5 Painless Ways to Save More Energy

Everyone has long ago changed their light bulbs to CFLs and now LEDs, knows to turn down their thermostat, carpool, and turn off un-used lights to save energy. Here are a few other easy ways to use less power, save money, and protect the environment.

Un-Plug

No I don’t mean spend less time in front of technology (not that that couldn’t help). I’m talking about unplugging devices that draw energy even when “off”. Most of your electronics, from TV’s to game consoles and computers work like this. The easiest way to ensure these “vampire” devices aren’t sucking a slow stream of electrons from your wall when not in use is to plug them into a power-strip. Then turn off the strip. You should be using power strips to protect your devices from surges anyway, so this is not an additional cost. It’s cheap insurance for those pricy electronics. Then use that off button on the strip to protect your wallet from your devices.

Cut water use

This is less obvious, but saving water also saves energy. There is a lot of embodied energy in pumping, treating, and delivering water to your home. And of course, if you are on a well, there is a direct energy savings in using less water. Reduce water use in the following ways:

  1. Don’t water your lawn. It’s ok if your grass goes dormant. It will come back. And bonus – you don’t have to spend as much time (and energy) cutting it.
  2. Install low-flow shower heads
  3. Reduce the volume of water your toilet uses. Many toilet mechanisms have a way to set the fill level. Make this as low as possible. Even easier, place a full, disposable water bottle in your tank, making sure it doesn’t interfere with the mechanism. I twill take up space and reduce every flush by about 12 oz.

Where water and energy meet.

And finally turn down your water heater. Your really don’t need scalding hot water on tap. It takes a lot of energy to keep 20, 30, of 50 gallons of water near boiling all the time. Frankly it’s safer to not risk someone scalding themselves from your tap. So turn it down a couple notches. Experiment with how low you can go and still get a comfortable sower, and clean your dishes. You may be surprised how over-heated your tank has been.

 

There you go; 5 simple, and free ways to turn down your energy use, while turning up your environmental commitment as well.

Storing Herbs

There are many health, medicinal, and flavorful reasons to grow herbs in your garden. Plus they tend to be among the easiest plants to raise as they are hardy and prolific. These characteristics also mean you are likely to have a lot more then you can use during the growing season. So you are going to want to preserve them for use the rest of the year.

Setting aside the more medicinal preparations like infusions, distillations, and tinctures, let’s focus on two basic, simple preservation methods for cooking use; drying and freezing.

Drying

I’m sure you’ve seen homey pictures of a room full of bundled herbs hanging from the rafters in a old Colonial kitchen or farm house. While this works, it also takes a lot of time and space to tie up all those little bundles, hang them, and wait weeks for them to properly dry.

My method? Cookie sheets and an oven. Simply wash your herbs gently in a colander, spread a layer of paper towels on cookie sheets, and spread your washed herbs out on them. Remove excess stems and pat dry. Set your oven on bake at the lowest possible temperature setting (for me that’s 175°) and place the trays of herbs in for 15 to 20 min.  Check on them frequently to ensure they brown, but don’t burn. When the leaves crumble easily, remove and let cool.

After 5 minutes or so you should be able to grab the stems in one hand, and gently pinching the stem with the other, slide the pinching hand down the stem to remove the leaves. Do this over the paper towel on your cookie sheet. When all stems are de-leaved, place the stems in your compost bin and transfer the leaves to a glass mason jar by lifting the paper towel and pouring them in.

Common seasoning herbs you should dry: basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley.

Freezing

The other way I like to preserve for recipes calling for fresh or green herbs is to freeze them. Start by gently rinsing and laying your herbs out, once again, on paper towels on top of cookie sheets, and pat dry. See how easy this is going to be to remember!

This time you need to separate the green leaves or chop your herbs first. Spread out the chopped herbs in one thin layer on your sheet. Avoid clumps if you can. Place the trays in your freezer for about 30 minutes. Remove and place the frozen herbs into resalable freezer bags.

The purpose of freezing them first on the trays is to avoid having one giant lump of frozen herbs. This way when it’s time to use them, you can easily open the bag and take out just what you need.

Good herbs to freeze: chives, mint, parsley, cilantro.

