Saturday, March 29, 2014

Compost by the yard, for the yard

Now that spring has officially arrived, it's the time when a gardener's mind lightly turns to thoughts of compost. Being organic gardeners, or at least organic as much as possible, we rely on vast quantities of this stuff to enrich the soil in our garden beds, as well as our trees and shrubs. This year, we've also got several new plantings planned that will need compost: some additional asparagus plants in the big exposed bed at the front of the garden, and some hardy kiwi vines along the back fence. (We ended up ordering these from American Meadows, the same site where we bought the wildflower seed mix for the front yard, and we're postponing the purchase of the other landscaping plants until we see what our local nurseries can do for us.)

All these plantings require more compost than our little backyard bin can supply, so in the past, we've relied on bagged compost from stores like Home Depot. Typically, we need about eight to ten 1.5-cubic-foot bags of mixed humus and manure, in addition to the contents of our own bin, to cover all our planting zones. However, more recently, we've run up against the problem of "killer compost," which contains persistent herbicides that can keep killing plants even after they've passed through the four stomachs of a cow and then gone through the high-heat composting process. To get around this problem, we've started buying our compost early and testing each bag (as described here) to make sure it's safe to use. The problem is that (a) it's a big hassle, (b) it requires us to buy our compost a good four to six weeks ahead of planting time, and (c) we have to buy at least 50 percent more compost than we think we'll need to ensure that we have an adequate number of bags that are safe to use. (Last year, we bought a dozen bags and ended up having to discard four.)

All this got me wondering whether there might be someplace around here where we could buy some sort of certified compost that was guaranteed to be free of these persistent herbicides. My guess was that our best bet would be to try the Belle Mead Co-Op in (duh) Belle Mead. These folks gave us invaluable help last year on our patio project, delivering all the materials we needed to lay the base layer and saving us a big chunk of change by suggesting the use of stone dust rather than sand, eliminating the need for two separate deliveries. (We did have to buy some sand separately to fill in between the bricks, but we got good value out of the extra stone dust by using it in our garden paths.) It seemed likely that if anyone would have the kind of compost we needed, they would—and even if they didn't, they'd at least understand the question and be able to give us a straight answer.

I did a little poking around on their website and found that they listed several varieties of bagged compost on their price list, but none that specifically said anything about herbicide content. However, when I checked in the "bulk products" section, I saw that they had a product called "leaf compost," which we figured had to be safe because it's made strictly from leaves, rather than any kind of grass to which an herbicide might have been applies. The only problem was that, being a bulk product, it's sold by the yard—that is to say, by the cubic yard, which is 27 cubic feet. That's quite a bit more than the 12 to 15 cubic feet we generally use, and the $85 delivery fee would make it quite pricey. But, I wondered, what if we could load it ourselves and just pay for the amount that we could carry?

I called up the Co-Op to inquire, and they were quite accommodating. They said if we'd bring our own containers and do the shoveling ourselves, they'd let us take all we could carry and charge us for just half a yard. So the only question then was what to carry it in. We had the two big cardboard boxes that our new filing cabinets had come in, but we knew we couldn't fill those to the brim or they'd be too heavy to carry. So we ended up loading the car with an assortment of additional containers, including some large paper leaf bags provided by the borough (which we never use because we compost all our leaves) and several 40-pound birdseed sacks. The birdseed sacks, interestingly ended up being the easiest to work with. The cardboard boxes were reasonably easy to load but very difficult to lift and maneuver when they were even halfway full; the paper bags were somewhat easier to handle, but we had to be careful about keeping them dry because any significant contact with the wet dirt would weaken them. The birdseed sacks, by contrast, were made of tough plastic and remained fairly easy to lift even when mostly full.

