Thursday, October 30, 2014

Before and After: Front Porch

When we moved into our old house, it was looking pretty shabby inside and out. We decided to address the exterior first, partly so that the neighbors wouldn't hate us, and partly because our restoration carpenter told us our front porch was going to collapse and kill someone. Noted.

As you can see, there was a lot to address. The porch roof had become detached from the house, and the floor didn't have a proper foundation so it was sinking into the ground. It was holding itself up with sheer willpower, it seemed. Not to mention the rotting floors, too-tall and unpainted Home Despot railings, iron pipe handrails, super ugly stairs, and flaking paint. Oh yeah, and the giant bittersweet vine woven through all the gingerbread details.


With consulting and some help in key moments from our wonderful restoration carpenter, we rebuilt the porch ourselves. We jacked it up as best we could, reattached it to the house, poured concrete footings, and replaced the spent floor with new douglas fir. I spent I can't even tell you how many hours scraping the turned posts and gingerbread, and repainting them. Tristan made the beautiful new lattice frames.

We painted the ceiling blue, which was traditional for Victorian porch ceilings (and we have proof that ours was originally a similar color. The rest of the paint scheme isn't really traditional, but we think it looks good with all the color going on in the brick and mortar. We also restored the front door.

Truth be told, we've still got some work to do. A teeny bit of painting (porch stair risers), and most importantly, adding salvaged railings. All but two small pieces of the original railing were long gone, so we scoured Craigslist and salvage yards for over a year. Finally, a few weeks ago, we found railing that was the appropriate height, in enough length, coming out of a house that had burned down. We've got to experiment with wood hardeners and epoxies to fix some rot, but we hope the railing will clean up nicely and really make the porch pop.

It feels good, though, to know that we've saved this original porch, and to see how much better the house looks now than when we bought it 2 years ago.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Mid-week Tweets

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Garden Planning for Geeks

I have a confession to make.

I've already got a rough draft of my garden plan for next year. Yes, that's right, a rough draft. You see, I am a giant nerd. I love spreadsheets and research, puzzles and planning. This post might not be for everyone. If spreadsheets cause your blood pressure to rise, if the thought of planning next year's garden before you've even put this year's to bed doesn't appeal, well, you might want to move on along. But if you're a garden geek like me, here's how I plan our vegetable garden:

The Layout


For the past two years, we've had a smallish kitchen garden lining the driveway, no more than 4 4x8 beds. It's pretty much enough for fresh eating for two people, but it's not enough for storage crops or the amount of diversity we'd like to have. So, we asked ourselves a few questions to determine the size and location of our garden expansion:

Q: What's the maximum size we have available?

A: We measured the space in the yard we had in mind, and discovered it was 1500 square feet. I spent about an hour wildly daydreaming about my new mini-farm, and then reality sunk in. Can we really handle that much annual vegetable garden?

I went to the forums, and the consensus was that while it was possible, it would likely be quite a lot of work if we only planted vegetables. But, if we planted a substantial portion in carbon crops for building compost, 1500 square feet might be feasible.

Q: How much square footage do we think a two-person household needs?

A: For this one, I got to do one of my favorite things: RESEARCH! (Garden geek, remember?) I pulled out my copy of How to Grow More Vegetables , and turned first to its sample garden plans, then to its copious charts, which include information about how much yield you can expect per square foot of every imaginable vegetable, with options for beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

The sample plans only helped so much--they included fruit trees and perennial vegetables that I already have sites for elsewhere in my yard. But the largest garden plan they had was only 1300 square feet for a family of four. This told me I was probably going overboard. We decided to start with a little more than half that amount for next year, with the possibility of expanding in the future. So, a 720 sq. ft. garden it will be!

Q: Where will the garden be located?

A: We didn't have too many options for this. It needed to be a reasonable distance from the spigot, and from the back door, with good sunlight. We picked the part of the backyard closest to the end of the driveway. Once this is installed, you will have to walk through the vegetable garden to access the rear third of the yard. We hope this will encourage us to pay attention to all of the goings on in the garden throughout the season. Because our lot is fairly narrow (78' wide, with trees and bushes along the perimeter), this 24 x 30 foot garden will span most of the useable part of the yard.


