Friday, October 31, 2008

The Next Species

In a rare fit of prior planning, my husband and I are weighing options for adding one more animal species to our budding suburban homestead next year. This year we added a tiny backyard flock of laying hens, and it's been a great success. We have almost wholly positive feelings and experiences from the girls. The eggs have been absolutely fantastic, and have helped us trim our food budget significantly. There are four candidate species for next year, each with pros and cons to consider. I would love to get some feedback from readers who have experiences either positive or negative with any of these animals.

Here's an exploration of the issues as I currently understand them. Since we do not have real experience with any of these species, please don't take what I have to say here as a reliable guide to your own decision making.

Work load: none daily, occasionally significant

Positives: Pollinators! A good food source without killing anything. Husband can make mead. Potential for some honey sales. Probably won't be considered a violation of local ordinance limiting us to four "outdoor pets." Maintenance will not be a daily activity. We know people nearby with expertise in beekeeping. Support for a species having trouble lately. Honey has a long shelf life. No noise/smell issues.

Negatives: Financial outlay for equipment may be significant. We don't eat all that much honey, so I'm concerned about using up the product. Potential for stings and freaked out neighbors. Maintenance and harvest will need to be done in a timely manner which may fall at particularly busy times of year.

Worms (vermiculture)
Work load: minimal daily to semi-weekly

Positives: Easy to prepare for and care for. Equipment will cost very little. Incredible soil amendment value. Probably won't become an issue with the four "outdoor pets" ordinance. Potential for sale as fishing bait. Potential for use as feed supplement to chickens. No noise/smell issues.

Negatives: Boring. So boring I might slip into neglecting them, which I hope would be benign neglect. Would have to split compost and kitchen scraps between hens and worms. Don't know anyone who practices vermiculture. Doesn't produce anything we can eat directly.

Dwarf dairy goats
Work load: significant daily

Positives: Interesting, intelligent species. Will provide a steady supply of a food that is difficult for us to source locally. We know a local dairy goat farmer to turn to for advice. No need to kill the milk goat for several years. Male offspring may be sold or eaten. Potential for cheesemaking, yogurt, etc. Grazing will help keep our lawn maintained.

Negatives: Significant effort will be required to arrange/build housing, especially for the winter months. Housing and feed costs may be significant. Will add a significant daily chore that cannot be skipped under any circumstance. A minimum of two animals will be needed for the social well being of this species. Would definitely violate the outdoor pet ordinance limitations, unless we reduced our laying flock to two hens. Arranging for breeding may be a hassle. Arranging for their care if we go away will be a major hassle if the doe is lactating. Manure issues are unknown to us. Noise issues unknown.

Meat rabbits or hares
Work load: moderate daily, occasionally significant

Positives: Housing will be cheap to build from materials we have on hand. Steady supply of meat. Feed may be very cheap if they can partly or wholly subsist on our untreated lawn and damaged produce from our own garden/trees. Can be integrated into our rotational grazing system for the hens. Rabbit manure is an excellent soil amendment that requires no aging/composting. Daily labor will be minimal and can be done at the same time as for the hens. Possible secondary product of the pelt or fur? No noise/smell issues if properly maintained. Their grazing will slightly reduce our need to cut the lawn.

Negatives: Would definitely violate the outdoor pet ordinance limitations, unless we reduced our laying flock to two hens. We have to slaughter the animals to derive the primary benefit from them. We don't know anyone who raises rabbits for meat. I'm not accustomed to cooking with rabbit. Slaughtering and butchery will add to the work load and may need to happen on a fairly strict timetable. May have to go to some trouble to source the breed we want. Animals will be vulnerable to same predators as hens.

- So there are the arguments for and against each candidate species, so far as we understand them at this point. It's a lot to consider, no?

I became interested in the dwarf dairy goat idea after reading about two tiny, urban farms in California that include Nigerian dwarf dairy goats. Our lot is small, but bigger than either of these properties. We've already had a tour of the local dairy goat farm, which has a herd of normal sized dairy goats. It was enlightening and encouraging.

I'm pretty willing to flout the local ordinance limiting us to four outdoor "pets," because I don't think anyone would report us. We're considerate neighbors, and there are only two occupied properties close enough to ours from which someone might see enough to realize that we're over the limit of the ordinance, if they actually knew about the limit. No one has complained about the hens. I'm not wild about reducing our flock size below four hens. Even if we were reported, I'm pretty certain we could find good homes for the goats if need be. The rabbits could be slaughtered.

I am concerned about the increased work load that another species would add. I think the biggest daily increase in labor would be with the dairy goats. Vermiculture would offer the lowest return but also the lowest investment in labor and money. My husband will be away from home much less in the next year, so he may be able to help with the new additions to the homestead. But that's something we'll need to work out so that we understand the responsibilities we'll each be signing up for.

So what say you? If you've had any experience keeping any of these animals, I would love to hear your comments.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another Kind of Free Haircut

A while back I posted a video of one enterprising young man getting a free haircut from passers-by in San Francisco. Today a quick search on the internet turned up a video I once saw of George Whitman giving himself a "haircut" in a most unusual manner. George Whitman is the owner of the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Paris. He's famous for his frugality and eccentricity.

So many ways to avoid paying full price for hairstyling!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stop Wasting That Heat!

I posted last week on ways to keep yourself warm in cool temperatures. Today I want to talk about ways of warming the house without cranking up the heat. There are lots of little things that generate heat around our homes. Frugality dictates that we capture these incidental and free sources of heat, so as to reduce expenses, and conserve the heat we generate where we will get the most benefit from it.

I've divided these tips into short-term and long-term situations. The short-term tips can be used by renters or homeowners, with little to no financial outlay. The long-term tips will be of more interest to those who own a home and are likely to remain in it for several years at least.

Short-term options

Hot water This will fall into the category of tiny tips for most people. All the more so if you have a very large home. Both heat and moisture are welcome additions to many homes in cold weather. When you heat water for any reason, think twice before you dump it straight down your drain, effectively throwing away good heat. Whether you're boiling water for pasta or some other food, consider letting that hot water cool to room temperature before discarding it. This may take a little creativity when it comes to getting pasta out of a pot of boiling water, but some chefs actually recommend using a pasta spoon, tongs, or a hand-held strainer to do just that. It's a little easier to scoop out boiled potatoes or eggs. I usually dump the water I use to preheat my tea mug into any dish that needs washing or soaking. The same goes for baths. If you indulge in a bath during cold weather, let the bath water sit in the tub to gently heat and humidify the air. Hot water is stored heat, and you've paid for that heat. So you might as well get the maximum benefit out of it. Remember to have faith in the little things.

The oven Winter is a great time for baking. There are several good ways to optimize the use of the oven. First, bake a lot at one time. Overloading your oven is not a good idea, because it can affect the way in which things bake and the time it takes to bake them. But you can fire up the oven once and then bake a couple of dishes together and/or several items sequentially. This takes some planning, as you need to get things ready to go in the oven one after another.

Potatoes are also good to add to the oven when it's hot, because they don't take up much space. So sneaking in a few at a time won't throw off the other items in the oven. They also aren't too picky about what temperature they're cooked at. They can be stored in the fridge for a few days before you use them, and they make great hash browns or soup.

