around Next Gen House, lately

Pittsburgh had a beautiful, sunny weekend – and we took major advantage of it, catching up on a lot of outdoor work that had fallen to the wayside. We also were blessed to have my parents lend their hands with much of the work. I’ll be showing off our handiwork in more detail once we finish off a few of the rough edges this week, but we managed to get a huge list of work done. (Including trimming back this bleeding heart plant that was competing with the rhododendron to eat Carnegie.)

I even started to create a small backyard oasis by trying to regain the use of our deck. The rattletrap grill got moved to make way for a couple of plastic Adirondack chairs, soon to be joined by a small table. Mark took the time to move brackets placed by the previous owners of the house to fit our own deck boxes, soon to be filled with flowers.

Those small things combined with large projects like repairing a retaining wall and prepping raised beds made this weekend feel like our most productive in a very long time. Ironically, many of the tasks we completed are ones that people look to as markers of a “more simple life.” Gardening and DIY projects are actually anything but simple (wait until I tell you about the seedlings). 

It was good for me to have the time this weekend to be out in the sun, shoveling dirt, hauling stones, filling pots and digging holes. It was also nice to have time to get my kombucha started and get the house clean. Sunday night was the first time I’ve gone to bed in awhile feeling like I had pretty much checked off all my to dos for the weekend. 

I find it frustrating sometimes to see all the amazing homesteading things that other people are doing (and highlighting on their amazingly styled and organized blogs), wanting to have time to do every project that crosses my screen. These kind of tasks bring me a great amount of joy – creating things with my hands and doing things for myself. But the reality is that many of those urban homesteaders have alternate sources of income that don’t require them to work full time, or have made their blog a business, so their actual job is to homestead. They’re actually home for the majority of their waking hours. 

I work 45 hours a week and I spend at least an hour a day commuting, often two. I take krav maga classes and run 3 days a week. I cook dinner and do laundry and try to keep a house clean. So that whole idea that I can “have it all”? That I can tackle every interesting project I encounter and make my own everything and grow all the possible things to grow? Not going to happen. 

Tonight after work, I managed to finish potting herbs (more on that later). I did it while standing outside in my workout clothes after krav class, listening to an audiobook on my phone. As my pots filled up and the sun was setting, I looked around at the gardens and at the chickens running around and the soon to be finished little deck oasis and was grateful for how much I am able to do – really how much Mark and I are able to do together as partners – and didn’t lament the things we can’t. 

starting seeds: moving outdoors!

It’s been awhile since I talked about the progress of the seedlings. That’s mostly because they’ve just been spending time growing in our makeshift seedling grow room (spare bedroom) for the last few weeks/months. 

Technically we should be past the danger of frost at this point in May, but our weather has been touch and go with some frost warnings. Between our really busy spring schedule and the rainy weather we’ve had, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for us to work outside, so we only got the seedlings fertilized and moved into larger containers to be hardened outside this weekend.

Mark took some of the organic seed starting mix that we used and combined it with top soil and some organic fertilizer.

We used a bucket to bring a bit of the mix in at a time, since we decided to do this at the kitchen island. (Kind of a mistake. The floor was a disaster when we were done. Live and learn.)

We filled a Jiffy pot with the new mix and I delicately extracted the seedlings from the original tray with a plastic spoon. Our seedlings aren’t as robust as the ones you can buy at Lowes or Home Depot, but those plants are farther along in their development, plus they are traditionally fertilized. Miracle-Grow plants will grow faster, yes, but I can’t bring myself to purchase it, let alone use it.


We had more than we can likely use in our beds, so we’re giving some seedlings away. And we ran out of Jiffy pots, so our patio table is a mish mash of seedlings right now. We’ll be keeping them outside and bringing them in when the weather warrants to harden them and get them ready to be in the beds soon.

Now to just get the beds ready! I’ve got good hopes for these, since they are much better looking than last year’s seedlings, and those actually did quite well, even if they took longer to grow and develop than others. Nature has a way of taking care of things.

How are your seedlings and gardens coming along?

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garden update: late April

It seems odd to do a garden update when it’s late April and nothing has gone in yet. But I find that you can appreciate the beauty of a garden in August even more if you remember what it looked like in April, when it was still coming out of the grip of winter, when the color brown was more prevalent than green.