 

And there you have it. In only about an hour, you can have your herb bounty stored and ready for use all Fall and Winter until you can get them going again fresh next spring.

Sharing – The Simple Solution to Saving Money

The Sharing Economy. We hear about it every day. Independent contractors who “share” their homes or cars through some central entity to make a few extra bucks.  Well, I’m not so sure about that definition.  The sharing I’m familiar with doesn’t involve money changing hands. No, it’s the good old-fashioned kindergarten level sharing I’m talking about as a simple way to save money on your gardening or home repair projects.

I’m referring to tool sharing of course. If you are just starting out as a gardener or homeowner, you’ll find the initial outlay on tools required to put in and maintain a garden, or tackle a renovation project, can run into the hundreds of dollars. Instead of buying everything you need yourself, why not find a group of friends or neighbors in the same boat and share tools with one another.  Don’t know who to ask?  Reach out on Facebook. There are already thriving sharing communities on-line you can join. Sometimes called “tool-libraries” these groups facilitate person-to-person tool borrowing, or sometimes have central locations (like the actual community library!) where tools can be checked out like books.

If you can’t find a tool-share nearby, just start one with a simple post stating “Fugal home-owner seeks other like-minded tight-wads to share home and garden tools.” Post it with a picture of your pitifully empty shed and see if you don’t have get a bunch of sympathetic replies.

The Secret to Soil Fertility

Want to boost your plant growth and vegetable production without a log of work? Want to grow bitter and healthier vegetables next spring? then use this farmers secret this fall to replenish and add to your soil fertility.

No I’m not talking about some mysterious chemicals or rare substances. I’m talking about planting cover crops. What is a cover crop you ask? It’s simply a specially chosen annual plant, or mix of plants, which germinate in the Fall, hold and cover your soil in the Winter, and get cub back in the Spring.

Typically from the legume or grass families, cover crops return nitrogen from the atmosphere, and trace minerals from deep in the ground, to your top-soil. They also generate healthy bio-mass and mulch. My favorite site for learning about and selecting the proper cover crop for your application is Peaceful Valley Farms at GrowOrganic.com.

Sowing cover crops is easy. Here is what you do:

  • Rake – Gently rake a thin layer of soil, just deep enough to plant the cover crop seeds. Don’t till!
  • Scatter – Scatter your seeds by hand or with a spreader.
  • Cover – Cover your seeds with a thin layer of soil using your rake, or you can spread fresh top-soil or compost over them. Then lightly mulch; just enough to protect the seeds from birds and retain moisture.
  • Water – Water well after mulching, then every couple days until the crop is well established.

In about a week’s time your see your crop emerge. Many cover crops such as clover will flower as well adding fall and/or spring color to your garden.

Come planting time next spring, cut down your crop using a scythe or mower. Depending on the height of the crop you chose, you may have to cut it in stages. You want fairly small cuttings in the end, because this will serve as mulch for your spring garden. A double bonus because you got nutrient replenishment in the off-season, and you don’t need to bring in another mulch in the planing season.

Remember, here at Dirt Simple we practice Permaculture, so you are not going to disturb your soil biome by tilling in your cover crop. We are just “chopping and dropping”. Dig only as much as required to put in any plants you are transferring to the ground from pots, or to bury seeds. Your cover crop was an annual so it is not going to regenerate and compete with your vegetables. If a few plants do re-qrow, no problem. You can cut them again and keep adding them back to the soil to nourish your growing produce.

Use the cover crop secret this Fall to increase your harvest and save time, money, and effort in your garden next spring.

The 5 Mistakes New Gardeners Make – And How to Avoid Them

So you want to start gardening. That’s great! There are many reasons to grow your own food, from enjoying the freshest posable produce, to having control of what goes into your body, to the joy of being out-of-doors with your hands in the dirt.

But if you’ve just been bitten by the gardening bug, you’ll want to avoid a few common pitfalls to ensure you stick with it for years to come. 

Mistake #1: Going to Big.

