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

Monday, March 29, 2010

Garden Update: The Peas are Planted

Last Tuesday, we finally got the first of the peas in. It's not that we procrastinated. It's just that we had all that snow, then rain, so the soil was too wet to work. Then it took a while to prepare the bed, which had been rototilled back in November. In the photo you can see that one row is planted. I used two twigs and some twine to give us a straight line. Then we pulled the worked soil up from one side to form a long raised row. We had to rework the soil a bit by hand because there are still some root clumps from the tilled grass, and lots of rocks. With that chore done, it was easy to straighten the row,  pat down the sides and smooth the top. Then Michele and I started planting the Oregon Sugar Snap Snow Pea seeds we got from Burpee. These seeds look just like little peas (which they are), except that they are white-ish, rather than green, and are a little shriveled-looking. I made a small hole about 1 inch deep with my dibber, which is a clever, wooden tool you can see in the photo above. I bought that dibber in England many years ago when I took my mother on one of our tours of gardens there. Michele followed me and placed a pea in each hole. Then we filled the little holes with soil and patted the row down firmly.  This week, we'll plant another row of peas so that we have a succession of harvests. If we planted them all at once, then they would all ripen more or less at the same time. This way, the harvest will be stretched out over a couple of weeks. In the meantime, we're getting a lot of rain. I hope it isn't so heavy that is washed the seeds out.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday's Frugal Food: Another Dinner from Leftovers and Odds & Ends

Yesterday was one of those extra busy days - back-to-back appointments, afternoon floor duty at the office,  end-of-the-day appointment, and finally a 7 pm committee meeting. There wasn't enough time for a "real" dinner, but I hadn't eaten lunch and was really hungry. Typically when I have evening meetings, I'll just heat up something leftover and eat before I go out. But it was pretty slim pickins - or "slim chickens" as we say in our house - in the fridge.

But even with no obvious leftovers - like some roasted chicken, a pot of soup or stew, or the remains of a casserole - there are usually a few things stowed away in food savers that can up to a meal. Here's what I used:

  • a package of 3 zucchinis from the past-their-prime shelf at the SuperFresh
  • 1/4 large onion
  • 1/3 of a box of orzo
  • about a cup of left-over, home-made spaghetti sauce
  • fresh parsley
  • fresh thyme left over from a spectacular pork dish
  • 1/2 a cucumber from the same source as the zucchini
  • 1/4 of a head of iceburg lettuce, another Frugal Find at the grocery store
Here's what I did:
  • sliced the zucchini and onion  (I would have added garlic, but we had run out)
  • chopped about 2 tbsp. of parsley
  • stripped the leaves from 4 stems of thyme
  • sauteed the zucchini and onion in a little olive oil until nearly carmelized
  • added the parsley and thyme
  • cooked the orzo in salted water per the package instructions (about 9 minutes)
  • added the cooked orzo to the sauteed onion and zucchini
  • added the spaghetti sauce to the orzo-vegetable mix and heated thoroughly
  • adjusted the seasoning with a little salt and pepper
Then I made a quick salad of cucumber and lettuce and topped it with a little of Nadine's Salad Success vinaigrette.

Done. My husband added some red pepper flakes and grated locatelli cheese later - he ate after I did because, really, 6:30 is just too early for dinner. The dish wasn't particularly pretty, but it was tasty. And I used up foods that might have gone too far past their usefulness if left in the fridge much longer.

Here's a break-down on how much this nutritious, filling and reasonably flavorful meal cost:

  • zucchini                  .45
  • onion                      .20
  • orzo                        .33
  • leftover sauce         .50
  • olive oil                  .20
  • cucumber               .20
  • lettuce                   .30
  • salad dressing         .25
  • locatelli                  .50    
  • pepper flakes          .05 
  • parsley and thyme   .20
  • So the whole meal - dinner for two - cost just over $3. Not bad.        

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tips for the Frugal Home Seller: Thrifty Bathroom Makeover

In previous posts on the topic of getting your home ready to sell, we looked at essential, basic steps to take, like thorough cleaning, decluttering, refreshing the front door, and minor repairs. We also looked beyond the basics at updating the powder room, removing wall paper and replacing out-dated fixtures.

This time, we'll take the getting-ready to sell process to the next level with a room make-over. The general real estate wisdom tell us that the kitchen, master bath and master bedroom are the most important rooms in the house, in terms of resale. Some might argue that the family room might be more important than the master bedroom. Your own real estate agent should be able to tell you what's more important in your market and for the target audience for your home.

Today we'll start with a master bath make-over.

So, let's assume that you've done the big clean, and you've decluttered your bathroom. You have even gone the extra mile and removed that metallic wallpaper that you thought was so snazzy when you bought the house. Now step back and look at it with a critical eye. Are the fixtures the original taupe or raspberry that were so popular in 1987?  And how about the shower curtain? Does it match the equally-hideous curtains?  Are the towels mismatched relics from your wedding shower 19 years ago? Is the floor covered with carpet? If you've answered yes to even one of these questions, it's time for a bathroom make-over.

If your budget is really tiny, you can do a basic, mini make-over that will minimize the bathroom's flaws by creating a harmonious over-all impression with a few pops of color or pattern to distract the prospective buyer.

The first task is to pick a color scheme.

Let's say the fixtures are taupe and the floor is a nice, but dated beige marble. You might want to pick a slightly darker shade of taupe or beige for the walls, with white trim.  If the tile is burgundy and gray, darker gray walls might work well. And when in doubt, white works well with everything.
If interior decor isn't your strong suit, look through some up-to-date design magazines (you may find some at the library), visit up-scale model homes at new construction sites. Some home improvement stores have consultants on staff who know a thing or two about color. You'll want to make sure that the color you choose will work with whatever you aren't replacing in the bath, like fixtures, tile and flooring. Cost of painting: $100 (could be more if it's a very large room or you are covering up particularly dark colors).

