Thursday, June 28, 2012

Groundhog Fence 2.1

We made a minor modification to the groundhog fence in the hopes of foiling climbers: we snipped away the crosspieces from the top row of lattice, leaving a series of vertical spikes that we hoped would be sufficiently uncomfortable, when poking a groundhog in the soft underbelly, to discourage him from trying it again. Nice try, but no luck. We actually caught one of them in the act this morning, and apparently they've been climbing up the corner posts of the fence, rather than the lattice. So they ignore the spikes completely.

The next step may be to attempt to add a "baffle" to the top of the fence, as recommended by Mike McGrath, the host of "You Bet Your Garden" on WHYY. On his website, he suggests this recipe for a groundhog fence: a 2-foot "skirt" underground to prevent digging, then a 3-foot high fence, and then a 1-foot baffle at the top—which is simply the top foot of the fencing bent outward at a 90-degree angle—to prevent climbing. He claims that groundhogs are "pretty stubborn about this and will try and try again—so feel free to drag out a lawn chair, pop open the beverage of your choice and enjoy the show.  Maybe create little Olympic scorecards to hold up for especially floppy falls." The trick, in our case, will be figuring out how to graft the baffle onto an existing fence so we don't have to reconstruct the whole thing from scratch. Or perhaps, since they've been climbing up the posts, maybe only the posts need a baffle on top. Hmm.

In other news, it looks like my "garden fresh" experiment has made it to the one-week mark. Monday night I had to fudge a bit, because Brian had a dinner with colleagues from work, so I just ate leftovers. (Those leftovers did contain ingredients from our garden when first made, but it seems kind of like cheating to count the same ingredient twice.) Tuesday night we had a salad made with our only surviving head of lettuce, and last night we had a stir-fry containing the week's crop of snow peas. So that makes eight days, but I fear that may be as far as we can continue it. There are lots of little zucchini out there, but they're too small to make a meal of, and we've consumed our entire crop of arugula and lettuce. There are a few more snow peas out there that we could pick, but not enough to base a meal around, and the beans (which got a late start because the ground-piglets ate the first planting) aren't ready to pick yet.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Groundhog Fence 2.0 update

As you may recall, we recently modified our groundhog fence to keep out the baby groundhogs, as well as the mama. As far as we could tell, this worked fine; we often saw the groundhogs (anywhere from one to three of the babies, with or without their mama) in the yard eating grass and weeds, which they're welcome to, and never in the garden. Until this morning, that is, when Brian spotted one of the little ones apparently inside the boundaries of the garden fence. When he approached for a closer look, the little marmot scurried up the fence and down the other side and escaped into its hole. So apparently, the new fence we introduced that they can't go through is possible to go over. Back to the old drawing board....

On an unrelated note, yesterday the garden-fresh eating experiment continued with not one but two meals containing homegrown ingredients. In addition to the dinner of Pad Thai, made with homegrown cilantro, I had a squash-blossom omelet for lunch. (Amazing how cheaply you can eat these yuppie foods when you grow your own.) Though to be honest, I don't think I'll be repeating that particular recipe—squash blossoms look like they ought to be a real delicacy, but I don't think their actual flavor is anything to write home about. Admittedly, I haven't tried them fried in an egg batter and stuffed with cheese, but then, what wouldn't taste good that way?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Garden Fresh

Last night we realized that the last three dinners we'd eaten all contained at least one ingredient—at least a minor one—that was homegrown. That night it was quesadillas and tomato salsa, made with homegrown cilantro; the night before it was "casualty eggs" (a sort of hash of scrambled eggs, potatoes, onions, peppers and bacon) made with the first green pepper of the season; and on Wednesday night, we had the pasta with garden-fresh arugula, chick peas and sun-dried tomatoes that I mentioned in my last entry.

After making this discovery, I started wondering just how long we could keep this trend up. I decided to challenge myself to keep it going for at least a week, longer if possible. Tonight's dinner technically meets the requirements, though it's a bit of a stretch; we're having polenta with mushrooms and asparagus. Most of the asparagus came from the farmers' market, but one spear was harvested from our very own asparagus patch—one of about half a dozen we've managed to collect from it this year. (It's a bit disappointing, since I was expecting to be up to full production by now. I hope that doesn't mean this is full production....)