So it’s with that in mind that I show you the state of our gardens right now. Let’s start with the front, where the landscaping is showing signs of spring.

This next one is one of those weeping heart plants. It grows so quickly, it’s unbelievable. Probably within a week or two we’ll have the pink hearts all over our sidewalk!

These are all plants that were there last year or longer, so none of this is planned or part of my bee-friendly plantings. We are waiting until a little closer to the final frost date so we can do all the gardening/landscaping starts in the same weekend. Helps with time management.


After the lovely spring flowers in the front bed, you’d think you might see a sign of spring in the backyard too. Well, the answer to that is no. Our backyard looks like a barren, brown wasteland. Kind of embarrassing, to an extent, but so far our available time and nice weather haven’t matched up to really get out there. Soon, very soon.

This is the view from the deck. Notice the broken Chinese takeout container that got buried in the snow and then never picked up! (We use those takeout containers to take food and water to the chickens. We don’t eat takeout in the backyard in winter.)

I didn’t take a photo of the deck itself, but I have plans for it this year too. I want to adjust our grill so that the rest of the deck is usable. Right now we have only a small portion of the deck that’s covered, near the door. So we pull the grill over to that area in the winter so that if the weather’s crap, we can still pop right outside the door and use it. But when the weather is consistently nicer, I’d like to be able to have some chairs and a place to read among some planter boxes, etc. 

This is under the deck. The remnants of containers from last year and probably some chicken treats on the patio. And chicken waste, because that’s always beautiful on concrete!

I also like how they’re hanging out in the yard in a group, looking at me taking photos all “what in the world is she doing?” (I brought them some apple afterwards to say thanks.)

This next shot is the raised bed that Mark planted spinach in last fall. (Spinach we’re eating now, ironically.) Also, some torn row covers, the dreaded takeout container that I really need to pick up this morning, and a giant pile of wood and straw and dirt behind the bed, which we’ll get to in a second.

Here we have the little areas we grew cucumbers and corn in last year. We sort of let these patches just die out and stay there over winter, which is why they’re looking so dismal. 

And the melon/pumpkin patch area. Last year once the plants were overrun by squash bugs and were done producing, we pulled off the guards around the patch that were keeping the chickens out and let them destroy it, which I think they thoroughly enjoyed. You can also see the compost area in the back, with the cord that helped us keep the chickens’ water from freezing hanging over the top. Need to deal with that too! See, posting photos online about how yuck your backyard is can be good motivation to get off your lazy hind end and do a few things.

This large hole in the ground with two piles is what will be a hugelkultur bed. Once the stuff is layered back in the hole, we’ll be making it a raised bed too. This is Mark’s project, so I don’t know as much about it, but it essentially involves burying decomposing wood. But right now the yard looks like someone’s digging graves.


This tree is on the right side of our yard when you face the garages, and it’s budding quickly. It gets really beautiful, and shades a little corner of the backyard for the chickens in the summer. Right now I look at it and just see “allergen” though.

As for the other tree on the left side, no real buds yet. We’ve had concerns about the health of this tree because of the way it’s splitting and moving. We’ll have to keep our eyes on this guy.

I hope that your backyard and gardens are well on their way to looking lovely, peaceful and full of spring. If they aren’t, go ahead and look at these photos of mine and it will make you feel better! Thankfully this is the time of year where things transition quickly, so in just a few weeks it will look vastly different.

Now to go pick up that takeout container…

   

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2014 resolution update

Usually by this time of year, the resolutions I made in January are like a distant, vague memory. But this year in a stunning turn of events, I’ve been staying on track. So seeing that we’re about one third of the way through the year, I thought I’d check in.

Mind
Read 75 books.
I just finished #23 this week, so I’m on track to meet my goal. I need to still pick up a Russian doorstop novel along the way, as well as several more Margaret Atwoods to finish her canon. But so far, so good. Man do I love to read! 

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I have one down, two more to go on this front. For my most recent letter, see this post on the DARK Act recently introduced in the House. Bad news.

