Monday, December 29, 2014

Green Gift Roundup 2014

This year's annual Green Gift Roundup has been slightly delayed, since we've been sort of celebrating the holiday in stages this year. His brother and sister-in-law, a firefighter and an EMT, both had to work on Christmas Day, so we went over the day before and exchanged gifts with them and his brother's three kids. On Christmas Day itself, we just hung out at home with his parents (I offered to take them out for a traditional Jewish Christmas of Chinese food and a movie, but his mom had a nice free-range turkey, so we ate a second Thanksgiving meal instead). Then, yesterday, we exchanged gifts with his sister and brother-in-law, who had just flown back from visiting his relatives out in California. We're actually still waiting to open stockings on Tuesday, which is the one day we'll be able to get all the cousins together in one place, but since I happened to have a little free time today while the rest of the family is out shopping, I decided I'd better blog now while I had the chance.

First, the raw numbers: I am pleased to report that I met my goal of increasing the percentage of gifts we gave that qualified as green. I started keeping track of this back in 2005, counting as green any gift that:
  • was secondhand;
  • was made from organic or recycled materials (including home-grown);
  • was Fair Trade-certified;
  • came from a local business; or
  • would help the recipients reduce waste, save energy, or conserve natural resources.
The percentage of our gifts that fit into these categories has fluctuated over the years, from a high of 71 percent in 2006 to a low of 33 percent in 2007. Over the past few years, however, the numbers have been heading upward—from 37 percent in 2011 to 52 percent in 2012 to 61 percent last year—and I was determined to keep the trend going. And I made it, with a record 72 percent of all our gifts meeting my green standards. Some of the more successful ones were:
  • A party dress, chocolate-brown satin with pink polka dots, for our oldest niece. Though we picked it up for 7 bucks at a local yard sale, it was in excellent condition, and nice enough to qualify for an "Oo!" from our niece when she opened it.
  • A Madeline Around the World Adventure Set for another niece. This is like a paper doll book, but sturdier: a travel trunk with a felt Madeline figure and lots of different felt outfits and accessories from around the world. It's no longer made new, but copies in used condition are selling for anywhere from $10 to $45 on eBay. We found this one, new in the box, for $3 at that same yard sale, and our niece declared she "really liked it." Score!
  • For my youngest nephew, a reversible jigsaw puzzle. Each piece is a different color and is labeled on one side with a letter and on the other side with a number from 1 to 26. So when the whole thing is put together, it not only makes the shape of a rabbit, but also spells out the alphabet or the first 26 numbers (depending on which way the rabbit is facing). This one came form a yard sale in Hopewell for $1. We actually thought we were getting two complete jigsaw puzzles, one rabbit and one giraffe, each with the same reversible letters and numbers on them, but the giraffe turned out to be missing two pieces. (We toyed with the idea of trying to reconstruct the missing ones, but we didn't manage to get it done in time for Christmas.) But although only one puzzle was complete, my sister reported that he really liked it, and backed it up with a picture of him playing with it at 5 in the morning.
  • Two Mushroom Mini Farms. I'm counting these as green because they're a form of organic gardening you can do at home, even in the wintertime. We found this kit at Home Depot and decided it would be perfect for my dad and Brian's brother, two of the toughest people on our list to shop for. Both of them are into gardening, but mushrooms are one crop you can't normally grow outdoors, so we figured this would give them a chance to try something new. It was a hit with both of them.
  • Last but not least, a homemade gift that requires no packaging at all: an MP3 file of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, recorded by yours truly on the same primitive sound setup I use for my podcasts. I shared it with all my relatives via Google Drive and also presented a copy to my mom on her new MP3 player (which was actually our old MP3 player, since we couldn't think of anyplace to shop for a new one that wasn't on my naughty list). This was my first ever attempt at recording an audiobook, so I was learning as I went, and the last two "staves" of the book definitely sound better than the first three. Nonetheless, Mom was really pleased with both the book and the player. (If there's enough interest from readers, I might look for a way make it available here on the blog as well.)
In addition to the gifts we gave to others, we also picked up a few green items for ourselves during our trip. Before all the relatives arrived, Brian and I made our annual jaunt out to two green businesses: the local Goodwill store, which has a better selection and much better organization than the one in our area, and Half Price Books, which sells "new and used books, music, movies and games starting at just 50 cents each." I got myself a new book, two used CDs, and a bargain-bin copy of four hidden object mystery games, all for about ten bucks. At Goodwill, I didn't find pants, which were what I really needed, but I picked up a couple of turtleneck sweaters for about $4 each, and Brian got a pair of jeans in his new, slimmer size for $7.

I also accepted my brother-in-law's invitation to scavenge his shelves of gardening reference books that he never uses. I picked up a copy of one volume called The Practical Gardener, which is all about how to adapt your growing methods to real-world conditions, and another called The Natural Garden Book, about the "Gaian gardening" method of working as much as possible with nature rather than trying to manipulate it. So those are doubly green: secondhand books that will also improve my organic gardening technique. And we continued our newly established (last year) tradition of exchanging books from our own collection with Brian's friend Jon, who gave us a sci-fi novel by Charles Stross and got a collection of Dave Barry humor columns (one of our Half-Price finds). So we are well stocked with reading material to carry us through a good chunk of the year 2015.

A merry and green Christmas to all, and to all, good night.

POSTSCRIPT: As it turns out, there were a few presents left that hadn't been exchanged by Monday. When the whole family got together on Tuesday, my sister-in-law presented me with a large fabric gift bag, containing...a whole lot more fabric gift bags, in a wide variety of sizes and patterns.  I guess she'd been watching me salvage wrapping paper each year and seeing the following year's presents appear in it, and she decided I could use something more permanent. I've hesitated to use fabric gift bags for Christmas presents in the past, for fear that the recipients might just discard them rather than actually reusing them. But now that Becky has apparently latched onto the idea as well, I think we might actually be able to get it to catch on. She says she raided her fabric bin to make these; there are several green bags made from what appears to be a set of curtains, plus some colorful cottons and one in a sort of silky fabric, and a variety of different ribbons used for ties. So this is actually the ultimate ecofrugal gift. It cost nothing to make, and it reduces waste twice: once by turning scrap fabric into something useful, and once by eliminating the need for single-use wrapping paper. And if, as I hope, the fabric gift bags remain in circulation, they may actually continue to reduce paper waste through Christmas after Christmas. The ecofrugal gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: The Changing of the Garden

My annual winter solstice post, which wraps up my year of gardeners' holidays, couldn't get written on the actual solstice this year, as we spent that entire day (or at least 13 hours of it) on the road between New Jersey and Indiana, where we always go for Christmas with the in-laws. But even if we couldn't spend any of the solstice actually out in the garden, we did spend part of it discussing the garden. I'd packed the Fedco seed catalogue for the coming year among our effects, and we occupied ourselves with it for the first hour or so of our trip. As Brian drove, I leafed through the catalogue, reading out the names of different crops and descriptions of interesting varieties, and we'd discuss whether we wanted to include them in next year's garden. By the time we reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we'd identified several types of changes we'd like to make next year:

New varieties to try. We discovered, as we flipped through the section on "edible podded peas," that the Oregon Giant we've been growing this year is actually a snow pea—best eaten while the pots are still slim and immature—rather than a snap pea, which tastes best when the pods fill out. So in the interest of getting as much eating as possible off each plant and making the most of our limited trellis space, we've decided to switch to the Cascadia variety, a snap pea that's described as sweet-tasting and very easy to grow.

