Sunday, March 31, 2013

Planting project, final phase

Well, we did it. We got all our new plants into the ground in one (extended) weekend, and we managed to do it before the rain started. Here is the final set of plantings: our new raspberry bed. 

There wasn't quite enough room to plant our dozen raspberry canes in a single row, so we put them in two staggered rows, about 18 inches apart diagonally (with a gap to provide access to our telephone box). It took four bags of mulch to cover the lot to the 6-inch depth the books recommend. (That's one point I hadn't really considered in this whole planting escapade: the plants themselves are a one-time expense, but they will have ongoing maintenance costs in compost and mulch. But still, they shouldn't need nearly as much mulch added on a yearly basis as they did this first time.)

I also got my first crop of the year into the garden: my snap peas. Actually, if the seed packet is to be believed, I probably could have planted these earlier, since it says "as soon as ground can be worked in the spring." So maybe next year I'll try and plant them earlier in hopes of getting some "snow" peas before summer starts.

Unfortunately, we now have a week to wait before another weekend rolls around and we can tackle our next outdoor chore: hacking down the big forsythia bush that's currently obstructing our access to the new raspberry bed. I could work on it during the week, of course, but Brian thinks it's more a brute-force job that he should be the one to handle. And I'll also need his participation the other two jobs we've just added to our to-do list based on this weekend's activities: cleaning out the shed and the workshop. Those don't require as much brute force, but they do require both of us to be present during the process, or else we'll never be able to find anything afterwards. Hmm...maybe I could at least start sort of planning out where to put things....

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Planting project, phase 2

The takeaway from today's planting seems to be that planting shrubs is a LOT easier than planting trees. It took us only two hours to get all five of our new bush cherries into the ground—mostly because they didn't need to be set nearly as deep, so we only had to dig through turf and topsoil, instead of hacking away at the thick Raritan River clay beneath. Here are our five bush cherries, all in a row: Joel, Joy, Jan, Joel, Joey.

However, before we could move on to the task of planting the raspberry canes on the north side of the house, we had to transplant the rhubarb that was currently occupying that spot. So it took us another three hours or so to prepare a bed for the rhubarb, amend it with compost dug out of our bin, dig up the plants, put them in the ground, and cover them up again with soil, more compost, and mulch. Digging out the compost was a part of the job that was both encouraging and frustrating: encouraging because our little homemade cold-compost bin really does have some beautiful, rich, dark humus in it, and frustrating because the good stuff was right at the bottom center of the bin, where it was really hard to get at. So a lot of what actually got mixed into the soil was half-decomposed leaf mould. (The reason we used our homemade compost rather than the commercial stuff is that we have only a limited amount of bagged compost that passed our home test, and we wanted to save some of it for the raspberries.) 

We still have a few concerns about the rhubarb. It's not clear whether all the plants will survive being transplanted; the one that was the largest and healthiest of the lot, in the center position in the photo, definitely lost at least part of its root structure in the process. So we may not get any rhubarb crop this year. We do have some new plants on the way, but they won't produce anything this year. (I originally thought we might end up with too many plants for the bed, since Brian dug up three of the old ones rather than two, and I thought I'd ordered five new ones. But it turns out I only ordered four, so we can just manage to squeeze them all into a 22-foot space at 3 feet apart.)

After moving the rhubarb, we had to clear the bed of the wild strawberries that were growing all over it, nearly crowding out the rhubarb plants. I found myself wishing I could somehow move all these plants to the main part of front yard; I've been trying for years to find an appropriate ground cover to take the place of the grass, and this stuff, with its thick, low-growing mat of foliage, looked ideal. I even took the trouble to attempt transplanting a couple of them into bare patches in the yard, in the hope that they would, as this Yahoo contributor suggested, "spread like crazy and choke out [the] grass." But I suspect that if they could grow well in full sun, they would already have spread to that part of the yard by now.

After that, we decided the actual planting of the raspberries could wait one more day. They don't need to be planted deeply at all—in fact, the planting guide says that planting them too deeply is a common mistake—so we just need to dig a shallow trench, put in the plants, cover them up with dirt, and add compost and lots of mulch. And the weather forecast for tomorrow has been revised to predict afternoon showers rather than all-day rain, so we won't have to work in the wet.

The only disappointing part of the day was that, after knocking off work early in the hopes of making it to the D&D Next playtest at our local game store's Tabletop Day event, we found it had been canceled due to the illness of the guy who was supposed to run it. So instead we'll be unwinding from our day's labors with a pot of matzo ball soup and maybe one of our new "A Game of Thrones" Season 2 DVDs.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Landscapers' Index

I'm going to tell the story of today's planting activities as a series of statistics, à la Harper's Index.

Number of trees we got into the ground today: 3

Size of each hole: 3 feet in diameter by 1.5 feet deep

Approximate volume of rocks we pulled out of the holes: 15 gallons

Gallons of water applied to each tree: 6

Volume of compost used as top-dressing: 1.5 cubic feet

Volume of mulch: 4 cubic feet

Number of neighbors who stopped to comment on our activities: 2

Hours it took to get the job done: 7

Minutes I spent under a hot shower afterward: 15

Parts of my body that currently hurt: Both arms, both knees, neck

Number of loads of laundry required to wash the clothes we wore for the job: None, because we have to put them back on again and plant still MORE stuff tomorrow.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Our trees are here!

I was sitting at the keyboard, trying to figure out how to make a blog entry about getting stuff on sale from L.L. Bean sound more exciting, when I heard a ring at the doorbell. When I opened it, a burly guy handed me a long package, wrapped in white plastic, with the unmistakeable tips of branches poking out of the end. Our trees are here! Now that's exciting!

Following the instructions on the web (which were also enclosed with our packing order), I took off the outer packaging immediately. Next I was supposed to check and make sure our order was complete, but that proved a bit difficult. The insert noted that "labels and smaller plants can be hidden down inside the inner root wrapper," but I didn't want to take the inner wrapper off to check, because it also warned that "roots should not be exposed to air, even for a little while." So I dug in under the wrapper as best I could with my stubby little fingers until I finally managed to unearth eight labels: one Opal plum tree, one Mount Royal plum, one Golden Gage plum, one Jan bush cherry, two Joy bush cherries, two Joel bush cherries, six Autumn Bliss Raspberries, and six Redwing raspberries. Our new edible landscape in a bag.

Next I checked to make sure the roots were still nice and moist. Again, this wasn't so easy without unwrapping them, but the sawdust they were packed in felt moist, and the whole bundle felt sort of sodden from the outside, so I concluded that they were okay. Since it was clearly impossible to plant them right away (with Brian still at work and only three hours of daylight left and a rehearsal in Princeton at 8pm), I carried them downstairs to sit in the cool, dark laundry room until planting time.

I fired off a quick e-mail to Brian to let him know the plants had arrived, along with the suggestion that we get up early on Saturday to get them into the ground as soon as possible. He promptly came back with a counter-proposal: he's taking tomorrow off work so we can devote the day to planting. That will give us plenty of time to get the job done (and leave at least part of Saturday free to attend the International Tabletop Day festivities at our local comic/game store).

