Thursday, February 28, 2013

Where does the water go?

When I see articles in the Dollar Stretcher, or any other newsletter, about how to save on your water bill, I usually ignore them. For one thing, the advice in them is generally stuff that I've known pretty much all my life, like "don't run the water while brushing your teeth," or "don't water your lawn every day." I wouldn't dream of doing these things in any case; in fact, as far as the lawn goes, I'd be hard pressed to think of a reason for watering it on any day. (Why encourage the grass to grow faster if we'll just have to cut it more often?) But also, I've generally assumed that even if I did, by chance, come across a tip I hadn't seen before, I couldn't possibly save a dime by it, because in Highland Park, we don't pay for our water by the gallon. Instead, the quarterly water bill is in one of three "tiers": $48.73 for usage under 800 cubic feet, $62.96 for 800 to 999 cubic feet, and $77.70 for 1000 cubic feet or more. And when we first started paying water bills, our water use tended to stay firmly in the bottom tier--between 500 and 700 gallons. So cutting our water use wouldn't save us any money, and saving water for the sake of the environment in general isn't usually an issue in high-rainfall New Jersey.

In the past few years, however, our water usage has somehow started to creep up. In 2010, we had one water bill that was in the second tier rather than the bottom tier. In 2011, two of our four bills were in the second tier. And now our last three water bills in a row—the last two of 2012 and the first for 2013—have all been in that middle tier. Now, I realize the difference between the two isn't huge—$14.23 for three months—and maybe it isn't really worth worrying about, but what really bothers me is that I can't figure out why our water usage has gone up. It's not as if we'd added a lot of thirsty plants to our landscape, or started bathing a lot more frequently, or acquired a swimming pool. And yet, by crunching some numbers on the water bills, I find that our average daily water use hovered around 50 gallons until early 2010, then jumped suddenly to about 57 gallons, and from there has slowly crept up to nearly 69 gallons.

So where are we putting it all? Is it my fault for lingering too long in the shower? No, I don't see how that can be it—at 2.5 gallons per minute, I'd have had to extend my shower by 17 minutes every single day to account for that kind of increase. (Also, the rise in our water bill hasn't been attended by a corresponding rise in our gas bill, so I think that it's probably cold water that we're using more of.) More loads of laundry? Well, if a large load of laundry uses 40 gallons of water, then one extra load per week could account for an extra 5.7 gallons per day—but that's still only about half of the difference, and anyway, I've generally been doing more frequent smaller loads, so that should work out to fewer gallons per load. And I don't think it can be the garden that's to blame, because then why would our water usage remain so high in the wintertime, when nothing's growing out there?

Ultimately, I guess, the real question is not so much why our water bill has gone up, but what we can do to get it back down again. But that just brings me back to my original problem: when I Google "save water at home," I get a bunch of "no kidding" advice that I've been following for years. We don't have any leaky faucets; we already have low-flow showerheads in both bathrooms, and a water-saving toilet in one of them, and a water-saving valve on the other toilet; we don't leave water running when brushing teeth or washing dishes or any of those other "well, duh" things. In other words, we've already harvested all the low-hanging fruit.

We could, of course, go for some harder-to-reach fruit, like upgrading to a front-loading washer—but spending $800 or more to save less than $5 a month on our water bill doesn't seem like the best possible investment. We could, much more cheaply, build a rain barrel for the garden—but even if we fill it up to its 55-gallon capacity before the growing season starts, and then use the entire amount over the course of one dry month, that 55-gallon savings isn't going to be enough to bump us back down to the bottom tier. It seems to me like the only way we're ever going to get our water usage back down to where it used to be—or at least down to a level that keeps us consistently below the 800-cubic-foot cutoff—is to figure out what caused it to rise above that level in the first place, and then stop doing it. Anyone have any ideas I've overlooked?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Finding the best thrift shops

A few weeks ago, the bloggers at Young House Love issued their Macklemore Thrift Shop Challenge, based on the rap song "Thrift Shop," by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. (You can view a cleaned-up version of the video on this page, or go to YouTube for the unexpurgated version.) I'd never heard the song before, and I was completely tickled by the fact that a rap song about thrift shops exists. Even if it's mostly tongue-in-cheek, I still think it's awesome that this guy is challenging the way rap music in general glorifies throwing money around (describing spending $50 on a T-shirt as "getting swindled" and deriding the idea that you can "get girls from a brand"). So I was really psyched to take the challenge, which was to go to a thrift shop—any thrift shop—with "$20 in your pocket" and show what you get for it. (You also get points for finding and photographing any of the items specifically mentioned in the song, such as clothing with fringe, sneakers with Velcro, and pajamas with feet).
Unfortunately, however, there are no thrift shops in our area that even approach the one depicted in the video for selection and price. Here in Highland Park, there are exactly two stores that sell secondhand goods. The Tower Thrift Shop in the basement of the Reformed Church is cleaner and better organized than it used to be, but it's still got a small and seldom-changing selection, no dressing rooms, and very limited hours (about 15 hours per week). There is a new store on Raritan Avenue that has some pretty nice furniture and accessories, but no clothing, which is what I actually need right now.

I figured my best chance of completing the Thrift Shop Challenge successfully was to go down to the Goodwill store in East Brunswick. Although this is the nearest big thrift store to us (only about five miles away), we seldom stop in there because it's not close to anyplace else we'd be likely to go. In honor of the Thrift Shop Challenge, however, I decided to make a special trip out there on a Saturday. I went in with my $20 and a modest shopping list: some decent pants for winter, maybe a flannel shirt or a grey pullover, and anything else that happened to catch my eye. And I came out with...nothing. After working my way up and down all the racks of trousers, looking at every pair to check the size (since this store sorts them only by color), I didn't find a single pair worth the trouble of trying on. The few pairs I found in my size were all cut in the fashionably low-slung style that looks absolutely awful on me, and/or they were made of such flimsy fabric that they weren't worth the five to ten dollars the store was asking for them. And while I did try on a few grey pullovers, not one fit me properly.

The whole experience was so frustrating that I began to think maybe I should just give up on thrift shops entirely. Yeah, back in college I used to have good luck there, but I was younger and slimmer then, and maybe the tanking economy has made people more reluctant to get rid of good clothes. So imagine my surprise when, at the blood bank yesterday, the phlebotomist started chatting to me about shopping and confided that she gets nearly everything from thrift shops. The prices are so much better than the department stores, she rattled on cheerfully, and the selection is just as good—she can always find plenty of items in her size. When I eagerly asked her where she shopped to find such great deals, she steered me toward the Unique Thrift Store in South Plainfield—not much farther from us than the Goodwill, but in the opposite direction.

This got me thinking about the first time we visited a Habitat ReStore, back in 2010 when we were preparing to refinish our bathroom. The nearest one was about half an hour south of us, out toward the shore. When we got there, we found it was just a couple of rooms with a limited selection of crappy secondhand furniture. No tile, no paint, no light fixtures—none of the stuff we needed for the job in hand. So we decided, since we'd come this far, to continue south toward the next nearest store. After another half an hour's drive, we found a much larger selection of crappy secondhand furniture, plus a couple of seriously beat-up appliances. So after making a two-hour round trip through some not very appealing neighborhoods and finding nothing, I was naturally feeling a bit disillusioned with the idea of the Habitat ReStore and very nearly gave up on it entirely. But the descriptions my pals on the Dollar Stretcher forums gave of their great finds at Habitat convinced me that at least some of their stores must be worthwhile, so I did a little more investigation and found that the Morris County store, which was located in a more upscale area, appeared to be much bigger and offer a much wider selection of stuff. And sure enough, when we checked it out, this store turned out to have the good stuff: paint, tile, sinks, cabinetry, plumbing supplies, and even nails sold by the pound. We ended up picking up a bathroom sink for $30 and, on a later trip, several boxes of Italian ceramic tile at $11 a box.

