Sunday, May 2, 2021

Gardeners' Holidays 2021: First Planting

Yesterday we were busy dancing in the May (actually in person this year, though we had to adapt some of our dances for social distancing), but today we celebrated the spring Gardeners' Holiday at home by planting all our garden seedlings. These weren't actually scheduled to go in the ground until next weekend, but the weather has been so balmy, and the seedlings (with one exception you'll hear about later) looked so big and healthy, that we decided to jump the gun and plant them now. And, since we were doing that, we just went ahead and got the crops we're starting from seed off to an early start as well.

Here you see our array of seedlings: tomatoes, peppers, and marigolds. We did not actually plant all of these; Brian habitually starts at least twice as many seedlings as we expect to need to ensure that we have enough healthy ones to put in the ground. And to make assurance double sure, he generally puts two or three seeds into each seedling tube, then thins out the extras when they come up. And as you can see, with most of the seeds we started this year, this plan worked almost too well, leaving us with an embarrassment of riches, particularly in the tomato department. We planted two each of Opalka, Premio, Pineapple, and Sun Gold, and we have two of each left over. (The extras usually go to his coworkers, but since he's still working from home, this year we're planning to give them away to members of the local gardening group.)

However, there was one new variety that, even with all Brian's extra-careful efforts, still was not ready for planting. That's our new Apple pepper, an allegedly "dependable and problem free" frying pepper that we selected from Fedco after our first choice, the faster-growing Banana, turned out to be unavailable. Brian started three seeds in each of two seedling tubes, and of those six seeds, only one actually germinated — and not until three weeks after all the rest of the pepper seedlings. So, while we do now have one Apple pepper seedling, it's had three weeks less to grow than all its fellows, and Brian feared it might not survive out in the wild. He's going to hold it back for another week or two at least, and if it still doesn't look hardy enough at that point, he might just skip it and plant one of the backup Carmens instead. And we certainly won't attempt to grow this variety again next year.

Along with all the seedlings, we started several crops from seed. We planted two zucchinis, six squares of sweet basil, three of Thai basil, one of dill, and six of Provider green beans, and along the trellises, we put in winter squash, climbing French beans, and cucumbers. (We made a slight boo-boo with these; we forgot that we had planned to put in extra Cross Country plants this year and only one Marketmore, so we ended up with an equal number of Cross Country and Marketmore plants, same as usual. And since the seeds are now in the ground, it's too late to correct the error. Oh well.) By the time we were done, practically every square in the garden was planted out. Only the final planting of summer lettuce is still to come.

And our work didn't stop in the garden proper. We also added one new echinacea plant to our flowerbed in the front yard. As you can see, the plants have all grown quite a bit since we put them in last year. However, they suffered some deer damage early on, before we added our new invisible fence to keep the deer out. Nearly all the plants got munched on to some extent, and while most of them eventually recovered, one of the coneflowers did not. So along with the rest of this year's seedlings, Brian sprouted a new one to replace it. It's now installed in the back corner of the flowerbed, temporarily covered by a chicken-wire cage to protect it until it gets a bit bigger. (We also need to replace most of the violas, but those will go in later.)

After we finished planting, we filled the watering can several times from our rain barrel to give all the plants, new and old, a good soaking. And, while we were at it, we added some water to a few other newcomers in our garden. The first is a new honeyberry bush, which we purchased this year after realizing that one of our five existing bushes hadn't survived the winter. Most of the plants had begun forming new leaves, but this one, one of the two Tana plants, showed no signs of budding at all. In fact, we debated buying two new bushes, because we weren't entirely sure whether the other Tana bush was still alive either, but after examining it carefully, we thought it was just a little later budding than the others. So we bought just one new plant. We considered trying a new variety, since the Tanas had not performed so well, but we decided to take our chances on another Tana, since it was available as a two-year-old plant and the other variety came only in a smaller size that we feared would not be mature enough to pollinate our two Keiko plants. Here is the new one, already larger and healthier than the one it replaced — and, as you can see, it has indeed blossomed, so we hope it and the Keikos may all produce berries this year. (As it turns out, we really should have bought two, since the other Tana turned out to be dead after all. But oh well, we can always replace it next year.)