We're also looking at expanding our selection of lettuces. This year, my favorite "Tom Thumb" butterhead lettuce let us down badly. We planted it at our usual time, but not a single head actually came up (and the seeds were only a year old, so we can't blame it on them). A new seed selection we bought last year, called Summer Lettuce Mix, produced an interesting variety of salad greens all through the cooler-than-average summer, but it didn't include any butterhead lettuces. Looking at other butterhead varieties to try, we saw several that looked very intriguing. First, there's one called "Winter Marvel" that can, supposedly, keep producing all winter long here in USDA Zone 7—not just in a greenhouse, but in an outdoor garden (though presumably under some sort of row cover to keep it from being buried under snow). Its only drawback is that it bolts as soon as the warm weather hits in spring, well before the Summer Mix has come into its own. So to fill in the gap, we thought we'd try Blushed Butter Cos, a cross between a butterhead and a romaine lettuce that's fast-growing, attractively colored, and described as "remarkably crisp for such a buttery taste."

With all three of these varieties, we figure we may be able to keep ourselves in lettuce all year long, even in our limited space. We can plant the Winter Marvel in the fall and let it grow until spring, then replace it with the Summer Mix when it bolts. Meanwhile, we can plant the Blushed Butter Cos in a separate area to see us through the spring, and possibly even grow a second crop of it in the fall.

Old varieties to grow more or less of. We had waaaaaay too many cucumbers this year; in fact, we actually ended up bringing a jar of homemade pickles with us to Indiana because we still haven't eaten them all. So next year, we're planning to cut down our dozen plants to eight. This will free up two square feet of trellis space for either a fourth butternut squash vine (since we got only about half-a-dozen squash off the three we planted this year) or perhaps some more lima beans, which looked beautiful out in the garden but didn't yield us enough beans for more than one or two meals. We're also planning to replace some of our parsley, which we didn't come anywhere close to using up (although it's still out there in the garden, despite the frost) with cilantro. Although I'm not a fan of cilantro myself, it's handy to be able to throw a sprig or two of it into certain dishes without having to buy a whole bunch—and if it bolts in the summer, which it usually does, you can always harvest the seeds for coriander.

Crops to grow in a different way. This is the third year in a row that we've had disappointing results growing pepper plants from seed. We keep trying new varieties, starting them early, using a special potting mix, giving them plenty of light, whatever we can think of, but no matter what we try, they never thrive. So after three years in a row of devoting eight precious squares of garden space to pepper plants and having hardly any peppers to show for it, we've decided to drop an approach that clearly isn't working for us. Next year, we're just heading out to the Rutgers plant sale as early as possible, so we can choose from the widest possible selection of nice, big, hardy pepper plants for our garden, grown by people with much better resources than ours.

We also have a few packets of seeds that we're not ready to give up on yet, but we think we need to change up our growing methods a bit. For instance, our first attempt this year at growing Brussels sprouts was a complete bust; we got six nice healthy plants, but no edible sprouts. However, we suspect the problem is that we trusted a garden guide that said to start the seeds in early June, and the Fedco catalogue advises, "start indoors no later than early April." So we'll try that next year, and we'll also try direct seeding a few straight into the garden beds and see whether they do better than the indoor seedlings. We'll do the same with our leeks, which yielded only a small crop this year after being started indoors in February. As for tomatoes, we plan to keep the varieties we have, but start more seeds of each variety to make sure that we have enough healthy seedlings for planting—particularly with the Sun Golds, normally our most productive tomato, which we got none of at all this year because all the seedlings withered. And lastly, we'll be keeping our lima beans, but picking them when they're fresh and green, rather than trying to dry them on the vine.

Crops to drop completely. We're going to give up on growing celery. We've tried two different varieties now, Ventura and Redventure, and while both produced nice healthy plants, the stalks were simply too strong and bitter for eating raw. They're okay for cooking, but a tiny amount of it goes a long way, flavor-wise—and that sort of defeats the whole purpose of eating celery, which is to fill up on a healthy, low-calorie vegetable. So we'll be turning over those four squares of garden space to something more useful next year.

New crops to add. In the spot where the celery used to be, we're thinking of trying some broccolini. We've tried growing regular broccoli before without much success (we got only four teeny-weeny heads), but broccolini doesn't have to produce big heads; instead, it has long, tender stalks with little clusters of florets on top. Every time I've tasted it, I've found it more tender and succulent than regular broccoli, but it isn't easy to find in stores, and it's usually pricey when available. So growing our own, if we can do so successfully, is the logical solution.

Another intriguing crop I discovered in the catalogue is Good King Henry, also known as Lincolnshire spinach. This is a perennial crop, which means that you only have to plant it once in order to keep harvesting it for years. In general, I've found perennial crops to be a good investment of time and money; our asparagus, it's true, has been a bit of a disappointment as far as yield goes, but our rhubarb has more than made up for it, producing pounds and pounds of the stuff each year. (We even ended up bringing some with us to Indiana, because we couldn't spare any more space in the freezer.) And unlike real spinach, which we've had some trouble growing in the garden, this stuff stands up to summer heat and continues to produce all season long. The only difficulty is going to be figuring out where to put it, since a perennial crop can't simply be plopped into a square of garden space; it has to go down someplace where you're prepared to keep it for the long haul. The back corner of the yard is a possibility, once we manage to clear away the big pile of concrete chunks left over from the demolition phase of last year's patio project.

So that's a rough outline of what we plan to change up in our 2015 vegetable garden. Of course, there are also a few crops that were a complete success and require no change at all. We're sticking with our Raven zucchini and our two varieties of butternut squash, Waltham and Ponca Baby; there are tons of other summer and winter squash options, of course, but none that are so productive, easy to grow, and easy to use. And we'll also be planting some more of the Vanilla marigolds that we picked up on a lark from Fedco last year, mostly to make our order big enough to qualify for free shipping. They turned out to be splendid cutting flowers: big, creamy, frothy white blossoms that lasted for literally weeks. I don't know whether they were actually any help at repelling pests from our tomato plants, but they've earned their keep in the garden just by looking nice.

Goodnight, little garden. Sleep well. See you in the spring.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

TP tracking results

The results are in! My toilet-paper tracking experiment, which I started back in mid-October, has come to its conclusion. We used up the last of the dozen rolls today, which means it took us exactly 64 days to go through them—an average of 5 1/3 days per roll. Admittedly, that 64-day period included one weekend when we were away from home, but it also included one day over Thanksgiving weekend when we unexpectedly found ourselves hosting four guests in our home, so I'm guessing that the two balance each other out.

So, what conclusions can we draw from this piece of data? Well, first of all, it means that over the course of a year, we go through 68.5 rolls of toilet paper, or 5.7 twelve-packs. As I noticed in my first post, we usually buy the store brand from Trader Joe's (100 percent recycled, with 80 percent post-consumer fibers) for $4.50 per dozen. That means our current annual spending on toilet paper is $25.66. Actually, it may be a little lower, since once in a while we manage to get a sale-plus-coupon deal on Marcal Small Steps, another recycled brand, for slightly less. But that doesn't happen often, so we'll just round it off and say we're spending $25 a year.

As far as I can tell, this figure is pretty much as low as it can go. I just stopped by our local Stop & Shop to compare TP prices, and I couldn't find a single brand there that cost less per roll than TJ's. Priced by the foot, the el cheapo one-ply store brand was a bit cheaper, at 8 cents per square foot rather than 13 cents, but I'm not convinced the one-ply rolls would actually last any longer; in my experience, thinner paper simply means it takes more sheets to get the job done. But even if we could manage to make do with the same number of one-ply sheets, we're only looking at a potential savings of maybe $10 a year. For paper that's both inferior in quality and not as green, it's certainly not worth it.

Now if, by contrast, we wanted the most luxurious tush-wiping experience money could buy, we could switch to the Quilted Northern Ultra Plush, which costs $9.69 per dozen rolls. If we used it at the same rate we use the TJ's paper, this stuff would cost us about $55 a year, more than twice what we're paying now. However, it's possible that, just as one-ply works only half as well as two-ply, this cushy three-ply might work 50 percent better, requiring us to buy only 46 rolls per year for $36.82. That extra $12 a year might be worth paying if the plush paper were recycled like the stuff we use now, but if we have to sacrifice trees to gain that goose-down softness, I'll pass.