We've also got a batch of bean sprouts in a jar, which sprouted in record time due to the high heat; we started them on Thursday night and they're already big enough to use. I'm not sure whether we should count those as home-grown produce or not. We did grow them from seed, technically, but they didn't come out of our garden. But if we use them in a pad thai, we can add some more of the home-grown cilantro and continue to fulfill the rules. We've also got some home-grown snow peas we could throw in. And after that, who knows? There is a head of lettuce out there (just one, sadly; most of it never came up) that looks about ready to pick, and one of our zucchini plants has a tiny little incipient squashling on it; perhaps if the heat wave continues, that will be ready to use before the week is out. But I'm hoping to make it at least until Tuesday night with every dinner including at least one home-grown component. If I make it through the week, I'll see if I can go for two weeks, and so on. Watch this space for updates.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Crumbs of frugal wisdom

In the past few days, I've spotted a few interesting observations here and there on the frugal life—nothing I could work up into a proper long entry, but still worth sharing. So instead, I'm presenting them all in one entry as a sort of smorgasbord—a series of appetite-whetting ideas instead of a hearty main course.

1. The "Live Like a Mensch" blog (another blog devoted to frugal living, though rather more punctually updated than mine) has an amusing entry this week on "Things They Don't Teach You In School." Basically, it's about the application of Murphy's Law to frugality: e.g., whatever you save because it might come in useful won't, and whatever you throw away because it's just taking up space, you'll discover a use for next week.

2. Now that our garden is starting to produce stuff in earnest (last night's dinner was penne with chickpeas, fresh arugula, and sun-dried tomatoes, which struck me as a particularly Yuppie meal), I pulled my copy of Your Own Kitchen & Garden Sourcebook off the shelf to look for other interesting ways to use garden veggies. This is primarily a cookbook, but with an emphasis on sustainability and home-grown produce. I did find one recipe that looked intriguing (a way to make iced coffee by freezing the coffee in ice cube trays and then pouring warm milk over it), but of more interest to me was the quotation at the front, which came from The American Woman's Home, an 1869 volume by Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (better known for her other contributions to literature and social discourse). It's about how the women's movement (at that time chiefly a suffrage movement) misses what they see as "the chief cause" of the "disabilities and sufferings" of women: the fact that "women's work" is denigrated by society. This they consider completely upside-down thinking, as
There are but a few things on which health and happiness depend, more than on the manner in which food is cooked. You may make houses enchantingly beautiful, hang them with pictures, have them clean and airy and convenient; but if the stomach is fed with sour bread and burnt meats, it will raise such rebellions that the eyes will see no beauty anywhere. The abundance of splendid material we have in America is in great contrast with the style of cooking most prevalent in our country. Considering that our resources are greater than those of any civilized people, our results are comparatively poorer.
It seems to me that this is even more true nowadays than it was in 1869. We have all this rich farmland, and our screwed-up system of agricultural subsidies means that we devote most of it to growing corn and soybeans, which we then grind up into processed products that we package in boxes for breakfast cereal, in single-serve foil packs for snacks, in bottles for beverages. Paying farmers to grow less healthful food doesn't seem like a sustainable plan. I'm sure there must be some good reason why we do it this way, but so far I haven't heard it.

