Monday, March 26, 2012

Zombie Blueberries!!

Wouldn’t that be an awesome movie?  I mean, of course, so terrible it’s awesome.  Blueberries, back from the dead!  It’s actually happening in my garden!

Since I’m a lousy gardener, I failed to mulch my poor blueberry plant last year.  By January, it looked like a dead stick someone had shoved into a pot of dirt.  Sounds like something one of the kids would do, to be honest.  I shrugged my shoulders and figured that I was simply not cut out to raise blueberries.

So imagine my surprise last week when I went outside to start checking out my gardening gear and found this!

Check it out!  Little green shoots!! 

Blueberries, back from the dead!  That poor plant hasn’t even been watered in months!  I ran inside, grabbed a watering can, and gave the poor little guy a drink, then moved it out where it could get some sun.  I checked on it again today, and the new little leaves are actually beginning to unfurl.  I gave it some fertilizer and another drink.  I’ll keep a close eye on the little guy, but I think it’s going to make it.

I read up on blueberries.  Apparently they’re a fairly hardy breed.  No kidding.  I’m planning on getting this guy a friend so they can cross-pollinate each other.  Breeding zombie blueberries!!!  Coming soon to a theater near you.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Baking Good Bread to Save

Photo from

So it is no secret that we are trying to save money however we can.  In addition to making our own laundry soap, dishwasher soap, and spray cleaner, we’ve also been working on finding a good recipe for easy sandwich bread.  My goal was to be able to shy away from the store bought bread since the prices average between $3 and $4 a loaf for the healthier brands.  

Here is what I was looking for in a recipe:
  • Soft crusted with a texture that mimics store bought bread
  • Easily adaptable to pan baking since I don’t have a bread maker
  • Makes two or more loaves at a time
  • Uses  whole wheat flour and no “junk” for a healthier loaf of bread

I set about hitting the interwebs, and tried a couple of recipes.  We have some of the Bob’s Red Mill wheat flour that I was planning to use, so I checked that site first....  The recipe was good, but the bread was a bit too dense to really fit what we were looking for.  After a bit more poking around, I came across a blog called “Tammy’s Recipes”.  I gave this one a shot, and right out of the gate, it was a hit!  According to her breakdown in one of her  recent posts, it only costs about a dollar per loaf to make your bread at home!  I can handle using a hand mixer for a bit and doing a bit of baking to save some cash! The full recipe for this wheat/white bread is on her blog that is listed above, but here are the single loaf ingredients:

1 cup warm water (110-115 degrees F)
1 tablespoon milk
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons instant active dry yeast (active dry yeast will work also; get more info on active vs. instant active dry yeast here!)

Not much to it really!  I would highly recommend checking it out if you want to try baking your own bread.  It is very easy,and if you have a mixer with dough hooks, it takes like five minutes to get the ingredients together and then the rise/baking time. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I Started Some Seeds Today

Today I went ahead and started some radishes, spinach, and romaine lettuce.  Sounds like a tasty salad, doesn’t it?  I had some help from my little gardeners, especially Elias, who is working toward his gardening merit badge.  Unfortunately for Elias, the merit badge is more than just sticking seeds in soil; he also needs to do some research to complete the badge.  He’s not so keen on the actual reading and writing part!

If we can get these seeds to harvest, he will have completed a portion of his badge.  He also needs to raise three vegetables from seedlings, so once the weather gets warmer he can choose some seedlings to transplant.  I wonder if it counts if I start the seeds and then he transplants the seedlings?  I have some beans planted and I was going to start peas once things get a bit warmer.  We’ll probably be doing tomatoes from seedlings.  That just seems to work better.  That will complete the vegetable portion of his badge.

He also needs to start three flowers from seed and three from seedlings.  I’m not quite as keen on that part, since I would prefer to use my gardening space (which is very minimal) to grow veggies.  I suppose we could have another crack at sunflowers, but that didn’t go too well last year.  Strawberries, tomatoes, and zucchini grow out of flowers… does that count?? 