On the way home, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations to figure out how buying our compost this way worked out price-wise. We estimated that the amount of compost we actually managed to squeeze into our various containers was at least the half a yard they actually charged us for, if not a bit more, and the cost was only $16.25 (before tax). By contrast, the bagged compost we used to buy at Home Depot was on sale, last time we stopped in there, at 3 bags for $10. At 1.5 cubic feet a bag, half a yard would be the equivalent of 9 bags, which would cost $30—so we paid just a little over half as much per cubic foot for the bulk compost. And actually, if you factor in the 50 percent extra we'd normally have to buy of the bagged compost, our savings per cubic foot of usable compost jump to nearly 65 percent. True, we had to do a bit of extra work to shovel it ourselves, but we saved all the work involved in testing the compost, which is a much more complicated and long-drawn-out process.

The leaf compost is lovely stuff, too, dark and fluffy, without any of the pungent aroma of the composted manure we used to get. (It doesn't smell anything like manure in its natural state, but it still has a distinct odor that permeates the car when you're carrying ten bags of it.) In fact, Brian thought carrying this stuff would, if anything, leave the car smelling cleaner than before, as the leaves absorbed any odors that might be lingering inside. When we got it all home, we stowed it in the shed (unloading the contents of the boxes into a couple of big garbage cans, which are easier to carry), where it's now ready to be used on all our veggies and other plantings. We've already spread out the first couple of bags' worth on the new flowerbed and scattered on the seeds, which we hope will take root promptly in the freshly enriched soil.

All in all, I have to say buying compost by the yard is better in just about every way than buying it by the bag. The only drawback is that we have to drive all the way to the Co-Op, half an hour away, to get it—but since our dentist is right in the same town, and since we have to go see him every March anyway, all we have to do is schedule our cleanings at a time when we can pop by the Co-Op either right before or right after. Nothing takes the sting out of learning you need two fillings like knowing that all your garden plants are well provided for.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: First Sowing

Last year, as you may recall, I had trouble coming up with an appropriate way to celebrate the start of spring as a gardener. Gardeners have lots to celebrate in summer and fall, when the crops are coming in, but at the very start of spring, there isn't just nothing ready to pick; there isn't even anything in the ground. And with the snow barely melted (and more on the way next week), it's a bit early even to start putting things into the ground. Of course, we have our seedlings started, as you can see here: parsley, celery, leeks, tomatoes, and marigolds. But most of those can't go into the ground until the last frost date, which is still at least seven weeks away.

However, there is one crop that can actually be planted at the first sign of spring: snow peas. Actually, the variety we're planting (Oregon Giant) is technically a sugar snap pea rather than a snow pea, the kind that you eat when the pods are big and ripe rather than tiny and flat—but I prefer the sound of the name "snow pea" because it makes these seeds sound like the tough little critters they are. They don't care if there's still snow on the ground and more in the forecast; if the calendar says it's spring, that's good enough for them. (According to Wikipedia, the French refer to both types of peas as "mangetouts," meaning "eat the whole thing." Descriptive, but not quite as poetic.)

Unfortunately, simply getting these seeds into the ground was the easy part. Snap peas are one of the crops that we grow on a trellis, since they're long, vining plants that can't reasonably be grown any other way—and in the bed where the peas are scheduled to go this year, the trellis net is badly damaged. We rotate certain crops each year to keep the bacteria from getting a foothold, so this trellis had tomatoes growing on it last year, and perhaps it was their weight or their aggressive tendrils that
tore up the bottom part of the netting, but whatever the reason, it's pretty well chewed. So we'll need to find some way to patch it before these little green shoots actually start to come up.

Since we actually are having reasonably springlike weather today, mostly sunny with a high of 52, I took advantage of it to take care of a couple of non-veggie-related gardening tasks as well. First, I started my aggressive pre-emptive strike against blackspot, which last year gradually stripped our rosebush of all its leaves well before autumn. I did my best to remove and dispose of the infected leaves the way the experts all say to do, as well as spraying weekly with a fungicide, but to no avail; the infection was just too well established. So I vowed that this year, I'd do my best to stop the fungus in its tracks from showing up in the first place. I mixed up a batch of a baking soda solution that lots of sources, including the one above, recommend: 1 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in a quart of warm water, with a bit of dish soap added to help it stick to the leaves. I'm planning to spray them with this weekly, even before the leaves are fully formed yet, to try and nip any blackspot infection in the bud (or rather, on the buds). If the spots show up anyway, I'll try this vinegar solution that a lot of gardeners on the GardenWeb forums seem to have had luck with.