So now I'm busily plugging away at the "Planting Guide" that was enclosed with our order to make sure I know as much as possible about how to plant these guys before we start trying to get them in the ground. Here's what I've learned so far:
  • As noted above, the roots are supposed to be kept moist and not exposed to air at any point, even briefly. That means that we'll probably want to dig all the holes for everything—the three trees, the raspberry canes and the five bush cherries—before we start planting.
  • As we already knew from planting our ill-fated dwarf cherry tree, a "five-dollar tree" needs a "ten-dollar hole"—that is, about twice as big in diameter as the root ball. The book says to make the hole 2 to 4 feet across and 1 1/2 to 2 feet deep, with straight rather than tapered sides. In clay soil, like ours, the edges of the hole should be roughened up with the shovel to break up the clay and allow the roots to break through more easily.
  • The tree should be set in with the "graft union" about an inch below ground level. I'm not sure how you're supposed to tell where the graft union is, but the book says just to plant it about an inch deeper than it looks like it was planted originally. So I guess you just look for the level to which dirt reaches up the trunk, and go just a bit deeper.
  • When the hole gets filled, the soil should go back in reverse order, with the looser topsoil on the bottom and the heavier sod on top. When the hole is about half full, the tree should be soaked with 2 to 3 gallons of water before the rest of the soil is added. The tree needs to end up sitting in a "saucer," slightly below ground level, so that water will flow towards the trunk. Once it's in place, it's supposed to get another 2 to 3 gallons of water, leaving the soil "mucky" and "jello-like."
  • Compost and mulch, according to the book, should go on top of the soil, not in it. The tree should get a deep layer of mulch distributed in a dish shape—about an inch thick in the middle and gradually deepening to 6-8 inches thick on the edges. The book suggests laying newspaper under the mulch to deter weeds.
  • Newly planted trees need a lot of water. The book says to give them "5-10 gallons of water per tree regularly"—every day if you can manage it and by no means less than once a week, even in wet weather. They say the only time you can safely skip watering is if you feel the soil (under the mulch) and it feels waterlogged. According to the book, "Ninety percent of all tree failures in the first season are caused by lack of water."
  • The owners of St. Lawrence Nurseries claim that plum trees do not like clay soil. However, I read enough sources claiming exactly the reverse that I feel no hesitation about planting them (especially since we're pretty much committed now).
And that's just the information on the trees. The bushes have a whole separate set of instructions. I'd better buckle down and learn this stuff before our big day tomorrow.

(Oh, and by the way, only one of our local utilities—the water company—has gotten back to us about our "call before you dig" query. So it looks like we are indeed going rogue.)

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Who should DI when you can't DIY?

Our house was built around 1970, and our kitchen consequently lacks many of the features found in newer kitchens. I certainly don't care about granite countertops, and I don't feel any need for a garbage disposal or a double sink. Even the lack of a dishwasher isn't usually a problem, except on the rare occasions when we have enough company to produce more dishes than our drying rack can accommodate. But the one thing that I really miss is a proper range hood. Our kitchen does have a hood installed over the range, but it's the "recirculating" kind—which, as I learned when researching the topic for ConsumerSearch, is pretty much useless. This type of hood doesn't actually remove smoke and fumes at all; it just blows them around so that they don't concentrate right over the range. Some of them, like ours, have filters in them that are supposed to trap grease and mitigate cooking odors, but we quickly discovered that ours is pretty much useless for this purpose, so we don't use it.

Moreover, since our kitchen has a weird layout with the range only two inches from the nearest wall, grease tends to spatter up onto the wall, where it's hard to get off without vigorous scrubbing (which risks taking off the paint as well). Back in January, I got so frustrated after a half-hour session of fruitless scrubbing that I decided we should bite the bullet and get a proper range hood installed. Brian agreed, but said it wasn't a job he was willing to take on himself. Installing the hood itself wouldn't be a problem, but installing the ductwork would involve climbing around in the attic and cutting a hole in the roof (or in a side wall), and he didn't feel confident enough to tackle that. So we decided that I would get quotes from several contractors and go with the most reasonable one.

Well, two months later, our kitchen still has no range hood. What happened?

The problem, basically, is that I have no idea how to find a contractor to do this job. My first thought was to go through, a site where you provide details about the job you want done and they round up quotes from several different contractors in your area. I've tried this before with other jobs and received a flood of phone calls and e-mails within a day or two, but in this case I got exactly one response. And while the one guy who did come out seemed competent and honest, I was hoping to get at least a couple of other quotes just to see if his quoted price (around $400) was reasonable.

In the phone book, contractors are grouped under headings like "plumbing" and "electrical," and this job doesn't fit under any of them. I tried contacting a few of those listed under "HVAC" (for "Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning") on the grounds that this is technically a ventilation job, but some never got back to me at all, and those who did all said they didn't do this kind of work. I also tried a general contractor who came highly recommended by one of Brian's coworkers, with the same result. And when I tried submitting another online request through a website that focuses on remodeling jobs, describing my project as a small-scale (very small) kitchen remodel, I got no hits at all.

Google, my usual starting point for any kind of research, has provided no help in this case. When I try searching queries like "get range hood installed," I only get information about how to do this project yourself—which isn't what I want. Even if I change the search to "professional installation of range hood" or "find contractor to install range hood," I get mostly DIY information. I did find a thread devoted to this question on GardenWeb, but most people there said that (a) they did it themselves (not an option), (b) it's an HVAC job (but I've had no luck finding an HVAC professional who will do it), or (c) getting it done is the job of the contractor who handles the rest of the kitchen remodel (not relevant if this is the only part of the kitchen being touched).

At this point, I'm not sure what to try next. Should we just assume that, if it's this hard to find a contractor who handles this kind of job, the one guy we've already talked to is probably the only one we're going to find who knows what he's doing? Or should I just start paging through the Yellow Pages section on "Contractors" and calling up numbers at random?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How I became an outlaw

As you may or may not know, every time you do any kind of project that involves digging—from something as big as building a garage to as small as planting a rosebush—you're supposed to call 811 to notify your local utility companies. That way, they can mark out the property to show you the locations of buried pipes and cables, so that you don't accidentally knock out the power to your whole block with your shovel. Now, Brian and I happen to know that our upcoming edible landscaping project isn't going to run afoul of any buried infrastructure, because

  1. all the cables in our neighborhood are overhead, not underground;
  2. we won't be digging deep enough to hit a water main, and Brian isn't strong enough to cut through one with his shovel even if we did; and
  3. all the spots where we plan to dig are spots where trees or bushes have already been planted in the past, and we don't think the utility companies could have secretly run cables or pipes under our property in the interim without our noticing anything. 

So we weren't actually too worried that we might run into any problems, but I figured, being a law-abiding citizen, that I should call the number anyway, just to make sure everything was above board.

So, back in February, I called 811 and explained what we were planning. The operator asked me for the date on which digging would begin, and I said that it would be sometime in the early spring; I wouldn't know the exact date until the plants shipped. She then informed me curtly that she could not give me a "ticket" to authorize digging without a specific date. I hazarded a guess of April 10, only to be slapped that down again: my proposed start date was too far away. I'd have to call again, no more than two weeks before my project was scheduled to start, to get a "ticket" that would be good for a month from that point.

Well, okay, so much for trying to plan ahead. Since St. Lawrence Nurseries said their plants generally shipped in early April, I made a note on my calendar to call 811 again on April 1. However, last night, on returning from Passover festivities at my parents' house, I found a message in my inbox saying that our plants had shipped on Monday the 25th and should arrive in two to five days. So I called 811 again this morning and said I had a landscaping project that was due to start "this weekend," figuring that even if the plants arrived early, they could survive until then. However, this time, after taking my particulars, the operator again asked me for a start date—between April 2 and April 10. Oh, and she wanted a specific start time, too. When I hedged, she explained that I didn't actually have to know the exact time when work would begin; this was just the deadline that the utility companies would be given to have all their survey work done. But even the earliest possible date she'd given me was still too early; even if the plants take a full 5 days to reach us, they'll arrive by Saturday and be planted on Sunday, which is the 31st of March.

Forced to give an answer in the targeted time period, I gave her a start date and time of noon on April 2. So now the best I can hope for is that the plants arrive late and the utility company finishes its survey early. The nursery did give some instructions on how to keep the plants alive if we can't get them into the ground immediately, but it did stress that the earlier they're planted, the better. And if our trees and bushes don't survive, then I'll have to wait another whole year before I can order more and try again—which also means waiting a whole extra year before the plants mature and start actually producing fruit.

