Sunday, November 24, 2013


Thanksgiving may be late this year, but winter isn't waiting patiently to arrive. Right now, at around noon, it's 29 degrees outside, with a 30-mile-per-hour wind on top of that. From my perspective this means two things: 1) from this point forward, I'm not going to be annoyed with stores that have their Christmas decorations up already, and 2) I can pretty much declare the gardening season over at this point. Which means that this is a good time to do something I've been planning all year: tallying up the total of all our garden produce for the year and seeing how much money this hobby has actually saved us.

I've been doing my best to keep track, throughout the year, of how much we actually harvested of each crop that we grew. Granted, that wasn't always easy with items like cherry tomatoes, which tend to be priced by the pound: if you're going out and picking Sun Golds by the handful every day, it's a bit of a nuisance to have to weigh each day's pickings on the kitchen scale as soon as you get them inside (especially if there are too many of them to fit in the little measuring cup that came with, the scale, so you'd have to do them in multiple batches). So in many cases, I ended up just eyeballing the day's pickings and making an educated guess. Also, it was often Brian who did the picking, and he didn't always notify me immediately about what he'd just brought in, so I sometimes ended up having to make an educated guess about how much had been harvested over the course of the week. So the numbers below are really just rough estimates, but as the Brits say, they'll do to be going on with.

Once I'd counted up the harvest for each crop in pounds, I had to estimate the regular cost per pound of each crop in the store. For some of them, I just checked the price at the Whole Earth Center, where all the produce is organic and much of it is locally grown; since all our garden produce is organic and as local as you can get, I figured this was a fair approximation of its market value. In some cases, however, I forgot to check on the price of a particular crop while it was in season, so for those I used this price list for produce from a food co-op in Brooklyn. That's reasonably close to us—within 50 miles, anyway—so I figured their prices should a reasonable approximation of what we'd pay in our area.

There was one crop in our garden this year that I wasn't quite sure how to count: the marigolds that we bought at the Rutgers plant sale and tucked in amongst our tomatoes. We did pick a lot of the flowers, so in theory, I could have reckoned up the cost of an equivalent volume of store-bought blooms and added that to the total. In reality, though, we never buy flowers at the store (we just pick whatever's blooming in the garden, even if it's technically a weed), so I decided that counting the store value of the marigolds would be cheating. I'm not saying the money we spent on them was wasted—they did provide a lot of nice flowers for the table, even if it's not clear that they actually did anything to repel pests on the tomato plants—but it can't be counted as a savings on our grocery bill.

So, based solely on the crops we planted and ate this year, our output was:
  • Arugula, 3 bunches (not nearly as good as last year) at $2.99 per bunch: $8.97
  • Basil, 20 bunches (I think this is actually a conservative estimate) at $1.78 per bunch: $35.60
  • Celery, 2 bunches (not a very successful experiment) at $1 a bunch: $2.00
  • Cucumbers, about 4 pounds (2 small, 2 medium, and 6 large) at $2.49 a pound: $9.96
  • Dill, 4 bunches at $2.17 a bunch: $8.68
  • Eggplant, about 10 ounces (four pathetically tiny eggplants) at $2.27 a pound: $1.42
  • Green beans, about 4 ounces (truly pitiful for 3 squares of garden space) at $2.38 a pound: $.60
  • Leeks, about 1 pound (3 small leeks, including one still out there now) at $2.18 a pound: $2.18
  • Lettuce, Boston, 9 small heads at $1.29 a head: $11.61
  • Lettuce, leaf, 6 bunches at $1.29 a bunch: $7.74
  • Parsley, 3 bunches at $1.28 a bunch: $3.84
  • Bell peppers (ripe, various colors), about 1 pound (6 smallish peppers): $5.43
  • Scallions, about 3 bunches (very rough estimate, since we tended to harvest them one or two at a time) at 87 cents a bunch: $2.61
  • Snow peas, about 2 pounds at $5.99 a pound: $11.98
  • Spinach, about 6 ounces (basically just a few stray leaves from our fall planting) at $2.17 a pound: $.81
  • Squash, butternut: 18 pounds at $1.29 a pound: $23.22
  • Tomatoes, cherry: 20 pints at $2.83 a pint: $56.60
  • Tomatoes, heirloom (a couple of Boxcar Willies and 1 large Brandywine), about 1/2 pound at $3.16 per pound: $1.58
  • Tomatoes, other (Moreton and Ramopo), about 2 pounds at $2.99 a pound: $5.98
  • Zucchini, about 14 pounds (6 medium squash, 7 large, and 3 HUGE) at $2.37 a pound: $33.18
TOTAL VALUE of all garden crops: $233.99
TOTAL SPENT on seeds, plants, and compost: $42.95
PROFIT from our gardening venture: $191.04

