A little bit of everything...

This week I finally got my garden planted.  Shayne built me a raised bed from some ancient lumber my mom had up in her garage rafters, and we filled it with organic soil and compost (total cost = $20).  I bought some broccoli and two types of tomato plants from the greenhouse, plus started my own broccoli, carrot, and tomato seeds.  The carrots didn't make it, but everything else is in the ground and starting to grow.  When the seedlings are a little bigger I should mulch to help keep the moisture in, but I'm happy for now.

Since I plan to continue to grow my produce or buy it in-season from the farmer's market, I've had to learn new and different ways of storing food.  Last year was something of an experiment; I had never frozen or canned a fruit or veggie in my life.  I had mixed success with the freezing.  The broccoli turned soggy, and the carrots were kind of... spongy.  The corn, peas, and beans were great.  After talking to people who know much more than me, I learned what I had probably done wrong.  First, the veggies weren't dry when I bagged and froze them.  Second, since I just sucked the air out of the baggies with a straw, they got freezer burn. 

A vacuum sealer was recommended to me to keep my frozen produce from getting freezer burn.  Since I don't yet know if it will really work and I don't have a lot of spare money to spend, I picked up a Reynolds HandiVac.  Using special zip-top baggies, this little contraption sucks all the air out of the bag and supposedly keeps food fresher, longer.  I used it to suck the air out of bags of sausages and peppers, then tossed them in the freezer.  After a week, both packages looked fine.  There didn't appear to be any leaks, which was the main complaint on the reviews.  When I pulled out the peppers to use them, I did notice a bit of frost on the areas where the bag hadn't been sucked in enough to touch the food.  The places were there were no air pockets (98% of the whole), looked fine.  The peppers are still in there, 3 weeks later, and there is no freezer burn on them at all.  I intentionally ran my trial in the upstairs freezer, since it seems to burn food faster than the one downstairs, possibly because it's opened more often...?  So, for a $10 investment, I'm pretty happy!  It might not be as powerful or versatile as a "real" vacuum sealer, but it seems to do what I need it to do.

As for the work on the house...  It's still coming along.  I can't decide if it's nice or frustrating to have someone else doing the work for us.  On one hand, I can just sit back and watch it all happen.  On the other hand, I'm relying on other people and working around their schedules.  Although...  Considering the speed at which we normally operate (S-L-O-W), this is probably an improvement!  Currently, the office walls are pretty much done and just need to be sanded.  The ceiling is in the process of being patched.  We're almost there...!

The electrician showed up and found that the knob-and-tube is live and powers half of the upstairs, including the ceiling fan in our bedroom.  The good news is that she didn't think it would be all that difficult to run a new line up from the breaker.  She's coming back tomorrow to get started on that, as well as installing the wiring for a ceiling fan.

I'm thinking that within 2 weeks, we'll be tearing apart the master bedroom closet to install drywall and frame the "new" divider between it and the office closet.  As quickly as Tony works when it's just taping and hanging, it'll probably only be another week after that before we're ready to paint and refinish the floors.

Which is good, since I'll be giving birth in about 3 and a half months...  Yeek!


Dave Ramsey is my new hero...

Back in December I wrote about how we planned to use Dave's principles to help us get out of debt.  Since then we've gotten a little derailed by having to save extra money for when I'll be off work with the baby, but I still managed to pay extra on my student loans.  As of yesterday I paid off a third student loan, leaving us with one more student loan and our car payment.  I also decided that, even though I rarely carry a balance on our Visa, it was time to get rid of it.  It's now in little plastic pieces in the trash.

I'm amazed at how difficult it was to cut up that one little card.  Seriously, you'd think it had been in the family for years or something!  Oh wait, I guess it had....  I guess it was kind of serving as a false security blanket.  I would always think, "Oh if there's an emergency, we can just put "it" on the credit card."  Stupid, especially since we've always had a savings account.  We know from personal experience that emergencies happen.  At least once a year, something unexpected will happen, whether it's a medical expense, pet illness/injury, broken appliance, or whatever.  Especially with an old home, surprises are bound to happen.  So why should it be a surprise?  I know something will happen.  I know something will go wrong.  Why did it take so long to realize that my dumb ass should just plan for it?  Then it's not an "emergency".  Duh.

I've also finally taken the time to draw up a budget.  And we're going to stick to it.  I have a hard time keeping on a budget when I use a debit card.  I can never remember how much I have left in each category, and I never carry anything over from the month before.  If I have extra, I'll either spend it somewhere else or toss it in savings.  Then, when the car needs a repair, I'll have to take the money back out of savings.  It works, but it's not easy for me to keep track of.  So, I'm going to give the "envelope system" a try.

