Guest post: It’s about more than saving money

Most people laugh when I tell them I actually save money on food during the summer months because of my garden. I didn’t start gardening to save money initially, nor do I continue it solely for that reason, but it’s been a plausible by-product, so it’s become part of the fun!

If I only bought internationally sourced, non-organic produce, or spent a lot of money building fancy garden beds, I might be able to poke holes in this theory, but when comparing to farmers’ market prices (and quality!) for locally, sustainably grown produce, and my goal is to produce ALL my own produce for at least a month in the summer, it can add up to a significant savings, including the time and money it takes to shop.

A friend and like-minded gal inspired me with her recent post on Facebook indicating that January was a self-imposed “spending freeze” month, and furthermore, that through thrifty “thrifting” throughout the past year, her goal was to purchase ZERO clothing in 2015 for her family of four! So I decided to interview her about how she alters her behaviour throughout the year and what her motivations are.

Facebook post

Meet Sandra. Small business owner by trade, mom/cook/gardener/thrifter/DIY junkie by choice. Our husbands happen to be cousins and spend all their time together either hunting wild game, or hunting zombies on their Xboxes late at night through the ether.
We put in our butcher order together from the “hubby hunt”, share a cow from a local farm once a year, she renders her own lard from the fat, and taught me how to make my own stock from the bones. She’s taught me lots of other stuff too, but I need to get on with this interview, so I guess she’ll be a returning guest!

Me: What was your motivation to begin gardening? And what motivates you to continue with it today?

Sandra: Growing up, I spent my summers with my grandparents, and my grandfather had a garden. I didn’t realize it then, but probably 80% of the produce we ate came from the garden. We snacked on raspberries and peas and baby carrots. Digging potatoes for that night’s dinner was like digging for buried treasure. My husband’s parents and grandparents grew their own food, so it seemed logical to both of us that if you own your own land, you grow some food on it. My motivation is part nostalgia and part common sense  (My parents didn’t garden or do anything remotely traditional or homestead-y, so I guess it skipped a generation).
NB: My rhubarb came from your Grandpa’s garden!

Me: Do you think you actually save any money by gardening?

Sandra: On tomatoes, kale and rhubarb, absolutely.  On everything else, probably not.  We’ve probably spent more on building garden beds and enhancing the soil than we’ve saved on lettuce and green beans.  My garden is very small, so I can’t grow enough variety or volume or feed our family exclusively.

Me: In an age of lack of delayed gratification, “buy it now” buttons and over-consuming, what motivated you the most to implement a family “spending freeze”?

Sandra: Financial necessity. My income varies, so there are some lean months.  Sometimes the budget needs a little tweaking. Priorities need tweaking too.

Me: What’s the single thing you do regularly that gives you the most gratification from either saving money, the environment or just doing right by your family?

Sandra: Cooking at home, from scratch, with whole foods, and eating dinner as a family. It’s a good thing that I enjoy cooking, and my family likes my cooking (stewed rabbit and one overcooked beef roast notwithstanding). Groceries are one area of the budget where we are not overly frugal. Since we don’t get out much, it’s important that the food be high quality, satisfying, and a little bit indulgent.  Leftovers are turned into future dinners or lunches for my husband. Food waste annoys me. Restaurant meals destroy the budget. We simply can not afford to eat out as a family all the time and expect to stay out of debt. And to be honest, when you eat well at home, even expensive restaurant food is less appealing. The rare times that we do eat out, it’s at a specialty or ethnic restaurant, or for a special occasion, so the meal doubles as a social or cultural experience. Another benefit of cooking and eating at home is that my kids recognize and appreciate so many foods from farm to plate – what they look like and what they taste like – and will take that knowledge with them through life.

NB: Our children helped hunt that rabbit on their first trip with aforementioned hubbies, so we didn’t care what it tasted like, and the roast beef was fine!
Thanks Sandra!



Crafty! Part Two: Countdown to Craft Fair Day

Wow! The past few weeks have been a whirlwind! Never mind the regular hustle – work, school, activities, commitments, and the start of the holiday season – we’ve had a craft fair to prepare for!

I admit to a mild amount of panic before this week, but the girl and I have persevered and managed to produce enough products to fake our way onto an 8 foot table! Thank goodness my sister from Phoenix Knitwear is joining us to help fill our table – besides, it’ll be a great mother-daughter-auntie-niece bonding experience to support and hang out with each other for the day.

By coincidence, and to my delight, my sister and I were recently introduced to the Square reader (for mobile credit card payments), and it arrived in time so we can play with the big kids and accept credit card payments!

At the same time, I didn’t realize a simple trip to the bank for a cash float would be such a great old skool learning experience for my daughter, who has taken full ownership over it and plans to record our inventory and sales (with pen and paper). So technology has not ruined us yet.

