tips, topics, info and insight to help you save money and make our world a little greener

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Recycle That Tree

I'm not one of those folks who like to keep the Christmas tree up until Valentine's Day. By New Year's, I'm ready to pack up the ornaments and haul the tree out of the house before the needles start falling in earnest. But whether you're like me and enjoy the tree for only a week or two, or if you like to wring every last bit of holiday joy from Old Tannenbaum, what to do with the tree after it's holiday purpose is over is an important environmental issue.

Each year, Americans buy between 25 and 30 million cut Christmas trees, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Unfortunately, the majority of those trees wind up in landfills. That doesn't have to happen. Currently there are about 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs scattered throughout the of them that I started here in New Hope, PA last year.

It wasn't very difficult to do. First, I got permission from our Borough Council to organize the tree collection. Then I solicited help from a local landscaper, Hugh Marshall. He provided a truck, a chipper, one of his workers and his own time. I sent out a press release to the local paper giving the date and time for pick up. In addition, I arranged for a drop off spot in the parking lot of a townhouse community for people who weren't ready to part with their trees by the collection date. Hugh, his employee and I spent a couple of hours driving around town picking up the trees and pushing them into the chipper. Later Hugh used the mulch on jobs for his clients. Our first effort netted about 100 trees. This year, we're hoping to recycle about half again as many.

You can read a little more about organizing a local Christmas tree recycling program here:

What do you do with your Christmas tree? Please share.

Monday, December 21, 2009

For the Birds

The birds have been especially active since we had the big snow on Saturday. They've been going through the sunflower seed, mixed seeds, thistle and suet at a fast clip. But we have noticed that many of the birds are still picking away at the leftover seeds in the garden.

Wrens, sparrows and chickadees are still gleaning from the autumn blooming clematis vine that is draped across a large section of fence. The butterfly bush, phlox and sedums still seem to have a little left for the tufted titmice and junkos to harvest. Holly berries and dogwood fruits are popular with the cedar wax wings and cardinals. And all of them seem to enjoy the stray sea oats that have self seeded in a small corner of the garden.

We spend a few hundred dollars every winter on feeding the birds. And I'm sure the little heater we use to keep the bird bath from freezing costs a bit to run. By leaving seed producing plants standing through the winter, rather than cutting them back (which gives a neater appearance), we are able to augment and diversify the birds' diet. And perhaps it reduces the cost a tad. The birds return the favor by keeping insect populations in check and helping with pollination later in the year.

Of course there are issues with feeding birds - they are subject to predatory cats and hawks; dirty feeders and bird baths can spread disease and bird droppings can be messy. But the positives far outweigh the negatives.

Feeding birds in the backyard is a pretty green activity - especially if you buy locally-grown seed. And it's even more green, as well as frugal, to grow lots of bird-friendly plants that will produce plenty of seed to feed our hungry feathered friends.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Baby it's cold...inside

Yesterday's super storm dumped more than a foot of snow here. So today I worked from home (Sundays are usually work days for many real estate agents like me). It's been a while since I've been home when it's really cold out. And I had forgotten how chilly our house gets during the day. We keep the heat on a timer - it goes on at about 6 am, set at 68 degrees so the house is reasonably warm when we get up. Then it goes back to 65 for the day. At 4 pm it kicks back on until about 10:30 or 11. And most evenings in the winter we have a fire going in the family room. The heat generated from the fire fools the thermostat into thinking the furnace doesn't need to be running. We've been able to keep our gas bill fairly low with this strategy. But I'm finding this unexpected time at home during the day a tad uncomfortable. Perhaps if I were moving around a lot, I wouldn't feel as cold. But being on the computer and trying to do some Christmas gift knitting is tough when my hands are numb! A cup of hot tea is a big help. And the rest of me isn't too cold thanks to a fleece top, warm socks and my shearling-lined slippers. Because of my frugal mind set, I would rather put on more clothes and take a few minutes to move around the house - up and down the stairs, for example - than turn the heat up. And after awhile, I think one's body gets used to a cooler environment - at least that what I am telling myself. I've found that, since we stopped heating our bedroom (it's on the attic level of our house with it's own heating zone, which we haven't turned on in a few years), the little bit of warmth that rises from the rest of the house makes for very comfortable winter sleeping. Our room has gotten as cool as 59 degrees in the early morning hours, but with a couple of wool blankets and a down comforter on the bed, we don't need the heat. Not only are we able to keep our heating bills down, but we know we are also making an effort to not have our carbon imprint surge in the winter months. Do you have any special strategies for keeping your heating bills down? Please share.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dee Dee on the radio