So I've made up my mind that if our plants arrive before our "ticket" hasn't been filled, I'm planting them anyway. I've invested a lot of time, money, and emotional energy in these plants already, and I'm not going to risk letting them die because some idiotic bureaucrats can't figure out how to give coherent instructions that it's actually possible for homeowners to comply with. Yes, that's right, if push comes to shove, I intend to outlaw gardener. I've said before that I have a lot of sympathy for the guerrilla gardening movement, but I must admit, I never thought I'd be taking part in it on my own property.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The local advantage

One of the features Brian and I like best on our new (well, two-year-old) Honda Fit is the little Maintenance Minder on the dash. It notifies you when it's time for an oil change or any other regular service, so you don't have to keep track of it all yourself. However, when the Maintenance Minder popped up a message a week or so ago that the car was due for service, it posed a bit of a dilemma for us.

You see, with our old car, we always went to a local garage, Schwartz and Nagle, for service. The biggest advantage of this was that it's only a few blocks from our house, so it was easy for me to drop the car off in the morning, walk home, and go back to pick it up whenever it was ready. (Brian could ride his bike to work, or I could drop him off at work before taking the car in.) And we'd always found the mechanics at Schwartz and Nagle to be both competent and honest. To take one example, we once brought in the old Accord because it was having trouble starting. After trying repeatedly, however, they couldn't reproduce the problem—that is, the car never failed to start for them. They could suggest a couple of things that might have been causing the problem, and a couple of ways we might deal with it if it happened again, but they couldn't actually fix they didn't charge us anything. On other occasions, too, they've told us not to worry about minor problems, rather than pushing us into doing expensive repairs.

The problem, though, is that the first time I took our new Fit to Schwartz and Nagle for an oil change, they told me when I picked it up that it turns out this car needs synthetic oil—the more expensive kind. And that sounded a bit odd to me, because it didn't seem to jive with what our owner's manual said. In the section on oil changes, the manual said that 0W20 engine oil was recommended, but a synthetic oil could be used "as an alternative." In other words, it implied that the pricier synthetic oil was not actually required. Moreover, the first time we'd changed the oil on the fit, we took it to the dealer, and they used 5W20—regular oil, not synthetic. So I wondered: was it possible that our long-trusted mechanics at Schwartz and Nagle didn't actually know what they were doing with this particular car? If they were wrong about the oil, might there be other things they didn't know as well?

So when the Maintenance Minder told us it was time for the "A12" service (change the oil, rotate the tires, replace a couple of filters, inspect the drive belt, and check the brake), we dithered a bit over whether to take it to the dealer or to the local guys. The trouble with the dealership is that, although it's only about a mile from us as the crow flies, to get there the crow has to fly directly over Route 1, a major thoroughfare. There is an on-ramp from a nearby residential neighborhood that deposits you right in front of the dealership, so theoretically it would be possible to walk home along that route, but it doesn't look terribly safe.

After a bit of debate, we decided to call up the dealership and see whether they could fit us in on Saturday, and whether we would need an appointment for the service. I called and talked to a nice lady called Zenya, who said that it would be best to have an appointment, but she could indeed fit us in on a Saturday. However, when I asked her how long it would take, she said that if we wanted to wait there rather than drop it off, it would be best to bring the car in early—between 7 and 8 am. That way, we'd only have to wait about two hours. If we couldn't come in until later in the day, then the wait would be longer. So, given a choice between (a) getting up at early on Saturday and waiting two hours at the dealership, (b) getting up at a normal time and waiting three or more hours at the dealership, or (c) attempting to walk home from the dealership, and then walk back to get the car, by way of a highway on-ramp, it became clear that the only reasonable option was (d) take it to the local guys after all.

Fortunately, this turned out to be the right move in more ways than one. First of all, they were able to fit us in that very day. They got the job done in less than the two hours the dealer would have taken if we'd brought it in at 7 am on a Saturday, and I didn't have to sit there waiting for it. Second, they charged us only $96 rather than the $225 quoted to us by the dealership. Since they'd been the last ones to service the car, they knew that the air and cabin filters had actually been replaced at that time and weren't likely to need replacing again—so they just checked them and found that, sure enough, they were fine. (And even if they had done the filter replacement, the cost would still have been about $75 below the dealer's price). Moreover, our local guys also helpfully steered us toward a rebate from Mobil 1 (maker of the synthetic motor oil they use) that could save us an extra $15. They even printed out a duplicate receipt that we could mail in for the rebate, so we'd still have an original copy to keep.

And, talking of that synthetic motor oil: when I asked them about it, they explained that the reason they said our car needs a synthetic oil is that the 0W20 formulation the manual calls for is actually available only in a synthetic version. So it was actually the dealer, not our local mechanics, who was going against Honda's own recommendations by giving us a petroleum-based oil in a different weight. So, in short, this turned out to be a case in which the local business, as opposed to the big chain, had literally everything going for it. The location was much more convenient, and the service was better, and so was the price. My takeaway from this experience: always try the local business first. You may discover that there's no reason to consider the chain at all.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

First yard sale of the season

This morning, while out running errands in town, we happened upon a sign steering us towards a big moving sale a couple of blocks away. It's a bit early yet for yard sales, especially with the temperature around 40 degrees and a brisk wind blowing, but it's our policy never to pass one by, so we walked the couple of blocks and checked it out. It turned out to be mostly kids' toys and clothes, the sort of stuff we normally pass by after a cursory glance—but we took the time to check out everything, and a good thing we did, because we unearthed a few hidden treasures priced at way, way below their original value.

The two ladies hosting the sale clearly understood the key to running a successful yard sale: price to sell. After all, the point of having a yard sale isn't to get back as much of your money as possible; if you want to do that, you sell individual items through the want ads, or take them to a dealer who understands their value. The point of a yard sale is to unload as much stuff as possible, so these two ladies declared their goal to be "collecting dollar bills." When Brian picked up the Big Dump (about which more in a minute) and asked the price, the seller said "Two dollars," and when he paused for the merest fraction of a second, immediately revised that to "One dollar." And as it turned out, we bought two other items for a dollar apiece each, all of them super good deals. Here's what we found, and what it would have cost new:
  1. A vintage Tonka Big Dump truck from the 1980s, made of actual steel (none of this flimsy plastic they use nowadays). This is an item you can no longer buy new, because they just don't make them like that anymore—but Brian found similar ones on eBay priced between $13 and $60. The lowest price is a starting bid, so it will probably sell for more in the end; the highest is marked "or best offer," so it will probably go for less. The two marked "Buy it Now" are $35 and $40, so that's probably the best estimate of what this thing is really worth today.
  2. A pair of black women's pants, Merona brand, sold at Target. This particular style seems no longer to be available, but other Merona pants in comparable styles are selling for $20 to $30. Unfortunately, there was no way to try these on at the sale, and when I got them home I found that, while they're wearable, they're not exactly flattering on me—and they don't have pockets, which is a pet peeve of mine. So they probably won't be worn much, but for a buck, it was certainly worth the risk. They can still serve as an emergency laundry-day backup.
  3. An extra-long extension cord, which is a must for working in the yard. (All our power tools, like the hedge trimmer and the string trimmer, are electric-powered, because we don't want to deal with the hassle, mess, smell, and emissions of gasoline.) These long cords go for anywhere from $13 to a whopping $133 at Home Depot, so we saved at least $12 with this purchase.
So, just by going a few blocks out of our way, we saved nearly 50 bucks (not counting the pants, since that's an item I probably wouldn't have bought in a store). The moral of the story: never pass up a yard sale sign, not even if it's cold out.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: Winter Sowing Day

According to my Yahoo Weather widget, the temperature outside is currently 34 degrees, headed up to a daytime high of 44, with snow flurries expected tonight and tomorrow. Happy first day of spring, everyone!