When you're done using the oven, open it up so the hot air comes into the room. Most ovens are backed up to a wall, often an external wall. No sense letting some of the heat slowly leak outside that way. And if your oven door will stay slightly cracked, you can drape any damp kitchen towels on the inner part of the door. Drying your hands with a warmed towel is luxurious in winter.

The dishwasher Even if you aren't using the heated drying cycle, there's a lot of heat in a dishwasher when it finishes cleaning. The dishes themselves are quite hot, and obviously they're damp too. So I try to catch the end of the wash cycle so that I can open up the machine and let the humidity and heat into the kitchen. Otherwise, the heat seeps into the under-counter cabinets on either side of the dishwasher. I'd rather warm those parts of the kitchen I walk around in.

Partitioning your home and the heat If you're able to heat just part of your home at a time, there are several things you can do to conserve the heat you're paying for. Closing off extra rooms that aren't much used is the first, obvious step. If the rooms have doors, close them. If there's no door, hang a blanket or a sheet in the doorway. If you have a door to the attic, check for air leaks around the door. Remember that heat rises, so the air you've paid to heat is trying to get up into your attic and escape. You might want to hang a sheet or a curtain over such a door for the winter months. If there's a whole section of your home that's not used much in winter, think about what you might do to isolate it from the part of your home you use on a daily basis. The old towel at the bottom of the door trick isn't an aesthetic wonder, but it works. If you don't have the money or motivation to get a better sealing door, you can at least work on keeping the cold air in the cold room, and the warm air in the warm room.

A caveat: Don't go overboard with this idea. You want to maintain a safety margin with a temperature of at least 45F in any any room with water pipes in the walls. One burst water pipe could cost you much more than you could possibly save by trimming your heating bill. Also, I haven't been able to find a reliable source for this claim, but conventional wisdom says that paint on walls can crack and flake if temperatures fall too low. I don't know if this is an old wives' tale, or whether newer paints have eliminated this problem. Readers? Any definite information on this issue?

Wall outlets When you've dealt with the major heat leaks around your home, it's time to consider the minor ones. Take a screw driver and remove the face plate from a few light switches and electrical outlets on external walls of your home. What do you see under there? If you live in a cold climate, you should see an insulating foam pad that fits neatly under the face plate, without obstructing the outlet or the switch itself. If you don't see one, you're looking at a small but steady heat leak. Fortunately, these pads are sold very cheaply at hardware stores. If you plan to be in your current home for even one more winter, you'll probably break even on the cost of adding these to your outlets and switches. Count up the number of each on your external walls, and head to the hardware store to buy as many as you need. It'll take you probably no more than an hour to install the pads, and your savings begin immediately.

Solar energy You don't need an expensive PV panel to use solar energy. Sunlight is free warmth. Any windows with good exposure to sunlight during the winter months should be clean and uncovered. All others should have curtains that help keep the heat in and the cold out. If some of your windows get sunlight for only a few hours each day, then open the curtains during those hours and close them as soon as the sunlight has shifted away from them.

I have heard of people taking the passive solar energy thing further. Dark colored bricks will soak up the heat if they get hours of sunlight each day, and release that heat slowly when it gets dark. If you happen to have some dark bricks, they can be placed on sunny window sills or even on the floor if it's sunny enough. You might want to protect your flooring with a piece of cardboard if you wish to try this.

Long-term options
If you own your home and don't plan to resell it soon, consider the return on investment for some of these options. Remember that return on investment can come in the form of savings to you, or in a higher value for your home if you plan to sell eventually.

Insulation Almost every house could use more of it, especially older homes. Yes, it'll cost you some money, some hassle, and possibly create a mess. But insulation is the single best return on investment when it comes to conserving heat. Find out how much insulation you have in your attic, roof and walls. Consider adding at least as much as required to meet the Department of Energy recommendations on insulation and R-values.

Better windows After the attic and roof, windows are the biggest heat leaks in the average home, and they're expensive to replace. As fuel prices rise, however, window replacement becomes a more and more attractive option to conserve heat and money. If replacing windows would put a strain on your budget, then prioritize the windows in those rooms where you spend the most time during the day. If you're building a new home, or even an addition to your existing home, buy the best insulated windows you can afford. The return on your investment will be substantial over the life of the building.

Trees can help shade a house, or screen it from strong prevailing winds. Deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in winter) are a good choice for planting relatively close to a house to shade it during the hot months. When the leaves are shed in the winter such a tree will shade the house very little. On the other hand, evergreen trees shouldn't be planted close to a house unless you live where it is hot all year. They provide shade all the time, whether you want it or not. But they can serve as excellent windscreens if you have strong winds during winter. Plant staggered rows of fir or pine trees far enough from the house so that they will not shade the house even when full grown. Traditionally, mature trees have raised property values. Given the current slump in real estate prices, this may now be less reliable. But in any case, a healthy, mature shade tree will certainly not hurt the value of any property.

Please add your heat conservation tips in the comments!

Related posts:

Staying Warm with the Thermostat Set Low

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Being the Squeaky Wheel

Today my husband was in the mood to nag. Fortunately, he got on the phone and started politely interrogating the company that provides us with a package of phone and internet services. We're not crazy about this company, but we live in an area where there aren't all that many providers to choose from. Our package includes very high speed internet access and unlimited long distance calling. Normally, these would both be unwarranted luxuries. However, because my husband has been telecommuting about half time for the last two years, and will be telecommuting about 80% in the new year, these are both really fundamental to his job.

We got this package almost two years ago, and at the time it cost us $95 per month. In the time we've had it, the monthly charge has crept up by about $18 per month. We weren't happy about it, but calling around told us that there were no better deals. But today my husband got ahold of a customer service rep and had them go over every detail of the plan, as well as pricing information for alternate plans. He's pretty devious. All he did was spend about 45 minutes having the rep explain every line item on our bill, and go over the pricing for other local, regional and long distance calling plans, as well as pricing for different internet connection speeds. During all this time he was up front that we were looking to trim costs for our plan, and willing to cut parts of it or find another provider entirely.

In the end the rep offered him a $20 reduction per month for the next 12 months. That's $240 for the next year that can go to our mortgage instead. That 45-minute phone call was effectively worth $320 per hour. Not bad, wouldn't you say? This is the kind of thing that brings a warm, devious glow to our hearts. The squeaky wheel got the grease. And he got his urge to pester out of his system without taking it out on me! I call that a good day.

Which of your regular utility bills might be worth reviewing? Could you spare 45 minutes for a tedious phone call that might save you a few hundred bucks?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Confession Time: What We Save For

I've mentioned before that paying off the remaining principle on our home mortgage is my primary financial goal. If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you've probably also gotten the sense that I'm a foodie. Good food is a huge part of what makes life enjoyable for me. And as many personal finance bloggers will tell you, you have to live life too, as well as do the right thing with your money. Sometimes that means spending some money on what you love.

Frugality is often seen as penny-pinching misery and an endless parade of joyless deprivation by those who don't practice it. I would argue that frugality is all about clearly identifying your priorities in life, and then arranging your finances to best serve those priorities. In our case, we want the mortgage gone so that we have more assurance we'll be able to go on eating good food in peace well into old age. I'm not kidding. My golden visions of the future revolve around meals cooked in a home we own outright with lots of home grown, top-quality produce, and a few luxury ingredients we can't produce ourselves.

