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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion: Hilltop Communications Adds Publishing Imprint

Time for a bit of shameless self-promotion!

My company, Hilltop Communications, has just become a publishing imprint in addition to my writing, speaking, and consulting endeavors!

My first book is Lecture is Not Dead: Ten Tips for Delivering Dynamic Lectures in the College Classroom.  In this short book, I identify ten ways to make your college lecture or professional speech more dynamic and engaging to your audience.  I also include three habits to avoid and a number of discussion questions, making this ideal for faculty development seminars and training programs.

The official Amazon description:

"The lecture as a teaching tool has worked for centuries because, at heart, it is about human interaction, the most powerful, attention-grabbing tool for interaction at anyone’s disposal. The presence of a live, active, engaged human being who is an expert in his or her field will do more to ignite the passions of a group of students than will any canned multimedia presentation. This book will show you how to infuse passion and interest into your lectures and keep your students awake and engaged."

You can purchase the book here, or you can contact me directly for volume purchases or to arrange remote or in-person training based on this book.

Thank you for taking the time to read!  I now take you back to your regularly-scheduled frugality and sustainability!


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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Growing Ginger

Herbs and spices are some of the most expensive things you can buy at the grocery, especially if you want organic.  And the price is definitely impacted by distribution costs; I nearly fainted in the grocery store in Key West when I had to pay $9 for a jar of organic bay leaves.

Fresh ginger is another of these expensive items.  It is fairly reasonable here in Ohio, but at the southernmost tip of the United States, it is quite expensive.  This makes it a great option to grow.

To grow fresh ginger, simply take a nub of your existing ginger "hand."  You will know if it is viable if it is starting to sprout while on your counter, like that little bit with the green tip in the bottom center of the photo.  Take a nub about two inches long, so you have some root to start with.

Plant the ginger in a deep pot under a shallow layer of dirt, and keep heaping dirt in as the plant sprouts, kind of like you do with potatoes.  When the pot is full, just let the lovely foliage grow and the rhizome under the soil make more ginger for you.  Since the plant looks fairly tropical, it makes a nice addition to your window sill.

Ginger takes a long time to grow.  What you see in the photo is eight months' worth of ginger growth across several pots; I planted in April and just harvested last week.  But, since ginger is a container plant, it isn't taking up any garden space or obeying the seasons.

Ginger seems to like a fairly warm climate, so put it in a warm window or outside during summer.  Water regularly, and you will have fresh ginger on occasion that you don't have to buy.

The Analysis

Fast:  Not at all.  Ginger is terribly slow-growing, so it is an exercise in patience.

Cheap:  I harvested three ounces of ginger from my pots; not a lot, but certainly enough for a batch of homemade ginger ale!

Good:  Organic, home grown, and free.  My kind of project.
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Thursday, December 4, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: November 2014

Ah, winter.  I just had a conversation with a good friend yesterday about how the garden is now asleep, doing its job of preparing itself for the next growing season.

It doesn't mean I'm not sad to have a diminished harvest for a few months.

November brought us the last of the tomatoes and peppers, both carefully sheltered in the sunroom until they gave their last fruits.  One volunteer tomato and the Red Pear tomatoes were the last to still be productive.

We also had a handful of kale and carrots come in.  The kale is finally finished, but this was actually my spring planting; it lasted all summer long.  I will have to start some more very soon.

So, we are down to just some garlic and ginger growing in pots.  I really need to make time to see what other winter crops I can start in the sunroom, but in the meantime, our tallies stand as follows:

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,566.5
Pounds: 160/4063

Total Value of Harvest: $621.79
Expenditures: -286.13



Total: $335.66
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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Being Sustainable When Things Are Going Well

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my U.S. readers, and happy Thursday to all the rest!

I am grateful for many things this year, including health and happiness for my family and for the love that surrounds us all.  That's paramount.

But I also am grateful that, for the first time since the Great Recession began, both Mr. FC&G and I are having a good business year.  We've spent quite a few years juggling a lot of balls -- one up, the other down, in a big circle -- and we're profoundly grateful that things are smooth right now.  We're also working hard and knocking on a lot of wood that it all continues -- and you know what I mean if you are a business owner too.

Writing in the sustainable living space, I know that nothing sparks interest in these types of ideas like an economic downturn.  Sustainability overlaps nicely with frugality, and people often turn to blogs like mine for ways to save money when work is a little light.

But what do you do when things are going well?

