Sunday, April 29, 2012

The DIY question, part 2

The ecofrugal lifestyle has a few basic rules, one of which is, "Don't pay someone else to do what you can do yourself." This rule has a wide range of applications, from cleaning your own bathroom to avoiding convenience foods (since buying pre-washed salad greens is basically paying someone else to do the washing). It's a useful rule, but it does have its exceptions—as I noted back in September when discussing a Tip Hero article on "the DIY question." This article discussed which jobs around the house are reasonable for a homeowner to take on, and which ones should be definitely be left to the pros. In general, the editors concluded, it's wise to hire a professional if doing the job yourself (1) is too dangerous, (2) would take more time than you're willing to spend, or (3) would require tools that you don't have (and that wouldn't be cost-effective to buy). I amended this list to add (4) could potentially cause costly damage.

I was reminded of this question last week when Brian decided that we needed some storage shelves in the workshop/laundry room. We went to Home Depot to check on the price of shelving units and found that the best ones for our space would cost about $150. He thought he could probably build his own for a lot less than that, so he went and checked on the price of lumber as well. Then he went home and started making some sketches and doing some calculations, and in the end he reached the following conclusions:

1) To build a similarly-sized set of shelves, he'd have to spend about $100 on materials.
2) They would take several hours to build.
3) The homemade shelves, which would be constructed of plywood, wouldn't be as strong as the premade ones, which are made of metal.
4) Making adjustments to the heights of the homemade shelves would require removing the screws, drilling new holes, and reinstalling the shelf. The premade ones, by contrast, could be adjusted just by moving a set of mounts.

Taking all these points into consideration, it became clear that buying the premade shelves was actually the more practical, and in fact, the more ecofrugal choice. So he simply stopped by the Home Depot one day after work, manhandled the two cases into the car, and spent the evening putting them together. It still took several hours, but most of that time was for hauling all the stuff out of the room first and then putting it back afterwards. The actual assembly took maybe an hour or two. If he'd had to build the shelves himself, we'd probably have spent one whole evening just schlepping all the stuff out of the workshop and into the big downstairs room—and then spent most of the next week, if not two weeks, having to look at it while the new shelves were under construction.

In this case, buying rather than building was definitely the way to go. Our decision to buy was covered by rule (2) above, since building new shelves would have taken a lot longer; however, the extra time wasn't the only consideration. We might still have chosen to take the time if the potential savings had been greater, and/or if the finished product would have been as good as the store-bought one.

So I now think that the list of rules needs some further amendment. Rather than "Hire a professional when doing the job yourself would take way more time than you're prepared to invest," I think the rule should be, "Hire a professional when your hourly wage for doing it yourself—factoring in the cost of materials and the number of hours the job will take you—is less than your time is worth." And the corollary to this should be, "Hire a professional when the job you could do yourself is not, in your opinion, worth the cost of the materials." If Brian had simply had to choose, right there in the store, between a set of non-adjustable wooden shelves that cost $100 and a set of adjustable metal shelves that cost $150, he would probably have found the decision a lot easier.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Improving" our town

Last year, the borough of Highland Park tore out all the sidewalks along Raritan Avenue, the main drag, and built new ones. The old sidewalks, I should mention, were not only in good condition but practically new; they had been torn up just a year or so earlier to add new curb cuts at the intersections. But the new ones were apparently an integral part of Highland Park's Streetscape project, a $2.2 million dollar project intended to add new shade trees, bike racks and outdoor "living rooms" at the intersections. The project was slated to begin in August and last 6 to 8 weeks; in fact, the sidewalks were torn out for most of the winter. Finally, after months of picking our way along Raritan Avenue at our peril, we got brand-new sidewalks that looked almost exactly like the old sidewalks. The only visible difference was a series of rectangular gaps in them, presumably designed for new trees.

Now, I might have thought that all this was worth it for the sake of getting some trees planted along Raritan Avenue, because the street had very few mature trees and very little shade in the summer. But the new trees that they've just started planting are those skinny, frond-like kind (Zelkova, according to the sketches for the Streetscape project) that give no shade to speak of; the most they do is filter the light. And what's worse, the few mature trees that already existed along Raritan, providing the few small pools of shade we had in the summertime, have been cut down, leaving only fresh, raw stumps behind.

At the intersections of Third and Fourth Avenues, the sidewalks boasted some much larger holes—each about three feet deep, with the footprint of a large closet. The Streetscape sketches indicated that these were intended as "rain gardens," which help soak up rainfall and reduce runoff. Again, this sounded like a good idea. The holes sat empty, surrounded by orange plastic mesh, for some time; then gradually, they began to be filled in with layers of mesh, sand, dirt, and finally, as of last weekend, some tiny green plants. Walking along the street today, I observed that the newly-planted rain gardens have apparently found another use as trash receptacles. The newly-planted greenery was liberally strewed with juice cartons, candy wrappers, and cigarette packs. I couldn't even try to clean it up, because they're still fenced round with the orange plastic stuff—which is too low to prevent anyone from dumping litter in, but too high to allow anyone to reach in and pick it up again.