Once you've painted the walls and trim, pick out a new shower curtain that has some pizazz to it. A shower curtain is a big piece of fabric that can make a great statement, even becoming the focal point in the room, taking the load off dated aspects. You'll probably also want to replace the shower curtain rings with a new set that enhances the look of the shower curtain. Cost:  $50 - $100.

Next, select a new set of towels that work with the shower curtain. Get at least two sets of matching bath and hand towels (you won't need the washcloths). Fold them just so and place them on the towel rack...where they will remain throughout the time the house is on the market. These are just for show, so make sure family members know that! Use your old towels, and stash them in the washing machine, hamper or in a basket in a closet when the house is being shown.  Add a simple, unobtrusive window blind if needed.
Cost: $40 - $75 (more if you have several towel rods and more than one window).

Finally, pick out two or three decorative items  - candles, baskets, apothocary jars - to place artfully on the vanity, tub surround or window sill. Cost: $0 if you select from items you already own.

Unless the bathroom is very large or the floor is particularly unsightly, eliminate rugs and bathmats. You'll also want to get rid of the toilet seat cover, a toilet paper cozy, magazine rack, silk or plastic flowers and any decorative items that don't fit in with your color scheme. In addition, whenever showings are scheduled, put away all personal grooming and hygiene products and tools, and hide the toilet cleaning brush.

Total cost of mini bathroom make-over: $200 - $300

If you have a little bit more to spend you might:
  1. replace faucets and tub/shower hardware
  2. replace toilet
  3. update the towel rods
  4. replace drawer and cupboard hardware
  5. add a new light fixture
  6. remove the old medicine cabinet and replace it with a good-looking framed mirror
  7. replace the old vanity top with a new version in marble, granite or other up-scale material
  8. add an under-mount sink
  9. replace the vanity itself
  10. install new flooring
  11. retile around the tub/shower
  12. add a separate shower stall
To keep costs down, look for floor models, overstocks, returns and even slightly imperfect merchandise at  places like Home Depot, Lowe's and other home improvement centers. You may find great decorative pieces at highly discounted prices at places like Marshall's, T.J.Maxx and HomeGoods.  Look for items at garage sales and flea markets, and on Craig's List, Ebay and Freecycle. Do the work yourself or request help from skilled friends.

In the past, as much as 90% of the cost of bathroom remodelling could be recouped at sale. According to Remodeling Magazine, the figures for 2009 show that home sellers recouped 71% of the cost of a bathroom remodel. But that was assuming a full renovation with an average cost of  about $16,000. Smaller projects, if done well, could recoup a higher percentage. In the challenging 2010 real estate market, home sellers may not recoup all their costs, but it could be just the thing that puts that home ahead of the competition and results in a faster sale.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Get Ready for Earth Day 2010

Earth Day is on Thursday, April 22 this year, one month from today. Do you plan to do anything to celebrate? There are many events including festivals, rallies, environmental workshops, and more scheduled for that day, and the weekends on either side of April 22.

If attending an event isn't your cup of tea, here are 21 ways you might honor the Earth on Earth Day:

  1. plant a native tree, shrub, or some perennials, especially those that attract birds and butterflies
  2. start a compost pile 
  3. install a rain barrel to catch rainwater run off
  4. plan a meal entirely from scratch with organic and/or locally grown  foods
  5. bake whole grain bread
  6. plan a day of meatless meals
  7. take the bus or train instead of driving
  8. ride your bike or walk instead of taking a cab, bus or subway
  9. climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator
  10. resist making a purchase of a non-essential
  11. clean up litter from your street, a park, the banks of a stream or river
  12. take your own travel mug to have filled at the take-out coffee shop
  13. use a coffee mug instead of a styro cup at work
  14. take your lunch in reusable containers instead of buying fast food in throw-away containers
  15. use a cloth napkin instead of a paper one
  16. use rags and sponges instead of paper towels
  17. use a home made cleaning product instead of caustic chemicals
  18. be mindful of the amount of water you are using
  19. email your legislators and ask them to advocate for clean air and water; the reduction of carbon emissions; protection of small farms; safety of our food supply and other environmental issues
  20. visit a nature center
  21. donate to an environmental organization whose work you believe in
Do you have plans for Earth Day 2010. Please share.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Thrifty Thursday - Wedding Dresses

When I spoke recently with a friend whose daughter is finding it difficult to select a wedding dress, I was struck by the enormity of the whole process - the choices, the cost, the fittings, the angst. I've never planned a wedding - having gratefully left most of the details of my own to my mother.  But I have several friends who have organized their daughters' weddings, and after hearing about their experiences, and the experiences of some of my daughters' friends, I've come to the conclusion that the whole thing is just out of control! The entire wedding industry has highjacked common sense, proportion, appropriateness and in, some cases, reality.

Today, we'll just look at what goes on with wedding gowns.

The average price of a wedding dress in the United States is somewhere around $600, but this number can be widely different based on region and locale. For example, according to a nifty zip code based calculator at, the price paid for a bridal gown by a bride in Plainfield, NJ ranges from $662 to $$1156, while just an hour away in tony Rumson, NJ the range jumps to $2,832 -$4,720.  Brides in Waco, TX might shell out $662 - $1104, while in the New Hope, PA area where I live, it's more like $2,613 - $3,606. In Topeka, KS, a more modest $549 - $915 is the norm, and in Bloomington, MN the numbers skew higher to $990 - $1650.