Body
Run a marathon.
Well, I’m in training. 
This Saturday marks my first race of the season – the Boston Trail half marathon (not in Boston). That’s followed up by my town’s 5K the following weekend, and then the Pittsburgh Marathon Half on May 4. Don’t forget there’s still time to donate to my fund for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank! Shameless plug! I’m only $5 away from $600!


Also, I’m posting photos on Instagram under the hashtag #yearofthemarathon in case you want to follow along on the adventure.

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
Doing pretty well with this one, especially through the day at work. I also carry my water bottle around with me at home, and really it’s only after runs that I don’t do so well rehydrating. Going to keep working on that.

Home
Start my home brew kombucha.
Fail. Still nervous. Will make it happen this summer though.

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
Making good progress on this one, especially since it’s something I have zero experience in. I have Mark’s shirts all prepped and ready with interfacing, and mine are almost complete. Then it’s time to get the sewing machine cranking! I’ve even had an apprentice. Isn’t he helpful?

  

Can one new thing.
Not quite into canning season yet, so this one will be a summer thing.

Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
I recently did some research on bee-friendly plants that do well in our area, with info from the Penn State Extension. Look for a post about that in the near future!

Make the chickens some treats.
Winter has made me not want to go outside with them more than necessary, so probably once I’m in the backyard with them more often, I’ll be more inclined to start making some treats.

Organize the basement.
The basement has come light years from what it was. This is a pretty significant accomplishment, as it’s now a more usable space for both Mark and me. And we’ve kept it relatively in order!


How are you doing on your goals for 2014? Share them in the comments!
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starting seeds indoors: week 3

We are about three weeks in to this year’s gardening season, if you count the beginning of the season as when we first planted the seeds indoors. With a new camera finally in my possession, I was able to capture the status of the seeds at 3 weeks, including the latest milestone – the first (albeit tiny) true leaves! 


The tomatoes are doing quite well. A few of them have shriveled a bit for reasons unknown, since they all get the same amount of water and generally the same amount of light. But we planted more than we’ll need for that reason. After the germination, we had some issues with the plants on the outer edges reaching inward for light, but they seem to have straightened after we starting rotating the trays.

It’s one of the tomato plants that has shown its first true leaves. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it’s there!


True leaves are the first leaves that actually look like the ones the adult plant will have. Usually it’s the third leaf that splits off from the two that begin. True leaves, once they’re developed, mean that you can move the seedlings to larger containers if needed and begin using some fertilizer. We use organic gardening methods, so we’ll be using some type of organic fertilizer. Most of the seedlings don’t have true leaves yet, but they’re coming!

The best part is that our seedlings barely got to the true leaf stage last year indoors. We didn’t have the greatest luck with seedlings last year (primarily due to insufficient light), so really any progress indoors is good progress for us. Ideally we end up with so many healthy seedlings that we have to give them away for lack of bed space!

Some herbs are coming along pretty well too. Others, not so much.


I have read that herbs sometimes don’t do as well inside, especially mint, which hasn’t actually germinated yet. So I’ll keep watching these guys to make sure they are getting what they need. (Chives are going gangbusters. I see a lot of baked potato bars in my future.)

Peppers are also coming along well. No true leaves yet, but like the tomatoes, the vast majority of the seedlings look healthy and strong.


I think we’re also learning about the merits of the trays we are using – the watering process is working out relatively well. We water from below in the trays, and also spritz the seedlings with water as needed. We do it at night when we turn the grow lights off, so avoid burning the seedlings with the water under light. Seems to be working, save for a few brown/dry pieces here and there. 

And last but not least, because it was 70 degrees yesterday and the sun was shining and I had a camera, a gratuitous shot of the first flowers to peek up from our front bed. Spring really is coming.


How are your seedlings doing? Any true leaves?

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starting seeds indoors

This will be our fourth spring and summer at Next Gen House, and the third year that we’ve been able to start seeds. (The first year we moved in with enough time to build a small raised bed and get some seedlings from a home improvement store. We’ve come pretty far.) After reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, we discovered Seed Savers Exchange, a group that has been saving heirloom seeds for more than 35 years. We started ordering from them in 2012, and they are where we begin our garden story each year.

