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. 

5 reasons to go local

I have this t-shirt that says “Buy Local” on the back. You hear and see that phrase a lot now. Small businesses use it, and so do businesses like Wal-mart and Whole Foods, which hype their willingness to carry foods from local providers. But if everyone’s using it, what does it mean? And has it become a useless marketing term?

“Local” isn’t defined in any official capacity by the government or some other body. And it can’t really be defined by state lines, since where we live in Pittsburgh, we’re closer to Ohio and West Virginia than our state capital. It’s also hard to define it by miles – do you count a day’s drive as local or a certain number of miles from your home? I’ve seen products labeled as “local” in grocery stores where a quick google reveals that I’d have to drive 8 hours to get to the place it was sourced. That doesn’t really feel local.

For my purposes, I’d casually define local as sourced from within my own economic region – the greater metropolitan area of Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania. I’d extend that to sourcing items within a radius I’d be willing to drive to pick up the item itself or to co-ops with drop-off locations throughout that same area. 

By why buy local? Here are my 5 reasons.

  • Simplification. It can be really complicated balancing different priorities with food purchases – organics v. conventional, natural, sustainable farming practices, humane animal treatment. When I buy locally grown and produced food, especially directly from the source, I have more confidence. There is little marketing hype, and I am more confident that the farmer across the table from me at the farmers’ market is not handing me food that’s laced with poison or destroying the viability of the land. He or she has a vested interest in taking care of the land and producing a healthy crop – because it’s his or her family eating that food too and living on that land. It just feels simple.
  • Economics. When you buy something from a local producer, whether that be food or another item, that money stays in the local economy instead of flowing outward to nameless, faceless companies for their exorbitant profit margins. Instead the money is put back into the community through taxes and the costs of running a business, plus supporting the employment of local people. Local producers who also source their raw materials from local sources help keep that cycle going. (e.g. Local distilleries and breweries who source their grain from local farms.)
  • Expertise. While there are certainly people working in traditional chain stores who know their stuff, it is really fulfilling to patronize a local business and benefit from the expertise of the people who run it. I am often willing to pay more for a product or service from a local business simply because there is value added in the customer service that often isn’t there at other stores. 
  • Quality. When it comes to food, I’ve never once been disappointed with a local purchase. It’s also nice that it typically lasts longer, since it’s had less time from the field to my table and spent less time on the highway (or sky) in a refrigerated truck (or plane). I think when a local producer sells you something, there’s a bit of a subconscious awareness that they might see you around town. They take pride in the quality of their products, knowing that it’s one of the best ways they compete with big business. 
  • Because I love my community. I’m proud to live in this area and proud of the great things that people are innovating and creating and growing here. It’s rich in history and legacy, and I want to support businesses that continue that and are helping to make Pittsburgh the most liveable city that it is. 

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?

lessons learned: October simplified

I spent as much free time as I could spare in October working on simplifying my life in one specific area – belongings. After taking a hard look around my house (and realizing that some closet doors hadn’t been shut in months – or *shudder* years), I knew I needed to start the process of organizing and sorting and cleaning, no matter how long it took. 

I started with our spare bedroom/office and moved my way through the upstairs. I made piles upon piles of items to toss, store, donate or sell. Right now, our dining room is full of boxes that need to be stored for the spring, when I’ll be joining some friends in a yard sale. It’s now past my October “deadline,” but I am done with everything but the basement and 50% of the kitchen. (Doing the kitchen requires me to have the basement clean with some new storage areas for things that can’t live in the kitchen any longer. I’m looking at you, canning stuff!)

Even though there’s still a lot to be done, I can acknowledge how far I’ve come in parting with items that really contributed nothing to my life but a growing sense of my belongings closing in on me. The piles of stuff were always sitting there, mocking me and making me feel guilty and overwhelmed. The dust on the piles showed just how little the items were actually used.

I’ve sold about a dozen books on Amazon and been able to put aside some great stuff for my little niece, both for now and when she gets older. And I am really happy that I can add to my sense of peace by providing stuff for other people that might get use out of it. 

I’m being much more mindful about what comes in and out of the house, and I’m not buying things without a specific purpose for them. I’ve also learned that a good barometer for whether or not you should get rid of something is if you’ve used it in a set time period. For example we had a metric ton of board games – ones I had collected in college as I sought to own every Trivial Pursuit ever created – as well as the more advanced variety like Munchkin and Pandemic. I went through each game individually and asked myself – have we played this in the last year? If I had a game night tomorrow, would I want to play it? If the answer was no, it went in the pile. 

Having a plan really helped. But what helped the most was finishing that first room. It made me realize how much peace came with accomplishing a task that had sat unfinished for so long as well as the calm that comes with space, margin and order. That great feeling pushed me forward. 

My big goal is to finish the basement and kitchen before Thanksgiving so that after the holiday, we can pull out our Christmas decorations and feel like we don’t have to strategically place them around piles of clutter. I can’t wait to enjoy the holidays without thinking “I was meaning to get around to this…”

Have you had any simplifying success this fall? 

waste not, want not – 5 tips to reduce waste

After thoroughly purging and organizing the belongings in just one room of our house this weekend, I got to thinking about waste – specifically how much space has been wasted in our house and also what opportunities are wasted when we store belongings away that could be useful for someone else, if not for us.

Recently, my coworker told me about hearing a news report about the amount of food that is wasted because of expiration dates and labels. Her church organizes a food pantry and is not able to serve or give away food that is “past dated” – even if it’s perfectly safe, edible and even delicious. On one hand, I understand why this guidance is in place for groups that are serving large amounts of people – you don’t want to gamble with people’s safety when you are responsible for others, particularly vulnerable populations. But unfortunately, the dates and labels themselves are misleading.

