Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On the Cost of Weddings

I know it's a total cliche, but having a wedding is so much more expensive than I realized. I had been interested in weddings for quite a while, read a lot of wedding blogs, saw a lot of budgets, and thought I had a good idea of how much things cost. On principle, I have never wanted to have an expensive wedding. Even spending $10,000 - $15,000 seemed to me like a lot for one event, but I had reconciled myself to the idea of spending that much and thought it was totally possible.

But after we got engaged and I started researching specific rental companies and caterers in the area, I realized I had radically underestimated those costs - more on that in another post. The wedding that we are currently planning is looking to cost around $30,000. I feel weird just writing that. Me, who won't even buy myself new clothes, have an expensive wedding? It does not compute. I've looked at my budget over and over again, trying to find a way for the numbers to add up differently, but they won't.

Yet, when I contemplate each individual cost, they all seem worthy. Of course we want to have our wedding on Evan's family farm, so we don't want to look for another, more all-inclusive venue. Of course we want to have all of our family and friends there (and Evan has a lot of friends), so we can't cut the guest list. Of course we want to have a DJ, because having a great dance party is important to us. Of course we want the food to be as local and organic as possible.

This is despite taking certain measures to save. We're not paying for a venue. I'm hopefully altering a family dress rather than buying a new one. My mom is going to do the flowers. We're going to do mostly electronic invitations. We're not going to have a cake. We don't care about having photography as art. But all that is somewhat inconsequential next to the cost of catering and rentals.

I am vacillating between just accepting that this is how it must be, and wondering if there's some other way. No one else seems to care besides me. Evan has already reached the acceptance stage. My parents, who taught me my frugal values, are incongruously unbothered by the cost. I should also add that we are lucky to be in a position that we, and our families, can afford to spend this much on our wedding. Yet, that $30,000 still stands there. It's enough to live on for a full year. It's enough for closing costs (in New York) or a downpayment (in other places). Not to mention all the philanthropic good it could do. It doesn't quite make sense to me that people are willing to spend so much on a wedding, when most people, myself included, don't think to spend that much on solving their life problems or improving their day to day quality of life.

Maybe I should think of it as an investment in building our lives together. It's important to us to have a wedding, to recognize our newly combined family, to acknowledge our close loved ones, and to gather our community together to help marry us and commit to supporting our lives together. And we also are excited to throw a fun party. Who knows, maybe (hopefully?) it won't end up being that much.

You hear that the average wedding is around $28,000, and I guess it's for a reason. I always thought it was because of the lavish, expensive weddings throwing off the average (what journalists should really share are the median wedding costs). Or I self-righteously thought it was because a lot of people are willing to splurge on things that seem silly to me, like expensive wedding gowns, letterpress invitations, favors, chivari chairs, twee decorations, etc. However, reflecting on it from this new perspective, I suppose that most people don't set out wanting to spend that much and wouldn't if there were more ways not to.

So tell me, what are your experience with how much weddings cost and how do you feel about it?

UPDATE: Literally a day after I wrote this I finally found two good catering options who cost 5k less than most caterers and will therefore bring the wedding total down to $25,000. Still not cheap, but certainly better than $30,000!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

No Bake Gluten Free Coconut Snowballs

image from the Kichn

I made these coconut snowballs for a party last weekend, and they were a big hit. They are really nothing more than coconut, coconut oil and maple syrup, but they taste delicious like chilled macaroons. They are no bake, gluten free and also free of refined sugar, yet they are a sweet treat you can enjoy even on a restricted diet.

I used a recipe from the Kitchn but realized just now that I accidentally used tablespoons of coconut oil instead of teaspoons as the recipe intended. Well, it worked anyway - they are just not quite as healthy with that extra fat in there. I doubled the Kitchn's recipe, which I heartily recommend doing since they will go quickly. I cut back on the maple syrup, though, and they still tasted plenty sweet. I used regular milk since I didn't feel like having a half an open can of coconut milk laying around afterward, but if you want to make them dairy free, then go ahead and use the coconut milk. Finally, keep in mind that though they don't require baking time, you should plan for the time spent time rolling out each snowball and chilling in the fridge.