Looked at in the light of an investment, that's an amazing annual return. We put in $42.95 starting with our seed order back in January, and by the end of November—less than 10 months later—we had more than quintupled our money. I punched the numbers into this little online calculator I found, and it claims that our annualized return on this investment was 617.5 percent. Just for comparison, the "Investing for Beginners" site reports that stocks usually earn about a 10 percent rate of return (before inflation), and bonds get maybe half of that. An ROI of over 600 percent isn't just good; it's literally incredible, in the sense that if someone promises you that kind of return, you shouldn't believe him.

Realistically, though, these figures are misleading, because the money we spent on seeds and compost isn't all we put into this garden. We also invested hours of labor into planting, watering, weeding, pest control, and picking—and the value of that time is much harder to calculate. Although I kept at least an approximate record of everything we put into and got out of the garden, I kept no records at all of how much time we spent cultivating it, so any estimate of the amount of time we put into the garden this year would be more or less a wild guess. But, for the sake of argument, let's go ahead and make a wild guess: let's say that, from April through November, we spent an average of an hour a week on gardening tasks. (That's just for the vegetable garden itself; add in the amount of time we spent on yard work altogether, and it's probably at least twice as much.) That's about 34 weeks, or 34 hours of labor. So if we look at this garden as a job, rather than an investment, then we earned a salary of $191.04 for 34 hours of work, or about $5.62 an hour—much less than minimum wage.

However, that figure doesn't really tell the whole story either. After all, we don't garden simply as a way to save money on our grocery bill; we also do it for the healthy outdoor exercise, and for the flavor of veggies that were picked literally minutes before they landed on our plates, and for the satisfaction of seeing something that we've planted and tended literally bear fruit. All of these factors are virtually impossible to put a price on. So frankly, calculating the value of our garden crops doesn't tell me whether gardening is a worthwhile activity, because we already knew that, for us, it is; we wouldn't do it otherwise. (Even if the savings on groceries are fairly impressive, if that were the only consideration, it would probably be easier to find some way to work a few more hours each year and spend the proceeds on food.)

So, in the grand scheme of things, calculating the dollar value of our garden crops doesn't actually tell us much about the value we get from gardening. However, it's much more useful for seeing, not the big picture, but the fine details—that is, figuring out which particular crops give us the best return on the money and time we invest in them. And based on the numbers above, I think it's reasonable to say that we get great value from our basil, zucchini, and butternut squash—all of which not only gave us huge yields, but also required very little work to grow. (Okay, we did need to invest a bit of effort into protecting our zucchini from squash vine borers and processing all the basil that we harvested, but in general, these crops gave us a pretty massive bang for our buck.) Our eggplant, by contrast, gave us pathetic yields even after all the effort Brian put into protecting it from squirrels. Our peppers barely broke even, since we had to purchase plants after the seedlings we started failed to germinate, and then those plants, despite their head start, barely produced anything. And our Sun Gold tomatoes, though they certainly gave us a huge dollar value for the amount we spent on the seeds, were so much work to maintain that I don't think we can possibly afford to devote this much space to them next year.

So on the whole, I think my calculations give us some useful information that we can apply when planning next year's garden. For example:
  • DO plant lots of butternut squash—maybe even more than three plants, since you can't really have too many of a squash that will keep all winter long.
  • DO continue to plant two, but only two, zucchini plants (fewer and you risk having your only plant succumb to squash borers; more and you risk having more zucchini than any sane person could eat).
  • DO continue to use the "carpet bomb" method for sowing basil, which provides massive yields with very little effort. (No room for weeds in a patch completely full of basil!) DO try using the same technique with leeks and scallions, and possibly even lettuce, in hopes of boosting our yields next year.
  • DO get the snow peas into the ground earlier, so they'll have as long a growing season as possible.
  • DON'T bother growing eggplant next year.
  • DON'T attempt again to grow the varieties of peppers, green beans, or celery that we planted this year. Look for others that offer better yields.
  • DON'T, under any circumstances, plant more than two Sun Gold tomato plants—and keep those plants isolated at the end of a row, so they can't take over the whole bed. That way we might actually manage to get some tomatoes off our other plants.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Last year, when Brian and I splurged on a consultation with a professional landscaper, one of the questions I asked her was what would be a good choice to replace the vastly oversized foundation shrubs along the front of our house. She suggested that this would be a good place for a "pollinator garden," made up of flowering native plants that would attract beneficial insects. This sounded good to me, but I wasn't crazy about the specific plants that she suggested, which included Joe-Pye Weed, New York ironweed, goldenrod, New England Aster, boneset, mountain mint, bee balm and catmint. I looked them up and found that not only do some of them grow up to five feet tall, which would be even taller than the existing shrubs, but all of them go dormant in the winter. That is, instead of simply dying back, they dry out and sit there all winter long looking brown and shriveled. Some people apparently like this, as many sites recommend these plants for "winter interest," but to me, based on the pictures I've found online, they just look depressing.