And we also have several new asparagus plants in both the backyard and side-yard beds. We could see that there were some spaces in the beds where no plants were growing, and we had planned to go back to the Belle Mead Co-Op and buy some new asparagus crowns to fill in the gaps. However, on a recent trip to Ocean State Job Lot, a big discount store where we like to shop mainly for interesting foodstuffs, we found a big section in the front devoted to garden supplies. To our surprise, among the seeds and trowels were packages of asparagus crowns, containing six crowns each for just four bucks. The label didn't say what variety they were, but we figured at that price, we didn't have much to lose by giving them a try. In fact, it turned out to be an even better deal than we thought, since the package actually contained seven crowns, not six. Brian managed to squeeze the extra in by digging a second row in the side-yard bed so the plants could go in one behind the other. The indentations you see here in the backyard bed are the spaces where the new plants were added.

So, in short, there are quite a lot of new plants in the yard at the moment. If all of them are successful, we can look forward to a summer filled with beans and greens, squash and cucumbers, crisp peppers, ripe tomatoes, and sweet, juicy honeyberries. And for now, there's the satisfaction of looking out at the garden and seeing it green and growing and full of promise thanks to our efforts. Something attempted, something done, has earned an evening of relaxing on the couch watching Critical Role before bed.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Recipe of the Month: Pasta with Cabbage and Soy "Sausage"

Brian and I didn't get too adventurous this month with our dinner recipes. We have a few new ones in the queue that we want to try out soon, but so far we have stuck pretty close to what we know. So our Recipe of the Month for April is not a brand-new dish, but a new variant on an old recipe — or, to be more exact, two old recipes that Brian combined together.

The first of these was a pasta recipe from Vegetariana that has long been one of our go-to dishes. The original version, "Bow Ties with Cabbage," is pretty simple: just saute four cups of shredded cabbage together with a thinly sliced onion and a minced clove of garlic, and when everything is tender, toss it with cooked bow-tie pasta and sprinkle it with poppy seeds. This is a particularly handy recipe to have in the file, since cabbage is sort of a staple veggie for us. It's cheap and can be used in lots of different recipes, but most of them don't use more than half a head, so this pasta dish is a simple way to dispose of the other half. And it doesn't call for anything we don't tend to have on hand.

Anyway, at some point it occurred to Brian that he could spice up this familiar dish by combining it with the cabbage and vegan sausage recipe he invented last January. These two dishes already have cabbage, onion, and garlic in common, and the non-overlapping ingredients — pasta, apple, and Soy-Curl "sausage" — certainly seemed like they'd all be compatible.And since we'd just recently taken the plunge and ordered the big 12-pound package of Soy Curls from the manufacturer, we had plenty of those to work with. (Brian portioned them all out into zipper bags and stuffed the freezer full of them.) The only ingredient he decided to omit was the caraway seeds from the sausage-and-cabbage recipe, since he was already using poppy seeds.

Sure enough, this combination of ingredients worked perfectly well and was more interesting than either dish on its own. It was heartier, too, with protein, veggie, and starch all in one pot, so it didn't require anything else to make it a complete meal. The only quibble we had with it was that the mock sausage came out a bit too salty; in future, Brian plans to cut down the amount of salt used in the soaking liquid from 3/4 teaspoon to half a teaspoon. With that modification, this will likely become our new go-to recipe for using up extra cabbage.

Here's the edited version:


Boil a pot of water. When it boils, add 1/2 pound of any short pasta and cook to al dente (about 8-10 minutes depending on the type).

Meanwhile, heat 1/2 cup water for one minute in the microwave. Stir in 3/4 tsp. salt, a couple of grinds of pepper, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1/4 tsp. Liquid Smoke, and 1 drop red food coloring (optional if you want your "sausage" to look pinkish). Add 2-3 ounces dry Soy Curls to the liquid in the cup, or however many it takes to soak up all the liquid. 

Coat the soaked Soy Curls with 1 Tbsp. corn starch and fry in oil until they're slightly browned and crisp, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Heat more oil in the pan and toss in 1/2 medium cabbage (sliced into thin shreds), 1/2 onion (thinly sliced), and 1 apple (chopped). Cook until tender.

Drain the pasta and toss it with the cooked Soy Curls, the cabbage mixture, and 1/2 tsp. poppy seeds.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Money Crashers: Gender Pay Gap – Negative Effects of Inequality & How to Fix Wages

Just a quick update here: my article on the gender wage gap has now been split into two. The first one, at the original URL, covers the size of the pay gap and what causes it. This new one explains why the pay gap is a problem for society and what can be done to fix it.

Gender Pay Gap – Negative Effects of Inequality & How to Fix Wages 



Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Money Crashers: 2 new posts

A quick update here to tell you about my two latest posts on Money Crashers. The first is about your credit score, and about how to get around the annoying fact that (1) it has a tremendous impact on your life, and (2) the credit bureaus have no obligation to tell you what it is. My article explains how to get around that problem and check it for yourself, either for a fee or, better yet, for nothing.