A visit to Vera Wang's website yielded an invitation to join the RSVP club if I wanted to do more than look at the photos of the wedding fashions. I know these gowns, though truly beautiful, are uber-expensive. Then I hopped over to Priscilla of Boston where prices are in the several thousands of dollars - $3500 and $4500 being typical prices, with many gowns priced at "over $5000," though how much "over" isn't shared with the casual visitor. Next, I looked at the website for David's Bridal, one of the largest bridal gown retailers in the country, where the most expensive dress I found (though I didn't see every item) was $949. David's Bridal, however, has many very reasonably priced gowns including some sale dresses priced as low as $69.99.

But remember, the average dress price is $600. Does it really make sense to buy a dress that costs hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, takes weeks, and often months to receive, at which time it may need several fittings that may or may not be included in the price of the gown? Add to that, the cost of pricey undergarments, special shoes, possibly gloves, and of course the headpiece that can be as expensive as at the gown. And this is for an outfit to be worn once, for six, maybe eight hours.

I just don't see it. Where's the value? What's the point? Am I the only person who thinks today's brides and their loving parents are being taken for a ride? And what do I suggest as an alternative?

What I would like to see is a scaling back of proportion. It's the marriage that's paramount. Not what one is wearing. You are not any less committed to your husband if you wear a hand-me-down gown than if you've been tricked out in couture. So what if all your friends are going to be wearing $10,000 Vera Wang dresses when they walk down the aisle? Do you really need to follow suit when there are plenty of very pretty dresses for far less. Does anyone really need to try on 30 or 50 or 150 gowns before they find "the perfect one?" If you make $10 an hour, does it make sense to spend $1000 on a dress? If you've got outstanding student loans, where is the wisdom in putting an expensive gown on your credit card? If you are saving to buy a home, or your parents are getting near retirement, what is the thought process that results in spending unrealistic amounts of money on a dress?

There are options for the budget-minded, thrifty, frugal, individualistic and non-consumerist brides:
  •  Follow the old, and very sweet tradition, of wearing your mother's, grandmother's or sister's gown. It may need minor or even major alterations, but there's something quite lovely about wearing an heirloom.
  • Search out a used gown. Remember, these dresses have been worn once! And some have never been worn - they are close-outs, last year's styles or ordered-but-never-paid-for dresses. Today their are dozens of websites offering used - excuse me - pre-owned wedding gowns, including,, and
  • Check out thrift and resale shops in your area. Do a Craig's List search.
  • Visit the back room of bridal shops where there are often a few racks of dresses that didn't sell for one reason or another.
  • Drop down a notch or two or three on the price point and just say no to more than you can afford.
  • Think about breaking away from the pack and selecting a pretty (non-bridal) dress you can buy off the rack.
I expect I will have stepped on some toes with my opinions here, but I welcome your comments. Please share.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Green and Frugal Update

Last night, during my usual toss and turn time, I was thinking that I ought to report on some of my regular frugal and green efforts from time to time. Though I'm not sure what format this will ultimately take, I'm just going to jump in and get started. After all, what better day to launch a "Green Report" than St. Patrick's Day.

Since about March 1:

Home Recycling - we put out the usual amount of recyclables including, the winter amount of newspaper (we use quite a bit to start fires in the cold weather so less gets recycled), pasta boxes, toilet paper tubes, English muffin paperboard container, wine bottle, sherry bottle, seltzer bottles, bean cans, plastic milk container, bourbon bottle, cranberry juice bottles. No recyclables were thrown out.

Office Recycling - a full kitchen trash can of water bottles, soda cans, paperboard boxes from the individual coffee and tea servings for the Keurig machine (don't get me started on that!), toilet paper and paper towel tubes, yogurt cups and a big plastic jug that held pretzels. In addition, I took a full box (the size of carton of paper comes in) of office waste paper, including magazines and brochures, to the Abitibi collection bin behind the school. Unfortunately, 2 full boxes of office waste paper and a full trash can of recyclables were thrown out by a neatnik last week before I could take them out of the building. I have to be more disciplined in removing the stuff in a timely manner.

Compost - we composted typical amounts; mostly coffee grounds, egg shells, potato peels, onion, garlic and cucumber skins, radish ends and orange rinds, and about 10% of a package of gourmet lettuce (see Waste). We have a big cabbage to cook so tomorrow we'll add bulky outer cabbage leaves. No organic kitchen waste was thrown away.We continue to add some leaves left over from fall clean up to the pile. But there are too many for the bin, and since we have no place to store them, a few bags full have to go in the trash. I'm hoping to figure out a remedy for this less-than-environmentally-friendly situation by next year.

Reuse - I have taken a few more cardboard boxes to the UPS store at the shopping center. In addition, I helped dear friends sort through several storage units to determine what could be sold, what could be donated and what had to go in the trash. Fortunately, very little was trashed - 4 or 5 pillows that had spent four years in the locker and just couldn't be used by anyone else, a ratty mattress, some broken dishes and a couple of small, not easily identifiable items. I rescued a big box of towels, sheets and bath mats that will go to the SPCA as soon as I can deliver them. And I took a metal tray, a couple of books, a Pyrex casserole dish and a pretty, though stained bed cover for myself. I'll try to get the stains out. If it proves impossible, the SPCA will get an additional donation.

Waste - the package of gourmet lettuce, which was on sale (see Frugal Finds), started to decompose after a couple of days so we had to throw some of it on the compost. We're still working on making just the right amount of coffee in the morning so we don't pour any down the drain. When the weather gets hot, this becomes a non-issue since we save leftover coffee to drink iced. A half a chicken breast went unnoticed in a food saver in the back of the fridge until it was too late (see Trash);  there was a bit of cheese that was way past its prime, and the last handful of almonds in a large bag bought at BJ's for holiday baking had bugs, so we put them out for the birds.  We need to work on keeping better track of what's in the cheese drawer and pantry cupboard.