However, while doing a little poking around online in search of possible lawn alternatives for the rest of the front yard, I happened upon the American Meadows site, which offers a variety of wildflower seed mixes specially selected to perform well in different regions of the country. Their Northeast mix  will supposedly grow in agricultural zones 2 through 7, in full or partial sun, and in any type of soil, including clay. They've been carefully chosen to provide blossoms throughout the growing season, from spring until frost, so we'd never be short of fresh flowers for the table. (The FAQ specifically notes that wildflowers are great for cutting, as they're "so prolific, the ones cut will never be missed." In fact, cutting actually extends the bloom time for annuals.) The blend includes a combination of annuals and perennials, so the annuals will bloom the first year and the perennials will take over in succeeding years. Plants range in size from 9 inches to 4 feet tall, which would put the tallest flowers right about at the bottom edge of the window, filling in the entire area below with be a mass of flowers of different heights. And they shouldn't require any special care beyond watering during dry spells.

So all in all, planting the entire area with this wildflower seed mix seemed like a much better bet than trying to handpick my own plants for the area. Before we could do that, however, we had to get rid of the two huge evergreen shrubs that were there already. (The big forsythia at the far left in the picture above had already come out earlier in the year.) Knowing that pulling these out was likely to be a fairly big undertaking, I thought it would be best to tackle it this fall, so that next year, we could get the seeds straight into the ground as soon as it was warm enough. So this weekend, with the clock ticking rapidly down to winter, we finally got on it. Where those two big shrubs once stood, there's now nothing but a clear, open space...

...and a huge mass of English ivy, which I foolishly allowed to grow unchecked because I liked the way it looked climbing over the railing. Once the shrubs were gone, it became apparent that the ivy had actually taken over pretty much the whole area that used to be underneath them.

This, presumably, will have to come out also before the wildflowers can go in, since ivy is a fairly aggressive plant that doesn't play well with others. (In Oregon, homeowners are warned about "ivy islands," areas in which ivy has smothered all the other vegetation.) Fortunately, the sources I've consulted indicate that ivy has fairly shallow roots, so it shouldn't be too difficult to pull it out and clear the bed for planting. We can probably safely leave it there to add a little touch of green through the winter and pull it out right before we plant in the spring. (However, I'll have to be vigilant about keeping an eye on it and pulling out any stray shoots that pop up next year, or it could quickly take over the bed again.)

One of the most fascinating things about pulling out these two monster shrubs was that they actually seemed to increase in volume when we cut them down. Just those two shrubs produced everything you see here in this pile by the curb, plus a big trash bucket full of boughs that we set aside, on the principle of "waste not, want not," for our holiday decorations. I had already decided I'd like to do a bit more this year than just our usual single strand of white lights and evergreen trimmings around the front door, and I think this greenery with the white berries still attached will make a fetching base for some indoor arrangements.

So now we just have to order the wildflower seed and then wait until spring to plant it. A quarter pound of seed, which is the smallest amount available, will cost about ten dollars and should enough to cover this little patch ten times over. (I'm actually toying with the idea of doing a little guerrilla gardening with the leftovers in a vacant lot up the street from us, which has been sitting empty for years and would look a lot nicer as a wildflower meadow than just a mass of poorly trimmed grass.) And in the meantime, we'll actually get to enjoy the full use of our living room window throughout the winter—something we haven't had since we first moved into this house. Even now, on a November afternoon, it's amazing how much more light there is in the room than there was before.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Winter warmer-upper upgrade

A couple of years back, I posted about my alternative to the Snuggie and other sleeved blankets: a pair of $2 fleece throws from Walgreens. At the time, I was quite pleased with this frugal design, but with each succeeding winter, I grew a little less satisfied with it. Compared to the sleeved blankets I was trying to emulate, my double-blanket design was a lot harder to wear. The first problem was that the fleece "cape" didn't stay put very well while I was sitting at my computer and typing. This was fairly easy to fix: I just cut a slit in the center of the blanket that I could put my head through, so I could wear it like a poncho, as shown.

