Monday, February 24, 2014

My own private Starbucks

Hello, my name is Amy, and I have a coffeehouse habit.

Now, mind you, as Starbucks (and Starbucks clones) junkies go, I'm not as bad as most. I've never been one of those people you'll see in there every single morning, waiting in line for her daily cup o' joe. No, an ordinary cup of coffee is something I can brew up perfectly well at home and be quite satisfied with it—more satisfied than I'd be at Starbucks, in fact, since mine is made with organic, Fair-Trade coffee beans. (Starbucks is pretty good about ethically sourcing its coffee, but it hasn't managed to hit the 100-percent-Fair-Trade mark yet.) And, of course, paying 20 cents rather than two dollars for my morning fix is a nice plus, too, and one that saves me over 400 bucks a year.

No, what lures me into the coffeehouses is the espresso drinks—cafe mocha in particular. I first fell in love with this stuff when a coffee shop opened up right across the street from my first apartment, and since then, in every new home I've lived in, one of the first things I've looked for in the neighborhood is the nearest place that can serve me up a hot cup of chocolate-coffee goodness (or a blended iced one in the summertime). I've tried making my own at home, using one of the many recipes you can find online, but it's never been quite the same. If you don't have an espresso machine, the best you can really do is try to brew double-strength coffee (twice the beans for the same amount of water), and it just doesn't have the same kick. It's not bad, mind you, but it's just coffee with milk and chocolate syrup in it; it doesn't achieve that mystical, alchemical mixture of chocolate and coffee, bitter and sweet, that makes the real thing so addictive.

The problem with my taste for these coffeehouse delights is twofold: one, they're caloric (270 calories for a tall Starbucks mocha), and two, they're expensive. So, over the past several years, I've kept my habit in check by limiting myself to one or two visits per month and paying for them with survey reward points (from MyPoints and other sites of that type). From time to time I've considered the idea of buying an espresso machine so that I could make my own coffeehouse treats at home, but even the cheapest model recommended at ConsumerSearch costs $85, so at my current rate of one mocha a month, it'd take about two years to pay for itself—plus it would take up an unreasonable amount of our limited cabinet space. I've often wondered, though, why it is that you should need such a bulky and expensive electrical appliance to brew espresso. Hasn't the beverage itself been around longer than the electrical appliance has? Shouldn't there be some way of making it without all this rigamarole?

Well, apparently, there is. My sister's birthday gift to me this year was this little moka pot, which brews extra-strong coffee right on the stove burner. As best I can tell, it works more like a miniature percolator than a traditional espresso machine: a little reservoir on the bottom holds water, and the ground coffee goes into a little basket that sits right on top. As it heats on the burner, steam bubbles up through the coffee grounds, carrying the essence of the coffee with it, and then recondenses in the upper chamber. The resulting brew may not be truly identical to coffeehouse espresso, but it's close enough to fool an amateur like me. And when I'm done, the little pot tucks easily into a corner of a cabinet, where it takes up less room than the plain old drip coffeemaker I almost never use anymore.

Now, you might think that to use this homemade brew to make my own lattes and mochas, I'd need a milk frother as well. Well, au contraire, mon frère ou ma soeur: thanks to a little trick I discovered at, all I need is my microwave and a small jar. You just put a little milk in the jar, shake it vigorously, and microwave it for about 30 seconds, and presto: steamed milk on the bottom with a layer of foam on top. Adding this to my homemade espresso produces a latte that, to my taste buds, is indistinguishable from the real thing. Adding a couple of tablespoons of chocolate syrup to the bottom of the cup first makes a mocha that's, if not identical to Starbucks's, certainly good enough to satisfy my cravings—and with fewer calories, too.

It's much lighter on the wallet, as well. A tall mocha at Starbucks costs about $3; my homemade mocha uses about 20 cents' worth of coffee,  13 cents' worth of milk, and 16 cents' worth of chocolate syrup. (This ingredient, sadly, is not Fair Trade and organic, but we had to make do with what they had at our local grocery store. Perhaps on our next visit to Trader Joe's we'll pick up some of their organic chocolate syrup, which will bump the price up by maybe 10 cents a cup, but also make it a truly eco-friendly treat that still costs less than one-fifth as much as Starbucks's version.) And when summer rolls around, I can see how my little toy does at making a home-brewed version of Frappuccino using this recipe from the Squawfox website. I've tried it using brewed coffee, and the result was reasonably tasty, but not really a Frappuccino. But based on my results with the mocha, I think the little moka pot might be the key ingredient.