Trash - last week's trash bag contained a pair of ruined knee high stockings; a broken lint brush, and the remains of a bathroom sink fixture (see Unexpected Expenses).  There was a tiny bit of copper still attached to the fixture, but I just didn't have the energy, or know-how to retrieve it for possible reuse. The defunct half chicken breast and bit of cheese also wound up in the trash. This week, there are also 3 large bags of old leaves left over from last fall's clean up.

Energy - with Daylight Savings, we have adjusted the timer on the heater to come back on later in the day. And now that the weather is warmer, and not likely to dip below freezing for long periods, we have turned off the electric heater in the sunroom (when it's really cold outside, it keeps our plants alive and helps warm the kitchen which is above the sunroom). We continue to be quite diligent about turning lights off in rooms we aren't using. And we continue to disagree about what time to turn off the porch light - I'm inclined to switch it off around 9 pm, while my husband thinks it ought to be on until we turn in. Last month's gas and electric bill was around $400. I'll be glad when it gets back down to the more typical $100 when we aren't running the furnace.

Frugal Steps - our dishwasher has given up the ghost. We've debated replacing it, but have decided to put it off for a bit. Knowing that the stove and refrigerator are not destined to last much longer either, we're thinking that we will get all 3 appliances at the same time. We believe that we can negotiate a better price that way. So for now, we are washing the dishes by hand. Though we know that hand washing uses more water than a dishwasher, water use is cheaper than electricity, so handwashing is still the more frugal approach. We've also been keeping costs down by planning dinners around what is in the freezer, fridge and pantry as often as possible, and using meats sparingly. I've also continued to "shop my closet," and haven't made any clothing purchases. Spring weather brings a welcome relief from my winter wardrobe which is starting to bore me, though I was able to add 5 new pairs of pants, a sweater and a pretty scarf as hand-me downs from a client who was cleaning out her closet for a move to Florida. How lucky that she and I are the same size!

Unexpected Expenses - the above-mentioned bathroom vanity fixture began leaking in earnest a few weeks ago and just had to go. It was installed about 20 years ago, and wasn't a particularly good one to begin with, so it didn't owe us anything. We replaced it with an attractive brushed nickel set of faucets that was in the middling price category. My husband Ernie bought it from a supplier who gives him a discount, so the price was just over $100. We saved the cost of a plumber (figure about $100) because Ernie removed the old fixture and installed the new one himself. It was a bit messy because one of the old pipes was very corroded and a piece had to be replaced. But that cost was minimal.

Another unplanned expense was some dental work. I broke a crown and had to have it replaced. When I asked the dentist how much the new crown would cost, he said it was $1200, but he only charged me $600. I didn't ask for the discount, but I sure did appreciate it.

Frugal Finds - Because we haven't been shopping for non-essentials, and we've been doing most of our meal planning based on the pantry and the freezer, we haven't spent much time at the grocery store, or any store, for that matter. But we did have a couple of recent Frugal Finds. The box of gourmet lettuce was $2 off, so even though we couldn't use about 10% of it, it was still a bargain. We also bought 2 heads of iceburg lettuce (I don't want to hear any noise about iceburg not having any flavor - sometimes we just want a salad made with iceburg lettuce!) for $1.89. Corned beef is usually on sale as a loss leader in advance of St. Patrick's Day, and this year was no was $1 a pound. So we'll have a nice corned beef and cabbage dinner tonight, with enough leftovers for two more dinners (one of which will be corned beef hash, mmmm) at a cost of about $8.

So that's my Green and Frugal Update for mid-March. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Do We Really Need Any More Reasons to Buy Seasonal and Local

Leah Ingram, who writes the Suddenly Frugal blog, published a great post recently about the Florida tomato crisis. This topic really caught my attention.

 Because of unseasonably cold weather this winter, most of the Florida tomato crop was ruined. The USA Today article that Leah cites in her post reports that wholesale prices have gone up from $6.50 per 25 pound box to $30!

So that means that any restaurant that uses tomatoes in their food (McDonald's, pizza places, any restaurant that serves salads or makes their own spaghetti sauce), is going to pay more for tomatoes, and most will either have to change their menus, charge their customers more or eat the difference.

Consumers will find higher prices for tomatoes at grocery stores too. An ABC News on-line article reported that the price of tomatoes in a New York City grocery store went from $0.99 a pound to $1.89. Prices could go higher due to scarcity. And California tomatoes won't make up the difference. Most of the those tomatoes are processed into tomato sauce, ketchup and tomato juice. So Americans are relying on imports to get their fresh tomato fixes. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, imports of Mexican tomatoes are up 50% since the Florida freeze.

The big issues isn't so much that we have a bad year for tomatoes. Consumers will get over it. Florida farmers may take a while to recover. But next year, barring another freak freeze, we'll be eating our Florida tomatoes in the middle of the winter without giving it much thought. And if there is another catastrophe, we'll just buy the imports from Mexico.

But hold the phone! What's wrong with this picture? Do we really need to buy tomatoes that are grown hundreds or even thousands of miles away from where we live? Take a look at the photo on the right, - it accompanied the Wall Street Journal article. Those green things are tomatoes! They are harvested green. The ripening takes place in warehouses and on trucks that ship the tomatoes all over the country. Then most of them are exposed to concentrated ethelyne gas to speed up the ripening process. While tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables produce ethelyne gas naturally, do you really want more added to make a green tomato turn into a red one without the benefit of the vine or the sun?