It seems reasonable to conclude that where thrift shops are concerned, location makes a big difference. Thinking back over my vast experience of thrift shopping, I'd offer the following rules of thumb:
  1. The bigger the city, the better the selection. Aside from one T-shirt, I've never found anything I really liked at the Goodwill near us, but when I've taken the opportunity to visit the one near my in-laws' house in Indianapolis, I've generally had good results. This rule makes sense if you think about it: the bigger the city, the wider the population from which it can gather its merchandise, and thus the better the selection it's likely to have.
  2. The richer the neighborhood, the better the merchandise. When I was in college, living on the fairly upscale Main Line outside of Philadelphia, I had one great thrift shop just a few blocks from my apartment and at least two others within walking distance. (To this day, I've never forgotten the $15 leather miniskirt I bought at the Ardmore thrift shop in my freshman year—before I went vegetarian—even though I wore it exactly once and could no longer fit into it by senior year.) This rule also has a certain logic to it: rich folks can afford to buy higher-quality stuff to begin with, and they can also afford to discard it before it's worn out.
  3. The better the store, the higher the prices. Our little local store may not have much selection, but the few things I've found there have been incredible bargains: pants for a dollar a pair, shoes for two dollars, shirts for 50 cents. The Goodwill store tends to charge more: maybe four dollars for a shirt and as much as ten for a pair of pants (although you can cut these prices in half by choosing merchandise with the right color-coded tag: blue tags on a blue-tag day, for example). And the Yelp reviews I found for the Unique Thrift Store generally say that the store is clean, well-organized and loaded with a great variety of stuff, but the prices are often unreasonably high based on the condition of the clothing. Of course, thrift-store prices are still bound to be lower than retail prices (at least for merchandise of similar quality), so it's probably a better bet to go to a store where you can actually find something you like and pay $10 or $15 for it than to one where you search a whole rack of $2 jeans and find nothing.
I did a little Googling around to see if anyone else has formulated a similar set of rules and found that Trent of The Simple Dollar is willing to back me up on rule 2, at least. He also says that once you've identified a nice neighborhood, it's worth taking the time to check out all the local thrift stores and see if you can find one with the right balance of quality and price (a tacit nod to rule 3). And he recommends looking beyond the one item you happen to be looking for right now: if the store has the sort of things that fit your size and taste in general, then it's probably worth a return visit.

So I'm hoping that when I get the chance to check out the Unique Thrift Store, I'll actually find something I like, even if I end up having to spend the entire "20 dollas in my pocket" on it. (Oh, and incidentally, if you're curious, you can see the results of the Macklemore Thrift Shop Challenge here.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The trouble with free

It's been observed many times, and in many different places, that people often behave abnormally when they hear the word "free." Emily Guy Birken discusses the problems with "free" stuff in a recent post on the Live Like a Mensch blog, and behavioral economist Dan Ariely devotes an entire chapter to this phenomenon in his book Predictably Irrational. In one experiment he describes, college students overwhelmingly choose a free Hershey's Kiss over a 15-cent Lindt Truffle, yet when the prices of both candies are raised by one cent, they overwhelmingly prefer the truffle. A penny is still a trivial amount of money, but because it's not "free," it allows the students to perceive the transaction as a financial one and analyze the costs and benefits accordingly. He also talks about how Amazon greatly increased its sales when it started offering free shipping on all orders over $25—except in France, where it reduced the shipping charge on large orders to 1 franc (about 20 cents) instead of cutting it to zero. Even though this is still a negligible cost, it didn't have the allure of "free"—that tantalizing promise of getting something for nothing that can have the paradoxical effect of persuading people to spend more than they intended.

My own observation, however, is that the problem with "free" stuff cuts both ways. That is, not only can the promise of free stuff lead to poor decision-making, but an offer of a free item can also backfire on the giver.

Case in point: our old blender, which I listed on our local Freecycle group after we replaced it with a newer one from Craigslist. (Side note: I put the new blender to the test using this homemade Frappucino recipe, and I found that it performed admirably, actually doing a much better job of grinding up ice cubes than our old one. I also noticed that making this recipe with pectin rather than xanthan gum, which I couldn't find anywhere, doesn't seem to help much at keeping the drink from separating, but that wasn't the blender's fault.) Being a scrupulously honest person, I made a point of noting in the Freecycle listing that the blender's collar was cracked, so I feared that we might not get any takers. However, within just a couple of hours of the post, I received an e-mail from a Freecycler who said she was interested and could pick it up on Sunday "after 11 am."

When the Freecycler hadn't showed up by 2:30, I thought that the treacherously high winds we were having might have interfered with her plans, so I e-mailed back to inquire if she could still make it. She said she'd had car trouble and asked if she could come the next day "after 4:30 pm." Although I was a bit annoyed by her vagueness, I decided not to press for a more specific time commitment in the interests of getting the blender out of here. But as it turns out, it didn't matter, since she never showed up at all. Moreover, although she had both my e-mail and my phone number, she never bothered to contact me to explain why she couldn't make it this time.

Would this person have been so cavalier about her promise to me if she'd been proposing to buy the blender, rather than just take it for free? Based on an earlier experience of Brian's, I suspect not. Back when he was preparing to move out of his old apartment in California and move out East, he had to get rid of most of his belongings, so he listed several items on a message board at his workplace—some for sale, though at fairly modest prices, and others for free. The people who arranged to buy things, he says, invariably came when they said they would come, paid what they said they would pay, and left. However, the people who offered to pick up the couch he was giving away never came at all. He got multiple offers, but not one person actually showed up or bothered to send so much as a word of explanation. In the end, the couch wound up on the curb with the trash, because no one who promised to take it could be bothered to keep that promise.

This experience convinced him, and has since convinced me, that people just don't take a transaction seriously when there's no actual money at stake. If they've arranged to buy something, then they feel they have entered into a contract, and they won't break that contract without a good reason. But if they are merely taking something for free, then as they see it, there is no contract. Their reasoning, conscious or unconscious, seems to be, "Well, I wasn't going to pay anything for it anyway, so if I don't show up, it doesn't cost him anything." I suspect that if Brian, rather than giving away his old couch, had offered to "sell" it for a dollar, the people who offered to take it at that price would have showed up as promised with dollar in hand. (Of course, it's also possible that no one would have offered—but at least in that case, he wouldn't have had to waste time waiting around for a bunch of no-shows.)

The logical conclusion from all this might be that if I want to get rid of the old blender, the thing to do is to try selling it for a dollar, or some other nominal price, rather than Freecycling it. But since the majority of people I deal with on Freecycle actually do show up as promised, or at least give a good reason if they can't, I think it's worth taking one more crack at giving it away first. I've added a listing to the larger Middlesex County group, which reaches more people than the smaller Rutgers University group, and already I've had two requests for the blender. This time, I'm planning to leave the item out for "porch pickup" rather than try and schedule a specific time for the transfer. I'm hoping this will make the process go more smoothly.

