Monday, June 9, 2014

Building a Garden; Alaska Style

Ever since the snow has melted, about a month or so ago, we have been adding bits for our garden.  Buying small bits here and there and all the while waiting for the day when we can really start building.  I knew the day would come, and once it did we would be super busy.  Of course, I was right.
In Maryland we started our garden in 2010 and it took us 4 years to build it to the point where it was producing a pretty impressive amount.  Our hope here was to jump beyond that, put to use all the knowledge we gained from there, all while going as cheap as humanly possible.  We were just breaking even each month with a tiny bit to spare when we first moved here so money was tight. 
Early May we purchased 50 concrete blocks and some hardware cloth at Home Depot that set us back around $100.  Thanks to problems with voles, here we have to use hardware cloth under each raised bed otherwise our root veggies will be eaten.  This added an additional $20 per two beds. Not thrilled, but the situation is what the situation is.
Thankfully, I've been using Swagbucks for some time so it helped but it still really hurt to spend as there are so many other projects in the house demanding attention as well.  Still we knew time is of the essence here so proceed we did.  
After dropping enough at Home Depot, well I had enough. I started scouring Craigslist. Posting ads that said I was looking for Concrete blocks and while earlier I didn’t have any bites this time I hit pay dirt. 
We managed to find a family further outside of Fairbanks who had an enormous collection of all types of concrete blocks so we ended up getting approximately 100+ blocks.  All for a great deal of about $55.

Next, we needed dirt.   I had priced fill dirt earlier and came up with an approximate cost of $150 or so to fill all the 6 beds.  Turns out, once again we found pay dirt, literally.  We found that the Water Treatment Center here in Fairbanks gives gardeners free composted dirt.  I was a tad bit worried considering that it was coming from a water and waste treatment center but in the end, the lure of free fill dirt won. 
 Of course, the fact that other Fairbanks gardeners advised us that it has grown good produce for them in the past definitely won us over as well.

We were running low on money, low on energy, and low on time.  We had to keep moving.
Once, the building phase was completed we moved onto testing the soil.  I’ve learned in the past it is better to get the soil in a somewhat reasonable shape before planting than trying to amend the deficiencies later.  Previously in Maryland, it took us around 2 years to get our soil to the point where it would actually grow anything! We were hoping for a bit better than that as we have bigger plans here for the long term.  We typically prefer to increase the fertility of the soil slowly but we were really hoping to see how well we can do this year. So yes, we went for instant gratification. Turns out, this composted soil is really great in everything but one important mineral.

Without phosphorous our plants will grow sluggishly, even with the almost 24 hours of daylight that we will get by June 21st.  What’s worse, phosphorous deficiencies tend to hit plants like lettuce, carrots and spinach especially hard. We’re growing all of those!   After testing the soil I ran over to our local Nursery and picked up a bag of bonemeal which is helpful in dealing with phosphorous deficiencies.
 Now keep in mind, we live in Fairbanks, Alaska. Zone 1.  We have approximately 90 some days of growing time. This means we have to work fast.  The good news is even though our official "safe date" for planting is June 1st, this doesn't really apply to seeds planted outside.  We've grown things like Red Russian Kale and Mustard Greens before so I figured those were definitely safe.  New to us were things like Brussels sprouts (that I miserably failed at in Maryland) or Romensco Broccoli (which I've always wanted to grow) but I figured these were all in the brassica family and quite hardy so they should be able to weather the colder temps in early May.  If there was a freeze or frost in the forecast we would just simply cover the beds with plastic or cloth.
Our only cheats this year?
·         One borage plant
·         One Catnip plant
·         One hyssop plant
·         One fennel plant
·         One Lavender plant
·         One Corsican Mint
·         Two Romensco Broccoli
·         Two Brussel Sprouts
·         Four eggplants, two Fairytale, two Ivory
·         Five tomatoes, Black Cherry, BeaverLodge Plum, Early Tanana, Genovese, and one that I could have sworn was named Fern Leaf tomato but the label has mysteriously vanished.
·         Four peppers , green bell pepper, 2 hot peppers (I think they were cayenne)
·         Thai Basil
·         Pineapple Sage
·         Approximately 30 strawberry plants. Some just mere bare roots. Others are full plants.
·         One buttercup squash plant that I would have started by seed myself a while ago. Too late now to start from seed. 