I used some pellets we had left over from last year to start the seeds.  I picked these since they are cool weather plants, and the weather has definitely been cool!  We did eight pellets of radish (two seeds per pellet), eight pellets of spinach, and four pellets of romaine.  I labeled the rows for a change, so we’ll know what’s actually coming up. 

My labeled seed in their pellets in the "mini greenhouse."

 According to the seed packets, here’s the details on each of these:

Radish – Scarlet Globe:  I can keep starting these every two weeks to keep a nice crop of radishes going.  The seeds should sprout in about seven days.  I’ll thin them then (and have a little microsalad, haha!) and transplant them outside.  I can harvest them in just 24 days!  Talk about immediate gratification.

Spinach – Olympia Hybrid:  This one should sprout in about seven to ten days.  It sounds like I can have a spring harvest and then another one in fall.  I can start thinning when the plants reach about three inches, so I’ll transplant at that time too.  I should have a harvest in about a month and a half.

Romaine lettuce:  This should sprout in five to ten days.  I’m supposed to thin when the plants have three true leaves.  I’m hoping the temperature isn’t too warm inside for these.  If they don’t sprout when I’m expecting them too, I’ll just start a batch outside since they apparently really like cold weather.  Another batch I can start up again in the fall.  I wonder, since we don’t get that many freezes around here, can I plant spinach and romaine year around?  It would be great to constantly have fresh salad greens right from the garden! 

I’ll snag some pictures when the little guys start sprouting.  I’m looking forward to it!  I’m going to pick up more seed starting stuff the next time we go to the store.  Hopefully I can start kicking the garden into full gear now! 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How I'm Learning to Start a Garden From Seed

Starting from seed is the cheap way to garden.
Image by Master isolated images

Tonight I had the opportunity to attend a Seed Saving Workshop (free!).   The people giving the workshop were fantastic.  I’m such a gardening novice, and I confess to having forgotten nearly everything I learned in Biology 101 (let alone Microbiology).  I tend to be of the “stick a seed in a pot and cross your fingers” variety of gardener.  This, of course, means that my garden generally doesn’t produce much.

After this workshop, I’m really excited to get some seeds started this weekend!  I got to take home some beans in potting soil, so hopefully they will get going.  I also want to get started on my radishes and lettuces.  Apparently, it’s getting to be prime time and they grow pretty good in cool spring.  I could be having my first homegrown salad in about a month’s time!   Looks like I need to pick up some potting soil and fertilizer this weekend too. 

This is how big a novice I am when it comes to gardening:  I was under the mistaken impression that fertilizer was fertilizer.  Bzzzzzt!  Wrong!  I wasn’t even aware of the nitrogen/phosphorous/potassium ratio.  I have a pretty good idea now why my tomatoes last year went insane with the greenery but only produced about three tomatoes.  Apparently my fertilizer was too heavy on the nitrogen side.  For tomatoes, I should have been using a low nitrogen, high potassium blend.  (Don’t laugh—I’m aware of my gardening ignorance!)  But I’m betting that what I used last year will be great for my lettuces.

One of the speakers at the workshop was a local gardener named Caitlin Moore, aka the Urban Food Warrior.  I highly recommend you check out her blog, since it’s just loaded with great information.  I plan on making it a regular resource.  She also works at a place called Cascadian Edible Landscapes, which is apparently not too far from me.  I fully intend to check it out, maybe this weekend.

I wanted to share with you some of the cool things I learned at the workshop.  If this isn’t news to you, I apologize.  Once again, gardening idiot in the house!  I fully intend to grow a decent garden this year!

