Sunday, February 28, 2010

Favorite Recipes

So, I promised last night that I would share our vegetable noodle stir fry recipe, which has become my new favorite make at home take-out. The recipe actually came from Everyday Rachel Ray, so I've given you the link above. Since we generally use recipes such as this merely as suggestions, we made a few variations based on what we had on hand. I would have loved to have tried it with the black bean paste and snow peas, but we didn't have either, so we either omitted or substituted. (Note that standard cabbage works well as a stand in for bok choy, as long as you keep it crisp, and we used regular onions in place of scallions.)

I also made this fantastic strawberry coffee cake that we love. I made it for my cousin's wedding breakfast at the beach a few years ago, and it was a total hit! I used strawberries I had frozen a while back, and it was good, but is much better with field fresh strawberries. So, I've included a picture here of our lovely, buttery, cream cheesy (no that's probably not a word, but go with it), HEAVENLY coffee cake. (Did I mention how good this stuff is?!) It's great slightly warm with a cup of coffee. So, here's the recipe from Coffee Cakes by Lou Seibert Pappas:

Strawberry Coffee Cake (warning, it's addictive, so pace yourself)


8 oz cream cheese at room temp. (I used low fat so I didn't feel quite as guilty)
1 stick butter at room temp. (the butter is a must, don't go with margarine)
3/4 c granulated sugar
1/4 c milk
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract (use homemade if you've got it--I add a splash more)
2 c all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3 c strawberries, sliced
1/4 c packed brown sugar
1/2 c chopped almonds or walnuts (I used pecans from our family's farm)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour 9x13 pan (I use Baker's Joy to make this easy).

In a large bowl, combine the cream cheese, butter, and granulated sugar, and beat with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Stir in the milk, eggs, and vanilla and beat thorougly. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir to blend. Add to cream cheese mixture and beat until smooth. Spread half the batter in the pan. Scatter the berries evenly over the batter. Dot the remaining batter over the berries. Mix the brown sugar and nuts together and sprinkle over the batter.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until cake is golden brown, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into squares. Serves 12-15.

Enjoy a slice for us!

Green and Budget Friendly Toiletries

As much as possible, we try to make sure that the toiletries we use are earth friendly and/or save us money. First and foremost, this means that we try to stretch everything as much as possible. Then, we employ our couponing strategies. We also try to make sure that we support local and small businesses as much as possible.

One of the ways we stretch our toiletries is by using them sparingly. Often, people use too much shampoo, when all you need is a little bit, about the size of a dime, depending on the length of your hair. When it comes to washing my hair, I find that (especially in the winter when it's really dry) every other day is plenty. I'm fortunate to have curly hair, so by just getting it wet in the mornings, that's often enough to make it bounce back. I also try to cut back on the amount of soap/body wash I use in the winter, as this can sometimes dry your skin out. When we get to the bottom of the shampoo or conditioner, I just add a little water to stretch the last little bit and to rinse the bottle for recycling. By using toiletries sparingly, you'll find that they go further and your budget does too. You'll also find that you have fewer plastic containers accumulating in your recycling bin, which means that you're using fewer petroleum derived resources.

We've found that Anders soap from the Raleigh (NC State) Farmer's Market is some of the best natural soap around. They have several other products, which I haven't tried yet, but with as much as I love their lavender scented soap, I'm sure I'll love the other bath and skin products too. Check out your local farmer's market, most of them allow craft vendors and many have one or two vendors who make their own soaps, lotions, shampoos, etc. from natural ingredients. By using soaps and shampoos from natural ingredients and eco-friendly products, you'll be preserving your water supply by not introducing sometimes harmful chemicals into the water. (If you're on a greywater system, this is even more crucial and if you water your garden with this water, you don't have to worry about the health of the plants.)

For shaving, I've found that using cheap conditioner works just as well as shave gel and keeps my skin moisturized too. I generally buy this conditioner for pennies with my coupons. We purchase Benny's shave gel with coupons also, so it's a lot cheaper. (If your guy isn't too picky, you will find that coupons for women's shave gel are generally more plentiful, so if you can convince him to switch, you'll save more.) I also purchase razors with coupons, or find them free using our favorite freebie section of the coupon forum we use. I try to check this about once a week to see if there are things we'd want to try or use regularly. Often, with the freebie (which usually takes 6-8 weeks to arrive) comes a coupon or two. I don't think I've purchased razors in over a year because of the number of free ones I've scored on the coupon forum.

With toothpaste, we never purchase it full price, but instead use coupons. We lost our brand loyalties long ago, so we use whatever coupons we have that match up with the store sales. Generally, we can pick up toothpaste (a full size tube) for around 50-75 cents. Also, when you get to the end of the tube, if you cut the end off (not the cap end, the flat one), you'll find that you've probably got a few more days worth of toothpaste in there that you can easily squeeze out through this wider opening.

The other alternative we have for toiletries and cleaning products is to purchase many toiletry items from Benny's mom, who sells (mostly to family and friends) Melaleuca products. I often use Melaleuca deodorant, because it doesn't have the aluminum compounds in it. We often get Melaleuca soaps and things in our stockings, which is nice. They have some great citrus scents. We've also used their laundry products, before we found Charlie's Soap, which was locally available.

If you're into really saving a buck, you can make your own homemade foaming hand soap by filling a foaming handsoap container about 1/4 of the way with liquid soap or shampoo and then the rest of the way with warm water. Leave a little room in the top and then gently swirl to mix it together. As soon as we use up what I have from gifts (Bath and Body Works seems to be the recent favorite gift for teachers), we'll use those foaming containers with our homemade mixture. I'll use the Palmolive naturals or Seventh Generation dish washing soap to make our soap, so that we're keeping the water supply (and our happy little septic tank bacteria) as healthy as possible.

What do you do to make your toiletry budget go further? How are you preserving your water supply and the earth by using eco-friendly products? I'd love to hear!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bitten by the DIY Decorating Bug

So, I've been blog hopping like crazy this evening, filling the void that HGTV won't fill in this house, since we protest paying for TV and can't get a digital network signal through all these mountains. (Just one more way we stick to our budget and keep our expenses down.) In my blog hopping, I have stumbled upon a few more favs, thanks to Elizabeth at Southern Comfort. :) Here are a few: Living with Lindsay and Centsational Girl. They both have fantastic ideas and amazing transformations. I am in love with their frugal, thrift store spirit, and their oneness with the glue gun and paint.

I'm now inspired to tackle some of the many projects that have been waiting in our basement for a rainy (or yet another snowy) day (especially since Benny arrived with more projects from my grandmother's house this week). So, this week during my anticipated snow days, I will tackle priming and painting the dresser, blanket rack, and bedside table that are crying out to be finished and taken to their new home in the guest bedroom to join the rest of their family, the bed and washstand (a small cabinet used for storing crafty junk). In doing this, I'll have to do most of the projects in the kitchen, since the basement is currently at about 40 degrees, but I can easily set up a drop cloth and set up shop in a much warmer part of the house. (We'll see if Lavender will end up with a white nose by the end of it all from curiosity.)

While I was at school (yes, Saturday school has become a necessity with 24 school days now being missed due to snow) today, Benny ventured to Winston to join his family for a Costco run and to get our much beloved, but not very snow worthy, Jetta back up the mountain. In his Costco adventures, he found ottomans that I've been eying at for almost half the price! Since I wasn't with him to "approve" them, he opted not to pick them up, but I'm hoping that perhaps I can talk him into a Costco adventure in the next few weeks. He also found a six piece set of brushed nickel bathroom fixtures (towel bar, hand towel ring, TP holder, glass shelf, etc.) for around $30, which would help us finish out our bathroom and the half bath nicely. (Yes, we're still living with the TP on the back of the toilet... we're too cheap to pay $25 for the ones we like at Lowe's and the ones we picked up at TJ Maxx ended up missing parts, even though they were in sealed packages.)

Not only did he find all of these fun goodies to go back for, but he also managed to restock our pantry, fridge, and freezer with the basics for under $100 (actually less, thanks to the his parents). The basics at Costco included a 20 lb bag of baking potatoes (which we store in the basement), celery, onions, organic fresh spinach, goat cheese (since the farmer's market isn't open this time of year for us to get it from Liza), sun dried tomatoes packed in oil (they're great in pasta, on pizza, chopped up in cream cheese, etc.), minced garlic, sharp cheddar cheese, Parmesan cheese, unsalted butter to restock the freezer, and Palermo's margherita pizzas (they're our frozen, prepared food weakness). Having all of these on hand means that it's easier (and cheaper) for us to make meals at home. Many wholesale stores such as Costco are now carrying organic products, especially produce, so you can often purchase these items much more inexpensively than the standard grocery store.