This modified design was reasonably comfy when I was settled in at my computer, but I couldn't easily get up and walk around with it on. The bottom layer (the green fleece that you can just see the bottom of in the picture) was just wrapped around my body like a bath towel, and it didn't stay put very well. After a while, I found it was too much of a nuisance, so I started wearing just the poncho—but that covered only my torso, leaving my legs as chilly as ever. Also, as you can see, it didn't really cover my arms fully.

So this year, as the cold weather settled in, I found myself shivering and grumbling at my desk once again. Brian, growing tired of my complaining, proposed getting me one of those sleeved blankets after all, but I still couldn't convince myself that it was worth the 30 bucks for a Slanket (the Snuggie is cheaper, but according to reviews, it would be overpriced at free).What I really needed, I thought, was an upgrade to my current design: a blanket that could be worn poncho-style, but would cover my entire body. This design, I suspected, would actually work better than the blankets with sleeves, because my arms could be tucked in under the body of the blanket, with all that trapped body heat, rather than isolated in the sleeves. But would it also be cheaper?

To find out, we popped into a Bed Bath & Beyond, where we found a simple fleece blanket for only $20 in a twin size. Since BB&B sends a steady stream of store coupons into my mailbox, I was able to take an additional $5 off, making the total only $16 with tax. Once I got it home, I simply folded it into quarters, cut a slit in the exact center, and voilà: a loose-fitting robe suitable for either a wizard or a Biblical prophet. It comes down nearly to my toes, and the sides cover my arms right down to my fingertips (or would, if I didn't have to push them back a bit to type). And when I sat down with it on, I felt noticeably warmer almost immediately.

The only part of me that's still cold, unfortunately, is my hands. I have no idea where it could be coming from, but I swear it feels like there's a cold draft in this room blowing right across my keyboard. Maybe the next modification to the design should be figuring out some way to cover my hands while still allowing me to type. (Actually, right now I'm touch-typing underneath a sort of tent formed by draping one of the old, smaller fleece throws over top of the keyboard, and it doesn't seem to be working too badly. But it's probably not practical for the long term.)

Looking for "the catch"

Each week, my Tip Hero newsletter names a recommended Website of the Week. Most of them aren't particularly useful for me; some are sites I already knew about, some are offer deals on products or services I don't use very often (like travel), and some are apps for a smartphone, which I don't have. However, last week's Website of the Week was a site called PriceBlink, which actually looked mind-bogglingly useful. According to the article, when you download the free PriceBlink add-on to your browser, it stays hidden most of the time; however, whenever you view a product at an online shopping site, it will search its database of other merchant sites for the same product and let you know if any of them can sell it to you cheaper. It can also automatically find and display coupons for any store you're viewing. You can even set up a Wish List of products you're planning to buy, and the site will e-mail you when it finds something at the price you want.

Sounds great, right? Sounds like something no frugal shopper could afford to be without, in fact. Which is why my immediate reaction was not to download it immediately, but instead to ask myself, "What's the catch?"

See, I doubt that the people who developed the add-on and run the site (checking all those coupon codes to keep them up to date) are doing it purely for the fun of it. So if they aren't charging anything for the service, how are they making their money? I went to the PriceBlink site and read through the "About Us" and "FAQ" sections, and neither one answered this question. This made me even more suspicious, since I thought that if they weren't saying how the site makes money, it was likely to be by doing something they don't want you to know about—like tracking the web browsing history and purchases of everyone who uses the add-on, and then selling that information to data miners. (That doesn't actually bother me if they're just tracking the aggregate behavior of all their users—that is, keeping track of how many people use various sites and purchase various products—but if they are tracking my individual behavior in a way that can be traced back to me, that's crossing the line.) But no, I checked the site's terms of use and privacy policy, and it said very clearly that the site does not gather any personally identifying information except what you choose to provide; you don't need to submit any to get the add-on to work. In fact, Lifehacker specifically promotes PriceBlink as a price-comparison engine that's "privacy conscious."