This is why I've always found it silly to designate the solstices and equinoxes as the "first days" of their respective seasons. Clearly spring, defined as the time when you can start going outside without a coat, doesn't start in mid-March, and summer, the time when you're liable to be too warm even in your shirt sleeves, is already well under way by mid-June. Nonetheless, this is still the equinox, and something needs to be done to mark the occasion. Brian is celebrating by riding his bike to work for the first time this year, temperatures in the thirties notwithstanding. But I'm having a bit more trouble figuring out how to fit this date on the calendar into my new scheme of gardeners' holidays. It's not quite time to start planting seeds out in the garden yet; my earliest crop, the snow peas, isn't scheduled to go into the ground until March 31 (which, this year, coincides with Easter Sunday, so that's how I'll be celebrating). My seedlings, on the other hand, are already in progress; I've already got healthy parsley seedlings, smaller celery seedlings, and a few spindly little leeks coming up. I thought of calling this Tomato-Starting Day, but even that is a bit of a misnomer; my earliest tomatoes, the Sun Golds, actually got started last weekend, and all my other varieties aren't due to be started until next weekend.

There is one thing I can do today, however, to get the tomato-planting process started. Unlike the Sun Golds I started last weekend, which have to stay indoors where it's nice and warm, the rest of my tomatoes and all of my peppers are going to be a mixture of indoor seedlings and winter sown seedlings, started outdoors in mini-greenhouses. I really like this technique because, in true ecofrugal fashion, it makes use of what's freely available—sunlight and the natural cycles of freezing and thawing—rather than requiring me to invest money or effort or both to recreate their effects. And since I've often noticed that the volunteer plants (and other weeds) that sow themselves, whether in the garden or elsewhere, are invariably bigger, stronger, and healthier come planting time than the seedlings I've carefully nurtured indoors under fluorescent light for 12 hours a day, I can't help thinking that the closer I can come to letting the seeds grow in their natural environment, the better off they'll be. And indeed, based on my limited experimentation with winter sowing in the past, the winter sown seedlings—those that survive—do appear to be generally bigger and healthier than the indoor ones, and more likely to survive transplanting.

What I'd really like to do, to be honest, is to plant my seeds in the wintertime, right after the garden beds have been emptied out, and let them nestle all winter under a nice, thick layer of mulch. Come spring, they'll start freezing and thawing repeatedly as the days warm up, loosening their little seed coats so that the roots and shoots can break through. Sure, a lot of them probably wouldn't survive this process, but those that did would have the advantage of starting out right in the spot where they'll end up, so they can spread their roots early and get down to the business of growing, instead of being crowded into little pots until the experts say it's time to transplant them. However, I haven't actually had the nerve to try this—yet—so I figure winter sowing is the next best thing. I haven't worked my way up to sowing all my seeds outdoors; some of them, like parsley, need to start so early that I fear they wouldn't make it, and others, like eggplant, are described as needing warmth to germinate at all, so they really need to start indoors if I'm going to manage to produce any in our relatively short Northeastern growing season. But I've gotten as far as splitting my tomato and pepper plants into two batches, one for outdoors and one for indoors, and if the outdoor seedlings do better than the indoor seedlings this year, I may just go with all outdoors next year.

The outdoor sowing does, however, require some prep work. Our regular seed starting system, with lengths of PVC pipe fitted into OJ cartons, isn't ideal for outdoor sowing, because the cartons are too big. They could be cut in half and tucked into clear plastic bags, but then the PVC tubes would have to be cut in half as well. So our best bet is probably to use the plastic jug method. We already have several clean, empty plastic gallon jugs that have been demoted from their old jobs storing our emergency water supplies after we noticed that they tended to spring leaks. That's not a problem for winter sowing containers; in fact, you want them to leak, or more properly, drain, and if they don't already have holes in the bottom you need to add some with a pen knife. Then you saw off most of the top of the jug, just below the handle, leaving the label, if it has one, to serve as a hinge. I figure we can pop our PVC pipe starting tubes into these jugs and then fill them as usual with a well-moistened mixture of seed starter and soil. Once the tubes are tucked snugly in the jugs, they won't loose much water to evaporation, so they won't need constant watering or misting the way our indoor seedlings do.

So that's how I'm celebrating the astronomical (if not horticultural) start of spring: by prepping a bunch of jugs for winter sowing. We've got eight tomato plants and four pepper plants that will be started this way, so three jugs should be sufficient. And once those are all planted, we'll officially be out of seed-starting season, with all our other crops from there on out going directly into the ground.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The compost test: preliminary results

About a month ago I posted about how we were planning to test the compost we'd bought at Home Depot to make sure it wasn't herbicide-tainted "killer compost." Well, the preliminary results are in, and I'm afraid it doesn't look good.

First, let's take a look at the control pots. Brian planted these so we could compare a healthy plant grown in normal soil with one grown in potentially harmful compost. And just to give us the broadest possible basis for comparison, he planted control seeds in three different growing media. The top pot in the picture has straight-up garden soil, the middle pot has a mixture of regular soil and seed-starting mix (the same stuff we're using to grow our garden seedlings), and the bottom one has unadulterated seed-starting mix. And here was our first surprise: the bean seeds planted in the seed-starting mix didn't actually start. They didn't come up and later wilt; they simply never sprouted at all. This isn't the best possible endorsement for the seed-starting mixture, given that the seeds we used are mung beans, which will normally sprout in a couple of days in just a jar with a bit of water. But on the other hand, the seed-starting mix does seem to improve the performance of plain soil; with three seeds planted, we got two healthy seedlings in the soil/seed starter mixture, and only one in the regular soil. So this part of the experiment suggests that our decision to mix the seed starting mix with regular soil for starting our garden seedlings was probably a good call.

The test results on the compost itself, however, were much less satisfactory. This picture shows the seedling tray we used to test the compost, with one cell for each bag of compost we bought (mixed with the seed-starting mix). As you can see, only about half the cells produced healthy seedlings. In one pot (second row, middle cup), the seeds simply didn't come up at all—not even a hint of a shoot poking through the soil. In a couple of others (like the third row left), they started to sprout, but never actually grew into plants. And in a couple more (like the top right and third row middle), the seedlings came up normally, but then started to droop and eventually withered away completely. So basically, of the twelve bags of compost we bought, only six produced seedlings as healthy as the control batch. The other six I would definitely be unwilling to use—especially on our new fruit trees and bushes, which represent a long-term investment.

Now, Brian isn't entirely convinced by these preliminary results. Being a scientist, he agrees that the results do support the hypothesis that the six bags of compost are tainted, but he thinks there could be other ways to explain the outcome. For example, he thinks that it's possible he simply forgot to add the seeds to the one pot that never sprouted at all, and he thinks the seedlings that came up and then withered may be explained by the fact that the cups they were in simply didn't have enough soil to support them. So he has designed a new experiment to test this possibility, adding more dirt to all the pots and planting three new seeds in each of the ones that didn't produce seedlings on the first go-round. If the withered plants perk back up, or if the previously empty cups manage to produce healthy seedlings on the second attempt, he thinks that will indicate that the corresponding bags of compost are safe to use. I'm not optimistic, but I figure it can't hurt to carry out the experiment.

My bigger concern, though, is what to do about these six unusable bags of compost (assuming they do turn out to be unusable). First of all, how do we dispose of them? The bags have all been sampled from, so I don't think we can return it to the store; they're almost entirely full, but I definitely don't want to pass them on to anyone else on Freecycle; and the contents are organic material, but it sure isn't safe to dump it in our compost bin. So what do we do—just put these full bags of compost out with the trash? If so, do we need to put a label on them that reads, "WARNING: TAINTED COMPOST. DO NOT USE," to ensure that no unwitting person scavenges them off the curb?

And second, how do we replace them? It's mid-March now; our trees and bushes will most likely arrive in early April. We don't really have time to buy more compost and test it by then. Of course, we could just use the bags we know are untainted on the new trees, then buy and test more compost for use in the garden beds, most of which won't be planted until early May. But how many bags should we buy? Do we buy six more to replace the six we can't use? Or should we buy a dozen more, on the assumption that 12 bags will yield about 6 usable ones? But then, what if the results of the second test are even worse than the first and only four, or three, or none of the dozen bags are usable? Would we be better off just going with no compost at all in the garden, aside from whatever we can manage to abstract from our one dinky little household bin?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Veggie of the Month: rainbow chard

One type of veggie I probably don't eat as much of as I should is leafy greens. I do eat and grow various kinds of lettuce (though not the ubiquitous iceberg, which is pretty feeble in terms of both taste and nutrition), and I use spinach in various forms—fresh and raw when it's in season, and frozen in soups and casseroles at other times of year. I've even been known to harvest and eat dandelion greens from my own yard in the springtime. But the big bunches of kale and chard and collards that I see at the farmers' market generally leave me unmoved. On the rare occasions when I've sampled these greens, they've always tasted unpleasantly bitter to me, and I've never had any idea how to prepare them to make them tastier. Even when my local natural foods store threw itself into the "Eat More Kale" campaign a couple of years back, I didn't jump on board (though I did think Chik-Fil-A's decision to sue the maker of the T-shirts was ridiculous).