3. The Dollar Stretcher site has a list of interesting tips on storage solutions for a small house. Some of the more intriguing ideas:
  • One person suggests converting your coat closet to a pantry. Yeah, but then where do you hang your coats? I thought the suggestion to add some pantry shelves in your broom closet was more reasonable.
  • Mount racks under your cabinets for storing flat items, like big platters and trays. Or use this space for hanging mugs.
  • Save the wooden boxes that clementines come in for storing personal items in the bathroom. (I haven't tried this, but I use one for storing all my seed packets in the basement.)
  • Eliminate "dead space" everywhere. Most cabinet shelves have more vertical space than you need, so add racks to make two tiers of shelving instead of one. Use sliding drawers to make better use of deep shelves. Hang shoes on the back of the bedroom door. Store stuff under beds, in ottomans, even in between wall studs. One contributor says, "If it's empty, fill it, [like the old milk can she uses for storing her plastic bags] and if it has a skirt, hide stuff under it."
  • Finally, since it's no use having it if you can't find it, keep a list on the inside of the cabinet door to remind yourself where everything is. (This is what we did with our canventory.)
This article hits on the key point of ecofrugality: waste not, want not. It may not be obvious at first how wasting space hurts you financially, but considering that the average cost of a kitchen remodel is estimated at 15 to 20 thousand dollars, making the most of the space you already have seems like a mighty wise use of resources.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Our Big Fat Cheap Wedding

About a week ago, I was invited to respond to a questionnaire from American Public Media (you know, the folks who sponsor "Marketplace" and "A Prairie Home Companion") on the topic, "How much is too much to spend on a wedding?" I was delighted to have a chance to respond to this, because I've often thought that it was the experience of planning our wedding (nearly eight years ago now, yikes) that really got me into the whole concept of ecofrugality.

It really started with the rings; even before we officially became engaged, I had already decided that I didn’t want to buy new gold wedding rings because of the environmental impact of gold mining. And this decision was only reinforced by a copy I found online of a "Millennium Report" on wedding costs by Bride's magazine, which revealed that the average couple in 2000 had spent about a thousand dollars on the wedding bands—not counting the engagement ring, which usually weighed in at close to $3,000 all by itself. “Good grief,” I thought, “wouldn’t it make more sense for most couples to put that $4,000 toward the down payment on a house?”And so I began searching for sources of secondhand rings, and I eventually ended up buying a simple pair of white-gold bands on eBay. We got them resized by a local jeweler, and the total cost came to just under $100.

After that, I was off and running, determined to make every aspect of our wedding as frugal and green as this initial purchase. My goal was to avoid all the waste associated with the typical American wedding—or at least, the typical American idea of what a wedding should be. At least a month's salary for an engagement ring? A grand for the bride's dress? Upwards of $750 for flowers? Fuhgeddaboutit! In fact, seeing that I'd managed to buy the wedding bands for about one-tenth of what the average Bride's reader spent for hers, I decided that my goal would be to do the entire wedding for $2,000—roughly one-tenth of what the survey listed as the average cost of a wedding. I may as well admit right now that I did not meet this goal—in fact, I went over budget by about 35 percent. But the great thing about having a $2,000 budget to start with is that exceeding it by 35 percent means you only overspent by hundreds, not thousands. And simply having this goal, even if it turned out to be unrealistic, forced me to think much more creatively about the whole process. In the end, it helped us end up with a wedding that was (I think) much more beautiful, personal, and meaningful for both of us than yet another mass-produced white-satin-and-champagne extravaganza.