This week we made our annual daytrip into Manhattan, taking a two-hour bus ride each way. We made our gourmet rounds to Zabar's, Neuhaus Chocolates, Murray's Cheese shop, Kalustyan's spice bazaar, and visited a little pub where my husband enjoys draft beers. We also dropped a wad for an epic meal at an astonishingly good and expensive sushi restaurant. We tried to get into the Morgan Library for a dose of book fetishism, but we got there too late, so it was an all foodie day. We didn't set a price cap to this excursion. I was afraid to look at the total damage on our credit card statement, but inevitably I had to. It came to more than $450 including transportation costs (no taxi rides though). Ouch.

For that money we got many foods that we know and love well, and which are not available to us in our immediate area. The cheeses we bought were all new discoveries made in a shop that allows us to taste everything before buying. We brought home seven different varieties, and rejected as many others. From Kalustyan's we brought home cooking and baking ingredients we'll use for many months. We did pick up a few things that we'll use as stocking stuffers for family members, but mostly we shopped for ourselves.

I wanted to include an honest accounting of our trip, in the interest of self-disclosure. Frugality is important to me, and I take a lot of measures to save small amounts of money here and there every single day. If I figured out how many loads of laundry I'd have to hang to dry to save the amount we blew in one day in Manhattan, it would probably depress me. But gourmet goodies truly make us happy. This is an authentic and self-motivated pleasure for us, not something we're goaded into by marketing. And we'll appreciate our purchases as we savor them over the next several weeks and months. In my book, this was a justifiable occasional expenditure. I wouldn't do it every month, but once a year seems reasonable.

So if there's something you truly love that costs a good deal of money, don't let anyone tell you that occasionally indulging in it is incompatible with a frugal lifestyle. The key is in evaluating whether spending your money on that ephemeral indulgence balances out with a net increase in your long term happiness. A lifestyle of week-in, week-out frugality is what allows us this very occasional splurge without jeopardizing our overall major goal, which is eliminating our debt. So we are very mindful that we earned this splurge, rather than simply telling ourselves that "we deserve it" without thinking through the implications. That money might have gone to our extra principle payment next month, but our day-to-day happiness on our way to our happy golden future is important to us too. We pay our credit card balance off in full each month, so this treat will not contribute to revolving debt or cost us anything extra in interest payments.

What do you scrimp and save for?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Staying Warm with the Thermostat Set Low

Winter approaches in the northern hemisphere. I'm invariably ready for the next season by the time we're most of the way through the current one. I like the significant changes of season where I live. I've lived in several places without four "real" seasons, and I always felt slightly ripped off. Still, winter is a tough sell when your region experiences prolonged months of cold and dark, and when heating is a major expense.

So, confession time. In wintertime, I keep the most popular room in the house at 64 F (less than 18 C) during the day. The rest of the house is cooler, some used areas as low as 56 F during the day. I crank the thermostat down to 52 F (just over 11 C) when we go to bed. I actually love sleeping in a really cold room with warm blankets. Sleep has never come easily for me, but a cold room helps considerably. Daytime is another story. Our house is not toasty, but we manage. So I thought I'd share some of the tips I've found useful.

Get used to it. Slowly. If you're trying to reduce your heating bills, don't crank your heat down from 72 to 60 from one day to the next. You can accustom yourself to significantly cooler house temperatures, but you're less likely to succeed if you attempt an abrupt change. So adjust the house temperature by a few degrees every other day or so. You'll find the going much easier.

Layer Up. Fleece clothing is a godsend in winter. So are a few pairs of long underwear and sweatpants. No, it's not sexy. But it'll save you money if you use it to compensate for 5-10 degrees of heating for three or more months. Invest in a really warm pair of slippers, and the best thermal underwear you can afford. Camping stores have good options for very thin, layerable clothing that can keep you very warm. Keep an eye out for sales on these in late spring.

Really Layer Up. Plenty of people have given me crap for this, but I don't care. I wear fingerless gloves and a comfy fleece hat for most of the winter. I'm cheap and I'm a wuss. I don't want to suffer too much in pursuit of saving money. Remember your mother's admonition that you lose more body heat through your head than through any other part of your body. Find yourself a comfy hat that you can wear indoors for warmth. If you're crafty, you can make pairs of these knitted fingerless gloves for yourself and other family members.

Activities I know winter is hibernation time for many people. The temptation to hunker down and become sedentary is always there for me. But I've found that having small activities spread throughout a winter day helps keep me pretty warm. Even five minutes of vigorous movement will make you feel warm for quite a while, especially when you're layered up. If a part of your day requires you to be sedentary, then try to break it up with some of these activities:
  • Handwash some dishes. The water will warm up your hands nicely. This is a nice excuse for not tackling all the dirty dishes right after dinner, too.
  • Vacuum one room at a time. Rather than cleaning the whole house all at once, break up the chore so that you get your blood moving several times during the day. If your rooms are small or few, then do the details, like using the brush attachment to get the cobwebs, clean the trim, and vacuum under the couch cushions.
  • Shovel some snow or rake some leaves. Do a little yard work, whatever you've got. This will warm you up with aerobic exercise, and when it's cold out, the house will seem warm by comparison when you come back inside. Again, when your goal is to warm yourself up, working in 15-minute increments is totally legit. No yard work of your own? Offer to help an elderly neighbor or nearby relatives. You'll earn good karma and maybe a warm cookie.
  • Shake that cosmic thang. No productive chores to tackle? Then just put on some music that makes you want to boogie. It's hard for frugalites, who won't pay for gym memberships, to get enough exercise in winter. A few minutes of dancing around your house like a lunatic is good for you in more ways than one.
Have a hot cup of tea. The igloo-dwelling Eskimos have a theory of warming up that differs from our own. Obviously, heating their homes is not the best option. So they warm themselves directly, from the inside out, most often by drinking warm liquids. You might be surprised how well this works, and the cup will heat your hands as well as the rest of you. Keep a supply of herbal tea on hand so that you don't need to overcaffeinate to use this trick.

Bake something. Wintertime is a great time to use your oven. Not only does it warm up your kitchen, but the smell of something freshly baked, whether it's bread or brownies, is just incomparable in a winter house. Consider stocking up on homemade goodies now if you have the freezer space to store them. That way you won't have to heat up the house in the summer months. Pot roast, casseroles, and meatloaf are great choices for oven dinners too. (While you've got the oven going, throw in a head of garlic, some beets, a winter squash, or a few potatoes to maximize the value of the energy you're using to heat the oven. There are lots of good uses for leftover baked potatoes.)

Cuddle up with a loved one or a (mammalian) pet. Body heat is the best blanket, in my opinion. Get cozy with someone you love for a reading session, a movie, or something more interesting.

Go to the library, or somewhere else that's heated, preferably where you won't be tempted to spend money. Make a day of it; hang out for hours. Hey, I'm not above mooching heat off someplace that's funded by my tax dollars anyway. The library is one of my favorite places: cool in summer, warm in winter. It's a great way to save money on books, magazines, movies, music, and heating or cooling costs. You're paying for it, so you might as well get your money's worth. Before you leave, turn down the thermostat halfway to your overnight setting.

