Friday wrap-up:

I’ve written before about the many joys of baking soda, but there’s an entire book out there dedicated to “Resourceful and Ingenious Uses of Baking Soda.” It’s free online, so feel free to check it out. (via The Simple Dollar)

Verda Vivo posted “50 ways to help the planet” today. I noted that I have switched to cotton swabs with a paper core (one of the items) — which, I believe, are compostable. A few other comments on the list:

  • It suggests “skip the coffee stirrer” — if you put your cream and sugar in the cup, then pour the coffee in, the swirling/pouring motion will do the stirring for you – no stirrer needed.
  • It says “use one less paper napkin” — a great reminder in public restaurants to not automatically grab a huge stack of napkins. With today’s large-purse trend, I’ve found it’s easy to carry an old cloth napkin in my purse — good for napkin use or for drying hands in public restrooms (Little Cheap usually looks at me first to see if I have my personal towel before reaching for a paper one). At home, I’ve only used cloth napkins ever since my first apartment. It feels nicer — and sure, eventually they get stained from tomato sauce or something, but then they just join the rag bag.

This person compared prices at a farmer’s market and her local supermarket. Her commenters point out that this isn’t the best time of year to do such a comparison. Have you noticed any pricing trends?

Yale University’s cafeteria is turning to composting. This report says they’re composting vegetable waste and napkins, with a local hog farmer picking up meat and dairy waste for his pigs. Now will the pigs be smarter … or talk like Rory from Gilmore Girls?

90% reduction update

Organic Needle reminded me to do an update on our performance during the Riot for Austerity, which I started 10 months ago. This is the 90 percent challenge that I’ve mentioned on this blog — with the goal of cutting consumption by 90 percent from U.S. average consumption.

Here’s the update on what I did and how it turned out:

1. Gasoline. Average American usage is 500 gallons PER PERSON, PER YEAR. A 90 percent reduction would be 50 gallons PER PERSON, PER YEAR.

Our use: With our family of three, we would be allowed 150 gallons per year or 12.5 gallons per month. HA! We live in a city where it would be very difficult to do things like see our families (who live about 15+ miles away) without using cars. They have complex calculations for using public transportation, and no mention of how to figure things like air travel (which, I’m sure, must simply be disallowed). Our average usage was 53 gallons per month in 2007 and 44 gallons per month so far in 2008 (although in May, we have used just 19 gallons so far). Composite average: 49.78 gallons per month or 40 percent of average.

2. Electricity. Average US usage is 11,000 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR, or about 900 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH. A 90% reduction would mean using 1,100 PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR or 90 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH. Hydro and Wind are deemed to have a 4 to 1 payback over other methods – you get 4 times as many.

Our use: We pay a supplement to use all wind-powered electricity, so we get 360 kwh per month for our household with the challenge. Since the challenge began, we’ve averaged 486 kwh per month, or 54 percent of average. I don’t know how they account for working at home, which in my case requires that our household use include two computers, a laser printer, fax, etc., as well as someone working in my office all day.

3. Heating and Cooking Energy – this is divided into 3 categories, gas, wood and oil. [We use natural gas.] US Average Natural Gas usage is 1000 therms PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. A 90% reduction would mean a reduction to 100 therms PER HOUSEHOLD PER YEAR, or 8.3 therms per month.

Our use: Since the challenge started, we used 77.3 therms per month or 773 total for 10 months. We are close to average on this. We have a gas hot water heater, a gas furnace, a gas stove, and we live in Colorado. Again, I work at home so I am here all day. I also tend to be cold, so much so that my fingers turn blue even when the thermostat is set to 68 (which means the actual house temperature is 62 to 64 degrees), as it was this winter. I don’t see a lot we can do here, although we turn the furnace way down at night, and I have tried to divert cooking from the gas stove to electric appliances. 93 percent of average.

4. Garbage – the average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY. For our family of three, we are allowed 1.35 lbs per day.

Our use: We have generated about 455 lbs of garbage in the last 10 months, or around 1.5 lbs per day. This doesn’t include recycling (I’m not sure of the weight, but we’ve filled our big cart 16.5 times during the past 10 months; if a full cart averages 30 lbs, that’s 495 lbs) or things we’ve donated, given away or sold (another 582 lbs). 11 percent of average (or 23 percent of average including recycling). (Note: I saw a comment on that post suggested 2.5 lbs per person per day is average excluding recycling/compost — I have not measured our compost weight. But we’d be at 20 percent of average for garbage using that figure.)

