Spring is Coming…

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The tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings we started a few weeks ago are doing well, and the bigger, outside garden is in sight! Our first real attempt at growing in Central Texas was a Fall/Winter garden, and it’s done pretty well. We’ve got plans to build a couple more raised beds and see what the Spring brings us. In a couple of weeks we hope to be sowing carrots, cucumber, kale, beets, bok choy, and summer squash directly into the planters, in addition to transplanting these little guys.

It feels fairly ambitious for us: 50+ square feet of raised beds…. we’re planning to expand well beyond that eventually, but after years of apartment living, we’ve never had that much space to  grow food in! It’s exciting to walk outside and grab kale for a salad, or herbs for a recipe… I’m dreaming of the day I can make a whole meal out of what we’ve grown!

Ironically, we’ve had some difficulty harvesting: I’m working 45+ hours each week, rarely getting home before dark, and Mr. Vega’s full-time school schedule and home-improvement projects keep him hopping. I’m not a fan of Daylight Saving Time, as a modern concept, but I sure am looking forward to it this year! Meanwhile, my husband finally found time to grab the plants that had begun to bolt and make them into a fresh vegetable juice for us…he even juiced the carrot and beet tops, and it’s delicious!

I’m looking forward to longer daylight hours, time spent both in the garden, in the kitchen making some proper meals out of these beautiful plants, and out on the newly screened-in porch my handsome husband has worked so hard to create.

What are you looking forward to this season?

 

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Frugal Tuesday: Grow Your Own

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I always thought I had a “black thumb,” but it turns out that gardening just takes practice! I’m not even close to being a Master Gardener, in fact I’m still very much a novice, but the more you do it, the better you get.

If you are new to gardening, know this: You will kill plants, and many of them! It’s okay. The planter pictured above cam with strawberry plants in it. We didn’t do a great job with the berries, and have re-purposed the pot as an herb garden. Each plant you kill adds to your list of Things Not to Do, and it will start to happen less and less.

Find out your gardening zone, look up the best times to plant in your region (hint: there are several ideal times each year, not just one), experiment with seedlings and try growing things from seed. If all you have is a balcony or patio, get some containers. If all you have is a sunny window, try growing some herbs. If you don’t have that,  consider joining a community garden, or try what my friend does and Stealth Garden! Seriously, she’s got a culinary herb garden hiding in plain sight among her apartment building’s landscaped shrubbery… some of her more astute neighbors even help themselves– with her blessing– to a trimming now and then! There may be an overlooked bit of soil on the property where you live or work where you might be able to plant a small Stealth Garden (or Stealth Plant) of your own.

Grow what you like to eat (or to make herbal tea out of, or to smoke, providing that it’s legal to grow where you live). To get the most bang for your buck, figure out which fresh fruits and vegetables you pay the most for, then try growing them yourself. It’s so much nicer to walk outside with a pair of scissors to get fresh herbs than to pay $3 for a plastic-wrapped sprig of already wilting thyme, oregano, or rosemary.

Give it a try. In a world of over-processed, over-packaged, nutrient-deficient food products, gardening is a revolutionary act. And a delicious one at that. Why not try it?

We Did it…

… We bought a house! Our first house. And we’re pretty excited.

Four years of hard work, paying off debt, saving money and one cross-country move later, and we have a house! Right now, I’m going to say that it has all been worth it. We made a 20% down payment and bought the house for exactly market value, which is kind of a bargain in the real estate frenzy that is Austin. So we’ve already got a good amount of equity, and our net worth hasn’t changed. Which is strange and wonderful, considering we just handed over almost all of our savings except for our Emergency Fund.

It’s small. As in 800 square feet, 2-bedroom/1-bath, single-car garage small. Buying a smaller, older house allowed us to stay within our budget, which was several thousand dollars less than the current median home price in Austin, but still stay close to downtown and some of our favorite South Austin neighborhoods. Having a smaller house also means, of course, that it will be less expensive to cool and heat as well as being easier to clean. We want to replace both the roof and the flooring at some point, and those things will also be cheaper because of the house’s smaller footprint.

