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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 http://www.masssave.com/ 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.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Quick Project: herb drying hooks

These super cool wire hooks were hiding behind the basement door. I went out to the scrap pile, found a cool looking piece of wood, and voila! The perfect spot to dry bunches of herbs in the pantry.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Dragon House

Our house belonged to The fire chief in the 40s, Rolly Dragon. There's still a brass nameplate on the door proclaiming this the Dragon House. I took the plate down to clean it, and to my amusement found this underneath:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Brewing is more fun with friends

Beer! Making your own beer (or wine) can save you tons of money, and it's fun too! We would like to get to the point where we never have to buy another 6-pack, but alas, with so many irons in the fire we often overlook this Very Important Activity.

Enter the Hilltown Homebrew Club. A few months back, some friends invited us to join their new brew club. Once a month we descend on a different member's house and brew (and often also ferment and cook) up a storm. Finally, just the motivation we needed to brew on the regular, and a new group of fermentation enthusiasts to geek out with!

Those of you who are seasoned brewers might be wondering how this works. And yeah, it's not always the most convenient. Since you're starting a batch of booze at someone else's house, that means you have to schlep it home afterwards, and pray it doesn't tip over and flood your car with yeasty proto-beer. It's become part of the fun for us, though--it's really something to watch 20 or 25 gallons of beer produced in a normal kitchen on a single afternoon.

At last month's brew club we started an altbier from a kit. Next month, I think we will try our hand at some sort of fruit wine. Another woman in the group wants to experiment with herbal tinctures. Someone else wants to make limoncello.

Sound fun? Then it might be time to start your own local homebrew club!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

New perennial edibles



We've been busy establishing perennial edibles that will feed us for years to come once established. Here are a few of the plants we've added this spring: 

Ramps! Some are in their second year, some are new transplants.
Sea kale. Perennial with edible shoots, leaves, florets.
Perpetual Sorrel.
Sylvetta, or perennial arugula. Delicious.
Blueberries!
Beach plum.
Huckleberry and wintergreen.
Gooseberry.