5. Water. The Average American uses 100 Gallons of water PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean 10 gallons PER PERSON, PER DAY. For our family of three, that’s 30 gallons a day.

Our use: We used 62,000 gallons during the past 10 months. That’s about 206 gallons a day. We use a high-efficiency washing machine, an EnergyStar dishwasher that we run on the lightest cycle every time, I save water in the shower to re-use, and we avoid unnecessary toilet flushing. We water our lawn sparingly, but we do water it; we are converting part of our yard to xeriscape. The catch with this one? We grow a bunch of our own food, and that takes water. Imperfect science. 69 percent of average.

6. Consumer Goods. The best metric I could find for this is using money. A Professor at Syracuse University calculates that as an average, every consumer dollar we spend puts .5 lbs of carbon into the atmosphere. This isn’t perfect, of course, but it averages out pretty well. The average American spends 10K PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR on consumer goods, not including things like mortgage, health care, debt service, car payments, etc… Obviously, we recommend you minimize those things to the extent you can, but what we’re mostly talking about is things like gifts, toys, music, books, tools, household goods, cosmetics, toiletries, paper goods, etc… A 90% cut would be 1,000 dollars PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR

Our use: Suffice it to say that I spent $3,500 in the past year in the “household” category of my budget alone, which includes some new furnishings, painting our house, and investments in things like CFL bulbs and water-saving aerators, as well as garden supplies, cleaning products, etc. There’s simply no way. And I must admit, I don’t have a very big interest in not spending money to this extent. But I do work to buy used items a lot, and I am making a conscious effort to try to purchase things made locally or fairly as much as possible (my Target budget is nothing like it was a couple of years ago).

7. Food. This was by far the hardest thing to come up with a simple metric for. Using food miles, or price gives what I believe is a radically inaccurate way of thinking about this. So here’s the best I can do. Food is divided into 3 categories. … #1 is food you grow, or which is produced *LOCALLY AND ORGANICALLY* (or mostly – it doesn’t have to be certified, but should be low input, because chemical fertilizers produce nitrous oxide which is a major greenhouse contributor). Local means within 100 miles to me. … #2 is is *DRY, BULK* goods, transported from longer distances. That is, *whole, unprocessed* beans, grains, and small light things like tea, coffee, spices (fair trade and sustainably grown *ONLY*), or locally produced animal products partly raised on unprocessed but non-local grains, and locally produced wet products like oils. … This should be no more than 25% of your total purchases. # 3 is Wet goods – conventionally grown meat, fruits, vegetables, juices, oils, milk etc… transported long distances, and processed foods like chips, soda, potatoes. Also regular shampoo, dish soap, etc… And that no one should buy more than 5% of their food in this form. Right now, the above makes up more than 50% of everyone’s diet.

I didn’t even go there. All this tracking takes up tons of time. Maybe some day …

How did I do?

Not that great. But it’s really hard. One thing I’ve taken from this type of challenge is that these changes take an enormous time investment. To do them to perfection, one would have to return to off the grid, do it yourself. Like the pioneers. Only the pioneers were not holding down a full-time job, going to graduate school and transporting children to school and activities. We are, and I know from my two months of processing fruits and vegetables in most of my spare time last fall, there’s only so much we can fit into a day.

Some argue that we should give up, for instance, soccer if soccer uses so many resources (gas to drive, uniform, ball, snack, game fees). But I have a hard time with depriving my kid or myself of normal life experiences when we are working hard in many ways to reduce our footprint. Likewise, our household suffers from high aesthetic standards. So I’m willing to make it myself, buy used, etc., but I don’t want to be completely out of style or not maintain a certain level of comfort and attractiveness in my home, where I spend nearly all my time.

And some categories — like using more organics or growing our own food — reflect badly on other categories — like spending money or using water.

What can I do?

We do have a few more goals in mind to help with our consumption:

  • Gas: I want to look into carpooling my daughter to school next year. It is only 2.5 miles away, but the drive adds up. Carpooling might cut it in half. Mr. Cheap plans to take public transportation to his job, too.
  • Water: We want to install rain barrels — which, as I understand it, are on their way to legality in Denver.
  • Food: Last year, I was not that impressed with our local farmers markets, but I did work hard to buy locally produced food or organic food at our grocery store. I will try the farmers markets again this year, or maybe join a CSA (I think I just found another local option that still has openings!). And we want to add more to our home food production, hopefully including chickens when we have a chance to get it together.