I'll have to share the recipe for the AMAZING stir fry we made last night... at least, I thought it was incredible, but maybe (as Benny said), I was just hungry and it's what I wanted. But, that will be another post... for now, it's time to watch some Hulu with my family and turn in for the night.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Repurpose and Remix

So, yesterday (during yet another snow day), I did my cleaning thing and laundry. While I was putting away Benny's clothes (or more like setting them on the top of the dresser so the drawers didn't get overstuffed--see yesterday's post), I knocked down a picture frame that Benny had given me a few years ago with some of our wedding photos in it. So, since the dresser is angled in the corner, it didn't just fall flat, but fell totally behind the dresser, crashing as it went down. Picture... shattered glass, dinged bamboo flooring, scarred walls with black scuff marks from the black finish on the frame. (I'm seriously hoping that breaking picture frame glass isn't the same as breaking a mirror... though I'm not superstitious anyway.) I cleaned up the big pieces of glass and vacuumed up the shards after moving the dresser (while keeping Lavender's curious nose out of things) and double bagged it to go in the garbage (they don't like to take broken glass at the recycling center... not sure why... it breaks when you toss it in the huge bins anyway, but I've always been one to follow the rules). I was totally bummed because we both loved that frame and pictures (pictures are not salvagable, they got scarred by the broken bits of glass... but at least we still have digital copies and can get more prints made).

Then, I discovered this post at Young House Love... and inspiration struck! As soon as I acquire enough wine corks (if you have any around that you don't have a project for, send them my way), I'll do the same thing with my busted picture frame and give it a whole new life. I think it'll look great on the small wall that leads into our bedroom... or upstairs in the office... or hanging on the basement door (if I can figure out how to make that happen without it beating up the door every time we open it). So many possibilities...

As I was brushing my teeth last night and getting ready for bed, I decided I'd had enough of the chaos that had become my side of the vanity. Take a look. Crazy, no? And look at all that unused vertical space... it's just crying out for a shelf. Well, I knew there was no way I was going to convince Benny to break out the saw and scrap wood to make one for me, so I found this shoe rack that had lived it's life in our former apartment. It doesn't work in our closet now, so it's just been hanging around waiting for a Goodwill drop off. Enter: repurposed vanity shelf! I hauled everything out of the cabinet, organized it into categories, tossed the stuff that was no longer good (and gave away the bubble bath to a family with a three year old... I never take baths), and cleaned up the shoe rack. Here is the finished product (well, not totally yet, I think I still need some low baskets to contain all those little things--razors, travel shampoo, nail polish). Not too shabby for free!

We've also repurposed some other things, which I won't picture (use your imagination) because you know what they look like. Benny decided that our compost container was too small (the original one was a Cool Whip container), so when we polished off the cookie dough I got suckered into buying from a kid at school for a fundraiser (so really, we loved the cookies... and I always tell my students I'll buy from whoever hits me up first), we turned the tub into the new compost container. I finished off one container of quick oats this morning with our oatmeal (it had blueberries, raisins, brown sugar, cinnamon... beautiful color and soooo yummy... ok, here's a picture, it was just too pretty not to share), so after I clean out the container and paint the outside, it will become the new canister for our brown sugar. (Yes, I'm going to paint it to coordinate with the colors of the house... why not? We have leftover paint.) I also discovered that this little pottery cappuccino cup a kid gave me for Christmas has a crack in it (which is a shame, because it's the perfect colors for the house), but I can't stand to part with it. So, I've decided that it will make the perfect container for an indoor collection of succulent plants. The crack will keep the plants from getting too much water, and since these plants grow to the size of their container, they'll look great on the kitchen window sill. (And indoor plants help with indoor air quality, always a plus.)

Of course, there are all kinds of things you can repurpose or remix... old table linens can be turned into window treatments by just draping them creatively over pretty curtain rods. Use stained place mats as a laptop pad, or dye them and give them a new life. A flannel shirt with a hole in it can become a foot or neck warmer, simply by cutting out a rectangle of fabric and filling it with rice and sewing it back together (then just heat in the microwave for a minute). Use pretty glass salad dressing bottles as a bud vase. Shoe boxes, painted or covered in fabric, become great gift boxes. Put Styrofoam packing peanuts in the bottom of a planting container to save on potting soil and allow for good drainage. (Didn't I tell you we reuse practically everything in our house?!) And the list goes on... What have you repurposed or remixed? Any cool ideas to share?

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Budget and Eco-friendly Decorating

So, having lived in our home for a little over a year, we've begun to get settled in and are getting things decorated the way we want... well, mostly. Of course, there's the daily clutter to tidy up and the dog toys to put in her basket (you'd think if she can pull them out of there, she'd learn to put them back... nope, she knows that it's really all about her :)), which make the house feel lived in, but also annoy us to no end.

We're fortunate to have family who has given us most of the furniture we have in our home, or made it for us (our outdoor benches, thanks to Uncle David). The family pieces are certainly more eco-friendly than purchasing new, because most of them did their off-gassing years ago from the stain/paint, and most of them are made of solid wood, rather than the particle board of today that's put together with formaldehyde containing adhesives. But with that wonderful family furniture comes some things that just don't quite fit our style, although they're certainly functional pieces. For instance, I love the curved lines of this hutch that my granddaddy refinished, but I'm having trouble figuring how to make it work in the same room as our modern, clean lined couches (some of the few pieces we actually purchased, of course on sale). I think my modern china is helping (although I'm not totally sure this is the final arrangement of the pieces) pull things together, but we definitely need something above the hutch... a round glass bowl with some cool twigs, or an oval mirror above the hutch, or an original piece of artwork I make (I've been dying to get back into my watercolors and mixed media stuff). What do you think? What would help pull it all together?

And then, we're on to our bedroom. It seems that this is the last room we've gotten around to thinking about decorating, for now, it's almost purely functional. We love our down comforter, but have lived with the bed for almost four years with no headboard. I want something that will be sturdy enough to lean against for reading in bed, but probably not fabric covered, because I want to be able to keep it clean (I know that the mousse that I put in my hair to keep the curl can kind of bring out the oil by the end of the day, so I don't want a stain on the fabric... pillow cases are much easier to wash.) Thoughts there? And then there are the dressers... both certainly functional (although one of the larger drawers in my dresser is now sticking and the track seems to be slightly out of alignment, so that part isn't really functional), but they're not a favorite of either of ours. Benny can't seem to fit all of his t-shirts and polos into the drawers without stuffing them overfull, and I hate the knobs on the dresser (although I'm totally grateful for the piece, Mom :)). So, I'm thinking that my dresser would look cool in a dark espresso stain with cut glass knobs, once we figure out the fix for the drawer. So, then, how do we tie in Benny's piece and provide him with additional storage?

My mom and aunt helped me make a duvet cover a few years ago out of two flat queen sheets (which we found for reasonable prices, and much cheaper than purchasing a ready made duvet cover) in coordinating colors. I just need to find buttons to replace the original ones (I was dumb and didn't think about the "washability" factor of these cool wooden ones... and we didn't have a puppy at that point in time... after we acquired her, she found one of the buttons... and so it goes). Has anyone found a cool button store or online source? We're very limited here in Boone, especially since our major big box store is discontinuing the craft section.

As for artwork around the house, we've put of pieces we like and have special meaning, like some wedding photos, pieces friends or family painted (thanks, Kerry!), ones that I've done over the years (like this elephant piece that works great with our living room color), and things we've picked up on our travels (I love buying street art as a souvenir... it's easy to bring home, because it's flat, and it's a great reminder of the trip). To keep things coheasive, we try to stick with the same color frame throughout the space (mostly black frames, although we have gold toned frames in the office because they work well with the burnt orange color in there). To have the custom pieces framed, we often ask to have a piece framed for Christmas or birthdays. Sure, this might take the surprise element out of birthdays, but by the time you're almost 30, there's not a whole lot that falls into the "want" category that doesn't fit into the home decor or maintenence category anyway. (We asked for mulch last year for birthdays, and were totally thrilled! You know you're a homeowner when that's what you ask for for birthdays!) My mom and grandmother both seem to enjoy doing this and they both have a great eye for the colors we're going for in the space.

There's one more space I'd love some thoughts on... the side entry, which is the primary entry for our home. We have this "lovely" electrical panel right as you come in the door, with the laundry to the left and the half bath to the right. Since there's no logical place to hang wet coats or shoes (we often have these in Boone with all our snow and spring rains), we've put a rack over the bathroom door. Yes, it's functional, but it hardly is attractive. I'd love to do something to hide the electrical panel, so I was thinking of creating a custom wall-mounted coat rack to hang above that, then the coats and bags would hide that. Now, do you have any fantastic solutions for the shoes in this tight space? For now, they just hang out on the rug (which is washable), but that means that we quickly accumulate a collection of shoes and slippers here (we try to take our shoes off before coming in the house... it keeps things cleaner, greener (because we're not tracking in parking lot grease and other road chemicals), and means are feet are nice and toasty in the winter.