Homemade mocha made with my new toy falls into a category of goods that I've lately come to see as one of the most important components of an ecofrugal life: the cheap luxury. Articles about "frugal fatigue," which have become increasingly popular as the recession drags on, usually mention the idea of deliberately making room in your budget for small splurges so that you don't feel deprived. The idea is that if you allow yourself a $4 latte once a week, you won't get so frustrated from months of going without that you just snap and let your credit cards off the leash at the nearest outlet mall. But of course, the bigger that "just for fun" line in your budget is, the more it will slow down your progress toward your goals—so finding cheap luxuries, like a coffeehouse mocha you can enjoy at home, is the best way to fend off feelings of deprivation while keeping your budget on track.

So I've decided to start a new "cheap luxuries" series on the blog. I'm hoping to write at least one new post a month that features a frugal indulgence I've discovered, or discovered a new way to enjoy. Look for them when frugal fatigue starts to get you down—and please feel free to share your own ideas for them in the comments.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Acts of Tax

As long as Brian and I have been a Married Couple Filing Jointly, doing our taxes has always been my job. The very first year we were married, which was also the first year I started working as a freelancer, we hired an accountant to help us over the complications of our new tax situation—but when we saw the $300 bill, we realized doing that every year wasn't going to be an option for us. So for the past eight years, I've done our taxes the cheap way: at home, on paper. I'd manually transfer all the numbers from all the forms we received to the 1040 and add everything up on my little pocket calculator, and then Brian would double-check my math before I popped the returns into their envelopes and took them down to the post office to send by Certified Mail to make sure they arrived safely. It was a bit of a hassle, sure, but it only took me a few hours to get everything done, so I figured I wouldn't have much to gain by shelling out $50 for a copy of TurboTax.

The process became a bit easier in 2010 when the IRS introduced its Free File Fillable Forms, which let me input everything directly on the screen and did the math for me—in some cases even picking up the total from one form, such as our Schedule A, and automatically inserting it in the appropriate place on the 1040. Using the Fillable Forms also allowed us to e-file our federal return, which saved us the cost of a certified letter and let us get our refund a bit faster (without actually forcing us to pay up any sooner if it turned out that we were the ones who owed money). Unfortunately, we couldn't do the same with our New Jersey tax return, as the free NJ Webfile service isn't available to folks who have business income (such as my freelance earnings) to report. So from 2010 through 2013, we continued to go old-school with our state taxes, filling out the forms by hand and sending them by certified snail-mail.

From time to time, I'd get offers from MyPoints for online tax filing services, some of which even offered to let me file my federal return for free (and tack on a state one for a modest fee). However, every time I gave one a try, I ran into a snag: it couldn't understand Brian's W-2. Apparently Rutgers fills out its W-2 forms in a way that's nonstandard (otherwise known as "wrong"), and when I attempted to copy the information from the form Rutgers gave us to the one on the screen, it didn't work. So I just assumed that these services weren't an option for us and consoled myself with the thought that sooner or later New Jersey would have to get with the program and introduce an e-filing option that worked for everyone. (Why continue paying people to process all those paper forms if they didn't have to?)

This year, however, when a MyPoints offer for the free edition of TaxAct popped up in my in-box again, I thought I'd give it just one more try. As usual, I ran into the snag with the W-2, but by examining TaxAct's instructions carefully, I was able to figure out where on the form the misplaced numbers actually were supposed to go and insert them there. After that, everything was pretty straightforward. The software walked me through the return with a series of questions about my tax situation, and its calculators automatically took care of all the time-consuming parts, like figuring out whether or not we needed to pay the much-loathed Alternative Minimum Tax. Whenever I got stuck (for example, because I needed a form that I hadn't received yet), I could just log out and come back in a few days, picking up right where I left off. The only annoying part was the repeated messages that kept popping up throughout the process promising me all kinds of benefits if I'd just pay an extra $13 to upgrade to the Deluxe Edition. But I just kept clicking "No thanks," and I got to the end of the federal return in much less time than I'd expected.