However, a week or so ago, as I browsed through the aisles at the Whole Earth Center, looking for a suitable pick for my March Veggie of the Month, I spotted the chard once again, heaped high in the refrigerator case, and I thought, well, the whole point of this exercise is to try new things, right? So I selected the rainbow chard, which I found appealingly colorful and reasonably priced at $2.45 per bunch.

Then came the question of how to use it. Mark Bittman recommends sautéing it with oranges and shallots, but we didn't have any of those handy, and going out and buying additional ingredients just to make use of my Veggie of the Month seemed to run counter to the purpose of buying it, which is to try and find ways to work it into my usual diet. So Brian tried chopping up a leaf or two and incorporating it into the batter of some potato cakes. (These are the "Crabby Potato Cakes" from the Small Potato Cookbook, one of our regular standby recipes, except that we've taken to substituting canned tuna for the canned crabmeat since Trader Joe's stopped carrying the latter.) The chard didn't affect the flavor of the cakes much—mixed in with the potato, tuna, carrots, scallions, and other ingredients, I'd hardly have known it was there at all—but it did seem to make their texture a bit more crumbly. The cakes didn't hold together as well as usual, at any rate, and I assume the chard was responsible, since everything else about the recipe was unchanged.

Next he tried adding a few leaves' worth to some quesadillas. These were not a standard recipe but an improvisation on a regular theme; instead of making quesadillas as we usually do, with refried beans and Monterey Jack, he heaped the tortillas with mushrooms and chard before sprinkling on the cheese to bulk them up with nutrition-packed veggies. They came out pretty well, but once again, the chard didn't seem to make any distinctive contribution to their flavor. It just sort of blended in under the cheese, the shrooms, and the homemade tomato salsa (made with canned tomatoes, since the "fresh" tomatoes you can get at the grocery store in March are nothing of the kind).

After these two "stealth chard" recipes, I began to fear that I'd end up consuming the entire bunch of chard without ever having any idea what it actually tasted like. So I suggested to Brian that we cook up the remainder of the chard using the same recipe we use for dandelion greens: tossed with a dressing of hot fried bacon ends (from the Amish market), cider vinegar, brown sugar, and scallions. I figured that if this works for slightly bitter-flavored dandelion greens, it should be suitable for the chard as well. And it was—the tangy-sweet dressing and the brief heating softened the bitterness of the chard without concealing it completely. I found I liked the dish about as well with the chard as I normally do with dandelions.

From these three experiments with chard, it seems clear that we could easily incorporate this vegetable into our regular diet if we so chose. But after trying the chard in its various forms, we both had to admit that neither of us felt any particularly compelling need to buy it again. While the chard blended unobtrusively into the potato cakes and quesadillas, it didn't really seem to add any particular kick to either dish. And although it worked reasonably well in the wilted salad, it was no better than the dandelion greens, which we can get for free.

So, the bottom line with this month's Veggie of the Month appears to be that we no longer have any good reason to avoid chard particularly. If someone offers us a bunch for free, or if we join a CSA that gives us lots of it, or if we see a particularly good deal on it at the grocery store, we can be reasonably confident that we'll find ways to use it up. But we're not so crazy about it that we'll go out of our way to buy it, and we're certainly not about to give up any of our precious, limited garden space to it. Brian said that if we were to find it grows exceptionally well in our garden, it might be worth devoting a few squares to it just for the sake of a bountiful, if not exactly scrumptious, harvest. But speaking for myself, I'd rather devote those squares to arugula (which grows like gangbusters in our garden, and which is ludicrously expensive to buy at the store) or make another attempt to find a variety of spinach that we can grow successfully. Spinach has at least as many uses as chard does, and unlike chard, it's a veggie we'll actually eat for its own sake.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Small changes

Recently, I scored a nearly-free subscription to Better Homes and Gardens. I think it was $2 for six issues, of which I've now received three. Paging through the latest issue, I found myself annoyed, as I so often am when reading magazines of this sort, by the complete disregard for money in most of the articles. Featured stories in this issue discuss:
  • A newlywed couple (with two dogs) who bumped out the entire front of their house by 10 feet to expand their living room, while also adding a full-width screened porch, rearranging their kitchen layout, and moving their laundry room
  • A DIY kitchen remodel that involved removing a huge brick peninsula, adding an island, replacing the cooktop and wall oven with a professional gas range, replacing floor tile with hardwood, replacing all the kitchen cabinets, and adding a new sink, dishwasher, backsplash, lighting, built-in seating, and energy-efficient windows
  • A remodel of an "unimaginative" full bath that involved moving the toilet, tub, and separate shower, as well as replacing the double sink/vanity, adding glass tile to two entire walls, and replacing the non-obstructive swinging door with a pocket door to "open up even more floor space"
  • An conversion of an "uninviting sunroom" to a huge family room with a massive stone fireplace, open to both the family room and the new covered stone patio, as well as French doors on either side of the fireplace, vaulted fir-paneled ceilings, and new hardwood floors
  • A redesigned backyard that includes a "bluestone patio and pergola," linked to the kids' play area by "bluestone steppers" and a "low retaining wall" that also provides seating
Not one of these stories mentions the project's budget. In fact, not one of them even includes the word "budget." If you have to ask, apparently, you don't want to know.

The other thing that's annoying about all these stories is that they all focus on really big projects: knocking out walls, moving plumbing, replacing appliances and fixtures. There is one smaller-scale story about redecorating the master bedroom in a "mountain getaway home"—although even that job was done professionally—but for the most part, the choice of articles seems to imply that the only changes in a home worth talking about are big changes.

Perhaps in a reaction to this, I spent a chunk of my Sunday working on making, or at least completing, a series of really small changes in our house. None of them took more than a few hours or cost more than a few dollars. But each of them will, I think, make a big difference in how well our house looks or functions or both.

Small change #1: This was a completely impromptu move that occurred to me as I was reading the first BHG story listed above. One of the things that bugged me was the way the editors praised the couple's decision to replace some of their upper kitchen cabinets with open shelves, which they called "an inexpensive fix for a dated kitchen." A lot of design magazines lately seem to be recommending this move, blithely ignoring the fact that when you have open shelves, everything you keep on them has to look presentable. They're fine for displaying pretty dishes, but what about the mismatched mugs and miscellaneous appliances that most of us keep tucked neatly behind our cabinet doors? Even if you do have stuff that will look nice on an open shelf, displaying it out in the open means it has to be neatly spaced, so that in effect, you get less usable space than you do with a cabinet.

Brian speculated that the people who do this in their kitchens must all just be leaving their blenders and coffeemakers sitting out on the counter all the time—which isn't terribly practical if your kitchen has a grand total of 8 linear feet of counter space, like ours. In fact, looking around the kitchen, we noted that the only items we have sitting out on our counters are the toaster oven, which gets used daily; a crock full of various cooking utensils, at least one of which is likely to be used on any given day; the cookie jar; and the rolling pin. It occurred to me that the rolling pin, at least, doesn't get used every day, or even every week, and really doesn't need to be kept out. Brian agreed, but said he keeps it out because it looks nice (it's made of green marble) and doesn't fit neatly in any of our drawers or cabinets. On an impulse, I picked it up, along with its wooden stand, and moved it over to the top of the fridge.

Result: In its new home, the rolling pin is actually easier to see and just as easy to access whenever we want to bake a pie, and we now have a whole extra third of a foot of precious counter space. Cost: $0.