So, really, today's post was more about my need for new ideas and less about my thoughts for you, but I guess that's what this community is all about, right?! Looking forward to your sharin' the green decorating love and savings with me!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Green Groceries on a Budget

So, I realized that I forgot to fill you in on our awesome grocery adventure this past Saturday.

As I've mentioned before, we use the Grocery Game, which helps us tremendously in matching up sales and coupons. This allows us to save the most, while still getting the products we need. The Grocery Game tracks the store sales, which are typically cyclical (they run in trends of about 8-12 weeks), so we have to stockpile a little in order to have what we need when we need it and save the most.

This past weekend was Super Double Coupons at Harris Teeter, so that means that they doubled coupons up to $1.98, not just their general doubling of $0.99 coupons. So, we hauled our our coupons that were over 99 cents and looked at the list and laid out our plans for the trip. We mostly bought things that were on the list, but there were a few things, like pistachios (they've been a great healthy snack this week) and Seventh Generation products (like toilet paper) that we had coupons for that we printed off the internet or had from other sources that weren't in the list. So, we used those too, knowing that we'd still get a pretty good savings. The extra savings we had from super doubled coupons allowed us to purchase the organic products that we wanted for the week, like milk and some organic produce.

Speaking of organic, here's my basic philosophy on organic produce... it's worth buying organic when you can for the veggies/fruits you're not going to peel. So, I'll spring for organic cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, berries (but not once we have our raspberries and blueberries planted), etc. because they're most likely to have herbicide/pesticide residues on them that won't wash off completely. However, I don't buy organic citrus fruits, onions, bananas, etc. because the area that has the most of these chemicals is coming off anyway. With milk, I try to buy organic because I don't like the idea of all the hormones that the cows are fed/injected with leeching into my milk.

So, back to the savings. Because of the Grocery Game list, we were able to get five boxes of whole grain pasta for 60 cents each. (All the pastas of that brand were on sale, buy two get three free, but we opted for the whole grain--which we finally found way down on the bottom shelf.) We also bought a TON of yogurt (Yoplait--not organic, bummer on that, but it's really good) because with our coupons that we'd stocked up on, it was 37 cents a carton, over half of the original price. We were missing a few coupons on the list, because we'd missed getting a paper that week (by the way, the cheapest Sunday paper in Boone is at the Dollar Tree, but they go fast, so we get ours before church if we can), so we missed out on a few good freebies. We were able to score some Seventh Generation baby wipes for about half the original price with our online coupon.

All in all, even with our organic purchases and produce that wasn't on the GG list, we were able to save over $60 and spent around $58. A little over 50% savings wasn't too bad, I don't think... although there have been weeks we've seen a 70% savings.

So, what about you? What are your great savings stories? Where do you find the best deals? Please dish... you know how we love a great deal!

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Green and Budget Wrapping and Gifting

One of my first rules of thumb when it comes to wrapping is to make it beautiful. I take joy in wrapping packages, as friends can attest, and love giving a pretty gift. My second rule of thumb is to do it as inexpensively as possible, without making it look cheap.

With wrapping paper, I try to reuse as much as possible. I've found the Sunday comic pages make great birthday wrapping, and can be recycled in the end. I love using pretty, glitzy paper at Christmas, but try to make sure that it's good quality, so that when someone unwraps the gift, if they don't want the paper, I'll quietly sneak it away, fold it neatly, and use it to wrap another gift. If it's not good quality paper, then it generally tears and can't be reused as readily. Plain brown paper, plain newsprint, butcher paper, and newspaper can be stamped or painted with your own designs and are fun for kids to make. (These generally fall into the budget arena, although the newsprint, brown paper, and newspaper are recyclable if you stamp them.) I've also found that fabric makes great wrapping "paper", although it's a little trickier to get neat folds, and is definitely in the "reusable" category. (Benny's family has been known to wrap gifts in pillow cases and sheets, or not at all. While this is definitely green and budget friendly, I just don't find this as festive--love you all!)

I ALWAYS reuse gift bags and tissue paper, sometimes to the point of being OCD about it. If I see anyone throwing away perfectly good tissue paper (i.e. it doesn't have tape all over it or hasn't been torn to shreds), I'll almost hurtle myself across the room to save the precious tissue paper. (And if it's the pretty printed stuff or gold/silver, I'm all over it. You can use gold/silver for ANY occasion!) In our family, we find that we just swap gift bags around quite a bit. Being a teacher, I'm never in short supply for gift bags and tissue paper, as students generally bring Christmas and end-of-the-year gifts in these (really, most of their moms send them, but they're still much appreciated).

My great aunt has mastered the art of wrapping without tape (I think it's a Depression era thing), so her wrapping is easy to reuse, and she saves on tape. I have yet to master this art, but want to take a few lessons the next time we see her in CA or over the holidays in NC.

For ribbon, I try to use grosgrain or wired ribbon. Although this is more expensive than curling ribbon up front, it can be reused over and over again, if you're creative. I've also found that incorporating a well placed Christmas ornament is a nice way to make a package more festive for the holidays. It doesn't take much wired ribbon to make a present look professionally wrapped, especially if you use a double-looped bow. (I'll post a play-by-play of my bow making and wrapped gifts for inspiration sometime soon.)

We cut the front off of any greeting card we receive and use it as a gift tag. Some of the most beautiful cards would be thrown away by others, but in our family, they get a second life. (We recycle the part that has been written on.) This trick works for almost any birthday, thank you, Christmas, or wedding card. (We have so many from our wedding, we'll never have to buy a wedding gift tag again!)

I also make all of our thank you notes/greeting cards from my stamp collection and card stock. Sometimes, my greeting card finds have new life in these note cards. I find this to be a great way to spend an hour or so on a Saturday and we save tons of money on greeting cards. (I am amazed that some greeting cards sell for upwards of $5.00!) I'm fortunate to have family who enjoys crafting as well, so we had an assembly line for making our wedding thank you notes in my aunt's dining room. We had 300 notes knocked out in a few hours once we got the system down.

As for green gifting, I find that it really takes knowing your recipient (which I hope you do if you're giving them a gift!). So many of our friends and family are trying to simplify their lives and teach their children not to buy into the consumerism that drives our culture. So, often, instead of giving a physical gift, we make a donation to a charity that would mean something to that family or individual. For instance, for our friends who have a child who had a cancer scare, we made a donation to the American Cancer Society for his third birthday. I'm sure that this gift meant a lot to the family and I know that the child didn't miss the gift at all... he just had a ball with his friends and loved the cupcakes. There are hundreds, thousands of charities and nonprofit organizations you can give to out there, so figure out what would mean something to your friend or family member and give away. We find that a well phrased message on a handmade note is a nice way to convey the gift we've mad in the person's honor. (On the budget side of things, the majority of these gifts are tax deductible, so when you make your donation, they will send you a receipt. Keep those receipts in a folder so they'll be handy for the next tax season.)

I hope you've picked up a few good tips today and have an occasion to try them out soon! Sharin' the green love and savings!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why green living and budgeting?

So, after listening to today's sermon at church, I was reminded of why, ultimately, we've made the decision to live as green as our budget allows and why we're as thrifty as we are. It's not about the savings, although that's great, and it's not about the "warm fuzzies", although those are nice too... it's about stewardship.

We live in such a consumer driven, "throw away" culture, that sometimes we forget that people weren't necessarily intended to live this way. We were given a gift of "dominion" over the earth, and that certainly shouldn't mean that we trash it for future generations. In our lives, this means that we take care of what we have, including the property and land that's around us, and try to create a space that we enjoy, and through that, God enjoys. That also means that we give back to God and the community what we can, taking care of others along the way.

For us, taking care of others includes tithing with our church, using our coupons to purchase items for the local food pantry, supporting worthy nonprofits (sometimes through gifts in honor of someone else--we'll talk about this in a later post), and providing for the land and animals that are in our lives. This is part of the reason that we support local business as much as we do, especially our friends who raise animals as livestock, because we know that they are providing those animals a good life while they're here. It's part of why we want to raise our own chickens, not only to have fresh eggs, but to know that the chickens are living good, happy (I assume chickens are happier having some space to run and clean nesting boxes) lives while they're here, and so they'll return that with great eggs that will feed us. It's also why we want to keep bees, to provide a ready source of pollination for crops and flowers, while providing the bees a safe and plentiful habitat. They'll return the favor one day with honey for us... and who doesn't love honey?!

We budget so that we know we'll be able to take care of our children (one day) in a way that is somewhat a reflection of our relationship with God; enjoyable, although trying at times. It's important for us to be able to save some so that we're not always stressed, living paycheck to paycheck, as many families do. This savings offers us a sense of security, and it also means that when we see a need, we have some means to respond to that. Living within our means is a critical part of stewardship for us, showing that we're responsible with the funds our jobs provide us.