Further down, the privacy policy discusses its use of "passive data," and here I got my first hint as to how PriceBlink might be making its money; the site admitted that it allows third-party cookies to gather "information about your visits to PriceBlink and other web sites" in order to show you targeted ads. However, pretty much every site seems to do that nowadays without even telling you about it; whenever I do a report for work on, say, refrigerators, I see nothing but ads for refrigerators for the next week or so. Moreover, the privacy policy stressed that "We do not provide these third parties with any personally identifying information," so while I may see targeted ads on my computer, they won't seek me out and find me when I'm on someone else's computer—and I can always get rid of them by clearing my cookies.

I wasn't sure this was the whole story, though, so I did a Google search on "How does PriceBlink make money?" That turned out to be a dead end, though; all I got was a bunch of articles touting PriceBlink as a way to save money. So I tried asking explicitly, "What's the catch with PriceBlink?", but the only other site I could find that seemed to have asked this question was a blog called Cafe Mom, and the blogger there said that she hadn't been able to find one. However, that search did turn up a news story from last year that listed the top fifteen most-searched-for items on Cyber Monday 2012, based on data from PriceBlink. This led me to conclude that my guess was right—PriceBlink is making money from selling data. However, based on the article and the privacy policy, it sounds like they're doing so only in the aggregate, and that, as I said, I can live with.

So at this point, I figured I had nothing to lose by clicking on the "add to Chrome" button. I did twitch a little when the browser popped up a message saying that this app could "Access your data on all websites" and "Access your tabs and browsing activity," but since I'd already looked into what the site did with that data, I felt confident enough to click "Add." I spent a few minutes playing with the little toolbar, seeing how it could show me price comparisons, coupons, and even product reviews. I don't know yet how much I'll use it, but having done my homework, I know it's not doing any harm by being there.

And that, I think, is the takeaway from this story: when you're offered a great deal on anything, it always makes sense to look for the catch. In some cases, like this one, there may not be one, or it may be one that you're perfectly happy to live with. But it might not be, so it pays to ask the question before clicking "Yes." And this is doubly true with anything that's free, because you know they wouldn't be offering it to you unless they expected to make money on it somehow. Maybe the book club is offering you five books for free because in order to get them, you have to buy ten books at ridiculously inflated prices, and so all fifteen books will end up costing more than they would on Or maybe that Craigslister is giving away the old couch because it's infested with mold or bedbugs, and the listing neglected to mention the fact. Needless to say, I don't think that there must always be a catch with anything that's free; I wouldn't be such an avid Freecycler if I did. But I do think that if there is a catch, you'll never find it if you don't look.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Squash salvage

Last night Brian decided it was time to harvest what was left of our squash, tomatoes, and peppers (well, really pepper, singular) before the frost got them. This picture doesn't show all the Sun Golds he picked (they went into the oven straightaway for another round of oven-dried tomatoes), but it's still a pretty good haul. We got five more full-sized butternut squash in addition to the five we've harvested already, plus one green pepper and more than 20 heirloom tomatoes—only one of them even slightly red, but the others can be ripened up nicely in a newspaper-lined box.
However, as you can just make out in the picture, in our haste to bring in all the squash, we broke off the stems. This is bad, because multiple sources—from nurseries to state extension offices to Organic Gardening magazine—say that squash won't keep well if the stem is removed. Breaking off the stem, sources indicate, exposes the flesh of the squash to microorganisms that cause it to rot. So when I noticed that all five of our squash had been damaged in this way, I feared that we were going to have to eat them all up in a hurry, or else figure out some way to make room for a lot of squash puree in our freezer.

Fortunately, Brian reassured me that he's picked squash this way in the past, and they still keep for several weeks at least. Maybe not all winter, but then, given how many things we like to make with butternut squash, it's unlikely they'd last that long anyway. However, he also mentioned that if I was concerned about them, it might be possible to patch the damaged ends somehow. A quick search turned up a comment on the Farmer's Almanac website saying that if the stem breaks off a pumpkin, you can disinfect the "wound" with a bleach solution and then seal it up with a dab of petroleum jelly. I didn't have these things handy, however, so instead I selected a couple of the smaller squash (the two that looked most severely damaged), wiped them down with hydrogen peroxide, and then sealed up the wound with melted wax. I had some leftover Hanukkah candles from last year, and I knew from experience that they drip like crazy, so I just lit one and held it over the damaged part of the squash, moving it from spot to spot until the entire breach in the flesh was covered. Since I used an orange candle, it doesn't even stand out that much.