Basically, this is a series of envelopes that are labelled with each category.  Things like groceries, eating out, entertainment, car repairs, gas, etc.  This way I know exactly how much money is left for each category, and I have to actually think about the money I'm spending.  Even though debit comes out of our checking account, it just never seems like real money.  I'll still use the debit for utilities or other recurring or online payments, but I think our spending will be much easier to track if I use cash and then put the receipts into the envelope the money came out of.

Even though we haven't been able to follow Dave's plan to the letter, I'm very pleased at the progress we're making.  Thankfully we've never done anything really stupid with our money.  We aren't behind on payments, we've always saved some of our money, and I've always been something of a frugal spender.  We're very fortunate that we've not had any big personal or financial disasters.  But we've not been doing anything smart with our money, either.  At least we're finally learning how to tell our money where to go and how to make it work for us.  Better late than never!


I want!

Sometimes, I feel like I have about as much patience as the average 3 year old.  Even thought I want to live a simple life (and am succeeding for the most part), some days it feels like I want so many things that I just can't have.  It seems ironic that the simple life comes with its own set of wants, even though living simply should be steering me away from "superficial" desires.

Since we bought the Prairie Box, we have been living quite frugally overall.  Aside from our front-loading HE washing machine, I can't think of any large items we've purchased brand new.  Through craigslist and other secondhand venues, I've managed to find a barely used Trek bicycle, a great 1973 John Deere lawn tractor, mission-style dining set, and all of our large baby-related items, plus several pieces of antique furniture.  Everything we've bought, we've made sure it is a quality item that will last for a long time.  I buy clothes on ebay and from secondhand stores (though I do sneak in some new stuff now and then!).  In our remodel, we're using salvaged items where possible, like woodwork and doors.  And, we're retaining original features that other people might have just trashed, like repairing the plaster instead of replacing with drywall.

I don't regret any of these decisions or feel deprived in any way.  I'm satisfied with our lifestyle and feel blessed to have as much as we do.  Because we're not in debt up to our eyeballs, when we do need or want something, we can go out and buy it without feeling guilty.  But my "simple life" wants aren't quite in the same league.  We can't just run out and buy a perfectly maintained old farmhouse on 10 acres, complete with a vintage barn, pastures, a pond, and woods...  I can't put 3 chickens and 2 goats on our little half-acre.  With all the house work, plus preparing for a baby, I'll be lucky if the 4' by 8' garden bed gets put in.

The idea of the "perfect homestead" haunts me.  It pops into my head whenever I'm frustrated with our neighbors, or a loud train rumbles by, or the church on the corner plays its fake bell music for 30 minutes every noon and evening.  I daydream of sitting on my back porch, watching the sun rise, and not having a neighbor within sight.  I think about how wonderful it would be to watch our children playing with the chickens or chasing frogs by our pond.

I browse the real estate listings, and it's somewhat reassuring to see that our perfect home isn't on the market yet.  Some are close.  Some make me jealous.  But none are quite "right".  I truly believe that God helped us to find the Prairie Box; I haven't yet found a house for the same price that is even close to as perfect as this one has been.  It's our stepping stone.  Through this house, we've learned what we want and need in a home.  It's helped us to chose a lifestyle that's simpler and easier on the planet.  It's taught me a lot about renovating and restoring an old home.  These are all lessons we will take with us.

I believe that when the time is right, God will again provide us with our ideal home.  I just wish I wasn't so impatient!  In the meantime, though, I can still look out the windows and enjoy our little slice of almost-country life.  I can learn more about gardening, canning, and animal husbandry.  I can continue to un-remuddle our poor little house.  And I can practice being happy with what I have, probably the most important thing I can learn...


Hall closet? Check!

Tony the Drywall Guy made big progress today.  He was only here about an hour, but he "patched" the former office closet over, making it once again a hall closet.  See?

I don't really have any great "before" pictures, but I suppose this gives you an idea of what it used to be:
Of course, when we bought the house, the room was nicely finished in wallpaper-covered paneling, and the door opening was trimmed with el cheapo builder's special trim... 

I'm so excited to have real progress that actually makes a difference in the function of the house.  Once the office closet is completed, the hall closet will become a place to store linens, the vacuum cleaner, and seasonal items like coats and extra blankets. 

Wow, you know you've really hit adulthood when you get excited about things like closets...

Tony will be back on Friday, hopefully with an electrician.  Then the knob and tube will be taken care of, and we'll have a new ceiling fan hookup. 


Wow, I really can keep a secret!

But today I decided it's been long enough...  As of this week, I am 20 weeks pregnant!! 

That's one of the reasons I went on a posting hiatus at the beginning of the year.  I felt awful for the first 15 weeks.  Morning sickness doesn't even begin to describe it.  Thankfully after about 12 weeks, I started getting some energy back, but the nausea didn't stop for another month or so.  Still, during that time we were busy squirrelling away baby bargains that we found secondhand.  So far we've managed to find a crib/changing table/dresser combo, bassinet, swing, bouncer, a Pottery Barn bedding set, a small dresser, a rocking chair, and a Jeep jogging stroller.  And I think our grand total is still under $500.  I'm so cheap.  Er, I mean "frugal".