Living green for us is a way to be good stewards of the earth beyond our property. It means that we keep our water as clean as possible, so that it's cleaner later in the water cycle. Since we know that only about 1% of the water on earth is drinkable, it's key for us to conserve this. We're so blessed to live in a place where we don't have to worry about having clean water, so we try to support organizations, such as Wine to Water, that make this a reality for others. We recycle because it saves landfill space, which we're rapidly running out of in this country, and it means that we're being better stewards of these limited resources. It's important to us to purchase recycled content products because that shows companies that it's important, which means they will eventually produce more things using recycled content, rather than using up valuable natural resources. We're careful to use every part of the food that we have because we know we're blessed to have it, so even the stuff that goes into our compost will nourish us again this spring and summer as it provides nutrients to our garden. Buying what we can organically is another way to show commercial America that we care about what chemicals are put onto and into the earth, and our bodies, and it means that we feel better, both physically and mentally, as a result of those purchases.

So, not to preach at ya, but I hope this has provided you some time to reflect. (I'm not trying to call anyone out or pat ourselves on the back.) How can you change a few small things in your life to be a better steward? (We purchased recycled content toilet paper and organic milk yesterday.) What are you already doing to be a good steward of the gifts you have? (We compost, supply the food pantry, and provide our animals and plants happy, healthy homes, among other things.) How can you influence others in your world to make more thoughtful decisions? (I wrote this post for you.)

Sharin' the green love.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A few evening thoughts

So, a few things I wanted to share with my wonderful readers (who may amount to only three, but hey...).

First, for meals today, I made some great oatmeal this morning before heading off to school (yay, the sun finally came out!). I used quick cooking oats, not instant stuff, and followed the cooking directions, but added raisins and about a cup of frozen blackberries from this past summer's harvest. Toward the end of the cooking time, I added a splash of half and half and some cinnamon... end result, totally yum! For dinner, we made a fantastic pizza with some italian sausage, frozen green pepper from an earlier meal, and onion. We topped it with whatever shredded cheese we had in the fridge, and came up with a fantastic meal that will feed us for a few more days.

So, on to the real goods...

Some of you have been asking about making your own rain barrels. I found this post at my new favorite blog, Young House Love. This post of theirs has complete step by step instructions with great pics, so hopefully it will help answer all of your questions. And, maybe, you can find a make your own workshop like they did and do it on the cheap (theirs was $40, I think.)

Lastly, it's super double coupon week at HT. That means that coupons up to $1.98 will be doubled, offering you amazing savings. So, we'll go tomorrow, probably (after Saturday school), and stock up a bit. (They'll also take online printables, so scour those coupon forums and print some up. I found some Seventh Generation coupons on their webpage, so I'll get that TP and some baby stuff for a shower next weekend.)

Sharin' the green love and savings!

Green Paper Products

So, today's post is all about the ins and outs of green paper products, and how to reduce your consumption of paper products. (As an aside, check out the candied grapefruit peel in progress... isn't it a beautiful color?)

We're currently in the transition in our home from standard paper products to recycled, in some cases. However, before we began thinking about this, we tried to reduce our comsumption of paper products as much as possible. Here's how:

1) We always use fabric napkins. They don't get ironed (unless we're having fancy company) and we try to use the same one for several meals. Since we always sit at the same place at the table (or on the couch if it's a movie night), it's easy to keep track of which napkin is Benny's and which is mine. We have several sets, some even handmade by Mom or old ones from my grandmother's house, so we're not ever without and they get thrown in the laundry with the towels.

2) As I mentioned in the cleaning post, we use rags and newspaper for almost all of our cleaning. This means that we don't have to use paper towels much (I think a roll of paper towels has been known to last us three months or more.) Using the newspaper also means that we can compost or recycle it, as long as we use natural and biodegradable cleaners. (Again, the rags go in the laundry with the towels or in a load with the dog blankets.)

3) We use paper plates/cups and plastic utensils as infrequently as possible, opting for compostable corn starch products or 100% recycled paper for parties. We use our standard dishes, even if we're having a dinner party with several couples invited. All of our standard stuff can go in the dishwasher, but we do handwash wine glasses and pottery stuff, because I just feel better about the glazing holding up, etc. Many of our dishes were gifts, so the cost of those didn't come out of our pocket. I did find these cool tumblers in the antique store in downtown Boone for $3 a piece. (Mom went halfs with me on them for a set of four.)

4) We reuse plastic grocery bags in our smaller trashcans around the house. (I think most people do this now.) I'm also working on crocheting a reusable bag out of cut up plastic grocery bags. Here's a pic of my "plarn" roll in the making. (It's still in the planning stages and is something Mom and I will tackle together over her spring break--we now have school, so I'll still be teaching during the day.) Benny found a new use for them while touching up paint... he lined the roller try with two. It didn't work quite as well as the plastic tray liners, but I think it probably used less plastic overall.

5) I take a lunch box to work, rather than a paper bag. (Again, I think most folks do this.) It means that I'm not paying for a school lunch (which is pricey for teachers and not all that nutritious) and I also take my own utensils and will begin taking my own cloth napkin, now that I have a few that are smaller lunch size ones.

6) We started, about two years ago, taking our own bags to the grocery store. Since I have accumulated so many from text book companies and conferences, we now have a set for each car. They're actually easier in the long run, once you get into the habit of getting them out of the backseat or trunk, because it means schlepping fewer bags from the car to the house when we get home. At some stores (unfortunately none in Boone, that I know of), you can even get a small credit for bringing your own bags.

7) I try to purchase recycled content aluminum foil when I need it, and when I use it, I'm sparing. The exciting news here is that some of the big name brands, like Reynold's, are coming up with recycled content products. So, that means coupons! So, not only are we saving the landfill space by using recycled content stuff, but the coupons allow us to purchase it for pennies on the dollar. (I think I paid 25 cents for the last roll of aluminum foil I bought.) Also, if you're careful, you can keep the foil clean and then recycle it, if not reuse it.

We're working on making the transition to recycled paper toilet paper. We still have some of the Scott Extra Soft left, so we'll use that up and then buy the recycled paper. We found that the Seventh Generation stuff has a pretty high recycled content, higher than the Scott Naturals, and the price is pretty comparable. When the Seventh Generation stuff goes on sale, we'll stock up and put some in the basement for when we need it. Seventh Generation is one of the leaders in green products and has tons of products available.

In terms of tissues, I haven't found a recycled content one that I like yet, so if you have any suggestions, let me know. Benny carries a handkerchief every day, so he uses that when he needs to, but I can't figure out how to carry one with as small as most women's pants pockets are. (If I'm sick, the handkie rubs my nose raw more than the tissues, so I generally opt for tissues.)

I've heard about corn starch kitchen trashbags, but haven't seen any on the market in Boone (although I haven't checked out EarthFare.) To fit our budget, we'll use up what we have of the standard ones before purchasing the corn starch ones. (I do feel a little better knowing that we're reducing our over trash as much as we can, so we're not putting as many plastic bags into the landfill as many families.)

If you've got any great green paper product ideas, please post them here! I'd love to know what you're doing and it'd be great to share those ideas with others. Sharin' the green love and savings!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Green Crafting

So, if you've known me for much of any period of time, you know that I have a love of recycling and a love of crafting. I was introduced to recycling at an early age and it had a big impression on me. I was introduced to art around the same time, and later in life today, I've found ways to blend the two.

A friend introduced me to mosaic art using paper, specifically paint chips (the color chips you pick up at a paint store or hardware store that supplies paint). She primarily uses them to create wall art, using scrap wood as a canvas. I've started using this technique to cover tables and dresser tops. I simply choose my colors (on these pieces, I chose colors we've used throughout our home) and cut the pieces to the size I want. Then, I glue them on with a glue stick. The added bonus to both of these pieces was that the coffee table was a dumpster find (so we literally saved it from a landfill--I am always amazed at what people will throw away) and the end table was a hand-me-down from a friend, which she purchased at Goodwill, so we were able to give this piece new life. The coffee table didn't originally have the trim around the edge, but I wanted that, so we found some at the Restore (for about a buck) and Benny and his dad cut it to fit. We then primed and painted the table. Once I had applied the mosaic to each table, we then applied a bar top resin (not a low VOC product, so use it in a well ventilated area or opt for the greener option of using glass, preferably recycled.). The nice thing about the bar top resin is that it gave us tables that didn't need coasters and it helped to keep the edges of the mosaic "tiles" in place.

Over Christmas, I gathered all of our old wine corks and created a trivet out of them by attaching them to a piece of reused cardboard as backing. While the trivet is usable as it is, I'd like to add some trim to the bottom to give it a more finished look. I used a glue to attach the corks, but you might have some success with drilling a hole through each one and wiring them together. (I didn't want to mess with dragging out the drill at the time.) I also have visions of using more corks, cutting them in half lenthwise, and "tiling" the top of a Restore dresser, which I'll put a piece of glass on top of to create a flat surface. I think this would provide a unique look and would be a neat way to reuse these pieces.