Coconut Snowballs 
Adapted from the Kitchn

3 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
4 tbsp coconut oil
4 tbsp maple syrup
4 tbsp milk
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon

Place 2 cups of shredded coconut in a food processor and process until finely ground. Place coconut oil in a small saucepan and heat over low until coconut oil is melted. Remove from heat. Add to the saucepan 2 cups of finely ground coconut, 1 cup of shredded coconut, maple syrup, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. Stir together until combined. Shape into 1-inch balls and coat with remaining shredded coconut. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

Thanksgiving week was a whirlwind this year, since we went to three different locations in one week, Evan met my extended family for the first time, there were lots of wedding planning conversations, and we celebrated multiple birthdays.

I help with the Thanksgiving cooking most years. This year, I spent about five straight hours cooking on Wednesday, which meant I got to sleep in and relax on Thursday. You may notice a lot of browning on the vegetables below. Every year, I have problems with my mom's oven, which browns foods extremely quickly and is quick to set off their sensitive smoke alarm. It's strange that I've used many different ovens in many different apartments in New York City and have never had the same kinds of issues. Her oven really doesn't like roasting vegetables.

My mom made her Shoprite turkey, cranberry sauce, garlicky mashed potatoes and a pumpkin pie. She deviated from the pepperidge farm stuffing to a cornbread stuffing that I liked.  

Here's what I made:

Kale salad with lemon, almond and parmesan
I shredded two bunches of kale and massaged it in olive oil and the juice of one lemon. Then I tossed it together with: half of a red onion, thinly sliced; a few cloves of garlic, thinly sliced and sauteed in olive oil until crispy; half a cup of almonds, finely chopped and toasted in a dry pan until lightly browned; a sprinkling of salt and pepper and crushed red pepper; and a cup of grated parmesan.

Most of my family had never had kale salad before, and they loved it. The lemon and parmesan give it flavor, while the finely chopped nuts added a light crunch to the texture, similar to the way that breadcrumbs would. The great thing about kale salad is that it can be prepared a day or two in advance without wilting like regular salads. In fact, it's better to give it more time for the vinaigrette to tenderize the kale. The amount above was enough as a side for twelve people, with leftovers.

Roasted brussels sprouts
My grandfather requested the brussels sprouts after enjoying them in 2011. It seems most adults over the age of 35 have only ever had brussels sprouts steamed and are pleasantly surprised by roasted sprouts. Since I was making a lot of sprouts, I decided to separate all the loose leaves and bake them on their own tray. That way I was able to take out the leaves as soon as they were done. I love snacking on the crispy leaves - we put them out in a bowl with the appetizers. Most of the time, through, I just roast the leaves alongside the sprouts.

To roast brussels sprouts: 
Preheat the oven to 400. Rinse the sprouts. Chop off the tough ends and then slice each sprout in half (if they are small, don't bother cutting in half). Grease a pan with olive oil, and throw in the sprouts. Shake salt and pepper liberally over top. Stir the sprouts around on the pan until they are evenly coated in the oil, salt, and pepper. Arrange the sprouts on the pan evenly spaced. Cook for 20 minutes until the side facing down is browned. Remove and flip them over. Cook another 10-15 minutes.

Whole wheat dinner rolls
I've made no-knead rolls in past years, but I wanted to go for a softer texture this year by incorporating milk and sweetness. I went with a recipe from The Kitchn for "soft and tender dinner rolls", substituting whole wheat flour for a third of the flour. I multiplied the amounts by 1.5 (including the yeast) to get 18 rolls instead of 12. I like to bake my rolls in muffin tins. I brushed the tops with butter just before baking, but I don't think that touch was noticeable enough to be worth the effort. I thought they were fine, but not amazing - a little softer, but not that flavorful. I made them on Wednesday and quickly reheated them on Thursday just before dinner.

Sage leaf sweet potatoes
This was inspired by Smitten Kitchen's parsley leaf potatoes - same idea but with a different type of potato and herb. I cut ten sweet potatoes in half. I melted three tablespoons of butter in a small pot and stirred in a tablespoon of honey. I coated the bottom of two pans with the melted butter/honey. I lay each potato half cut side down over a sprig of sage. I roasted them at 400 F for 20 minutes and then flipped them over for another 10. Unfortunately, they got burned on their second trip in the oven the next day to reheat them before dinner - so if you're going to need to reheat, don't cook them too long originally. The sweetness was not noticeable enough, so I'd recommend doubling the honey. I think this was a much less labor intensive way of getting flavor into a simple roasted sweet potato dish than hasselback sweet potatoes.