Now that I feel better, we're working on the house a little more.  Tony the Drywall Guy has been dilligently working on the office walls, and he's finished the skimcoating.  This week, he's going to install the 4.5' by 8' "patch"  where the PPOs made a closet opening.

Tony also helped us find out that the knob and tube we found is indeed live.  Yay...  Fortunately, he also knows trustworthy electricians, and he's acting as a GC to get one here and working.  Tony is our new hero.  We're going to have the electrician remove the k&t as well as install wiring for a ceiling fan.  I might also have him look at the two outlets in the living room that suddenly stopped working...

The next stage of our project will be rebuilding the two closets between the bedrooms.  Considering the small space and the amount of damage done, I think we're just going to gut and drywall.  There's just not enough plaster left to even try to save it.  Considering how small the space is and how quickly Tony works, that should be a two-day project once we get there.

Amazing.  The end is near!


Stolen flowers

Last year, I umm... stole some flowers.  A friend and I were driving along a country road in the middle of nowhere, and in the woods off to the side was a field of woodland phlox.  I always loved phlox, but the plants sold at our local nursery weren't the same.  So we dug up a few bunches and transplanted them in my garden. 

One bunch by the neighbor's fence got mildewy (a common problem with phlox).  Another bunch that we planted at the edge of the woods just plain died.  And the third bunch that we put on the side of the house looked like it just might make it. 

A few weeks ago, I noticed some big, green bunches growing near the fence and on the side of the house.  It looked like phlox, but I couldn't be sure; this was WAY more than I had transplanted last summer.  Looking at some wild phlox growing along the road this morning, I'm now certain: my phlox came back and are preparing to bloom!

I should add that I have since found out that it is illegal to remove wildflowers from "the wild" in most states.  Since the property I took my flowers from belonged to someone, I'm not sure they qualify as wild.  Still, if nothing else, I did technically steal them.  I'm very glad to have my phlox, but I won't be taking any more roadside wildflowers, just in case.


My seeds are sprouting!

Last week, in an act of desperation, I planted some of last year's seeds in a couple of egg cartons.  I think I broke every seed-sprouting rule there is: I used soil from the garden, I didn't water from the bottom, and I accidentally left them outside overnight a few times...  But as of today, I have about 6 broccoli seedlings!  I also have a couple lettuce sprouts.  Nothing yet from the tomatoes and carrots, but the package says 7-10 days, so there's still time.

I also supplemented my seedlings with started plants.  I bought broccoli (to spread out the harvest), roma tomatoes, and yellow bell peppers.

Shayne is going to make me a raised bed with some wood salvaged from the stash in my mom's garage rafters, and I plan to give square foot gardening a go.  Compost and mulch are free for South Bend residents from the Department of Organic Resources, so long as you load it yourself.  I'm not sure if we count, since we're outside the city limits, but our mailing address is South Bend...  Still, at only $4 per yard for non-residents, it's a bargain.

If all goes well, we should have our started plants in the ground by Monday!


Thinking spring, and about all the work we need to do...

It seems as though it's been a long time coming, but spring is really, truly, finally here.  Trees are budding, lilacs are blooming, and the grass just had its first trim.  I love how fresh and clean everything always looks during spring.  Even the now-empty lot that used to be our woods doesn't look so bad now that the grass is green again.  I'd still much rather have trees than a view of the neighbors, but I guess I'm learning to live with it.  Like I have a choice...

One of the reasons I'm so excited about spring this year is because of food.  When I started eating/buying local, seasonal produce last yearI didn't think it would change our diet much.  Since I stocked away lots of veggies in the freezer, I figured we'd pretty much eat the same stuff during the winter as we do during the summer.  And, that mostly proved correct.  It's been very easy to live off our freezer stash, and I'm definitely going to do it again this year.  I have bought a few bunches of lettuce, a bag of onions, and one head of broccoli at the store, but other than that, I've cooked from the frozen broccoli, beans, peas, peppers, and corn in the freezer.  The potatoes I bought at the market stayed fresh living in the produce bin at the bottom of the fridge, and we devoured our canned applesauce and peaches.

And that right there is why I'm so very glad it's spring.


I never was one to buy fruit out of season anyways, but this winter I really missed it.  Last summer at the market, I devoured the strawberries, blueberries, plums (4 different kinds!), nectarines, peaches, melons, pears, and apples.  And they were just so much better than anything I'd ever bought from Meijer.  I probably ate more fruit last summer than I had in the 5 years before combined.  I would wake up early every Saturday morning and couldn't wait to go get more fruit.

