Archive for April, 2012

April 27, 2012

My New Year’s resolution of frugality makes me want to talk about things I’m not buying

I don’t know about everybody else, but the recession in this country that began with the real estate bubble burst in 2007 and the stock market crash in 2008 impacted our little family pretty hard.  The Greek lost his job in 2008 and would not work steadily again until 2010.  During that time, my mother came to live with us for a while, and there was a harrowing five months where three people lived on a single (relatively modest) income.  My stellar credit score and powers of retail persuasion were most assuredly put to the test as well as the Greek’s improvisational skills and uncanny ability to push items far beyond their expected shelf life: I learned that some empty litter buckets, some electrical tape, and the old mop pole can make an extremely effective snow shovel and that there are myriad uses for duct tape.  But then the Greek went and found himself a wonderful, well-paying job and has been dutifully working himself to death to keep it.  One evening about a year afterward, he remarked to me that he just doesn’t understand how, with this substantial boost in income, we still seem to be just scraping by.  Naturally I told him, “You must understand, darling, there was such a tremendous backlog of things that needed to be fixed or replaced, things that were delayed or pushed back, and things that we had given up entirely and were just plain living without.  All these things add up, and we’re just going to take a while to get resettled.”  What I omitted was that his dear Lisa had also gone a little insane with the credit cards and taken herself on a little buying binge for the last several months, a frenzied release of all that pent up worry and deprivation.  An expensive exhalation.  Every experimental thought, every passing whimsy was tossed carelessly into the shopping cart.  Now don’t misunderstand me.  I wasn’t living beyond our means, and I’m not in the practice of collecting things I’ll never use (not counting shoes; wearing them once is using them, right?).  But if you can picture yourself on a daily basis; now imagine all the things you see in a day that you even remotely want, and imagine if you bought all those things.  Well that was me for a while.  You’d be surprised how many things you see in a day that you could and would use.  With the New Year, I vowed a renewal of my frugal ways.  But like any recovering addict, the urge is still there, and it must find its release.  This blog is to be my methadone.  And with this post (and likely many to follow) I will take the opportunity to talk about the various adorable things that I encounter instead of buying them.  Because I have learned a valuable lesson: there isn’t simply “want” or “need”.  Within “want”, there are sub-levels and degradations, and it is staggering how much larger this category is!  So, below are many simply marvelous items that are sadly not on a “want” tier high enough to justify a purchase under my new (and loathed) terms.  (Disclaimer: This post, which I actually began writing in February, comes on the cusp of a decidedly un-frugal spending spree following a pointedly failed attempt as an aspiring graduate student (You’re welcome, Coach Factory Outlet).  So, I’m ashamed to say, some things on this list had to be removed once they became no longer “things I’m not buying”).

1.) Oh, Joy   Like many women, I have a jewelry person: a person I turn to time and time again for jewelry and whose impeccable instincts I trust implicitly.  Some women have a few, but even so, we remain as devoted as a spouse to them.  For me, that person is Joy Opfer.  Through Joy O Designs and then Kyler by Joy O, she has been designing and handmaking dainty, delicate, and utterly exquisite sustainable eco jewelry from her online store based in San Francisco since 2006.  I bought my first piece of jewelry from her in 2008 and so the love affair began.  A bonus: the blossoming company now has its own blog,, in which it talks about all things green and fashionable, two of my own personal raisons d’être!


2.)  Love you, BAGGU!   One thing I can never seem to get enough of is bags.  Perhaps it’s my obssessive-compulsive nature, but I enjoy (in that rip-your-hair -out-with-anxiety-if-it-doesn’t-work-out kind of way) having a place for everything.  A fortunate new discovery of mine is…found, as it were, on the same divine blog I just mentioned.  BAGGU bags are durable and adorable bags that fulfill any need from reusable grocery totes

…to leather pouches that serve as simple, chic purses


…to canvas sleeves for laptops and everything bags in all shapes and sizes for pens and pencils, make-up brushes, sunglasses, or snacks (I am particularly fond of the one with the little elephants on it…so cute). 


I think my favorite item, for its versatility, is the duck bag; it has a shoulder strap and small, inner, zippered pocket, and the cotton canvas material makes it more rigid than your  regular old tote bag.  So it could just as easily be used as a work bag than a grocery bag.