I'm in New York City today...just finished a live interview on the Martha Stewart Living channel at Sirius XM Radio. This visit, my 4th, focused on gifts from the garden and gifts for gardeners. The show's host Mario Bosquez, who is such a skilled interviewer, and I talked about making herbal gifts, sachets, jams and jellies. And then I suggested some good gifts for serious gardeners. I had a list of some really great things - like the new Cape Cod weeder, a well-crafted tool for weedding in small spaces; and an electronic soil test tool called the Rapitest that I got from This small meter can tell you the pH of your soil, the moisture level and the levels of NPK (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous in the soil so you will know how much you may need to fertlize. Then there's the cute wood and metal hod from Burpee. The hod is similar to an English trug -- a basket-like carrier that is ideal for holding veggies as you harvest them. It would make a great gift - it could be used for harvesting, displaying and transporting. I also like Burpee's SunCalc - it's a clever tool that will measure how much sun your garden is getting in any given location. It's an important thing to know - most fruiting vegetables need 6 to 8 hours a day; and unless you stand around and watch the sun as it crosses the sky through the course of a day, you may not have a completely accurate picture. Spending money on gardening tools, if it gets you in the garden and keeps you working there, is money well spent. You'll grow more plants; and with a little effort, you'll become a better steward of the land. If you take good care of your tools, they'll last so you won't have to replace them - very frugal.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Taking...make that Making Stock

Not that long ago, I was pretty kitchen phobic. Sure, I made breakfast, packed kids' lunches and prepared family dinners, but it wasn't my favorite passtime. In fact, I really kind of hated that daily stuff. My only steller moments had to do with baby food from scratch and blue-ribbon quality strawberry jam (if I do say so myself). But a few years ago, around the time I started being interested in CSAs  (read more about these here ), I also started cooking again. In contrast to the way my husband cooks - and he's truly skilled in the kitchen; we eat really well when he's in charge - I don't tend to use recipes. Instead, I peruse the fridge and pantry, check out what's on sale at the grocery store, Google a few recipes with those main ingredients and then whip something up combining ideas from several recipes. Most of the time I've been pretty successful. Often this technique yields soup. And most soups require some kind of stock as the base. Commercial stock (think Swanson's, College Inn, Progresso) is one of those pantry staples most cooks always have on hand. We particularly like the Swanson's organic type that comes in a box with a re-closable plastic spout. The organic part is good, I think. But the packaging isn't very green - it's not recyclable and there's plastic involved. Canned stocks might even have bisphenol (BPA - read more about it here )in the packaging. So I have learned how to make my own stock. It's easy. It's relatively inexpensive. And it's a more environmentally-friendly way to feed your family. Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything and The Joy of Cooking have great recipes that I sort of follow, but I improvise too. For example, I save chicken bones in a zip-lock bag in the freezer to use when I have the equivelant of a whole chicken, rather than buy a chicken just for making stock. The flavor won't be as rich, but it's still pretty good. I'll use more onions, garlic and parsley stems than the recipe might call for in a vegetable stock, just because I have them on hand. And I might leave out the parsnip because I don't have one in the fridge when I feel like making stock. Stock freezes well so I try to make a big pot of it and pour it into quart-size containers and ice cube trays for freezing. After the stock in the ice cube trays is frozen, I store the cubes in a freezer bag to add to rice, mashed potatoes, stir fry or leftovers for moistening. No preservatives or additives. If you've bought your chicken and veggies locally, or even better, grown them yourself, there are very few transportation miles involved. High marks for both frugal and green. And pretty tasty too.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Good to the Last Drop

When my mother, a classic frugal Yankee, made a sandwich, she would wipe the last bit of mustard or mayo on the bread slice, careful not to waste a bit. When my husband, who has a different approach, puts together a ham & cheese, the mustard oozes on to the plate with enough left on the spreader to cover another whole slice of bread. Not surprisingly, my style is more like my mother's. I hate waste - whether it's food that goes bad in the fridge, recyclables in the trash, or perfectly usable mustard down the drain. It makes me crazy. Over the years, I've perfected my no-waste approach to most of the consumables we use. And here's a perfect example: Moisturizer. I often use an Aveeno product with sun-screen that comes in a 4 oz. container with a pump dispenser. It usually sells for around $16.00 (though I tend to buy it for less on sale with a coupon). I have found that the pump stops producing when the container is ALMOST empty, but there's still product in there. So the last time this happened, I decided to find out how much more moisturizer I could get out of the container. First I just used the pump's straw-like piece to scoop out the lotion; after a while that became ineffective, so I cut the container open with kitchen scissors and used my finger to get at the lotion. You might be surprised to learn that, using these tactics, I got 25 more applications . I hadn't counted how many applications there were before the pump stopped pulling product from the container, but I'm guessing around 50 or 60. By wringing out the last drop, I was able to use perhaps half again as much of the Aveeno than I would have if I had chucked it when the pump stopped. I like to think that this kind of built-in waste isn't an intentional ploy by manufacturers, but simply poor design. Think about all the products you use that are easily wasted: toothpaste, shampoo & conditioner, dish and laundry detergent, lipstick. And don't get me started on mustard.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Clothing Swap

