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Monday, February 1, 2016

A Sustainable Interlude: The Black Mangrove Experiment


Normally, I don't write about anything that doesn't somehow fit the "Fast, Cheap, and Good" model of sustainable living. Mostly, that's because I generally don't do things just for the pleasure of it; I like doing projects that have a definite benefit to me and my family.

When it's not gardening season, however, all bets are off, and there's a pretty good chance I will completely lose my mind at some point. This year, it is growing black mangroves.

Mangroves are a tree that grows in swampy land near the coasts in warm climates. There are a variety of species, each of which can handle a different level of salinity. The purpose of the mangrove is to create new soil (and therefore, new land) while it removes salt from the water to obtain fresh water for its own growth.  According to one expert I've spoken to, mangroves, along with detritivores like worms and sea cucumbers, are an important part of creating new land to replace the soil that erodes from the coasts. Mangrove trees can grow to be 60 feet tall and need to have relatively warm temperatures to survive, although they apparently don't require salt water to be healthy.

There is, therefore, no reason that a gardener stuck on the border of zones five and six should be trying to grow mangrove trees in the middle of February, but I am.

I don't know what I think I'm trying to do here, except entertain myself.  I think mangroves are some of the prettiest plants around, and I just love when they take root on the beach and start to grow on the sand. So, I ordered some seedlings, planted them in fine sandy soil, and am hoping they take off. If nothing else, the project will amuse me for a while.

I just hope I don't wind up with a 60 foot mangrove in my house.
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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Results: Amaretto Cherries

Remember this summer when I put up a quart of amaretto cherries?  It was just a quart of organic tart pie cherries pitted and stuffed in a jar, then filled with amaretto and put in the fridge for six months.

Well, in the interest of complete journalistic follow-up, I had a glass of the cordial the other night, and it was out-of-this-world good!  The cherry flavor really came through, and the deep complexity of the amaretto was preserved as well.

The cherries themselves were quite good as well.  They took up a good bit of the alcohol, so they really packed a punch.  These would be so good on ice cream or on top of any other dessert, but you'll only want to have a few at a time!

I think this is a great way of preserving organic cherries if you can get them in season.  Obviously, you don't want to use conventionally-grown cherries, because there is absolutely no sense in using expensive sipping amaretto to leach pesticides and/or herbicides out of the fruit for you to drink!  But, if you have a good supply, I'd say this is a fine thing to put up for the winter, when you will really appreciate the results.

The Analysis

Fast:  Pitting the cherries takes a while, but putting them in a jar and filling it with amaretto does not.

Cheap:  Using the expensive alcohol means that this is far from an economical way to preserve cherries, but, really, you are getting a custom-made, gourmet cordial in the process, so it may work out in your favor.

Good:  Definitely the best thing to come from my preserving efforts of 2015!
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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Quick Mac n Cheese

Anybody who believes that those of us who follow sustainable living practices never have junk cravings is completely wrong.

Last week, I had a craving; it was for boxed mac n cheese.  Look, it's cold outside, and I grew up on boxed mac.  It is the ultimate comfort food for me.

But, once I'd indulged in a box, I remembered that I really care more about my health than I do some preservative- and GMO-laden processed food, so I set out to create a substitute that was still comfort food but was made with better ingredients.

This version of mac n cheese is a bit more agressively-flavored, thanks to the use of sharp cheddar and dried mustard; you can swap out mild cheddar if you prefer and alter the amount of mustard you use.  For me, this is just the right blend, preserving the creamy mouth-feel of the boxed original with a slightly-more-adult flavor profile.

Quick Mac n Cheese
1 lb organic pasta (I used penne, but you can obviously use elbows)
1 1/2 cup half and half (from cows not treated with growth hormones)
12 oz shredded sharp cheddar (same as above)
2 tsp dried mustard
1/2 tsp salt

Boil pasta; drain and keep warm.  Meanwhile, combine remaining ingredients and stir constantly until cheese is melted.  Fold in pasta and cover completely.  Serve just with some simple salt and cracked pepper to taste.