So what's my point? I would like to propose that we just say no to tomatoes that have to be trucked great distances. Let's face it:  when the tomatoes on your sandwich or in your salad aren't fresh and local, chances are it's more about the habit than the flavor.  Let's learn to savor fabulous locally-grown - or better yet, home-grown - tomatoes during the months they are available. Buy lots and lots of them and put them up in canning jars. Or make home-made sauce.  (The photo at the top of this post is of cut up tomatoes waiting to be turned into sauce at my brother-in-law's family's annual Labor Day gathering.) When the fresh ones are gone, think of them fondly. Then turn to the canned version when you crave tomato flavor. But don't try to replace fresh, seasonal tomatoes with a poor substitute from far away places, that, by the way, come with a huge carbon footprint.

Thoughts? Please share.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Making Compost

When I was growing up, there was always a compost pile located somewhere at the back of the yard. My dad tossed on grass clippings, fall leaves (that were raked, not blown around by noisy machines...oh, wait, that's a post for another day), dead garden plants, over-ripe tomatoes, and other organic material from the garden beds. I don't remember kitchen garbage added to the pile, though I do recall seeing grapefruit halves, egg shells and coffee grinds in a neighbor's compost. Back then, in the semi-rural neighborhood of my elementary school years, everyone had big yards with vegetable gardens. And the refuse from those gardens was thrown on a pile. I don't know if most people called it compost, and I have no idea if the end-product -- that amazingly rich, decomposed organic gold - - was ever used by those neighbors.

Today, everyone seems to know at least a little about composting. When I did a Google search of "how to compost," more than 8 million matches appeared!  Well, here is number 8 million and one.

I'm a big advocate of composting. By composting garden and kitchen waste, we can divert all that matter from landfills, thereby reducing the amount of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide produced. Since organic matter mixed with trash accounts for about 40% of the stuff dumped in landfills, composting will prolong the life span of a landfill, reducing the need to truck refuse even greater distances to newer landfills. If that weren't enough of an upside, we have the end product...compost.

When decomposed organic matter is added to soil, it provides all kinds of nutrients and organisms essential for soil health. Compost will also improve soil texture and helps maintain a nice, "neutral" pH. And, over time, with a good, thick layer added every year, compost can reduce, or even eliminate the need to resort to environmentally-unfriendly fertilizers.

I compost in a heavy-duty bin made of recycled plastic similar to the one pictured here. We keep a small stainless steel compost pail next to the kitchen sink to collect the waste so that we don't have to trek out to the garden everytime we generate some garbage. In addition to kitchen waste, you can compost:
  • leaves
  • weeds (without seeds)
  • grass clippings
  • dryer lint (especially if most of the fabrics you dry in the dryer are natural fibers)
  • shredded or ripped newspaper
  • thin cardboard
  • pine needles
  • straw
  • woodchips
  • cornstalks (the more broken down the better
  • manure from plant-eating animals
Never add grease, meat or fish scraps, dairy products, bones or dog or cat poop to the compost pile. And avoid adding diseased plants. In a future post, we'll look at tricks to maintaining a healthy compost pile.
Do you compost? What kind of bin do you use?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Gardening Interview

 Awhile ago, I did an on-line interview about my book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegetable Gardening, and about vegetable gardening in general. Here it is.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Start a Chore Swap Group - Save Money and Time

Barn raisings. Quilting bees. Community Supported Agriculture .  Babysitting clubs. Pot luck suppers. Block parties. Habitat for Humanity. American traditions all. Most of us have grown up with the idea of shared work for the greater good It's part of our heritage. So many communities - churches, schools, charities, community associations - rely on volunteer labor. And most of us have put in our time helping with fund raising, clean up days, envelope stuffing, any number of chores that are required to keep these organizations going.

In keeping with the tradition of shared work -  as in "many hands makes light work" - I would like to suggest a chore swap group. It's such a simple idea.

Say you have a bathroom sink faucet that needs to be replaced, but you don't have a clue how to do it. Instead of hiring a plumber at a cost of $100 or so, you call your friend Jim who knows how to do basic plumbing. Jim is a bachelor with very limited kitchen skills. So you whip up some casseroles and a couple of pies to fill Jim's freezer in return for his plumbing help.

Laura has a couple of pairs of pants that need to be shortened. She can't sew, but would prefer not to pay $15 per pair for a tailor to do the work.  Paula can shorten pants in her sleep. So she'll do the work on Laura's pants. In return, Laura will do some ironing for Paula. Think about how many little things you pay someone else to do, or that you spend more time than you would care to on, that a friend could do for you:
  • birthday cake baking in return for an oil change
  • window washing gets you wallpaper removal
  • garden rototilling for tomato canning
  • dog walking in the a.m. for dog walking in the p.m.
  • grocery shopping for check book balancing
  • hedge trimming in return for a hair cut
  • closet organizing for a drive to the airport
There really are as many possibilities as there are chores. And your chore swap group doesn't have to be organized exclusively along the lines of "this for that."  You might want to consider the barn raising and quilting bee approach: everyone gets together to accomplish a specific task at one person's home. It might be helping someone move from one house to another. Or a demolition party in advance of someone's renovation. Later the group might get together for a painting party. Lawn seeding or sodding, garden planting and tomato sauce making are some options.

This set up is sometimes called a barter club.  But barter clubs may be more structured than you need. When one professional or vendor swaps a service or product with another professional or vendor, say a dentist replacing a  couple of crowns in return for a new transmission in the BMW, there  may be IRS implications.

What I am suggesting is less formal and more along the lines of neighbor helping neighbor, friend helping friend. Sharing skills. Swapping expertise. Do you swap chores with friends? I would love to hear about it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Clear the Air with House Plants

While many of us have been diligently adding insulation, caulking cracks and replacing weather stripping in our homes to prevent heat loss, a scary thing might be happening. Our homes might be at risk for Sick Building Syndrome.  According to an EPA fact sheet on the issue, "up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality (IAQ)."

