each other's vacation photos without seeing it as a competition, so your satisfaction is enhanced by sharing, rather than diminished.
The Post article ends rather abruptly, without drawing any sort of conclusion from all these findings, but I think I can trace out an ecofrugal moral to this story: the satisfaction you get from making money isn't matched by corresponding satisfaction in spending it, especially in spending it on stuff (which requires resources to produce, transport, and eventually dispose of). So we frugal types, who choose to spend less than we make, are actually getting a bigger happiness bang for our bucks than those who go out and squander their savings on new toys. And in many cases, our money-saving choices—like our decision to fix up our downstairs bath ourselves, rather than "have it done"—turn into experiences, which provide more long-lasting happiness than purchases anyway. Going ecofrugal—the key to happiness? Maybe that's what the happiness economists should study next.

(Postscript: talking of the downstairs bathroom, the final piece that was missing—a threshold for the door—finally fell into place last weekend. Well, it didn't so much fall as Brian put it there, with the help of his new power saw and some cement screws. But the point is that we now have one entire room in our house that is actually, totally done—after being "almost done" for more than nine months. Yay! Only eight more "almost done" rooms to go...)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

...and an ecofrugal new year

Happy 2012! Our winter holidays had a few ecofrugal highlights of interest:
  • our purchase of a bargain-priced pressure cooker, discussed in my last post of 2011;
  • a couple of ecofrugal-themed posters received as Hanukkah presents from my mom (one reading "Make Gardens, not War" and one on the ABCs of green living);
  • a trip to Half-Price books, where I found a secondhand copy of a live David Wilcox album for only six bucks (woohoo!);
  • caroling around the piano on Christmas day, a nice family-centered celebration that didn't cost anything or even require electricity;
  • a gift we received of three reusable mesh produce bags, which should be somewhat more elegant than taking home produce in reused bread bags;
  • a gift we gave to our six oldest nieces and nephews that went over big: "magic cloths," which are basically my homemade equivalent of Playsilks. Rather than spend $15 each on real silks, I just bought six yards of sheer fabric in different bright colors from a very nice seller on, and I composed a short poem to go with them, explaining how these magic cloths could take any form from a superhero's cape to a princess's gown to a ship's sail. The kids all got lots of Christmas presents, some of them quite elaborate, so it was very gratifying to see that our very simple, imagination-based toys still got plenty of playtime.
Now, as we leave Christmas behind, it's time to move on to New Year's resolutions. This year I've made several that fit the ecofrugal theme of this blog:
  1. Get organized about my garden. Last year family affairs disrupted the planting process in May and June, and I never really got back on track. This year, I want to stick to a proper schedule and get all my seeds ordered, my seedlings started, and my young plants in right on time—and then I want to stay on top of gathering them when the harvest rolls around, so that I don't end up with dozens of cherry tomatoes falling right off the vine before I get around to picking them.
  2. Get an energy audit for our house. I told Brian this was what I really wanted this year for my birthday, and he agreed to let me spend the $200 (half the regular price, thanks to a special promotion) for the full audit complete with recommendations. Maybe I can learn a way to keep warm while I work without resorting to wearing a jacket indoors.
  3. Practice acoustic music. One of my gifts from Brian was a ukulele (whee!), so I've vowed to learn at least three songs on it well enough to perform them in front of strangers. One fertile source of material I've discovered is the page of ukulele arrangements at the "Alligator Boogaloo" website. (Calling this ecofrugal is a bit of a stretch, but it qualifies by virtue of being low-cost, at-home entertainment that doesn't use any electricity.)
Anyone else out there have any ecofrugal resolutions, or any ecofrugal holiday gifts and/or experiences, that they'd like to share?