However, it is rather interesting that two people (three, if you count the one who never showed up) actually want a blender that I candidly admitted is broken. True, only one part is broken, and it only costs about five bucks to replace that part—but as we discovered, it also only costs about five bucks to replace the entire blender with a secondhand one. It seems to be yet another example of the power of that word "free": people who wouldn't pay $5 for a secondhand blender will eagerly snatch up a "free" blender that needs a $5 part.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Buy this, it's recycled!

In my post on recycling a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned EarthWorks, a company that collects expired gift cards, credit cards, library cards, and so forth, and recycles them into new ones. Today, while reading over that post, it occurred to me to pop back over to the EarthWorks site and see where their recycled cards are actually being used. The answer, it seems, is a bit hard to pin down: their "partners" page had a list of 11 companies on it, most of which I'd never heard of before. Most of them are not the actual stores that distribute gift cards, but rather companies that manufacture these cards for others. There were a few exceptions, including a small chain of restaurants in Duluth called Grandma's and a bookstore chain called Half Price Books (which I've really liked the few times I've visited it out in Indianapolis, but which unfortunately doesn't have any stores east of Ohio). However, the one that particularly caught my eye was a company called Metrohiker, which was described as follows:
The Metrohiker card is the most sustainable way to save cash. Cardholders get exclusive discounts at a wide variety of locally-owned, environmentally-friendly businesses in participating communities across the nation.
This sounded particularly intriguing, since it offered an opportunity to support local businesses, promote sustainability, and save money all at once. However, since I live in a small town that isn't particularly close to any large cities, I suspected that the card probably wouldn't offer any discounts in my area. Still, out of curiosity, I clicked through to the Metrohiker website to see if I could find any more details about the program.

Well, I couldn't. Oh, the company's home page promised "exclusive access to discounts at great businesses in your hometown, nationwide, and online," including "your favorite restaurants, vintage clothing stores, transportation services, and more"—but when I followed the link that said, "click here to learn more," all I got was a blurb about the company's goal "to promote healthy communities, environmental sustainability, and adventure." Hoping for some more particulars, I tried another link reading, "Still don't have any idea what Metrohiker is all about?  Learn more about how it works." How it works, apparently, is as follows:

  1. You sign up for a Metrohiker card. (No mention of how much it costs, and no amount of clicking on the site led me to this information, but a separate Google search eventually turned up the Metrohiker cardholder agreement, which says that the card costs $25 plus $3 shipping, is good for one year, and may not be shared with anyone else.)
  2. You go to businesses that are partners with Metrohiker. (Again, no mention of what those businesses are or where they are located—and I had no luck trying to find this information indirectly through Google.)
  3. They give you discounts. (The site doesn't say how much, and Google couldn't help me dig up this information.)

The most specific information the site provides about its program is a list of cities in which "exciting launch events" could be expected soon. One of the cities on the list was Boston, where my sister lives, and I wondered whether this card might make a nice present for her—but since the site gave no indication at all of what businesses in Boston were participating in the program, I had no way of finding out whether the card would be of any use to her at all. The site did say I could visit Metrohiker's Facebook page for updates—but when I clicked through to it, surprise surprise, it had no information at all except a copy of the blurb that appeared on the main website.

What struck me as particularly funny was the way the website kept repeatedly mentioning the fact that the Metrohiker card is made from 100 percent recycled plastic, as if that were its primary selling point. I mean, sure, I'm all for recycling, and I'd much rather have a card made from recycled plastic than one made from new plastic—but that's assuming that I had a use for the card in the first place. What the Metrohiker site seemed to be suggesting was that I should be willing to pay $28 a year for a piece of recycled plastic without knowing what, if anything, it's actually good for.

Frankly, I don't think asking consumers to send old, expired cards to be processed into new cards and then pay $28 a year for the privilege of carrying those new cards around, without ever using them for anything, and then send them back to be recycled again, qualifies as a sustainable business model.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Product free when you buy the package

As an ecofrugal individual, I like to reduce waste whenever I can. And since nearly a third of all trash in this country comes from product packaging, one of the main ways I try to reduce waste is to choose products with less packaging. Case in point: cleaning products. Rather than buy a separate product for every room in my house, complete with its own bottle that has to be stored and eventually disposed of, I rely on just a few staples to clean nearly everything: dish soap, baking soda, and vinegar. A vinegar-and-water solution, stored in a spray bottle, is especially handy: a squirt of this and a swipe with a rag is a quick fix for anything from grease-splattered walls in the kitchen to smudgy windows. (It can even keep your car windows from icing up if you spray it on ahead of time—and if ice has already formed, spraying it with this will help melt it faster.)

The problem is that I use this stuff so often that I find I'm always running out and having to mix up more. The squirt bottle I use is a cheapie that cost me a couple of bucks at the drugstore, and while it works fine, it only holds a little over a cup. So when I had to interrupt my cleaning of the bathroom yesterday to refill the bottle, I finally got fed up and decided it was worth spending a couple of extra bucks on a bigger bottle. And since we needed to go out anyway to get some compost, I figured it would be no trouble to add a quick stop at Target to our agenda.

Once we managed to find the cleaning supplies at the Target, I found that they only had one decent-sized squirt bottle on the shelf, and the cost was $4.79—a bit more than I'd expected. But I reminded myself that my expectations about prices are often unreasonable, since I live in a little tightwad bubble in which things are hardly ever bought new, and that it was unlikely I'd find a bottle like this for less than five bucks anywhere else. And that would have been that, except that on the way to the checkout, we passed by a rack full of Method brand cleaning supplies. This is a 21st-century brand that's marketed to eco-conscious types: nontoxic, vegetable-based cleansers, no animal testing, and 100 percent recycled packaging that actually looks decent out on the counter. Yet unlike many "green" products, it isn't really more expensive than mainstream cleaners of the same type. In fact, the shelf at the Target proclaimed that most of the Method products, ranging from glass cleaner to dish soap in all manner of colors and fragrances, were on sale at 3 for $8. And most of them were in—guess what?—squirt bottles.

So I did a quick mental calculation: "Hmm, I could buy an empty bottle for $4.79, or I could buy a bottle of cleanser for $2.67, and after I used it all up, I'd have a perfectly good reusable squirt bottle." Even if it turned out I didn't like the Method cleaner at all, I could just dump it down the sink (hey, nontoxic, right?) and have the bottle for less than I would have spent to buy an empty one. How could I go wrong?

After perusing the selection for a while, I settled on the "all-purpose" cleanser in Pink Grapefruit scent, which I figured would be closest to my trusty vinegar-and-water solution (well, maybe not for de-icing car windows). I gave it a try today, and it seems to be able to handle quick clean-ups as well as the vinegar solution, if not necessarily better—and I will admit, it does smell better. So I think we'll be perfectly content to use this stuff in place of the vinegar for the next several months, and when it's gone, the bottle can get refilled with the old standby (possibly with a bit of citrus oil added to improve the scent).