My original plan at this point was to just e-file the federal return, print out a copy for myself, and then fill out my New Jersey return in the usual way. However, TaxAct wouldn't let me file the federal tax return without first going through the questions for the state return. "Aha," I thought, "this must be how they make money offering their federal edition for free—they force people to complete the state return as well, so that most of them will just go ahead and file it." But I figured there was no point letting the time I'd already put in on the federal return go to waste, so I went ahead and answered the questions for the state return and was surprised to find that it took only a few minutes to get through them. The prospect of just paying the $15 to have the whole process done with began to look tempting. After all, I reasoned, when you factor in the $4 or so I normally spend on certified mail, plus the time required to fill out the return, review it, print it, seal it up, and take it to the post office, my hourly pay for redoing the whole return myself would probably be less than minimum wage. So after consulting with Brian, I concluded that maybe shelling out the $15 was a reasonable idea after all.

It turned out, however, that TaxAct had one more trick up its sleeve. We instructed the program to have our refunds directly deposited into our bank account, which is what we usually do if we happen to be getting any. In order to do this, we had to provide some information and then electronically sign a whole bunch of different forms agreeing to let TaxAct have access to our account—and way down at the bottom of the last form, where it would be easy to overlook if you had stopped paying attention at that point and just wanted to get it done already, was a note to the effect that there would be a $19 "handling fee" for TaxAct to process the deposit. And since we had two refunds coming to us (federal and state), naturally there would be two $19 handling fees. Ah, so that's how they're making money on this "free" service—by charging you to give you your money!

Fortunately, we spotted this little hidden charge before paying it, so we simply walked the program back several steps and told it to send us a check instead. We still had to pay the $15 for the state return, but given the amount of time the software saved us (or rather me) on filling out forms, we figured that was a reasonable amount to pay.

So my final verdict on TaxAct is that it actually is, on the whole, a better way to do taxes than filling everything out by hand. Yes, it costs $15 to do both returns, but $15 to have both returns done and out of the way in a couple of hours is pretty reasonable. I suspect, unless something better pops up, that this is going to become my new standard method of filling out my tax return each year, because it really was easier and quicker (at least once I got past the initial snag with the W-2 form). But I'll definitely make sure to read through every word of everything TaxAct asks me to sign to make sure they haven't slipped any new hidden fees into the agreement—and if they add one that I can't get around, it's back to the old paper forms for me.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Backup Backup Plan

For much of the past week, I've been in what I believe is technically termed a "tizzy."

The cause of said tizzy was the weather forecast, which was growing increasingly dire as the week went on. By Tuesday morning, it was apparent that we were in for yet another big winter storm—the kind that would shut down pretty much everything for at least a full day. I had to assume that we'd be stuck at home all day on Thursday, if not Friday as well. And based on our experiences last month, I felt I had to assume that we'd spend all that time stuck at home without power.

Realistically, there wasn't that much I could do to prepare for this possibility, but I felt like I had to do something, so on Tuesday I ventured out into the cold and hit up all the local stores I could reach on foot, looking for supplies that might help get us through anywhere from a day to a week of being snowed in with no heat. At the grocery store, I stocked up on canned and instant soups, along with a jar of chocolate-hazelnut spread (a store-brand Nutella equivalent) to placate our sweet teeth. At the drugstore, I picked up a new 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, since working on one was pretty much all that kept us sane during the the January 21 power outage. I also grabbed a couple of "pain relief heat wraps," which are basically just like the little chemical heat packs we already have for emergency use, only tucked inside a stretchy wrapper that you can use to hold them in place on your back or your hip. I'd found that the biggest problem with using the heat packs to keep warm was finding a way to keep them secure under your clothing; tucking them into a pocket doesn't put the heat where you need it, and slipping them into my shirt didn't work because they wouldn't stay put. So I figured we could use these heat wraps for warmth initially, and when they ran out of juice, we could just slip new heat packs into the belts.

Despite these preparations, however, I still felt jittery. I couldn't shake the feeling that we were about to be trapped in a cold, dark house for days, and while I didn't think we were in serious danger of freezing to death, I wasn't truly convinced that the heat packs would be enough to keep us from shivering miserably the whole time. On Wednesday morning, I was poking fretfully through the websites of the local Loweses and Home Depots, trying to see if any of them had any heaters in stock that would run on natural gas. And when I found exactly one in stock at exactly one store, Brian offered to go and pick it up on his way to work if it would keep me from worrying myself to death.