Tired of wearing the same old things every day, but not willing or able to spend the money for new outfits? Looking to spice up your wardrobe, but knowing that your budget won't support a shopping spree? If your answer is yes, then it's time for a clothing swap. I organized one a few weeks ago, and am excited about the additions to my closet. Here's how I did it:
first I selected a time and date (mid-week, 7 pm); then I secured the office conference room (the managers are very generous - someone's home might be more typical). By email, I invited all the women in my office (about 15), and asked each of them to bring a minimum of 5 and maximum of 10 current, clean, wearable items. I also solicited food, drink, hangers and portable clothing racks. Because I had no expertise with clothing swaps, I kind of made up the rules on the fly, drawing on my experiences organizing lots of other events. In the end, 9 of the ladies participated. Everyone searched through their closets and drawers for items they thought the others might be able to use - though most of us ignored the 10 item maximum. We had delicious hors d'oeuvres, wine and hot cider. We displayed most of the clothing on 2 portable racks, with things like sweaters, T-shirts, handbags, scarves, jewelry and even pajamas folded on the long conference table. Shoes were lined up at the base of the racks.
Then we shopped. At first, I tried having an orderly process, with each person randomly assigned a number. But that proved to be boring and cumbersome. Within minutes, the party became a cheerful free-for-all with each of us selecting things for ourselves and for our colleagues - as in "this jacket has 'Fern' written all over it!" Everyone, even the one or two who came to the party more out of a sense of community than any real desire to find something new, left with a few additions to their wardrobes.It didn't matter that we range in body type from a tiny size 4 to a tall size 12. I scored some really great stuff - an Hermes scarf (seriously! it retails for several hundred dollars!), a bright red parka that I've been wearing almost every day since, 3 sweaters, a pair of black trousers that I will need to shorten, a leopard patterned belt (not something I would ever buy, but it's fun and I've already worn it once), and a suit that I will probably pass along. Someone took home a shearling jacket, Paula got those pajamas (we're talking barely used and really comfy), Anne selected a great necklace, Linda claimed a raffish hat and a green leather skirt, Laura went home with a new, tags-still-on beaded top and some Ralph Lauren T-shirts, and Fern loves the jacket - it's cashmere, by the way. The leftovers, and there were lots, are in the trunk of my car waiting for me to drop them off at the NOVA thrift shop. The frugal quotient for this event was very high...hundreds of dollars worth of clothing for the price of a little food and wine. We did pretty well on the green side as well - since the invitations were electronic, there was no paper or postal service carbon used. I brought in wine glasses and plates so we didn't have to use disposables. We recycled the bottles and leftover hangers (even some of the plastic hangers are recyclable; the metal ones went to the dry cleaner). And we extended the life of lots of clothes. I would like to hear from others who have organized or participated in a clothing swap - share your tips so I can make our next event even better.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Super-savings on Supper

This evening I had almost no cash in my wallet and it was my turn to make dinner. So I did what seems to come naturally... make something reasonably good out of almost nothing. Well...not exactly nothing. We keep the pantry pretty well stocked. There's always olive oil and plenty of dried herbs and spice. We try to have fresh onions and garlic on hand (still lots of garlic left from this season's CSA share). And there was a nice little head of purple cabbage along with half a Chinese cabbage in the crisper drawer (these were at risk for getting past their prime as they are also left over from the CSA's last pick up which was in mid-November). I found a small package of 4 Bell & Evans chicken thighs at the Super Fresh for $2.97. The Purdue thighs were cheaper but the Bell & Evans brand states they don't use any antibiotics and their chickens are strictly vegetarian. Both brands are heavily packaged with non-recyclable materials...sigh...So, I browned the thighs in some olive oil; put them in the LeCrueset Dutch oven (it's an old one, a wedding gift from 37 years ago); browned 2 garlic cloves in the oil and poured the oil and garlic on top of the thighs. This was followed by the juice of a lemon (the lemon was getting a little brown on the outside, but still perfect inside). Then into a 250 pre-heated oven for an hour and a half. Sides: plain white rice and a cabbage dish made from the red & Chinese cabbage, chopped; a sliced onion, one lonely leek that had been lingering in the bottom of the crisper drawer, and a handful of chopped fresh cilantro and parsley, both leftovers from a historical society party (they would have been tossed in the trash if I hadn't brought them home). A little salt and a tiny sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Sauteed the whole thing in a little olive oil. Outcome: quite delicious; very filling; just the right amount of food for the 2 of us. For frugal, I think I get a high score - the meal cost less than $5 and I mostly used items I had on hand. For green, maybe not so much. High marks for the veggies - mostly local, fresh and no packaging. The rice - it comes in a plastic container that can be recycled, but is definitely not local. And the chicken had too much stryo and plastic packaging, though it was antibiotic-free and relatively local. With winter here, our meals are going to become less and less green as we rely more and more on the grocery store. But there's still lots of stuff in the freezer. I'll just have to get creative.