Here's a partial list of the decisions we made about our wedding, and what made them frugal and (in some cases) green:
  • The invitations. According to the Bride's survey, the average couple in 2000 spent about $325 on invitations, announcements, thank-you notes, and so on. Some sources suggested sending out an e-invite as a way of cutting costs, but although I had to admit this was a green choice (hey, save a tree!), it just didn't feel right. A formal occasion deserves a formal invitation, I reasoned, and our society in 2004 still had not really reached the point at which any correspondence sent electronically could be considered formal. So we went instead with the second-cheapest method and printed out our own invites on our home computer. We picked up a set of cards and envelopes for 20 bucks at Staples, and the cost of the ink, since we refill our printer cartridges, was trivial. We didn't bother with special wedding-themed stationery for our thank-you notes but just used note cards we already had. The cost for everything, including postage, was just under $60.
  • The location. We got married in a state park, in a private picnic grove that we reserved for $50. (We did spend an extra $130 to cover parking costs so our guests wouldn't be charged admission to the park.) The only shelter was a covered pavilion, and our only backup plan for rain was to buy some drop cloths to cover the sides of the pavilion and some bricks to hold them in place. Luckily, we didn't have to deploy them, or it would have been a pretty tight squeeze to hold the reception in there. Instead, we were able to eat at the picnic tables scattered around the grove, which we covered with disposable dollar-store tablecloths (admittedly not the greenest choice, but buying proper tablecloths, even secondhand, would have been prohibitively expensive).
  • The attire. Our wedding ceremony was "after the manner of Friends" (which means "Quaker style"), so we didn't have a wedding party to outfit. Brian wore his "good suit" that he bought when he finished grad school; I bought a Renaissance-style bodice from a vendor on eBay, and my mother-in-law-elect made a simple A-line skirt to go with it. Both pieces are still hanging in my closet, and while I must confess I haven't yet had had another occasion to wear the skirt (though I've thought of dyeing it for future use), I habitually wear the bodice—usually paired with blue jeans—on my anniversary. Oh, and instead of a veil or headpiece—an item on which Bride's readers spent $166 on average—I wore a wreath of ivy, dried flowers, and ribbon that cost about $5 altogether. (I've still got the rest of the floral wire stowed away somewhere...)
  • The flowers. I was especially proud of these. I've never been all that crazy about cut flowers anyway (a flower that's been cut is no longer growing, and what kind of symbol is that for a new marriage?), so I took a risk and waited until the Friday before the wedding to pick up live plants at my local farmer's market. One vendor had double impatiens that looked like miniature rosebushes, and I bought up every pot they had, at $1 a pot (!). Most of them became centerpieces for the tables, but some got repotted in larger containers to flank the entrances to the pavilion. After the wedding, we invited our guests to take them home, so none of them went to waste. So our flowers were locally grown and still growing—what could be greener than that?
  • The food. We did, after some debate, decide to hire a caterer. A potluck was impractical because so many of our guests were coming from out of town, and doing it all ourselves would have been too stressful. But because we had an afternoon wedding, we could opt for a lighter meal—sandwiches (including vegetarian options), fruit, cheese, cake, punch, and coffee/tea. (No alcohol was permitted in the park, which made that money-saving decision an easy call.) It was our largest expense, but well worth it, especially the cake (which was, if I do say so, the most delicious cake I've ever had at a wedding or anywhere else. We now go back to the same bakery and get that same cake every year on our anniversary.) And we sent the leftovers home with friends, so nothing went to waste.
  • The photos. We just got lucky with this one; some dear friends of ours—in fact, the very couple who introduced us—happened to have a side business doing wedding photos and provided ours at cost as a wedding present to us. But if that hadn't been an option, we'd probably just have asked our families to supply us with copies of any snaps they happened to take and satisfied ourselves with that. It's not as if we need a photographic record to remember the day.
  • The stuff we didn't have. According to the Bride's survey, most couples in 2000 spent $393 on a limo; we drove to the park in our own car. They spent $830 on music at the ceremony and reception; we invited our musician friends to bring their instruments and jam. They spent over $3,000 on an engagement ring; we followed the Elizabethan tradition of wearing the wedding rings on our right hands during our engagement and then switching hands.
I provided the highlights of the list above in my response to the APM survey, and I was pleased to see that they chose to include my story (or at least a portion of it) on their website. (I was less pleased, however, to see that my description of our Quaker-style wedding was mistranscribed as "after the manner of 'Friends'," which makes it sound like we based our ceremony on the popular TV show.) The other responses on the site are interesting; they run the gamut from couples whose own wedding cost less than ours (though maybe not after adjusting for inflation) to a Utah bride-to-be who's hoping to keep her wedding costs down to $17,000 (and rejoicing that she's not holding the event in Washington, DC, where she used to live, and where she says hair and makeup alone can easily cost $400).

Friday, June 8, 2012

Fantasy shopping spree

Every now and then, as I'm going about my ecofrugal life, an idle non-frugal thought will intrude on my consciousness. This happened today as I was on my way to the opening day of the local farmer's market, steeling myself for the high prices I knew I'd find there. (All those articles that encourage you to save money on food by buying it direct from the grower at a farmer's market are clearly written by people who have never been to one.) I was trying to psych myself up to pay $8 a pound for local asparagus and $6 for strawberries by reminding myself that supporting local farmers is a worthwhile cause, and that Brian and I had actually toyed with the idea of adding a special line item to our monthly budget for local spending (which would encourage us to, for example, spend $10 extra to buy a game from our local comic and game shop rather than getting it cheaper at And all of a sudden the thought popped into my head: "If I had to spend a thousand dollars locally in the next week, would I be able to do it?"