And when I mentioned that she might need to come home for a lunch break, that a five hour shift was probably the longest shift she’d ever worked, she reminded me that it’ll be the ONLY shift she’s ever worked.

So whether we sell anything or not, this experience has been worth it already. And without further ado, here’s a taste of what we’ve been working on.


Crafty! Making stuff and other off-season endeavors

CraftingWhen I started this blog, I worried I wouldn’t have anything to write about between, oh, October and June, ha! But once I started exploring different topics, I realized part of what got me so excited about growing my own food in the first place was my inert desire to create. To make something useful with my own hands.

My family has been making stuff for decades, so this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. My mom used to design and sew character costumes for our local skating pageant (I wish I could find photos of that 7′ tall Dino the Dinosaur!). Many of my and my sister’s clothes were sewn by her (back in the day when matching gingham petticoats were cool, yikes), and today she has outfitted my girls’ 18″ dolls with entire wardrobes sewn by hand. I could go on and on.

My dad could often be found in the yard doing what looked like “yard work” but was actually landscape design, and every bit of rock work that has ever been built in his different yards was created by him, by hand. Add on building doll beds and houses that still house my kids’ dolls 35 years later and well, you see the pattern. And this from two unionized professionals, a nurse and a pilot. But when you gotta create, you gotta create!

Fast forward to 2 months ago (I won’t bore you *now* with stories of all the successful and failed crafting I’ve done over the years), when my cousin convinced me to try making Kombucha (future post!). I was keen, but I realized I had given away all my large mason jars (in which to concoct it) to a friend a few years ago. At the risk of sounding impolite, I gingerly asked her if she was using them. She said no and promised to return them to me. I just needed a few. Well, said friend was cleaning out her garage before embarking on a big overseas trip and unloaded five boxes of mason jars in all sizes and states on my doorstep!

Slightly overwhelmed, I was five minutes away from putting them in the back alley when my daughter shouts “Noooo! We can MAKE something out of those!”. This is a common statement in our house, as many pieces of “garbage” get reclaimed from our recycling bin to later become “art” or “gifts”, and I have received the  most thoughtful and resourceful homemade gifts from my kids over the years. But this time she was more ambitious – she wanted to exhibit and SELL our creations at a craft fair!

I love how creative my daughter is, and because we’d be up-cycling reusable items, I was sold!

And so began the internet search for crafty things to make from mason jars, and where to exhibit them locally. I want to say our main motivation for settling on our neighbourhood community centre was to support the local community, but here are our more honest reasons:

1. It was cheap (although I’m still not sure we’ll sell enough to even cover our table cost).
2. It was still available (unlike many other higher profile fairs that had sold out to vendors months prior!)
3. I was having a huge anxiety attack about having to make items that were “sellable” (grandparents are a lot more forgiving than real customers). We’d been to this fair before and it seemed fairly “low key”, so I figured it would be a small loss (to our wallets and our self esteem) if we didn’t sell anything.

It’s now less than 4 weeks to the craft fair, and I have a huge new respect for people who actually exhibit their crafts publicly. A couple things I’ve learned along the way:

1. Don’t underestimate the amount of time and money it requires to try different techniques and make prototypes for your eventually sellable items. I’m no longer keeping track and am thinking of it as a learning and bonding experience for me and my creative daughter….this time.Craft Supplies

2. An 8′ table holds a lot! We’ve had to augment the mason jar crafts with my daughter’s fabulous duct tape creations, which will really be the hero here. She’s had the chance to hone her skills and designs and learn some “stick with it” resiliency along the way so we actually have something to sell. NB, I’ve recruited my crafty talented sister to exhibit some of her gorgeous hand-knitted wearables as well!

3. Don’t underestimate the little old ladies selling dolly clothes (like I did last year as a spectator) at the table next to you. You need all the marketing, project management and accounting skills you use at your real job to really make a go at this!

So, as the countdown begins, and I’m ordering little baggies and tags from Ebay in hopes that they’ll arrive before “C” day, here’s a few of our pieces in the making.
CraftingI’ll post more as the volume increases, and maybe we’ll see you at the craft fair – Saturday, November 29th from 10am to 3pm at Renfrew Community Centre – 2929 E 22nd Ave, Vancouver.
I hear an 11 year old kid has inspired her mom and aunt to exhibit for the first time.

The good ‘ole 3-R’s still have it goin’ on

As a food grower and “waste-not-want-not” kind of gal, I use every shred of food that inhabits my yard, down to the final scarlet runner beans growing along the fence until mid October! So not surprisingly, I’m also into other ways to reduce our impact on the environment. Yup, the good old 3 R’s – reducing, reusing and recycling.