First we start with a plan. We talked about what our goals were this year, the primary one being to plant less “types” of produce and focus on what we really consume the most of or would like to can, since we rely on our CSA for variety. This year, that focus is herbs, peppers and tomatoes. We’re definitely growing some other items too, but most of the others are direct-seed, meaning the seeds are sown directly in the ground after the risk of the final frost has passed. 

This weekend we started a tray of herbs, one of peppers and one of tomatoes (with a few brussels sprouts thrown in for good measure). Here is what we’re growing:

  • Brussels sprouts
  • Tomatoes
    • Amish Paste (good for canning, less water content)
    • Plum Lemon (a complimentary packet from SSE that we’re giving a whirl)
    • Black from Tula
    • Earliana
    • Beam’s Yellow Pear (these went gangbusters last year)
    • Dr. Wychee’s Yellow
  • Peppers
    • Candlelight 
    • Cyklon
    • Garden Sunshine
    • Jalapeno Travelers
    • Santa Fe Grande
    • Chocolate Beauty
  • Herbs
    • Thyme
    • Mint
    • Rosemary
    • Sage
    • Chives
    • Oregano
The herbs will be in containers on our deck eventually, and the tomatoes and peppers will get new, larger beds. We rotate the different beds each year to cut down on disease risk and recurrent pests. We know from last year’s experience that we didn’t give the tomatoes enough room, so we had one massive tangle of plants and didn’t give each one the opportunity to flourish.

We bought simple trays from Walmart, and filled them in with moistened organic seed starting mix. Probably next year or the following year, we’ll make our own seed starting mix, but we have leftover bags from a previous purchase that we don’t want to go to waste. 


These trays also have a bottom water tray, so we can water from the bottom, which is something we haven’t tried before. After filling the slots, we consulted the seed packets to determine the depth at which to plant each type. Mark used a wooden skewer with hashmarks on each 1/4″.


I love the SSE seed packets – they have really easy to read information, with the most important stuff at the top – like when to start indoors, how long it takes to germinate, and where to place them outside.

Some of the seeds are so tiny that they come in a small envelope within the packet. What a miracle, that such a robust plant, and by extension so much food, can come from such a tiny seed. I always talk about being connected to where your food comes from. When you hold seeds, you’re looking at the origins of plant life. Pretty awesome. 


We mark our seed rows with popsicle sticks from the craft store.


This year’s trays also have a cover, which helps trap heat during the “wait to germinate”. This is another new thing for us this year.


After we finished all three trays, they got transported to what I’m going to call the “grow room” (spare bedroom) and placed on the shelves of the seed starting station that Mark built for us this weekend.


Mark built this contraption that will also double as a greenhouse when it’s done holding seeds and fluorescent lights. We have only ever used windowsills to start seeds, which has never worked out for us particularly well, since the seedlings get really leggy reaching for the sun. We don’t get enough sun in this part of the country to rely on a windowsill for light. Even though nature has usually come through with some veggies by the end of summer, the plants weren’t as robust as they could be, and we think it was primarily because of insufficient light at the beginning. Enter Mark’s project.


We will also harden the seedlings this year by exposing them to the outdoors a little bit at a time, so they are “hardened” before they go in the ground.

This is all assuming that the seeds germinate and grow, so it’s always a game of chance. I look forward to watching these seeds grow – and seeing if this year’s modifications pay off! 

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root cellar progress

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last two weeks in the basement, working on cleaning out the space to be used more efficiently. The primary goal is to create a space for a root cellar. (See creating a root cellar in a city basement for more details on the “roots” of this project.)

Mark ordered me a hygrometer, which reads temperature and humidity, so when it arrived I knew I needed to get moving on the basement project so I could put it to use.

Here’s an idea of what the basement looked like before. (Yikes.)


See how far back that goes? This area has the previous owner’s cabinets (filled with leftover paint and tiles) plus all the garbage you see on the floor, tubs of canning jars, Christmas decorations, a canning cabinet, shelf for alcohol, and piles of pet and garden stuff. And the top of those cabinets? That’s been my “root cellar.” Yeah.


Laundry side. Not as bad, but with a giant pile of cleaning stuff on the floor that hasn’t moved in about a year.