Now, there are a few brands out there that promise to deliver both softness and sustainability, but most of them charge a hefty premium for it. The cheapest one I could find was Caboo, made from a mixture of bamboo and sugarcane bagasse, the fibers left over after the cane juice is pressed out. You can hardly get much greener than upcycling a waste product, but at $10.99 per dozen, this paper doesn't exactly qualify as ecofrugal. True, the rolls are a bit bigger than TJ's—300 sheets each instead of 250—but it still costs roughly twice as much per sheet. And that doesn't even count the $4.99 shipping charge for orders under $49. Even if we got free shipping by ordering 5 packs at a time (and somehow managed to find storage space for all those extra rolls), buying this paper would raise our annual TP cost from $25 to $50, all for the fairly dubious benefit of a little added softness (and avoiding exposure to a minuscule amount of BPA). Once again, this doesn't look like a good value.

A final option to consider is ditching the toilet paper altogether in favor of a more ecofrugal alternative. Switching to "family cloth," or reusable wipes, could, in theory, save us the entire $25 a year we currently spend on TP. In practice, though, it would mean doing at least one extra load of laundry per week, in hot water—which would increase our use of water, electricity, and natural gas. We'd also have to run the cloths through the dryer (since line-drying would leave them far too stiff to use) and probably wash them with bleach to make sure they came out sanitized—an expense we don't have now, and a chemical that isn't considered exactly earth-friendly. Altogether, it seems there are way too many variables here to do a simple calculation and say whether family cloth is, or is not, a more ecofrugal choice than paper. However, one thing we know for a fact is that switching could not possibly save us more than $25 a year—and for the convenience of something you can just flush and be done with, I'd say that's a small price to pay.

A final alternative to toilet paper that I'd planned to weigh here is a bidet attachment, such as this $60 model that gets consistently positive reviews at However, when I consulted Wikipedia for a bit more information on how bidets are used, it said that a bidet is "not meant to replace toilet paper," but is instead used after paper "to achieve full cleanliness." On the other hand, this other article at wikiHow, "How to Use a Bidet," notes that some people consider the bidet "a hygienic substitute for toilet paper" and don't bother to wipe before spraying. However, they still need TP to dry off with afterwards, so it comes to much the same thing: a bidet can reduce TP use, but wouldn't eliminate it entirely. So rather than saving us $25 a year, this $60 tool could only save us, at a guess, half of that, which means it would take nearly 5 years to pay for itself. That's hardly a good enough return to make it worth the up-front cost on top of the added hassle.

Now, in theory, I suppose the bidet could be combined with the "family cloth" idea, with the cloths used only for drying. It would still mean more laundry, but the cloths could probably be washed in cold with the rest of our clothes. But that would involve even more hassle and expense than just the bidet itself, and the potential savings still can't possibly exceed $25 a year. All in all, I think I'm best off sticking with my trusty old TJ's TP. (However, next time we shop there, I just might consider trying the "super soft" version. It's still 100 percent recycled, and it's not nearly as pricey as the Quilted Northern—so considering that it's such a tiny item in our overall budget, springing for the slightly plusher stuff might turn out to be a little luxury that's worth the cost.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Guest room makeover, stage 4 (almost there!)

Check it out! Our guest room, which for the past three months has been a construction zone, is now...a room!

Once the paint was on the walls, it was only a matter of a few hours here and there to do all the other little jobs required to put the room back together. Last Saturday, we removed all the old, cruddy outlets and replaced them with nice new ones that match the wall color almost perfectly. This job actually went faster than we expected; Brian feared, based on our experience refreshing the downstairs room, that we might have to add ground wires to all these outlets. (They were three-hole outlets, but so were the ones in the basement, and those turned out to be just for show.) But fortunately, these outlets were actually up to code, so all we had to do was switch off the power, pull the old outlets out of the wall (along with a fair amount of crumbled plaster lodged inside the cavities), and attach the new ones in their place.

Before starting on this job, Brian got a coat of metal-compatible primer onto the heaters and heater covers, so it would be dry by the time the outlets were done and he could then apply the paint. He'd removed the covers when we first started working on the room, so those got laid out in the basement and painted with our new little roller, while the fixed parts of the heater got painted in situ with a brush. By Sunday, everything was dry, and he was able to reattach the covers to the heaters. Once again, the "almond" metal paint blends in nearly perfectly with the wall color.

Then, at last, we were able to restore the bookcase with all our cookbooks on it to its rightful place. This actually turned out to be the most complicated job of the lot, since Brian insisted on keeping all the books in their proper order so we wouldn't have to rearrange them later. So he carefully removed them all, shelf by shelf, and laid them out in order on the floor and whatever other surfaces were available. Then he pulled out the removable shelves and handed them over to me, and he lifted the entire empty bookcase up by its one fixed shelf and carried it up the steps. (Okay, it's only a Billy bookcase from IKEA, which is just lightweight birch-veneered particle board, but he still looked very manly picking it up and casually walking off with it.) Once we got the bookcase back into its accustomed corner, he took a few minutes to check its alignment and shim it up nice and level before we retrieved all the cookbooks.

We also moved the plant table, which had been sitting in the middle of the room under a drop cloth, back into the corner. We discovered in the process that the finish on the top has suffered some damage—probably before, rather than during, the painting of the room—and will need to be sanded down and refinished at some point. Brian fears it won't come out very well, since it's already been refinished once, but I don't see why that matters, since it's solid birch. (The table was a gift from his dad, who built it with his own hands, the first year we lived together.) But even if it doesn't come out perfect, we can always purchase a Plexiglass top for it, like the one we got for our nice cherry table when we turned it into Brian's desk, to protect it from further damage.

It was amazing how spacious this tiny little room felt with all the furniture back in the proper places. I'd gotten so used to maneuvering around the table to get to the closet that it felt positively luxurious to have all that floor space completely clear. But at this point, it still looked a little bare. It was missing the key piece of the puzzle, the one piece that would turn it from a spare room into a guest room: the futon. So, Monday night, we headed downstairs to haul it up.

Fortunately, this futon is a "lounger," which means that the cushion is in two small pieces rather than one big one (the big square piece gets used when the futon is in loveseat form, and the smaller piece is added to turn it into a bed). So wrestling these up the stairs, though still very awkward, was easier than trying to move a single, full-sized mattress. The frame, however, presented us with a bit more difficulty. At first, Brian thought we might be able to get it up the stairs in one piece, but after a bit of maneuvering, it became clear that it wouldn't quite fit through the opening. So we had to remove two bolts (which required the use of a rubber mallet to pound them out of their holes) and separate the frame into the bottom piece, the back piece, and the two rotating feet. Brian made careful note of how these pieces all fit together before separating them, so we could reassemble it correctly once we got it upstairs.

After moving it, we had a bit of debate over how to orient the futon in the room. I'd assumed the only place it would fit was against the back wall, where you see it in the picture above. However, Brian pointed out that it could also have its head against the side wall (opposite the window). We tried laying out the cushions in both positions and found that putting it sideways would actually leave a bit more clearance between the fully extended futon and the rest of the furniture, but it didn't look as good. The back wall, which is visible when the door is open, would look kind of bare with nothing against it, and the extra cushion, which we normally keep tucked against the back of the futon, would be visible if it had its side to the door. So we went with the nicer-looking spot, reasoning that, after all, this futon will spend more time sitting in the corner just looking nice than it does actually sleeping guests. And we can always move it later if we change our minds.