Devices The old standbys are old standbys for good reason: they work well and cheaply. A hot water bottle will warm your lap during the day or your bed at night. When I was a poor student, I rested my feet on a hot water bottle while I studied and read for hours each night. Hot water bottles are cheap enough to replace on a regular basis, and they do need replacing every so often. Eventually the rubber breaks down and makes a catastrophic high-temperature leak a real possibility. Check your rubber hot water bottle carefully each winter before you begin using it. Or make your own substitute with a one-liter plastic bottle stuffed into an old sock. Old tube socks can also be used to make the "bed buddy," which is just a cloth tube half filled with whole grain barley or rice. Sew up the opening and any holes or just tie off both ends of the tube sock to prevent the grain from coming out. Then microwave for 2-3 minutes and enjoy the steamy warmth for 30 minutes or more. This project is easy enough for kids to make one for themselves.

Eat hot foods, especially soups. I remember reading an account of an obscure part of World War II, the Russo-Finnish theater. The border between Russia and Finland is a rather chilly part of the world in wintertime, which is when most of those battles took place. The history book I read said that a hot meal often meant the difference between life and death for those soldiers, which occasionally played out in tragic ways. No joke. Warm foods affect our body temperature powerfully. Include a soup in your weekly meal plans for the winter months. You can make great soups with beans or potatoes, two extremely economical staples.

Did I miss anything? Sound off in the comments if you've got a good way of staying warm when the heat is set low.

Related post: Stop Wasting That Heat!

Wrong season for you? Check out Stay Cool Without Touching That Thermostat

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Planning for an Edible Landscape

My husband and I have been debating what to do about a few trees on our property. With only 2/3 of an acre, you'd think we wouldn't have much to consider in that department, but we do. We have more than a dozen mature hardwood trees on our property, and three smaller evergreen trees.

The problem child is a black cherry tree, about 40 feet tall, that's causing concern while also shading both the garden and the old apple tree. Despite its name, the black cherry is not a productive fruit tree. It's an ornamental, with tiny, not-very-tasty fruits, so there's no crop to put on the positive side of this tree's register. It has split itself into three main trunks very low to the ground, and two of them are not in good shape. Any of them could come down on our garage in a bad storm. In other words, this tree is a prime candidate for being cut. I feel somewhat badly about this. I don't relish the idea of cutting an older tree. Nor do I look forward to paying an experienced professional to take this tree down. But given its height and its situation close to our garage and structures on the neighbor's property, there's no question we need someone who knows what they're about.

While we have the professionals out, we're also going to have them take down a sickly mulberry, which looms over our back fence. It's also in bad shape, and it also shades the garden early in the morning during the summer. If it came down it would destroy a large section of our fence, which works very well at keeping the deer out of our garden.

Since cutting has been much on our minds, we've also decided to take out two overgrown shrubby plants by ourselves. The first is an old white lilac, which occupies a prime sunny space in the backyard. The second is a snowball bush, which neither of us has ever appreciated. It's currently next to the black cherry tree. With the black cherry gone, the address of the snowball bush would become another prime sunny location. After having these stumps pulled or possibly just ground down, we'll be putting in two cherry trees in the spring.

Edible landscaping is something we're moving more and more strongly towards. It's the experience of eating what we produce ourselves that motivates this impulse. The forsythia is probably the next candidate for replacement with berry canes. I have mixed feelings about stocking our property with edible plants. It makes perfect sense to me, if we're going to be living here for another ten years or so. But that's a mighty big if. Even if we pay more to plant trees that are already 5 or 6 feet tall, they probably will not bear much of a crop for at least two to three years. There's some appeal in the Johnny Appleseed role, sowing fruit trees for others to harvest from. But if I'm honest, I have to admit to self-interest being a much bigger motivator for me. This dilemma takes me back, unpleasantly, to my decades of being a highly mobile tenant with no land to invest in for my own benefit.

We own farmland, and we harbor dreams of building a home and moving there. We've already begun planting fruit and nut trees on that property. Planting cherry trees where we're living now seems like the right thing to do, and yet it also seems likely that we'll never see the benefit of it ourselves. I would prefer to know for certain where we'll be living, so that we could narrowly focus our time, efforts and money on that property.

So I'm trying to justify the expense of $400 to have the fully licensed and insured tree trimmer come out and cut down two trees. We'll be keeping the wood for firewood, even though we don't have a wood burning stove - yet. And cutting the trees will increase the amount of sunlight hitting my garden and the apple tree. So we should see a marginal increase in production quantity, and perhaps slightly better tomatoes next year. The roots of the cherry tree would also eventually, probably, undermine part of our paved driveway, so that's a likely savings. The financial benefit of replacing these non-productive trees with cherry trees just seems rather far away and uncertain at this point. I'm very doubtful that two additional fruit trees would increase the value of our home when it's time to sell. Unless of course we have a total meltdown of our economy involving the breakdown of our current food distribution system, in which case we probably wouldn't be selling at all.

I suppose we'll take these steps as a hedge against uncertainty and rising food costs. If we end up unable to move onto our land, we'll have two cherry trees that provide fruit to eat out of hand as well as fruit to can or make shrub out of. My husband would also probably find a way to make kriek beer out of some of the fruit. I just wish the big picture were clearer.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fingerless Gloves - Easy Knitting Project

It's getting cold again. We had a hard frost overnight. The hens' water was limned with ice when I went out this morning to feed them. Our heater is finally kicking on, even with the thermostat set at just 64. I rummaged through the coat closet to find my beloved fingerless gloves. Then I realized that I hadn't ever posted about these marvelous homemade treasures.

For those who want to be frugal and have to sit still to work or study, winter can be a hard time of year. It's no problem keeping warm when it's time for housework or cooking. But sit down for an hour or more, and the circulation slows and the chill creeps in. It goes without saying that layering up will help, and I even wear a comfy hat inside. But I found that my hands get cold as I write, type, or hold a book. And when my hands get cold and stay cold, I'm unhappy. Enter a simple knitting project!

A few winters back, I decided to turn my very rudimentary knitting skills to the task of keeping my hands warm. I found a cute knitting pattern for fingerless gloves in Interweave Knits magazine, but it required knitting in the round with double-pointed needles, which I'd never tried before. (I'd previously only knitted flat things, like scarves, baby blankets and afghans.) I wasn't sure that I could do it, but I knew that the local yarn shop would help me out in a pinch. So I invested in the double pointed needles, bought some yarn, and set to it. As with many knitting techniques, it took only a little bit of trial and error to figure out. I soon found that knitting with double-pointed needles wasn't as daunting as it had seemed. I was able to produce one fingerless glove in a long evening. And the pattern was simple enough that even I could manage to make two roughly symmetrical gloves.

