This week my youngest daughter made a goal to exercise. Since she is eight she declined doing a Jillian Michaels workout or lifting weights. She resolved to spend more time at the park. This is a great goal. Since she is still little she needed someone to go play or "workout" with her. I volunteered. She rode her bike and I looked around for interesting pictures. I love how the ice looks on the pond. I'm also very excited to see it melting around the edges. Something about this picture of last years bird nest by the side of a frozen pond spoke to me.
We have birds all over the place now. They are in the middle of a spring housing tournament. Every morning the sparrows sit and squabble over my fireplace vent. I can hear them discussing the pros and cons and flying in and out to check everything out. "I like the walls. It just needs a new coat of paint." "I'm not sure the master is big enough for us" "It has great access though, and what a roof!" When a bidding war breaks out in the middle of breakfast though, I just turn on the gas fireplace. In just a moment or two the bidding war ends and all the birds fly back into the trees. Some housing markets are just too hot.
The sparrows are a rowdy crowd, they have to talk about everything. I have also seen a pair of mourning doves, and a cardinal couple checking out this year's available lodgings. It is a big responsibility to settle down and decide to raise a family, and choosing a spot for a home is a big step! I imagine the bird nest in this picture was a great spot. Beachfront property with the cool breeze off the pond. The nest is still in great shape even after the winter winds. I'm sure that as things turn green again, someone will claim this spot again.
How do birds recognize a good spot to build? It isn't all instinct. Apparently they need to practice. I watched a young robin build a nest in a most impractical spot last year. Even with no previous nest building experience, even I could tell that that nest was going to fall off of that branch. We got a little wind before the nest was even finished, and it fell. He found a better spot. It takes perseverance as well. Another robin wanted to build a nest under my deck. I kept pulling down his pile, and he kept putting it back up. Guess who won? He did. I still don't think they should build there, (don't put all of your eggs in that basket!) the babies have a hard time there, but I haven't figured out how to communicate my concerns.
Maybe birds don't have as many concerns as we do. They don't worry about the stock market or global pandemics, or supply shortages. On the other hand there is avian influenza. They also have to be concerned about hawks, great horned owls and eagles right here (they sit on my roof). I guess there are also dogs and cats to worry about too, not to mention other birds trying to get your nesting spot. Maybe they worry about food supplies too. Birds certainly deal with lots of variability in food and weather and other problems. It can't be easy, and yet they come out to sing as soon as the storms blow over and the sun comes out. And they'll all band up together and chase the hawks and crows away when they have baby chicks in their nests. Cheerful and brave! Maybe I can learn something from them.
Speaking of weather and economic difficulties, this week has been exciting don't you think? Our "nest egg" has taken a hit with the sinking stock markets and there are lots of worries in the air. All of that worry made us wonder about out budget challenge. We have been spending very little and using up our stores from last summer's garden. We still have plenty of stocks in the freezer and pantry, but it made me wonder if we are in the right spot. Travel restrictions, supply shortages and other concerns keep popping up. I pondered reservoirs.
I grew up in the mountain west. Reservoirs were everywhere. There is not enough rain all year to take care of everyone's needs, so reservoirs have been built to hold the water that will be needed during dry times. Lately, sometimes the dry times have been close enough together and long enough to have even the biggest reservoirs be at low levels. Here in the Midwest, we have plenty of rain, sometimes too much. Reservoirs can also help control floods by releasing the water at just right amounts to protect the cities downstream.
Not all reservoirs are lakes however. A reservoir is a supply or stock of something that will be useful. We have turned our backyard into a food reservoir. Some of that is saving water. We planted the slope of the backyard to control water. Steven keeps adding rain barrels to collect some of the rainwater so we have a buffer in dry weeks. Since it is planted and mulched most of the rain that we get stays in the yard and gardens. We don't have to water as often anymore. The gardens produce better every year. The trees and flowers invite birds and beneficial insects. We provide housing and food, they eat bugs I don't like and a few things that I really do like. It's okay, I can share. We can't make everything though. Well we could, but I have to balance my available time, money, and energy. Just like you wouldn't want to run a reservoir dry just to see how much is in it, we don't want to run all the way out of things before we restock. I can do math and figure out how much is there and how fast we are using it.