The second job is a rougher one: getting my wildflower bed ready for planting. Last fall, we removed the big, overgrown foundation shrubs from the front left side of our house, and my plan was to plant the area with a nice wildflower mix from American Meadows. Before I can do that, however, I need to pull out all the ivy that's currently filling up the bed. In the absence of the shrubs, it's grown still more, even sending tendrils out across the front porch to the other side of the stairs—so I'm going to have to crack down and make sure I've pulled up every bit of it, or it could smother my new flowerbed before it even gets established. (I'm thinking about maybe keeping just one little piece planted in a big pot, where it will, with luck, stay contained and produce just enough greenery to frame our door at Yuletide—but I'll have to keep a pretty sharp eye on it even there and be prepared to root it out ruthlessly if necessary.)

I thought this stuff was supposed to be pretty shallow rooted, so I hoped I could pull it all out with my bare hands. However, some of it appears to have formed a really vine that's securely rooted into the base of the front steps. I'm not sure how I'll get this out; normally we use the King of Spades for digging up tough roots like this, but there isn't enough room for that around the concrete foundation of the steps. So I might have to resort to killing it with vinegar or boiling water. But at least I got all the vines out of the ground itself, so I guess my garden is now ready for spring. And heaven knows, after the winter we've had, so am I.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The lure of The Deal

One of the biggest problems in the frugal life is trying to figure out when a low price is actually a good deal.

A case in point: a month or so ago, I discovered a site called It sells women's clothing, mostly dresses, that are made to order in India. There are dozens if not hundreds of styles on the site, and not only is every single one of them available in every size from 0 to 36, but for an extra $7.50, you can have the garment custom-tailored to your personal measurements. Not only that, for another $7.50 on top of that, you can take the basic pattern of any dress and alter it in various ways: adding or removing sleeves, lowering or raising the hem, or changing the neckline. And perhaps the most glorious part of all is that every single dress comes with pockets. (You can have them removed at no charge if you don't want them, but who would do that?)

Now, the dresses on this site aren't ridiculously expensive; most are priced between $60 and $90, but that's still more than I'd normally pay. However, the site runs frequent sales; right now, for instance, it's "buy two, get one free." On top of that, when you register on the site and agree to receive e-mails from them, you get a coupon for $25 off. So I figured there was no harm in signing up, getting my credit, and holding on to it in case I saw something I liked. In fact, they were running a special at the time, so I actually got a $30 credit—enough to lower the price of one of their basic dresses to a mere $30, which is much closer to my comfort zone. And if I'd ordered it at the time, during their Spring Sale, I could have gotten an additional discount, so the total price, including customizations and shipping, would have been under $40. There were several styles on the site that I liked, but I knew I didn't really need a new dress, so I decided to wait until I either saw something I really loved or had a particular occasion to buy for.

So it sounds like I made a sensible decision, right? Only this Friday, I got an e-mail warning me that my $30 credit was about to expire. If I don't use it by tomorrow, I'll lose it, and with it my chance to try out eShakti's service for the first time at half the normal price.

So now I'm completely torn. I hate the idea of letting a $30 credit just go to waste—but I also hate the idea of spending $40 on a dress I don't need, and might not even have an occasion to wear, just to avoid wasting the credit. I must admit, I absolutely love the look of the $70 Havana Dress, but it's more of a cocktail dress than one for day wear, and I could count the number of cocktail parties I've been to in my life on one hand. This $65 knit dress looks more practical for every day, but even with the credit, it would be $35 plus shipping, and is it really a good value at that price? If I saw it in a store at that price, would I pay for it? Hard to say, but at least if I saw it in a store, I'd be able to try it on before deciding and not risk being stuck with something that doesn't suit me at all. (EShakti does have a very liberal return policy, but the process is time-consuming.) And the current sale is no help, since if I don't need one new dress, I certainly don't need three.