What I found most interesting about this little exercise is that, when I came to think about it, it wasn't the first time I'd bought a product mainly to get the package. I can think of two more examples just off the top of my head:
  • Last week, after waiting a couple of months in vain for Blue Bunny frozen yogurt to go on sale, we finally gave in and bought a container at full price so that I could reuse the lid for my bathroom compost bin.
  • After several months of reading the increasingly shrill warnings about the dangers of reusing plastic water and soda bottles (most of which, by the way, turn out to be based on insufficient evidence), and the repeated admonishments to go out and buy a safe, reusable bottle such as a $20 Kleen Kanteen, I decided instead to go to the store and buy a $1.29 glass bottle of Snapple. After drinking the contents, I washed out the bottle, filled it with plain tap water, and stashed it in the car, where it's continued to live (aside from the occasional re-washing) ever since.
The thing about these purchases is that, since what I'm really buying is the packaging, it's almost like getting the product itself for free. Buy a $2.66 plastic spray bottle, and get a quart of all-purpose cleaner free; buy a $1.29 glass water bottle, and get a pint of Snapple free; buy a $4.49 compost container, and get seven cups of frozen yogurt free. (Okay, maybe that last one wasn't really such a bargain, but I wasn't having any luck finding a better deal.) Of course, for someone who normally tries to reduce the amount of packaging I buy, it is a bit ironic to be buying products just for their packaging—but if the alternative is buying the package without the product, and paying more for it, that doesn't really make any more sense, does it?

Has anyone else ever done this—buying a product primarily to get the container? Can you add any more examples to my list?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The compost test

Earlier this week I realized that when all our new landscaping plants arrive in the spring, we'll need plenty of compost to amend the soil where they're planted. And since our little compost bin doesn't produce more than a few cubic feet at most—nowhere near the volume we'll need for three plum trees, five cherry bushes, a dozen raspberry canes and five rhubarb plants—that means buying commercial compost. Unfortunately, there is a problem these days with commercial compost: rather than nourishing your plants, it could actually kill them.

I first read about the problem of "killer compost" in Mother Earth News. Basically, the problem is that certain herbicides, known as pyralids, do not break down during the composting process. Even if they've been eaten and digested by a cow, they remain present in the manure, essentially unchanged. So if you put this stuff on your garden plants, it will do what herbicides are designed to do: kill the plants.

When the magazine first discussed in the issue back in 2008, the only way it mentioned to "protect your garden" was to avoid buying commercial compost unless the seller could vouch for its safety. That wasn't very useful advice for those of us who buy the stuff in bags from Home Depot, rather than directly from farmers. Eventually, nearly a year later, the editors got around to providing some information about how to test bagged compost to make sure it's safe to use. The linked article gives the procedure in detail, but the quick summary is:

  1. Mark the bags of compost with numbers or letters so you can tell which bag is which.
  2. Take a sample of compost from each bag you want to test. (Brian took the samples by piercing the bag with our soil knife, just the way drug dealers on TV cop shows do when they want to test the purity of a shipment of heroin. His reaction to this was always, "Dude, now there's a hole in your bag and all the heroin is going to spill out," but in the case of our compost bags, a small hole shouldn't be a problem as soon as they remain stacked neatly in the shed.)
  3. Mix the sample with potting soil in a seed-starting tray or pot. (Brian used our seed-starting mix instead of soil, since he knew seeds would germinate in that.) Make sure to label each pot or section of the tray with the number or letter corresponding to the bag the sample came from. Also fill a couple of sections or pots with plain soil as a control.
  4. In each pot, plant two or three fast-sprouting seeds, such as peas or beans. (We use mung beans, which sprout easily in plain water. In fact, while setting up the test, Brian also started a batch of bean sprouts in a jar, which will confirm right away that our seeds are viable—and also allow us to have Pad Thai for dinner next week.)
  5. Put all the pots on a tray and water them thoroughly. Keep them in a sunny window for the next two to three weeks, keeping the soil moist. If the sprouts that emerge from the compost-treated pots are as healthy as the control seedlings, you'll know the compost is okay. If they come out with cupped leaves and twisted stems, that's a sign that your compost could be tainted and probably isn't safe to use on your garden plants.

The "Ask the Expert" column in Mother Earth News also describes a version of this test in which you start the seeds first and then water them with a compost "tea" made by mixing the compost with water. But we find mixing the compost directly into the soil is less hassle, especially when you have multiple bags to test.

We've done this procedure every time we've bought compost for the past few years, and so far, we've been lucky enough not to get a tainted bag. But we aren't prepared to trust to luck, especially where our new fruit trees and bushes are concerned. These plants are a long-term investment, and we're not about to risk losing them to a batch of tainted compost.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Repair or replace: a new wrinkle

I've discovered a new wrinkle in the "repair or replace" equation: sometimes, the cost of a replacement is actually less than the cost of a repair. Especially when the replacement is purchased secondhand.

Case in point: our blender is about four years old. We've had it about four years, and it worked fine for the first year or so. Then the collar—the plastic part that holds the pitcher on the base—cracked, causing the blender to leak whenever it was used. Being ecofrugal types, our first thought was to repair it, so we fixed the crack with superglue. However, before long the collar cracked again in a different place, so we figured we'd just replace the part. Just to be on the safe side, we ordered two, figuring that if this part is the weakest link in the blender mechanism, we might as well have a spare. And that turned out to be very prescient of us, because the replacement collar cracked after a few months of use. And then the spare one did the same.

At this point, rather than order another round of replacement parts, Brian decided to try again to repair the one we had—this time filling in the entire area over the crack with the epoxy. And that worked, sort of. The collar held together, but fluid still seeped into the crack, so instead of a big leak, we got a little trickle of blackish fluid from the bottom of the jar every time it was lifted off the base. This got old pretty quickly.

So today, I went online looking for the replacement part again. Brian suggested ordering three of them this time, since we seem to go through them so quickly. I was grumbling to myself about having to spend $10 a year just to keep this blender working, and I found myself wondering whether it would be cheaper in the long run to replace it. At first blush, the answer appeared to be no, because the top-rated blender at ConsumerSearch is priced at $200, and for that price we could replace the collar another 40 times. There was a budget model that cost only $65, but when I checked the detailed report on it, I found that it had some durability problems—so we might pay $65 up front and still end up having to buy replacement parts within a year. I found myself feeling nostalgic for my mom's old Oster, which was built like a brick house. It was big, heavy, and loud, but its metal parts took a licking and kept on ticking. And then it hit me: "If what you really want is an old blender, why not look for one?"

I tried searching the "appliances" section on Craigslist, but I didn't get many hits in our area. Then I expanded my search to the entire site and discovered a whole bunch of posts that included one or more blenders lumped in with a bunch of other household items. One seller, within striking distance of our house, was offering three blenders, all priced between $5 and $12. And it took me only a moment to calculate that any one of these would cost less than the $16 plus shipping we were about to spend on replacement parts for our existing blender. We could buy a whole new blender for $10, and even if it lasted only one year, we'd come out ahead.