I guess we're lucky that we live far enough from the center of town that our neighborhood hasn't been slated for "improvement." I just hope they stop beautifying the rest of the town while there's still anything left of it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Up the garden path

Spring has now arrived in earnest, as well as in New Jersey, and our garden beds have already received their annual top-dressing of compost and their first plantings of peas, arugula, lettuce, parsley, and leeks. I prepared the beds for planting by pulling out as many weeds as I could, but I was frustrated to see that for every weed I yank, two new ones seem to sneak in—largely as a result of runners creeping in below the soil from the garden paths.

When we first built the boxed raised beds in our garden, we didn't bother to surface the paths in any way. I figured that as long as the box was there to provide a clear line of demarcation between bed and path, I could simply remove weeds from the beds while taking a live-and-let-live attitude to those in the paths. However, I've since discovered that weeds in the paths have a way of sneaking into the beds—and also that if the weeds are simply granted a safe haven in the paths, they'll quickly grow to a height that makes the paths difficult to walk on, which is, after all, what they're for. So I've been thinking that it may be time to put down some form of a surface on the paths that will at least deter weeds, even if it can't fully eliminate them. The question is, what?

I consulted my library of gardening books and found that the most commonly recommended surfaces for paths in a vegetable garden are:

  • Grass. This is more or less what we have now, but since our "grass" is really mostly weeds, and since our paths aren't wide enough to admit a lawnmower, it's not working out very well for us.
  • Dirt. Mel Barthlomew, in Square Foot Gardening (the original 1981 edition, not the revised version), says that dirt paths will require weeding, which is what I'm trying to avoid. Jeff Ball, author of Jeff Ball's 60-Minute Vegetable Garden, disagrees, saying that bare soil "compacts down so much over the years that weeds will grow only with difficulty." However, since these are the same weeds that stand up to being walked on everywhere else in our yard and are little the worse for wear, I'm not convinced that this approach would work for us.
  • Wood planks. Mel Bartholomew says that "pieces of scrap lumber can be nailed together to make neat, attractive walkways between the garden blocks," but he must have a lot more scrap lumber lying around his place than we have. With about 80 linear feet of path to cover, we'd have to go down to a lumberyard and buy a whole load of wood planks—which would be not only costly, but really difficult to haul home. (Our Honda Fit can manage nearly any load of reasonable size, but it's not a pickup truck.)
  • Mulch. Mel Bartholomew claims that a heavy coating of hay mulch "looks nice, keeps your feet clean, and needs no weeding." This might be a cost-effective solution if I knew of a place that sold hay (or straw) in bulk, but you can't just go down to the Home Depot and pick up a bale. The big home stores do sell wood chips, which is what Jeff Ball uses for his paths; however, he gets his directly from tree-trimming crews and claims that he "can often get a truckload for free," and never pays more than $5 to $6 for a year's supply. Buying the stuff in bags, by contrast, means paying $4 for a volume sufficient to cover maybe 6 linear feet of path. (The darkened area in the photo at right shows how much path we were able to cover with a single bag of pine bark nuggets.) Now, that's only around $50 to $60 to cover the entire path area, which isn't too bad—but the problem is, mulch doesn't last forever. Jeff Ball says that he adds a fresh load of wood chips to his path every year (and every five or six years, he can remove a "nice layer of beautiful black humus" produced by the decomposing wood from underneath them). So this isn't a one-time expenditure of $50 or $60; it's an extra $50 to $60 per year added to our gardening expenses, not to mention the yearly hassle of hauling home fourteen bags of mulch and spreading them over the paths.
  • Gravel. This costs about twice as much as mulch, but it won't decompose, so in theory, at least, it's only a one-time expense. However, when I consulted online boards devoted to gardening, I saw some complaints that pea gravel doesn't stay put; each time it's walked on, a bit of it escapes and gradually scatters itself all through the yard (or worse, in the beds themselves). Moreover, several gardeners complain that weeds grow up right through the gravel—which defeats the whole purpose of putting down a surface in the first place.
So far, none of these options really looks ideal. Jeff Ball suggests choosing path materials on the basis of "availability and cost," using "whatever is available, especially if it is free." This is sort of what we're doing now—the beds were mulched with leaves throughout the winter, so we've raked all those leaves out and onto the paths, forming a sort of loose covering—but it hasn't been sufficient to keep the weeds down, and we don't seem to have any other choices that are both readily available and free (or at least cheap). Am I overlooking something, or should I resign myself to the fact that our choices are to invest a big chunk of change in some sort of permanent path material (like planks or pavers) or else just live with the weeds?