The lot is a relatively large 1/4 acre, which gives us plenty of room for gardening and entertaining. And there is plenty of room for the house to grow, if we ever decide that a third bedroom or a second bathroom is a necessity. We’re planning to build a compost bin ASAP, planting a mini-orchard of fruit trees, and even considering getting a few chickens.

Built in 1968 and used as a rental property for the past decade, it’s going to need a fair amount of work. We see that as a benefit, though because it was another thing that kept the asking price low, and also because we can do most of the improvements ourselves, to get things exactly how we want them. Some of the first things on our list are high-efficiency appliances, double-paned windows, and a rainwater collection system.

There are train tracks just behind our back fence, but it’s in a “quiet zone,” which means the trains are not allowed to blow their horns except in emergencies. Houses that abut train tracks are generally considered less desirable, which helped with the affordability factor, and honestly, I find the sight and sound of freight trains nostalgic!

The neighborhood is funky and eclectic… No cookie-cutter houses, and most importantly to us, no HOA. Homes in our new neighborhood have interesting creative decor and landscaping: some of them even have their vegetable gardens in the front. We were also pleased to spot a few harbingers of creativity and a laid-back vibe in the area: free-range children!

This is the thing we’ve worked so hard to do, and we’ve been able to do it on our own terms, so we’re very happy. We’re looking forward to what lies ahead, as we continue our journey toward self-sufficiency and financial independence.

How We Became Average Americans (And What We’re Doing to Stop It!)

Last year, Mr. Vega and I were living in a 486-square-foot apartment in a not-so-perfect neighborhood tucked into the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles. We had a thriving container garden on our balcony, and we supplemented the soil with compost created by a colony of red wriggler worms that also lived in a container on our balcony and fed on our fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. Our meals were all organic and made-from-scratch, often in a slow-cooker, and supplemented with green vegetable juice fresh-made daily. We kept a batch of kombucha brewing on a kitchen counter, a small bottle of organic vanilla beans and bourbon (otherwise known as “vanilla extract”) in a cupboard, and a bigger bottle of cherries, sugar and bourbon (otherwise known as “cherry bounce…” if you haven’t tried it, you might want to!) under the kitchen sink. Our refrigerator was a smaller apartment-sized unit, and we liked it that way, because it was harder to overlook what we had put in there and let it go to waste. We did our laundry twice a month, two loads at a time in our building’s communal laundry room, and hung about half of that to dry on a rack out on the balcony.

We were weird.

We seemed like perfect candidates to move to Austin, Texas… the city’s motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” after all! Housing prices in Los Angeles were proving pretty unforgiving, and we had our hearts set on homeownership, so we packed up a U-Haul and headed eastward, towing one car and shipping another. We had come out a month earlier and secured jobs and an apartment, but because we didn’t know the area, we chose an apartment in a more expensive part of town than our old place in L.A. This one came with a much smaller balcony, and we moved in mid-summer, too late to start a garden. It also has an in-unit washer and dryer, which came in handy, as we weren’t used to the longer drying times required for hanging laundry in the humid air of central Texas. We also weren’t prepared for how we might have to adjust our home-fermenting efforts: my first batch of kombucha grew a healthy layer of mold, and I haven’t found the motivation to try again. Although our apartment in Austin has 50% more square footage than our last place, the storage options are not well-designed, and so the kitchen is much less functional. And we still haven’t learned how to cook on an electric stovetop without burning things!