For those of you who wonder just how fast the reservoir empties for a family of eight mostly teenagers; the flow from these reservoirs are fast, in both food and money. We have saved over $2000 in groceries over 60 days by spending so little, but it really isn't sustainable. Spending so little just lowers the levels in the reservoir. We'll save on impulse buys and by making lots of homemade foods we'll eat better, but sooner or later we have to fill back up, or we will just run dry. A realistic but still tight budget is about $100 per month per person for food and consumables. You would get more per person on food stamps as a comparison :) You'll still have to be careful, but if you grow a garden, keep a food pantry, buy basics on sale, and cook mostly at home, you can make it on that. Any lower than that and you are just running out. We decided not to run the the reservoir dry just to prove we can. Like the gas tank in your car, some things you just need to keep more than half full so you don't run into more trouble by running out.
Enter the semi-annual Costco and Sam's Club stock up run! We are still doing our challenge, but due to the economic weather forecast and other global concerns, we decided it would not be wise to run the reservoirs dry. We took our 2nd exception to stock up on a few things. Steven teases that since it is Leap Day, it wasn't really a day that we planned for on our challenge so it doesn't count, but if your interested it took about $700 of the $2000 we saved to fill us back up to a comfortable level. We didn't really buy very much food. Laundry detergents, tissues, paper towels, shampoo and toothpaste, vitamins, cough drops, oil for the van etc. I'll post a picture below. (I had already put away the almond milk and frozen fruit) We still have plenty of food in the freezer and pantry, but I feel better knowing our toilet paper and toothpaste won't run out.
Even with this big outflow from the grocery budget the savings are still filling up. All of this fit into our regular budget of $125 per month per person. At that rate our pantry reservoir stays full and the savings fills up, slowly, but every little bit helps! If we total up all the things we have been able to do over this last year, saving, and budgeting and being intentional, we are thousands of dollars ahead of where we were this time last year. Little drops add up! And no worries! We have 40 days left of the challenge. We'll be back on track tomorrow. If we spend $56 a week for the rest of the challenge, even counting today's expenses we will have only spent $1500 on groceries and consumables in the whole 100 day challenge. That works out to $1.87 spent per person per day, or about 63 cents per meal! That's amazing!
We've reached the halfway point of our budget and pantry challenge! I cut Steven's hair again! We cleaned out the kitchen and organized it! Steven won a gift certificate to Brightside Kitchen in Clive, and we are excited to go there on a date soon! We went and watched the bald eagles flying around Saylorville dam and counted more than 20! We are starting to plant peppers and herbs for the Spring Plant Sale under the grow lights downstairs. I took one of my exceptions and gave myself an extra $50 of groceries this week. Our budget challenge of $56 a week is really tight. Amanda wanted a fire pit party. Its a little cold outside so we compromised and had a fireplace party instead. We got yummy stuff for Steven's birthday that is coming up next week too! We have spent $450 in groceries and household goods since January 1 for all our groceries and household goods for our family of 8. The garden and food storage is what makes it even possible.
Speaking of the garden...all this planning and preparing while we are focused on eating what we grew last summer had me pondering on the law of the harvest this week. Basically, this is the rule that says you will harvest what you plant. For example, if I want pumpkins, I have to plant pumpkin seeds. Tomato seeds will never grow pumpkins, only tomatoes. This is an immutable law. Being a gardener, you already know that part. You also know the rest of the story. Planting is the easy part, but it is a long time between planting a seed and harvesting a crop. Here are 6 principles that I've learned while growing our own food.
1. Prepare before anything goes in the ground. You have to want a harvest bad enough to plan and prepare months before you will ever harvest ripe tomatoes. I frequently get asked to teach gardening classes in May or June. That's good, but that's more than halfway through my growing season. You have to be planning and preparing now to have a great garden. I'll start potting up strawberries the beginning of March, and we already have some herbs and hot peppers growing. With the wind chill at -10 below zero on this cold Iowa morning, it doesn't feel like spring, but even if the temperature doesn't reflect it, spring is coming fast. Seeds have arrived and I have a huge bin of seeds sitting on my desk waiting for their turn to be planted. I keep trying to write up the garden plan. How many tomatoes? Which type of peppers? Where will we plant the 2000 flowers seeds we ordered? Where should we move the raspberries to so they will be happier? Emily wants a 25 lb watermelon variety. Steven ordered a new type of rhubarb. Where will I put that? Hmmm. Maybe I can grow the herbs hydroponically on the deck? We have lots of decisions to make. This is also a good time to imagine how delicious the first ripe fruits will taste on a sunny summer afternoon, and make plans for what you want to do with the sweet, juicy and sun warmed fruits when they come, because once the harvest starts you'll really have to lengthen your stride to keep ahead of it all.