So, to cut this long story short, we are now the proud owners of a secondhand Black & Decker blender, complete with a spare pitcher, all for a measly ten bucks. According to the seller, it's only a few months old, so we actually got a blender that's several years newer than the one we have now for less than the cost of the parts we'd need to keep the old one running another year. (I was actually a bit disappointed that it wasn't a solidly built model from the seventies with all-metal parts—maybe in a nice avocado green—but I guess people who still own those old troopers are holding on to them.) We've determined that it runs, and it isn't significantly louder or quieter than our old blender—and best of all, the base that holds the pitcher is BIG, spreading the weight of the glass pitcher out over a much larger area than the small, easily-stressed collar on our old model. So that part, at least, should hold up better than its predecessor.

All in all, I'd have to say that in this case, replacing was definitely the more ecofrugal choice. By replacing the old blender, rather than continuing to buy new parts for it, we're reducing waste; by buying the new one secondhand, we're reusing as well; and if we can find anyone on Freecycle willing to take our existing blender as-is, we can keep that one out of the landfill a little longer too.

And yes, this does mean that we celebrated Valentine's Day by going out and buying a cheap blender. Hey, to a tightwad with green sensibilities, that's way more romantic than a dozen pesticide-laden roses—and it will last a lot longer.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

One less gadget

For most of our married life, Brian and I haven't bought any sliced bread, aside from the occasional loaf of a tasty-looking rye or challah off the sale rack. Instead, we relied on our bread machine, together with a couple of cookbooks devoted entirely to bread recipes. Every time we finished off a loaf, we'd just select a new variety from one of our cookbooks and toss the ingredients into the pan. The whole process took about five minutes, including cleanup. We enjoyed a variety of tasty breads, such as honey oatmeal, egg bread, sourdough, and raisin pumpernickel. Most of them could even be set up the night before with the machine on a timer, so we could have piping-hot bread waiting for us when we got up the next morning.

After a while, though, the machine developed a problem. It started making a horrible squealing noise whenever it ran. Brian took it apart and fiddled with it, and eventually he got the problem to stop—for a while. But it kept coming back, and he kept having to take it apart and tighten the same whatzit, until it reached the point where he had to take it apart pretty much every time he wanted to use it. At which point it became pretty clear that this device was no longer a time-saver. After one last attempt last weekend to fix the thing, he declared it officially dead.

So it might seem that our logical next step should be to consult ConsumerSearch to find the best new bread machine on the market and where to buy it. Unlike the last time we tried to buy a bread machine, back in 2008, it is actually possible to find them in stores nowadays; my guess is that the Great Recession has sparked a resurgence of interest in baking bread at home. And there are also several basic, reliable models sold on for less than $100. And given that we loved our bread machine and used it all the time, there should be no question that replacing it would be a worthwhile use of money.

So why haven't we?

Well, I think the main reason is that my husband really likes cooking, and baking in particular. I enjoy it now and then, but if the choice had been solely up to me, I probably would have opted for the convenience of being able to throw a new loaf together in a few minutes. But Brian actually enjoys the whole process of kneading the dough by hand, letting it rise, putting it in the pans, and pulling them out of the oven. So I think that for him, the demise of the bread machine wasn't so much a loss as an excuse to get hands-on with bread dough on a regular basis.

There's also an economic argument to be made for ditching the bread machine and doing it the old-fashioned way. Way back in the nineties, Amy Dacyczyn (the Frugal Zealot) explored the economics of bread machines in the pages of the Tightwad Gazette. She compared bread-machine loaves to both homemade and store-bought bread and reached the following conclusions:
  • Bread-machine bread isn't as tasty as homemade (though it is better than store-bought).
  • Bread made in a bread machine takes about five minutes to put together. Homemade bread takes about 25 minutes. However, if you make four loaves at a time and freeze the extras, that cuts your hands-on time to just over six minutes per loaf. (She didn't note how the flavor of fresh bread out of a machine compares to that of a homemade loaf that's been frozen and thawed.) She also notes that using a food processor or an old-fashioned tool called a "bread bucket" to knead the dough can cut the time to about five minutes per loaf. "So," she concludes, "if you have a freezer to store extra loaves and have reasonable physical capabilities, a bread machine doesn't save time."
  • An oven takes about an hour to bake a loaf of bread. Running at 350 degrees, an electric oven will use about 2 kilowatt-hours (kWh) in that time. (Michael Bluejay confirms this figure.) However, baking four loaves at once cuts the energy usage down to half a kWh per loaf. A bread machine uses just slightly less than half a kWh to bake one loaf. So she concluded that using a bread machine, at the then-prevailing rate of 8 cents per kWh, will save you about a penny a loaf in fuel costs; if you use a gas oven, you'll save no money at all.
Now, some of the Frugal Zealot's calculations don't apply to our situation. For one thing, we don't have the freezer space to store more than one loaf of bread, so it isn't practical for us to bake more than two loaves at a time. Also, bread machines have become a bit more efficient; a recent test found that it takes about 0.35 kWh to produce a loaf on the quick bake cycle. And the price of both electricity and gas has gone up. Our latest bill from PSE&G shows that we are currently paying 17.3 cents per kWh for electricity, which works out to 6 cents per loaf baked in a machine. We pay $1.09 per therm for gas, and this chart from Best Buy shows that a gas oven uses about .112 therms to run for an hour at 350. But the upshot is the same: if we bake two loaves at a time, we spend roughly the same 6 cents per loaf as we would with a machine. So a bread machine is not a purchase that would pay for itself, ever, in reduced energy costs. We (or rather Brian) will have to spend more time on each loaf—about 12 minutes as opposed to 5—but it's time spent doing something he enjoys.

Of course, one of the nice things about deciding to bake our bread by hand is that the decision isn't a binding one. If we try it for a few months and find that we miss the convenience of being able to set up a loaf of bread overnight for the next day's breakfast, or have a batch of pizza dough kneading itself at home while we go out and run errands, we can always change our minds and get a machine. Or, instead, we might conclude that a better investment would be a full-sized food processor, one that can process bread dough (and will fit neatly in the space previously assigned to the bread machine). But we needn't be in any hurry to run out and buy anything now. And that fact in itself is actually very reassuring: the knowledge that, even though we used our old bread machine a lot, we can in fact get along without it—that this is one modern luxury that has not, for us, become a necessity.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Seed starting revisited

Although there is still an inch or so of snow on the ground after last weekend's blizzard, we are already looking ahead to spring by getting the first seedlings started for our garden. As you may recall, we have had some difficulties starting seeds indoors in the past. At first, we tried starting them in regular potting soil, but a lot of them didn't germinate, so we took my dad's advice and switched to a commercial seed-starting mix. Most of the seeds would sprout in that, but the seedlings didn't thrive; they stayed small and spindly and many of them didn't survive transplanting into the garden. We mentioned this problem to the landscaper we consulted last fall, and she explained that seed-starting mix is basically sterile; it has the loose texture needed for sprouting seeds, but it doesn't contain the nutrients they need to grow.  So she recommended germinating the seeds in a starter, then transplanting the tiny sprouts to bigger pots of real soil that would provide nutrients and space for the roots to develop. 

So that's what we planned to do with this year's seedlings. However, as soon as our first batch of seedlings (parsley) started to poke through the seed-starting mixture in our little seed-starting tray, we discovered the difficulties with this approach. For one thing, what would we use for the larger containers? Paper cups? Would those fit in our juice-carton containers? Would we have to scrap our entire seed-starting setup and switch to commercial seedling trays? And even once we found suitable containers, how well would the seedlings survive the transplanting process? It's always seemed to me that plants thrive best when they can grow where they first take root (hence my frustration that the weeds in my garden, including vegetables that seed themselves from last year's crop, always seem to outcompete the carefully-nurtured seedlings). Each time they're transplanted, some of them don't make it—so why would we adopt a system that requires each seedling to be transplanted twice, once from starter to seedling pot and once more out into the garden?