When he went to the store to get it, however, he ran into his first snag. His plan was to hook the heater up to the gas line that feeds our dryer, and he had been assuming that he would be able to use a 10- or 12-foot connecting hose, such as he had seen used with propane grills. However, this turned out not to be an option for a gas heater, so he had to content himself with a 4-foot hose, which wouldn't be long enough to get the heater out the door. So in order to warm ourselves with it, we'd have to camp out in the laundry room. But still, I figured, if things got really bad, we'd be glad to be able to warm up one room in the house, even if it wasn't the nicest room to hang out in. So Brian promised to take a look at the heater and the dryer connection that evening and make sure he'd know how to hook it up in case it was needed.

Snag number two became apparent when we opened the box and started reading the instructions. First, they started talking about various pieces of equipment you'd need to do the installation, none of which was mentioned on the outside of the box. Then we got to the part about the importance of testing the pressure in your gas lines before doing the hookup to make sure that it was no greater than "10.5 inches of water"—and we both realized that not only did we have no idea how to conduct such a test, we weren't even sure what that measurement meant. The further we read, the more apparent it became that Brian's idea of a quick-fix installation was not going to work out. And all the anxiety I'd been feeling earlier in the day now descended on him, as he contemplated the fact that he'd just spent around two hundred dollars on an emergency heater that was going to be useless in an actual emergency.

Fortunately, a check of the weather report confirmed that the much-anticipated snow wasn't expected to start falling until around midnight. So after dinner, back to the Lowe's we went and returned the lot. We did a little poking around the shelves to see if there might be anything else we could use as an emergency heat source, but since I wasn't willing to bring kerosene into the house, we had to rely on our backup backup plan to warm ourselves as best we could with heat packs. Based on sources I'd managed to dig up online, we also planned to confine ourselves as much as possible to one small room in order to conserve our body heat, and to hang up some clear plastic (which we dug out of our storage room) over the room's windows to help insulate them without blocking the light.

Fortunately, we haven't actually had to implement this plan yet. We're now about halfway through the predicted period of the winter storm, and so far, the power has remained steady as the snow has piled up to a depth of about 10 inches. (Well, actually, it's an additional ten inches on top of the six or so we had on the ground already, making a total of sixteen—and that's just in the flat areas. The piles of snow on either side of our driveway have nearly reached the level of my head.) But Accuweather is warning that another 3 to 6 inches of snow is on the way tonight, along with wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour, and that the combination "will likely bring down tree limbs and utility lines resulting in power outages." So I won't feel truly secure until I wake up tomorrow morning and (successfully) turn on the lights. On the plus side, if the power does go out in the middle of the night tonight, the roads should at least be clear enough by tomorrow morning to allow us to escape to someplace that does have heat, like Brian's office. (The cat can't go with us, of course, but hey, we can always leave her with one of those heat packs.)

Meanwhile, my next task is to scout around until I find a contractor who knows how to install one of those little gas heaters properly. Even if we never once have to use it, it should be well worth the cost just for its ability to prevent future panic attacks every time I hear the words "winter storm warning."

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Recipe of the month: Pumpkin Chiffon

February's Recipe of the Month, like January's, is a sweet dish rather than a savory one—even though it's based around a vegetable, at least in name, rather than a fruit.

A little background on how this recipe came to be: last month Brian and I were trying, on our vet's recommendation, to feed pumpkin to our cat to aid her digestion. Amélie (the cat), however, was not inclined to cooperate. We tried mixing tuna juice into the pumpkin, but she still wouldn't touch it; she'd eat it if we mixed in a bit of the tuna itself, but eating tuna every few days did not agree with her, so we abandoned the experiment. (We're trying her on a product called Laxatone instead, which she will take with tuna juice only.) This left us, at the beginning of February, with half a can of pumpkin in our fridge that we had to use up somehow if we didn't want it to go to waste.

I suggested to Brian that he try making a half recipe of the "Baked Pumpkin Custard" out of The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan. This is a weight-loss book I bought last year because I liked its common-sense premise: people tend to eat a fixed amount of food every day, so you can lose weight by filling up on foods that are "volumetric," or low in calories for their weight. However, it turned out to too limiting for me as a weight-loss plan; it doesn't require you to eat specific foods each day, but it restricts you to a fairly narrow list of choices. Nonetheless, I kept it on on our shelf because it contained several recipes that looked both healthful and tasty, including this pumpkin custard, which is essentially like the inside of a pumpkin pie without the crust.