After making a pair for myself, I felt confident enough to make a larger pair for my husband, who works from home most of the time and who had also complained of cold hands. I decided that his would be more snug than the pair I made for myself, which were quite loose and baggy when made according to the pattern as given. Some "fingerless" gloves actually have short, truncated fingers on them. These are completely fingerless gloves, which don't interfere with typing at all, but still keep the hands warm. For those of you who knit, here's what I did:

The pattern is worked in p1, k1 rib stitch, 24 stitches per row, evenly divided on three dp needles. For my husband's gloves I started with smaller gauge needles (US size 5, I believe) and gradually increased the size every few rows until I was working with size 11 needles. That made a tapered tube so that the part of the glove that covers the wrist is narrow, and the part that covers the hand relatively wide, especially around the thumb. The length of the gloves is up to personal preference. It's easy to just eyeball the length as you're working them. When the glove is the right size to fit on the wrist/lower arm above the base of the thumb, bind off three stitches in the middle of whatever row you're at. This will form the hole for the thumb. On the next row, cast on three extra stitches at that point and continue working for a few more rows, until there's enough material to cover the knuckles and at least part of the first bone of the fingers. If in doubt, add an extra row or two after the thumb hole. Better a little long than too short. Bind off when you have the length you want, then make a matching glove following the exact same pattern. Either glove can be worn on either hand.

Here's a picture of my handmade fingerless gloves on my husband's hands. You can see how snug they are around his lower arm and wrist.

He really likes them, even though he resisted the idea at first. Knitters with good eyesight may be able to tell that I worked both pairs of gloves with two yarns knitted together. I let him pick out the colors from among my yarns. He chose one navy blue woolen yarn and a green acrylic yarn to go with it. It took less than 1 skein of each yarn to make the pairs of gloves.

If you're trying to keep warm on a tight budget, these gloves can be cheaply made with acrylic yarn. They're also nice gifts for friends or family for the upcoming winter holiday. If you're an experienced knitter, you'll be able to knock out one glove in an evening. Less experienced knitters may take a few days to complete this project.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

What I'm Doing with Free Pears These Days

I had a request for the recipe for the pear upside down cake I made a little while ago. We've been doing well with the gleaning during pear season, so I thought I'd share the few things we've done with them. I'm not making any claims that this is particularly healthy fare, nor that these are good strategies for long term storage, but this is what we've done with them.

For the pear upside down cake I began with this recipe, but modified in several ways. Here's what I ended up doing:

Pear Upside Down Cake

For the topping
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 cups pears, sliced in 1/2" thick pieces
1/3 cup orange juice

For the cake
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
6 Tbsp cake flour
6 Tbsp of hazelnut meal (you can make your own from about 2 oz of whole hazelnuts)
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
8 oz. whipped cream cheese
4 large eggs
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Start by making the topping. Put the brown sugar and butter together in a saucepan and melt over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is bubbly, this should take several minutes. While the mixture melts, peel the pears and slice them into a bowl with the orange juice, tossing them occasionally so that they don't discolor too badly. Pour the mixture into a 10" cast iron skillet, or a nonstick cake pan with 2 inch high sides. Arrange pear slices very tightly in a single layer on top of the caramel mixture. Pour the orange juice over the slices.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Whisk the flours, hazelnut meal, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the sugar, butter, and cream cheese together until light. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Add dry ingredients in 2 additions, beating well after each addition. Pour cake batter over caramel and pear slices in pan.

Bake cake until tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Turn cake out onto a platter with a rim, as the juices will run. Serve warm or at room temperature. We made two cakes simultaneously, and froze one. Nothing beats a warm upside down cake, but the texture of the frozen one wasn't much different from the fresh one on its second day.

Stewed Pears in Sour Milk Blini

I had also frozen a few dozen blini made from some salvaged sour milk a while back. I fished these out of the freezer and used them for some impromptu breakfast decadence. Here are some recipes.

Sour Milk Blini

1 cup soured milk or buttermilk
2 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. all purpose flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
oil for cooking

With a whisk, combine all ingredients in mixing bowl until well blended. The mixture should be considerably thinner than standard American pancake batter. Heat a small amount of oil in a well seasoned skillet over medium heat and pour in 1/4 cup of the batter. Tilt the pan slightly to spread out the batter. It should spread to a diameter of about 5" and form a blin no more than 1/4" thick. Adjust the batter with flour or a little water to reach the desired results. Cook each blin until the top side loses its wet sheen, then flip it over for just a few seconds to cook the top side. Remove to a platter and hold until serving or until cooled. The blini can be wrapped in plastic wrap and frozen.

Stewed Pears

Put 1/4 cup orange juice and 1/4 cup water in a small sauce pan. Peel and slice your pears into the liquid. If you pears are not very sweet, add a small amount of sugar if desired. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the pan, and reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Let the fruit stew for 3-5 minutes, depending on the texture of the fruit.

Maple Cream Cheese Sauce
I stole this recipe straight out of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. He meant for it to accompany pumpkin waffles, but it's good with plenty of other things too.

Mix equal parts by volume of maple syrup and cream cheese until a thin sauce is formed. Beware: this is a diabetic coma in the making. You don't need very much of it, though if you're like me, you'll want much more than is healthy.

To assemble the Stewed Pear Blini, just combine all the above ingredients. Lay the blini out, and arrange the stewed pears in a line running through the center of each blin. Fold up the sides of the blin, one over the other, and flip it over so the seam is down on the plate. Top each blin with a little of the sauce. If you've frozen your blini, thaw them in a very low oven (200F) while you prep the pears and sauce.

Finally, when we couldn't stand looking at the pears any longer and didn't have the time or energy to prep them for the dehydrator, we simply juiced them along with a hunk of ginger and enjoyed the pulpy results mixed with homemade sparkling water. (My husband has a CO2 tank leftover from his more active homebrewing era.)

Phelan has also had a few wonderful posts recently on what to do with pears, including ideas for more long term storage, and healthier recipes than I've offered here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Staycation Report

We got back from our visit to our land on Thursday afternoon. As with most vacation aftermaths, we now feel like we need a recovery period from our vacation before picking up again with our normal routine. Unfortunately, fall chores are upon us. There is now raking to be done, the garden beds to be prepared, and apples to be harvested and washed in preparation for cider making.

I cannot forbear, however, to share some pictures from our week spent not too far from home. We semi-roughed it for a week in a rented RV, learning to stretch fresh water even farther than when we lived in a drought-prone environment. We flew kites, mulched some of the fruit and nut trees we've planted up there, and had some minor adventures. I started a knitting project which looks like it will turn out well. Along the bank of our dirt access road I planted daffodil and crocus bulbs that had been thinned from plantings in our backyard. We went to sleep when it got dark and woke up with the Canada geese or the dawn, whichever came first.

Just to start off with, this is the view to the southeast. On several mornings, there were light mists over this way, due to the creek just to the right of this picture.

Here's the autumn view, near sunset, to the southwest.

Here's our northward view. Along this ridge line runs the Appalachian Trail.

And this is what we got to look at every evening around sunset.

We took a ride on a bona fide steam train...

...and admired the many historic details, such as the coal that feeds the furnace to create the steam.

We had a couple of weenie roasts around a little campfire, which we built in a huge habachi grill we picked up for nothing after it failed to sell at a local yardsale.

Because we're goofy, we started painting the shipping container we use for storage Holstein. We hope the farmers and horse folk in the area will think we're crazy city folk, but essentially harmless. Even with good weather, it takes quite a lot of time to prep and paint the corrugated surface of a shipping container. Thus, the unfinished state of this little art project. We covered the areas most damaged by rust though.