At this point, the room is about 90 percent finished. It's usable in its present form, but it still needs a few finishing touches. The closet, for instance, is still sitting open without its door, which is waiting to be sanded down and refinished. The main door to the room will need to be refinished at some point as well. The closet shelf needs to be cut down, repainted, and replaced before the rest of the items that live there can be restored to their normal homes. We also need to put back the old bamboo window blinds (which we're planning to keep for now, though we might replace them at some point) and hang some art on the walls. But for now, just having a usable room instead of a dust-filled, drop-cloth-draped cubbyhole is the best Hanukkah present I could ask for.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My Green Holiday

I've fallen a bit behind with the Simplify the Holidays calendar that I posted about here last month. I was reading the entries regularly for a while, but over the past couple of weeks, I forgot about it. So today I went back to check up on the entries I'd missed, and I discovered the entry for December 8: The Green Holiday Quiz. This seemed right up my alley, since it combines two of my favorite things: environmental issues and taking quizzes. So I took it, and I found it interesting enough that I thought I'd share my results here with you.

Question 1 is "What activities will you be doing this holiday season?" I said that we would be giving gifts, wrapping gifts, putting up decorations, and traveling to visit loved ones, but not sending holiday cards or hosting a holiday meal or party. This got me 12 points right off the bat for not taking part in those last two activities, though I wasn't sure if that was really fair, since we will be partaking of holiday meals at other people's houses. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to give us credit for putting the burden of entertaining on others. But after mulling it over for a bit, I reasoned that we're actually sharing the environmental burden with them: we're doing the traveling, while they provide the food. I also took some comfort from the assurance that we're doing a bit of good for the earth by not sending holiday cards, since I tend to feel a trifle guilty every year when we receive cards and end-of-year reports from half a dozen relatives and friends to whom we haven't sent anything. But now I can say, hey, we're not just being lazy; we're being green. So there.

Next, the quiz asked me for more details about the type of gifts we'd be giving. Would they be new, store-bought items? Secondhand? Homemade? How about gift cards, "gifts of charity" (a donation in a loved one's name), "gifts of experience" (such as a class or tickets to an event), or "gifts of your time and care" (such as lessons, child care, or help with household chores)? I somewhat guiltily bypassed those last few and 'fessed up that our gifts would be a mixture of secondhand, homemade, and store-bought.

The quiz then pressed me for more details: what percentage of our gifts would be new and store-bought? I didn't know the answer to that offhand, so I went to the handy Excel spreadsheet on which I keep track of all our holiday gifts, because I am the most anal person in the entire world. It has columns showing what gift we gave to each person and where it was bought, as well as a column indicating whether the gift was secondhand or in some other way green (organic, local, recycled, etc.). I totted up the number of gifts we were giving that were new and store-bought and found that it came to 17 out of 51 gifts on the list, so I selected "about 25 percent," which was the closest answer. Then it asked me what percentage of our gifts would be shipped either to us or to someone else. I hesitated over that one, not sure whether sending a package in the mail was the same as "shipping," but eventually I decided it was and checked "about 25 percent" for that as well. Those two answers netted me another 9 points.

Next it moved on to questions about wrapping. For what percentage of my gifts, it asked, would I use "upcycled" wrapping rather than new materials? Once again, I was a little thrown by the wording, as I hardly consider our reuse of last year's wrapping paper to be "upcycling." Supposedly, the difference between "upcycling" and recycling or reuse is that an upcycled product is more useful than the waste material it was made from. But our reused wrapping is, at best, exactly as useful as it was on its first go-round—and realistically, it's probably less useful, because even though we discard the obviously damaged parts, the paper still has wrinkles and dents that show it's been used before. However, since "reused" wasn't an option, I told the quiz we were using 75 percent "upcycled" wrapping. (The gifts we have shipped directly to my in-laws' house get wrapped there, which means we use new paper for those.) That got me 3 more points.

Next topic: decorations. Approximately what percentage of our decorations would be reusable? Once again, I wasn't sure how to answer. Our usual holiday decorations are made primarily from natural materials—evergreen boughs scavenged from the Christmas tree vendors, pine cones, holly twigs—plus a single strand of LED lights and some bits of ribbon. The lights and ribbon get reused, but all those branches tend to end up in the compost bin or bundled with the other brush at the curb when the holidays are over. Does that count as "reuse"? After some hesitation, I guessed the answer was yes, since even if we're not going to use these natural materials again, we've already "upcycling" them once. So I said we'd be going with 100 percent reusable decorations and was rewarded with 4 more points.

It then asked about our holiday lights. I was disappointed to see that the quiz didn't even ask whether we were using energy-efficient LED lights, as opposed to the old-fashioned, energy-gobbling incandescent bulbs. All it wanted to know was where we were using them (indoors, outdoors, both, or neither) and whether they were solar-powered. So I had to select "outdoors, no solar" and reveal that we would have them on for "a few hours a day for a few weeks or so." Four more points for those answers, so we didn't do quite as well on decorations as we did on gifts.

The final question was, "What's the most traveling you'll be doing this holiday season?" This was the part of the quiz where I knew we'd get spanked, since our annual trip out to Indianapolis to visit my in-laws is nearly 700 miles of driving. (At least we don't fly, which would produce more than twice as much CO2 per person, according to this "Earth Talk" column.) In fact, I probably got off fairly easily on this question, since I only had to confess to driving "more than 150 miles" and not how much more. I only got 2 more points for this answer, but it was better than nothing.

Totting everything up, the quiz reported that my 34-point score indicated my holidays were "about 68 percent green." Not bad, but it said I could do even better by making a few changes. It offered a list of tips, "personalized to my answers," to help me make my holidays greener:
  • Consider alternative gifts, the kind that can't be wrapped. Unfortunately, this suggestion wasn't very practical for me. It's hard to give "gifts of your time and skill" to a friend or relative you hardly ever see, which describes most of the people on our gift list. Yes, we could offer to help my mom with a computer problem—but we do that all the time anyway and don't consider it a present. Gifts to charity don't really feel like much of a present, either; even if I knew which charities all the people on my list supported (those that are old enough to understand such things), I just don't think they'd get a thrill out of finding an envelope under the tree with a card reading, "A donation has been made in your name to...." And while gifts of "experiences," like event tickets or lessons, could be a great gift for the right person, you have to know what experience that person really wants and have a way to provide it. So while it's a lovely idea in theory, it just doesn't work out that often in practice. Bottom line: I think the whole point of gift giving is to show how you like and appreciate a specific person by giving a specific gift that person will really enjoy. If a charitable contribution or a cooking lesson is what that person would truly love, great. But if not, I think it's much better to choose a gift that will be valued, even if it's not as "green." I do my best to save resources in my own life all year round; I think I can afford to stray a little bit at the holidays.
  • If you give material gifts, choose greener ones. Look for minimal packaging, recycled materials, and durable gifts that won't wear out. Once again, this is something I try to do when possible, but it doesn't take priority over the quality of the gift itself. If I want to give, say, a board game, I'm going to choose on the basis of whether it looks like a game my friend would enjoy—not whether it's made with sustainably harvested wooden pieces.
  • Avoid waste when shopping and shipping. Specific tips include bringing reusable bags on shopping trips, using rechargeable batteries in electronic items, shipping gifts in reused and/or reusable packaging, and recycling your packing peanuts. To all of this, my reaction was: well, duh. I mean, of course I do all these things, and not just at Christmas time. I don't see how this tip could possibly have been "personalized to my answers," since the quiz never asked me about it. If it had, I could probably have picked up an extra point or two.
  • Cut down on paper waste by removing yourself from the mailing lists of catalogues you don't need. Yeah, I know this is something I should really do; it's just such a hassle that I keep putting it off. I don't see how it's a specifically holiday-related tip, either, since I get unwanted catalogues all year long. Maybe I'll make removing myself from these mailing lists my New Year's resolution, instead.
  • Ditch the "candy-filled advent calendar" in favor of an "acts of kindness calendar," which sends you an e-mail each day recommending an act of kindness you can do for someone else. I never buy an advent calendar anyway, so this tip is irrelevant for me, but I frankly can't see how getting an e-mail every day with one more thing you have to do is supposed to reduce holiday stress.
  • Focus on experiences rather than stuff. "Pursuing happiness doesn't mean purchasing it," the site advises. "Moments with loved ones are what will be remembered." Here, at last, is a tip I can completely get behind. My favorite parts of the Christmas gathering at my in-laws are always the ones that aren't present-related: baking cookies, gathering around the piano to sing carols, playing adult-friendly board games after the kids are in bed. But somehow, in the rush to get everything "ready" for Christmas, I end up fixating on whether I've checked off all the boxes in that Excel spreadsheet—coming up with an idea for everyone on the list, buying or making all the gifts, wrapping them, shipping them—and I lose sight of the fact that years from now, this probably isn't the part of the holiday that any of them will remember. So maybe I need to cut myself some slack. If I don't manage to get a present under that tree for every single person in the family, does it really matter? With so many of us all exchanging gifts, is anyone even going to notice if one person's pile of presents doesn't include one from us? Considering how long it takes to open all those gifts, maybe making the process a little shorter would actually be a welcome relief for everyone.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