2. You can't fast forward growth. Have you ever watched a kids show about farming? It does not mirror my gardening experience. It usually goes something like this. Plant the seeds, water it with magic water or sing it a special song, and cut to the big perfect harvest. I know, kids shows are short, and attention spans are even shorter, but it bothers me that they always leave out the every day part, where the plant actually grows and develops over time. We facilitate that kind of movie magic when we go grocery shopping. Stores are filled with all sorts of foods from all over the world. If you are eating grapes now they are probably from Mexico, and over the next few weeks we'll start getting lots of fresh fruit from Chile, where it is the end of their summer. This week I saw peaches, plums, and nectarines, on sale at my local grocery store. Food that miraculously appears out of thin air disconnects us from its growing season making it hard to put a value on our food. How long did it take for that pineapple or asparagus to grow? Avocados grow on trees? Peanuts grow how? That disconnect makes it hard to appreciate how much time and effort went into growing it.
3. Growth doesn't happen without opposition. The middle part of this food story is where all the excitement happens, the conflict. I was reading a news article this week about locusts in Africa. A plague of locusts, will destroy a harvest. If the harvest is destroyed, you can't just plant seeds, sing a magic song and go right back to harvest bounty. There are so many areas of concern in the world today. Australia is in a drought. What do they grow that we eat? We buy their beef, nuts and sugar. It's a good thing we have California. No wait, California is in a drought. Never mind, they're having record rains. On second thought, they are back to dry. I'm sure they'll work out the water wars between the growing cities and the farmers. They're only important because supply us with 90+% of our produce. On the other hand maybe I will grow a bigger garden this year, just in case.
Pick a country that grows food, and I could find you a reason that farming is challenging, whether it is the weather, or wars or political and economic upheaval. Growing food is not a piece of cake. From record cold and late freezes, we move into excessive rain, flooding and hail, followed by drought and fire. If all of that isn't enough stress, lets bring on the weeds, diseases, insects, rodents, and more. Everyone has times of opposition. You have to work hard, pray harder, and count your blessings. Here is one of mime. I'm glad I'm chasing rabbits out of my garden and not elephants! You can't just throw seeds in the ground and reap a great harvest, not even here in Iowa where we have great soil and plenty of rain. Getting a great harvest means, watering, weeding, mulching, feeding, and protecting all season long. Everyday, everyday, everyday! So if you ate today, give a farmer a high-five, because growing food is more challenging than you might think!
4. Enjoy the process, not just the harvest. So now that I've scared you off farming, let me reassure you about this adventure called growing your own food. If you planted and you are doing the daily work, it will work out. Pests eat some things, but not others. A frost will catch some trees, but not all. Lots can be done to minimize risks and mitigate problems as they come up. Do not despair! The middle of the growing season is my favorite part! That's where all the excitement and growth happens. Growing food in a garden is just like a heroic tale in epic literature. The hero (a seed in this case) embarks on this great journey, and faces obstacles and challenges (hungry caterpillars, rodents of unusual size, fast growing weeds, torrential rainstorms). As our heroic seed completes this journey, it is totally transformed by the experience. But even in great literature or in garden blogs, you will find there is a lot of emphasis on the action and not on the everyday effort. They tend to leave out the day to day mundane stuff like "we sailed all day today, and didn't see land", repeated 30 times. Or in the garden version "I went out and watered the garden and weeded for five minutes again today." So we forget about how important it really is, and how much joy there is in the every day routine.
When you garden you get to see this miraculous transformation up close. I love watching leaves unfurl and flowers appear. Growth seems to take forever and be instantaneous all at the same time. You'll water and weed for days and then all of a sudden find a full grown zucchini hiding under the leaves. If you've raised children you already know this pattern. They seem to be little forever, then in a blink, one fine morning in June they turn into a zucchini big enough to be a baseball bat, and they are ready to go off to college. Zucchini seem to grow whether you watch them or not, but kids need a little more care. Its a hero's journey in either case.
5. If you're diligent, your harvest will be multiplied exponentially. Once you have mastered the every day aspect of the law of the harvest, then the blessings roll in. I'll go from picking a handful of tomatoes every day to needing a bin to carry it all. By August I'll have 100+ lbs of produce waiting to be processed every week. The best part about this law is that if you do the every day work, the reward is exponentially amazing. My one tomato seed could become a huge tomato plant holding 40-50 tomatoes (promise on my Bodacious tomato seed packet). That one tomato seed could provide me with 15 quarts of canned tomatoes which is 15 family dinners if I take the time to capture the moment when the harvest is in full swing. One little clump of rhubarb will last for 20 years, feeding my family and getting bigger and better every spring with very little effort if I can get it through the first few years. We're still eating the strawberry freezer jam we made last year and the strawberry plants are already greening up and getting ready to go for this spring. It feels like such a blessing to be part of the process of providing food for our family. I might plant seeds and Steven likes to water, but God provides the increase. I'm glad he lets me help.