The Analysis

Fast:  This took just slightly longer than the boxed version, at about 20 minutes of prep time.  Still plenty fast for a work night dinner.

Cheap:  Not as cheap as the boxed stuff, but my insistence on organic ingredients helps me be sure I'm avoiding any residual growth hormones or exposure to glyphosate (Roundup).

Good;  I'm prepared to declare this the equal of any childhood favorite.  Therefore, I've made an important substitution that is healthier through the use of cleaner ingredients.
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Thursday, January 7, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: December and 2015 Summary

As it always does, December ended with a small harvest of four ounces of peppers and one of limes. But this harvest capped off a year in which we had a net profit of $342.23, saved right off our grocery bill. We needed it, too.  I don't know about you guys, but 2015 was rough on a lot of levels.  I couldn't even grow a decent crop of zucchini, for heaven's sake. The year brought some good stuff, but every time we got kicked in nearly every segment of life, we really got kicked.

Anyway, the retail value of our crops turned out as follows:

Limes: $0.37
Garlic: $1.48
Herbs (not basil, fresh): $$0.48
Carrots: $5.32
Tomato, Cuor di Bue: $86.75
Tomato, Yulia: $25.75
Tomato: Window Box Roma: $7.50
Tomato: San Marzano: $61.00
Tomato, Black Krim: $37.75
Tomato, PW*: $7.25
Tomato, SF*: $10.75
Tomato, Heinz: $6.50
Toamto, RB*: $9.50
Tomato, Indigo Rose: $1.50
Beans: $25.08
Peppers: $5.51
Cucumbers: $153.92
Zucchini: $5.32
Blueberries: $12.00
Peas: $0.29
Potatoes: $3.15
Leeks: $0.67
Greens: $8.80

*No, as a matter of fact, I don't really remember what PW, SF, and RB stand for.  Since these tomatoes didn't bear much fruit, they aren't varieties I care much about growing again, anyway.

Luckily, the things I really depend on for our diet did well this year.  We had lots of tomatoes and tons of cucumbers, and those kept us well-fed through the summer and generated some canned goods for winter.  Blueberries and beans were important in their season, too, and low-value crops like potatoes still made for some really great meals without any investment (since we use store-bought potatoes that have sprouted as seed, everything is a way to recover from a loss).

Every year at this time, I swear that I'm only going to grow the varieties of crops that performed well; indeed, the top-producing tomatoes were all grown from seed here at home (Cuor di Bue, San Marzano, and Yulia).  However, I know I will fall victim to bringing home some lonely plants that peek up at me in the local nursery, hardware store, or grocery.  I just can't help it!

Cumulative Totals

Harvest, Ounces: 2,331.0
Harvest, Pounds: 145.6875
Harvest Value: $483.63

Expenditures: $141.40


Total Saved: $342.23
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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Five Ways to Eat More Sustainably in 2016

As a professional writer, I know that it's the time of year for the "how to lose weight and get in shape" articles. I'm not immune to following this trend.

But losing weight, as a goal, feels punitive. It feels like you're punishing your body for something it did wrong, and, if you are at all sane, you won't punish yourself voluntarily. Getting in shape is a better goal, but it needs a food component to support the exercise.

So, here are five quick ideas that you can implement to eat healthier and more sustainably without feeling deprived.