The rest that we planted, all seed?  Well here it goes!
·         Red Russian Kale
·         Curled Scotch Kale
·         Arugala, Rocket Salat
·         Arugula Wild
·         Swiss Chard, three varieties
·         Mache
·         Mustard Greens
·         European Mesclun
·         Spinach, Bloomsdale Lonstanding
·         Cumin
·         Red Leaf Lettuce
·         Buttercrunch Lettuce
·         Broccoli Raab (Rapini)
·         Snow Peas
·         Sugar Snap Peas
·         Chamomile
·         Calendula
·         Marigolds
·         Basil, Sweet
·         Scarlet Rose Runner Beans
·         Bush Beans, many varieties
·         Carrots, 5 varieties
·         Rutabaga
·         Radish, Red Meat
·         Parsnips
·         Turnip, Hakurei
·         Leeks
·         Garlic Chives
·         Potatoes, Red and Purple
·         One tomato that we started in an Aerogarden. Then later transferred it to a pot.
·         Sunflowers, several varieties
·         Amaranth
·         Red Quinoa
·         Several varieties of edible flowers

We are now rapidly approaching Summer Solstice which is a big thing here for Fairbanksans.  Unfortunately for the gardeners here in the far north it also means we will be losing sunlight after June 21st.  The cold biting wind of winter will soon be on its way. 
As I expected our Red Russian kale was the very first to come up. 
Now that we're in the second week of June, its become apparent that we planted the kale a bit too aggressively.  Its crowding each other out so some thinning out is in order.  We will be picking bits of baby kale here and there and adding it to salads, omelets, and sautes.  The mustard greens, as if competing with the kale came up almost immediately after.  A big surprise.  The Broccoli Raab that I have never had luck with, that I bought seed packets for actually came up!  And now it's doing amazingly well.  Come to find out, after speaking with one of the farmhands from Rosie Creek Farm, broccoli raab does really well here. It likes the cold nights and warm days.  I love broccoli raab so I'm super excited to enjoy this, from garden to table.  There is never anything better than super fresh vegetables straight from your garden. 
Another big surprise for us. Red Quinoa. Something I never expected to come up, actually did.  Right after planting this, I even managed to find an article on the Fairbanks DailyNewsminer all about Red Quinoa, and surprise surprise. It does do well here.  Next year I will be putting more in as we thoroughly enjoy quinoa.
Late May, disaster almost struck.  We were lured by the warm weather and warm forecasts into deciding to plant any of the plants that we had purchased ahead of time, which included tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, corn and cayenne peppers, all heat lovers.  On a warm Saturday morning, we planted all of it, reveling in the beauty of the bed now filled in.  Later that afternoon, it got a tad bit breezy. 
 By that evening, after watching the forecast anxiously, we covered it all up.  It was possible that here in the valley we would be getting a frost.  Everything was covered as rapidly as we could.  All the tender young shoots of kale, all sorts of varities of greens, carrots, peas. All of it had to be covered. 
Thankfully, it was just a mild frost and barely touched us, but the heat loving plants did look a tad bit unhappy at the 35 degree temperatures for the next week or so.
We are now in the second week of June.  Almost everything planted by seed has come up which has shocked me.  I don't think I've had such a successful germination of seeds before!
Greens bed. Two types of Kale, Mustard Greens, Broccoli Raab, Spinach, Three types of chard, Romanesco Broccoli, Buttercrunch lettuce, Red Leaf Lettuce, European Mesclun, Mache, Nasturiums here and there.

Peas & Carrots Beds

Ever since Maryland I have tracked how much we spend on gardening through a budgeting program.  I can say now, that since Mid April, when we started purchasing items for our garden we have spent a whopping $375 on our garden.  Now we don't have our greenhouse yet.  We really want one for our tomato bed to get the heat we need to get them  growing faster.  We have also talked about getting a greenhouse for germinating the heat loving plants, as its so much cheaper to start a plant from seed than it is to buy an established plant.  That will probably be waiting a while longer.  We still have projects inside our house that need completion and some that have been put off quite a while that are hitting the critical stage.  For now we are content that our garden is growing, everyday there is something new going on there.  It has become our habit to visit the plants on Saturday mornings, while enjoying a hot cup of coffee.  I personally love it, on chilly weekend mornings, the coffee cup warming my hands, the steam rising from it, as I bend over to point to this bean coming up or that lettuce sprout coming up. 
In the evenings, we go to our shangri la, just outside our dining room to see "what has the garden been up to today?" Any new surprises? And so far, our garden has surprised us almost each and every night. 