6. You have to harvest when its ready, so watch and be ready. This last principle is not well understood as disconnected as we are from living and growing things. You have windows of opportunity with growing things. You have to be ready to move when the time is right. Steven's parents grow alfalfa. They have to cut it at just the right time for best nutrient content. Then it has to be dried, raked, fluffed again if its been rained on at all, dried again and baled, with dew for small bales, without dew for large bales, hauled to the stack and covered all in a very short window of time. Working around the the clock they try to fit all that work into a favorable weather window. The water needs to be turned on again as soon as possible to water the alfalfa that is already starting to grow again. It is not rest time during the harvest. The whole year's planning, preparing, watching, weeding, mulching, and feeding all come down to this time. All that work! Who will get the harvest? It's a big prize. When strawberries, currants, blackberries, or tomatoes get ripe, they are ready to go. Birds are waiting to eat my berries, and rain will split ripe tomatoes. Cucumber beetles and other insects will take every inch I give them, and late blight is trying to take the tomatoes. There is just a short window to preserve the harvest. We can all day and frequently into the night. We run the dehydrator and vacuum sealer almost constantly during this time. But it's a short season. Frosts are coming, then winter snows and the garden will rest for a season. By November we are celebrating and enjoying the fruits of the season. Cooking is easy because its all inside and prepared.
This is not a course for the faint of heart, but there are amazing rewards for those who embark on this heroic journey. We are gearing up for another good growing season. It will be an adventure. I'm not sure what challenges we'll face, but if we follow these principles I am confident we will have a great harvest! Right now, in the middle of February, we're enjoying all the effort we put into the garden last year. Spaghetti with homemade sauce is a super fast meal the kids can make with all the ingredients sitting in the pantry. Spicy green chili sauce, tangy currant jellies, and sweet blueberry syrups are all just steps away. Even though I've only spent $450 on groceries since the beginning of the year, we are still eating very well. Growing our own food has been a very rewarding adventure!
Valentine's on a Budget
I think Valentine's day is popular not because we love flowers and chocolate, but because coming off of the long dark month of January, we just really need to celebrate something. Fresh flowers, even if they are flown in from South America remind us that spring is not far away. Teachers and students both celebrate this last party of the school year because, it means that spring break is just a few weeks away and summer comes close after that. It feels like a turning point in the year. Technically it will be winter for another month, but you can tell its waning. I can find daffodil shoots all over my yard, and the grass has a tint of green everywhere the snow has melted. The irises and periwinkle vines stay green most of the winter, they are just waiting for a little warm weather to give them permission to grow. The buds on the trees are swelling, and on warm days birds are everywhere. The kids want their bikes out on warm sunny days, and everyone is planning their summer activities.
With all the excitement for a celebration aside, sometimes this holiday drives me crazy. I can't be the first one to think that holidays in general are an escalating consumer problem in our culture. I know I am sensitive because I am on a tight budget, but when I was in grade school we exchanged Valentine cards, maybe a few people added candy, but not every card had candy or toys. Cards were the valentine! Now that I am a parent, I feel if I send my child to school with plain valentine cards, then I am the lame parent. Who gets to decide what is lame and why does buying cheap trinkets make it not lame? I'm sure I'm not the only parent who doesn't like cheap plastic toys and candy all over the floor, so why do I sponsor this event every year? That is just the grade school side of this holiday. Peer pressure to conform does not stop when you age out of valentine boxes and conversation hearts. It gets worse!
Valentine's day seems to be mandatory if you are in love, want to be in love, or are somehow attached to someone you are supposed to love. Do they like you? Who gives a gift first? Are the gifts you gave each other of equal value, or is one of you more romantic than the other? The peer pressure to compete on this one day is ridiculous. Whose sweetheart had the best flower arrangement, chocolates, or flower arrangement made from chocolates? Who had the most exotic dinner or most fabulous date or was gifted diamonds? If coming up with a great gift was not enough stress for you, then there is the additional peer pressure to tell the world how much your sweetheart loves you by posting where you ate or what you got on some social media feed. All of this competing and comparing causes me stress which is compounded when you are living on a tight budget. It leaves those without these baubles of consumerism in doubt about whether or not they measure up in this highly competitive consumer culture. Steven and I signed a presents non-proliferation treaty for this holiday years ago.