Right now, I'm leaning toward not buying either dress. Leaving the $30 credit completely out of the decision and looking strictly at what I'd be getting and what I'd be paying for it, I can't convince myself that it's worth spending $40 for a dress that doesn't even have an occasion. But still, I keep looking wistfully at that totally impractical red dress. I know something I might never wear isn't a great deal even at $40, but it's a lot better than $70...and what if the occasion does come up, and it's too late to get the deal? (Okay, it's not exactly a likely scenario, but wouldn't I just feel stupid?)

Yet another example popped up the same day. Brian and I have been toying lately with the idea of getting a tablet, which seems to offer all the advantages of a smartphone without the need to pay for a monthly plan. But like that red dress, it just seemed like something that wasn't worth the money if we weren't really sure it would be useful. The top-rated tablet at ConsumerSearch, the iPad Air, costs an eye-popping $500, which is a lot of cheddar to drop on something that we don't have a specific need for. And while the report also recommends a couple of budget tablets in the $150 range, even $150 is a lot of money for us to spend without a pretty solid reason.

However, Friday's issue of the Christian Science Monitor's daily newsletter included this headline in its "most viewed" list: "Tablet deals: $60 for a 9" Android tablet, save $114 on Kindle Fire HD." I couldn't resist clicking through, and I found that it is indeed possible to get a bare-bones 9-inch tablet for $60, but it has a few catches: the memory is only 4GB, and the tablet can't use the Google Play store. Since the main point of getting a tablet would be to take advantage of all the apps, it's hardly worth getting one that doesn't give you access to most of them. However, the very next paragraph in the article covered a smaller 7-inch tablet that does have Google Play access, as well as 8GB of memory, for only $10 more. Sadly, it's only available at, but as I've noted before, my commitment to avoiding Big Blue has grown much less firm as the store has taken baby steps toward being less evil, such as making cheap organics widely available. So for a deal like this, it might be worth ending my boycott officially.

However, even at this price, we're still wavering. The tablet obviously has more practical value than the dress; we know that if we buy it, we will certainly use it. But we also know that we've managed to get along just fine all these years without a tablet, and we can almost certainly continue to do so. So clearly, it isn't a necessity, and do we really want to spend $70 on a luxury? Sure, $70 is a lot less than $500, or even $150—and if our goal is to figure out whether a tablet is really a worthwhile investment for us, surely we'll hardly have a better chance to answer the question this cheaply. But that just makes the $70 tablet the equivalent of the practical $35 gray dress: it's useful, and it's reasonably priced compared to other products of its type, but still, is it actually worth that amount to us? If we know we don't really need it, can we justify spending even $70 on it?

Given that the tablet, unlike the dress, has definite practical value, I suspect we'll end up giving in and buying it. I just hope that this deal doesn't vanish, like my $30 eShakti credit, before we finally make up our minds to take the plunge.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Recipe of the month: Roasted Brussels sprouts

It's kind of a cheat to count this as the recipe of the month for March, since we actually tried it for the first time in late February. But we've tried a couple of variants on it in since then, and anyway, it's just too good not to share.

As I've mentioned in previous entries, this year Brian and I are planting Brussels sprouts in our garden for the first time. Neither of us has had much experience with cooking them before, and in fact, both of us grew up thinking we didn't like them—but that was because we'd only ever had the frozen kind, which we've since discovered to be a pitiful substitute for the real thing. On a visit to my sister a year or so back, her husband cooked some pan-roasted Brussels sprouts that were so delicious we both kept coming back for seconds and thirds, and I think that was what first got me interested in growing them. However, knowing that there are delicious ways to cook Brussels sprouts isn't the same thing as being able to cook them ourselves, so when we discovered some bagged Brussels sprouts on sale for $2.99 on our last visit to Trader Joe's, it struck us as a good opportunity to learn. (I think the bag was only 10 ounces, which works out to $4.64 per pound, but compared to the $5.99 a pound they charge at the Whole Earth Center for them at this time of year, it looked like a bargain.)