DIY fuzzy slipper socks

A year or so ago, I bought several pairs of those fuzzy socks that sell for as little as a buck a pair at drugstores and discount stores all over the country. I really liked how soft and cushy they felt against my feet, but I soon discovered that for actually wearing under shoes, they weren't that practical. They were much too warm to wear in summertime, but in winter, they'd get soggy and cold at the slightest touch of rain or snow. Plus, after just a couple of washings, they lost most of their elasticity, so they'd bunch up under whatever shoes I was wearing.

Eventually I got fed up with them and was going to discard them. But since they were still in good condition, I thought maybe I could make something from the fabric. I started thinking about how I'd never been able to find a decent, inexpensive pair of slippers that actually fit my feet (usually a size small is too tight for comfort, and a size medium is too loose). What if I could upcycle these unwanted socks into slippers?

Once I had the idea, the process of making them seemed perfectly straightforward. First, I layered one pair of socks over the other on my feet to get the heels properly lined up. Then I rolled the tops of both socks down, to make a sort of low-heeled bootie, and stitched them together. I ran the needle through the rolled white and blue layers, then slipped it through the underlying blue layer and back up through the rolled parts. This secured the rolled-down top to the outer layer (blue), but didn't run it all the way through to the inner layer (white), since stitching all the way around the white layer would pull it too tight and keep it from stretching over my feet.

Once the two layers were secured, there was still one thing missing. Slipper socks usually have some sort of tread on the bottom to make them less, well, slippery. So I figured this looked like a job for my hot glue gun. I got it warmed up and applied dots of glue in a grid pattern all over the soles of both slippers. 

This worked, sort of. The slipper socks felt reasonably comfortable for just sitting around, but when I walked in them, I could feel those little bumps of hardened glue right through the fabric, pressing into the soles of my feet. It wasn't really uncomfortable except in one place, right in the middle of the ball of the foot. So I sort of pried that one lump loose, leaving a slightly threadbare spot on the sock, and after that the slippers were reasonably comfortable. The treads still feel slightly odd underfoot, but not really unpleasant.

I still have two more pairs of fuzzy socks to work with, beige and black, so if I make them into a second pair of slipper socks, I might try a different approach with the hot glue. Perhaps instead of big blobs, I'll just lay out a cross-hatching of thin lines that might not feel as hard underfoot. But for a first attempt, I'd say these slipper socks didn't come out too badly at all. And the beauty part is, they killed two birds with one stone—salvaging the material from the old socks I didn't want anymore, and turning them into something I actually needed.

If, however, you would really like a pair of slippers like this, and you don't happen to have a couple of old pairs of fuzzy socks sitting around the house, you can just go out and buy a couple of pairs for a buck apiece at your nearest drugstore, dollar store or what have you. Throw in a little thread and hot glue and half an hour of work, and you're all set. (DIY stocking stuffer, anyone?)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Guest room makeover, stage 3

Forget the Christmas Star and the Hanukkah Lights—this December, the real miracle is that Brian and I actually got the walls painted in our guest room. Before Christmas! Will wonders never cease?

Of course, when I say they've been painted, I don't mean that we are completely done with painting. We got one good coat on the walls, but depending on how it looks when dry, we might need to add a second coat—and we will certainly need to touch up a few spots on the ceiling and trim. But the room has made the shift from primer-white to Flioli Antique Lace, the color we finally settled on.

We took a few extra steps when prepping this room for painting, based partly on our previous experience and partly on tips from others. First, we taped off all the woodwork, but rather than molding the tape fully to the baseboards, we just applied it to the top surface and let it stick out to form a little shelf. This is supposed to help catch drips, and it seemed to work, except that with a smaller surface to adhere to, the tape didn't stay put quite as well. So we had fewer drips that needed to be wiped hastily from the floors, but we ended up with a few large ones on the baseboards themselves that will need to be corrected.

Second, we put down a layer of brown kraft paper (which we still have lots of left over from our basement floor project) to protect the floor. When priming the room, we tried to rely on a drop cloth for this purpose, but it was really awkward; it kept bunching up, so it was constantly in danger of brushing up against the freshly primed walls. Even when it did its job of catching drips, there was always the danger that we would tread in them and transfer them to the floor. With the brown paper, we were able to spot the drips more easily and steer clear of them.

Both these steps saved us some effort, but it's clear there's that when it comes to painting, we both still have a lot to learn. Here are a few lessons we learned from this round, which we hope will help us next time we have to paint a room:
  1. A zero-VOC paint is worth the trade-offs. Valspar interior paint, which we went with because we've used it before, comes in three formulations at Lowe's: the pricey Valspar Reserve, which promises super durability plus zero VOCs; the midrange Valspar Signature, which is low-VOC but not zero-VOC; and the basic Valspar Ultra, which is zero-VOC. (All three promise "one-coat coverage," but we're still waiting to see whether it lives up to that promise.) We went with the Ultra, and we both found it very pleasant to work in a room that didn't smell overwhelmingly of paint. It was a great relief after the primer, which left a lingering odor for over a week.
  2. A paintbrush or roller that can drip, will drip. I started the process of cutting in around the window frames, and I thought I'd try using the little mini roller we used to apply the sample swatches to our walls. I got it nice and loaded up with paint, applied it to the wall, and got a spurt of paint that dripped down the wall and all over the floor. After that I switched to using the brush first, then going over my brush strokes with the mini roller to blend them in. Even the brush would drip if I loaded it up too heavily; it was a constant balancing act between too much paint, which made a mess, and too little, which wouldn't cover the wall fully.
  3. When cutting in on the corners around the ceiling, the biggest problem isn't putting down a clean line; it's avoiding splotching paint onto the ceiling when you lean in to touch up the line you've just laid down. Brian eventually had to set a rule for himself that, whenever he was up on the ladder, he was not allowed to hold the paintbrush or roller in the open air; it had to be touching the wall at all times, which would limit its movement to one plane. (Even so, I think next time we paint a room, it might be worth investing in an inexpensive little paint edger like this one, which might make the job less frustrating.)
  4. A good stiff drink beforehand actually helps you relax and put down the paint more cleanly. Or at least relax enough not to scream and cuss and bang the walls every time you make a mistake.
We've still got a bit of work left to do on this room, like painting the heater covers, replacing the outlets, and refinishing both doors, which are in pretty cruddy shape. But getting this paint up on the wall sort of marks a turning point. Now that it's done, the room seems to have gone from being the nameless back room to the guest room, even if it's still a guest room in progress. Give us a few weeks to take care of those last few jobs, and we can finally get to the fun stuff, like furniture, window treatments, and art. Not to mention getting our cookbooks back upstairs where they belong.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Roasted Veggie Frittata

December tends to be a busy time for us, as I guess it is for most people. Between rushing around in the evenings and making holiday treats, I'm not sure how much time we'll have for trying new recipes, so I'm getting my Recipe of the Month in early. It's a roasted veggie frittata that Brian put together last night, more or less off the cuff. He based it loosely on the "Fast Frittata" recipe from our well-worn copy of The Clueless Vegetarian, but added a few extra fillips of his own that were reasonably successful.