This indoor pollution can be caused by poor ventilation systems, and the off gassing of volatile organic compunds (VOCs) found in paints, adhesives, cleaning agents, upholstery, carpets, building materials, solvents and other chemicals, as well as mold. People who work or live in a sick building may suffer with a variety of symptoms including headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, dry cough, nausea, difficulty concentrating and sensitivity to odors.

Most of us probably don't live in sick buildings. But even if our homes are relatively healthy places, there may still be a few nasty contaminants lurking about.

You can avoid some of these pollutants by replacing paint, carpet and upholstery with new versions that don't have VOCs. That gets pricey. You might add an air filtration system to your HVAC units, another expensive route. And of course, you can always open your windows and let fresh air in, though that's not the most attractive option in the dead of winter.

You might also think about adding some house plants to your life. It turns out that ordinary house plants can clean all kinds of nasty toxins from the air inside your home.   The following list, compiled in a 1980s NASA study, reveals the top 19 plants for cleaning indoor air:

1. Philodendron scandens `oxycardium', heartleaf philodendron
2. Philodendron domesticum, elephant ear philodendron
3. Dracaena fragrans `Massangeana', cornstalk dracaena
4. Hedera helix, English ivy
5. Chlorophytum comosum, spider plant
6. Dracaena deremensis `Janet Craig', Janet Craig dracaena
7. Dracaena deremensis `Warneckii', Warneck dracaena
8. Ficus benjamina, weeping fig
9. Epipiremnum aureum, golden pothos
10. Spathiphyllum `Mauna Loa', peace lily
11. Philodendron selloum, selloum philodendron
12. Aglaonema modestum, Chinese evergreen
13. Chamaedorea sefritzii, bamboo or reed palm
14. Sansevieria trifasciata, snake plant
15. Dracaena marginata , red-edged dracaena

Some plants are better than others at removing specific compounds. For example, philodendrons and spider plants gobble up formaldehyde, while gerber daisies and chrysanthemums are known to go after benzene.

But you don't have to limit yourself to this list. Most plants will have some air cleaning capabilities. At the least they will absorb carbon dioxide from the air and replace it with oxygen.  The NASA study recommends one 6 inch plant per 100 sq. feet of space. So you might need 4 to 8 plants to keep the air in your family room healthy.

In future posts, we'll look at thrifty sources for house plants, and at techniques for making new plants from the ones you already have.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Adventures in Recycling (and Reusing) Cardboard

Just about everyday, there is a cardboard box awaiting "rescue" from the trash at my office. And every trash day in our little town, which is heavily populated by retail stores and restaurants, there are piles of cardboard at the curb waiting for the garbage trucks...not the recycling truck. In the United States, cardboard makes up about 41% of municipal waste. And according to one report, a whopping 90% of products that are shipped in, out and around the United States are packed in corrugated cardboard. Cardboard is everywhere. And way too much of it winds up in landfills where vast amounts of methane are generated as cardboard decomposes.

What can we do about that. The answer is in that environmental mantra "reduce, reuse and recycle."

How can we reduce the amount of cardboard we use? First, we can start encouraging retailers to use less of it when they pack and ship things. We can ask retailers to give us a choice of whether or not we want the items we buy packaged in lots of cardboard. When we buy a new appliance, we might ask the store to deliver without the box, or to take the box back.

Next, we should look for ways to reuse as much as we can. I take cardboard boxes to the local UPS store where they are reused by the store's customers. And I encourage my real estate clients who are planning a move to look for used boxes on Freecycle and Craig's List, rather than buying boxes. I also frequently offer my "rescued" boxes to people getting ready for a move. Boxes left over from a recent move can be posted on Freecycle and Craig's List as well. These boxes can be used over and over again, keeping them out of the landfill, and saving the reusers a bit of money.

Finally, if we can't reuse it, let's recycle it. My trash hauler started taking cardboard about a year ago. We are required to cut it up into pieces no larger than a pizza box. In the photo above, you can see my handy utility knife (it was a Christmas present from my husband who truly understands my recycling mania) that I use to cut up boxes that can't be reused.  It's really important that the cardboard isn't contaminated by food products (especially grease) and that it be dry. If cardboard gets wet and starts to decompose, it can't be recycled. Most recycling companies can handle the staples and bits of packing tape that are typically found on cardboard boxes. But they don't want styrofoam, plastic, wood or metal lingering in the boxes.

By the way, the boxes that cereal, pasta, paper clips and other products are packaged in isn't actually cardboard. This material is called paperboard which is also recyclable, though the recycling process is separate. You'll want to check with your recycler about separating materials. We are fortunate that we can co-mingle our recyclables. Waxed boxes like those used for orange juice or broth aren't usually accepted by most recyclers, but there are a few who can handle them.

I've learned a lot about cardboard as I've been researching for this post. The Recycle Guy, LLC had some particularly interesting facts. Did you know that recycling 1 ton of corrugated cardboard can :
     1. save 17 trees
     2. conserve 7000 gallons of water
     3. avoid the use of 46 gallons of oil
     4. save 9 cubic yards of landfill space

What do you do to reduce the use of cardboard or to reuse it? Please share.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Garden Give-Away Winner

The winner of the first Everyday Frugal, Everyday Green Garden Give-Away is Eatenword who will receive a Burpee Seed Starter Kit.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday's Frugal Food: Eggs - Versatile, Delicious and Cheap

I love almost any form except raw, and for some odd reason,  egg salad. For me, eggs are just about the perfect food. They are on my Top 10 List  of Frugal Foods.