Medley of roasted butternut squash, parsnips, carrots and beets
I roasted the vegetables separately according to like cooking times and combined them afterward. I roasted the parsnips and carrots together, and the squash in a different pan. I originally roasted the beets peeled and chopped in their own pan, but their dark color prevented me from noticing they were burning until it was too late. I had to redo the beets, and opted to go my usual route of roasting them whole in a foil pouch, peeling and chopping them afterward. I do think that method better locks in the moisture and flavor.

Cranberry Torte
For dessert, I made this cranberry torte from Lottie + Doof. Instead of almond extract, which I didn't have, I added the zest and juice of one lemon. Lemon plays off the cranberries well. I recommend adding extra cranberries and mixing half of them into the batter, to get more fruit in each bite. This dessert comes together very quickly and is easy to make - which is helpful when you don't have a lot of time or are busy making too many foods.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Apple Pear Pie with Gingerbread Crust

The day after I got engaged, I felt like baking some celebration pie. To celebrate love, to celebrate my friend's 30th birthday that night, and to celebrate getting back into baking after leaving the low glycemic diet. Personally, I'm not big on pies, but many people in my life are, so I'm trying to see what the big deal is.

What I really want to make is a pie with a cookie dough crust. Have you ever heard of that? I've scoured the internet and only seen it done once. I didn't want to get too experimental with a pie I needed to bring to a party, so I made a relatively regular pie crust with gingerbread flavors.

The gingerbread was more subtle than I was going for, however. You could try doubling the molasses and sugar in the dough. The apples and pears definitely work nicely together, but the fresh ginger is what really jazzed it up. This pie still didn't convert me, but the pie lovers enjoyed it. I will make a cookie dough pie this winter, mark my words.

Also, making pie is a lot of work. I guess that's another reason I make it so infrequently. It took something like three hours start to finish. Reading through a recipe seems deceptively simple, but every step has to be done carefully, taking dough in and out of the fridge throughout, and just the acts of chopping the butter and the fruit are time consuming. I follow Smitten Kitchen's principles for preparing and rolling out pie dough, which are rather involved but have always guided me to success.

One step I have improved upon is that I start by dicing my butter really small - even smaller than the half inch cubes that Deb recommends - more like 1/8 inch cubes. Even though the pieces start to stick together when you cut them that small, it still makes it easier to incorporate the butter into the dough later using only a fork and hands, without a food processor or pastry cutter.

Meanwhile, it's now been about two weeks since we got engaged. We got right on the planning train, but have stalled out since we can't seem to decide on the date. Have the wedding in June and have the rest of the summer free to enjoy normal summery things, but have a really busy late spring leading up to the wedding? Or have it in late July, when my favorite flowers are out and we can plan at a relaxed pace and have time for bachelor/ette weekends away beforehand, but the summer will winding down when we get back from honeymooning? There are other pros and cons to each. How does one decide? Flipping a coin?

Apple Pear Pie with Gingerbread Crust
Gingerbread Crust 2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 3/4 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed
2 tbsp molasses
1/2 cup + 2 tbsp water

Dice butter into tiny 1/8" pieces and set aside in the fridge. Whisk together flour, salt, spices, baking soda and sugar. Combine 2 tbsp molasses and 2 tbsp water in a liquid measuring cup or small bowl and stir to dissolve molasses in water. Prepare additional water by filling a liquid measuring cup with another half cup of water and drop in an ice cube. Using a pastry cutter, fork, or just your hands, work in the butter until it's consistently the size of tiny peas throughout. Now drizzle in the molasses-water, and stir until it starts to come together as a dough. Drizzle in more water as needed and knead with your hands. Divide the dough into two balls and put it aside in the fridge.