We couldn't resist a little cooing over the neighborhood's newest resident: tiny Coral, the four-week-old miniature Mediterranean donkey, shown here with her dam, Dorrie. We were tickled to hear that this didn't immediately mark us out as sentimental types. Even the farmers around here apparently stop to gawk at such unrestrained cuteness.

Is it obvious yet why we bought land in this area, and why we want to move there as soon as we can get a house built? The rolling hills of Pennsylvania, particularly in the fall, are just drop dead gorgeous. The fact that we can practice dry agriculture here is the icing on the cake.

We came home to an unexpected late harvest of beefsteak tomatoes. They'll never be great, but they're good candidates for the smoked tomato trick. I was glad I hadn't found the time to rip out the plants before we went away. The mild days and lack of rain made them as good as can be expected for fall tomatoes. They're in the garbage can smoker as I write this.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Swapping Success!

Last week I got an email from someone via GardenWeb who wanted to trade some of his Jerusalem artichokes for my daffodils. As luck would have it, I was just in the middle of digging the bulbs for separation and transplant. And I'd been thinking about planting Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes, for some time. I'm glad for the trade, because I remember my aunt remarking how expensive the planting stock was when she ordered them. But they're not too handsome, are they?

The Jerusalem artichoke is a North American native, with all the usual advantages conferred on native species. This close relative of the sunflower is noted for being pest-free, very hardy, and tolerant of both poor soils and a wide range of rainfall. It's difficult to eradicate the plant on purpose once you plant it, let alone accidentally from mere aggressive harvesting. The plant will renew itself from its edible underground tubers, which are said to (vaguely) resemble the artichoke in flavor. I'm told the only sure way of getting rid of the plant is to turn pigs loose on it. Pigs will dig for food, and keep digging till there ain't no more food.

I'd like to hear from anyone out there who has grown and eaten this plant. One book on wild plants that I read claims that Jerusalem artichokes have an alarmingly low calorie count, and that it causes flatulence. Given the plant's properties, it seems like a good emergency food for hard times. But if the calorie count is really that low (70 calories/pound), it seems barely worth the effort of harvesting and preparing. Anyone care to offer a conflicting report?

Anyway, I now have my planting stock. Three cheers for seed swapping and all good barters! If you garden and you haven't yet looking into trading seeds through GardenWeb, you should check it out. I've done half a dozen trades and I've never been burned. I've now got one more fall chore to do before winter sets in. The only question is where to put these ineradicable plants.

Please share your sunchoke recipes in the comments!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday Quotes

Here are a couple of inspiring passages that recently caught my attention while reading:

This is the true joy of life: the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no "brief candle" to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations. - G. B. Shaw

To the extent that things we seek are limited in supply (money, fame, victory), there will be strife. To the extent that we seek treasures that deprive no one (wisdom, health, skill) or treasures that help others (love, friendship, justice) we take part in building a better world. - William Coperthwaite

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Staycation Time

We're going to our nearby parcel of farmland, situated just a stone's throw from the Appalachian Trail. We'll be there for several days, hanging out and mulling the possibilities for building our dream home there. I'll be planting some daffodil bulbs, which I dug out of our backyard, on the bank along the dirt road access. We have a few dayhikes scheduled on at least a couple different days. I imagine we'll see the fall colors begin to come in too, now that we've had a few nights of frost. I'm packing Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and another wild food oriented book, so that I can poke about the environs and see what turns up.

I've made a dinner reservation for my husband's birthday at a nice restaurant near the land. I was given a gift certificate to this restaurant as a thank you gift for some volunteer work I did over the summer. (It was a case of volunteer creep, where I ended up being responsible for much more than I signed up for, and more than any volunteer should really be expected to contribute. The gift certificate is the happy result of the coordinator recognizing that.) So dinner at a nice restaurant without spending much money at all: it warms my frugal heart. I also have another something special lined up for him, but I'm going to have to discuss the details later, lest he check my blog and spoil the surprise. But I think there will be pictures featured here, eventually.

The rest of October is looking increasingly scheduled with events, daytrips, and chores, chores, chores. We got all the garlic planted yesterday, so that's one essential fall task crossed off the list. I may talk more about that when we get back. By that time the leaf raking will have begun and will probably go on for a month. The mid-winter doldrums are starting to sound pretty good!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Refinancing vs. Recasting Your Mortgage

I've tried a few times over the last year to refinance our mortgage at a better interest rate than the one we've got. A few times it seemed like it was going to happen, but for a variety of reasons it hasn't, even though our credit rating is excellent and we've proved ourselves good risks on this mortgage.

My most recent conversation was with our wonderful bank, USAA. (If you're eligible for their services but not using them, you really need to look into doing so. You'd be nuts to pass up this much value and genuine customer service.) During the course of the conversation I had with the loan officer, he mentioned recasting a mortgage, which was something I'd never even heard of. It turns out that recasting a mortgage is a pretty standard practice, if not so well known or widely available as refinancing.

Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor or professional in any way. Speak to a qualified expert for more infomation rather than relying on what I'm about to say here.

Recasting can mean a few different things, but here's how it would most commonly work. Say you've had a mortgage for a few years, and during that time you've been a good little frugalite and have made extra principle payments each month. Or, you've taken a sizeable windfall in the form of a bonus, inheritance, or whatever, and applied it to your principle. In other words, you're ahead of schedule in repaying your loan. At some later point, either because of unemployment or some other financial difficulty, your budget changes and you want to reduce your required monthly mortgage payments. By recasting your mortgage with your current lender, the term of your mortgage and your interest rate will stay the same, but the loan is re-amortized to give you smaller monthly payments so that you will pay off the loan exactly according to the original term of the loan.

Got that? Let's say it again so that we're clear on the concept. You're five years into a 30-year mortgage, but you've been paying ahead. If you keep up the extra payments, you'll retire the mortgage 12 years ahead of schedule. But suddenly you can't make the regular payments very easily anymore, let alone pay extra. If you are able to recast your mortgage, your monthly payments go down. If you stick to that lower monthly payment, you'll pay off the mortgage exactly on the original 30-year schedule.

Why do lenders sometimes offer this? Because it works for both the lender and the borrower. Because you've paid off part of the mortgage ahead of schedule, either with those extra monthly principle payments or with one lump-sum paydown, you've shown yourself to be a pretty good risk, but a low return. Look at it a little more deeply from the lender's perspective. By lowering the monthly payment and keeping the original term of the loan, the lender stands to gain more over time, as opposed to having the borrower pay off the loan quickly and paying less interest in the bargain. More concerning to the lender is the issue that if you, as a borrower, are asking for a recast of the mortgage, you may now be in the market for a refinance from another lender. Worse yet, if the borrower's financial circumstances have changed, he or she may now be at risk of defaulting. Financial institutions don't like defaults on loans. As a lender, it makes sense to work something out that keeps the borrower paying, accepting smaller monthly payments, but making more money over the long run. It's a win-win situation if the borrower is in dire straits.

This is interesting to me as a mortgage holder who has been making substantial extra principle payments. The traditional argument against early repayment of a mortgage is that it's better to invest the money and earn a higher rate of return. (Well, I think we all know just how far out the window that idea has been tossed lately.) But the recasting of a mortgage looks to me like a sort of unofficial safety net for people who have their financial house in order and want to aggressively attack their debt. If you throw every extra dollar at your mortgage and make a significant dent in it, you're essentially putting yourself on a good footing to ask for a recast if your finances take a turn for the worse.