  • If you want to save seeds, don’t buy hybrid.  You don’t know what you will get.  Open pollenated seeds are the best for seed saving.
  • You can store seeds for ages as long as you keep them in a cool, dry place, like a jar in the refrigerator.
  • Don’t fertilize seeds.  Fertilize seedlings about once a week.  Use liquid fertilizer if you are using sterile seed starting soil, pellets if you are using potting soil.
  • Plastic strawberry containers make great miniature greenhouses!
  • You can reuse your gardening containers as long as you sterilize them with a vinegar/water solution.
  • When thinning seedlings, you should cut, not pull, to avoid disturbing the surrounding roots.
  • Seedlings need 16 – 18 hours of light per day!
  • You should “pet” your seedlings to encourage them to develop strong stems that will help them survive once they are planted outdoors.
  • Soil temperature should be about 50 degrees before you plant seeds outdoors.  Containers (like I use) tend to keep soil slightly warmer (so what they heck am I waiting for??). 

I’m looking forward to getting the garden growing this year!  What other great seed starting tips do you have that aren’t commonly known?  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why You Should Switch to a Credit Union. Now.

This is how I feel about banks.
Image by David Castillo Dominici

I’m going to start with the bottom line.  We all make mistakes when tracking finances.  Yes, even you.  The thing is, when someone who has a healthy buffer in their checking account forgets to note last Tuesday’s mocha purchase, it’s not that big a deal.  You’ll catch it in a couple weeks when you get your statement, update your account, and life goes on.  Yay.

But when you are living paycheck to paycheck and your account flirts with zero on a weekly basis, these mistakes are devastating.  Let me paint you a picture of a typical payday for someone living this way:

Friday – Payday!  Money in the account!  Hurray!
  • Check your budget and add up the bills you have to pay.  Not bad.  Looks like you’ll even have about a $20 buffer this week.  Sweet.
  • Write the rent check.  Drop it off.
  • Hit the grocery store.  Since you came in under budget, you decide to treat yourself to a fancy coffee.
  • Transfer funds into savings.
  • Pay the light bill.

Saturday –
  • You’re at work.  You still have that buffer, and you’re exhausted, so you grab a coffee during the day.

Sunday –
  • You grab a pack of gum.

Monday –
  • You check your account.  Nothing has cleared from over the weekend.  Typical.

Tuesday –

  • Still nothing.  Account hasn’t budged.  You snort in annoyance that the office still hasn’t deposited the rent check.  If you had waited until today to paid it, you would have gotten a notice on the door (and had to pay more fines, but they have no problem taking their own sweet time.)  Seems odd that the little payments from the weekend haven’t gone through, though.

Wednesday –

  • You log in to check your account… and you’re $200 in the hole.  What the hell?

You go through your account to see what went wrong.  For starters, the damn sewer company that you have set up for automatic payment pushed through two days early.  But… wait a minute.  A closer look reveals that the payments you made went through in the following order:
  • Rent
  • Groceries
  • Sewer bill
  • Power bill
  • Deposit to savings
  • Coffee from Friday
  • Coffee from Saturday
  • Pack of gum from Sunday

And of course everything after the sewer bill got smacked with an overdraft fee of 30 bucks.  You check with the landlord.  Yup, they deposited the check on Tuesday.  But why did the coffee from Friday come through AFTER the rent check?  Looking again, you can’t help but notice that the transactions all went through in a clump… from largest amount to smallest.  If the stupid rent check had been the last to go through, everything else would have cleared just fine, and you would have only been nailed for $30 instead of $150.  Hmmmmm.

The worst part?  You’ll be starting the next payday cycle $200 short.  When you live paycheck to paycheck, that HURTS.  It means a bill isn’t going to get paid.  So you’ll have late fees.  If you have automatic withdrawal, the bouncing cycle is going to begin again. 

For the longest time, I swore that the banks were doing this on purpose.  I was assured over and over again that they were not.  Was I paranoid?

Nope.  Turns out I was absolutely right.  In fact, even though banks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo are being punished in class action lawsuits for the practice, they’re still doing it.  Just this past week, a friend was taken to the tune of about $1200 by her bank. 