3.)  Holey Bundt!   My rule of gift-giving is that one should buy items for people that they want, not that they need.  This is because, at least in my case, there are so many things that I want that I find are too much of an indulgence for me to buy for myself, as this post rather clearly illustrates.  Things I need are my responsibility to buy; things I want are a treat to receive.  And if that rule were a place, that place would have to be Williams-Sonoma.  For there is no other place on Earth with a higher concentration of things both fanciful and costly that you can’t reasonably buy for yourself (hmmmm…a $40 cookie sheet?) yet would looooove to have in your home.  And if you ever  make obligatory trips to Williams-Sonoma every time you’re at the mall, spend three hours there, and emerge with nothing but a $7 spatula because, damn it, you were leaving with something even if it wasn’t the copper bottomed pot and pan set…Well, then you probably agree with me.  And W-S baking pans that needlessly turn baked goods into different shapes would seem to fit neatly into this category of frivolous, expensive, and most definitely, definitely want.  Here are just a few of my favorites at the moment:


The Heritage Bundt Pan

The Nordic-Ware Mini Bundt Pan

The Williams-Sonoma Nonstick Madeleine Plaque Pan (with which I could, at long last, use my “Earl Grey Madeleines” recipe.  For those of you who say “Just make your recipe on a regular cookie sheet. Who cares whether the cookies are scallop-shaped!”.  To that I say, “Rubbish!”).  Oh, and in case you’re starting to think that perhaps I sound a little unbalanced, maybe a little unhealthily obssessed, I’d like to offer, as a point of reference, the comparitively more emphatic endorsement by the Facebook group “Help for BUNDT Pan Addicts”.  Yes, there exists a Facebook page for people who are really into bundt cake pans.  And yes, their favorite pans come from Williams-Sonoma.  And no, I am not a group member.  See…perfectly healthy.

4.)  Me Want Madewell   I’m really into green things.  For example, I’ve been known to blog frequently on being green.  People who can afford to buy the numerous things I can merely talk about make me green with envy.  And when it comes to clothes, I have an especial soft spot.  I find the dark and jewel-toned greens to be particularly eye-catching.  I can now add to that list the Slowdance Skirt from Madewell in Alpine.  One sees it and can most certainly picture a cool, spring breeze fluttering the skirt every so slightly as a couple slow dances in a garden, to music softly heard in the distance.  It is the embodiment of “romantic”.  Google it to your heart’s content; as far as I can tell, it is completely SOLD OUT!

5.)  Drinking the Kool-Aid   I recently bought a pair of yoga pants for $80, and it got me thinking.  Why have I chosen such an expensive hobby?  They’re pants.  Pants you sweat in.  Few other everyday forms of exercise have been so effectively morphed into an obligatory fashion show.  But that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.  DC-ers have turned yoga into a way of life and not in that yogic kind of way.  Actually the opposite of that: yoga boutiques with outlandish prices producing high end yoga clothes and accessories that extremely fit, fashionable, and well-off people wear on the streets seemingly round-the-clock (they can’t all be caught headed to yoga all the time); countless yoga studios with new, trendy types of yoga emerging at an alarming frequency, each deviating more from original yogic practice and intent than the last (yogalates comes to mind); the ever increasing amount of yoga-related trappings one must amass as all manner of unrelated items are now being associated with yoga (I feel like the 4th century yogis never used a yoga ball) (I’ll bet you’ve never heard of an eyebag).  But then I think what’s really the problem with all this?  Is it really so awful?  Well, yes.  Yet I still find myself staring longingly at all these beautiful yoga items that I can’t bring myself to shell out huge sums of money for (and sometimes buying them; for the record, the pants are awesome and, as they say, “don’t jiggle it when I wiggle it”).  I remain a yoga purist at heart, but I excuse myself the occasional sturdy, attractive, heftily priced yoga basic.  Case in point: the Manduka MatSak yoga bag (Large, in Graphite).  Manduka is arguably the granddaddy of overpriced yoga equipment, but damn, their stuff looks good.

6.)  Red Room   If it hasn’t already been made abundantly clear, I like vintage stuff.  While, for the most part, my tastes seem to me fairly streamlined, when it comes to my home, they diverge into two completely incongruous styles, 1950’s retro (if you’re picturing a diner, then you obviously don’t know me) and French country.  Throw into the mix the Greek’s affinity for rustic, heavy woods and industrial hardware and our rigid unwillingness to meet in the middle (is there a middle?), and you get a mish mash of a home in which purple walls and French lithographs meet large, unfinished wood furniture and dainty floral armchairs sit beside chunky leather recliners.  Similarly, it has also taken us an obscenely long time to accrue furnishings and make the rooms of our home “come together”.  We’ve come the farthest along in our kitchen (although MUCH remains to be done), and I’d long ago decided that the most ideal complement to my mint-colored walls, white cabinets, and modern bronze hardware would be several splashes of bright red in the form of vintage-looking kitchen utensils and appliances. 