This is the other side, from the far wall. On the left we have more patio cushions, and piles of junk lined up on the entire wall. The other side is Mark’s “workshop.” Which let’s be honest, wasn’t anything like a workshop. To my right in this photo is our chest freezer. To the left is this – the other work surfaces Mark has.


The treasure chest does not contain treasure. 

And last but not least, the shower space.


Two Saturdays, 8 lawn and leaf bags of garbage, 4 boxes of flattened cardboard, and a giant yard sale pile later, we have this. I’m calling it Stage 2.

(Sadly this second round of photos was taken with my phone with low light at 5 a.m., because my Canon seems to have bit the dust. While I try to bring it back to life, my phone must suffice.)


The speck on the floor is one of Stormy’s toys. You can see things are stacked, there’s no garbage on the floor, and the cabinets are gone.


More cat toys. And a laundry organizer, so that towels and yard clothes don’t have to go in piles on the floor.

Probably the biggest change is on “Mark’s side” in his work area. We repurposed the cabinets and moved them over to his side so he has another work surface, and got some utility shelving to house a lot of his tools and pieces that previously lived on the floor. (And I sorted through all the mounds of this and that which had accumulated for years.)


He’s still working on the other side, but you can see that it’s definitely a huge step up from before. (Can you find Stormy? He was my sidekick.)


Last but not least, the hygrometer is set up, and some styrofoam coolers are waiting in the shower. (Probably one of the most bizarre phrases I have ever typed.)


So cold, and so enlightening. The humidity is way too low for most vegetables to keep well. You’d think that wouldn’t be true, but in the absence of mold, veggies at 26% humidity would shrivel up. 

I’ve got more work to do on the root cellar part, and a few other general basement things, like a kitchen reorganization, but this is huge progress. Makes me feel like I’ll be ready for my makeshift root cellar this year after all!

creating a root cellar in a city basement

Our basement has been a source of aggravation for me for awhile now. It’s not finished, has a very low ceiling and a cement floor, and somehow, a full bathroom. It also contains a boat load of junk, enough cardboard to function as a shipping company, our laundry machines, chest freezer and other various house necessities, like the furnace and hot water.

We also try to store food down there – not just our canning preserves and a few shelves of alcohol – but produce like squash, onions and garlic. Since we have lived in this house, we’ve just put the produce downstairs, thinking it was a cool, dark place and that it would just miraculously function as a root cellar, preserving the veggies for a long time.

Well, it hasn’t done that. We lose a decent amount of produce to the compost pile – squishy squash and soft, moldy onions. Something isn’t right down there when it comes to the storage of veggies. So I made two goals:

1. Finish the simplifying project I started last fall by finally doing a complete overhaul of the basement’s contents as well as a new layout that optimizes the space and gives us room for food storage, laundry, general storage and a work area for Mark. 

2. Figure out what the heck is stopping us from being able to use the basement for storage of whole vegetables and rectify it. (Is it the produce? It is something I’m doing? Is it the temperature or humidity or light?)

I ordered a book from the library called Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables by Mike and Nancy Bubel, which seems to be the go-to text in the world of root cellaring and homesteading. It’s comprehensive enough that I’ll probably purchase a copy myself.

It covers everything from digging an actual classic root cellar into a hillside to modifying small spaces and awkward city basements. I am considering the option of turning our unused basement shower into a makeshift root cellar/cold storage for produce. (For the record, I would not remove any of the functionality of the shower for any future owners of this house, since I’m banking on the dream of having land of our own some day.) There are other options, such as building cold boxes to surround basement windows and using the steps between the basement and the dorothy doors out to the yard. Once I see what kind of space we’re working with when the extraneous crap gets removed, we’ll know better what option works for us.

I also realized that I need a hygrometer as well as a thermometer to determine what the humidity levels are in the areas where I’m going to store produce. Since the authors correctly point out that produce is always changing and undergoing its biological processes, heading toward rot and decay, it’s important to make sure the environment around the vegetables does everything to retard that process that it can.