My understanding is that not all lenders offer recasting of mortgages. From what I've heard, if it is available to you, it should cost significantly less in fees than a refinance. Something in the hundreds of dollars range, rather than the thousands of dollars range.

I wouldn't recommend paying down mortgage principle instead of building up a cash savings emergency fund. But it's nice to know that our early repayment efforts give us a good chance at that latitude if need be. I'm not sure why I never heard of this before, but I'm glad I know about it now.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Still Harvesting, Processing Food, and Gleaning

Well, it's been a long weekend. But we got one of those beautiful Indian summer days we'd been longing for yesterday. And Saturday was cool enough to do some heavy digging and outdoor work without breaking much of a sweat. It's a good feeling to be somewhat caught up on the garden and yardwork chores, but I know there's more, much more to come soon.

I spent an inordinate amount of time baking two pear upside down cakes on Friday. I used about four pounds of the gleaned Bartlett pears from down the road (have I mentioned those?) and a few of our earliest apples. One to eat, one to freeze. The recipe also fortuitously called for almond flour, so naturally I substituted the hazelnut flour that turned up during our recent freezer inventory. It turned out delicious. The one we didn't freeze (smaller than this one) is nearly gone. These gleaned fruits are weighing heavily on my conscience. I don't know that they'll last long enough to be added to our apple cider. And there's this imperative that I have to figure out what to do with them.

The potatoes are all out of the ground. Finally. I was afraid the rain we got compliments of hurricane Kyle might have rotted them. Most of them were sound, but a few of them, the Kennebecs and the All Blues in particular, were eaten away by something. I don't know what was eating them. They looked gnawed, but I don't think it was any toothed animal. We couldn't find any holes in the ground, so I can't figure it out. Sometimes they were lightly "gnawed"; and sometimes there was almost nothing left of the potato. Usually the eaten away area formed a relatively flattened area. Any ideas as to what's going on here? Most of the damaged ones were in a particular area of the garden straddling the rows of the two different varieties of potato. Most annoying. But we got a nice haul of four different varieties of potato, including just enough of the Sangres to serve as seed stock for next year.

Could one of my knowledgeable readers kindly advise me how to store my seed potatoes over the winter? I read so many conflicting things on the web. I've even read that these days only potatoes produced from tissue cultures should be used for seed stock. This seems far fetched to me, but what do I know?

Having gotten the potatoes in on Saturday, we turned our attention to preparing a new bed for the garlic, which needs to be in the ground soon. I've had the girls in the garden as it gets cleared out, so they've been processing compost for me, and laying down some manure. I worked over a 5'x18' bed where some of my squash plants had been and applied the lasagna method of mulching. And I took pictures to illustrate the process.

First I staked out the bed and used survey tape to mark it out. I work best in the garden when I have a clear indication of where the bed is. Then I tore out the weeds and loosened the top few inches of soil with a cultivator. The weeds can be left lying on top of the soil, so long as their roots are out.

While stocking up on free vitamin D for the coming winter months (so frugal!), I used the broad fork to loosen the soil at a deeper level without tilling.

Next, I laid a few comfrey leaves over the bed at regular intervals. Comfrey is a deep mining plant that pulls up minerals and nutrients from 12 inches or more underground. The leaves can be used as green manure, and it grows incredibly vigorously. With the comfry leaves spread out, I began papering over the bed with newspaper.

Once the bed was completely covered in a few layers of newsprint, I hosed down the paper to thoroughly drench it and began covering it with some of that free mulch I get from our township.

When I plant the garlic I'll need to punch through the newspaper to get the bulbs in the ground. The paper will be an impenetrable barrier to other plants, which is good, because I don't like to weed, and garlic doesn't compete very well with neighbors. In the meantime, the worms will happily do their thing in that enriched and loosened soil. A year from now, both the paper and the mulch will have at least partly broken down and will also be enriching the soil. It's especially satisfying to me that my only materials cost (other than the tools) for this project was for the survey tape, which is very reasonably priced. A friend saves the newspaper for me, and I can help myself to as much mulch as I want at the yard waste facility. The wooden stakes were made with a hand ax and a short piece of scrap 2x4.

I found time yesterday to dig some daffodil bulbs up for transplant, and cut out about a third of one variety of comfrey for transplant under the apple tree. I'm told fruit trees enjoy the companionship of comfrey and that comfrey tolerates dividing very well. We shall see.

We also harvested what will probably be the last of the tomatoes. As many cherry tomatoes went to the chickens as came into the kitchen. Many of them were badly split. A few beefsteaks may ripen on a sunny windowsill inside, but I can hardly be bothered. It's October, and no tomato on the vine right now is going to live up to the glory of its name. The tomato plants are due to be ripped out this week. Using a trick I tested last year, we'll uproot them and hang them upside down to allow the green fruits to ripen. This works in a limited way. The "ripe" fruits will be plenty good enough for the chickens. We may use a few as cooking ingredients, but we probably won't eat them fresh. What will probably be the last batch of peppers went into my homemade smoker, and then into the dehydrator. They'll be delicious accents in many dishes over the winter.

We're looking at the apple harvest very soon. Our tree is bearing fairly well, and the apples are turning red, at least on the sides that face the sun. I picked a few on Friday, but I'm going to give them at least another week before picking in earnest. I don't know what type of apple we have, but it's definitely a late variety. We also went back to the neighbors of my relatives to gather more of their apples. We need to go yet again with a really big ladder. Most of their apples are very high up on the tree. We pressed last year in early November. I'll post more on the whole apple cider pressing thing when it happens.

On top of all that, we cleaned up and cleared out one bay of the garage. We were pooped last night! Leftovers for dinner and into bed by 8pm for a little reading before sleep.

I'm still trying to find the enthusiasm to keep harvesting, washing, blanching, and freezing our Tuscan kale. It loves cool weather, so the autumnal temperatures we've been having don't dampen its spirits at all. I went shopping for one of my upcoming cooking classes on Thursday last week, and got a chuckle from seeing local organic Tuscan kale priced at $4.99/lb. at Whole Foods. It looked no more or less nibbled by insects than mine does.

Speaking of fall weather, Brrrr! I love the cooler temperatures for sleeping, but I've had to layer up before going out to feed the hens in the morning lately. Winter is just around the corner, it seems.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Freezer & Pantry Inventory

The thing I love so much about Amy Dacyczyn's The Complete Tightwad Gazette is that unless you have reached the transcendent state of Frugal Grand Master, it pays to re-read this tome every six months or so. There are so many valuable tips in this book that a neophyte frugalist cannot hope to absorb them all. But that's okay, because in making the transition from spendthrift to frugalite, incremental change is the way to go. I got serious about frugality about two years ago, and while the bulk of lifestyle changes came within the first year, there are still a few tips I can implement in my life.

I posted not too long ago about having an extra chest freezer, and the importance of keeping track of what's in it so as to not to fall into the trap of wasting food. Well, it just so happens that on my most recent read through of The Complete Tightwad Gazette I found Ms. Dacyczyn's discussion of how to inventory one's pantry and freezer and develop a game plan for eating through what you've got. It helped me solidify my vague plans for clearing out some stuff that has been in that freezer too long. And now that the garden harvest is really winding down, it felt like the right time to take stock and see how we're going to use stuff up.