Small change #2: Our recycling bins live in our spare bedroom, across the hall from the kitchen. We have two wooden crates, bought unfinished at Michael's, to hold our paper and mixed recyclables (cans, bottles, and all plastics numbered 1 through 7). They just fit side by side on the top shelf of a table that my father-in-law built for us (originally designed to provide much-needed counter and storage space in our old apartment, but it has since made the move with us to our current house). However, until recently, the newspapers, which have to be bundled separately from other paper, were relegated to a cardboard file box on the bottom shelf, while next to them sat an odd assortment of haphazardly piled items: recycling schedules, candles for emergency use, a piece of art that for some reason wasn't filed with the rest of our artwork, and a "how to host a mystery" boxed party game that I've been meaning to host as soon as I can come up with a suitable guest list.

A month ago, while shopping for compost at  Home Depot, we found another crate, similar to the two we already had, for only $6.50 (plus tax). We brought it home and, bit by bit, it went through the stages of rough sanding, fine sanding, and yesterday, finishing with water-based polyurethane. One we got the crate in place, giving the newspapers a decent home, I decided that it looked too nice to have a collection of miscellaneous junk stacked next to it. So I took the game downstairs to live with our other board games and brought up a nice fabric-lined basket, which used to live in our bathroom closet until we replaced it with a much bigger and more functional one, to hold the candles.

Result: The newly tweaked recycling station looks much nicer and will be more functional as well, since our tea lights are no longer at risk of spilling out of their bag and rolling into corners. Cost: $7, since we already had the sandpaper and poly left over from other projects.

Small change #3: As you can see in the picture above, the recycling station also serves as our plant shelf, where we keep our started seedlings under their grow light, along with a few houseplants. For the past few weeks, in a "waste not, want not" move, we've been saving the root ends of our scallions and keeping them in a jar of water on this plant shelf to re-grow into new scallions. This did work—that is, the scallions did grow this way—but they also developed an absolutely awful smell. This was not just an onion-breath smell; this was more like a foul undead zombie onion. My best guess is that, while the inner part of each scallion was sprouting new growth, its outer layers were decaying under the water. I finally got fed up with this and grabbed the jar and a plant pot that was sitting next to it. This pot used to hold a potted basil plant, but over the course of the winter it had gradually lost its leaves until we finally gave up on it and pulled it out, leaving the pot unoccupied. I carried both items downstairs to the workshop, where Brian was mucking about with potting soil, starting a set of tomato seedlings (Sun Golds, the earliest tomato in our lineup for 2013). Not bothering with niceties like tools, Brian simply poked a few holes into the dirt and put the scallions right into them, adding a bit more potting mix to fill in the gaps. The foul-smelling jar got soaked in the utility sink, while the repotted scallions came upstairs to get a good watering.

Result: The scallions may or may not thrive in their new home, but our potting stand no longer stinks, and the pot is no longer sitting there empty and taking up space. Cost: $0.

Small change #4: One of my birthday presents from my mom was an insect house—a container you can hang up in your yard to attract beneficial insects, like ladybugs and lacewings. Since we got it, it's just been sitting in our spare room waiting to be hung. I couldn't hang it without Brian's help, being too short to hang it at a suitable height—and during the weeks that passed, we didn't have a single free and sunny weekend. So today, we finally had a five-minute interval of decent weather during which we could take the house out to the shed, drill a little hole, pound in a large nail, and hang the house. (We took an extra minute or two to bend down the other end of the nail so that it wouldn't be poking straight through the wall inside the shed.)

Result: It's too early to say whether this thing will attract any beneficial bugs, but it looks cute—and the house is no longer taking up space in our spare room. Cost: Don't know what my mom paid for it, but hanging it up cost us nothing.

There. Four small projects, each of which made a significant positive impact, all finished today, and none costing over $7. Top that, BHG!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Us Versus the Man, Round 3

The saga continues...

Round 3: Amy and Brian go to Barnes & Noble

Note that I'm not calling this "Amy and Brian versus Barnes & Noble," because the store isn't really the adversary in this case. In fact, if you were analyzing the central conflict of this story for an English class, you'd have to conclude that it's an internal one: Amy and Brian versus Amy and Brian.

You see, a while back, we were given a gift card to Barnes & Noble. We were very pleased with this, since we both love books and hanging out at bookstores...yet in the months that have passed since we got the card, we've spent only $11 of the $25 that was on it. We've been in and out of various Barnes & Noble stores repeatedly in that time, but we've usually come out again with nothing. It may seem strange that two book lovers could go into a huge bookstore, carrying a card with $14 in credit that can be spent only at that store, and not find anything they want to spend it on—but it makes more sense if you remember that the two book lovers are also cheapskates, and consider what books (and DVDs, and the other goodies sold at Barnes & Noble) tend to cost these days.

For an example, here's how our most recent trip went:

First, I browsed through the economics section near the front. I found a few books that looked interesting, including one with the intriguing title More Sex is Safer Sex—but I thought I recalled having seen that one before at our local library, and there was obviously no point in buying it if I could just borrow it. Brian, meanwhile, scouted out the crossword puzzle section on my behalf, but he reported that there were no collections of cryptic crosswords (my preferred kind) that I hadn't done already.

Then we came across the DVDs of the second season of "A Game of Thrones," priced at $60. Now, this was an item we were already planning to buy (since we're hooked on the series and obviously too cheap to pay for HBO); we just hadn't gotten around to ordering it yet. So that should have been the perfect way to use up our remaining store credit, right? Except that even with our $14 credit, the DVDs would still cost us $46 out of pocket—and we thought they would probably be less than that on

We also browsed through the board game section. We saw a couple of games that looked intriguing, including one H.P. Lovecraft-Inspired mystery game called Elder Sign—but never having played it before, or even seen a review of it, we couldn't be sure whether it was really worth the money. One game that we'd definitely have been willing to pay the price for was the expansion set for Pandemic, but they only had the original game—and as Brian noted, if we were going to buy a game like that from a store, he'd prefer to support our local comic/game shop.

As a last resort, we decided to check the shelves for the latest Dresden Files novel, Cold Days. It was there, but only in hardcover for $26. So even with our store credit, we'd have to pay $12. Checking the price of a paperback in the same section, we found it was only $10, so by waiting a few more months for the paperback version, we could save $16. So at least we do now know of a way that we can use up most of our remaining store credit—eventually. But that day, we still walked out of the store bookless.

Round 3 Winner:, where we placed our order for the "Game of Thrones" DVDs as soon as we got home. They were only $35, so we did in fact pay less, which means that you could say we won this round as well—but it's certainly no skin off Barnes & Noble's nose, since they've already been paid $25 for the gift card and, thus far, have only had to shell out $11 worth of merchandise in exchange. In fact, the longer we hold onto this card without using it, the better it is for them, since their prices will only go up as we wait. (At least I did confirm that the card itself won't expire; we'd feel like double idiots if we let the money go to waste entirely because we never found anything that was a good enough deal to spend it on.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Us Versus the Man, Round 2

Time for the next episode in the ongoing adventures of a frugal couple trying to beat the system:

Round 2: Amy and Brian versus General Mills

If there's one food product that can challenge soft drinks for the title of "Most Ridiculously Overpriced Food," it's got to be breakfast cereal. The manufacturers start with a few cents' worth of grain, strip off the most nutritious parts, grind it, squeeze it, flatten it and generally change it into some other shape, then add sugar, artificial flavors and colors, and some vitamins to replace the ones they stripped out—and sell the whole mess back to us for four dollars (the average retail price for a box of cereal according to this week's Coupon Mom list). Store brands are a lot cheaper, but even they tend to cost over $2 per pound.