How to Check Your Credit Score – Subscription Services & Free Monitoring

The second is about my former favorite store, IKEA. Although I've become disillusioned with IKEA lately, we still have some IKEA pieces that have served us well for many years and that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. So I'd say the key to shopping at IKEA is knowing which pieces are good values and which ones aren't — and that's what this article is all about. It looks at reviews and interviews with home professionals to identify the best items in every category, from furniture to textiles to lighting and beyond. as well as the ones best left on the shelf.

What To Buy And What Not To Buy At IKEA

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Money Well Spent, part 2

Years ago, I read a post by another frugal-living blogger that centered on a saying popular with her family: "A problem that can be solved with money isn't a problem." At the time, I had an instinctive and negative reaction against this idea, because it seemed to me that this attitude is not only privileged (since plenty of people in the world cannot afford to solve their problems with money) but also limiting. It encourages you to solve problems by throwing money at them rather than coming up with the kinds of creative ecofrugal solutions that I tend to enjoy, such as constructing a toothbrush holder from coat-hanger wire or a soap-dish insert from garlic wrappers.

But over time, I've gradually softened this viewpoint. Mind you, I still don't think reaching for your credit cards should automatically be your first approach to dealing with any problem. But I now feel prepared to endorse a more moderate version of the saying: "If you have a problem that you can easily solve by spending money and can't easily solve without spending money, and you have the money, then you have no problem."

I first came around to this way of thinking back in 2017, when my old winter boots started leaking. For an ecofrugal person, the obvious thing to do in that situation would be to try to fix them, rather than spending money on a new pair. But in the first place, it might not work; in the second place, even if it worked, it would only be a temporary solution; and in the third place, I'd never really been all that happy with those boots to begin with. So I concluded that, under the circumstances, it made sense to spend some money — even spending an amount of money I wouldn't normally consider, but could easily afford — for a new pair of boots that would completely fix the problem.

Since then, I haven't been what you'd call a knee-jerk shopper, but recently I've found myself placing a lot of online orders, every one of which addressed some sort of "pain point" in my lifestyle. The term "pain point" is kind of marketing jargon, but I think it does a good job of expressing the idea of one of those little things in your life that's just always bothering you, like a rock in your shoe. It may be no more than a minor annoyance, but if it's a minor annoyance you experience every single day, it adds up to a problem worth spending some money to fix.

For instance, in recent weeks, I've felt entirely justified in spending money on:

  • A new over-the-door shoe rack for our basement door. Since we use our kitchen door as our main entrance to the house, we need a place nearby to put wet shoes. There isn't enough space for a wall-mounted shelf, so until recently, we were using an over-the-door shoe bag on the back of the basement door. But the pockets weren't really big enough to accommodate Brian's shoes, which therefore had a tendency to fall out, sometimes on our heads, whenever the door was moved. Also, wet shoes trapped in the enclosed pockets would take days to dry out. So eventually I got fed up and hunted up this shoe rack at Home Depot, which can accommodate shoes of any size and actually provide enough airflow around them to let them dry out after a wetting. This new rack looks much better, works much better, and (with a minor adjustment to the door) actually allows the door to close.
  • A new folding umbrella. When my purse was stolen in 2018, I treated this crisis as an opportunity to upgrade my everyday carry. I vowed that I would replace each and every item I had lost with something at least as good, if not better. Yet as time went on, I realized I hadn't really done this with my folding umbrella. The old one had been kind of flimsy, not great protection in a storm, but it did have one big advantage: it folded up to a compact 7 inches, allowing me to tuck it into the purse vertically. The new one wasn't really any sturdier, but it was longer, forcing me to lay it down lengthwise in the bottom of the purse, which left me less room for everything else. After spending two years cursing with frustration every time I tried to cram all my stuff into the bag, I finally decided to shell out some money for an umbrella as compact as my old one — and since I didn't want to have to replace it yet again in a year, I decided to get the best one I could find at that size. A search for "best folding umbrella" led me to the $50 Davek Mini. Normally, this price tag would be a deal-breaker, but after two years of living with this pain point, I was ready to look on it as an investment (especially since the umbrella comes with a lifetime warranty, which reviews say the company is really good about honoring). The new umbrella feels very sturdy, looks cute, and fits neatly in the purse, leaving me enough room to add back in the collapsible cup I hope to be able to use again soon once Starbucks joins the rest of the world in concluding that surface transmission of COVID really isn't a threat.
  • A new cordless phone. Ever since we switched from Optimum to Verizon, we've been having problems with our phone occasionally failing to ring when a call comes in. Verizon, needless to say, was unable to solve this problem and told us our phones must be to blame. Initially we were skeptical, but sure enough, when we tried unplugging our cordless phone, it seemed to solve the problem. Unforunately, doing this creates three new problems: (1) we're tethered to a cord every time we have  a conversation, (2) we can only get caller ID by checking the printer, and (3) the ringtone on the corded phone is really loud and annoying. So at this point, we had three choices: (1) live with these three problems, (2) live with the problem of an occasional dropped call, or (3) just shell out fifty bucks for a new cordless phone (from a different manufacturer, just to make sure) to deal with the problem entirely. (Mind you, we don't have the new phone yet, so we can't be sure it actually will fix the problem, but we can always return the phone if it doesn't.)
  • A warm cardigan. As I noted in February, I've been repeatedly frustrated over the past several years, I've been repeatedly frustrated by the gap in my wardrobe left by the demise of my favorite winter cardigan. I have one cardigan that fits and goes with everything but isn't warm; I have one that's warm and goes with most things, but is so huge I can barely get my coat on over it. So when I found a simple grey wool cardigan on ThredUP in what looked like my size, I just took the plunge and clicked "buy." Yes, there's the risk it won't fit or won't meet my needs, but if it doesn't, I can always return it. And if it does, that will be one more pain point removed from my life.
  • New handles for the TV cabinet. A few months ago, one of the handles on our TV cabinet broke. We quickly realized we couldn't repair it, and replacing it was complicated by the fact that the old handles were a non-standard size. We searched the entire stock at Home Depot and Lowe's and couldn't find a single pair that would fit into the existing holes. So we just lived with it for months, opening the door by grasping it at the top. It wasn't that hard, but it was an annoyance, as was the lopsided appearance of the now one-handled cabinet. So I finally did a little more investigation and found that Home Depot handles online that could adjust to fit holes of any size. Took but a minute to place the order and no more than five to install them.