I know, the way the greens are coming up now and the fact that we belong to a CSA that right now is producing also massive amounts of greens that by July I will be tired of the required salads for lunch and dinner.  Just like I know that by Mid August I will be tired of tomatoes.  Or at least I hope I will.  Nature can be fickle, nature can be kind.  We just never know which way it will be until long afterward, when we sit down and write all that has happened over the past month.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

My Top Five tips for lowering an Electric Bill

I write this now, coming from about 4 months, give or take, experience now at reducing our electricity bill each month.
Energy here in Fairbanks, Alaska is expensive.  In fact per the US Energy Information Administration only a few other states are higher.  In case you're curious, Hawaii is the most expensive with New York and Connecticut following.  We're number four on this list.  Unfortunately for us here in the Golden Heart City though, we have a nasty little surcharge added onto our bill due to a legal issue that our Electricity company had some time ago, so it pushes that cost per kWh up around an extra .9 cents.  That doesn't seem like a lot but when you multiply that times 400, 500 or 800 kWh. It adds up.
The most important thing one has to keep in mind when trying to lower an electric bill is, while keeping an eye on your cost per month, you really want to look at your total kWh usage per month.
If you do this you will be able to dissect the appliances and electronic devices that hit your bill the hardest.
I have found a really neat site here that will actually break down the average monthly cost per appliance or electronic device.  The trick here is balancing your savings with your own personal quality of life.  Some appliances we unplug when not in use because its not something we use a lot and its easy enough to unplug. Others are plugged in behind a heavy piece of furniture, or they have built in clocks which makes it a hassle to unplug.  This means lost time which is also important to us.  It's all about balance.
Now, if you've read my previous blogs on saving money on our electricity bill, I tried also a few other tricks. I knew that some of my bigger appliances took more energy but what about the smaller ones?  What about the surge protector that I plug our laptops in to? Or how about night lights, or fish tanks?
So, a while ago I purchased a Belkin Conserve Insight Monitor which which I wrote about here.
I plugged this in all over my house and I would let it sit for at least a week to get a good idea of the true cost of that item.
If I found that item had an over the top cost, then I worked to lower the cost of it.  This is not an overnight, rapid process.  This, like a diet or lifestyle change, takes time.
So, here it goes.  My own top five tips.  These are things that I have tried so I know they worked for us.  I will not include tips that include hot water heaters or air conditioners like many energy blogs do because we don't have that issue here.