Unfortunately, the recipe in the Volumetrics book called for sweetened condensed milk, which isn't an item we normally keep on hand in our pantry. Rather than go out and buy some, Brian tweaked the recipe to make it more like his normal chocolate pudding recipe. In the process, he actually made the pudding more volumetric by whipping the egg white, so half a can of pumpkin is enough for two generous bowls full. It's quite tasty, as well. The flavor, as you might expect, is similar to pumpkin pie, but the texture is much lighter and fluffier, so I've named it Pumpkin Chiffon. And since this is a made-up recipe that doesn't belong to anyone, there's no reason I can't share it with you in full.
Brian's Pumpkin Chiffon 
Separate 1 egg. Place the white in a bowl and the yolk in a small bowl or cup and set both aside.

Combine the the following ingredients in a saucepan:
  • ½ cup canned pureed pumpkin 
  • ½ cup + 2 Tbsp milk
  • 3 Tbsp sugar 
  • 1 ½ Tbsp corn starch 
  • ¾ tsp pumpkin pie spice (ours is a homemade mixture of 4 parts cinnamon, 2 parts ginger, and 1 part each nutmeg and cloves) 
  • 1 pinch salt
Heat over low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and begins to bubble. After it bubbles for about 1 minute, remove from heat and add approximately 1/3 of the mixture to the egg yolk. Mix with the egg yolk thoroughly, then return it all to the saucepan. Stir to mix, and heat until the mixture begins to bubble again. Remove from heat.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg white, gradually adding 1 Tbsp sugar. Beat until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold the the pumpkin mixture into the beaten egg white.  Distribute into bowls and allow to cool. Makes 2-3 servings and can be scaled up as necessary.
I calculated the nutrition info for the recipe using this Recipe Calculator, and I found that if you use skim milk and a large egg, you can get two large bowls with 190 calories each or three smaller portions with 126 calories each. Of course, if you top it with whipped cream, as we do, that will add another 30 to 60 calories. But even with the whipped cream, it's still fairly virtuous as desserts go, and it's actually quite filling. The only thing that's odd about it is the color. You can't tell so much from the picture above, but when you look at this stuff in the bowl, it really doesn't look like a dessert—mainly because it's almost exactly the color of turmeric. Then again, maybe if you're not in the habit of eating Indian food very often, that won't bother you.

Overall, I consider this Recipe of the Month a complete success. I expect it to become a regular part of our dessert repertoire, as well as our default method of using up a leftover half can of pumpkin.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Best Budget Decor, Part 2

It's been about a month since I published my "best budget decor" post, featuring all the best room makeovers I'd seen online on a true shoestring budget—about $200 for a bedroom, up to $300 for a bathroom, and under $1,000 for a kitchen. Since then, I've updated the post twice as I came across new stories about budget renovations that I hadn't seen before. Then, today, I came across a story on the "This Old House" website about its "Top 19 Budget Reader Remodels." One of the featured remodels had already appeared in my original budget decor post, and most of the others didn't meet my strict budget criteria, but there were three kitchen renos that did meet my guidelines, and I thought "Well, this is getting to be a bit much." So rather than continue to tack new stories onto my original post (where they might not be seen by regular readers who have read that post already), I'm adding a second post to cover all the extra stories that weren't in the first one. (If I continue to come across new budget decor stories, I'll save them up until I have enough for Part 3.)

So, since I only found one additional bathroom redo, I'll start with that one. Although I'd already covered several powder room renovations in my original post, I thought this one was worthy of inclusion because it was done on an amazing budget of $100 (and she didn't even spend all of it). To stay within this minuscule budget, the homeowner used lots of creative tricks:
  • using beadboard wallpaper to give the look of paneling on a budget
  • building a hanging shelf out of wood scavenged from shipping pallets
  • modifying her existing light fixture with Ball jars
  • covering a dollar-store trash can with rope
  • making a simple drop valance out of sale-priced fabric (with a dowel as a curtain rod)
  • framing leftover fabric for some cheap art and using it to decorate a glass food jar for a soap dispenser
  • and, of course, using what she already had on hand, like leftover paint and accessories from other rooms
All in all, a very impressive result on a still more impressive budget. Man, my $900 bathroom refresh seems so unimpressive now.