That doesn't mean we don't celebrate anything, it just means that it takes a little creativity and a good sense of humor to have a good time. Our current self-imposed budget restrictions do not allow for much in the way holiday spending. I have spent some time this week thinking of how we could meet expectations and be socially acceptable, and still stay in budget. I came up with a good plan for the kids. I let them make dipped marshmallows on sticks. I had the marshmallows, I spent some money for the strawberry melts, sticks and sprinkles, and the kids had a fun evening making their own treats. Its a win for me if it doubles as an activity and they do the work. Food is not allowed in elementary school parties so I found unused glow sticks left over from one of our summer activities last year. Amanda will put the glow sticks in gift bags I bought last year after the holiday for 90% off and all her friends will think they are great! We'll have waffles with fresh sliced strawberries and vanilla cashew cream for a fun valentine meal and all my kids will feel happy.
The adult side of this holiday is challenging too. If you are dating and someone brings you flowers or chocolates then you feel loved and adored. When you are married and on a budget and share the same checking account, this expression of love does not feel the same. "You spent $100 for what?!" We have lots of fun and buy gifts occasionally, we just choose not to do it when it is expensive and crowded.
I don't like crowds, Steven doesn't like eating out. Are you prepared for this? You might need to sit down for this news. We have never gone out to eat on Valentine's Day. I can't remember one time. I don't even feel bad, not even a little. I also do not buy him chocolate, and he does not buy me roses or jewelry on Valentine's day ever. One, we're trying to eat healthy, so chocolate feels like sabotage. Two, I love flowers but I really like growing them, so the same money spent on seeds or perennial flowers, or even strawberry plants means more to me. If your asking if omitting these cultural conventions has resulted in some relationship damage, relax! We will have been happily married for 22 years this summer.
If you really love chocolate, or eating out, or flowers, do what makes you happy, but we jumped off this budget train wreck of cultural expectations for holidays a long, long time ago. Turn off the ads. Figure out what your sweetheart really loves. I'd bet my whole budget it looks more like time spent together than money spent on anything else. We'll buy fresh flowers again when the price isn't so high. I'm going to grow a whole garden full of cut flowers this summer, Steven already bought me the seeds. We'll go out to eat when it's not so crowded and cold. We'd rather spend time at home with our family, or loaning out our teenagers to babysit for parents who really need a minute alone with each other. Hang in there, it gets better! Now that the kids are older we can go on dates whenever we want. The point is to do what you want to do and not let advertising or others expectations drive your behavior.
Timing is Everything
Holiday spending aside, how is the rest of our budget you ask? Good question! In addition to the food that we have in food storage, we also try to keep a few months of basic necessities on hand. So if you're wondering how we're holding out on toilet paper or other hygiene items, I usually buy them in bulk so I have a buffer, and time to wait to buy what I like when it goes on sale again. If you've been following us you'll know that I have been making soaps for a few weeks, so it is with sadness and a bit of a laugh that I have to report that one of the first things I have run out of is bar soap! I have hundreds of bars made, but they won't be ready to use for a few more weeks, and since we want to stay clean in the interim, I bought four bars of soap this week.
My son's shampoo was low too, but he opted to buy his own and get what he liked. I like these financial independence moments. Just an aside, He is on a service mission for our church for 2 years, and not working during that time. So technically he is doing a two year budget challenge. He saved up enough before hand to buy his own car, pay for gas, insurance, clothing, haircuts, and other incidentals. We cover food and housing, but this is a great accomplishment. He has about 10 months left to go and still plenty of money. Great budgeting!
I like to get feedback on how we're doing, so I asked my kids at breakfast if they still liked the challenge and they said it didn't feel like anything had changed. That was good news. If my teenagers feel like they are suffering they'll let me know or they'll go out and buy a few treats on their own. Someone is always looking for a sweet treat.
We still have lots of frozen fruits and veggies left. This week my girls discovered our stash of frozen grapes. Frozen grapes are really good, and there are still a bunch left :) but I was really craving fresh fruit this week. Fortunately, strawberries, pineapple, and apples were all on sale. This week's sales are just a hint of good things to come. Most of the fresh stuff I bought this week still needs a passport to get to my house, but soon we will be eating fresh more locally.
I have seeds started in the basement and even though it is going to be super cold this week, winter won't last. I'll have sorrel coming up soon, and the little perpetual spinach, kale, and lettuces starts will be ready to set out soon. In less than a month we'll be planting peas out in the garden.
Next week we will hit the halfway point. Although all the essentials covered, we are running out of fun foods like chips and processed cold cereal so the creativity I promised is starting to kick in, after all, necessity is the mother of invention!