Before I go any further, I want to make it perfectly clear that, though they are incredibly inexpensive, I do my best to avoid eggs from chickens raised using confinement farming techniques. I look for, at the very least, eggs from free-range chickens. But that just means they aren't kept in cages their entire lives - most rarely, if ever, see the light of day. Better are eggs from pastured chickens, which means they have a chance to run around a bit and scratch in the dirt for bugs. The best eggs, I've found, come from flocks of "happy chickens" raised on small farms or even by amateur poultry enthusiasts.

I buy eggs from my friend Lorraine who keeps about 15 chickens in her backyard. The chickens live in a hen house with an outdoor enclosure where they are protected from predators like hawks and foxes. But when Lorraine is home, they often run free in the yard. Each hen lays about one egg a day, and Lorraine sells the eggs to friends for $1.50 a dozen. While the eggs are not technically organic, the chickens that produce them eat healthy food, and aren't fed antibiotics or other chemicals that are typically given to birds raised on factory farms.  Lorraine's chickens get kitchen scraps and leftovers too - they especially like spaghetti, I'm told.

Because there are a variety of chicken types (Rhode Island reds, Aracunas, Bantams and others) the size and color of the eggs range from jumbo and brown to petite and white, with some medium size blue-green eggs among them. But one thing every egg has in common is outstandig freshness and  flavor.

Eggs are jam-packed with nutrition, offering about 6 grams of protein a piece, along with 13 essential nutrients incuding vitamin A, B, D, E and K. A cup of chopped eggs (I'm guessing that's about 2 large cooked eggs) has 34% of the protein the DV (daily values in nutrition) an adult requires, along with a DV of 25% for Vitamin B12, 41% for Riboflavin, 60% for Selenium and 23% for Phosphorus. Eggs, especially pastured eggs, have about 106 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids per cup and about 211 calories.

At about 13 cents a piece, the eggs I buy offer an incredibly inexpensive source of all these nutrients.

Eggs can be boiled, baked, poached, fried, scrambled, deviled, curried (one of my mother's signature dishes), and turned into quiches, frittatas, omlettes and stratas. Besides being an essential ingredient in many baked goods, eggs are used as a binder in meatloaf and meatballs, like the one's my friend Nadine makes, Roman-style rice balls and in many kinds of croquettes. The website has 600 recipes for egg main dishes. There are thousands more that use eggs just as one of many ingredientes.

Do you have a favorite egg recipe? Have you had the opportunity to compare eggs from "happy" chickens to factory-farmed eggs? Please share.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thrifty Thursday - Making the Most of Your Wardrobe

When I was a teenager living in Switzerland, I had a friend named Catherine who was one of the  best-dressed girls in our class. Her winter school wardrobe consisted of two identical, except for the color, wool dresses, a skirt, a pair of corderoy slacks, a couple of shirts and a sweater or two. When she got home after school, she changed into "house clothes" and her school clothes were hung outside to air. The rule of the day was quality, not quantity.

Most Americans have far more clothes in their closets and drawers than they need. In fact, the National Association of Organizing Professionals says that most of us wear 20% of our wardrobe 80% of the time. If you take a minute to inspect your closet and dressers, you'll probably be able to agree with that formula. Because of my hoarding tendencies, that I wrote about in a previous post, I keep clothing for an especially long time. My thinking goes somewhere along the lines of "I never know when I might need this sweater from 1989 that is embroidered with scenes from a circus." So I may actually wear only 10% of the clothes I own 90% of the time. But even people who have the "get rid of it" gene usually have more clothes than they need.

The key is to be like Catherine in Switzerland...quality instead of quantity. And those quality items should all work together. With a few basic items, paired with interesting accessories, anyone can have an attractive, even creative wardrobe. And it can be done on a thrifty budget. While most fashion retailers aren't going to be keen on this concept, most of us, by simply "shopping our closets" could go quite a long time without needing to purchase anything more than underwear, hosiery and shoes.

Two recent fashion/art/performance projects,  The Brown Dress and The Uniform Project, demonstrated how one simple article of clothing - a brown dress and a black dress respectively - could be worn (creatively) for 365 consecutive days. In the case of The Uniform Project, it's creator Sheena Matheiken, seen in the photo above, made 7 identical black dresses and wore one a day every week (she is nearing the end of her project). She enhanced the dress with hand-made, vintage and hand-me-down accessories as "an exercise in sustainable fashion."

If you visit Sheena's website, you'll see she is very fashion-forward. Some of the outfits she has created would turn heads if she were to appear in them while pushing a grocery cart at the SuperFresh. But anyone can take home the lesson of using a little color, texture and shape in a scarf, belt or jacket to completely alter the look of a little black dress.

What do you do to keep your wardrobe au current on a budget? Please share.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Garden Give-Away

For the first time, I am doing a give-away here on Every Day Frugal, Every Day Green. The prize is:

Burpee's Eco-Friendly Seed Starting Kit.
I chose this give-away because I want to encourage everyone I know to try to grow something edible this year...whether it's a full-scale vegetable garden or a few herbs in pots.

The seed starter kit, which comes with 25 planter cells, a watering bamboo watering tray, growing pellets (these take the place of regular soil), 6 plant markers and a some organic fertilizer. The entire kit is made of sustainable and compostable materials. Starting some seeds indoors is a great way to ease your way into gardening if you're a novice. And if you're an old hand, you can always use some new equipment, right?

For an opportunity to win this item, simply leave a comment at the end of this post. You will need to include your email address in the post, or check back later to see if you have won and then get in touch with me. I'll announce the winner on Saturday, March 6.

Good luck!!!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beyond the Basics - More Tips for the Frugal Home Seller

In last week's post, we looked at 4 basic steps to take in order to get your house ready for the market. This week, let's take it a bit further. If you're serious about selling your home, you'll want to, at least, explore some of the options I suggest. Some of these steps will have a cost factor, but you'll save lots of money if you can do some of it yourself. And your home will be better positioned to sell.

