Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Making Frugal Christmas Gifts

In previous posts, I have talked about how many of my holiday gifts are handmade/homemade.  My favorite gifts to receive have also been homemade.  I enjoy giving them because I enjoy creating items that are useful or delicious and because it is a more frugal alternative to the obscene amount of money most Americans spend on gift giving.  If cutting back on your holiday spending is something you are interested in, I recommend reading Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Cappock Staeheli or Hundred Dollar Holiday by Bill McKibben.

Most of my gift giving involves food: jars of preserves or baked goods.  My husband's grandmother gets a large container of homemade cookies and candy to put out for visitors from us.  This year I will be repurposing my saved shortening containers for cookie containers.  They're plastic and recyclable where I live, but I still like to reuse even recyclable items.  I'll cover the white containers with fabric scraps so that the container itself will also be a gift-much nicer than those gift bags and more durable.

My sister moved across country this summer, so I'll be sending a package of homemade preserves for her family, though I did pick up some inexpensive items for my niece and nephew (children don't seem to like a jar of pickles for Christmas). In past years, I have sewn doll clothes, doll blankets, and knitted hats and scarves. 

I cross-stitched stockings and filled them for my husband's parents one Christmas and sewed napkins for another. They also get a box of "canned goodness" as I like to call it: jellies, salsa, and baked goods each year.  I will admit that these homemade gifts do not seem as appreciated as store bought ones by my husband's family and if that's the case in your own family, you'll either have to purchase an acceptable gift, or just deal with the fact that not everyone places the same value on the same things.

My parents do not like to receive store bought presents for the holidays.  They simply want to visit with family and friends.  They also receive an assortment of canned preserves from my garden, along with some baked goods, and sometimes some home brewed beer.  This year, they may be lucky enough to get some hard apple cider.

One year I sewed bed quilts for my daughters and an entire collection of doll clothes.  Last year I knitted a Slytherin scarf and hat for my oldest daughter.  Not sure what I'll make for them this year. (Update 12/22/12: I made my oldest daughter, a "Dr. Who" fan, this weeping angel from an old Barbie Doll.)

Don't blink.

I've bought terracotta pots and painted them to look like Santas, filled them with treats and given those away to teachers.  Potted herbs and plants from seeds and cuttings make great gifts, as well.  I've taken 2L soda containers, cut a vertical slit in the side, and slipped in goodies for an unusual gift container.  I've also saved potato chip bags, cut them open, washed them and used the shiny silver inside as gift wrapping and bows.

Because I enjoy making things, the gifts and sometimes the wrappings satisfy my creative urge and produce a beautiful item for someone else to enjoy.  I also like knowing that I am not contributing to the continued consumerism and commercialization of a holiday that has become more about showing everyone how you bought your child a laptop, than about family and friends.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

My fall/winter garden

Cold frame in back and chard in front.

One of my favorite reasons to grow food year round is the ability to have something fresh with supper.  Once late fall arrives, that fresh produce may only be a few times a week, but it becomes a treat. Last year I had salad greens growing in my cold frame throughout winter, for the first time ever due to a mild winter.

This morning, I harvested salad greens (buttercrunch lettuce, black seeded simpson, and rainbow chard) out of my cold frame-I planted the seeds in September.  I'm making pasta with dried tomatoes in an alfredo sauce for tonight's supper and the salad greens will make a nice addition to that heavy meal (along with some carrots, fresh bread, and wine). Normally I would wait until just before the meal to pick greens, but the weather is blustery and stormy and I didn't want to be wrestling with my cold frame lid-it turns into a sail in the wind.

Once winter gets here, my veggies will stop growing, but they don't die in the cold frame.   Instead they sort of hibernate until the temps warm up a bit and then they start growing once again.  The large rainbow chard plant in the front garden of the picture is two years old this fall.  It went to seed this year and I saved them and planted some in the cold frame bed and saved some more to plant in February as the temps inside the cold frame will make the soil warm enough for growth.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Updated Suburban Homestead Reading List

Some of the books in my personal library.

Peak Oil Survival by Aric McKay.  Info on Obtaining water, treating water, bathroom issues, keeping food cool, Heating food, and a smallish section on Lighting and Heat.