While mulling over this problem, I came across an article on the Weekend Gardener web magazine (unaffiliated, so far as I know, with the book by the same name that I've described elsewhere on this blog as my gardening bible). The author, Hilary Rinaldi, says she doesn't bother with the "traditional routine" of seed starting, which involves starting seeds in one tray and moving them to larger containers. Instead, she starts them directly in the larger containers where they will live until they're set out in the garden, thus allowing the root ball to stay intact and producing "healthier, sturdier plants." The key, she says, is to use a potting mix that's "fluffy and light," but also rich in organic matter. It should contain a combination of soil, vermiculite or perlite, and peat moss. She adds that it's also important to premoisten the potting mix before it goes into the containers. (We've observed ourselves that it's very difficult to water seedlings in dry potting mix; because it's so loose, the water sort of flows under the soil rather than sinking into it, creating a puddle with dry soil floating on top. We've taken to watering our seedlings with a spray mister.)

This sounded like an appealing idea, but we puzzled over where to find a potting mixture that would meet her requirements. Neither bagged potting soil nor seed-starting mix seemed to fit the bill; the potting soil wasn't loose enough, and the seed-starting mix was lacking in nutrients. We could have tried making our own by buying compost, vermiculite, and peat moss separately and mixing them together, but some of these components are hard to find in stores, and even if we did, it would be a big and messy job. Then Brian got the idea that maybe the thing to do was to take the bagged soil and seed-starting mix we already had and simply combine them in a one-to-one ratio. The potting mix contains about half peat moss and half vermiculite, and the soil is just soil, so the two products together would give us the mix of materials that Rinaldi was recommending. And since we already had the ingredients, it would be a lot easier and cheaper than putting something together from scratch.

So this is our new plan: each time we start seedlings from now on, we'll start by mixing equal parts potting soil and seed-starting mix, moistening it, and loading it into the seed-starting tubes. Then the seeds will go straight into the tubes, and there they'll stay until it's time to put them in the ground. We'll test this mixture with both indoor seedlings grown under our grow light and seedlings that are winter sown (grown outdoors in miniature greenhouses made from plastic jugs) and see how it performs under different conditions.

Of course, it was too late to try this with the parsley seedlings we'd already started, so Brian compromised; he filled up a new set of tubes about two-thirds full with plain potting soil, then carefully removed the parsley seedlings, along with about a third of the seed-starting mix they were in, and popped that in right on top of the potting soil in the new tubes. So they'll now have seed-starting mix on top and more nourishing soil underneath, which we hope will allow them to draw up the nutrients they need from the soil as their roots spread. I'll keep you posted on how it goes with them and with other seeds grown according to our new method.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Take this snow and shovel it

Stupid groundhog. He predicts an early spring and what do we get? A massive winter storm that's left four dead, hundreds of thousands without power, and everyone else with a load of snow to shovel.

Actually, in our yard, the problem is not so much the actual shoveling as figuring out where to put the snow. For people with normal yards, this process goes something like this:

1. Scoop up snow in shovel.
2. Toss snow to one side.
3. Repeat until paved areas are cleared.

Our yard, however, is not normal. In fact, if you were trying to design a yard for maximum inefficiency of snow removal, you could hardly do better than ours. The sidewalk is fairly unobstructed now that we've cleared out the hedge, but the driveway and the front walk/steps are surrounded by walls and/or overgrown shrubbery. So for us, the shoveling process is more like this:

1. Scoop up snow in shovel.
2. Lift shovelful of snow to waist height.
3. Carry it over to the wall.
4. Dump snow over the wall.
5. Return to snowy area and repeat.

Fortunately, we have only one car parked in what is technically a two-car driveway (it is possible to park two cars in it, but only if they're both small and have skillful drivers), so we can set aside a bit of area on either side for snow. Piling it up against the wall, however, isn't that much easier than dumping it over; every time you toss a shovelful of snow onto the growing pile, some of it rolls down the slope and back into the area you've already cleared. So it takes multiple passes to clear the pavement.

Every time there's a big snowfall, I curse the layout of our yard and rack my brains trying to think of ways to fix it. Unfortunately, I can't think of anything that would help short of tearing out everything, filling it up properly with dirt so that it's level, and then adding a completely new driveway and replanting. I know that getting rid of our overgrown foundation shrubs would help a little—at least I wouldn't have to try and crawl under that massive evergreen you can see at the far right of the photo—but the main obstruction is that wall, and I can't see any way to get rid of it. Maybe we could at least make it a little bit lower; in most places, it's well above the level of the dirt in the yard. That might help a bit, but I'm not sure how much, and I'm also not sure whether it could be done without knocking down the whole wall and replacing it.

So I'm left with two questions. First, the practical one: is it possible to remove just one row of cinderblocks from the top of a cinderblock wall like this one, while leaving the rest of the structure intact? And second, the more theoretical one: just how much trouble and expense is it worth to fix a problem that only crops up a few times a year? (Of course, as the globe keeps warming, big storms like these are likely to become more frequent, but it's impossible to predict how much will change and how soon. If I knew that, it might make the question easier to answer.)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

How to recycle everything (if you can)

In yesterday's post on Live Like a Mensch, the blogger was lamenting about how she can never bring herself to throw away things that she thinks it should be possible to reuse or recycle. She wished she could find some "clear instructions" about when and how to reuse and recycle things, and when just tossing them in the trash is the best option. So, in an attempt to be helpful, I Googled "How to Recycle Everything" and, ba-da-bing, up came this article from Real Simple. (They've got it split across 7 separate pages, with no guide words to show which page covers which item, so scrolling through to find the specific item you want can be a pain. However, if you click the "print" icon you can get the whole thing on a single page.)