And the problem with fruit is that there's no good way to preserve that just-picked taste.  My frozen corn still tastes fresh 8 months later.  But a canned peach just isn't the same as biting into a fresh, juicy one.  And the home frozen ones kinda turn to mush.  I need to get a commercial flash freezer...!

Fruit cravings aside, we've gotten quite a bit accomplished here in the past 2 weeks.  The office walls are nearing completion, and I'm beginning to have hope that the upstairs really will be finished before the end of summer.  Our drywall buddy knows an electrician who will help us with our knob and tube debacle and put a ceiling fan into the office.  I have a feeling the closet walls and ceiling will be so shot that we'll just end up completely replacing with drywall, so that whould be a relatively quick project (especially since we won't be doing the work!), and then we'll just have to paint the walls and refinish the floors.  It's getting there...

The only problem with this house is that the projects kind of create more projects.  Like the Great Closet Recreation Project.  Sure, it's wonderful that we're taking 2 dysfunctional closets and creating 3 usable ones.  It'll imrpove resale value, and we'll be able to store more items in a more organized fashion.   But, by putting the closets back where they belong, we have to remove a screwed up heat duct installed by the PPOs that "feeds" off of the duct to the master bedroom and effectively cuts airflow in half.  Which is all well and good, until we find that the wall that the old, original heat duct ran through no longer exists.  When they opened up the wall between the kitchen and dining rooms, they took the duct with it.  So now, in order to really, truly do this project right, we need to build 16" of wall between the dining room and kitchen.

Did I mention that the dining room still has its lovely paneling and ceiling tiles?  And don't forget the window opening that is hidden beneath that paneling.  And the beautiful, unrefinished pine floors lurking under the Pergo.  Oh, wait!  And if we build a wall between the kitchen and dining room, we can't very well leave all the nasty wallpaper in the kitchen up; we'll need to remove it and paint.  And since the kitchen doesn't have any heat ducts of its own, we should probably fix that while we are running ductwork, right?

This is where I start wondering why the hell I ever thought we needed to fix the closets... 


Suburban self-reliance

I've read a few books and articles over the past year about people who live on small plots of land, yet are able to produce most of their own food.  I'm still trying to decide whether these stories make me feel envious or overwhelmed...  Since I'm just learning about gardening and animal husbandry, it seems like a huge time and energy commitment.  Not to mention the steep learning curve...  I want to do it all, but the idea of slaughtering a chicken is very intimidating for me.  I wouldn't have a problem eating a chicken I raised, but I'm not sure how I feel about actually killing and butchering it myself.  An attitude like this points to what I feel is one of the biggest problems in today's society: people want things, but they don't want to do it themselves or do the "dirty work" to achieve things.

I'm determined to change this attitude in myself, especially as it pertains to food.  In the society we've evolved into, the average person is far removed from the processes that sustain us.  Some people don't even know how to make a meal unless it comes out of a box, much less how to preserve home-grown produce to last through the winter.  Personally, I don't like to live like this.  It makes me feel very insecure, as I'm relying on so many other people just to have the basics to survive.  I don't think that I'm an extremist; I'm not going to become a hermit who completely withdraws from society to live off the land in some ramshackle cottage in the woods.  But I do want to do what I can to make myself less reliant on others for the basics (water, food, energy), and I want my children to also have these skills. 

I don't think people realize how fragile society really is.  After a disaster or major social disruption of some sort, it takes only 72 hours without strong governmental intervention for the social order to start to disintegrate.  Anyone remember all the looting after hurricaine Katrina?  Or the effects of the widespread "Northeast Blackout" of 2003?  I was visiting family near Detroit that weekend, and stores immediately sold out of bottled water, ice, gasoline, and other emergency supplies.  It doesn't take long at all for fights to start over the last remaining supplies, and it seems much more prudent to have supplies on-hand instead of trying to beat the rush to the grocery store.  Personally, I don't think stealing food from a grocery store after a natural disaster is truly "looting", it's just people doing what they need to do to survive and feed themselves.  But would you want to be in the way of people who are that desperate?

Especially in light of the fact that we plan to bring children into this world, I feel very obligated to be able to provide for ourselves under most any circumstances.  I'm not worried we're all going to die from swine flu, or that the nuclear holocaust is right around the corner.  But I do believe that I cannot (and should not!) rely on the government to rescue me from a disaster or emergency situation.

So, today I'm going to really go through my stored food and figure out what I really have and what I really need.  There's no reason to have 10 lbs of flour if I don't have anything to make it edible...!  Throughout the month of May, I'd like to make sure I have a true 1 month supply of food and fuel that is organized and accessible.  I'm also going to build a small raised garden bed for the seeds I started a few days ago.  Then I can concentrate of building up the 3-month supply that was supposed to be last year's resolution!