The Le Creuset Stoneware butter dish in Red and old-fashioned salt crock in Cherry, the Staub 0.25-qt mini round cocottes in Grenadine, and of course the Kitchenaid Artisan Design stand mixer (with glass bowl!) in Candy Apple Red would be fabulous additions to my collection, which currently includes the Kirkland Signature Red Dutch Oven from Costco and…yeah, that’s pretty much it so far.

6.)  Passchal Passion   Made from the inner tubes of discarded tractor tires…yes, you heard me correctly, Passchal bags are not only cute, they’re clever.  The company has managed to repurpose something coarse and cheap and turn into something truly fashionable (according to their website, they’ve recycled 76 tons of inner tubes to date!).  That kind of ingenuity doesn’t come cheap, however, which is why, despite the charming bags pictured below, I only have a small clutch bought a while ago that the Greek doesn’t know (nor will he ever know) the cost of.  They also sell travel bags, really handsome wallets, and (coming soon and highly anticipated) a new line of bags made from recycled signs and banners.  All this from a former welder and an inventor, not the Stella McCartney-esque high-end fashion designers you’d expect.


Well, this concludes the first addition (of which, I’m sure, they’ll be many more) of my posts about gift ideas, wish lists, and just general lovely discoveries I find online that tickle my fancy. Woo, that felt good…although, and I suppose this is unsurprising, the urge to go out and ACTUALLY buy these things is now stronger.  Hélas!  This post has seemingly had the opposite effect than the one on which it was motivated.  But I shall endure.

April 4, 2012

How to start a vegetable garden: Put it in writing, then you have to do it

So, I consider myself an intellectual and a perpetual student.  I love learning about everything.  By the end of my life, I’ll the person most likely to know a tremendous amount about everything from the war dances of remote Amazonian tribes to the best places to get a beer in Amsterdam, in a purely literal sense, without ever having physically experienced any of these things.  The Greek and I are in a constant competition of street smarts v. book smarts, both of us vying for the supremacy, in life, of our own innate strengths.  He struggles through a basic arithmetic problem, whereas some of my oldest friends still find my severe social awkwardness around them both creepy and off-putting.

Naturally, when the Greek and I bought our house and the ability to garden joined my interest in gardening, I found numerous books on the subject, read countless articles online, and generally became quite learned in the subject of gardening.  And yet, the Greek still found himself alone outside, mowing, mulching, and seeding.  The lilies I posted in this very blog—planted by my mother.  My “Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Gardening”—used to look up species when the Greek buys me flowers.  Because, as it happens, gardening is hard work.  It’s hot, it’s dirty, and there are bugs everywhere…EVERYWHERE.  So, for the past two seasons since we bought our home, despite the Greek’s best efforts, his decidedly OCD, severely allergic (I am a book nerd, after all) partner has spent them watching him work from the clean, climate-controlled pleasantness of the living room. 

This season, I say, “No more!” and have vowed actually, for real, on hands and knees, with dirty limbs and sweaty brow, to garden.  To that end and in my customarily scholarly way, I have taken my first gardening workshop.  Furthermore, I have committed my promises in writing and exposed myself to the judgment and ridicule of my friends and family if I do not follow through.

The workshop was called “Starting your own garden” and was offered through my workplace.  First, I’d like to point out some undeniably awesome things about the University of Maryland where I work.  Not only were they offering a free seminar about organic gardening, sustainable living, and urban renewal, but they were serving salads, vegetables, and other assorted roughage locally sourced from nearby farms.  And, when they asked us to fill out a survey at the end of the talk, I noticed that there were two additional boxes in the section where you fill in your gender: “transgender” and “other”. [Nodding approvingly] It’s moments like this where I feel truly proud to work for an organization that is so progressive and forward-thinking.  Now, if only we could get the janitor to actually recycle the items we put in the recycling bins.  An entire, intricate, and university-wide system for recycling and conservation undone by one person’s laziness… Argh!  But I digress…

It was really informative and got me extremely motivated to get out there and do…something.  So, here’s the plan:

Container gardening: Quite obviously, this refers to growing your vegetables in containers…any containers, from decorative pots to old coffee cans to Do-It-Yourself self-watering boxes and salad tables.  This is ideal primarily for aspiring gardeners who live in small spaces and/or lack a yard, but it is also valuable for novice gardeners and those who don’t want to grow a lot.  In my case, I want to grow herbs in containers on my upper deck.  This is for two reasons.  Because my deck sits directly off my living room and kitchen, it’s quite convenient to step outside for a snip or two of fresh herbs.  When planning a garden, the most important thing (aside from sunlight) is convenience; if you have to walk 200 yards across your lawn in the early morning hours while dragging a tangled hose behind you to water your plants every day, then you’ll probably be less likely to stick with it.  And secondly, container gardening is the easiest thing to get started, and if I accomplish nothing else this season, I must start growing my own herbs.   I only use fresh herbs when I cook, so it really is a crime that I haven’t done something so easy that gives me free access to something I use daily.  Instead I buy it at the supermarket (and inevitably end up throwing some of it away.  Really, whose brilliant idea was it to sell ALL herbs in the same size bunches?  Obviously, this person was from a household where dill was used in the exact same quantities as basil).