Fortunately, I don't have to feel inferior with regard to my kitchen, since I've never actually "redone" it yet. So I still have a chance to match the performance of budget kitchen redesigns like the one that was featured in last month's issue of Better Homes and Gardens. Blogger Shavonda Gardner and her wife took their kitchen from generic to unique by painting the walls, painting the cabinets, converting two of them to open shelving, adding hardware to the others, installing a tile backsplash, and stenciling the floor (!). All told, Shavonda estimates they spent "less than $700" for this redesign. (The editors refer to it as a "refresh," which seems like just the word I'd been looking for to characterize a room redo that's somewhere in between redecorating and remodeling.) Gardner provides more details on her blog, sharing some of the strategies that helped keep their costs down and confessing that the whole project took them over a year. (Nice to know that we're not the only ones who prefer the "cheap and good" approach to home improvement.) This blog entry doesn't show the stenciled floor, but some of the pictures on her home tour do, and she discusses the process in two entries (this one and this one) from last November.

This Old House outlines a kitchen makeover with a still more impressive budget in "A Farmhouse Kitchen Redo for $564." The "before" pictures show reasonably good bones—sturdy cabinets, decent counters and appliances—but the cabinets have that generic builder-grade look and the walls are a very dark, intimidating orange. The owner's "cosmetic tweaks" included a paint job on both walls and cabinets, including "lightly distressing" the cabinet edges, and whitewashing the table's legs to give it a country look. They also added a couple of new storage cupboards in the eating nook and removed the doors from upper cabinets to convert them to the open shelving that everyone seems to love these days. (I know it's supposed to make a kitchen look open and airy, but what are you supposed to do if you don't have the kind of perfectly matched, perfectly organized dishes that you want to keep on display all the time?) Finishing touches included new hardware, molding on the tops of cabinets, new pendant lights, and a wallpaper backsplash. Nothing about the configuration of the room was changed at all, but the feel of it is much more open and modern.

An even more dramatic transformation appears in "The New $967 Kitchen." The "before" kitchen is completely devoid of personality, with its stock cabinets, white laminate counters, and beige vinyl flooring. The owner actually did move a couple of fixtures in this remodel, switching the locations of the sink and dishwasher so that the sink would be under the window—and so that the doors of the oven and dishwasher would no longer interfere with each other. The biggest transformation, however, was made with color. The oak cabinets were refinished in a darker shade and outfitted with oversized stainless-steel hardware; a mosaic-tile backsplash was added in multiple shades of green; new counters edged in stainless steel added a modern look. The homeowners also tucked a couple of shelves under the breakfast bar to store the microwave and other appliances, freeing up much-needed counter space. The homeowners are still saving up for new appliances, but even with their old ones, the kitchen now looks colorful and contemporary rather than beige-on-beige.

The final kitchen remodel, done on a $935 budget, is interesting because the homeowners took a different approach from most: rather than trying to remove "dated" features, like scalloped trim on the upper cabinets, they aimed to "highlight" them with fresh paint and the ubiquitous open shelving. The original kitchen was an undifferentiated white, from cabinets to vinyl flooring; the owners spent the better part of three months scraping up the multiple layers of vinyl to expose and refinish the hardwood underneath. They removed the upper cabinet doors, replaced the lower ones with a dark fabric, and painted the walls a bright robin's-egg blue. The now-exposed interiors of the upper cabinets got a color makeover as well, with patterned contact paper, and the countertops were refinished in black. They also added new hardware and a new faucet, and a butcher-block island from IKEA added more counter space. (The article lists the cost as less than $50, but the price of the same island at the IKEA website is now $400, so the homeowners must have scored a fantastic deal. Unfortunately, the article doesn't explain how they pulled this particular rabbit out of the hat.)

All this has got me thinking about whether it might be possible to spruce up our kitchen on a similarly slim budget. We don't want to make any big changes, but I would like to replace the hideous old laminate counters with their metal edging that seems specially designed to trap dirt. When I first started thinking about this two years ago, my plan was to re-laminate them, but Brian's parents talked him out of it, saying that this is a huge hassle of a job that's almost impossible to do neatly. However, when I priced out new laminate countertops using the estimator tool at, I found that replacing them completely would cost nearly $700 (including installation). They wouldn't break the bank, but they wouldn't win us any budget-remodeling prizes, either. So now I'm wondering whether we should be considering other DIY options. Installing ceramic tile right over the existing laminate would avoid the problem of creating waste by ripping out the old counters, but according to this article, it would probably cost more than the new laminate counters. Creating a new concrete counter, the latest trendy option, would be equally expensive and take even longer. And the cheapest option, painting over the whole thing with a stone-look paint, wouldn't work on our old-fashioned counters because of the stupid metal strips. So a true budget remodel—even a cosmetic one—may be out of our reach. Unless there's some solution I'm overlooking....