Now let me tell you about our experience we had this week with BECU, a local credit union (that anyone can join, by the way).  A situation very similar to one described above occured.  When we realized it, we cringed and then watched the account miserably, waiting for the overdraft charges to come through.  When they hadn’t come through by Wednesday, I asked Gavin to call BECU to find out what they were going to be so we could account for them.  

Guess what?  There weren’t going to be any additional overdraft charges, except for the one charge on the sewer bill that went through early.  The rep explained that since the other, smaller debit transactions had been approved when there was money in the account, we were not charged overdraft fees on them. 

$25 vs. $100 in overdraft fees for this particular mistake.  Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Paying Bills Off Feels Gooooooood!

You might think I'm exaggerating... but I'm not.
Image by kongsky

In the past couple of weeks we’ve finally managed to say goodbye to a few bills that have been haunting us.  About a week ago I finally got caught up on payments to my son’s counselor.  I was sorely behind on those (to the tune of about $300), but we worked out a payment plan to get me caught up so he could continue seeing her uninterrupted.  I’m finally caught up now, so I only have to worry about the $10 copay when he goes to see her. 

The second big one was a medical bill that had gone to collections.  This collection agency is absolutely vicious.  A lot of financial advice online will tell you not to worry too much about collection agencies because the worst that they will do is call you and threaten you but won’t actually do anything.  Not true with these guys.  They don’t waste any time.  Two phone calls and you’re being served and they are getting ready to garnish you.  They are also difficult to negotiate and create a payment plan with.  “My way or the highway,” is their motto.  But this week we will finally be making our last payment to them, and we can cross off a $650 bill.

We also just paid off a $360 bill that we had been chipping away at.  This one was the result of a payday loan that we’ve been paying off for what seems like forever.  A word of advice?  NEVER.  NEVER EVER EVER get a payday loan.  NEVER.  They are practically impossible to pay and will only make the situation worse.  Here, have another NEVER for good measure.

It feels great to put these bills behind us.  It really feels like we’re making significant progress.  What are we tackling next?  A $700 bill that’s been bothering me and the power bill that’s been building up.  Unfortunately, when we fell behind on the power bill, they felt like the best way to solve the problem would be to charge us another deposit.  Which effectively doubled the power bill.  How helpful.  If we pay the power bill on time for the next several months, they’ll refund us the deposit, so I guess we better get cracking.  

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Organized Simplicity: A Book Review

Organized Simplicity by Tsh Oxenreider
Image courtesy of

A while ago, I was perusing the Twitter feed for Paying Our Way (@payingourway).  I’m connected to several money-saving blogs, and one of them regularly posts the day’s free e-books for Kindle.  I saw one called Organized Simplicity and thought that sounded like something useful, so I snagged it.  It hung out on my Kindle for a while, until I was bored and decided to give it a go.

I’ve read other books on simple living before.  Most of the time, the premise is nice, but ultimately unrealistic for how we live our life.  I can’t see us giving up the TV or the Xbox, and I’m pretty sure there’s an ordinance against keeping a cow on the back deck.  Plus most of these people are so green, they practically generate their own oxygen.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not my lifestyle.

I could tell right away, this one was different.  The writer, Tsh Oxenreider (not a typo, it’s pronounced “Tish”), lives more like we do.  They have an apartment and two kids, and you don’t get the feeling when you read that she’s hovering over you with a wild look in your eye wondering why you haven’t hurled your TV from the balcony yet.

Her advice is fairly simple.  The genius seems to be in the layout and the method.  This is very much a how-to, hands on book.  Some of the changes she was discussing were things we already strive to do.  For example, as you know, we are trying hard to make our own meals from scratch.  We also use a number of homemade household cleaners(by the way, the back of this book has an appendix that is just chock full of homemade cleaning recipes).   Others were changes that I have wanted to make, but felt overwhelmed just thinking about.