Reuse (and let go)Reduce reuse recycle

Our back alley has proven to be the best example of this over the past year. Put anything of any value out there and it’s gone within a day. Put anything returnable out there, and it’s gone in 5 minutes. No joke.

Recently we needed to get rid of a desk, and on its way to the back alley, our tenant had a glint in his eye and decided he wanted it. So he swapped it for his own old desk and took it to the alley. Later that night, we heard some scuffling out back, as a guy was expounding on the merits of this “amazing desk that would fit perfectly in their space”. This warms our hearts and happens regularly. In fact, within two weeks of setting the intention of needing a new office chair, our friend decided he didn’t want his amazing office chair anymore, and boom, ours went out to the alley to be snapped up within 12 hours.

Reduce, then recycle:

Recycling is good too, but ultimately, we want to reduce our use of “stuff” in the first place. So, while we are trying to reduce our use of Ziploc bags for kids’ lunches to 1 per day, we need to find a place to put these things once they’re used, as they are not accepted in our curbside recycling bin. Enter the blue recycling bins at Safeway or London Drugs, among other places. You can recycle your ziplocs (and other clean plastic bags) in there. Now if only they’d start charging (a lot) for plastic bags, we’d be even happier. Five cents ain’t gonna change behaviour.

Let us know your favourite 3-R’s examples from your life.

Tomato Feta Salad

Harvest time – Tomato Feta Salad Recipe

While I have been harvesting veggies from the garden since June, I plant most of it to harvest mid-August and beyond. This might be a little later than most, but we are usually away for the first two weeks of August, so when I return, there is a bounty awaiting me. In fact, this blog was born out of my excitement for the seemingly endless supply of fresh produce I discovered upon returning home this time last year.Tomato harvest time

This is my (three plant) tomato garden ready to harvest. I hoisted up the runaway vines with sticks and strips of fabric to get them off the ground (making the soil easier to water without getting the leaves wet). Grape tomato harvestGrowing basilSo Day 1 back in the city, I set about feeding myself almost solely from my yard, and the first thing I made was a delicious Tomato salad with the fresh, juicy, sweet tomatoes and fragrant basil that ripened to perfection while I was away.
My motto is to keep it simple, so most of my day-to-day recipes contain about 5 ingredients or less, which you can literally pluck and throw together in minutes. Here’s my favourite that I’ve been enjoying variations on every few days.Tomato Feta Salad Ingredients

What you’ll need:
As many cherry or grape tomatoes, halved, as you like (as you can see, my recipes are very specific. This was about a pint).

Basil leaves, chopped (maybe 10 large leaves – enough to spread around).

A hunk of feta cheese (more or less to your taste), crumbled.

1/4 red onion, chopped (more or less to your taste, and I like mine chopped small).

Olive oil

Balsamic vinegar (red wine and other vinegars work too).

Salt and pepper to taste

Ok, that’s technically 8 ingredients, but salt and pepper don’t really count – don’t they go in every recipe? And olive oil and balsamic vinegar – really? They’re almost one ingredient.

Throw everything together in a bowl, mix and voila! Tell me it isn’t one of the tastiest salads you’ve had! Tomato Feta Salad

Progress: A Mid Season Photo Gallery

Well! Here we are in July already! I figured now was a good time for a review of all that’s gone on in the garden so far this season – complete with “progress to date” photo gallery.

It seems so early to even be eating from my garden yet, as last year the abundance all happened in late August, but really, that’s only 6 weeks away and there’s lots of growing still to do. And while I’m still experimenting, I did do some more timing-type planning this year to try for a longer “eating” season, and so far, it’s (mostly) working.

I started planting on April 12th to be exact, a bit late really in most peoples’ books, but I like a later harvest in the hot days of late summer. Just spinach and some lettuce to start, peas and potatoes a week later, with kale and more lettuce the week after that. I only know this because, for the first time ever, I scribbled in my calendar with a sharpie whenever I planted this year. Whatever works!

In the gallery below, the “early on” photos were from about mid-May, around my second favourite stage of the season – the seedlings are such an adorable little burst of victory!
And you can likely guess what my favourite stage is, right? Eating!

We got to harvest the spinach first – it came so quickly, but low and behold, it was so hot in May that we only got through 2/3 of it before it bolted! We do get hot spells in May now and again, and then “June-uary” is usually rainy and colder. So next year, I’ll start the spinach earlier, really I will! In fact, I’ll start it again soon, so I can have spinach for my smoothies in fall and winter!