Collapse by Jared Diamond.  History refresher on how and why past societies have collapsed.

Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin.  Originally written in 1981, this is a book about living in balance and stories of those who have adopted this lifestyle.

Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. The essential guide to becoming a producer, not a consumer.

Food Security for the Faint of Heart by Robin Wheeler.  Simple techniques for securing your food supply in an insecure world.

The Urban Homestead Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen.  A guide to self-sufficient living in the city.

Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew. How to build and grow your homestead with cheap, salvaged, and recycled materials.

The backyard Homestead  edited by Carleen Madigan.  A Storey book helping you learn how to produce all the food you need on just 1/4 of an acre.

Little House in the Suburbs by Deanna Caswell and Daisy Siskin. Two friends share their knowledge of backyard farming and home skills for self-sufficient living.

Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman.  Excellent, easy information on growing vegetables in your home garden all year long.  My gardening bible.

Storey's Basic Country Skills John and Martha Storey.  Almost everything you need to know about everything to become self-reliant.

The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery.  The original maunal for living off the land and doing it yourself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Living a Simple Life from Scratch

In 1986, I was in eighth grade and my sister in 2nd grade when my mom went to work full-time.  I remember that first year we got a lot of new things: new car, our first microwave, a color television, a VCR, and a clothes dryer.  I was super excited for all of these things. No longer did I have to cringe when my friends came over and had to watch one of our FIVE black and white TVs (we had five, because grandparents kept giving us their old ones and my parents hung onto all of them). Mostly, though, I was excited for the dryer.  I hated hanging up laundry outside.  It was my job and it took so long and at fourteen I had lots of other important things to do like...moping around and irritating the rest of the household.

The car, a Mercury Lynx, was an awesome little red station wagon until I got my license two years later.  That crappy car liked to shut off just as I was making a left turn off of busy roads.  Seems it only ever happened to me so my mom blamed me for doing something to it.  After about the twelfth time, it happened to her or my dad and the speed control module (or something) was shorting out. They gave me that car when I got married.  We traded it in a year later.  Was a crappy piece of...

The microwave was an experiment in bad cooking.  Mom bought frozen microwavable french fries and hamburgers that claimed to taste just like fast food (they didn't).  We bought the microwavable cakes, cookies, and brownies that cooked inside some sort of aseptic plastic tray (always turned out disgusting). I'm not sure how many things were cooked too long and became hard as rocks.  After a few months, I abandoned it as a cooking tool altogether.

The color television was fantastic.  All 19 inches of it. Add to it the VCR and I could watch the only movie we owned (E.T.) all I wanted, which was never.  We didn't have cable so I would take blank tapes to my babysitting gigs, tape MTV (back when they actually played videos all day) and then come home and freeze frame George Michael's butt in his "Faith" video.  What a cultural step forward!

Interesting then, that as an adult, I've come to not care for any of those things my parents bought that first year.  I rarely use a microwave, I hardly ever watch television, and I LOVE hanging laundry.

There's just something very satisfying about using my own hands to do things and produce things.  We own an electric mixer, restaurant quality, that I never use.  My husband will use it on the rare occasions that he makes bread (no hand kneading) or makes cookies (no stirring).  I love to knead bread and stir dough.  I have control over the texture and thickness and frankly, it tastes better.

I think making things with my own hands gives me a sense of accomplishment that I wouldn't get otherwise.  It's why I have never held an office job.  Most of those have nothing tangible for me to look at at the end of the day and say, "Look at what I did/made!"  A day of baking yields a lot of tasty tangibles.  Neither is better than the other, but the latter is better for me.

Many people see handmade or homemade items as something only those who are very cheap or have lots of free time, do.  I'm often surprised at how many people look down their noses at me over my choice to make things from scratch (food, quilts, clothes, art) rather than buying them and having a full-time job away from my home.