  1. Join a CSA. Standing for "community supported agriculture," this allows you to get farm-fresh food while supporting a local farmer. Pick one that practices sustainable farming practices, and find out if you can get meat, vegetables, or both.
  2. Grow something. This is a theme for this blog, but it bears repeating that everyone can grow something. If you have a plot of land, plan to till it up for a garden; if you have a windowsill, grow sprouts or herbs. Every bit you grow yourself is that much less transportation cost that goes into your food.
  3. Avoid pesticides, herbicides, and HFCS. Learn to read labels. High fructose corn syrup is often listed in the ingredients as such, making it easy to avoid. To avoid pesticides and herbicides, choose organic options where possible, because these farmers and producers can't use harmful chemicals like glyphosate on their crops. 
  4. Avoid GMOs. More than ever before, it is possible to avoid consuming genetically modified organisms, as more and more producers are opting to label when they are GMO-free. While these plant products may not be inherently harmful (the jury is still out, as far as I'm concerned), they are often code for a plant that is "Roundup Ready," meaning that it can withstand being treated with Roundup. I try to avoid glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) everywhere I can, so avoiding GMOs is a good start.
  5. Reduce sugar consumption. Not only will you be avoiding the sometimes-questionable production methods of sugar, you'll be avoiding excess calories. This, I must admit, is my big challenge, so this year I'm trying to leave the sugar out of my coffee most days while cutting down the number of times I succumb to the temptation for a pop. 
What are your sustainable food goals this year?
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Friday, December 18, 2015

The Leggiest Potatoes

So, I like to think I have a green thumb, but sometimes my experiments go a little crazy on me. As you can see on the right, I'm currently in possession of the world's leggiest potato plants growing in my garage.

This whole experiment started when a friend told me that her neighbor or somebody managed to grow and harvest container potatoes by letting them overwinter in the garage. The fact that this conversation took place in a bar after dance class maybe should have been my first clue that I wasn't necessarily receiving high quality gardening information.

Anyway, as you know, I had a bag of potatoes go bad and start sprouting this fall, so I put them in my potato containers, and, once the weather started to dip, brought them inside from within the makeshift cold frame where they had been living.

The idea here was that the weather would turn cold, and the garage would be cold but not freezing. Therefore, the big plan was that the plants would go dormant and then pick up growth next spring when I could move them back outside.

As it turns out, we have been blessed with one of the warmest Decembers in quite a while, and my potatoes won't go to sleep.  So, they are eagerly climbing up toward the window seeking the sunlight instead of staying nice and squat for the winter.

Since I invested exactly $0 in this little experiment (thanks to already having all the materials and planting store potatoes that had started to sprout), I'm just going to leave them there and see if they succeed in living, and, if they do, if they produce any potatoes.

But you can imagine the look on my face when I went out into the garage after not being out there for a couple of weeks and found this mess going on.  Yeesh!
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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Seven Sustainable Things

Time for another edition of Seven Sustainable Things, in which I tell you seven things over the past seven days I've done to live a sustainable lifestyle.  This time, the cold weather December edition.

1.  We harvested a lime!  Since my lime tree is tempermental at best, there is no such thing as a regular lime crop around here.  So, it's always a treat to get a lime to put in our iced tea.

2.  In the interest of losing weight and saving money, we have set a new rule that we can't have desserts unless we bake them ourselves.  That means no mixes, too.  The result over the past two or three weeks has been more organic ingredients in our desserts and, more importantly, more days that we don't eat sweets at all because we're too tired to bake.

3.  To cut the heating bill, I've started spending an hour or two in the morning with my office door shut and my space heater on, but with the house heat still turned down.  Since Mr. FC&G is on a slightly different schedule than me, I just wait until he starts his day to turn up the heat.

4.  This is high sales season for our Etsy store, Carrot Creations, so I've been busy at night crocheting yoga socks as fast as I can for Christmas-time sales.  Hopefully, these gifts will help others live a more sustainable life too!

5.  I picked up an extra class to teach this coming spring semester, which will help the budget out a bit while giving me a fun new opportunity to spend time with my students.

6.  We've got an appointment for an oil change and check-up for our everyday vehicle.  Now, spending money doesn't sound all that sustainable, but last year we caught a brake problem before it turned into an expensive repair.  A little preventative maintenance can go a long way.

7.  Finally, let's hear it for the fireplace!  December is a wonderful time for us to have fires in our fireplace with its stove insert.  It lets us turn the house heat down and convert some of our wood pile into heat while enjoying the festive ambiance.  Win-win!

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