For our first attempt at this unknown vegetable, we decided to try a simple recipe out of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic. (In my experience, roasting and adding garlic are two ways to make practically any vegetable taste good, so doing both of them at once seemed like it couldn't miss.) I don't want to tread on Bittman's toes by reproducing his recipe, but the gist of it is simple: heat some olive oil in a pan, then put in the halved Brussels sprouts, along with whole, peeled garlic cloves and some salt and pepper, heat them on the stove until they start to brown, then move the whole pan to a 450° oven and roast them for half an hour. The first time we tried it, we feared we might have overcooked them, because they came out crunchy and nearly blackened—but they were absolutely delicious. Bittman suggests drizzling them with balsamic vinegar, but they didn't need it a bit. We gobbled up the whole batch, garlic and all, and then sat looking mournfully at the empty pan. The rest of the meal (I think it was roasted free-range chicken and baked potatoes) simply paled in comparison.

That first batch was so tasty, we couldn't resist the opportunity to try it again. Over the past few weeks, we've treated ourselves to half a pound of Brussels sprouts on every visit to the Whole Earth Center, thus keeping the overall cost down to $2.99 (though sadly, the batches are even smaller). We've done the roasted sprouts twice more, and we've also tried Bittman's Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Hazelnuts, which were also very tasty—though not as absolutely addictive as the roasted ones. In addition, Bittman's book notes that most Brussels sprout recipes will also work with shredded cabbage, which has the advantage of being a much cheaper vegetable. He recommended red cabbage cut into wide ribbons for the roasted sprouts recipe, so we tried that, and it was also very good. Maybe not quite as good as the Brussels sprouts, but good enough that we gobbled it right up and left nothing in the pan. So with cabbages on sale extra-cheap this week for St. Patrick's Day, we'll definitely take advantage of the opportunity to make the cheaper version of this dish again, and maybe some of the other Brussels sprout recipes as well. And meanwhile, we're anxiously looking forward to June, when we can plant our first crop of Brussels sprouts and see how they do. No matter how many we're able to grow, we should have absolutely no trouble eating all of them. (Of course, oven-roasting veggies isn't quite as much fun in July, but I have a hunch these might be pretty good cooked over charcoal, as well.)

I'm so enthralled with this recipe that I'm actually starting to wonder whether maybe it could even make frozen Brussels sprouts edible. Bittman's recipes all call for fresh ones, but I did a quick search and found a similar recipe at that's made with frozen sprouts, so maybe it wouldn't hurt to give it a try. Tip Hero notes that frozen veggies are typically on sale all month for National Frozen Food Month, so if it works, we might actually be able to indulge our newly acquired taste for a lot less than $2.99 a batch. Personally, I'd be happy to roast up a whole pound of these little delights at a time—I'm sure we'd still polish them off at one sitting.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Spinach springs eternal

As you may have noticed, the garden plan I published a month ago for Festival of Seeds didn't include any spinach. Brian and I have tried over the years to grow it, but nothing ever came up. Last year, my dad advised us to skip the spring planting, which never has enough time to germinate properly, and instead plant a fall crop around the beginning of September. Then, after harvesting it, we could leave the roots in the ground and get a second, smaller crop in the spring. So we tried that, but once again, no spinach appeared. We concluded that our garden just wasn't spinach-friendly and decided we'd have to keep buying ours from the store.

So, fast forward through the winter of 2013/14. (Oh, if only we could have done that in real life.) Bitterly cold weather in January, followed by snowfall after snowfall, covering the garden beds to a depth of a foot. Finally, at the end of February, it lets up for a week or so, and the snow starts to melt to the point where a bit of the underlying dirt and mulch is visible. And look what Brian found out there underneath the snow?

Yep, tiny little spinach plants. They wouldn't grow in spring, wouldn't grow in fall, but after the toughest winter we've been through in years, there they are. The only problem is, they're in a garden square that's been allocated to something else.

Fortunately, I sort of prepared for this possibility. The spot where the spinach is now coming up is the spot I assigned to the Brussels sprouts, a new crop we're trying for the first time this year. (Crossing our fingers that we'll be successful with those, since we've recently discovered lots of delicious ways to cook them—more on that later.) The sprouts don't go into the ground until July, by which time this spinach should be all picked and eaten.