 Preparing the garden (sheet mulching)


There are many things I love about gardening. Digging new beds is not one of them. So, as soon as we started planning a garden for next year, I started thinking about how we could start the beds this fall, with sheet mulching. Sheet mulching is the process of covering existing vegetation with thick layers of newspaper or cardboard, compost, and leaves or straw. Sheet mulching builds soil because you never disturb the soil structure underneath, and you add all that goodness on top. You can plant directly into the compost layer immediately after sheet mulching, but I like to give it a winter to kill the grass and further decompose.

Not only is sheet mulching better for the soil than traditional methods, it's A LOT less work (more on sheet mulching in a forthcoming post). Suffice to say, we scrounged our materials and threw them on the ground, and come spring we'll have 720 sq. ft. of good soil ready to plant. Easy!

The Plan


So I've figured out how big and roughly what shape my garden is going to be. After further research I decide to try relatively skinny beds: 3x8, with 18" paths and bigger, wheelbarrow-sized ones dividing the garden into quadrants. It looks like this:

I picked the skinny beds because it should make it easier to install a drip irrigation system with one line per bed, which will save us money. So, I've got 24 beds, each 24 sq. ft.

What will I plant in them?


Ok, here's where I broke out the crazy lists and spreadsheets.

Step 1: Brainstorm a list of all of the crops we want to grow next year

Step 2: Estimate desired yield, in pounds, per crop. There's lots of guesswork involved here, but I based as much as I could on records we've kept of past yields. For example, we grew 60 lbs of potatoes last year, and that lasted us awhile, but we'd like to increase our yield to 80 lbs for next year.

Step 3: Use the crazy charts in How to Grow More Vegetables to estimate yield per 100 sq ft for each crop. I used the "beginner" yields, figuring I'd rather be pleasantly surprised at my skillz than disappointed at my yields. (Note: This book has some problems, so I don't recommend it wholesale. It seems pseudo-sciency at times, and there is data in their charts that compares apples and oranges. For example, the charts include a column of "Average U.S. consumption per year," but I doubt that any vegetable grower eats anwhere near the low amount of vegetables consumed by the "average" American.)

Step 4: Math time! Determine how many beds are required to get the desired yield for each crop. So, if bush beans yield 30 lbs/100 sq.ft. and I want 7 lbs of beans, that's 23.3 sq.ft. Round it up to 24 and that's 1bed o' beans.

Step 5: Here's where things get tricky. Will I have enough space for all the things? I noted the growing season for each crop, roughly: spring, summer, fall, winter or any combination thereof. Then, I opened up another sheet and got to work.

I started by assigning beds to things that took up entire beds over most of the season. Things like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and hot peppers. Then I looked for holes and snuck in as many crops as I could. For things that took up partial beds, I looked for things that would make good buddies, trying to avoid pairings that would mess up a crop rotation (like putting nightshades and brassicas in one bed). I'm not gonna lie--this part took some time. If you like puzzles, you'll love this step. 

Here's what I ended up with (I had to relegate a few things to auxiliary garden spaces to make everything fit). It's still a draft, and I'd love to hear from you in the comments if you see anything that looks wrong. I'm in zone 6a:

Step 6: Assign the beds to the physical plan

I haven't finished this step yet, but this is where I will try to group the quadrants into reasonable, rotate-able chunks. I don't want to get too complex with having to remember what goes where each year, and would prefer to stick to a basic rotation, like so:

So, in this step I'll try to group my beds as best I can.


 Hurry up and wait


As winter approaches, I know I'll have many months to gaze longingly at this plan, revising and scouring seed catalogs for the perfect varieties to plant. How will you spend your winter? Will you try my crazy method, or do you prefer a more relaxed approach?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Quick 'n dirty file cabinet redo

Picked up this file cabinet for $1 at a tag sale this morning. I was so excited to dig in that I forgot to take a before shot. Just picture your standard beige file cabinet with scratches and rust spots. 15 minutes and one can of chalkboard paint later, I've got some new file storage for my office. Tomorrow I will "prime" the chalkboard surface with chalk, and away we go!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Making an old house more energy efficient

Why did a couple of sustainable living enthusiasts choose a leaky, drippy old house to call home? Shouldn't we be building a passive solar cob house or something?