  1. Start first by looking at your past electricity bills.  Get a good idea of how much energy you and your family actually use.  The US Energy Information Administration reported that in 2012 the average US family used 903 kWhs per month.  This is where it gets really personal, because each of us are different and we all have different needs.  This is why its important you get really familiar with your average kWh usage and your regions cost per kWh.  
  2. Next, start determining which appliances, which items in your house use a lot of power.  For us that meant our freezer, our heater in our garage, our oven, our fridge, our dishwasher and our clothes dryer.    
    • Freezer is now on a timer.  At night it turns off and it is programmed to turn back on at 9a.  During the summer months that might be switched to 5am or 6am if I find that the food is starting to thaw.  
    • Our heater in our garage uses a fan to distribute the heat so now, unless its severely cold out (talking in the negative 30's and beyond) we keep it off. 
    • Oven.  We still bake our own bread, believe it or not!  The cost of our bread is much, much cheaper than if we were to purchase artisan bread, sourdough bread, English muffins and the like at the store.  Now I just make sure I use my oven wisely.  If I am making bread that day I plan to also make some other baked dish as well or I just bake a lot of bread that day.  I also have invested a while ago in stone baking sheets and cast iron pans.  These all retain heat for a while after.  This means I can turn off the oven 5 to 10 minutes early if baking dinner, or I can turn off the stove top just a bit earlier as the frying pan will stay warm long enough to finish cooking whatever it is I'm frying.  
    • Our fridge, unfortunately, is hard to control. I did purchase three LED appliance lights. We have seen a slight difference in cost but I'm not certain if the cost of the lights will actually save us more in the long run.  In the meantime I have the Belkin Conserve Monitor plugged into our fridge.  This allows me to watch the cost of fridge closely.  Our fridge is poorly designed so when the refridgerator door is opened and then closed the freezer pops open.  And sometimes stays open.  Many times, coming home from work, I have noticed the monthly cost of our fridge has gone up and upon a closer look I notice the freezer was left open. All day long.  This just simply keeps us aware.  I would love to put my fridge on a timer but so far, our attempts at this have been unsuccessful.  
    • Dishwasher.  While we try to conserve dishes, watch how much we use, we don't go overboard.  I just simply have turned off the heating cycle on our dishwasher.  While I do like the heat that, I feel, kills any germs or other nasties that might be lurking on my plates, silverware or cups, I don't really feel like paying extra just to appease my own uneasiness about possible contagions in the dishwasher.  
    • The clothes dryer is one of any homes BIGGEST energy draws.  It takes a lot of power to heat that machine, keep it heated, and toss the clothes.  So our solution?  We have a drying rack that we first transfer our clothes to after being washed. We allow them to air dry for about four to 8 hours, then we throw the now mostly dry clothes into the dryer for 10 minutes.  This means that now we are using the dryer for about 30 to 40 minutes per week (10 minutes per load, 3 to 4 loads per week) rather than 180 minutes per week. 
  3. Start looking closely at your electronics.  These are stealthy in their energy consumption.  TV's, DVD players, DVRs, computers, printers, laptops, Playstations, Wii's, etc etc.  These all consume power, even though you might not even be using it!  We have everything in our entertainment center on a surge protector that kills the power to everything when the tv is turned off.  Our laptops now are attached to a surge protector with a remote control.  When we are all done using our laptops, we turn off the surge protector which then kills any power to the items plugged in there.  For our phones and kindles, I have approached this two ways now.  First, I have all our kindle charging cords connected to wall through a Belkin Conserve socket.  This allows me to control when this is drawing power by a simple button on the top of the plug.  Unfortunately, kindle chargers draw a small amount of power, even when not in use, so this kills this. I have all of our conserve sockets set to 3 hours as usually this is a good enough time to charge whatever is plugged in there. I have recently gone one step further and invested in a neat little gadget called a Newtrent Battery pack. This is charged via USB cable to a computer.  So now, along with any kindles, I charge this while I am sitting at work.  Now, in all honesty, is this really saving us massive amounts of money each month? No.  But, like my son likes to say "a little bit adds up to a lot"        and for $37.95 its not too much of a hit in the wallet.  Plus we have the convenience now of charging our electronics when we're out and about, traveling or if we lose power for an extended period of time.  For our big computer in our study, we have everything attached to a surge protector.  When not in use, we just flip the switch and turn it all off.  Believe it or not, a shredder draws a significant amount of energy when plugged in and not in use.  It makes no sense, in my opinion, to pay for something I am not using.  So it's all turned off via surge protectors.  
  4. At this point, you should expect that you've been watching your energy consumption for at least two months, maybe more, maybe less.  It just depends on how much time and energy (yes, excuse the pun) you have spent on all of this.  Now you should start looking at your lights in your house.  Of course, everyone knows you shouldn't leave lights on when in a room but once you get past that you can start watching daily which lights are used most often.  For us, this means our laundry room, our kitchen, our dining room, bedrooms and bathrooms.  A few months ago we bit the bullet and started investing in more LED lights.  We do have a few CFLs but we only use those in areas where our use of lights is sporadic.  We are currently in the process of switching our bathroom globe light bulbs into LED bulbs instead.  Like with my fridge, I'm not certain yet if the extra cost of these lights will save us in the long run.  This I feel, we will not see a true difference until we hit the late Autumn and Winter months and then at that point I might be able to say "yeah, they're worth it" 
  5. Other lighting ideas.  Rather than turning on a switch each time you enter or exit a room, perhaps contemplate placing motion sensor night lights in bathrooms, hallways, garages, etc.  These barely take any energy and on top of that, they shut off when it hasn't seen anything moving in 5 minutes.  These are a tad bit expensive but if bought in small bunches of 2 or 3 at a time, it can become affordable. We have these scattered all throughout our house, with several even in our garage.  This way we do not have to actually switch on a light as the night lights are bright enough to illuminate a dark garage or hallway.  

So, that's it. When we first moved back into our home, our usage was 1,427 kWh which cost us $299.  From there, it has gone down, each month.  For the month of April, which by the way after looking at our electricity bills from several years ago looks to always be the lowest usage month for us, we were charged for 446 kWhs. Total cost? $102.  Pretty impressive, at least to me.  
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