I'll admit, I've had some days recently when I wanted to hire a housekeeper, pick up take-out instead of cooking, and forget both the recycling and the gardening.  I'm just occasionally that busy.  But I don't want to abandon my basic beliefs in managing resources responsibly.  So, in case you are in a similar position, here are some of my techniques for practicing sustainability when you are happily busy:

1.  Make it count
I still make our laundry soap.  Yes, making a big batch takes about 20 minutes, what with grating the soap (and Mr. FC&G tends to do that), but the batch lasts about six months and saves us quite a bit on laundry detergent costs, to say nothing of keeping plastic bottles out of the landfill and reducing transportation costs.  It's a good project to prioritize, no matter how busy we are.

On the other hand, I haven't rebatched soap slivers to make new bars in over a year.  The savings is comparatively little, and the project yields fairly little soap.  That project can wait.

2.  Save time for the time-savers
No matter how busy the week is going to be, we still save one weekend day to cook a fairly big meal with as many of the trimmings as we can make.  Not only does a home cooked meal save us money and allow us to eat more locally, it throws off leftovers that can often get us through several days during the week.  That makes it less likely that we will succumb to a restaurant meal, even when things are feeling financially healthy enough that that isn't a worrisome hit to the budget.

3.  Spend responsibly
If you have a little extra money and feel like you can spend on some luxuries, spend responsibly.  Buy from local, small businesses.  Look for organic, cruelty-free, and fair trade products.  Patronize businesses that you want to see around for years to come.  They will thank you, and they may even return the favor!
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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Four Ways to be Sustainable for the Holidays

Somehow or other, the holidays are creeping up on us already.  I don't feel particularly prepared.  I haven't even finished with my garden -- I still have a potted Red Pear tomato that keeps setting and ripening fruit out in the sunroom, and I keep believing it's still summer.

Well, until I try to get the mail in a pair of flip-flops and wind up courting frost bite.

Sustainable and frugal living columns are always a bit difficult to write around the holidays, because there's the temptation to head straight into "no one needs all that stuff" territory.

But this is not a minimalism blog (as anyone who has ever seen our basement can attest).  For me, how much "stuff" you need to celebrate the holiday of your choice is entirely up to you.  I just want you to be able to do so comfortably and with your own sustainability desires met.

So, my top five ideas for how to celebrate sustainably:

1.  Set spending limits.
Whether this has been a great year financially or you are feeling a little strapped, start now by making a budget and dividing the money you currently have on hand for the holidays among your gift recipients in a way you feel is fair.  Maybe that means that you spend the majority of your funds on your spouse and/or children and limit your participation in gift exchanges for a group.  Maybe it means you have the ability to buy something for everyone.  Just make your plan and then stick with it.

2.  Be generous with your goodwill.
Regardless of what holiday you celebrate or how much or little you have to spend, this is the time of year to tell as many people as possible what they mean to you.  One good idea is sending a New Years card instead of a Christmas/holiday one, and to take the time to write a special note to each recipient.  Yes, that's a lot of work, but your good wishes will come right when the celebrations die down and people need to know what they mean to you.

3.  Give gifts that match the recipient made with values that match yours.
It is oh-so-tempting to make that contribution to your own favorite charity in place of giving a gift.  But, if your recipient does not share your particular views (and it's harder to be sure than you think), you are just putting the person on a mailing list they don't want to be on and annoying them for the next twelve month.  Instead, match the gift to the recipient, but try to make sure the gift's production matches your values.  For example, I recently interviewed a local shop owner who sells chocolate that is manufactured without any labor that can be traced to human trafficking, not an easy thing to avoid with that kind of agriculture.  What a great gift that would be for my fellow chocolate lovers!

4.  Shop local.
One of the most sustainable things you can do is patronize local businesses, especially locally-owned ones.  You will cut down on transportation and overhead costs while helping a small businessperson and making sure money stays in your own community.  If you don't choose to shop local; shop local somewhere else -- pick your favorite vacation spot or hometown, and funnel some money into those businesses.  We occasionally order things from Key West businesses just because we want to see those same storefronts open when we next visit.

How do you make your holidays sustainable?  
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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Best of FC&G: The Fleece Patchwork Un-Quilt

In another update of a popular post, I wanted to update you on the fleece patchwork un-quilt.

I have wanted to quilt for years, but I will admit that I just don't have the patience.  I will never really be able to stand to do intricate piecing, use batting, and sew everything so exactly.  But I definitely want quilts of my own making.

Enter the un-quilt.  Constructed just like a fleece pillowcase with a patched top, this is one of the warmest and easiest blankets you will ever make.

I have made two quilts for our house and one for my parents, and they are all holding up fine.  Our quilts have been in use for about four years, and they have been used and used.  We use them for naps year round, on the bed in winter, and even on vacation. Our quilts have been to my college reunion to decorate our borrowed dorm room, to Key West when we stayed for a couple of weeks, and even outside for a picnic.  They are still looking great and keeping us cozy.