Well, we just love old houses, and we want to play a role in helping one stick around for many more years to come. I could go on and on about the virtues of an old house, but that's a different post. The point is, living in an old house doesn't have to mean living in a wasteful house.

We don't have a flow chart like our friends over at D.I. Wine and Dine (and you should really check them out if you want real information about retrofitting a house). But, here's what we've done so far to

1. Conserve, conserve, conserve! We had an energy saving specialist do a "home energy audit" this winter, part of a state-wide program to reduce home energy use. We anxiously handed over our heating and electricity bills, waiting for our reprimand. "Wow," the inspector said. "You guys don't need my help. I can't believe how low your heating costs are considering how old this house is!" So, how did we manage this? We didn't think we were doing anything special. We keep our thermostats set to 65 in the winter (we have gas hot water heat). We use CFLs (and we forget to turn them off when we leave the room quite a bit). We don't flush the toilet every time we use it, and we don't take more/longer showers than we need to. Apparently just these common sense measures are enough to shock a professional home energy inspector. And they're basically free to implement. Go figure.

2. High efficiency gas boiler. The boiler our house came with was oil, and it was shot. We weren't sure it would make it through even one winter, so we replaced it immediately with an ultra high efficiency gas boiler and indirect hot water heater. People with more experience than us will note that we did this out of order--we should have added insulation an air sealing first to avoid purchasing an oversized unit. We didn't know, and we didn't really have time to wait. C'est la vie.

3. Stop the drips. Ok, our upstairs bathroom is a disaster. All of the fixtures are from 1945 or earlier and they all leak/drip. We used the bathroom for awhile, but ultimately decided to shut it down until we can renovate the room. Guess what? Our quarterly water bill dropped by 40%! Holy cow were we wasting a lot of water. So, til we can get it fixed, it's the downstairs bathroom only. This week we also replaced the 2.5 gpm shower head with a 1.5 gpm one. That'll save us 10 gallons per 10 minute shower.

4. And the drafts. That home energy inspector qualified us for some free air sealing. Since it was free, and administered by the state via private contractors, it took dozens of phone calls and about 6 months before someone finally showed up at my door. But hey, you can't argue with free. The contractors did a blower door test, to my geeky delight (I've always wanted to have a blower door test!) and declared our house "pretty leaky, but not as bad as a lot of old houses". With a starting number of 3400 (the units escape me), they set to work. After 5 hours of work, they re-tested the house. 2866, which missed the goal of 2700 they were aiming for. Still, this should result in reduced heating costs for us this winter. And did I mention it was free? Stay tuned. And if you live in Massachusetts, go to right now and sign up for your own energy audit. You can do one each year!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Abundance: food swaps and potlucks

This is the time of year that conscious consumers dust off their soapboxes to proclaim the virtues of "Buying Local" for the holidays. And indeed, if you are buying things, buying them from local artisans is they way to go. But the soapbox I'm standing on this December wasn't hand crafted out of local sustainably harvested lumber by a master carpenter, it was pulled from the dumpster behind the Goodwill. That's right, I'm talking about the Church of Stop Shopping right here.  
Let's face it--sometimes, Buying Local can be expensive, unsustainably so. We are focused on building a life that we can maintain without having to work a combined 80 hours a week. Truth be told, we'd like to work as little as possible. That means we need to spend as little money as possible as well. We like living this way--it inspires us to be creative, and to find abundance in all the little cracks and crevices of modern life. 

Lately, we've been revelling in the particular kind of abundance that stems from cooperation, generosity, and community. The "stuff" that you get out of this kind of abundance is extra special--you know who made it, and you know that it was made to be shared. It just feels good. 