We'll store the two wax-patched squash along with the three others and see whether they seem to keep any better than the ones that haven't been patched. If so, then we've learned a potentially useful trick for salvaging any squash that get damaged from future crops; if not, then as Thomas Edison said, we've discovered a way that doesn't work. But either way, we've learned to cut the stems in future, rather than pulling the squash right off the vine.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Your Mileage May Vary

Last week's Tip Hero newsletter contained this story on ways to "save big" on home heating costs. The title annoyed me right off the bat, because as I've observed before, the "big" savings articles like this promise are usually pretty trivial if you're not wasting money to start with. Sure enough, the first two tips in this article were simply stating the obvious: wear warm clothes and use warm bedding, rather than keeping the thermostat set at 80 all day and walking around in your shirt sleeves. The third tip, however, annoyed me for a completely different reason. It, too, was a fairly standard piece of advice that shows up in most articles of this type: use your ceiling fan to help distribute warm air so you can keep the thermostat lower. This tip shows up on all manner of energy-saving sites, from EnergyStar to the Daily Green, so I'd already seen it many times. My problem with it, however, wasn't that I'd heard it before; it was that I'd tried it before and it didn't work. The ceiling fan in our kitchen has one of those little switches to reverse the direction, so I set the ran to blow upward and turned it on at low speed, just as Michael Bluejay (a.k.a. "Mister Electricity," whom I normally consider a highly reliable source) recommends. Yet lo and behold, when I sat under it, I could still feel a draft, which naturally had the effect of making me feel colder rather than warmer.

I was frustrated to see this piece of advice trotted out yet again when, for me, it had been not only unhelpful but actually counterproductive. It was cited on so many trustworthy sites that I knew it couldn't be complete hooey, but I suspected that maybe it would only work well in certain circumstances—homes with high ceilings, for instance, where there's a significant difference in temperature between floor and ceiling. So I started searching around to see if there were any sites that dug deeper into how and when this tip is actually supposed to work, and I quickly discovered that there is almost no actual data on the subject. The sites that recommend it simply state as a fact that it works; they don't cite any studies to show that it works, or how well it works under different circumstances. Googling phrases like "studies fan use ceiling height" turned up nothing, and "winter fan use 8-foot ceiling" yielded only a couple of sites that say winter fan use may not be effective with low ceilings. An article from This Old House noted that "some authorities argue the benefits can't be felt in rooms with standard 8-foot ceilings," and one from Clark Public Utilities cites an "energy counselor" who says, "If you use a fan on an 8-foot-ceiling in the winter, even with the direction switched, it will merely create a cooling draft." A site called Use Electricity Wisely even declared outright that it's a "myth" that fans on a standard-height ceiling can help with heating, pointing out that "If you have a forced-air furnace and a well-insulated house with eight-foot ceilings, there will be little difference in air temperature from the floor to the ceiling." However, these sites, like the ones that support fan use, didn't provide any actual data to back up their claims—so it was simply a case of he said, she said.

Frustrated by the lack of useful information, I decided to send my story directly to Michael Bluejay, my usual go-to guy on any question related to energy use, in the hope that maybe it would prove instructive to others. I wrote:
I strongly suspect that this much-touted piece of advice is really useful only in homes with high ceilings, where there is a significant difference in temperature between floor and ceiling...I have searched for studies on the effects of winter fan use in rooms with different ceiling heights, but sadly, none of the sites that recommend the use of fans for heat distribution appear to have any actual data to back up the recommendation. Even the MythBusters have never addressed the issue of ceiling fan use, except to demonstrate that you can't be decapitated by one.
So at this time, I can offer only a single data point (mine) to counter the theory that ceiling fans are useful in wintertime with a standard-height ceiling. However, I would consider it only fair to point out that I have yet to see even a single data point showing that ceiling fans actually *are* useful under these conditions.
He sent me this response:
It’s worked for me, in multiple residences, none of which had tall ceilings.  The fact that hot air rises isn’t in dispute, nor is the fact that aiming a fan at the ceiling mixes the air in the room.  It’s entirely plausible that your particular fan in your particular room is making you cooler in your particular location.  If so, then yes, this particular energy-saving tip won’t work for you.
At first blush, this response sounds dismissive: "Well, okay, maybe it doesn't work for you, but it still works in general." But upon thinking it over, I realized that Mr. Electricity's response was actually making a very important point: what works for most people may not work for you. When evaluating energy use, there are a lot of variables to consider. Even something as simple as a ceiling fan can vary in its effects depending on the height of the ceiling, the speed of the fan, the shape of the blades, the temperature in the room, and maybe a whole bunch of other factors that we aren't even aware of. So the only way to know for sure whether it works in your particular situation is to try it.