He started with the remnants of a bag of Brussels sprouts we bought at the Amish market last weekend to make our favorite Roasted Brussels Sprouts. We had about 8 or 10 left over, not enough to do another batch, so he quartered them and put them in a cast-iron skillet with a chopped onion and a couple of diced potatoes. He tossed the contents with a quarter-cup of olive oil and a little salt, and cooked it over a high flame for about 5 minutes. Then he moved the whole pan to the oven, where he roasted the veggies for about half an hour at 400 degrees F, shaking the pan every 5 minutes or so to keep the veggies awake.

Once the veggies looked nice and tender, he beat 4 jumbo eggs in bowl with 3 tablespoons of Parmesan, plus a bit of salt and pepper. He stirred the roasted veggies into this egg mixture, then dumped it all back into the skillet and cooked it on medium. Once it started to set, he flipped the whole thing using his signature pan-to-plate method: flip the frittata out of the pan onto a big dinner plate, then slide it off the plate back into the pan and cook until it's firm. Unfortunately, this maneuver didn't go quite as well as usual. First, he got the timing a little off, so the frittata was slightly scorched on the bottom, and second, a piece of it broke off in the transfer, so it looks a bit ragged in the picture.

Despite this setback, the finished frittata was tasty. The earthiness of the roasted veggies made a nice counterpart to the lighter egg batter, and we finished off the meal with some whole-wheat toast. However, adding that half-hour of roasting time to the process meant that this frittata was no longer "fast," so it's probably not something we'd want to whip up on a busy night. Also, while the Brussels sprouts were good this way, they weren't oh-my-God-so-good like they are when roasted. So while this is a pretty good way to use up the leftover sprouts from a bunch, I don't think it's going to become our primary way of cooking them. It may not be a blue-ribbon recipe, but it's a reasonably easy, satisfying winter meal.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving bounty

Every year, Brian and I (well, mostly Brian) supply the pies and cranberry sauce for my family's Thanksgiving dinner. This year, however, we went beyond our usual responsibilities and brought a whole wealth of homemade goodies—some of them home-grown, as well. Our offerings, pictured below, included:

1. Rhubarb pie, made from our own home-grown rhubarb. Brian's recipe for the filling, made up out of his own head, is:
5 cups chopped rhubarb
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp. corn starch
If using frozen rhubarb, mix it with the sugar and corn starch while still frozen, and then let the mixture thaw. If using fresh, mix everything together and let it sit until the sugar starts to draw the moisture out of the rhubarb (the mixture will be gooey).
While the mixture is mingling, make the crust: 
2 cups all-purpose flour (not bread flour)
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter (no shortening here, thank you)
ice-cold water
  1. Combine flour and salt. Cut in the butter, straight out of the fridge, with a pastry cutter, until the the mixture is as fine as you can get it. Add the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing with a fork, until you have a smooth dough, coherent but not sticky.. Usually it takes around 7 or 8 tablespoons. Try to work the dough as little as possible. Divide the dough into two balls and coat each one in flour, then roll it out on a floured surface until it's as thin as you can get it. 
  2. To transfer the bottom crust to the pan, lift it by one edge and gently fold it in half, then lay that across the center of the pan and unfold it. This helps keep it from tearing. Let it settle into the pan and trim it off to about 2 inches all around the edge. Pour the filling on top and dot with butter (a tablespoon or two altogether).
  3. After rolling out the second crust, slice it into narrow strips and weave them into a lattice on top of the filling. Start by putting down one vertical strip, then one horizontal one on top, then two more vertical ones on either side of the first. Then fold back the first vertical one over the top of the horizontal one so that you can lay the next horizontal ones under it, but over the other vertical ones. Continue weaving in this way, folding back more strips each time, until the lattice covers the whole surface. (Yes, this is a lot more work than just laying all the horizontal strips one way and the vertical ones another, but it's much more structurally sound. If you do the lattice the lazy way, it will all break off in one big sheet as soon as the pie is cut.) Trim off the overhanging strips all around the edge.
  4. Roll the overhanging dough up all around the edge to form a nice, thick wall that will keep the pie juices from spilling over. Then, just in case, put a cookie sheet on the lower rack of the oven to catch any stray drips, and put the pie on the upper rack. Bake at 400 for around an hour. Check it after 30 minutes, and every 10 minutes after that, removing it when it looks nicely browned.
  5. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, to oohs and ahhs of admiration.
2. Pumpkin pie, made with store-bought pumpkin (since we didn't get a great crop of winter squash this year) according to the ultra-simple recipe on the can. Basically, you just mix the pumpkin with a can of evaporated milk, 2 beaten eggs, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon each of nutmeg, ginger, and salt, then pour it into the crust and bake: 15 minutes at 425 and another 45 or so at 350. Our one innovation was to use real Ceylon cinnamon from Penzey's Spices, rather than the cheap cinnamon sold in most grocery stores (which is really cassia and not true cinnamon at all). I guess this made a big difference to the flavor, because this pie went even faster than the rhubarb.

3. Apple butter, made in our slow cooker from some apples we picked up at the supermarket for a buck a pound. They weren't great eating apples, but they worked fine for this purpose. Brian consulted a bunch of recipes online, then conflated them all together into this simplified version:
  1. Peel and chop 8 apples. Load them into the slow cooker and cook them for 8 hours on low. (This part of the process is basically just making applesauce. Brian says if he had to do it again, he'd probably make the applesauce in the pressure cooker instead, which is much faster. You could also start with commercial applesauce, which is what most recipes recommend, but what fun is that?)
  2. Add 1/2 cup water, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. allspice, 1/8 tsp. cloves, 1/2 Tbsp. dark molasses, and the zest of half a lemon, and cook for another 8 hours on low.
  3. At this stage in the process, the apple butter will have a soupy consistency. Brian reduced it by transferring it to a pot on the stove and cooking it, uncovered, stirring it steadily, for another half hour or so. However, he thinks it might be possible (and easier) to reduce it right in the crock by just taking the lid off and bumping it up to high, then letting it bubble away, stirring it every so often, until it looks right.
4. Rhubarb jam, made from the last our home-grown rhubarb that we salvaged after the frost had hit. Brian used this very simple recipe that he found on a site called Leite's Culinaria. The only ingredients are rhubarb, sugar, water, and a lemon, but you use every part of the lemon: the juice, the rinds and the seeds, which supply the pectin to make the jam jell. Brian had his doubts about how well this would work, so he kept poking at the seeds in their little cheesecloth pouch to get them to make sure they were doing their job, with the result that the jam actually came out slightly too well jelled, with a consistency more like jellied cranberry sauce. (He thinks if he tries it again, he might put the lemon pips in a tea strainer instead and just leave them be.) He also didn't go through the whole process of canning the jam properly, in sealed, sterilized jars. Instead, he just scooped it into clean jars and stored it in the fridge. With the amount of sugar that's in it, it's hard to imagine that any bacteria could grow in it anyhow.