What do you think about these challenges? Are you determined to reduce in any particular area? Or do the challenges discourage you by showing just how hard it is?

How about 235 mpg?

Last week, I wrote about a forthcoming hybrid vehicle from Honda. Some of the comments concerned the fact that today’s hybrids scarcely get better mileage than some vehicles got in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s — hardly enough to justify their higher expense.

How about a VW that gets 235 miles to the gallon? That blows the early Hondas out of the water. Tentatively slated to be available in 2010 in limited quantities, the Volkswagen 1l (for 1 liter of fuel per 100km) is a two-seater — but with that mileage you can get the kids their own. (Via Green Daily)

It’s supposedly a safe vehicle, according to the VW Web site, but I notice they didn’t attach a price. I don’t think we’ve seen a cheap VW since the original Bug, so meanwhile, the jury is out.

Would you ride two in a row if it saved you that much gas?

Really cheap? Want to do Wife Swap?

Frugal Dad today posted a call for participants for the show “Wife Swap.” You get $20,000 for torturing your family — but some people are into that!

They are especially looking for families into clipping coupons.

Potential families can live anywhere in the United States, but we ask that families applying for the show consist of two parents and have at least one  child, age 7 or older, living at home. Specifically, I’m looking for families who know how to save a buck by clipping coupons! If you’re serious about your coupon regime, I want to hear from you!  To submit for the show please email a family photo and description to Gaby.

If you go for it, good luck!

Plastic bags passe?

The other day I went to our local grocery store and saw this:

bag sign

I’m still kind of new to my camera phone, so it’s a hideous shot (and I wasn’t shopping at a totally deserted store … just managed to get no one in my shot!).

But the orange sign is a handwritten sign that says “Did you remember to bring your bags?”

My grocery store (a King Soopers store two blocks from my house) has always accepted my bring-my-own bags without any argument. I purchase gift cards from my daughter’s school (they get 5 or 10 percent of the amount back), and when the card is empty, the checker takes it and says, “I’ll throw that out for you — or actually, we reuse them.”

I found a sack of plastic bags in my laundry room and took them to King Soopers’ bag recycling bin. It’s a large barrel where shoppers can put their bags, and it’s often full. In the past I’ve assumed it is seldom emptied, and that’s why it’s full. That morning, around 9 a.m., the barrel was empty. “Yippee!” I thought, and dumped my sack into the barrel.

Later that same day, around 6 p.m., I walked back over to the store to pick up an item for dinner. On my way out I glanced at the barrel. It was completely full, with a bag of bags on top and two more bags sitting on the floor next to it.

It appears infrequent emptying isn’t the issue. It’s that people are eliminating their plastic bag stashes.

The other day when I was shopping, at least 40 to 50 percent of the shoppers had their own bags with them. Just a year or so ago, there might be just me and perhaps one other shopper with their own bags in the store at any given time. And the bag sign and the comments are the kind of service one used to get only at a natural foods market.

Sea change!

Are you seeing this change in your neighborhood? What will become of the plastic bag industry?

Keep birds out of the garden

"snake"So you’re growing your own food. Great! Then the birds come in and eat your plants.

Not great.

Birds like to eat seedlings and fruit. I know of several methods to keep them away:

  • Use floating row cover for seedlings. Weight down the edges — you can use the fancy pins they sell, or just use dirt or rocks. When the leaves get to be 4″ or so, birds won’t eat most plants. (This is what we didn’t do soon enough with our peas … and the plants never lived to grow up. 😦 )
  • Use netting for trees. We got ours at a yard sale last year, via Craigslist. You drape it over the tree, and birds don’t want to tangle with it. Theoretically. (However, at a pick-your-own farm we went to last year, birds were INSIDE the net – not a pretty situation. They were scared AND eating the fruit. So use with caution.)
  • Use CDs a la Juliette Binoche (who used mirrors) in The English Patient. We have strung CDs (obviously, ones you don’t want back – the old, ubiquitous AOL CDs were perfect for this) on garden twine. When dangled over your garden plants, they sway and glisten in the sunlight — making the beds feel too risky for birds. (Pie tins can work, too — and it’s worth a try in fruit trees.)
  • Cut an old garden hose into 10-12″ lengths and lay it in the garden. Move it around when you are out. The “snake” might intimidate some of your feathered friends. (I just spotted what looked like a canyon wren — perhaps on its way to or from the mountains — prowling cockily around our lettuce seedlings and threw a couple of “snakes” into the garden — we’ll see if it works!)
  • Make somewhere else more worth their while. Put bird seed in an area far from your garden.
  • If you’re growing seed plants, like sunflowers, try covering the head with an old pantyhose so it can grow or dry, but birds can’t feast.
  • Get a dog or cat. It’s not THE reason to get a pet, but if you are considering it already, add it to your arsenal of reasons why. Our dog tears out toward the garden and scares the birds away, and between him and the neighborhood cat contingent, squirrels never venture onto the ground away from a tree out there.