However, this wasn't the only spot where spinach got planted; we put it all along the front left side of one garden bed. So more of the stuff may end up coming up once the snow melts. On one side, it will overlap with the spot assigned to a pepper plant, which doesn't go into the ground until June, so no problem there. But if it comes up on the other side, it'll cut into the space we've allocated for arugula. So we'll have to decide whether to pull out and eat the baby spinach before planting the arugula, or just skip the arugula and let the spinach get bigger. Either way, too much of a good thing is a nice problem to have.

One question remains, though: if we want to grow spinach again next spring, when should we plant it? In the summer, like we did last year? Or should we just wait until everything else has been picked?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Caveat quia hortulanus (let the gardener beware)

It's been about six weeks now since I received my initial shipment of seeds from Fedco, which contained most, but not all, of those I had ordered. Three varieties—the Calypso pickling cucumbers, the New Zealand spinach, and the Klari Baby Cheese peppers—were on backorder. A note enclosed with the seed shipment assured us that this was nothing to worry about: "As is logical, your early orders will have the most back-orders (but the fewest out-of-stocks because you are first in line for all short items) as not all varieties have arrived yet." So I thought I could still be reasonably confident of getting the seeds I had ordered eventually. My chief concern was the Klari Baby Cheese peppers, a new variety I was particularly eager to try after seeing the rave reviews it had received for taste, yield, and ease of growing. The others were interesting enough to be worth trying, but I could easily do without them if need be.

You can probably guess where this is going. Today the rest of my seed shipment arrived, and there were the cucumbers, there was the New Zealand spinach, and there was a packet of pepper seeds—but instead of the Klari Baby Cheese, it was a generic "sweet pimiento pepper" that the folks at Fedco had evidently deemed the closest substitute. In a separate envelope, they'd enclosed two quarters and two dimes, a refund of the 70-cent difference in cost between the two varieties. So, apparently, I somehow managed to get my order in early enough for it to be back ordered, but still late enough for it to run out of stock before they were able to ship them to me. Takes talent to hit a window that small, eh?

What really frustrated me about this was that I distinctly remembered marking "no substitutions" on the order form when I first placed the order, specifically because I wanted to make sure that I got the Klari Baby Cheese peppers and not some other variety. But when I went back and checked my order acknowledgement from Fedco, I found that it said right at the top, "You WILL accept substitutions for the items you've ordered." So somehow, their website managed to translate my "no" as a "yes"—and because I didn't spot the error at the time, there's absolutely nothing I can do about it now. For a minute or two, I actually considered trying to buy the seeds from another supplier, but the best price I could find for them was $3 at a site I'd never heard of before called Backyard Diva—and the cost of shipping would be half again as much as the seeds themselves. Given our abysmal track record with pepper seedlings, there's really no way to justify shelling out $7.50 for a single packet of seeds that we might not actually manage to grow.

I was pissed off enough about this error—and about the cavalier way Fedco brushed it off without so much as a word of explanation—that my first impulse was to dump Fedco completely and find some other supplier for all our garden seeds. Mother Earth News has a list of 15 sites they recommend, and while most of them still wouldn't be able to sell us the Klari Baby Cheese seeds, at least they wouldn't pretend they could sell them to us and then pull a switcheroo at the last minute, when it's too late to go somewhere else. But as Brian pointed out, it's probably not worth getting so mad over this one screw-up that we dump a supplier that still has better prices and better selection than any other we're likely to find.

So I guess that instead, the takeaway from this experience is going to be "buyer beware"—particularly when dealing with seed orders. Next time I order from Fedco, I'll make sure to double, triple, and quadruple check the order confirmation to make absolutely sure there will be no substitutions—and if their site insists that "I WILL accept substitutions for the items I've ordered" when I've already said that I WON'T, I'll call them up immediately and insist on getting it changed, or else canceling the entire order. At that point, there will still be time to go to another supplier if I have to.