Lastly, since I've mentioned my draft dodgers in other posts, I thought I'd show you a picture of one. To make it, I simply sewed up the casing, starting with right sides together. I sewed one end closed and left the other open so that I could fill it. I turned the whole thing right side out and filled it with layers of the dried beans and dryer lint. Then, I carefully (and somewhat neatly) hand-sewed up the end. (You can also see our bamboo floors here, if you were wondering.)

Happy eco-crafting everyone! May you find new ways to reuse things and reduce the landfill space your family consumes.

Green Cleaning

So, since I'm on my fourth snow day this week, I thought I'd spend a little time cleaning today. For me, this is totally bleach, ammonia, and nasty chemical-free. My cleaning arsenal today will consist of the following tools: terrycloth rags (from worn out washcloths and towels), baking soda, white vinegar, salt, Charlie's Soap (my laundry soap), our lavender laundry booster, and maybe some newspaper (if I decide to clean windows or mirrors). Essentially, all the powdered stuff will help to act as an abrasive to scour and deodorize. The vinegar will act as a disinfectant. All of these are natural cleaners and many can be purchased in bulk at Costco or Sam's Club. (We store extras in the basement.) See my other posts for info on our laundry booster or Charlie's Soap (or visit the links above). (Please note, I am not about pushing products, but these are some of the best we've found or created in terms of natural and biodegradable cleaners.)

I'll start in the kitchen, cleaning the sink and drain. To clean the drain, I'll use the formula found in Everyday Cheapskate's Greatest Tips: 500 Simple Strategies for Smart Living by Mary Hunt. Her drain cleaner recipe is as follows:

Pour a mixture of 1 cup salt, 1 cup baking soda, and 1/2 cup white vinegar into the drain. Allow to sit for 15 minutes. Then flush with 2 quarts of boiling water, followed by hot tap water. Repeat if necessary.

I really like this method, especially since we have a septic tank. Using bleach to clean with or other toxic chemicals only serves to get rid of the good bacteria in the tank that keeps it operating the way it should. When I clean the sink itself, I'll start with Charlie's soap and laundry booster sprinkled in and scour with a terrycloth rag. (I like using the rags because I can just wash them with the towels, meaning that we use fewer paper towels... and have to buy fewer, saving both the landfill space and our budget.) If it needs a little sparkle after that, I'll give it a quick squirt with the vinegar mixture (about 1/2 vinegar and water) in a spray bottle and rinse.

I already ran the dishwasher last night, using white vinegar as the rinse agent, and it seemed to work well. I'll spray the counter tops with my vinegar solution, and move on to the bathroom.

In the bathroom, I'll use my vinegar mixture on the counters and wipe with a rag. Then I'll use the same drain cleaner as I did in the kitchen. To clean the shower, I'll use baking soda and laundry booster, as it gets in the textured floor pan really well. I won't bother to rinse it until one of us takes a shower in the morning. It won't hurt our feet to walk on the baking soda, and we'll save water by doing that. I'll use Charlie's soap to clean the toilet bowl, and vinegar spray for the seat. The Charlie's soap does the best of anything I've found at cleaning out the ring around the water we get from the sediment. When I clean the mirrors, I'll use the newspaper and vinegar spray, because the newspaper won't leave lint the way the rag might. Because I'm only using vinegar, I can compost the newspaper when I'm finished or let it dry and recycle it.

If I'm feeling industrious, I might tackle cleaning the fridge shelves. This will just involve a baking soda paste and water. If there's any baking soda that falls to the floor or into the drawers, I won't have to worry about it harming anything. It will be a nice deodorizer, although we hardly ever let anything go that far in our fridge (it either gets eaten, composted, put in the veggie stock bag, or frozen for later use).

For the bamboo floors, we use Poly Care, a product by Absolute Coatings, Inc. It's biodegradable and phosphate free. We simply attach a terrycloth cover to a Swiffer-like mop, spray the floor, and mop the area sprayed. We can wash the terrycloth cover with the towels, and I don't have to worry about any chemicals harming us or Lavender (who is very close to the floor). We can also use Poly Care on any other varnished wood surfaces, meaning we can use it on the cabinets and other wood furniture.

So, if you find time to clean today, I hope you take advantage of a few of these tips. Also, you can check out my cousin's blog for more cleaning tips... she's more fanatical about it than I am, I think! :) (Love ya, Liz!) Maybe she can do a guest post for us sometime.

Green Energy on a Shoestring Budget

So, snow day number seven (in a row) begins... Before getting the real post for the morning, I had to share this with you all. One of my former students produced it and it's highlighted on today. It absolutely fits how we're all feeling right now! If "Groundhog Day" Was Set in Boone Now, on to this morning's post...

As I said before, we have the vision of having solar panels on our roof one day, but that simply doesn't fit into our budget right now. We did try to plan the home with that end goal in mind, choosing electric kitchen appliances and electric tankless hot water heaters. Of course, the southern orientation of the house will mean that we'll get the most out of our solar panels when we finally get them.

In order to save energy now, we had higher R-value insulation put into the walls and attic space, so that the home would heat and cool more efficiently. (And also insulated the slab in the basement--see below for more details.) We chose double paned windows (which have pretty much become standard) that will help retain the internal temperature of the house. Our heating system is zoned and sized for the basement as well, so we can control each level independently. Some of the most common sense things we did were to install ceiling fans in almost every room (again, thanks to my uncle, a family friend, and Benny). When we have the windows open in the spring and summer with the fans on, we don't need AC. (In fact, I think we ran it about a week last year. Yes, we're blessed to live in the mountains with wonderful breezes most days.) And, as I mentioned in the laundry post, we don't use the dryer that much.

We did a few more things to increase the energy efficiency of the home:

1) We installed insulation behind every outlet and light switch. (These are readily available at most home improvement stores.) All you do is screw the cover off, put the foam sheet in place, and screw the cover back on. It's amazing how much cold air you can feel flowing through those spaces once you remove the cover!

2) We stuffed insulation (or spray foam insulation) into every other possible leak, especially behind the dryer and around the holes where the cable and HVAC system come into the home.

3) We installed CFLs in every possible fixture in our house. (We did leave out the chandelier because you can't dim CFLs, but we most often eat by candlelight or have an oil lamp, so we don't use that light that much.) And, of course, we only use the lights when it's dark so that we can make as much use of the natural light as possible. (This means that in the spring and summer, when it's light outside when I'm getting ready, I don't turn the light on in the bathroom until I put on makeup. We have a sheer shower curtain, so it diffuses the natural light nicely into the shower.)

4) The thermostat stays at 62 in the winter for us. I know this sounds extreme to some people, but we've really gotten used to it. With our insulation being higher than most homes, the heat stays in well and the cold stays out. I've learned in the evenings to put on a sweater or sweatshirt, and we sleep better with the cooler air. If you can't make an adjustment like this all at once, try it one degree at a time. (It's more energy efficient to run your heat that way anyway, than bumping it up and down several degrees at once.)

5) We kept all of the trees on the property that we logically could. This means that in the winter, the evergreens on the north side act as a windbreak and keep the house a little more protected. In the summer, the deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the fall) help to nicely shade the house. It does still get a little warm on the southern side of the house in the summer, but we installed curtains to help control that.

6) We insulated BEFORE they poured the cement slab in the basement. After we laid the vapor barrier (which is easy and will save you on labor costs if you're looking at building), we laid down blue board (the hard, Styrofoam type insulation). Although this was not the most earth friendly product, it did mean that we'd get a lifetime of savings out of the insulation factor. It also means that we have to worry less about condensation in the basement because the insulation acts as a thermal break between the interior temperature and the temperature of the ground underneath the house.

7) Our current project is to install new weather stripping around the exterior doors. Since the doors have settled a bit and shifted when they were moved with the house, the weather stripping that was originally installed now has gaps. This is an easy project, just do your research first so you know what type of weather stripping would work best for your application. I've also made a draft dodger from some dried beans, dryer lint, and scrap cotton fabric for the basement entry. Since I used these materials, it means that if (or when) the beans start to get a little funky, I can compost the entire thing.

8) We bought the most energy efficient appliances our budget could afford for the kitchen. This meant a fridge with the freezer on the bottom (warm air rises, remember, so this model makes tons of sense), a range with double ovens (the top one is smaller than the other, so it heats quickly and uses less energy... the bottom one uses convection, which runs about 25 degrees cooler and makes fantastic cookies), and the most energy efficient dishwasher we could buy (you don't have to rinse and it recirculates the water, sensing the cleanliness of the water with an electronic beam... oh, and we have a Lavender prewash cycle!). (Yes, that's a horrible run-on sentence for an English teacher.) We did take the hand-me-down washer and dryer from Benny's sister, which are not terribly energy efficient, but we know that when we have to replace them, we'll purchase the most energy efficient models our budget can afford.