So, without further ado, I present to you two ways to enjoy this most special form of abundance while spending zero dollars and making new friends:  

The Food Swap

We participated in our first formal food swap this weekend, and it knocked our socks off. Our local incarnation is called Valley Food Swap; it uses the Food Swap Network format. Basically, you bring a bunch of food items (canned, frozen, fresh produce, baked goods, you name it) to swap with everyone else who attends. It runs a bit like a silent auction--every item has its own sheet of paper where you can make a swap offer. At the end, you review your swap sheets, decide which offers look most appealing, and make your trades. Here's a before-and-after of what we brought to the swap, and what we brought home:

Check that out! We brought five items: spiced carrot jam, cranberry-ginger chutney, low bush blueberry jam, kimchi, and frozen pie crusts. We brought back...all this loot! The pile includes homemade caramels, an aloe plant, applesauce, hot sauce, three pints of tomatillos (who still has fresh tomatillos this time of year? wizards?), fresh eggs, and frozen pumpkin puree. We also brought back some of the stuff we brought to swap, which is great, because I wanted some of those pie crusts for my own freezer! In fact, we've got a chicken pot pie in the oven right now...

Some of this loot will stock our own pantry, and some of it I got to give as presents to friends and family. In addition to bringing home all this amazing food, we got to see some old friends, meet one of our new city councilors, and chat with some amazing gardeners and home preservers.

Update: One of the swappers asked me for the recipe for the carrot jam, so here it is (modified from this one): 

Spiced Carrot Jam  
Makes about 8 or 9 pints  

6 cups sugar
4 cups water
4 lbs carrots
4 oranges, peels (chopped) and juice 
1 cup blanched slivered almonds
Juice of 1 lemon 
seeds of about 20 cardamom pods
1/2 hand of fresh local ginger, grated (use less if you're using the normal brown cured kind)
2 tsp citric acid

Heat the water and sugar til dissolved, add sliced carrots and cook til soft. Puree. Add the remaining ingredients and cook 5-10 minutes. (Stir constantly just like making any other jam). I canned these in 1/2 pint and 1/4 pint jars in a hot water bath for 35 minutes (25 for the 1/4 pints.) This makes a sizeable amount of jam--half the recipe if you want a more reasonable quantity.

The Potluck

potluck pies
Recently, we were invited to a potluck that has been held every Monday night, without exception, for over 400 consecutive Mondays. If no one will be home on a particular Monday, the hosts go so far as to leave food on the stove and a note on the door, welcoming anyone who drops by to let themselves in and feast. We had a great time at the potluck, and felt so welcome even though we only knew one or two of the over a dozen people in attendance. There was a birthday cake for a toddler. We played music by the wood stove. We discovered one is never more than one or two degrees of separation away from a common friend in this tight-knit community.

Inspired by this potluck, we decided to try holding a similar weekly event at our home a few towns over. We live in a community that can feel a little isolated from the more happening towns nearby, which makes those of us who live here form a very unique sense of camaraderie. But, it can be kind of sleepy round here. We need more places and excuses to get together.

We have had a few weekly potlucks now, and it's been a wonderful experience. And talk about abundance! Guests have brought oysters, fancy chocolate, amazing wine, and homemade tiramisu to share. When each person brings one lovely dish, you have a first class feast on your hands.

At last week's potluck, some guests who are a generation older than us were reminiscing about the potlucks they used to have in their neighborhood when their children were small; a rotating affair several nights a week that took the burden of cooking a big meal off of the entire neighborhood, freeing them all up to do other things.

We all decided that it's high time for a revival of potluck culture.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Out with the Potatoes, in with the Garlic

Today we harvested the rest of our potatoes, cleared out the bed, and planted garlic. I don't think I've ever pulled so much food out of the ground before. We were amazed by the yield of our little 8 x 8 potato patch. This is the second harvest from the patch, pulling out the late variety this time. The yield this year totaled 88 pounds!
The garlic is a variety we found in New Mexico. Thank you Matthew Vigor for mailing us some that you grew from us, after ours dried out. This year we made sure to keep the garlic in an  un-glazed terracotta vessel which provides the right balance of air without drying the garlic out. Thank you Wendy and Mikey for the tip. Here, Libby is planting 200 cloves - which will hopefully make 200 heads of garlic by next summer. We started with only a handful of heads last year.
Planting garlic in the fall gives garlic more time to establish roots over the winter. We also will plant some of the top sets as an experiment and to promote the genetic diversity of our stock. They will take two years to form full heads of garlic though.
This is the first bed designated for storage crops in our nascent backyard farm. We've used our chickens to remove the grass and fertilize the soil, which makes for a lot less work and expense for us. So far so good! Here's to several more beds in the coming year as we move the coop to a fro.