Apple Pear Filling 3 apples
3 pears
juice and zest from one small lemon
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 cups brown sugar
3 tbsp whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 egg, beaten lightly with 1 tbsp water for egg wash
1 tbsp white granulated sugar

Peel and chop apples and pears into 1/4" slices. Toss with other filling ingredients. Preheat oven to 500 F. Grease a pie dish. Follow Smitten Kitchen's principles for rolling out pie dough. Prepare the pie by laying the bottom dough layer in the pie dish, top with the filling, and then top with the upper pie dough layer. Slice some vents in crust. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 475 for 15 min with foil on. Remove foil, reduce to 425 and bake for another 30 min.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The happiest walk in the botanic garden

The story: 
We both had the day off to do something fun, and I suspected he might propose that day, but I didn't think he had the ring yet. We had a nice stroll through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in the early afternoon, and when we left the garden to get lunch, I thought it wasn't likely to happen that day after all. However, we passed the garden on our way home, and he pulled me back inside, at which point I knew.

Evan proposed under the yellow-leaved cherry trees, and of course I said yes. I gave him a letter as a surprise for him in return, which as a friend put it, is something that often seems missing from the process. We walked something like five miles that chilly November day. Back at home, the cat had no idea what just happened. That night, we celebrated over a special tasting menu dinner at The Grocery in Carroll Gardens. We enjoyed their great service and many seasonal-vegetable-driven dishes that reflect the way Evan and I eat. Then we spent the weekend feeling happy and sharing the good news.

The ring:
My ring was custom made by local Brooklyn designer Marian Maurer with responsibly sourced blue sapphires and recycled gold. We both had strong opinions about my engagement ring, and I ended up helping him pick it out. I have small fingers, so I wanted small stone(s) in a bezel or rosecut setting that wouldn't stick up much. I don't know how most women put up with the traditional prong setting that looks like you might accidentally do harm.

Evan didn't want a diamond, both because of ethical concerns and because it's a fake tradition launched by the diamond industry's advertising campaigns. Non-diamond engagement rings are hard to find, especially in a more non-traditional setting. I did extensive research on the subject, which I think I'll share with ring roundups in future posts. We chose a design at Clay Pot, which coordinated to have the designer put in sapphires. The store told us it would take about a month, but it was actually done in a week, lending some element of surprise to the process.

Since we want to get married next summer, I'm not ashamed to say that this blog may become wedding focused over the next several months.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Crockpot Primer and Two Bean Quinoa Vegetarian Chili

It has come to my attention that I have many friends who have not yet tried using their crockpot. Let me tell you - it is a wonderful and useful thing. I use mine all the time because I love being able to cook without being tied to my stove. On many a non-workday, I can be found in and out of the house running errands while cooking something up in the crockpot. And on workdays, it's nice to come home to dinner all ready - I suggest chopping the vegetables the night before, so that all you have to do in the morning before work is throw everything into the pot and turn it on.

What do I make with my slow cooker?
* Dried beans. I prefer this over cooking dried beans on the stovetop because it eliminates the need for overnight soaking and watching the stove for two hours. I make a big batch and then freeze it in portions.
* Grains like barley and farro. They doesn't take as long as beans - only a few hours. Again, I make a lot to freeze and have some on hand.
* Tomato sauce - recipe coming soon
Pulled pork or any large cut of meat that benefits from braising, like pot roast or lamb shoulder
* Oatmeal - I've been on an overnight steel cut oats kick lately, but I hear you can make them in a slow cooker too.

And most of all, soup. I've been making slow cooked soup a lot lately, since my stove wasn't working for couple weeks in September while they repaired a gas leak in my apartment (typical of old Park Slope brownstones that formerly had gas lighting). The great thing about soups and stews is that you can really use any combination of beans, meat, vegetables and grains that you have on hand, and it will probably taste decent.

Here are some slow cooker soups I've made in the past:
Farro, kale and bean soup - terrific with poached egg on top
Lamb and vegetable stew
Vegetarian baked beans
* Beef, sweet potato and barley stew - this was a favorite last winter and I'll have to recreate the recipe

More recently, this two-bean quinoa chili is my favorite soup invention - I've already made it twice this month. You want to cook it until the tomatoes seem to melt into the broth and the beans are tender and salty. The quinoa thickens it, while the kale provides some texture and color, and the jalapeno and spices generate an overall spicy heat. It's great for warming your insides on these chilly fall nights when your landlord hasn't turned on the heat yet.