9) I started landscaping last year, which included bushes as foundation plantings. Although foundation plantings provide a nice visual, their primary purpose here was to provide an additional wind block and temperature break between the yard and the house. Once the bushes grow up well, they will shelter the house from the winter winds and snow, meaning that heating the basement (one day, when we finish it) will take less energy.

10) We installed curtains in every window we could to act as another thermal break. We have a few odd shaped windows upstairs that will need something custom, so we're still working out the details there. When we do have something on those windows, it will probably be something that I make because that is generally cheaper than store bought materials.

Now, I know many of you may be thinking... with all those electric appliances, hot water heaters, two floors, tons of windows, you can't possibly have an economical electric bill! Not so fast... in the spring and fall, when we don't run the AC or fans, our bill is around $30 a month. In the winter, it might get up to $90, maybe $100 if it's really cold outside. So, when you average that out, that means we spend about $40-50 a month on electricity.

Certainly, we could make that greener by opting into the program offered through Blue Ridge Electric, where we can purchase green power from TVA for an additional cost. Right now, that's not in the budget for us, but maybe in a few years we'll have our own solar panels!

So, I hope you've found something useful here that will help you make your home a little more energy efficient. Also, if you haven't seen the documentary Kilowatt Ours, you should. It's amazing in what it reveals about the American energy industry and what individuals can do to make a difference. It's probably available at your local library, and if it's not, they usually welcome requests from patrons about new material to add to the collection.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More Kitchen Tips

So, can you tell the snow days are wearing me down? Three posts in one day! We'll see if I keep this up once spring is here and I'm busy at school and in the gardens.

This post is all those other tid-bits I kept thinking I should have included in my cooking post, but they didn't quite fit there. So, more to keep you saving green and living a life of a steward of the earth.

As I mentioned earlier, we purchase (and barter) our coffee from BGB, whom we love dearly. Not only does he provide us with the best coffee in America, but he also readily gives us his grounds for the garden. We've collected grounds from him and StickBoy, which has been a blessing for the blueberries yet to come. When we brew our coffee here at home, we use the unbleached filters, because those can also be composted. I'm also trying a new method of putting the new grounds on the old ones, assuming they've only been in the basket a day. This saves us on filters. I've also been known to, especially in summer, brew a big pot in the morning and then put it in the fridge. When I want iced coffee, it's easy because the coffee is already cold, so I don't have to put ice in with the milk and chocolate syrup (Benny is addicted to Hershey's... we haven't gone organic here... yet.) If I want another flavor, sometimes I'll add cinnamon to the basket before brewing, or add a splash of vanilla to the mug before mixing in my cream and sugar. (Benny saves us some green here by drinking his black; I just can't stomach it that way, even BGB. Sorry Don!)

We also make our own vanilla extract, which is so much cheaper than purchasing it in those tiny bottles. It's not entirely organic, since I don't know where to get organic vodka here in the High Country, but I do try to use organic vanilla beans. (Costco does have a great deal on vanilla beans. We got 10 before the holidays for around $12. I've also purchased them from Whole Foods.) In a half pint canning jar, I simply combine one split vanilla bean and fill it up with vodka. Usually a fifth of vodka will make about 4 half pint jars. These make great gifts, and when the jar is empty, you can put the beans in a canister of sugar to make vanilla sugar (also excellent in coffee). We must have looked like such boozers around the holidays with all the vodka we had around to make vanilla for gifts! I'm going to try my hand at using the same method this summer to get mint extract, and may use the grapefruit and tangerines we've got in the fridge to make a citrus extract (using just the zest).

In addition to making our own veggie stock, we also make chicken stock, though not as frequently. When whole chickens are on sale (rock bottom at about 29 cents a pound--when we have our own chickens, I'll have to find someone else to butcher them for me... I just don't think I can do that!), I buy one or two and cut it up. (This is fairly easy with a good pair of boning scissors and much like a high school biology dissection, without having to be quite as neat and tidy. Leave it to a science teacher to come up with that analogy...) Then, I put the whole, cut up chicken in the crockpot, leaving the giblets in the freezer to use for gravy later, along with an quartered onion, carrot, and bay leaf. Then, I turn it on low and let it cook while we're at work. When we get home, the house smells great and we've got homemade chicken stock, as well as a whole cooked chicken. At this point, I pull the chicken out and shred it off the bones. Then, we freeze the chicken meat in freezer containers (it's great for casseroles, soups, and tacos) and freeze the stock. I try to freeze the stock in a variety of portion sizes so that I have what I need for various recipes. I keep one cup, two cup, and three cup portions on hand. I'm also going to try freezing some of the next batch in muffin tins, which I'll then pop out when they're frozen. This will give me perfect 1/2 cup portions for sauces, like the sweet and sour sauce we love to use with stir fry.

The last thing I wanted to share in this post was how we reuse the "unusable" portions of a few fruits. First, whenever we have strawberries, I always cut the caps off. Of course, these could go in the compost bin, but then we wouldn't have a great, wholesome, low calorie treat for our precious Lavender. (Here's a picture of her in the snow.) So, I freeze the strawberry caps and whenever we're working on some training with her or rewarding her for a certain behavior, this is what she loves. (She'll just about pee on command for one!)

We also have a great recipe for candied grapefruit peel, thanks to my kitchen diva, Aunt Debbie. We save those in a freezer bag and when it's full, we make the candied grapefruit peel, which is a wonderful treat and also makes great gifts. This recipe does take a few days, because of the process, so it's great for making on snow days. Since I've got yet another snow day tomorrow, I'm going to start our batch for the year in the morning. I'll post the recipe at the bottom of this post.

A new method of using citrus fruit peels was one that I read about in a gardening for birds book I checked out from the library. Apparently, you can make your own suet for birds by using the fat drippings from any kind of meat (which I save in a can in the fridge because it's easier to dispose of that way), mix in peanut butter and various nuts or seeds with the melted fat, and then pour into citrus fruit halves (you can leave the membrane). The birds apparently love them, and you can just poke them onto a branch or nail them to a fence post. So, I'm going to try this with one grapefruit half and I'll let you know how it goes.

Candied Grapefruit Peel (I've also used naval orange peels, as long as they're thick)

Remove membrane and white pithy stuff from each grapefruit half.
Soak halves in a salt brine overnight (I use a stock pot)
Drain in the morning.

Cover with fresh water and bring to a boil. Boil 3-4 minutes and drain. Repeat two times.

Remove from pot and cut into strips (I usually do about 1/2 inch wide strips). Return to pot with no water.

Pour over strips 1/4 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar per whole grapefruit (make sure you have enough sugar on hand for this step)

Stir/shake over medium low heat until all the water is gone and the peel is close to burning.

Place on wax paper to cool and sprinkle with granulated sugar.

These will keep for several weeks at room temperature in an airtight container. Just make sure they are nice and cool (and dry) before putting in the container.

Green Clothes and Laundry

Again, as with most things green, this is all about careful consideration of resources and reuse.

Let me say that I don't remember the last time that either of us bought a new item of clothing... it's been years. We've become avid Goodwill and consignment store shoppers, as well as the welcome recipients of hand-me-downs. We've found that the Goodwill in Raleigh, off of Glenwood and behind Target, has exceptional values, as it's in a rather affluent area, so it means that things are generally more gently used and are of better quality to begin with. With Benny working at the paint store, it hardly makes sense to buy new clothes, so all of his work pants come from Goodwill or another thrift shop. My clothes are either gifts, hand-me-downs, or from thrift/consignment stores. The only things we buy new are socks and underwear, which we try to buy using a gift card, coupon (sometimes around Christmas you'll see Hanes coupons), and/or at the outlet stores (Benny found his favorite socks at Costco). By purchasing the majority of our clothing from thrift stores, we're supporting their mission while keeping these gently used clothes out of the landfill. Certainly, our next steps here would be if we need to purchase new, to purchase from a reputable company that does organic or natural clothing. (Did you know that 25% of the pesticides used on crops goes toward cotton?! Outrageous... and then we bury our heads in a cotton pillowcase at night... Pottery Barn has some incredible organic bedding at relatively affordable prices if you're appalled by this statistic as much as I was.)

In terms of shoes, we generally try to purchase items on sale and/or with a coupon or promo code online. Many of my shoes I've had for years, finally having to part with some I've had since 8th grade because the sole literally came off (yes, I know I could have had them repaired--but wasn't it about time I had a new pair of brown shoes!). I have a thing about purchasing used shoes, since you can't always wash them, so we generally buy those new. We either go to the outlets, or Mast General Store. Although Mast is expensive, they do carry lots of brands that are being made with earth friendly materials. Once I found those brands, I went to 6pm and found them there for a fraction of the cost. Other brands that Benny likes are Land's End shoes and Crocs, although the ecofriendly part of these is more questionable, the health of his feet and back is important since he's on his feet all day.