Since cereal is Brian's favorite breakfast, we've tried various strategies to beat the high cost. Back when we were first married, we used to make homemade granola often, using the recipe from the Tightwad Gazette. At one point, I calculated the cost of the ingredients in a batch of our granola and found that it came out to about $1.60 per pound, or 10 cents per ounce. So I decided that any ready-to-eat breakfast cereal that cost this amount or less was a reasonable deal. Since then, although food prices have gone up, I haven't changed my target price, because 10 cents per ounce is such an easy number to work with. No need to haul out the pocket calculator in the store; I can just do the math in my head.

Over the years, the number of cereals that fall within the 10-cents-per-ounce limit has dropped steadily. At this point, pretty much the only one that meets the standard is Millville raisin bran, the Aldi store brand. (The Millville corn flakes are even cheaper, but we don't usually bother with them because they're not as filling. Also, I have a tendency to snack on them, mouse-fashion, until they disappear without a trace.) So, since we don't make the homemade granola much these days, Brian's breakfast is almost invariably a bowl of raisin bran (cut with plain rolled oats to make it still more filling and cheaper).

Once in a while, though, when the stars are aligned just right, a name-brand cereal goes on sale for less than half its usual price, while at the same time a coupon comes out for that same brand that takes the price down by 50 cents or more. And if the sale happens to occur at a store that doubles coupons—as most of our local supermarkets do, if they're under a dollar in value—the price per ounce can actually drop well below our ten-cent limit. And thanks to CouponMom, I can now easily find these deals when they pop up.

Last week, for instance the site alerted me to a deal at the Shop Rite: four boxes of any of various types of General Mills cereals for $8. This could be combined with a 75-cents off coupon on Wheaties from, which, if doubled, would take the price down to a mere 50 cents a box. The only catch was, you had to buy four boxes to get this price. Which means you also had to have four coupons. And since has a print limit of two on most of its coupons, I could only get two of them.

However, all was not lost. I hunted through the other coupons on the site and managed to find a 50-cent one for regular Cheerios and a 75-cent one for Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch. This is the sort of sweet, calorie-dense cereal that we normally steer clear of, but if it could serve as the fourth box that would give us our great deal, we were more than happy to try it. So here's how the deal stacked up:

Two 10.9-ounce boxes of Wheaties, regular price, $4.19 each
One 14-ounce box of Cheerios, regular price, $4.29
One 13.1-ounce box of the Medley Crunch, regular price, $3.99
Regular price for all four boxes: $16.86
Sale price for all four boxes: $8.00
Two 75-cent coupons for Wheaties, doubled: $3 off
One 75-cent coupon for Medley Crunch, doubled: $1.50 off
One 50-cent coupon for Cheerios, doubled: $1 off
Final cost for all four boxes: $2.50

Yep, that's four boxes of cereal for less than the regular price of one box. The cost per ounce for all the cereal we bought was 5.1 cents, or about half of our limit.

Round 2 winner: Amy and Brian. Woo-hoo!

Sadly, as I mentioned before, we aren't able to score deals like this on a regular basis. I don't know how the extreme couponers do it, but I know that in our area, at least, magic combinations like this don't show up on CouponMom more than once every few months. And since a box of cereal lasts us only a week or so—even when cut with oats—I'm sure we'll be back to the Aldi raisin bran within a couple of months. But in the meantime, Brian can enjoy a nice change of pace. (That's assuming I leave him any of the Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch, which turns out to be waist-threateningly tasty.)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Us Versus the Man, Round 1

As promised in my previous post, these are the continuing adventures of a frugal couple trying to beat the system and avoid spending more than they have to.

Round 1: Amy and Brian versus HP

First, some background: As I noted in my entry on "Stuff Most People Pay Too Much For" back in 2010, printer cartridges are both ludicrously overpriced and incredibly wasteful. Printer manufacturers make most of their money not on the printer itself, but on the ink cartridges; the Investopedia article that was the original source for my 2010 entry claims that over the lifetime of your printer, you can expect to pay about five times its original cost in ink. The article quotes a cost of 71 cents per milliliter, but prices have gone up since then; an HP 56 inkjet cartridge containing 19 milliliters now costs $21.25 at, or $1.12 per milliliter. By contrast, a magnum of Dom Perignon, at $469, costs a mere 31.3 cents per milliliter.

Rather than pay this ridiculously inflated price each time we need to refill a printer cartridge, we paid about $50 for a one-liter bottle of black ink back shortly after we got our old HP5600 around eight or nine years ago. (We also bought some color ink refills, which were a bit more expensive.) This big bottle paid for itself within the first few refills, and there's still about three-quarters of it left. We did eventually have to replace the cartridges because the print heads wore out, but still, we've gotten at least a dozen refills so far out of $12.50 worth of ink—a little over a dollar per refill, as opposed to more than $20.

The problem is, HP and other printer manufacturers have caught on to this gambit. So their counter-move has been to program their printers to recognize a specific ink cartridge and refuse to accept it if it's been used before. When we started refilling the cartridges on our old printer, we found a site that explained how to trick the printer into thinking the cartridge you're giving it is a new one. (Basically, it involves covering one of two tiny little holes with tape each time you refill.) But our new HP printer (the Deskjet 1000) takes different cartridges, and the site doesn't have instructions for these. However, when we first looked at this printer, the sales guy at Staples assured us that refilling the cartridges would be no problem; this printer didn't have the little chip-recognizer in it, so there was no need to "spoof" it after refilling. (This was a complete reversal of position on Staples' part since the last time we'd bought a printer there, when the salesperson urged us not to attempt to refill the cartridges because "it destroys the print heads." I suspect the change is due to the fact that Staples now offers its own ink-refilling service, so they stand to make more money off us by persuading us to refill our ink cartridges than by selling us the manufacturer's overpriced cartridges with a minimal markup.)

Unfortunately, we discovered this weekend that the sales guy was wrong. We had already refilled the cartridge a week or so earlier when the black print started to look a little fuzzy, using the ink refill kit we'd bought for the old printer, and that had worked fine. However, the chip inside the printer, which estimates the ink level based on how many pages you've printed since you last replaced the cartridge, was still convinced that the ink level was low—and when we tried to print out a page on Saturday, it popped up a message saying something like, "The original HP ink in your cartridge has been exhausted" and refused to print another word. We tried taking the cartridge out and putting it back in; we tried searching online for instructions on how to spoof the printer; Brian even tried to find some little pinholes in the cartridge that might correspond to the ones we used to cover with tape on our old printer, but to no avail.

Knowing that the printer can only keep track of the last three cartridges it's had, I suggested that maybe the best thing to do would be to go on Freecycle and ask for some empty HP 61 ink cartridges. Then we could just pop two empties into the printer in succession before replacing the original, refilled cartridge. In the meantime, we'd just have to make do without the printer, or print only in color. Brian agreed to this and decided to check the number of the color cartridge, too, so we could ask for some of those as well. But just as I was preparing to type up the request on Freecycle, the printer suddenly whirred to life and started printing our page, just as if nothing had ever been wrong.

We're guessing that this means the printer can only keep track of one cartridge at a time. By removing both cartridges at once, we tricked the printer into thinking it had two brand-new cartridges, instead of one new and one old (refilled) one. This might explain why the sales clerk at Staples thought it wasn't necessary to spoof this printer: he'd always routinely removed and refilled both cartridges whenever one of them ran dry, so he'd never gotten the "out of ink" message. So what we're hoping is that if we simply do the same the next time we need to refill the ink, we won't get the message either.

Round 1 winner: None declared. We've managed to keep the printer working for now without having to give in and buy a new cartridge (or try to scrounge around for old ones), but until the printer decides it's out of ink again, we can't be certain whether the trick we've discovered will actually work. So HP might end up winning this round down the road—though we will certainly try other tricks to beat it if we can.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Consumer Games (or, Us Versus the Man)

Every time Brian and I go to the supermarket, we play a little game: we look at the bottom of the receipt, where it lists our total savings from sales and coupons, and compare this number with the amount we actually spent. If it's higher, that means we "won." I realize, of course, that this rule is actually kind of arbitrary, because the amount we truly "saved" in the transaction isn't the amount that's listed on the receipt. (An article I wrote for the Dollar Stretcher in 2009 talks about how to calculate the real savings, in terms of money in pocket, by comparing the cost of the items bought with what I would pay for the equivalent items by following my normal strategies—buying store brands, cooking from scratch, etc.)