A lot of the guidelines in this article were ones I already knew about, but I did come across a few that were new to me. In other cases, by contrast, I happened to know about some recycling options that Real Simple didn't mention. So here's a selection of the most useful tips I found in the article, as well as those it left out:
  • Backpacks. The article provides a link to the American Birding Association, which accepts donations of old backpacks for use on bird-watching expeditions. This was a new one on me (though probably not that useful for us, since we usually throw out backpacks only when one or both straps have given way and can no longer be patched with duct tape).
  • Batteries. The article mentions RadioShack and Office Depot as places to recycle rechargeable batteries (presumably those that will no longer hold a charge), but it doesn't mention alkaline batteries. Until a few years ago, our town had a big canister at Borough Hall where you could dump these for recycling; then they got rid of it and told people to just throw them in the trash. However, there is a site,, where you can punch in your zip code and find places near you for recycling alkaline batteries (and a host of other items). In our area, I found several reclamation centers in nearby towns, but they're only open to residents of those towns. So I guess it's still the trash for us. But you might fare better.
  • Books. The article talks about how to recycle them, but what it doesn't say is that it's obviously better to reuse books if they're still in readable condition, and there are loads of places to donate them. Used-book stores may be particular about what they'll accept, but libraries holding book sales will usually take anything (in our town, anything that doesn't sell is offered up for free, and presumably whatever is still left gets discarded). Also, in our town, the local Lions' Club now has collection bins where books can be dropped off for use in its literacy program.
  • Cell phones. The article names a couple of organizations that will take these, but one of the links no longer works and the other has no useful information. Moreover, the article doesn't mention what I would consider the easiest option for reusing an old cell phone: the drop-off bins at stores like Staples, Office Depot and Best Buy (so you can buy a new cell phone and immediately dump the old one). This site has links to several stores that collect phones. (Another point not noted in the article: make sure you delete your old address book and any other personal information before discarding the phone.)
  • Computers. Our local Department of Public Works collects computers and other electronic equipment for recycling. Yours may do the same, in which case taking it to them is probably easier than sending it back to the manufacturer. Of course, donating a still-working computer to someone who can use it is a still better option, and I've found that even pretty old machines will find takers on Freecycle. (Once again, clear out the hard drive of all your personal info first.)
  • Crayons! Did you know you can recycle crayons? I'd heard of a way to melt down a bunch of different broken bits in a muffin tin to make a "scribble cookie," but collecting a bunch of same-colored crayons and processing them into new crayons is an even better idea. 
  • Envelopes. I was very pleased to learn that it is not, as I thought, necessary to rip the plastic windows out of junk-mail envelopes before tossing them in the bin. According to the article, "The filters will sieve out the plastic, and they’ll even take out the glue strip on the envelope flaps." That's about five minutes out of every day I can now put to more productive use. However, I was disgruntled to read that yellow mailing envelopes are not, as I thought, recyclable, because the dye won't come out. I guess I can now justify my tendency to reuse these whenever possible by pasting a new label over the old address as part of my efforts to save the earth, rather than just being a cheapskate.
  • Eyeglasses. This is another item the Lions Club collects for reuse. You can find info about it on their website, but I found the search function didn't work very well: a search on the name of my town, and another on my county, turned up nothing, yet I know there are two drop boxes within walking distance of my house.
  • Gift cards. (These are listed under "fake plastic credit cards," the kind credit-card issuers are always mailing you to try and lure you into signing up.) The article says there's no way to recycle these, but there is a company called EarthWorks that says it will take them. However, they insist that you sign up for their mailing list first, so I haven't tried it yet. I'll probably take the plunge when I finally conclude that I'm never going to reuse the small but growing stack of cards gathering dust in my office.
  • Mattresses. The article says that can provide recycling options for these as well. If we'd known that, our old mattress might not have ended up at the curb last year. (Then again, it might have, since I don't think we could have hauled it ourselves and we probably wouldn't have been willing to pay a fee to College Hunks Hauling Junk, funny as that would have been.)
  • Paint. The article mentions paint recycling programs (again, you can search to find them), but unopened cans can also be donated to a Habitat Restore if you can't return them.
  • Printer cartridges. The article says you can return them to Staples for refilling, but a much more ecofrugal option is to refill them yourself. When we bought our old HP Deskjet, we bought a large bottle of black refill ink and a colored refill kit. Both items paid for themselves with the first refill, and the black ink actually lasted longer than the printer did. (Note that after refilling, you may have to trick your printer into treating the refilled cartridge as a new one. This site explains how to do it for HP printers, and it sells a little device that can be used to reset Epson printers.)
  • Sneakers. The article mentions Nike's Reuse-a-Shoe program, but for us, a much easier option is the textile recycling bins run by Repurpose New Jersey. The one that was actually within walking distance of our house seems to be gone now, but there are still several in striking distance. I found these by Googling "textile recycling New Jersey"; a similar search might turn up something good for you.
  • Utensils, plastic. The site says that they aren't recyclable, but it doesn't mention that you can, duh, wash them and reuse them. (Side note: don't waste your money on the kind that are made from allegedly biodegradable plant-based plastic. According to the blog My Plastic-Free Life, these things won't really break down even in a commercial composting facility, let alone in your little backyard bin.)
  • Videotapes. Yes, there are ways to get rid of these—but you have to pay for shipping yourself. Considering their bulk, it probably isn't worth it. If you've hung on to your old VCR, you can continue to watch them; if not, you can give them to someone else who has. And if he doesn't want them, oh, just throw the darn things out.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Veggie of the month, part 2

Well, we tried the garlic scape pesto last night. It wasn't too hard to make, though Brian had to fiddle with the proportions a bit to get it to blend in our Magic Bullet. (Note: no, we didn't fall prey to an infomercial. We got it through Freecycle, thank you very much.) Since we were experimenting, he also decided to try making the polenta in our pressure cooker. Making it on the stovetop is a time-consuming process that involves standing and stirring for about half an hour while the mixture thickens, and the guide that came with the pressure cooker indicated that it could be done in about five minutes. Unfortunately, the result wasn't very polenta-like: it didn't cook down nearly enough and came out mushy and very sticky. It was still edible, just more like hot cereal than polenta.

So, I took my bowl of slightly soupy polenta, and since I'd never tried the garlic scape pesto before, I applied just a little spoonful it to start with. Took a bite, and wowowow GARLIC!

This stuff is seriously powerful. I ended up adding more cornmeal mush to my bowl to dilute the little spoonful that I had to start with. Mind you, I'm not saying it wasn't good; I actually quite liked it, but a little goes a really long way. The cup or so of pesto that we made could probably dress a couple of pounds of pasta.

So at this point, there's basically no chance that we're going to finish off this batch of pesto with the little bit of polenta that we have left. Most likely, we'll just put it in the freezer and bring it out as needed. The site where we found it says that it has lots of uses; I could see adding a bit of it (a very little bit) to a vinaigrette dressing, or stirring some into a soup, or topping a pizza with it. I'm sure we'll think of plenty of ways to use it—just not all at once.

This morning when we woke up, we both remarked that the taste of garlic was still very much with us. I don't think we'll have to worry about vampires any time soon.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Veggie of the Month: garlic stems

Last weekend we made a trip to the H-Mart, a big Korean supermarket that offers the widest variety of produce around, and usually at the best prices as well. As we cruised the aisles picking up such staples as scallions and free-range eggs (it generally has the best prices on those as well), I kept my eyes peeled for interesting fruits and veggies to fill the position of Veggie (or Fruit) of the Month for February. So when I spotted bunches of what looked like particularly long, skinny scallions piled on a metal shelf, bearing the label "garlic stems," a little homing signal in my head went, "ding!"

Since we'd never tried these before, I had to do a little research to figure out just what they were and how to use them. Suprisingly, neither Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian nor The Garlic Cookbook had anything to say about them, so I had to consult the Great Oracle, otherwise known as the Internet. I thought when I bought them that these might be the same thing as wild garlic, also known as ramps or wild leeks, which I'd read about before as a highly-sought-after springtime delicacy. But a quick search showed that these were actually the same vegetable I'd encountered before at the farmer's market under the name "garlic scapes." I didn't recognize them because the locally grown ones were all twisted up in corkscrew curls, while these were tied in a nice straight bundle. (Also, the ones at the H-Mart were about $2 a bunch, while the ones at the farmers' market cost $6 a bunch—enough to make me decide against trying them back in the summertime. Sadly, local and seasonal produce isn't always cheaper.)