After a lifetime spent working freelance and part-time jobs, I took full-time work about six months ago, in addition to keeping a couple of my part-time gigs, so that we could save for the house we came here to buy. While I’m glad I did, I now find myself without the time or energy to shop, prep and cook like I used to. Week after week, we found ourselves letting our fresh food languish in the standard size fridge while we stopped for takeout or reached for convenience foods, and without a compost bin, 100% of our food waste has been headed to the landfill. We decided to fill our freezer with some Trader Joe’s frozen options, just to get us through the transition… not ideal, but healthier and less expensive than takeout, or most of the big-name convenience foods. After Mr. Vega sustained a sports injury that makes it difficult for him to walk without pain, even the trek to our closest Trader Joes was proving difficult to fit into my busy schedule, and I found myself shopping at the chain grocery store nearest my workplace, buying and consuming the very products that we’ve avoided so diligently for the past few years. There’s a bit of a vicious cycle going on here: our busier schedules and poorer nutrition means that we have less energy to shop for and cook the healthy foods that would give us, well, more energy! But at the end of a typical 9-hour workday, all we really want is to eat something that we don’t have to cook, lie on the couch and watch TV. And we’ve gained weight. Like most of America, we are now overworked, overweight, malnourished, and trying to function in a state of near-constant fatigue.

Our expenses have gone up, too. Living in a “safer” neighborhood in Austin costs us more in rent than our dodgy-but-familiar part of Los Angeles. The landlord-tenant laws are different here, so our rent is about to go up $200-$400 (the amount would depend on the length of the lease we sign). And our incomes decreased considerably when we left the West coast. We’re fortunate to still be earning enough to give us some margin, even with our current spendy lifestyle, but we’re keenly aware that adding children to our family, needing to care for aging parents, or experiencing a health crisis of our own would change the balance considerably. From where we sit, it’s very easy to understand how some “low monthly payments” for anything that makes life easier would start to look pretty good to a lot of people right about now.

Now we’re average.

What’s keeping us going is the knowledge that our situation is temporary: We’re currently in escrow on our first home. It’s a two-bedroom house, not much bigger than our current one-bedroom apartment, and we’ve got a healthy down payment so our monthly payments will be about the same as our rent. It’s got a couple of fruit trees in the front, a big backyard for gardening, a good-sized kitchen pantry, and a covered deck where we can hang our laundry but still have it protected from summer showers and the grackles that are ubiquitous here. There’s also a gas stove, more counter space and the opportunity to buy whatever size refrigerator we like. If all goes well, in a few months we’ll be collecting rainwater, composting, eating home-grown vegetables again, and playing host to bees, bats and butterflies. We’ll feel more comfortable inviting friends over for dinner and game nights, because there is ample street parking and zero chance of upstairs neighbors complaining about the noise we make when the conversation gets boisterous at our dining table. It will take some effort to keep our tired bodies moving after we come home from a full day’s work, but I think we’ll be able to do it, because we know from experience the good financial and physical health that any amount of urban homesteading can bring. And loathe as I am to do it, because I’ve come to love the people I work with, once we’re settled and have made a few improvements to the house I’ll be able to leave my part-time job and keep my workweek down to a more manageable five days a week instead of six.

We are not wealthy people, but we have had the luxury of working less-than-full-time, or at least of keeping flexible hours, for most of our working lives. Our year of living like “average” Americans has brought me a lot of compassion for people with fewer options. I now have answers to some of the questions in my head that start with “Why don’t they just…?” This experience has taught me that “they” probably don’t exercise the options I’m thinking of because “they” are exhausted and feeling unwell, and there isn’t always someone else to pick up the slack. I’ve learned that an unexpectedly busy week means that fresh fruits, vegetables, and even meats are likely to go unprepared and uneaten, so it’s easier to just not buy them in the first place. I’ve discovered that something as simple as a poor apartment design can have a big effect on a family’s ability to maintain healthy habits. I can see how a weeklong disruption in a steady income could throw off a working parent’s finances in ways that, if you throw in a few late fees and re-connection charges, could take years to recover from.

Living in this country, in this economic climate, is a real struggle for the average American these days. Working flexible schedules, growing and cooking your own food, staying out of debt, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance can go a long way toward making life easier, but those choices aren’t available for everyone. And they certainly aren’t options that I’ll ever take for granted again.

Have you been able to stay out of the “average” American cycle of work-spend-work? What choices have you made to accomplish that?