Next came the lettuce, and then the kale. I planted a fair bit, as we eat lettuce and kale almost every day in our salads and smoothies. I thinned a few out, and the rest I’ve just been harvesting the outer leaves, and as promised but always to my surprise, they are growing back!
I got a LITTLE more kale than I could handle, so I just steamed it up, pureed it with the hand blender, froze it in ice cube trays and put in a Ziploc bag in the freezer for later. This time, I actually measured and surprisingly, a whole cup of fresh spinach makes about 1 cube frozen! Just pop one cube in your blender and you’ll have the right amount of greens for your next green smoothie. I have LOTS of great things to say about Simple Green Smoothies, but it’s too much for this post, so I’ll just link to them here and leave it for another day!

The herbs have started to come, and my favourites are the ones I can put in cocktails, like mint for mojitos!

I don’t usually plant peas, and may not again, but my sister gave me some seeds from last year, so how could I turn her down?! They take up a lot of space for a small harvest, but they are so sweet, and the kids love shelling and eating them straight from the garden, so I sacrificed some space this year for this lovely treat. The peas are almost done now, so I’m hoping to plant something else there in its place in a week or two.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about what HASN’T gone well in the garden so far. Humph.

I tried a bag of mushroom manure in one of the front boxes this year, and guess what mostly grew there? Right……mushrooms. Almost exclusively. Arggghh. So I re-fertilized, threw in some animal manure and replanted chard, spinach and a row of carrots around mid June. It might have been too late, and the soil may have been suspect, but my fingers are crossed. Not all of the seeds have come up, so something is definitely a little off in that box.

My cukes, squash and carrots have been in the ground for 5 weeks already, near each other, and they seem very small to me. Hmmm. I left lots of room for the patty pan squash, but I think I gapped out and planted the cukes and zukes way too close together.
Solution: get out a few pots and transplant them elsewhere so the strong seedlings don’t go to waste!

The beans are doing fine, and are mostly ornamental anyway, as I just grow them in pots or let them climb the fence and don’t allow too much space for them, and I’ve never grown potatoes before, but aside from the odd yellow leaf, I’m still hopeful they will produce!

And lastly, it’s the glorious tomatoes that I’m really holding out for, and like the rest of my garden, I planted them in succession so I could enjoy them longer. One in May, two in June. And to my delight, exactly 60 days since she went in the ground, I glimpsed the first ripe little gem this morning.

Time has gone so fast, I can’t believe it’s 12-1/2 weeks into the season already. I do wish a few things were further along, but I’m trying to let go and just trust they will provide.

What’s happening in your garden today?

What? Math? Painless Garden Planning

In years past, I had miserable garden failures because I didn’t think about it before I planted whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted. Gee, what a surprise. And while I’m all about spontaneity and experimenting, I do try to stick to a loose plan now, growing what I know will work where from experience and then allowing for a few “experiment zones”, so I can learn something new.

But how did I emerge from the overwhelming feeling of “what to do with this empty box of dirt”? Simply with paper and a pencil!

Remember Garden #2 from a previous post? It was great, but there were changes I wanted to make for the following season to maximize its potential. Plus, I was planning to add a new box beside it for this year, so I could grow even more! And that’s the great thing I’ve learned over the years – it’s not all as final as it first seems. You can make changes. You can replant. You can have some control. Garden planning So I drafted a to-scale (One centimetre = one foot) sketch of my space (graph paper borrowed from my kids’ school supplies) and started “planting”.

I knew the patty pan squash and cucumber combo worked great last year, and how much space it took up, so why not duplicate it and add more? I never did grow any zukes last year (the zuke I thought I had turned into a pumpkin and I had to move it!), so here was my chance, especially since I could grow them the same way – up a teepee of bamboo sticks! The outside of each spoke on the “wheels” above represents a seed planted (never one to tempt fate, I always thrown in a few extra and thin them to the strongest plant just in case!).

Then I had some space left over to experiment a little. I’ve never grown bush beans at this house, but I chose them because they are short so they don’t require support, and are apparently great producers if you harvest them often so more can keep coming. I just love a veggie that keeps on giving! Which brings me to the last spot in this bed, reserved for greens (lettuce), as I really could have used a little more salad at regular intervals last year and not all at once!
I actually planted it already, as it likes cooler weather, two weeks after I planted the lettuce in the back garden, and guess what we’re having for dinner tonight? Caesar salad! I may harvest them all and plant something else there later, or just keep cutting them as I go so they will continue to provide.

You’ll notice my little sketch is oriented north, and I’m trying to plant as much as I can east to west for best sun exposure (so the books say). But this space produced well last year when I planted the rows north to south, so I’m not too worried.  In short, I don’t always follow all the rules – and I’ve paid for it in the past – but I also don’t want to stress out about all the little details – or this wouldn’t be easy, fun or cost effective – some of the main reasons I enjoy it! See, that wasn’t so bad, right? I don’t know why I balked at making a quick plan for so many years. Save yourself the seasons of grief and just spend a few minutes drawing! You’ll feel like a kid again…especially when it works.