These are the changes we have made since I began reading the book:

1.  I implemented the use of the daily docket, a document that helps schedule and organize the day.  It’s simple to use and helps keep me on track all day long.  I’ve linked the one I devised that works best for me.  On the left I list the things I hope to get done during the day, on the right I write in the hours of the day and schedule when I plan to do things.  I’ve been so much more productive since putting this in place.

2.  We set up a daily chore list, featuring grown-up chores and kids’ chores.  Chore Wars is a thing of the past.  Elias was way too good at manipulating the system.  Now, before any TV or electronics time, both kids have to get their chores done (yes, even Maddie has some chores to do). They take about 20 minutes, tops, so there’s really no excuse.

3.  We’ve massively reduced the amount of time spent staring at the screen.  The kids get two hours per day, max.  Once Maddie has used up her time, she has been great about finding other things to do, including painting, blowing bubbles on the porch, and reading to her stuffed animals.  Elias usually doesn’t even watch all his time.  I think just knowing he has it is enough.  Gavin has also done great.  Before, the TV was on from the moment he gets home in the evening until we go to bed.  That’s about five solid hours of TV and that’s a bit much.  Having the TV off means we can play music, just read, have conversations… it’s much nicer.  I think even Gavin agrees!

4.  We began working through the 10-day plan for getting the house organized and more streamlined.  I think in our case it’s going to wind up being a 30-day plan, but the point is, it’s getting done.  The living room looks fantastic.  We rearranged some furniture, created a reading nook and an art station, and hauled about six boxes of stuff to the Goodwill.  We are also inventorying every box that goes out and logging on a website Gavin found called It’s Deductible.  It calculates the value of your donations and stores the info so you can import it directly into Turbo Tax.  So far we’ve donated almost $400 worth of stuff… and that’s just the living room.  Each room has a great checklist to work through for cleaning, and I’m really pleased with how it’s going so far.

I’m really loving the changes so far.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to make changes but isn’t sure where to start. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Homemade Carpet Cleaner

There's some stuff you just don't want on the carpet
when you have kids and pets.
Photo by renjith krishnan

One of the “joys” of having kids around is utter trashing that your rugs receive.  If there is something to spill, they will find a way to do that.  Between two kids, parents who like to drink soda, and a cat who had what appeared to be some sort of eating disorder, our carpets look like a Jackson Pollock painting. 

The other issue with having kids and cats underfoot is that the usual carpet cleaners you can purchase on the cleaning aisle are right next to stuff like Drano.  In other words, nothing you want your kids or your cats playing with.  They also tend to be one of the most expensive items on the cleaning aisle, especially since so many of them really only have one or two uses in them. 

So I was pleased to find a carpet cleaner that doesn’t contain anything horrifying that I can quickly whip up in my own kitchen, from stuff that I always have hanging around.  The trick to this cleaner is that you can’t just spray it on the carpet and let the foam sink in, you have to actually scrub it a bit.  I used a sponge and applied it and then scrubbed the dickens out of it.

It actually works pretty well.  Unlike some of the other homemade cleaners, I can’t say it works as well as the chemical stuff you buy on the store, but it wasn’t bad either.  I think it’s going to take another application, but I have hope of salvaging out poor living room carpet yet.  One thing it didn’t help with was a bright pink stain that I think might be the result of a spilled soda or some kind of juice.  However, it did great with a number of other stains.

The recipe is simple.  Not as simple as the dishwashing detergent, but just about.  Just mix equal parts salt (we used Kosher salt), Borax, and white vinegar into a thick paste.  I used about two tablespoons of each and that made enough to treat several stains. Just so you know, this isn't something you can keep.  You just mix some up as you need it.  It's just as fast as pulling a can out from under the sink. We also sprinkled baking soda on the carpet and then gave it a very thorough vacuuming.  I plan to treat it again tomorrow to see if we can get anything more up.  I’m thinking I might try adding a bit more vinegar into the mix so I can “dribble” the cleaner on, instead of dab. 

Not bad though.