Classic Post:
For this project, all you need are remnants in fleece patterns and colors you like, plus a cut of fleece for backing.  Follow these simple steps:

1.  Cut the patchwork fleece into squares.  I use a 4.5 inch square quilting template because I like the look of random patches of regularly-cut fabric.  But feel free to get more complex or to try patterns like 9-patch squares (my next attempt).  Just remember that the more complex your patchwork, the more time it takes.

2.  Sew your squares together.  For me, I sew 14 squares to get the width; this is about five feet in width.  I like this width for a fleece quilt because bolts of fleece come in 58-60 inch widths, so this will fit the backing without piecing two cuts of fleece together to make the back.  That is difficult and unwieldy.  Five feet wide also allows me to put the quilt on my side of the (king) bed without disturbing over-heated hubby.

3.  Sew your width strips together to make about six feet in length.  Again, six feet is two yards of fleece, which is an inexpensive backing.  Alternately, you could patch the back as well, but that would be more work. 

4.  For this quilt, I bought a piece of bluish grey fleece for the back that was two yards long and about 60 inches wide.  It cost (after sale and coupons) about $14.  Place the backing and the topper with right sides together and machine sew on three sides, like you are making a pillow case.  For the fourth side (which would be open on a pillow case, turn the edges in and sew both sides together.  You can do this on your machine (remember, that is four thicknesses of fabric, so you may want to change to a heavier needle) or by blind stitch (which I'm going to do on my next quilt).

Voila!  A soft, warm "quilt" that really relies on the warmth of air sandwiched in two layers of fleece instead of the normal cotton and batting sandwich.  If you are crafty, you could easily sew one of these up as a Christmas gift (a lap quilt also would be nice and take even less time), or you could start one to keep your own toes toasty in the bitter months to come. 

The Analysis

Fast:  In quilt-time, this one comes together in a jiffy.  Cut squares while you are watching TV at night, and then sew together in a few bursts of sewing.  I like to work on one of these while I'm writing, because it gives me a chance to turn away from the computer and think for a few minutes while I assemble a few squares.

Cheap:  I put my first fleece quilt together for the cost of $14 for two yards of backing fleece, plus whatever I spent on remnants.  With the remnant bin full (as it is right now with everyone using fleece to make gifts), you should be able to bring this project in under $30 with some smart shopping.


Good:  The fleece quilt is one of the (very) few things I actually like about winter.  It is so soft and warm, it follows me everywhere:  downstairs onto the couch during the day, and upstairs onto the bed at night.  I can't wait to finish another.
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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: October 2014

I have been waiting and waiting to tally up the tomato totals, and I almost needed to wait longer than I have, because I still have tomatoes growing in the sunroom. But in the interest of planning next year's garden, here's how the tomatoes shook out this year now that the lion's share of the harvest is in:

Cuor di Bue (1): 187 ounces/$52.36
Box Car Willie (1):  153 ounces/$42.84
San Marzano (1): 195 ounces/$54.60
Super Sauce (6): 83 ounces/$23.24
Black Krim (3): 70 ounces/$19.60
Steakhouse (3): 201 ounces/$56.28
Amish Paste (3): 37 ounces/$10.36
Red Pear (6?): 78 ounces/$21.84
Volunteer (10?): 127 ounces/$35.56

The top three tomatoes listed above were single plants given to me by my best friend from college, who currently lives in Tennessee.  Those single plants out-performed all the other varieties, except for the Burpee Steakhouse.  However, it's important to note that I needed three Steakhouse to beat even one of these plants.  So, clearly, I need to have her start my tomatoes every year.

The remaining varieties were ordered as plants, with the exception of the Red Pear and the volunteer tomatoes.  The Red Pear were grown from seed, which is the reason I don't know how many plants I had -- sometimes, I'd plant two plants in a hill because that's the way they were in the starter pot.  Nonetheless, I was very pleased with these little, grape-sized salsa tomatoes.

The volunteers were also a success in my book.  Yes, I had a lot of them, because I pretty much try to keep every decent-sized volunteer I have room for, but I will take a harvest of $35 of free tomatoes any day.  Some of these were absolutely delicious, too, so I saved the seed in hopes of starting to get a line of plants that works in my microclimate.

Otherwise, the October harvest brought in just over nine pound of produce, but it was valuable stuff -- largely tomatoes and kale.  Our totals at the end of the month are respectable:

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 2,556.5
Pounds: 159.78125

Total Value of Harvest: $615.75
Expenditures: -286.13


Total: $329.62


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