5. Ice box garlic pickles, made from last summer's extremely bountiful cucumber crop. We made jar after jar of these last summer, eventually switching from dill pickles to garlic pickles because we used up all our dill, and by Thanksgiving day, we still had two jars left. Fortunately, my kith and kin were happy to help us dispose of them. The recipe, as passed down from Brian's mom, is:
  1. Slice up about a dozen 5-inch cucumbers and stuff them in a jar with 4-5 sprigs of dill.
  2. Combine 1 quart water, 3/4 cup vinegar, 1/3 cup kosher salt, and 4 cloves sliced garlic, and pour it over the cucumbers. (The original recipe called for this mixture to be boiled for 5 minutes first and poured on while still hot, but Brian's mom started letting it cool first to keep the pickles crisper. Brian has taken this one step further and no longer cooks the brine at all, which is one reason our pickles lasted until Thanksgiving without going completely limp.)
  3. Store the jars in the fridge. They'll be ready to eat in 2 days, but better after 4, and they'll stay good for...well, as long as four months, as we've now discovered. They will be very salty after sitting in the brine that long, but some people (my sister in particular) seem to like them that way.
So that's how we contributed this year to a homemade, home-grown Thanksgiving feast. (We also ended up putting up several guests in our home after my parents' house developed an unforeseen plumbing problem, but that's another story.) Happy Thanksgiving to all! (And yes, now it's okay to start putting up the Christmas decorations.) 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bonus Recipe: Pumpkin penne

Earlier this month, I jumped the gun a bit on my Recipe of the Month post. I decided to count a variant on a recipe we'd already made as if it were a new recipe, mostly because I wasn't sure we'd actually get a chance to try a brand-new recipe this month. As it turns out, however, my worries were unfounded. On our last trip to Aldi, we found that in addition to their usual weekly sale fliers, they up a copy of their free holiday recipe booklet, which contained several veggie recipes, including this pumpkin sage cream farfalle. And since we also happened to have half a carton of ultra-pasteurized cream in the fridge from our last visit to Trader Joe's, which we had already discovered was more or less useless for whipping no matter how much we chilled it first, this seemed like a reasonable way to use it up.

Normally, the first time I try a recipe, I like to follow the directions exactly as written, since I know it's been tested that way. Then, after tasting it, I'll make any adjustments I think it needs for the next time I prepare it. In the case of this pasta, however, the recipe as written looked so ludicrously rich that it seemed reasonable to tone it down a bit. First, we scaled the entire recipe down to 3/4 its size, since we happened to have 3/4 cup of leftover pumpkin stored in the freezer that needed using up. Then, rather than using a full cup of cream to this volume of pumpkin, we used the half cup we had and eked it out with an equal volume of skim milk. We also scaled back the amount of cheese in the recipe from 3/4 cup to just 1/3 cup (and substituted Parmesan for Romano, which I don't like). And we substituted a plain yellow onion for the Vidalia the recipe called for, since once cooked, the difference in taste is hardly noticeable.

Even with these adjustments, the sauce was very thick and creamy, giving the dish a consistency rather like macaroni and cheese (an impression further enhanced by the pumpkin color). As for its flavor, it was very mild, with no particular flavor dominating. I think if we were to make it again, I might be inclined to boost the ratio of pumpkin to cream still more, bringing out the pumpkin flavor and further reducing the fat in the dish. I think one can of pumpkin to one can of evaporated milk might be a good ratio, and it would avoid leaving any pesky leftover that would need to be squeezed into some other recipe somehow. But then, given that we already know so many good things to do with pasta, it's unlikely we'll make it again at all. Its only real benefit is that it's a reasonably good way to use up excess pumpkin, and for that purpose, I prefer Brian's pumpkin chiffon pudding.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Free DIY leaf mulch

Last weekend, we took advantage of a brief interlude of nice weather in the middle of an unseasonably cold November to deal with some long-overlooked gardening chores. At the top of my list was tidying up the flowerbed in the front yard, which looked so promising last spring, but turned into a tumbledown mess by midsummer. I never did manage to get the flowers to stand upright again; some of the later fall blooms managed to grow straight up through the mass of flopped-over ones, but that just made the whole arrangement look even more disorganized. So it was almost a relief when the frosts of the past week withered all the remaining blossoms, leaving nothing but a drab, brown mass. At that point, there was no reason to leave them standing (or half-lying) any longer, and I could simply cut them down to the ground and start over in the spring. (The flowers we grew this year were all annuals; next year, the perennials in the wildflower seed mix are supposed to take over.  Those may be a little less subject to floppage, but just in case, I plan to build a support grid of stakes and string, as described in this article. Watch this space next spring for details.)

The other big task we had to attend to was raking leaves. We don't have any big trees in our yard, but our neighbors' send plenty of leaves our way—enough to make a huge pile on the patio. The big problem was not so much raking them as figuring out what to do with them all, as our compost bin was already full to overflowing. We could, of course, have just bagged them up and left them out on the curb for the borough to pick up, but that seemed like a waste of a lot of nice organic material. Since our now-denuded flowerbed was going to need a nice thick layer of mulch anyway, I suggested, why not put all these excess leaves to use for that purpose?

The simplest way to do this would have been to simply rake the leaves directly onto the flowerbed. That would have helped keep the bed tidy throughout the winter and warm the soil in the spring, but it could also have caused problems once the seeds started to sprout. Whole leaves probably wouldn't break down very much over the course of the winter; they'd just clump together in a dense mat, which might be difficult for the seedlings to break through. So if we wanted to turn these leaves into fluffy, nutritious mulch, we'd need to break them up somehow.

Fortunately, we knew of an easy way to do this. I forget where I first read about the idea of mulching leaves with your string trimmer, but it's simple enough. First, you fill a nice, big bucket (we used one of our trash barrels) about half full of leaves.

Then, you stick your string trimmer in the bucket, switch it on, and swirl it around to chop up all the leaves.

When you're done, you'll have reduced the half-barrel of whole leaves to a much smaller volume of coarse crumbs. You don't have to be a perfectionist about it: if a stray leaf here and there survives intact, it won't do too much damage. What you want to avoid is a solid mass of whole leaves that will just clump together under the snow, rather than breaking down.

It took about half an hour to process roughly half of the leaf pile in this way, producing enough mulch to cover the flowerbed a couple of inches deep.

The remainder of the pile can be tended to next weekend, or whenever we have a little free time. Depending on how much mulch we get, we can add that to the flowerbed or use it somewhere else, such as our bramble patch. And if all else fails, we can just dump it into the compost bin; the finer leaf crumbs will filter down through the bulkier items already in there, rather than piling up on top and spilling over.

Turning waste into something useful: what could be more ecofrugal than that?

Monday, November 24, 2014

DIY book tablet case

Last month, Brian decided to take the plunge and get himself a tablet computer. His work laptop had recently "bricked" (i.e., become a brick for all practical purposes), and he'd already disposed of his big old desktop machine, so he just needed something small to use for checking e-mail and other simple tasks at home. Rather than the el cheapo Android tablet from Wal-Mart we were considering back in March, we opted for the Google Nexus 7, which was rated the Best Android Tablet on ConsumerSearch. Since it was last year's model, we were able to pick up a refurbished one for only $75 on Amazon Marketplace, or less than $50 with some store credit we had, so we actually paid less than we would have for the Wal-Mart one. (By the way, yes, I'm still boycotting—but only the retailer itself, not the third-party sellers who do business through its site.)

Brian was pretty happy with his new toy, but he was missing out on one of its greatest advantages: its portability. The refurbished model didn't come with a case, so he hesitated to take it anywhere with him for fear it would be damaged. Of course, we could have just bought it a case for ten bucks or so, but I had a crazy idea that sounded a lot more interesting: why not pick up a cheap secondhand book and turn the book into a tablet case? The cover of a hard-bound book would probably provide perfectly good protection for the tablet, and from the outside, it would look just like a book—which would not only be amusing, but would also make the tablet a less attractive target for thieves, should any happen to spot it. Sure, neither of us had ever tried this before, but with books selling dirt cheap at our local thrift shop, what did we really have to lose?

So on our next trip to the thrift shop, we searched the shelves for something that was the right size to accommodate the tablet. Back in the "miscellaneous" area, we found a volume called The Drug Addict as a Patient that looked ideal for our purposes. It was just slightly larger than the Nexus in every dimension, so it would accommodate the tablet without adding too much bulk, and the title was so boring that no one who happened upon it would ever be tempted to peek inside. It was only 25 cents, and the store (which is apparently eager to get rid of its book inventory) has a standard "buy one, get two free" deal—so we also got a paperback copy of The Anubis Gates and a whimsical little volume called The Good Fairies of New York at no extra charge. Now even if our experiment was a bust, our quarter wouldn't have gone to waste.