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: Festival of Seeds

Throughout the whole month of January, the weather here in New Jersey was absolutely frigid. For weeks, I barely ventured outdoors except to shovel snow, and planning my garden was the farthest thing from my mind. A couple of days ago, however, the thermometer finally crept above the freezing point, and right now it's actually a balmy 55 degrees. So even though Punxsutawney Phil claims the respite is only temporary, it still feels like an appropriate day to celebrate this year's Festival of Seeds by getting cracking on my garden layout for 2014.

I placed my seed order with Fedco about a month ago, and my seeds arrived in mid-January—or at least most of them did. Three of the new varieties I'd ordered were listed on the receipt as backordered and still haven't arrived. I wasn't too upset about the New Zealand spinach, which was really just an experiment anyway (it's reputed to make a good ground cover, so we're going to try some in our weed-ridden side yard), and I can manage without my Calypso pickling cucumbers (I'll just plant more of the trusty old Marketmore variety). I was quite annoyed, though, about not receiving the highly rated Klari Baby Cheese sweet pepper, which I'd been hoping would turn out to be the reliable, productive pepper plant we've been searching for all these years. For now, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the seeds will eventually arrive, but I'm hedging my bets by keeping my garden plans general. So the plot below shows only general plant types (tomato, pepper, etc.) and not which variety will go in which spot. I'll fill in the details once I start the actual planting, based on which seedlings actually thrive. (The crops that are filled in above the boxes are trellis crops that don't take up too much room on the ground, so I think they can safely share space with the zucchini plants.)

So that's the first stage of my Festival of Seeds celebration. The second part will be the planting of my first seedlings for 2014, the parsley. As usual, I'm a bit late getting these started: according to my schedule, the seeds should actually have gone into their pots in late January, since they take so long to germinate. But parsley's a pretty tough crop, so I'm not too worried about it; somehow it always manages to thrive no matter how cavalier we are about getting them into the ground on time. In fact, I think there's actually some of last year's parsley out in the garden at this point. I'm not sure it's actually still alive out there, since it's been buried under ten inches of snow for several weeks and subjected to single-digit temperatures at night, but if I scraped off the snow and found a couple of green shoots still clinging to life, it wouldn't actually surprise me. I think I might go so far as to try seeding some parsley directly in the garden—frozen ground and all—and see whether it actually comes up. It might not germinate, but then, getting parsley to come up even in a nice warm box under grow lights is like pulling teeth, so what have we got to lose? We've got more seeds than we'll be able to use anyway.

This year, there's also a third stage to this celebration, one that involves not seeds but actual plants. Now that we've finally (we think) managed to root out the giant zombie grapevine that used to take over our back fence each summer, we've decided that this is the year to plant some hardy kiwi vines in its place, which should provide us with some fruit we'll actually get a chance to eat. We're also planning to buy a few more asparagus crowns, since the ten plants we currently have in our side yard haven't been producing more than about a dozen stalks all season, which obviously isn't enough for anyone. We figure the new ones can share the long bed in front of our garden with the rhubarb plants; we were originally planning to add more rhubarb to the bed, but it turns out the four plants we have now are producing all we can handle as it is. (Of course, it would make more sense to have all the asparagus in the big bed and all the rhubarb in the smaller one in the side yard, but moving all the plants around isn't really practical, and we don't want to risk killing off healthy plants just for the sake of a neater-looking garden.)

So I need to figure out, before the snow melts, just where to order those plants from. It's complicated by the fact that we also want to put some new plants on the north side of our yard on that big slope, and the two plants we have in mind—shrubby cinquefoil and bearberry cotoneaster—will probably need to be special ordered as well. So obviously it would be preferable to order all four of these plants from a single nursery in order to minimize the shipping fee, but I'm having trouble finding a single source that sells all four. So far the best I've been able to do is Hirt's Gardens in Ohio, which has three of the four, but I've seen quite a few reviews of this nursery from disgruntled customers, so I'd rather not place my order with them if there's any chance of finding an alternative.

Fortunately, if Phil is to be believed, I should have six more weeks of winter to figure it out.