Crockpot Two Bean Quinoa Vegetarian Chili
1/2 cup dried black beans or 1 can cooked beans
1/2 cup dried white beans or chickpeas or 1 can cooked beans
1/2 cup quinoa
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
2 jalapeno peppers
4-5 tomatoes
a few stalks of kale (not a full bunch)
4 cups vegetable stock
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp turmeric
2 bay leaves

Place the beans and quinoa into the crockpot. Dice the onion, garlic and peppers, followed by the tomatoes and kale (discard kale stems for best results). Place the vegetables over the dry ingredients. Add the stock and spices and stir it together (see below). If using dried beans, cook on high for 8 hours. (Yes, on high. I find that the chickpeas need longer to cook than the black beans and that it gels together nicely the more it's cooked). If using canned beans, cook on high for about 4 hours. Makes 4-6 servings

Crockpot Pro-tips:
* I like to stir it only roughly, leaving the dry ingredients primarily on the bottom with the vegetables primarily on the top. This ensures that the beans and grains are all submerged in liquid and will cook fully and evenly. Toward the end (after about 5 or 6 hours) I stir it all together.

* I like to start my crockpot on high for the first hour or so, which gets it warm quickly, and then turn it to low after that, since it will hold in the heat.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Challenge of Healthy Eating

For about two months now, I've been trying to follow a restricted diet for health reasons. No alcohol, no coffee, no dairy (except yogurt), no sugar, limited fruit, and no grains except for low-glycemic grains like quinoa and steel-cut oats. It was easy the first couple weeks, but after that it became near-impossible. I've learned a few things about myself and society in the process:

* There are no particular foods that I really miss. In fact, I miss bread and pizza a lot less than I expected. Instead, I miss the overall feeling of indulgence. I've realized that our lives are built around little daily indulgences. A morning cup of coffee with honey. A chocolate chip cookie as a pick-me-up during a terrible afternoon at work. A glass of wine with dinner. The evening walk to get ice cream after dinner. I'm used to being able to eat relatively whatever I want whenever I want it. My days now feel like constant deprivation, as I'm confronted with other people consuming foods I can't have.

* Our society is built around unhealthy eating. In the abstract, reading sample menus for a healthy diet don't sound so bad. Really, it's the exposure to all the tasty, unhealthy food that makes sticking to a diet hard. It feels particularly so in New York City, where temptation is on every block, in every bodega, restaurant, pizza place, ice cream parlor, cafe, bagel store, falafel cart, and so on. I must pass more than a hundred places selling food on my bike ride to and from work. I suppose that's part of the fun of living in New York City -- all the easy access to restaurants and bars that push enjoyment as a lifestyle. They call at me to stop and relax and enjoy myself with a drink and whatever food I want. I imagine it would be easier if I lived in a place with fewer options where I drove directly to and from work. For example, I know was able to diet easily in the summers during college because my setting was restricted to campus without a dining hall.

Moreover, when eating out, it's hard to find meals that don't come with bread or noodles or white rice or fries or chips. Because tasty food is what sells, that's what restaurants and companies sell, sending the message that they're okay and normal to eat. Yet, it would be better for us all if refined grains and processed foods weren't so ubiquitous.

* I thought I had my approach to healthy eating down. I pride myself on incorporating a variety of grains and beans and vegetables into my home cooked meals. I consider whole milk and butter and meat healthy when sourced from grass-fed farms. I like to experiment with natural sweeteners like honey and pureed fruits. I have no problem making whole grain versions of foods like breads and crackers and muffins from scratch, but this doesn't even allow for that.

* I also miss making baked goods not for the tastiness of the sugary confections themselves, but for the act of making something fun and creative that will delight people. I used to bake a lot, as documented on this blog. My baking has waned over the past couple years. Part of that is because of Evan, who is always reminds me how unhealthy baked goods are (yet he eats ice cream every day...). Which is true, and which is why it has always fascinated me that some food bloggers bake seem to bake so often, also given that it's expensive to keep buying all that butter and chocolate. I used to take my friends and coworkers' birthdays as occasions to whip up some new creation. In the two years at my current job, I've brought baked goods into work only a few times. I've been wanting to get back into baking, especially now that fall is here. But alas...