I think creating things, whether that creation is a meal, a quilt, or a flower garden, is an innate human need.  Having something tangible to show after a few hours of work means "I matter" and that your life has purpose beyond earning a paycheck.  It's hard to be anything other than satisfied and proud when you've cooked a meal for folks and they sincerely thank you.
I think if we all spent a little more time creating and a little less time shopping and watching television, we'd be a happier, more content nation. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Frugal and Low-Carbon Suburban Living

Finding new ways to reduce my carbon footprint and spending is something I am constantly searching in books and on the Internet.  Over the weekend I read Cooler Smarter by the Union of Concerned Scientists, hoping to get some more ideas. The good news is also the bad news for me and my family: we're already doing almost everything they suggest.

I line dry all of my clothes.

The great thing about living a low-carbon lifestyle is that you spend less money. Line drying my clothes means I don't buy fabric softener sheets, I don't pay to use a dryer, and my clothes don't wear out as fast.

Making my own laundry detergent and household cleaners saves BIG BUCKS and is healthier for everyone in my home.  Vinegar, baking soda, soap, and borax don't cost much and do not take much time to make.

Growing most of our produce saves money and gas and is free exercise.  I do not belong to a gym.  I use the "earth gym".  Raking, hoeing, and digging in my garden.  Walking and running in my neighborhood.  I have my parents' old Walk-Fit Nordic Track that is self-powered and on an incline for when the weather doesn't cooperate. No membership fees and no electricity to power equipment.

Meals are almost always from scratch and are always better than what I can get in a restaurant anyway. The ingredients are cheaper and I know what they are and except for grains, are mostly local.  Using time constraints as an excuse to eat prepackaged food is dishonest.  Even when I was in school full-time, working full-time, and had a toddler, I still made most of our meals from scratch.  Takes preplanning.  If you have time to watch TV, you have time to plan meals and make them.  Period. Be honest and say you don't want to cook from scratch, don't tell me you don't have time.

I hate to drive if I can walk or bike somewhere.  My kids walk home from school every day (about 2 miles).  That isn't far and it's good exercise. My most expensive hobby is yoga.  I pay $10/week for 2 classes.  Those 2 yoga classes have helped keep my joints healthy and mostly injury free so that I can be as active as I want doing other things.

Travel is paid for by combining my husband's work trips with credit card rewards, and I pay our credit card bill off each month. The only debt we have is our mortgage and my oldest daughter's student loans.

Clothes are bought on clearance or at rummage sales. I have three daughters and they wear hand-me-downs. When their clothes are too worn out to use, I will cut them apart for quilts, use them as rags, and sometimes unravel the sweaters for yarn or turn them into mittens.

We rarely use the air-conditioning except for hot, high pollen summer evenings.  My home is East-West oriented (we have since moved, but still have solar gain) and is able to capture a lot of solar heat in the winter; so much so that my furnace rarely runs on sunny winter days.  The thermostat is set at 64F when everyone is home and at 60F at night. I have thermal curtains on the windows in the north facing bedrooms to keep the heat in during the evenings.

I've been doing these cost-saving and low carbon things for years now, they've become second nature to me. Other people's homes with their Keurigs, Glade plug-ins, and disposable plates/napkins shock and sadden me because of how wasteful it is. That is a lot of garbage and energy to toss away every day. We should all use less and be more conscious of what we use because our resources are finite.  The skills and ways of living that are dying with our grandparents may become a necessity in the future.

Monday, October 1, 2012


Park next to my home.

Autumn is my favorite season.  The growing season is coming to an end and I've harvested almost everything that was growing in my large gardens, except for a few tomatoes that are slowly trying to turn orange.  My 4' by 8' cold frame has onions, carrots, and tiny salad greens growing that I will be able to collect for the next few months.

This is a resting time for me after 2 seasons of hard work.  Autumn is sunny and warm enough for me to get out and enjoy nature for nature's sake without the work of growing food.  I take lots of walks around my neighborhood and through the park above, almost daily, feeling the crunch of newly fallen leaves and deeply inhaling the smell of their decomposition.  With a park like this, it's almost criminal NOT to get out and enjoy it but there are plenty of neighbors who barely touch the outdoors, preferring the climate controlled air of their homes.  Amazing how quickly we've forgotten that we are nature, too, but I think Autumn reminds us in a way no other season can that we are part of nature (even if some of us are inside our houses).