All told, these five items cost us around $220 — not a trivial sum, but a sum we can easily spare — and each one of them will make our lives just a tiny bit better, every single day. If that's not what money is for, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Money Crashers: How to Get Help Paying Your Medicare Premiums and Other Costs

Money Crashers has just posted the third article of my four-part series on Medicare. I didn't set out to write a four-part series, mind you: I was supposed to write just one article providing a general overview of the program and how to enroll. But enrollment proved to be such a complicated topic that I ended up splitting it off into its own article.

Then I started on the first article, planning to include such information as what Medicare is, how it's funded, what it costs for users, who's eligible, what all the different parts are for, and how to choose coverage. But before long, it became clear that the material on Medicare costs was going to be long enough to make a separate article, so I split that one off as well.

In my first draft of that piece, I noted that out-of-pocket costs for Medicare are more than some patients can afford and included some info on programs to help with payment. But my editor decided that this, too, was a big enough topic to turn into a separate piece. So I went in, cut out that section, moved it to a separate article, and expanded it to provide more detail on these various types of programs: Medicaid, Medicare Savings Programs, Extra Help, and PACE.

This is that third article. The fourth of the series, covering the topic of how to enroll, is still to come, and it's a doozy. I mean, if you thought doing your taxes was complicated, you ain't seen nothing yet.

How to Get Help Paying Your Medicare Premiums and Other Costs


Monday, April 12, 2021

Money Crashers: Why Some Stores Are Not Accepting Cash – Is it Legal & What to Do

I'm old enough to remember when many stores didn't accept credit cards. Nowadays, by contrast, there are some stores that don't take cash. For some, this is just a temporary measure during the COVID pandemic, when many people see bills and coins as germ carriers (although the CDC now admits that catching COVID this way is highly unlikely). But the cashless trend was already around before COVID, and it will probably be around afterward.

Strange as it may seem, this is perfectly legal. Cash is legal tender "for all debts," meaning bills you already owe — but if you haven't made a transaction yet, a store is within its right to accept or refuse any form of payment it likes. It can insist on Visa, MasterCard, or even Bitcoin if it wants to.

For most of us, cashless stores aren't a big deal. Most consumers prefer to use credit or debit cards anyway, or the even newer payment apps. And even those who like to use cash usually have at least one card to fall back on. But for the "unbanked" — those without bank accounts or cards — a cashless store is a store where they can't shop, period.

So what can be done about it? That's the topic of my latest Money Crashers article. It explains why some stores are going cashless, why it's a problem, and how you can deal with it.

Why Some Stores Are Not Accepting Cash – Is it Legal & What to Do