Ok, you decide, I’m putting in a garden. You run out and rent a roto-tiller and start converting half your lawn into beds. You have visions of rising 90 different kinds of vegetables and replacing 50% of your calories with home-grown food.  I applaud your enthusiasm but stop. You may have dreams of your yard looking like the picture above, but if you are just staring out, your setting yourself up for failure.

Gardening, like any other skill, takes time, patience and practice to do well. It’s far better to start small, learn and experiment, and find out what works and how much time you’re willing to invest before burring yourself in a massive project. A few potted tomato plants, or a single 4’ x 8’ raised bed should be plenty to start you off. You’ll be surprised by how much you can produce in this limited space.

Also limit the variety of vegetables you plant. Three or four will do, along with maybe a couple of herbs. Tomatoes, peppers, beans, and onions are a great choice for a single bed. The different plant heights allow them to share space, and they complement each other well on your plate. A little basil and oregano round out the mix nicely.

Learn what it really takes in terms of time, effort, and money on this small scale, and the pleasing results will encourage you to expand in future years.

Mistake #2 Not Preparing your Soil Properly

If you are going with potted plants, some garden vegetable potting mix will do the trick. But if you are going in-ground or with raised beds, smart preparation is key.  Most suburbanites converting a patch of lawn are going to find a lot of rock and hard clay beneath their grass. Digging up a bunch of sod is also a lot of work. Luckily you can avoid both.  Here is a simple formula for getting those beds going.

  • Start in the fall. Yes, that’s right. It takes time for soil to build so use the fall and winter to your advantage.
  • Cut the lawn in the areas you want to convert at the lowest setting with a mulching mower. Don’t bag the clippings.
  • Lay down 2 -3” of compost over the area.
  • Cover the compost with plain newspaper (not glossy) or cardboard and soak thoroughly.
  • Cover that with another 3-4” of compost.
  • And finally add a 3-4” layer of mulch. What is mulch? It’s any brown plant matter such as fall leaves, grass clippings, straw, or chopped up pruning’s from other plants.

Keep your new beds moist with weekly watering until the first frost, then let nature do its thing. In the spring just clear away a little mulch where you want each plant (do NOT turn over the entire bed!) and dig into the nice rich soil nature has been hard at work building for you.

Mistake #3: Not Protecting Your Plants

It’s additional work, but fencing, frost covers, and bird netting is key if you want a yield from your garden. Birds, rabbits, and deer will make short work of your plants if you don’t protect them. If you’re constructing a 4’ x 8’ raised bed, add posts about 4 feet tall from the corners of your bed, and center of the long sides.  Connect the posts with cross-beams. 1” x 1”’s or bamboo poles work well for this. Attach bird netting to the top and sides of the frame, overlapping by about a foot at various points on the side to create entrance points you can lift back for harvesting. The netting will keep out most garden interlopers. The frame can also be used to support frost covers if planting early spring greens, and to attach supports for your tomato’s or other climbing plants.

Mistake #4: Not Automating your watering

New gardeners without an established routine are easily side-tracked by other commitments and can forget to water each day. You may even want to take a vacation sometime and not come back to dead plants.  It would be wise then to invest a few dollars in a watering system. A $5 sprinkler and $15 watering timer (assuming you have a hose) are all you really need. Set it to water on a gentle setting for about 20 min each morning before the heat of the day.  It’s one less job and one less worry for you, and your plants will thank you for it.

Mistake #5: Not Planning for Abundance

If you’ve followed the first four tips, you are going to be rewarded with substantial yield from your garden.  Nothing is more discouraging then seeing ½ of it go to waste because you were not prepared to preserve your bounty. Once plants start producing you should be checking for new ripe veggies every other day. Pick all that have reached a desired size, are ripe, or are nearly so. Better to let a few vegetables finish ripening on the window sill then drop to the ground to be eaten by bugs.

Decided before you plant your garden if you are going to freeze, can, dry, or give-away your surplus. Stock up on the supplies you’ll need when you are buying your plants, and watch instructional videos while those plants are growing. That way you’ll be all set to go when you harvest, and won’t have to see your harvest spoil because you couldn’t get out for a week to buy canning jars.

 

Follow these 5 tips and you’ll find your first foray into gardening will be rewarding, successful, and inspire you to keep growing year after year.