But the thing is, when we play this game, we aren't really trying to compare what we spent to what we saved; we're comparing it to what we could have spent, if we were suckers. In other words, we're not competing against ourselves and trying to beat our own personal best; we're competing against the system itself. The list price of an item is the price "the Man" is trying to get us to pay; if we can get the item for less than half of that, then we've beaten the Man at his own game.

Of course, there are cases in which this isn't true; the Man doesn't actually expect you to pay the list price. The Man is perfectly well aware that this game exists, so sometimes he sets the prices for items at an artificially inflated level only to "slash" them to half that level or less, thereby convincing you that you've won the game by paying the price he expected you to pay all along. The reports I've been reading for work in the past couple of weeks indicate that this is nearly always the case with mattress shopping, for example. But it isn't the case with grocery shopping (yet), so playing this game at the grocery store is still enjoyable for us.

In fact, I think for most of those who play this game, the appeal lies at least as much in the thrill of victory as in the actual savings. Extreme couponers often continue to stockpile stuff long after they have as much as they could possibly use in a year; they can't really be said to be "saving" any more money at this point, since they no longer have a grocery bill to cut, but it's the lure of the game itself that they can't resist. This clip from the "Extreme Couponing" TV show features a 15-year-old boy who calls himself "the Coupon Kid" and admits that he gets "a really big adrenaline rush from saving money" at the store. He even has all his grocery receipts displayed on the wall, like trophies, and he proudly points out the receipt on which he saved $99 on a bill of $112. (We've never won the game by that big a margin, but we've come close once or twice—though we've never saved nearly that large a dollar amount on a single trip.)

The game even maintains its allure for people who have reached a point in life where they no longer have any need to pinch their pennies. My late step-grandfather, for instance, made a tidy little fortune in auto parts, but every time I accompanied him to the grocery store, he would carefully compare the cartons of orange juice in the case to see which one had the best price per gallon. Bernie certainly could have paid whatever price the store was asking for whichever brand he happened to like best, but he never would have done this, because he wouldn't feel satisfied with the purchase if he didn't feel like he was getting his money's worth. If he'd refused to play the game anymore, that would just have been letting the Man win.

Actually, it occurred to me the other day that we don't just play this game at the grocery store; in one way or another, we play it nearly every day. The grocery receipts one of the most obvious examples, because the amount "saved" and amount spent are right there in black and white at the bottom, but it's only one of the many ways in which we try, in our frugal life, to beat the system. In fact, I can think of several examples, just from this weekend alone, of ways in which we've played the savings game. Over the course of my next several blog entries, I'll be giving you a play-by-play on the various rounds of "Us Versus the Man" that we've played over the past few days, and who came out ahead.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Rising to the challenge

As you may recall, last month I posted about my disappointment that I wasn't able to take part in the Macklemore Thrift Shop Challenge issued by the bloggers at Young House Love because I couldn't find anything at any of the thrift shops in my area, and my hope that the Unique Thrift Store in South Plainfield might yield some better finds. Well, I am pleased to report that I did, in fact, get a chance to check out this store yesterday, and I did, in fact, find a few items there that were purchase-worthy. But before I show you my haul, here's a quick bread-and-butter report on the shop itself:

First, this store is really, really big. It appears, in fact, to be two stores within a big strip mall that have had a doorway knocked into place between them. The larger section is full of clothing and some housewares items (like bedspreads, which I found hanging up on big hangers to be browsed through, like posters at an art store); the smaller section has books, a few furniture items, and some knickknacks, as well as housing the fitting rooms. The selection of clothing is bigger than that at Goodwill, and much better organized. While Goodwill groups items by color, the folks at Unique Thrift actually take the time to sort them by approximate size (small/medium/large/extra large), so instead of looking at every pair of dark pants on the rack, I only had to look at the ones in my general size group. However, I did initially waste a bit of time looking through the larges before I figured out that size 12 was filed under medium. Labeling each section with the specific range of sizes, instead of just the general descriptor, wouldn't take much effort and could save customers considerable time.

The clothing also seemed to be, in general, in better condition that what I've found at smaller thrift stores. Everything was intact, with no stains, no tears (except the artistic kind that some jeans have when new), and no visible wear. Many, if not most, of the items were originally from well-known brands; among those I saw on the racks were Lee, Liz Claiborne, and Express. The prices were also a bit higher than I've seen elsewhere—generally between $5 and $8 per item. Of course, this is still a lot less than you'd pay for the same brands in a department store, but I did notice that when we later popped into Shoppers' World, a discount store in the same strip mall, it had many items (such as T-shirts) that were actually cheaper than the ones at the thrift shop. Their quality probably wasn't as good, but for something that didn't need to be well made, I'd be inclined to check the Shoppers' World first—especially since there's one closer to us down in East Brunswick, not far from some other stores we visit regularly.

This brings me to my biggest problem with Unique Thrift: the location. While it's only, in theory, about a 20-minute drive from us, some traffic snarl-ups made it closer to half an hour, and it's half an hour in exactly the opposite direction from anything else we'd be likely to visit. (There are supposed to be some really good Indian restaurants up in that area, but we already have decent ones that are much closer to us.) It's not a pleasant drive, either, since the most direct route runs through some particularly ugly retail and industrial districts, and the final destination is not exactly pretty: a big, somewhat dilapidated strip mall with a huge parking lot and no empty parking spaces anywhere near the store.

Now, it might be worth making this rather unpleasant drive on a regular basis if the store actually had a lot of stuff that was to my taste. However, despite the large selection, I didn't actually find much that I liked. The entire rack of medium-sized dresses didn't have one in the style I was looking for (a nice, simple floral print, like the one I had years ago that was my go-to dress for weddings, parties and events of all occasions, and probably still would be if I hadn't made the mistake of putting it in the dryer). And after searching the entire rack of medium-sized pants (and the separate rack of jeans), I found only five pairs that looked worth the trouble of trying on. Admittedly, that's five pairs more than I found at the Goodwill store, but given that only one of the five pairs fit comfortably and looked decent, it doesn't seem like a very big payoff for the time I had to spend. (Also, it took me two trips to the fitting room to try on all five pairs, since the store imposes a three-garment limit. Luckily I had Brian there to hold on to my extra items for me.) As for the books and other items the store had to offer, the selection wasn't very impressive. There were some board games, but mostly for younger kids; we found nothing more interesting than an old set of Scrabble Cubes, which didn't look all that different from the Perquackey game we already own.

So in the end, I left the store with only three items:
  • One pair of navy slacks in a polyester/rayon blend with a hint of spandex (the "Audra" by Liz Claiborne) for $7.99. These fit comfortably and are reasonably flattering, as well as machine washable. Their only downside is that they don't have side pockets, just a dinky little patch pocket on the front that barely holds a handkerchief.
  • One black single-button jacket in the same type of fabric, by Apostrophe, for $8.99. This will take the place of my non-petite-size Ann Taylor jacket from my local thrift shop, which turned out to be not much of a bargain at $2 because my local tailor wanted $85 to do the alterations on it. So it will go to a new, hopefully better home, presumably with someone taller who can wear it as is.
  • A set of four paperback Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout, for $2.92. One of these, Fer-de-Lance, we'd already read, but that still worked out to less than a buck a book for the other three, which our local library doesn't have, and we can always Freecycle the extra one.
So as it turns out, I was able to carry out the main part of the Macklemore Challenge after all, putting the "20 dollas in my pocket" to good use at a thrift store. Unfortunately, I realized after we got there that I hadn't thought to bring the camera with me, so I couldn't do the other parts of the challenge: photographing myself with my $20 and photographing all the other items from the "Thrift Shop" song that I could find. Also, since I didn't bring a copy of the lyrics with me, I couldn't check to see which other items from the song's lyrics the store had—although I know I did see at least one pair of "moccasins some one else has been walkin' in."