According to the study that has been reported recently, 90% of Americans say they have prematurely thrown out food because they misinterpreted the labels and dates on the package. These labels are generally suggestions from the manufacturers about peak freshness, not suitability for consumption. According to the same article, “in 2012, an NRDC study found as much as 40 percent of the country’s food supply goes uneaten. The cost of that wasted food? Roughly $165 billion, including $900 million in “expired” food. A family of four, the study found, spends an average of $455 a year on food it doesn’t eat.” (emphasis mine) We should look at those numbers and find them unpalatable (no pun intended).

That’s a staggering amount of food waste, especially when industrial agriculture is trying to tell us that they need to produce more to feed the world. We already produce more food than this country needs (not to mention that this country eats more calories a day than it needs to). The reason we have hunger issues in this country is not production – it’s distribution and access.

So what can you do? Here are five strategies we use in our house.

1. Plan your meals.
Each week, we plan out what we’re going to make for dinner and estimate the leftovers to determine lunches. This allows us to have a very good idea of what we can eat in a week’s time and to know exactly what we will need on a given day. We check what we have in our pantry and refrigerator when we are choosing meals – and even have our freezer contents in a shared spreadsheet so we can keep track of what’s hiding at the bottom!

2. Make a shopping list and stick to it.
Use your meal plan to determine what you need for the week and make a list. When you go to the store, don’t veer from the list. We make exceptions when pantry staples are on sale and we can stock up at a savings, but we only buy things we know we will use. If you go to the store without a plan, you’ll buy things that you feel like eating when you’re there, but you might not want to eat later on. You also run the risk of not buying the right quantities. 

3. Buy from the bulk section when you can – and buy only what you need.
We buy spices from the bulk section, as well as grains like oats and rice and dried fruits and nuts for granola. Usually the prices are lower in general than buying the items in a commercially packaged container, but it also helps you only buy what you can use at its peak of freshness. Spices lose their potency over time, so it’s better to buy 4 tablespoons of ginger at a time for a small container at home than enough ginger for a bakery from a warehouse store.

4. Smell and look at your food.
Your milk says “best by 10-8.” It’s past October 8, so instead of getting rid of it immediately, open the container and smell it. You will know when milk has “gone off” or spoiled. We’ve had containers of sour cream we’ve used a month after the “best by” date – no mold, spoilage or nasty smells indicates that it’s safe to eat. The benefit of eating a diet of whole foods is that you’re eating things that are designed to go bad. (We’ve all seen the photos of fast food cheeseburgers that have been petrified for 30 years but somehow never spoiled.) Fruit and vegetables? They rot. Bread molds and so does cheese. Meat rots – in a terribly smelly way. Your food will “let you know” when it’s not safe to eat anymore. (Remember that this is the way that people determined whether or not their food was safe before the advent of the government labels.)

5. Consider labels to be guidelines and not rules.
Go ahead and use the dates as a guideline – but they aren’t rules. You can just as easily get a container of yogurt from the store, open it before the “sell by” date and find mold as you can if the date has passed. Don’t throw away perfectly good food because someone 8 weeks ago estimated that it might not be quite so fresh after a certain point. You will see a difference in your budget when you do!

October Simplified update: Listed about 50 books for sale that had the potential to help me recoup some cost and packed up the rest to donate and repurposed mismatched sheets as drop cloths for Mark’s wood working space. Up next, the guest bedroom!

October simplified

Our culture is obsessed with finding ways to “simplify” our lives. Every time a new gadget comes out, it promises to simplify our lives. (I actually think my smart phone complicates my life more than it simplifies it.) Each new processed food product promises to simplify a meal to accommodate busy lifestyles with phrases like ‘all-in-one’ and ‘great on-the-go.’ 

In our house, I feel like when it comes to diet, we do make simple choices, even if the dishes we make are sometimes complex and the many places we source foods can make shopping complicated. We use whole, clean foods and try to keep the chain from the farm to our table as short as possible. We celebrate the simple pleasure of a ripe tomato in August or perfect strawberries in June.

But what about the rest of our lives? I got to thinking about this question a lot during the Mother Earth News Fair. Mark and I are blessed to live in a house that is more than adequate in size for our needs. But how did we move from a two-bedroom tiny apartment to a three-bedroom house and somehow within two years fill it up with stuff? We often talk about a dream of living in a small cabin on lots of land – but we can’t do that with an entire house full of stuff. We live a sustainable lifestyle when it comes to what we eat. But how can we carry that lifestyle into other areas of our life?

Having a burst of energy this weekend, I spent most of Saturday organizing one of our bedrooms – the area that functions like an office/library. It has two closets, both of which were bursting – and I’m ashamed to admit the doors hadn’t been shut for probably a year. The entire room was lined with bookcases packed full of hundreds of books, knick knacks and dust. After about 10 hours, I had about 12 boxes of items to sell or donate and had reduced my books by about 50%, a huge feat for me, having a master’s degree in literature and reading being one of the great loves of my life.

This was just one room, but the sense of success, and honestly, peace, I had from completing that task was amazing. I can walk in that room now and not feel that the walls are closing in on me – and I can shut those closet doors. It suddenly felt so much closer to “simple.”

So I’m devoting time in October to simplifying our home. Making space for the things that contribute to the joy we create in the home, and getting rid of things that don’t. I will probably feature some of the simplified spaces on Instagram (@nextgenhouse).

Let’s talk simplifying. What things do you do in your house to keep things simple? Do you have any great strategies to address the challenge of organizing or downsizing?