* Which is all to say that I haven't kept to the diet strictly. I make small exceptions to help get myself through the days (and big exceptions on a recent two week vacation in Oregon). And it isn't forever. It's temporary. But it's been a good learning experience that will make me more conscious of what I'm eating going forward.

Have you done any crazy diets? What did you learn from them?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Yard: Farewell Flowers

This yard was just grass and dirt and ivy and weeds when we moved in, and we transformed it into something better. As I've mentioned before, I took the opportunity to plant flowers in the ground for the first time in my life. I had visions of flowers everywhere, but I soon earned that it actually takes years (or lots of money) for perennial gardens to look lush, because the plants spread a little each year. Even though these plants don't look like much in these photos, most of them should reappear even better next year. So the future tenants will get to reap the rewards of our work more than we did.

I created a bed for wildflower-type perennials. In late May, the blazing sunset geum and salvia were colorful, but the ground looked sparse. 

By early July, those flowers were washed out, and the ground filled in with weeds. Later in July, echinacea and bee balm bloomed here, though I didn't get a picture. There's also some scraggly lavender, which could have used a pruning last fall.

On the other side of the yard, I created a little shade garden, edged by stones that Evan found in the yard. On the left is astilbe, which sends up white flowers in late May. On the right is bleeding heart, which has little pink blooms in May. I added a fern, because that's what a shade garden calls out for. In the middle is a small mound of ajuga, which is supposed to spread quickly as ground cover, but hadn't spread at all - maybe next year. The grassy area within the stones is where the crocuses bloom in early spring. 

An extension of the shade garden, the hostas and dusty miller planted last year were still going strong, with impatiens added for pop of color.

I planted this pincushion in the back of the yard by the daffodil and tulips, but it was lost back there. Another lesson learned: Bulbs are showy enough that they can be planted at the back of a yard, but most other flowers are best situated closer to the windows or patio of one's home, where they will actually be in view.

My parents brought daylilies dug from their yard, which made me feel like I had brought a little piece of their upstate garden to life in Brooklyn.

This bed doesn't look like much, but that greenery actually includes a hosta, a columbine that started blooming at the end of July, and mums that could be blooming now for all I know.

In addition to planting perennials, I tried growing several types of annual flowers (marigolds, zinnias, cosmos, cornflowers) from seed directly in the ground, but they disappointingly didn't come up. The lessons learned about annuals are: perennials go in the ground, and annuals go in containers. And that it's best to just buy annuals as starts that are already blooming from farms/garden stores. Gardeners are able to get a head start in their greenhouses, so it adds pop of color early in the spring, instead of waiting around for your own seeds that may or may not bloom. that annuals are best reserved for container planting. Here are petunias, lobelia and marigolds in hanging containers.

In putting this retrospective together, I realized that even though I took lots of photos of the yard, there were actually more blooms that I forgot to capture. They will live on in my memory with lessons learned for when I have a garden again someday, and in the eyes of the people who live there after us, and for the bees to pollinate.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Yard: We Went Out Fighting

Unfortunately, we were forced to move out of our beloved apartment this summer. That's the main reason for my absence, as most of my time was filled with moving-related issues. We hoped to call that apartment home for many years, and we invested so much - both emotional and physical energy as well as money - into the yard.

Yet, within a couple weeks, we had to dismantle everything. The chiminea for enjoying warm fires, the rubber patio tiles - purchased to extend the awkward sized patio, the indoor-outdoor hose system, the push lawn mower, the broom, shovel and rake, the dozens of pots, the outdoor lights and candles, the tables and chairs, the mosquito repellent accoutrements. It all had to go to new homes, since our new apartment has just a fire escape. We wanted to move everything, out of spite, but sadly ended up behind leaving the slate stepping stones that we foraged from Evan's farm, as well as the table repurposed from a concrete door.

Ultimately, it's okay that we no longer have that yard, since we felt like we were constantly fighting with it.