I’ll probably also use this book as a guide for exactly how to store what type of vegetable or fruit. I think one of my big mistakes is grouping everything together, when each item has an optimal storage method, etc. I will also look into using those white styrofoam picnic coolers to create sand boxes, essentially, for some of the foods. Might be kind of fun to go down to the basement in the dead of winter with a little sand shovel and go digging for a turnip.

Have you ever experimented with cold storage of produce or root cellaring? If you’ve got any tips, share them in the comments. I can use all the help I can get!

book review: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

I have read most of Michael Pollan’s works, including all of his books pertaining to food. I’ve reviewed Cooked on this blog, as well as Second Nature.I find his writing really engaging, so I stick with his books not just because he’s considered one of the top food studies experts in the country. 

I had seen the documentary based on The Botany of Desire around the same time as I first watched Food, Inc. years ago. (You can actually watch the documentary on PBS’s website here.) I realized more recently I had never actually read the book. The subtitle, A Plant’s-eye View of the World, is fitting, and probably what makes this book about plants stand out from any others I’ve read.

Pollan acknowledges that for centuries, we’ve believed that we as humans control plants. But for this book, he turns that around and asks if it’s possible that plants are shaping us as well. He centers the book around four basic plants and how they evolved over time to satisfy something humans want. Domesticated plants have a reciprocal relationship with us – it’s a two-way street.

The plants he covers are apples (sweetness), tulips (beauty), cannabis (intoxication) and potatoes (control). In the section on apples, he discusses the legend of Johnny Appleseed – how much was true, how apples evolved in America, and how they’ve been used over centuries to satisfy our cravings for sweet. Most apples from seed are bitter and their fruits were used to make hard cider. It’s only through grafting over many years that we were able to cultivate sweet fruit, partly owing to a backlash against alcohol. My favorite part of this section was learning about how apples protect their genetic diversity – they are very different from many other plants. Human behavior threatens them by reducing that diversity in the quest for the same, consistent and sweet fruit.

The tulip section tries to answer the question of why we spend billions of dollars cultivating flowers that we can’t eat (besides their use to bees) – the desire for beauty. The info on floral reproduction was a little bit dry, though useful. However, the discussion of the tulipmania that swept Amsterdam in the 17th century, where a single bulb cost a fortune, captured my interest.

Probably my favorite section of this book, ironically, was the section on cannabis. It starts by talking about how plants protect themselves from predators by poisoning or sickening them, yet also draw other animals to them for their own purposes (reproduction). Culturally, it’s almost universal that groups of people are drawn to plants and substances that alter consciousness – and marijuana has provided that for centuries – in use since recorded history began, at the very least. When the U.S. war on drugs threatened its existence, it evolved to be grown indoors (and out of the reach of government efforts to curb its growth). Because it has to be grown so carefully, cross-bred for the best traits, etc. marijuana has reached new heights of growth and potency – the opposite of what the war on drugs wanted to achieve.

Scientists study the effects of intoxicant plants on humans, finding the tetrohydracannibinol (THC) that marijuana produces binds to receptors in our brains that affect memory and consciousness. But we also produce THC-like chemicals naturally, that do the same thing. It’s like we’re hardwired to respond. 

The potatoes section talks about the history of potatoes being a sustaining crop for many cultures, and also the problems that came with that dependency – the Irish potato famine in the 19th century. Within weeks, a fungus destroyed all potato crops – the result of a monoculture grown where no plant could offer up any resistance and the fungus could spread like wildfire. While the resulting starvation of a huge population of people was also due to factors beyond the destroyed, it served as a lesson to growers that monocultures are a great risk. However, we’re still growing monocultures of potatoes today – in particular, the Russet Burbank (the fry of choice for McDonald’s). This portion of the book talks about the effect on farmers and land, trying to grow potatoes in monoculture and make them disease and pest resistant (this is where lots of chemicals and genetic modification come in). 

It’s not often that we look at agriculture from the perspective that Pollan does in this book. I’ve never thought of plants having priorities – but it makes a lot of sense, and goes hand in hand with research that’s being done on plant intelligence. It certainly makes me look at my own garden differently – and will probably shape what will be planted in the coming year. Will I go for the maximum return for me, in what I desire? Or the maximum return for the plant, at the expense of beauty or taste? Hopefully the answer lies somewhere in the middle.