Ms. Dacyczyn recommends doing a complete physical inventory, which I accomplished with the help of my husband. We went through the chest freezer, the kitchen freezer, my home canned foods, and the rest of our large pantry. In the process we only discovered a few items that I had no idea were in there. I made a list and grouped foods together by type, such pork, fish, vegetable, baked goods, etc, along with their quantities. Dacyczyn wrote all this out long hand on some old computer print out paper; I put it into an excel spreadsheet.

Next I picked a timeframe for eating all this stuff up. April of next year seemed like a good terminus date, as we'll be looking forward to the first garden harvest by then. In the spreadsheet I assigned a column to each month, and distributed the foods among these next seven months. So at a glance, I can now see when each food will get eaten, and what foods we need to plan around each month. I didn't bother assigning a month for food that I have no concerns about. For instance, we have ten pounds of butter in the freezer, but I know that we'll simply go get some when we run out of what's in the refrigerator. Same goes for dried pasta, our homegrown garlic and homemade bread. So they didn't even make it onto the spreadsheet. I included only stuff that needs to get eaten up and won't be unless we specifically make a plan. For this month I added those fresh foods we've recently gleaned, harvested, or still have coming in from the garden. These need to be eaten up or stored in some way before they spoil.

To give you an idea, here's a list of this month's "accounts edible," as we call it:

Stored food:
Ham steaks, 2
Leg o’ lamb
Marinated turkey tenderloin
Salmon filets, 2

Borsch, 1 quart HG, HM
Stuffed peppers HG, HM
Stew, pork w/prunes or mahogany beef HM

Sage-cheddar biscuits HM
Chocolate-zucchini cake HG, HM
Blini HM
Scallion pancake dough HM

Sage pesto HG, HM
Kale, blanched HG
Roasted corn
Corn cobs
Apple Butter HG, HM

Phyllo dough

Tomato sauce – 2 quarts HG
Salsa – 1 pint HG
Amy’s organic chile, 1 can
Salsa, store bought - 1 can
Canned veg – bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, baby corn
Tomato soup
Soup beans HG
Beef stock

Fresh foods:
cream cheese
apples HG
pears G
chard HG
potatoes HG
kale HG
pumpkin HG
leeks HG
ground cherries HG

HG = (partly or fully) homegrown, HM = homemade, G = gleaned

This is just my list of what foods need to be used up, not a complete list of everything we're going to eat this month. But having both the spreadsheet and this month's list of need-to-eat foods printed out and tacked to the pantry door reminds us of what we've got and prompts me to plan our meals accordingly. The meat and fish are substantial enough to provide for leftovers; many leftovers in the cases of the meat. So I can see at a glance that I need to tackle one large piece of meat each week, and mull ideas for the leftovers.

If we should reach the end of the month without eating through all these foods, I can rejigger the spreadsheet to assign them to another month. We'll see how it goes. The obvious thing from going through this exercise is that we don't need to do much grocery shopping for the foreseeable future. We'll be concentrating on using up what we have rather than acquiring more food.

Last night we started off with a dinner of ham steak accompanied by cheesy polenta with sauteed onion and chard. It was pretty good. We're mulling the possible uses of leftover ham and cheesy polenta.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


I fear I may have spoken too soon in a recent post when I said I would try to find something other than food to write about. I spent last weekend dealing with late harvests from the garden, and with baking several loaves of bread. I went to the farmer's market and bought some local grass-fed beef, and I gleaned another 12 pounds or so of Bartlett pears from someone in my neighborhood who had a sign on the lawn for free pears. (Got a good pear recipe?) I also placed an order for 100 pounds of flour and 25 pounds of sugar at wholesale prices through a bakery I work for occasionally. I'm looking ahead to a lot of baking in the coming cold weather. And it doesn't hurt to feel like I'm hedging my bets, what with peak oil and our bleak economic outlook.

But I also found some time to tinker in the garage as the trailing edges of tropical storm Kyle dumped a few inches of rain on us. I have a couple of projects that I'm working on. After falling in love with apple wood smoked tomatoes, I'm more motivated than ever to hack together a proper smoker. We'd been talking about building one with a metal trash can and an old plug-in electric burner my husband has had since his dorm days. He's even used it in our Weber grill to smoke a few things. I finally went out and bought a few items to make a full-size trash can smoker a reality. Off to the hardware store I trudged with my discount coupon.

Right now I only need racks to hold tomatoes, peppers, or other lightweight things in the smoking chamber. So these very hacked together racks made from bent hangers will work fine. I just bent a bunch of hangers, bound them together with thin gauge bailing wire, trimmed the straightened out hooks, and then drilled holes in the side of the can where they needed to be. The racks can be removed and replaced as needed. Here I've got the smoker with two racks in place, and peppers on the lower rack. (Click for a better look.) Underneath is the burner with an aluminum tray full of apple wood chips on top. I'm also going to cut some dowels to fit across the top of the trash can so that we can hang meats or fish if we want to smoke these bigger and heavier items.

My total out of pocket budget for the smoker so far is just under $37, including the purchase of a special drill bit and mandrel which may or (let's be honest) may not ever come in handy again. Yes, I did ask around to see if friends or relatives already had one of these before I purchased. Finishing up the project with a few dowel hangers won't cost much at all. We already have wooden dowels. The only downside is that we're not getting much in the way of warm weather these days, so there's not much left to smoke at this point.

The other project I need to complete fairly soon is the marvelous $6 Chicken Plucker. This article was published a while ago, and I didn't have all the items on hand that the writer did. So our chicken plucker is going to come in around $19. That's still a pretty cheap solution. We'll be "retiring" our laying hens sometime in the next couple of months, probably just before we go away for Thanksgiving. The woman who I swapped chicken sitting services with eagerly volunteered to come and help us do this. I imagine she's looking forward to the time when she'll face the same solemn task. Our hens were actually due for "retirement" just before we got them this spring. We gave them a few happy months of life, and they gave us eggs. I don't really like euphemisms, especially not for death, so let's be honest here: we're going to slaughter them. That also means plucking them, and we'd rather not do that entirely by hand. This ingenious gadget is simple enough to make at home, and quick enough to easily handle the plucking of a small number of chickens.

I had to buy all the materials for this plucker except the drill itself. I've got the plucker started. When it's finished, I'll get some pictures up.

Then, just for fun, I spray painted some poppy heads and some garlic seed heads that I had saved from this year's garden with silver and copper metallic paints. Holiday wreath-making is a family activity on the day after Thanksgiving. I thought some of of the seed heads might look nice in an evergreen wreath. I haven't quite decided whether they will or not. I may have to wait and see them in a wreath before I decide if they're tacky or not.

I like tinkering with things. I don't really know what I'm doing with woodworking or mechanical stuff, but I like having tools and materials to mess around with. And I like building things fairly cheaply that will serve us well as tools. Making these sorts of things is far less intuitive to me than cooking or baking. But the results tend to last longer than the food does.

What useful things have you made in the DIY category? What clever hacks have you used or even invented? Please share your stories in the comments.