What else works for you?

How does your garden grow?

CherriesThis weekend marked the official start of spring — our garden is in! And those are *real* cherries growing on our tree. There must be a dozen of them growing … enough for a Barbie-sized pie. Maybe a cookie.

Here’s the what, where, how on our garden:


We just harvested all our spinach and froze it, totaling three pounds from a good-sized patch. A few more spinach plants are scattered among the lettuce.

We’ve had many good salads from our lettuce, which went in early, and now the lettuce is about to bolt.

We are gradually expanding our vegetable garden into our front yard. We have two pumpkin plants in the ground near our front drain spout (probably just jack-o-lantern pumpkins). Soon, we will carve away some more grass for a small bed to grow cantaloupes. And today we bought three wine barrel planters (not formerly my favorite “look” — but they are recycled, and so large!). In one of them we have planted scarlet runner beans that I hope will climb up and disguise our unattractive porch railings, and in front of the beans a bell pepper plant. In two more barrels in front of our house (on an also not-so-lovely bed of rock) we installed two Roma tomatoes and some basil seed.

In the back yard, we’ve got going:

  • Butternut squash (2)
  • “Sweet olive” cherry tomato, two “celebrity” tomatoes, one “Juliet,” one “Big Boy,” four more Roma (altogether three slicing tomatoes, seven paste and one cherry)
  • Peanuts (6)
  • Beets
  • Jalapenos (6)
  • Ancho chiles (2)
  • Bush green beans (6 square feet)
  • Brussels sprouts (6)
  • Potatoes (organic fingerlings from the grocery store that are growing fast in two separate containers)
  • Parsley
  • Dill
  • Onions that are going to seed from last year
  • Strawberries (about 10)
  • Cherries
  • A so-far-barren apricot tree
  • 2 new baby apple trees
  • Kale (about 8 square feet)
  • Napa cabbage (only one survived).

Yet to come are cucumbers (about 8 … last year’s 14 was way ambitious), new lettuce and radishes.

I think we even have some baby apples growing …



Our backyard garden includes an herb garden where the apricot tree grows, a side garden with the cherry tree and strawberries, a previously abandoned corner measuring about 90 square feet (that we’re giving to the squash, one container of potatoes and I plan to squeeze lettuce and radishes into the shadiest area), a regular bed about 48 square feet, and a triangular bed carved out of our lawn that measures about 40 or 50 square feet.

The apple trees are growing in two circular holes Mr. Cheap actually hacked out of our back driveway with a sledgehammer. Two tomatoes will grow in the recycling bins the city used to use, and the three whiskey barrels and two front yard spots are similar size.

Altogether, I think we’re gardening about 215 square feet. Hey, it’s .4% of an acre — and 3% of our lot.


This year, I tried to be very organized. I plotted out our garden carefully using graph paper. We planned ahead and didn’t overbuy at the garden store. I grew many of the seedlings (butternut squash and peanuts are from our saved seed; I also grew the pumpkin, cantaloupe, scarlet runner beans and okra). The only “extras” we sprang for at the garden store were a bell pepper and some basil seed, which I had overlooked in my planning.

What we learned last year

  • We learned we wanted more paste tomatoes and didn’t like yellow pear tomatoes nearly as much as we thought.
  • We learned the watermelon was a bust again.
  • We learned carrots aren’t worthwhile.
  • We learned to give the winter squash PLENTY of room.
  • We learned we could save squash all winter, which makes it worthwhile.
  • We learned we could make okra work.
  • We came thisclose to getting brussels sprouts off our plants and want to try again.
  • We learned to love the wasps and spiders that ate so many bugs, we experienced virtually no pest losses.

Tell us about your garden! What, where, how, and what did you learn from last year?