Raised beds:  Because our house sits on a rather steep slope and because our neighborhood has the best sewer and drainage system that Prince George’s County could offer, we have persistent problems with flooding and erosion.  We are one rainy season away from sliding into the crick out back.  So, as the Greek painfully learned two summers ago, spending money on the highest quality soil you can find, hauling a dozen 50-lb bags of it from the Lowe’s to your backyard, and spending the entire weekend spreading and seeding it lasts only about 2 or 3 heavy rains until you are doing nothing more than arduously and expensively contaminating the nearby creek and forest with high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus.  So, raised beds it is.  Other benefits include having soil that is not compacted and better aerated since you are not walking on the raised beds and elevating the plants makes it more comfortable to reach and tend to the beds (remember my thing about discomfort…I don’t like it).  I intend this for our backyard, one 3’ x 5’ bed, maybe two, and it will contain all the vegetables I can fit in it.  And thankfully, all corners of my miniscule backyard can be reached with the hose that sits just outside the sliding glass door of the porch.  Ah, convenience, keep me on track!


I plan to use a technique called French Intensive gardening, otherwise known as square foot gardening.  This was invented in the 1890’s in Paris.  This method involves planting plants much closer together (~6 in apart) than a traditional lined bed and thus maximizing a small space.  But it’s so much more than that.  Vegetables are planted in a zigzag or triangular pattern alternating plants that complement one another (known as companion planting).  This allows for a much higher yield of veggies per square foot, and the higher density of roots in the soil retains moisture better and prevents weeds (boo weeds!).  This also deters pests because it means that a pest that eats one type of vegetable will not find another near the one it is already munching on.

Getting back to companion planting, it truly is an ingenious technique.  As a component of the French Intensive Method, its reasoning sounds a lot more Zen: plant plants in close proximity that assist one another in growing.  The example given to me at the talk was the Three Sisters planting method.  This is a Native American technique.  The three sisters refer to their three main agricultural crops: maize, squash, and climbing beans.  The tall corn stalks give the climbing bean something to grow up (natural trellising); the beans are nitrogen fixers that deposit nitrogen into the soil that the other plants utilize; and, the squash grows along the ground, blocking out the sunlight and preventing weeds, and the prickly hairs of its vine deter pests.  The perfect balance of this trio tickles the hippie in me (that’s right folks; beneath this highly organized, fastidious, and ultra-clean exterior beats the heart of a peace-loving hippie), and the discovery and clever implementation of this symbiotic relationship delights the scientist in me (who thinks the hippie in me needs to stop sleeping on her couch and get a job).

Backyard composting: For me, this is a given.  I hate waste, Mother Earth hates waste, and this is a fantastic way to turn waste into fuel.  It’s economical, it’s environmentally friendly, it makes vegetables big and happy, and about gajillion other reasons.  And, if we understand how to compost correctly, it can actually make life easier: less trash to take out, less recycling to take out too (you can compost newspaper!), and less clean up around the house (you can also compost wood chips, sawdust, grass clippings, even your old Christmas tree!).  And when the growing season ends, cover your beds with compost; not only is it an incomparable source of nutrients, but when bacteria breaks down organic matter, it produces heat (and water and CO2–> what plants crave), which will help keep your plants warm through the winter.

Hmmm, at this point I fear I have gone on too long.  It’s all a lot to take in at once.  On the other hand, people have been known to read whole books on this subject, you know.  A few of my favorites:

The original and quintessential book on square foot gardening, first published in 1981, was updated most recently in 2006.  As an organic gardening method, it teaches you all the techniques for natural pest control, weed management, and water retention.

Rodale Press is a leading publisher of books on organic gardening and healthy living (including the previous book).  They are also responsible for “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore and “Eat This, Not That” and numerous magazines including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, and Prevention.  Most recently re-published in 2005, this book is a whopping 416 pages of everything you need to know about organic horticulture.

And now, regrettably, it appears I’ve learned all that can possibly be learned at this juncture and must now move to the second phase of my grand plan…implementation (ugh)…where, so I’m told, most of the actual learning actually takes places.  Ideally, I would want to get everything planted between mid-April and late May.  And, for a person whose daily diet often resembles that of your average bunny rabbit, this project is long overdue.  Hopefully you’re suitably motivated as well, and we can share stories and strategies as the season goes on!  Alright, off I go…

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