When we do laundry, we use Charlie's Soap, an all natural, biodegradable soap. We purchase it here at EarthFare, but you can find it online or at most any natural foods market. We also add our own laundry booster, using the lavender we currently purchase from Sunshine Lavender Farm, a family run, organic lavender farm in Hillsborough, NC. When we get our lavender plants in the ground, we'll begin using our own lavender. I may try using mint in the booster this summer for an alternate fragrance. (You will soon be able to purchase our lavender and handmade gifts at Moonlight Lavender, our online store and website. It is our hope that through this store and careful saving, in a few years, Benny will be able to be a stay at home dad.) The great thing about using all natural, biodegradable soaps is that the water is not contaminated. One day, we'd like to be able to run a greywater system from our washing machine to water the gardens with. (If you don't know about greywater systems, check them out on Google or another search engine. They're amazing, if your area allows for them in the building codes.)

None of our clothing is washed in hot water, or even warm. Even though we have tankless water heaters, we feel that it's a waste of energy to wash our clothing in hot water. The detergent gets them clean, and washing in cooler water maintains the integrity of the fabric longer. I've also found that by turning clothing inside out before washing, if the fabric is going to fade, it does this on the inside, rather than the outside. The only time I use hot or warm water is on bedding and towels (and handkerchiefs, which Benny carries daily), so that we get rid of dust mites (which live in bedding... gross!) and germs. This is especially key when one of us is sick.

To save energy on drying, we've employed a few methods. First, we hang all clothing, either on drying racks (mostly socks and underwear) in the half bath that is adjacent to the laundry closet, or on hangers. Currently, we have one rod installed in the laundry closet to hang clothes on, but it's a bit too low for Benny's shirts and my pants/skirts, so for now, we rest the hangers on the moulding around the closet. We're hoping that with our next trip to the Restore (the local Habitat for Humanity reseller--fantastic for building supplies), we can score another closet rod to install a little higher to hang those longer items on. We'll install clothesline outside under the deck in the spring. Last summer, all the towels, blankets, sheets, etc. were hung on the deck railings, but there were times we had to chase them through the yard, because they weren't weighed down. The clothesline will fix this. The only thing we dry in the dryer is towels, sheets, etc. in the winter. When I do use the dryer, I save the dryer lint to do a few things with: 1) Use it as stuffing in draft dodgers I make for the doors. 2) Compost it along with our other compost-ables. 3) Toss it outside in spring for the birds to use as nesting material. (Yes, we find another use for almost everything in this house, meaning that we only have to take away one trash bag about every two weeks--much less than the average American family. And it saves us on trashbags, but that's another post.)

So, here's to a new lease on laundry for you and your family! May you find many deals at Goodwill and fall in love with biodegradable soaps as much as we have. :)


I'm linking this post up to: Join us at Heavenly Homemakers for the little Green Project!

Cooking and Groceries the Green Way

I know that cooking "green" may seem like a weird concept, but it's really all about saving energy and water. I'll also include some thoughts and links here for saving on groceries.

Perhaps the greenest thing you can do in your kitchen is to make conscious choices about perceived waste. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, we compost everything we can. This included the usual organic material (fruit pulp, veggie scraps that won't work for stock, egg shells), but we also compost shredded paper towels (that don't have cleaning products on them), and put spent coffee grounds and tea bags in the garden we're preparing for the blueberries (since they're acid loving plants). In addition to composting, I make our own vegetable stock using veggie scraps. This idea came to me several years ago after reading through what has become one of our favorite cookbooks, Cheap, Fast, Good. The method is described in detail there, but basically, we save veggie scraps (carrot peelings, celery ends, herbs close to being spent, onion ends, etc.) in a freezer bag and cook them with water in the crockpot when the bag is full. We usually get about 8 cups from a gallon of scraps, after we've strained it. Then, we freeze the stock. And, of course, we recycle whatever we can of the packaging.

When we begin thinking about cooking, we make a weekly plan. Sometimes this is on paper, sometimes it's just a conversation. We try to make use of what we already have on hand and include at least two vegetarian meals a week. (Vegetarian meals take less energy and water in the production of the food itself than meals that use meat, where much of the corn we grow in this country serves as fodder for livestock. Vegetarian meals, especially if they include a complete protein of nuts/beans and grain, can be even more healthful than meals including meat, and are generally cheaper.) When we plan meals that use meat, we try to stretch the meat we're using by incorporating it into a stir fry, casserole, or soup. Making a weekly plan means that we only go to the store once, or not at all, during the week, meaning that we're spending less in fuel and saving the use of fossil fuels.

We also try to choose meals that we can cook a lot and then eat the leftovers for a few days or freeze them. This means that we're using less energy daily, saving our electricity bill and the planet from coal burning byproducts. This week, for example, we cooked our Valentine's meal of steak, baked potatoes, and sugar snap peas on Sunday, but cooked a lot, so that we could reheat it later for lunches or dinner. We also made a lasagna, incorporating spinach, fresh organic Italian parsley, sausage, marinara sauce, and cheese, meaning that we got all of our minerals and nutrients in one casserole. Since we used the smaller oven for this, we were using less energy, and reheating in the microwave takes a fraction of what it would take to reheat in the oven. We've done a lot of various soups lately, so we're kind of "souped" out. However, some of our favorite soup recipes come from the earlier cookbook mentioned, More with Less, and the magazine Everyday with Rachel Ray (thanks for that subscription, Mom).

When we are cooking, vs. reheating, we do our best to steam veggies and shrimp, as it requires less water and can be done in the microwave more efficiently than boiling on the stove. When we do have to boil things, such as pasta, we make sure the heat is turned down as low as possible for a boil and the lid is on. This means that we have to watch the pot a little more closely (yes, we've had some gigantic messes with boiled over water or milk when making soup or shrimp and grits), but ultimately, we're saving energy and often time, by covering the pot. When we stir fry, we use a large, heavy skillet so that we can fit a lot in and it will conduct heat evenly. We start with what will take the longest and move to the quickest cooking ingredients, so we're not having to clean out the pan.

Now for the part that most of you were wanting, probably... what is our savings strategy? Our monthly budget for groceries ranges from $100-$150, depending on how depleted our stockpile is. (This includes all toiletries, paper products, etc.) This means that we watch sales and coupons closely, primarily using the Grocery Game ( (This is a service we pay for, but feel that it's worth it because it takes a lot of the time out of it for us, matching sales and coupons. If you decide to sign up for this service, please list me as your referral and use my email address. With every three referrals, we get some months free, which would help us stretch things a bit more.) With this service, we manage to save usually 50% or more on a grocery trip, since Harris Teeter doubles coupons on a regular basis. We try not to buy too many processed foods, knowing that there's a lot of stuff in them that isn't good for us and there are just empty calories in much of that food. Most of our food we make from scratch, so we rely heavily on fresh organic produce (which we grow or purchase at the farmer's market when it's open), whole grains (wild rice, quinoa, barley, whole wheat pasta and flour), and meat (we try to purchase beef from Jason Brooks at the farmer's market). We also make every effort to buy organic dairy products when they are on sale, although this doesn't happen all the time. We do purchase fresh goat cheese from our dear friend Liza at the farmer's market. ( it's amazing stuff!) Some friends (kudos to Ben and Beth) recently told us about the coupon books at the front of EarthFare, so those will help us stick to this more. Another friend (awesome, Heather) recently started a blog on couponing ( which has been a great resource.

We've begun making all of our own bread using the bread machine given to us by a friend (thanks Maggie!), which is nice because it costs less per loaf for the basic ingredients than buying store bought, and we know that the bread doesn't have all of those preservatives in it like store bought bread does. It also means that we can create unique flavor combinations, like the beer bread I've made recently, as well as the pumpkin carrot loaf I made a few weeks ago. Making our own bread also makes breakfasts easy, meaning that we don't rely as much on store bought cereals, but can instead have toast with homemade jam or jelly. And, it's a wonderful gift for people and so appreciated.

A wonderful friend, Don Cox (aka Bald Guy at, roasts coffee locally that is fair trade and organic and truly sees his business as the mission field. We try to support him and have been able to work out some bartering over the years (I painted the mural in his kids room, Benny supplied him with primer for his new home), thus keeping our coffee costs low. It's nice knowing that bartering is still alive and well in Watauga County! And it's wonderful to know that we are supporting a family business that has an impact on the earth and global community. Bald Guy will ship his coffee to you and has shipped it all over the U.S., so if you're interested in trying his coffee, you can order from his website. He sells it whole bean or ground, and rounds his pounds up, unlike the grocery store varieties, which often are only 10-12 oz.