A blog called Madame Huang's Kitchen explained the fine points of how to prepare the garlic stems, which turns out to be a more precise procedure than I would have expected. She recommends cutting only one stem at a time, rathe than trying to do a whole bunch as you might with scallions. First, you trim off the blossom (at left in the picture above) and discard it. Then, beginning from the blossom end, you start snipping off short pieces of the stem, about an inch long, until you reach the point when it starts to become more difficult to cut through them. Everything below that point, according to Madame Huang, is tough and should be discarded (although she notes that "uniformly tough" stems may be usable if finely diced). Brian found this instruction a bit hard to follow exactly, as it seemed to him that the garlic stem was actually toughest at the top—the blossom end—and got more tender as he went down its length. So he ended up using the whole thing.

As for how to use them, we decided to play it simple for our first time and throw them into a stir-fry. They worked just fine in that context, but they didn't stand out; in fact, they blended in so completely that it was hard to tell they were there at all. The flavor of garlic was present, but it didn't taste noticeably different from the ordinary bulb garlic that we usually add to our stir-fries. (Far more noticeable, in terms of texture, was another new product we decided to pick up on that same trip to the H-Mart: Sea Tangle Kelp Noodles. I'd heard about these from my brother-in-law, who says his wife has been using a lot of these as part of her low-carb, gluten-free diet. I looked them up online and found that they are not merely low-carb and gluten-free but almost calorie-free: only 6 calories per 4-ounce serving. They sounded fascinating, so I decided to give them a try if I could find any. It actually took us two trips to the H-Mart to track them down: the first time we looked on the shelf with the other noodles and didn't see them, but the second time we found them in the refrigerated section with other seaweed products. They turn out to have practically no flavor but a very interesting texture, sort of crunchy and elastic at the same time. They definitely make an interesting addition to a stir-fry, but I wouldn't consider them at all appropriate as a substitute for traditional noodles. I actually considered making these my Veggie of the Month, but I decided that they didn't really count since we weren't eating the kelp in its natural state.)

So, since our first use of the garlic stems was a bit of an anticlimax, and since we still have about a dozen of them left, I'm currently on the lookout for other recipes that use this veggies in a more distinctive way. I've found an article at the Huffington Post that includes a slideshow of recipes in which garlic scapes play a starring role, such as pickled garlic scapes, white bean and garlic scape dip, and pasta with garlic scapes, fresh mozzarella and basil. (Hard to see how you could go wrong with that combination.) But I think maybe with what we've got, our best bet is the garlic scape pesto, described in the article as the most popular use for garlic stems because it's both easy and delicious. So we will probably be trying that later in the week, perhaps over some polenta. Watch this space for updates.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Gardeners' holidays

As those who follow the big weather stories will already know, Punxsutawney Phil, the world's most famous marmot, has declared that he did not see his shadow this morning and that we can therefore expect an early spring. The meteorologists at the Weather Channel, however, beg to differ, predicting snow for tonight and into tomorrow afternoon, with more to come later in the week. Given that Phil predicted a long winter last year and we actually got a balmy February and March, I'm more inclined to listen to the human prognosticators.

The real question, though, is why I, or anyone else, pays any attention at all to the behavior of a woodchuck in some little town in Pennsylvania. Why, in an age when we have weather apps right on our phones, do we continue to engage in this bizarre theriomantic ritual? I think it's because, as I've observed before on this blog, we humans have an innate tendency to observe and mark the changing of the seasons. After all, such a trait would probably have helped our earliest ancestors survive: those who paid attention to the changes in the earth and sky would know when to start gathering extra food for winter, when new growth would appear in spring, and later, when it was time to start planting and harvesting. As a result, traditional holidays in many different religions and cultures are tied to the cycle of the year. Groundhog Day is actually the secular descendant of one such holiday, known variously as Imbolc, Oimelc, Candlemas, or St. Brigid's Day. It's one of a series of eight evenly spaced holidays in the pagan calendar that mark off the spokes on the "wheel of the year," celebrated at the quarter days (solstices and equinoxes) and cross-quarter days (the midpoints in between). Other holidays in this series are better known, such as Yule, the winter solstice celebration (which has good-naturedly lent so many of its traditions to Christmas), and Beltane, or May Day.

I like these holidays because they appeal to my admittedly somewhat airy-fairy ideas of living in harmony with nature, and also because their even spacing throughout the calendar means that you never have to go longer than about six weeks without a celebration of some kind. The problem with them, though, is that they originated in Britain, and so the seasonal cycle on which they're based isn't quite the same as ours. Britain is quite a bit farther north than we are, and so changes in the level of light throughout the year are far more noticeable. Changes in temperature, by contrast, are much less extreme thanks to the tempering effects of the North Atlantic Current. All of this makes Britain's climate and cycle of growth very different from ours, and so the traditions surrounding these British holidays don't always make sense on our side of the pond. Harvest festivals, like Lammas, are easy enough to grasp, and Yule is easy to understand as a transition from darkness to light as the daylight hours start growing longer. But today's holiday, Imbolc, is generally described as having something to do with lactation in ewes, and I must confess, I've always had trouble trying to relate that to anything in my life.

So I've decided to establish my own set of traditions for celebrating the quarter and cross-quarter days, one that won't be tied to any particular religious tradition. My new festivals may borrow from the older British holidays, but they'll be based on the climate in this area, and in particular, on what's growing in my garden at each point during the year. I'm thinking of them as gardeners' holidays: celebrations of the cycle of planting, tending, and harvesting, and the changes in the weather that go along with it. I'll announce each holiday as it rolls around, and you're welcome to adopt them yourself—or adapt them to suit the climate and growing season in your own area.

Thus, by the power vested in me by...well, just innately vested in me, I declare today to be the Festival of Seeds. It marks the very beginning of the gardening season, the point at which mail-order seeds are arriving, garden beds being plotted out, and possibly even a few slow-to-germinate seeds being started early for spring transplanting. It's a time of limitless potential, a time when this year's garden exists only in our imagination and can be as lush and plentiful and weed-free as we dream it to be. As the year progresses, of course, real life will intrude; rain or late frosts will interfere with scheduled planing dates; the pressure of work and family obligations will interfere with gardening chores; the solutions we planned to last year's pest and disease problems may not work, and new problems may crop up for which we haven't even begun to think of solutions. But all that is far in the future; right now, there is nothing to do but dream and plan.

So to celebrate the Festival of Seeds, I'm sharing with you all my garden plan for 2013. This is the layout that I'm envisioning for our 96 square feet of raised garden beds (not counting the asparagus and rhubarb, which have their own permanent plots). Right now, this garden exists only in my mind—but I've already begun the first steps toward bringing it into the real world. My veggie varieties have all been chosen, and my seed order has arrived (all except for the parsley, which was already sold out by the time I placed my order in early January and had to be bought from the supermarket). And already, my very first seeds—the parsley—are nestled all snug in their seed-starting trays. As more seeds are started and germinate or fail to germinate, and transplants survive or fail to survive, and new plants get brought in from outside sources, my garden beds may not end up looking much like the tidy little diagram below. But for now, there's nothing to say that they won't, either.

So, a toast: to possibilities. To the possibility of healthy plants and bountiful harvests. To salads, salsa, and stews yet to be eaten. To the first lettuce leaf of spring, the first tomato of summer. To all that the 2013 gardening season has in store for us. L'chaim!