1.  Get rid of the wallpaper. I don't care how much that decorator paper cost when it was new, or how much you love it. The painful truth is that the majority of buyers don't like wallpaper. And even if they might like some wallpaper, they won't like the color or the pattern on your dining room walls. It's a given.

Depending on how much wallpaper you have, and how it was applied, this can be a simple Saturday afternoon task, or a week of messy, nasty work. Sure you can hire someone to do it, but the frugal home seller will make it a DIY project, following these steps, except for the suggestion to use white shellac. Leave that part out.

Once the wall paper has been removed, you can spackle any holes or dings, and get ready to paint. Make sure that you choose a neutral color, but one that is current and popular. Your Realtor will probably have some good suggestions. You can also check out model homes in upscale new developments. Companies like Toll Brothers do a lot of market research on what consumers are looking for in new homes, and they use that information when they decorate the models. Take advantage of their work!

2. Posh-up the powder room.  It's absolutely true that kitchens and bathrooms sell houses. If your kitchen and bathrooms are outdated and unattractive, there is no question you'll have a harder time selling the house. But it can be really expensive to redo kitchens and baths. A powder room reno, however, doesn't have to cost you big money. Because the powder room is typically very small, it's a project you may be able to handle yourself. And if done well, a pretty powder room can create a good impression of inviting, attractive public spaces in your home.

Consider painting the walls a nice, rich, decorator color - taupe, sage and mustard a colors I have seen work well recently. Paint the trim a glossy white - unless another another decorating style is prevalent in your area. You'll also want to address the flooring. If you already have wood or nice tile, you're in luck. But if you're faced with linoleum or vinyl tile, or - yikes - carpet, you'll want to make a change. Here again, the cost should be pretty low, especially if you can do the work yourself. Because we're talking about minimal square feet, you may be able to pick up a small amount of good looking stone or ceramic tile in a close-out or a partial box for a fraction of its original cost. You might also try looking on Craig's List or Freecycle, and at a Habitat for Humanity restore.

A new vanity, sink, faucets and hardware can totally change the look of an outdated powder room. Here again, you can search Craig's List and Freecycle. Or look for bargains in the close-out and returned sections of Home Depot, Lowe's, Habitat for Humanity retores, and local home improvement stores. Brushed and polished nickel are popular choices in my area these days, and brass fixtures are now out of favor.

If the toilet is really old, think about replacing it too. Toilets aren't cheap, but you don't have to buy top of the line to get the impact of new, clean and updated.

Finally, add a great-looking mirror (another opportunity to shop for a bargain) and crisp, luxurious-looking hand-towels and your powder room makeover is complete.

 3. Replace out-dated light fixtures.  Nothing says "tired" more than funky light fixtures. Think about replacing the most prominent light fixtures - kitchen, dining room and entrance hall - with attractive new ones. It's amazing how a couple of pendant lights over a kitchen island, or a modern chandelier in the dining room will give an entirely new look to your home. And, while some light fixtures are off-the-charts expensive, if you have a good eye and are willing to spend a little time shopping, you can find some great looking lights for super-bargain prices. If you don't trust your own tastes (and believe me, some people shouldn't), ask a friend who is design-savvy to help you with your selection.

In future posts, we'll look at more ways you can make simple, and relatively inexpensive changes to your home before you put it on the market.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Looking at Leeks as Spring Garden Plans Continue

Last week I posted about ordering seeds for spring planting. The little packets have arrived with all the promise they have stored inside, but we're still weeks away from planting because of all the snow. It's not likely we'll get the snow peas in by St. Patrick's Day, and even the hardier lettuces won't germinate if the soil is still really cold. So while I wait, I've been thinking some of the other vegetables we plan to grow this summer. With so many vegetables to chose from, how do you narrow the list down to a number you can manage?

If your garden space is limited - we have about 400 square feet - you just can't grow everything you want to. So the strategy I usually suggest to would-be gardeners is to grow the vegetables that you like best, those that are the most expensive to buy or the hardest to find in stores or farmers' markets, and those that taste best when just picked.

Leeks always appear near the top of my list. While they aren't hard to find and the flavor isn't appreciably different if they are just harvested or if they've been shipped from somewhere, leeks tend to be expensive. Recently, we bought 3 good-sized leeks at the grocery store, and the tab came to $2.99. Basically a dollar per leek. That's pretty pricey.

We use leeks, especially in cold weather, to make home-made vegetable or chicken stock; potato leek soup; leek and cheddar quiche; and just last week for an incredible rustic shrimp bisque. I've also made frizzled leeks, and if you haven't tried them, you should.

Leeks are part of the Allium family, the same as onions, garlic, shallots and chives. 

I grew leeks from sets last year that were given to me by my friend Jenn of The Turnip Truck. The sets look like tiny scallions - not quite as big as a slim pen, and about 4 to 5 inches long.  Jenn gave me instructions for growing them: take a Sharpie pen, push it into the soil, pop a leek set into the hole, and water. That was it. The watering pushes the soil that has been displaced by the pen back up and around the tiny leek. You can help the process along and mound the soil up around the the baby plant. The higher the soil goes, the longer the white part of the leek will be (this is called blanching). Young leeks like to be well-watered but will tolerate less water as they get larger. They also do well if you've added lots of nice, rich compost to the soil before you plant them.

I was only moderately successful with the leeks last year. But excessive rain and aggressive weeds took a toll. The leeks I did harvest were delicious! This year I plan to grow about 100 value about $100. That sounds like a lot of leeks, but remember, I'll be sharing the garden's bounty with 3 other families.  As soon as I know how much the sets cost, I'll let you know.