Weeds have it easy

After just going out to put this week's crops in the ground (one square foot of arugula, one of Boston lettuce) and spending half an hour trying without success to remove firmly-rooted weeds without disturbing my tender young seedlings, I've realized what I hate most about gardening: it's not a fair contest. Every year, the weeds get a head start.

Weeds can drop their seeds in the fall and let them sit all winter, ready to pop up in the spring the minute the weather is warm enough. My seeds, by contrast, have to either wait until the danger of frost is past before they can be sowed at all, or else be started indoors in February and carefully nurtured until they're big enough to plant. Is it any wonder that every spring, the weeds are bigger and healthier than the crops?

The weeds have every advantage, in fact. All the things that I do to help the vegetables—tilling, watering, amending the soil—help the weeds just as much. And the weeds were there first, so they can make better use of all this help I so graciously provide.

Of course, I try to remove the weeds whenever I see them, while doing whatever I can to protect the seedlings. But why should that bother the weeds? They're already well established, their roots dug well in below the soil, by the time I even start planting. I may be able to remove the tippy-tops of their little green heads, but they've already spread themselves out where it really counts—below the soil, where all the water and nutrients come from—before my plants have even had a look in. They can just send up another shoot the minute my back is turned. And they know I can't dig way down to pull them up roots and all, because that would disrupt the seedlings.

Sometimes I wonder whether this whole business of coddling seedlings—starting them indoors, under lights, in a nice clean growing medium, and keeping them safe inside until it's all nice and warm out—is all wrong. Maybe what I should really do is put all the seeds straight into the beds in December, the minute I finish pulling out the rest of last year's crops. Sure, many—perhaps most—of the seeds wouldn't survive the winter. But those that did would at least be starting out in the spring with a level playing field. (After all, the few "volunteer" plants that have seeded themselves outdoors next to the compost bin—a bunch of tomatoes and one enormous butternut squash vine—have invariably turned out to be bigger, healthier, and more productive than those started indoors. So why not just plant them this way on purpose?)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

They come in peace to dig and sow

Today's Washington Post includes among its top stories a description of a new form of social protest that fits right in with the ecofrugal movement: guerrilla gardening.

These mostly Millennial-generation activists are taking over abandoned properties and either beautifying them with flower gardens or growing vegetables—a source of healthful fresh food in urban neighborhoods that are often "food deserts"(low-income neighborhoods with limited access to grocery stores). Some of these guerrilla gardeners even carry "seed bombs"—small balls of seeds and dirt—that can be tossed into a vacant lot from a car window. Like other activists, they leave their mark behind them, painting slogans across the properties they plant—but as considerate activists, they write their graffiti in biodegradable "moss paint" made from a mixture of moss, sugar, and beer.

I'm going to be candid here and say that I could never really get on board with the Occupy movement. I could relate to the things they were upset about—corporate malfeasance, growing inequality, and so on—but the problem was that they never really seemed to get beyond being upset. Here you had a massive grassroots movement, thousands of people gathered together in cities all over America and beyond, which could have been a powerful force for positive social change. But the Occupiers never seemed to be able to agree on any kind of positive social change that they wanted to seek. They not only wouldn't get behind a particular candidate, or a particular bill, or even a particular type of legislation that they wanted enacted; many, if not most of them, seemed to be opposed to the idea of seeking any sort of political solution at all, on the grounds that the entire political system was tarred with the same brush as corporate America and therefore fundamentally flawed. Now, when you really believe that any change achieved through the system is worthless, then pretty much your only option for achieving change is the overthrow of the entire government by force of arms. But the Occupiers didn't appear to want that either—fortunately—so all they did was literally occupy space until it got too cold and they all went home, having drawn a lot of attention to themselves but ultimately accomplished nothing.

The guerrilla gardeners, as a movement, are taking just the opposite approach. They know exactly what they want to do, and they're going out and doing it. They're not gathering together in parks to hold big rallies about the importance of providing fresh food in the city; they're gathering together in parks to dig in the dirt and plant seeds and grow fresh food in the city. And because their goal is to get the job done, they don't actually need to operate outside the law just to make a point; if they have a better chance of building a community garden that will survive by going to the landowner and getting a permit, then they'll go to the landowner and get a permit. But if the process of tracking down the landowner and getting a permit is too onerous, well, then, they'll just go ahead and plant, and cultivate, and harvest, until someone actually notices they're there.