From June to October, it was plagued with tropics-level mosquitos that swarmed in the daytime heat and nibbled more discreetly in the dark. We tried many different approaches, none of which worked, but which deserve a post of their own. Because of the bugs, we couldn't lounge outside with a book and a hammock, and we never did host dinner parties around that concrete table.

DIY table and deer antlers

The actual ground was contaminated with high levels of lead, which is a health hazard that also deserves its own post.

the meager vegetable container garden

Since we couldn't use the yard for leisure, we thought we could use it to grow things, but that didn't go so well. Our summer growing season went much like our first failed fall growing season. We accumulated many more pots, I developed an addiction to buying seed packets, started seeds inside to transplant, started some outside and bought some starts. It looks like it's off to a decent start in the photos, but most of the baby plants never grew any bigger. I attribute it to both bad soil and lack of light.

overly ambitious seed collection

windowsill seed growing set up

For convenience sake, I picked up lots of Miracle Grow Organic Soil from Home Depot while getting a bunch of other stuff there in early spring. I think their soil has too many chunks of wood and isn't fine enough for seedlings. We later got some quality organic soil from our local garden store and saw a marked difference wherein tomatoes grown in the new soil grew tall and tomatoes grown in the old soil were stunted and yellow. Meanwhile, many of the plants that did grow were eaten by insects. The kale was riddled with holes from some cabbage beetle, and our lush herbs like the lemon balm below were taken out in the blink of an eye by Japanese beetles.

lemon balm later eaten by japanese beetles

Despite an afternoon where my dad helped Evan take down some branches on high with a rope saw, our yard was probably too shady for most plants. The tomatoes actually grew too tall, as they stretched ever higher looking for light. We later learned you're supposed to pinch them back to keep that from happening. We sold the tomato plants before any of them ripened. What did we harvest from our yard? A handful of green beans. A handful of kale. We planted garlic last fall, from which we harvested a handful of scapes and about $2 worth of garlic. Each clove only doubled, that was all.

garlic scapes

We hoped to amend the purchased soil with our own compost, but our compost bin didn't work either. We DIY'd compost bins out of two round plastic garbage cans with holes drilled into them. Once a week or so, we'd add new scraps and roll the bins around, but that apparently didn't aerate them enough. Scraps collected last summer/fall still hadn't broken down finely enough by the time we left in July. I guess next time, I'd splurge on bins designed specifically for composting with a crank for aerating. We left the compost bins behind too. Maybe someday they'll turn into compost that someone else there can use.

unfinished compost

I did leave behind a nice legacy of perennial flowers, coming up in the next post.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

To Prep or Not to Prep

A while ago the New York Times ran an article about prepping, as in preparing for disaster, whether it be environmental or economic, saying:

"Prepping is the big short: a bet not just against a city, or a country or a government, but against the whole idea of sustainable civilization. For that reason, it chafes against one of polite society’s last remaining taboos — that the way we live is not simply plagued by certain problems, but is itself insolubly problematic."

This is true, and maybe this is why no one talks about it. But today, I'm talking about it at the Green Phone Booth, wondering what we should be doing to prepare our lives for an uncertain future. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Trying to Shop Eco-Consciously

I'm over at the Green Phone Booth today sharing my seemingly contradictory approaches to shopping for new clothes. On one hand, I get most of my clothes for free from friends, or used at thrift stores. But I'm also willing to spend a lot to buy high quality items now and then. Both are part of my attempt to reduce resource consumption. Read on to find out the challenges involved (hint: shopping is hard and clothes don't always fit) and why it's important in light of the garment industry's ethically and environmentally questionable practices.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Yard: Evolution of the Bulbs

One of the best gardening decisions I made was to plant bulbs last fall. There's a high level of pay off, since just a few hours of digging results in big, bright blooms to cheer up early spring. Bulbs are great for shady gardens like mine because they show up before tree leaves fill in. It's also nice that crocuses and daffodils will come back and spread year after year. I'm totally going to plant more bulbs this fall, including a mini field of grape hyacinths.

bulbs carefully spaced in a big hole

crocus bulbs hiding under the just planted and stamped ground in the fall

crocuses arrived in march

crocuses, spent a few weeks later

meanwhile, tulips and daffodils peeking up 

daffodils and tulips blooming in late april