I admit, the very concept threw me for a bit of a loop. After all, it's basically a complete reversal of my usual thinking, which tends to focus on keeping more money in my pocket. But somehow, once the idea had occurred to me, I couldn't seem to stop myself from playing with it. Granted, it's an entirely hypothetical situation—not one that is ever going to come up in real life. But supposing, just for the sake of argument, that some mysterious millionaire who's into supporting local businesses offered us a thousand dollars out of the blue, with the stipulation that we must spend all of it at local businesses over the course of the next week, could we manage it? Could we, in the first place, bring ourselves to spend such a sum in such a short time on items we didn't need? And if so, how?

My first thought was to go for one big-ticket item. We've been looking into replacing our mattress, and $1,000 for a new one is certainly not an unheard-of amount to spend. But the only store in town that sells them is White Lotus Home, which is currently in the process of liquidating all its inventory in preparation for a move to new digs across the river in New Brunswick. I had a peek in there last month and found only a very limited selection still available, so it's unlikely that what we're looking for would be in stock at this point. So we'd have to nickel-and-dime it away (or, since we're talking about a grand here, $50 and $100 it away).

So how best to fritter away that kind of moolah? A few ideas occurred to me:
  1. The farmers' market itself could probably gobble up $50 or $100 of it. If, instead of carefully weighing the benefits of every goodie against the costs as I usually do, I simply threw caution to the winds and loaded up a bag with everything that looked good, I could probably go through that amount easily without loading myself down with more than I could carry. Five bucks for a couple of pints of blueberries, another five for quart of cherries, eight for a pound of those garlic scapes that the sign promises are "great on the grill," ten for a couple of balls of that fabulous fresh mozzarella, twenty-five for a couple of Griggstown Farm's pricey organic chicken pot pies—it all adds up. So say $100 just on that first stop. What else?
  2. We could probably spend another hundred easily at the aforementioned comic and game shop. Once again, all we'd have to do is grab anything that looked good, without worrying about whether it's worth the money. Four new board games should account for $100 handily. Maybe even throw in some comics, if anything looked interesting (though I must confess, most of them don't to me).
  3. Next, we'd go out to eat—often. Highland Park has no shortage of restaurants, and we could surely get through a lot of them in a week. Thai food, Greek food, brunch at the bagel place, smoothies at the local coffeehouse—it wouldn't be hard to spend $70 a day just on meals, so that's about another $500 right there.
  4. What about the remaining $300? We could probably spend that sum in a bookstore in a single afternoon, but that's one local business our town sadly lacks at this point. Clothes? Well, the options are limited, but there is a new store in town called The Covered Girl, which specializes in modest dress for girls and women. Not my style for the most part, but I've seen some blazers in the window that looked like they might be nice. So if I hunted around in there for a while, I could probably manage to find something to spend another $100 on.
  5. As for the other $200, our town boasts a wide selection of gift shops, including a high-end toy store. We usually stay out of them because everything's so expensive and not particularly useful, but if spending money is the whole point of the exercise, well, it's never too early to start your holiday shopping.
As I worked my way through this mental exercise, it occurred to me that what I was doing, really, was putting together a near-perfect set of rules for what not to do in real life—assuming that your actual goal, like most people's, is to keep your spending in check. Simply reverse every suggestion on this list—don't buy expensive food treats, don't eat out often, don't buy books/games/clothes you don't need—and you have a perfect primer on learning to live frugally for those who have never been in the habit of doing so.

And so, with that in mind, I came home from the farmer's market with just one pint of local blueberries, costing all of three bucks. Technically, I guess I didn't really need to buy even that much, but after all, I always intended to pump just a little bit of extra cash into the local economy. All things in moderation, including moderation.