This is a movement that's building on one of the central principles of ecofrugality: let nothing go to waste. These folks are taking unused space that's sitting there empty, looking ugly and producing nothing, and turning it into something useful: food in the desert, flowers in the concrete jungle. An oasis of beauty and a source of nourishment in a place where both are scarce. Bread and roses, where nothing but crabgrass grew before.

Matter of fact, I'd have a lot more sympathy with the Save Highland Park movement I mentioned last month if they'd all go out and plant flowers in those abandoned industrial sites on the north side of town, instead of just sitting there and complaining when someone else tries to do something useful with them, like a bunch of dogs in their own private manger.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The bike is dead; long live the bike

It's been about eight months since we first started considering whether it was better to repair or replace my husband's old bike. This proved to be a very thought-provoking question that led to a whole series of blog posts, and eventually to a fairly decent formula for making the decision about when it's best, from an ecofrugal standpoint, to repair an item and when it's best to replace it. It also prompted some grumbling on my part about how difficult it is to get things repaired these days. But as we discovered this weekend, sometimes replacing an item can be just as difficult.

Last week, you see, the bike that started the whole debate came decisively down on the "replace" side by completely ejecting its derailleur in the middle of Brian's morning commute. Brian ended up walking the rest of the way to work (fortunately, he was only about a mile away), and the bike made its final trip home in the back of our Honda Fit (which, as a side note, proved its mettle yet again by swallowing up the whole bike without any need for dismantling). It quickly became apparent that the derailleur was not going back on, and so we moved on to the question of what to replace the bike with.

This proved a much trickier question than we had anticipated. Finding the name of a decent bike was easy enough—we just consulted the ConsumerSearch report on "comfort bikes"—but finding the bike itself proved to be an entirely different kettle of fish. We spent the better part of one evening trying to track down the Schwinn Midmoor, a modest $250 model that had been rated a Best Buy in a certain consumer publication that shall, for legal purposes, remain nameless. Both Sears and Kmart had it listed on their websites, but visits to two different Sears stores in our area proved fruitless, and said that the bike was available online only—and then, when we tried to order it online, said that the bike wasn't available for delivery. (Eventually we figured out that this model was actually discontinued, which got us wondering why on earth Schwinn would find that its bike had earned a Best Buy rating and respond with, "Great, let's stop making it!" But since there was nothing we could do about it—even eBay didn't have a single Midmoor for sale—it seemed to be a waste of time grumbling about it.)

After that, Brian tried to tackle the problem from the other end by going to the website of our local bike shop and perusing their selections. This led him to the $350 Jamis Citizen 1, which looked suitable—but when we showed up the next day, we couldn't find either the bike or a salesperson who could tell us anything about it. (We did finally manage to talk to one person, but he seemed bewildered by our questions; the only thing he seemed to know for sure was that they didn't have the bike we wanted in stock. Which got us wondering once again: why put a bike on your website if you don't actually sell it? But once again, wondering didn't really get us anywhere.)

By the time we finally tried Kim's Bike Shop in New Brunswick, we weren't feeling all that hopeful, but we were pleasantly surprised; after a few minutes of looking, we were approached by a helpful hipster who asked a few intelligent questions, directed us toward a couple of last year's models that he said he could "give us a good deal on," and got one out for Brian to take a test ride on. After five minutes of pedaling up and down the block, he was sold on it, and all we had to do was hand over a credit card. And that's how we ended up, after all, choosing the bike named as the best budget hybrid by ConsumerSearch—not because we sought out this bike and found it, but because we sought out a decent bike shop and that's what we found there.

The bike came without much in the way of accessories—no lights, no bell, no kickstand even—so Brian spent part of today stripping down his old one and transferring over these items to the new one. Also, since the last new bike he owned was stolen within a month, he bought some supplies to hang the new bike on the storage room wall, rather than in the unlocked shed. As of tonight, it's officially road ready, all set to undergo its inaugural commute tomorrow. Now the only question that remains is what to do with the carcass of the old bike. It's no longer rideable, but there are still plenty of usable parts on it—the frame, the handlebars, the seat, even the practically-new wheel that kept it on the road last year. I doubt we'd find a taker for it on Freecycle (I've discovered that there are some things people just won't take, even for nothing), so I'm guessing our best bet is to donate the parts to the New Brunswick Bike Library, a nifty local organization that describes itself as "a tool collective and a bicycle lending program." They loan out bikes, provide access to bike-repair tools, and also offer assistance with repairs. Sounds like a good cause to support, and a good way to keep what's left of the old bike out of the landfill.

Next question on the repair-or-replace front: is it worth a hundred bucks to replace a ten-year-old digital camera that works fine when it works at all, but refuses to start unless its batteries are charged clear up to the brim?