Once we got it home, Brian got to work cutting out the pages. He traced around the outline of the tablet on the title page, and then he cut along that line with an X-Acto knife, trimming away the pages a few at a time until he had a hole deep enough for the tablet. This was actually a fairly tedious process, and he says it probably would have been a lot easier to clamp all the pages together and cut around the outline with a jigsaw, but he didn't want to risk it with this book because it was so small that he was afraid he'd cut it apart completely. So making a book-case for your tablet may be easier if you start with a larger volume, but then you'll also end up with a bulkier and heftier case. Depending on how much you plan to carry it around, it may or may not be worth the trade-off.

Once he had all the pages cut out, he needed some way to stick the edges together so the case would have some structural integrity. So he just applied a little white glue to the tablet-shaped outline and smeared it on with a finger. He also glued down the remaining pages that he hadn't removed from the end of the book, so they wouldn't flop around.

Then he clamped the whole thing shut for a couple of days and let the glue set.

Once it was dry, he found that the result wasn't exactly perfect. First, the glue had added a little bit of bulk to the pages, so the outline he'd traced now wasn't quite big enough for the tablet. So he fixed that by shaving away the edges of the pages with the X-Acto blade until he'd carved out a hole the right size. Also, gluing together the pages at the bottom had caused them to bubble up a bit as the glue dried, forming a sort of messy edge. But after a little consideration, Brian decided this was a good thing: it made it look like not just an old, boring book, but an old, boring, damaged book that really wouldn't be worth anyone's trouble.

The final step was figuring out how to hold the case shut. I'd imagined applying some sort of hinge to the outside to hold it in place, perhaps a scrap of leather like this person used or a Velcro closure glued to the front and back covers. But Brian simply cut that particular Gordian knot by slipping a large rubber band around the whole shebang. This completes the case's disguise as an old, disintegrating book: it now looks like it's so decrepit that it needs a rubber band to keep it from falling to pieces.

Then, when you open it up, surprise! It's not just a book—it's the whole Internet!

All  in all, I think this little DIY tablet case was worth the time it took to make it. It took a bit of time, and it may not be as easy to use as a tablet case designed for the purpose—but it was a lot cheaper, and it looks a lot cooler. Plus, it repurposed something unwanted that would otherwise go to waste (let's face it, who's going to want to read The Drug Addict as Patient?) into something useful.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Alternative Advent calendar

I'm starting this off with a disclaimer: normally I object to any material about "the holidays"—meaning Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, and the general December Madness—before Thanksgiving. But I'm going to make an exception for this little tidbit, because it's actually about preparing for the onslaught of the holiday season and coming up with ways to minimize the madness. So, since even I concede that the holiday season can be considered under way as soon as Thanksgiving is over, it follows that in order to plan ahead for it, you need to start planning before Thanksgiving. And ideally, rather than increasing your December-mas stress by starting the season even earlier, it will reduce it so you can enjoy both holidays more.

The folks at the Center for a New American Dream have been urging folks to "simplify the holidays" for several years now. The goal, they stress, is not to do away with the gifts, the decorations, the carols, and all the other things that people love about Christmas; it's to get rid of everything else, the extraneous stuff that just adds stress and detracts from the joy of the holiday rather than adding to it. So, for instance, rather than giving each child half a dozen presents, so that they spend hours opening them all and end up in a state of sensory overload where they can't really focus on anything, perhaps you could increase the joy by giving them each just one or two presents that they will really love and treasure, and letting them spend the rest of the day playing with and enjoying them. Instead of baking a dozen different kinds of Christmas cookies (and then feeling compelled to eat at least one of each and ending the day feeling dyspeptic and guilty), maybe make just the few kinds that everyone in the family loves most. Instead of covering every inch of the house with colored lights, consider having just one tree in one room, where it will really stand out and look special.

The problem, as I've noted before, is that it's one thing to decide you'd like your holiday celebration to be simpler and more meaningful; it's quite another to make it happen. Especially when your holiday celebration isn't just yours, but your whole family's, and a lot of those family members are deeply attached to their current way of celebrating.

Well, this year, the Simplify the Holidays campaign is actually acknowledging that fact. The authors have put together a Simplify the Holidays calendar that's kind of like an Advent calendar for minimalists; each day, there's a different exercise, tip, blog entry, resource, or inspirational thought to help you turn your simplified holiday from a dream into a reality. Last week's entries included:
  • An exercise called The Big Picture, in which you list all the things you do each year to get ready for the holidays, then think about which ones you really enjoy, and think about ways you might be able to eliminate or reduce the ones you don't enjoy.
  • Guidelines for talking to your loved ones about the holidays and which parts are most meaningful to all of you.
  • One reader's story about how she reduced the emphasis on gifts at her family's Christmas celebration and focused more on "spending time with each other."
  • Links to the Simplify the Holidays pledge, a list of actions you can vow to adopt for de-commercializing Christmas, and booklet, which features a wealth of tips on planning a more meaningful and sustainable celebration.
  • An inspirational quotation on the True Meaning of Simplifying. 
As we approach the season of holiday joy and madness, I offer you this alternative Advent calendar in the hope that it will help you focus on what's important to you, increasing the joy and minimizing the madness. Or, if you like your holiday celebration just fine the way it is, thank you, then maybe you can pass it on to someone else who you think could do with a little less stress during December.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled Thanksgiving thoughts.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Guest room makeover, stage 2

After more than a month of working intermittently on the back room that we're in the process of turning into a guest room—pulling out nails, patching the walls where the nails came out, sanding down the patches, and peeling most of the paint off the walls in the process—we finally got the whole room primed last weekend. (Even this step took longer than we expected, as we ran out of primer partway through and had to make a trip to the home center for more, so priming turned out to be a two-day job.) Now, at last, we've reached the point where we can really transform the room with some paint—just as soon as we decide what paint to use.

I'd already decided that I wanted to keep the walls in this room fairly neutral, so they wouldn't clash with the brown-and-magenta quilt we plan to use on the guest bed. I'd managed to narrow my color choices from the assortment shown in this post down to three, opting for the slightly bolder middle shades from each card rather than the off-white shades toward the bottom. However, given what a hassle it was to get this room to the painting stage in the first place, I definitely wanted to be absolutely sure of my final choice before covering a whole wall with it, because I really didn't want to have to do this job more than once. So rather than just relying on the paint chips, I sprang for six dollars' worth of sample-size paint pots to check out how they looked on the actual wall before making the final decision. The three lucky finalists are are, from left to right: Flioli Antique Lace, a light yellowy beige; Sahara Sands, a more peachy tone; and Pacific Shoreline, which shades off toward pink.

If you enlarge the photo of the three swatches, you'll see that they came out rather streaky and uneven. We only had one big paintbrush, and I didn't want to have to wash it and wait for it to dry between uses, so I decided to put up my three test swatches with the cheap little foam brushes we use for staining furniture, which turn out to be less than ideal tools for putting paint on a wall. However, even these somewhat mottled test patches gave us a good enough impression of the colors to eliminate the middle hue right away, since Brian found it too "fleshy." He then used a little mini-roller we'd picked up at the store (technically meant for painting woodwork, according to the label) to reapply the remaining two choices to the wall a little more evenly.

Unfortunately, this just made the waters murkier still. It's not that we couldn't evaluate the colors properly; it's that, once we could see them clearly, we didn't quite see eye to eye on them. (Which isn't surprising, I guess, given that his eye level is about a foot above mine.) Brian was inclined somewhat toward the pinker Pacific Shoreline, while I thought the more neutral Flioli Antique Lace might make a better background for hanging art and suchlike. So in the end, the deciding vote may be in the hands of Their Honors Rock, Paper, and Scissors. But one way or another, we are going to get these darn walls painted before...well, before midwinter, at least.