It struck me that this is good advice not just for saving energy, but for pretty much anything, or at least anything having to do with money. I've noted many times that standard money-saving tips often cited as gospel, like using coupons or shopping only once a month or buying only used cars or avoiding credit cards, have proved unhelpful or even counterproductive for me. But the real problem isn't that these tips aren't good advice, at least for some; it's that they're presented as "one size fits all," as if they're guaranteed to work no matter what your circumstances may be. Yet in most cases, a more appropriate label would be "your mileage may vary"—a reminder that, while this guideline may be good for many people, or even most people, every person's situation is unique, and obviously, no one else can ever know the exact details of your own situation as well as you do.

None of this is meant to suggest that experts don't know anything and there's no point in listening to them. If they really are experts, they do know quite a lot about their own fields; what they don't know, and can't possibly know, is your personal circumstances. So the point is not to ignore money-saving tips, or to assume they won't work for you; it's just not to assume that they will. Instead, consider the advice from all angles, and think about whether there's anything in your personal situation that could make the advice either more or less useful, before deciding whether to act on it.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fruit AND Veggie of the Month: Fuyu persimmon and delicata squash

For November, we have a special two-for-one deal: a Fruit AND a Veggie of the Month. We happened to come into possession of both a fruit and a vegetable that we'd never tried before at roughly the same time, so on the principle of "waste not, want not," I opted to blog about them both.

A couple of weeks ago, Brian brought home a couple of curious, orangish fruits from work. He said these were persimmons that one of his coworkers had brought in to the office, and if we liked them, this same coworker had lots more to get rid of. Having no familiarity with persimmons or how to eat them, I went to Google and quickly discovered that there are two kinds of persimmons. Hachiya, or baking persimmons, are long and oval-shaped, extremely tart if they're not fully ripe, and slushy-soft once they ripen. What we had, by contrast, was Fuyu persimmons, which are squat-shaped and firm, with a little cap of leaves on top. The ones Brian had brought home were still a pale yellowy-orange, and the article said they're best when they're "more orange than yellow," so we left them out at room temperature until they'd darkened to a rich orange-red, as you see here.

Today, I decided they were ready, so I simply cut one into quarters and ate it raw. Unfortunately, I forgot the site's advice to peel them first; the skin turns out to be edible, but rather tough. The flesh, however, was very sweet and juicy. The site described its flavor as mild and pumpkin-like, but I found it more similar to a very ripe pear. It had no discernible tartness, so using it in baking would probably require cutting way down on the sugar in the recipe—but then, I guess that's a good thing if you're looking to reduce your sugar use. I also did a little searching around and found that persimmons work well in a variety of savory dishes, from salsa to spinach salad to risotto. Since we've got only one left to play with, however, I'll probably just go for something simple, like adding it to a bowl of oatmeal. But if his coworker still has more to give away, I'll happily take some to try in some of the more complicated recipes.

As for the veggie, after last month's disappointment with the Sweet Dumpling squash, I was keeping my eyes peeled for the delicata squash that I started out looking for. On our last visit to the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, I found a large bin filled with assorted winter squash that had a picture on the front with labels to show what they all were. The picture included a delicata squash that looked like the ones I'd seen online, but I couldn't find any actual squash in the bin that exactly matched the picture. There were some that appeared to be the right size and shape, but they were pale yellow with darker yellow stripes, rather than the green stripes shown on the picture. Not wanting to risk another disappointment, we checked with a store employee unloading produce, who confirmed that these were indeed delicata squash. Satisfied, we selected a small one and popped it in our basket.