Finally, we try to grow and harvest what we can from our land. Since we just moved into the house a little over a year ago, we don't have a lot established, aside from what nature had already started. We are blessed to have apple trees, blackberry bushes, and dandelions (yes, you can absolutely eat the greens as long as you rinse them well). As I mentioned yesterday, we're starting a community garden with our small group this spring, as well as planting raspberries, blueberries, and hazelnuts that will produce for years to come if we take care of them well. We'll add to our herbs this year, to have chives, mint, lemon balm, thyme, parsley, oregano, basil, and hopefully cilantro and rosemary. (And of course, we'll have lavender. More on this love later.) We're consulting with another friend this week on raising chickens, which will provide us with fresh eggs and wonderful manure as compost. They will also help to keep the insect pests low (hopefully including those awful Asian lady beetles that they drop on the local tree farms). Benny is also contemplating taking a bee keeping course through the local agricultural extension agency so that we can help bring the bee population back (yay for natural pollinators) and have honey to use in baked goods and tea. One of our primary goals with all of this gardening is to become more self sufficient, making our carbon footprint smaller by not having produce trucked or flown around the world to make it to our kitchen table. If you're interested in this, check out local food movements in your area. Most areas today have fantastic farmer's markets and some farms offer CSA's, meaning that you can purchase a share in the farm to support their business in exchange for an agreed upon amount of produce on a regular basis.

I hope you've found some helpful information in today's post and will let us know what you'd like to see us explore further. If you have any questions or want more detail about anything in the post today, leave a comment and I'll get back to you!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gardening green

Although it's February and the snow continues to fall, I've been reading up on gardening with an eye toward organics in preparation for the spring.

Last year, we worked on one side of the yard, letting the other go to the wild flowers (and eight foot tall weeds, Benny would remind me.) This meant that we planted mostly perennials, many of which came from friends and family who were splitting them. I also planted a lot of bulbs in the spring and fall, many of which were purchased with a gift card to Lowe's (thanks Mom!). In an effort to keep things "green" we used as little fertilizer as possible, purchased and planted things that would do well with the average rainfall we get here in Boone, and used compost. We planted lots of succulents, because they require little water, and lots of groundcover to help conserve water by cooling the soil. I incorporated rocks as accents and borders that we had the builders leave on site after excavating for the basement. The compost and mulch we used came from the Watauga County Solid Waste/Recycling program ( and is free to Watauga County residents, as long as you pick it up. This required that we have a friend pick it up for us in his pickup, since we didn't have a vehicle that would carry it. (If you don't live in Watauga County, check out your local landfill, as many are now composting yard waste.)

We also have been composting here at home, although since we currently don't have a bin, it's probably more along the lines of feeding the local wildlife. However, that still keeps our kitchen scraps out of the waste stream. (I also save our veggie scraps in the freezer and make stock out of them in the crockpot when the bag is full.) It's our hope to have a compost bin this spring, as well as two rain barrels, which we'll order from the Watauga County Rain Barrel Program ( The rain barrels will harvest rainwater from our roof, which we'll then be able to water the gardens with (although not the veggie garden because of possible chemicals from the shingles). We also have a friend who raises grass fed beef (Jason Brooks at the farmer's market) who has agreed to let us have some manure for preparing another garden spot. (Of course, we'll have to let this rot a while before planting so that the excess nitrogen doesn't "burn" the plants.) I'm going to try out the new method of building raised beds called lasagna gardening (, which sounds ideal since we don't know how much rock is under the soil. It will take some time, but we should have a new flower bed ready by the fall for bulbs and shrubs.

In an effort to keep the mowing down (thus using a little less fossil fuel energy), as well as the watering, we're going to try planting low growing thyme instead of grass in the yard. We'll also have our veggie garden in the yard area and will share this with several families in our small group. This means that we'll all share in the prep, weeding, planting, and harvest, and hopefully cut our produce budgets along the way. We're going to grow our veggies organically in order to protect the water supply, as well as the little ones who will be eating the veggies.

I recently read that the Arbor Day Foundation provides trees as a gift for membership, so I purchased a membership and had three hazelnut trees ordered for shipment in the spring. We have a friend who wants some trees, so we'll probably share a membership with him and have a few Colorado Blue Spruce trees to plant. The local 4-H club is having it's annual plant sale (, so we purchased four blueberry bushes of various types through them. The bushes will be bare root, so they'll be small, but in a few years, very productive. We also have a friend who has volunteered to share raspberry bushes when they thin them out this spring, so we'll plant those along the back fence.

All of this is to say that we're trying to find ways, by sharing in our community of resources, to create a garden that is eco-friendly and budget friendly. The hope with all of our berries, nuts, and veggies, is that we'll become more self-sufficient and have fresher, better quality food than we could buy. (Not to mention the fact that it won't be trucked across the country or flown around the world.) Gardening green (both for your budget and the earth) is quite easy when you learn to tap into the community resources and friends around you.

Reflections on a Home

After numerous snow days, I've had quite a bit of time to think and reflect on our life as a family and decisions we've made, and continue to make. One of the things I am most grateful for is our home, which we tried to design with our planet and wallet in mind. While there are many things that we wanted to incorporate into our home, our initial building budget just couldn't handle them all. Here's a run-down of what we did thus far, and where we'd like to go in the next few years.

First, we knew that we could only build within a certain footprint because of the building site, so we only looked at plans that fit these requirements. Since we wanted to make the most of our space and our money, we decided to go with a modular home and basement system. This meant that our home was built in a factory, largely, and not subjected to the elements, it meant that we didn't have to worry about moisture issues in the framing. It also meant that the house went up quicker, meaning fewer days we had to pay crews to work on the site and fewer months of interest on the construction loan. We chose a two story Cape Cod style house on a basement foundation to make the most of the vertical space, meaning that we had to remove less topsoil than if we had chosen a ranch or other sprawing design. Our floorplan has the master bedroom on the main level, so this means that until we have kids, we don't have to heat or cool the upstairs, saving us money on energy bills and saving the planet by using less energy from coal fired plants.

In choosing a modular home, we had maximum flexibility with where we wanted windows, the fireplace, decks, and other features. We chose to have the house face south to take full advantage of the passive solar lighting and heating. In the years to come, we plan to add solar panels to the roof, which will be ideal with our southern facing roof. We added windows on the east and west sides of the house to allow for as much daylighting as possible, meaning that we had to run our CFL lighting as little as possible. We also tried to make the windows on the north side of the house as small as possible, so that this colder side of the house would lose less heat during the winter. Earlier this winter, we added curtain panels that are lined to allow the daylight in, but we can easily close them at night to keep the heat in. During the summer, these will allow us to block the glaring sun during the afternoon, keeping the house naturally cooler.

For flooring, we chose an eco-friendly bamboo for the main level, even though the modular kit came with carpeting. We had the carpeting installed upstairs for now, although one day, we would like to add bamboo upstairs as well. The bamboo flooring is eco-friendly because it is a grass, growing rapidly and sometimes invasively. (When purchasing bamboo, it is key to make sure you purchase from a reputable agency. Unfortunately, because of the rising popularity of bamboo, sometimes entire forests are cut down and replaced with bamboo--hardly an eco-friendly move.) Our bamboo flooring is the natural finish with the vertical grain, looking more like a standard hardwood floor. In order to save money here, we purchased our flooring from a friend through his hardware store, meaning that we got his wholesale price for almost 1000 square feet of flooring. Then, my husband and father-in-law installed the flooring over the Thanksgiving holidays, saving us several thousand dollars in installation fees.

Because of our budget, we did choose standard insulation and sheetrock, although we may do things differently when we decide to finish out the basement. To save a little more, my handy husband and father-in-law, as well as several friends, helped to hang most of the drywall upstairs (that part of the home was not finished in the factory).

We got a deal on paint, since Benny (my husband) works for a local Benjamin Moore retailer. In keeping with our earth conscious mindset, we opted for the Aura paint, a low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paint in an eggshell finish. Even if you don't get the family discount, I would highly recommend going with a low VOC paint, as it means that the overall air quality in your home will be better because those nasty compounds won't be in the air you and your family are breathing. If you're painting new sheetrock, Aura is a great product because it is self-priming on new drywall, meaning that we only had to paint the rooms once, not two or three times. (I think we did have to paint the burnt orange in the office twice, due to the deep color.)

My uncle worked for a building supply company at the time and had several materials he could give us, as they were slightly damaged and could not be sold through the company. This meant that we acquired 7-inch baseboard for the upstairs rooms, as well as his help in applying the beautiful wood edging on our laminate countertops. He also took some of the scrap wood from the lumber yard and built some wonderful benches for us to use on the deck. The design is very simple, yet functional. It's great to know that we kept these materials from ending up in a landfill somewhere.

As far as plumbing and fixtures goes, there wasn't a lot that we could negotiate with the factory, other than style for the main level. However, upstairs we were able to install a low-flow toilet, which uses less than half the water required by conventional models. To retrofit our downstairs toilets, we've added plastic containers filled with water to displace the water in the tank, meaning that we use less water per flush. We've also made sure that each sink in the house has an aerator, meaning that it uses less water, and we've installed low-flow shower heads.

I'll post more later, along with some pictures. I hope you find some useful tid-bits here and come back for future postings.