Unfortunately, the way I'd hoped to prepare these was by slicing and roasting them, as described here, and that takes at least half an hour at a fairly high oven temperature. Thus, the squash didn't really fit into any of the meals we had planned for the rest of the week, so we didn't get a chance to try it until tonight. And the result, was, frankly, not really worth the wait. There was nothing wrong with the flavor or texture of the delicata squash, but it didn't seem in any way superior to butternut, and Brian didn't really find it any easier to work with, either. Its only real advantage over other winter squashes is that it doesn't need to be peeled—but given that my favorite winter squash recipes are soufflé and the lasagna we had on Friday, neither of which would use the peel anyway, that isn't much of an advantage for us. So while we might pick up delicata squash again sometime if we find a particularly good deal on it, I don't think we'll be devoting any of our precious garden space to it, especially now that we seem to have the hang of growing butternuts.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: The Festival of Butternut

The cross-quarter day between the fall equinox and winter solstice is one that has no shortage of holidays to its name, both ancient and modern, sacred and secular. To the ancient Celts (and to modern pagans) it was Samhain, the turning point of the year, when spirits could enter the everyday world; the Catholic Church converted this tradition into All Hallows' Eve, the eve of All Saints' Day; in Mexico, the date became attached to the traditional Day of the Dead holiday of the ancient Aztecs; and the modern festival of Halloween is a largely secular holiday that still honors the ancient spirit of misrule. For gardeners, however, this mid-autumn celebration is all about the harvest. The second crop of greens is now in the fields, along with cabbages, beets, lima beans, cauliflower, and a few last lingering tomatoes and peppers. But of all the jewels of the early-November garden, none is greater than the winter squash.

Winter squash, in fact, is one of my very favorite crops of the entire year. Summer squashes, like zucchini and yellow squash, are okay, but they just don't have much flavor of their own; they're more of a canvas on which other flavors can be painted. Winter squash, by contrast, is packed with flavor, as well as color and nutrition. It's also very versatile, useful in everything from soup to soufflé, curry to muffins. And unlike summer squash, it will keep for months in a cool, dry room.

Unfortunately, the same tough rind that helps winter squash keep so well can also make it much harder to work with. When you set out to cook a Hubbard squash or an acorn squash, just cutting it open may be the hardest part of the job. Luckily, butternut squash is a lot more manageable than most of its peers. Food guru Mark Bittman recommends it as "by far the most convenient" of all winter squashes, saying it's the only one that you can hack open without a cleaver, and "its flavor and texture are wonderful." That's why butternut is the only winter squash to earn a place in our small vegetable garden.

This year, we grew two varieties: the popular Waltham squash, recommended for its good flavor and high yield, and Ponca Baby, which produces smaller squash that are quicker to mature, but don't store as well. Last year, we planted only Waltham and got very few squash, so I thought adding a faster-growing variety might help improve our yields. As it happened, however, both the Waltham and the Ponca Baby have produced very well. We've already eaten a couple of each, and there are still four or five more out on the vines (plus one tiny Ponca Baby that's not mature yet but is struggling along valiantly and just might get big enough to harvest before winter hits). And on Wednesday, Brian picked this monster off one of the Waltham plants. (For scale, it's displayed here next to the huge batch of Sun Gold tomatoes he picked at the same time.)

So tonight, to celebrate the squash that is the heart of autumn, we'll be enjoying this butternut in my very favorite squash recipe: butternut squash lasagna. We originally found this recipe in Mother Earth News, but we made several modifications to it:
  1. Instead of chopping up the squash and sautéing it, we put the whole squash in the microwave, zap it for about 20 minutes, let it cool, and then peel and mash it. This is a lot easier, and the sauce can be made and the cheese grated while the squash is cooling, which saves time.
  2. We use regular lasagna noodles intead of the no-boil kind, which are more expensive. We typically use half a box of noodles (about 9 of them) for a 1.5-to-2-pound squash, cooking them until they're just flexible. This is the last step before assembling the lasagna.
  3. This means the noodles absorb less liquid when cooking, so we cut the sauce ingredients down to 3 tablespoons of butter and 2.5 cups of milk. We also use nonfat milk instead of whole, since (a) that cuts the fat in the recipe and (b) it's what we usually have on hand.
  4. We use less Parmesan than the recipe calls for and mix it with some bread crumbs to give the lasagna a nice crunchy top.
This squash is well over 2 pounds, so we won't use all of it in the lasagna, but whatever's left will keep quite nicely in the freezer, where it will come in handy for all sorts of other recipes. If there's enough, we might even use it in place of pumpkin in this Thanksgiving's pie. (We're also hoping to substitute a rhubarb pie for our usual apple, so that both pies will use home-grown produce. Plus a metric buttload of sugar and flour and butter, of course.)

A green salad is a nice accompaniment to this lasagna, so maybe I'll go out and pick the one lonely little head of Boston lettuce that actually came up out of the fall crop I planted two months ago. It's not much of a harvest, but it can still be part of our harvest festival. After all, man does not live by butternut alone.