What Can We Buy vs. Make? Sustainability Meets Budgeting.

I like to make things. Things I need, that look pretty. That I’m able to eat, are functional, sometimes not functional. Whatever it is that I’m making, I enjoy the process of bringing something new into my life and the world. I also like to budget. When the numbers all come together, and I’m slowly but surely achieving my financial goals, it feels good. Good because I’m attuning to my own needs. Needs for security, if it’s in regards to building an emergency fund. Or needs to live sustainably, if it has to do with me paying off my credit card debt. But when these two areas come together, when I make something that would otherwise cost me time and or money, the feeling is exceptional.

It’s for these reasons that I often look for things to make that are of interest to me, or items and food that I use or eat day to day. It is in this vein that I will be going over some of the ways I make the things I would normally buy. Or turn something already owned that may be on its way to the garbage, into something of practical use. Nothing I’ll be listing here is new by any means, but it may be helpful to get a run down of how someone else puts sustainable, practical, practices into use. And maybe open the valve for your creative juices to start flowing. Let’s get started!

Most of what I make is related to my food consumption. I’m a baker by trade, so I don’t make a lot of bread at home, but I’m always looking to create something delicious to snack on or drink. I made a lot of beer in my early thirties. Clones of brews I liked, some that were staples, like IPAs and Belgiens, and some seasonal. They usually came out pretty good, and it’s something I’d like to get back into.

I don’t drink quite as much as I used to, but there’s something about opening up a bottle of a beer you crafted that feels special. The time, thought and energy you put into its making, mixed with the some of the varieties of specialty ingredients that are available to the home brewer to give your brew that special twist that makes it yours, is comforting. Plus they’re great little gifts for friends and family. There’s also a large community of homebrewers out there willing to help one another along the way. If you’re interested, check out Homebrew Talk, there are loads of recipes and advice for the new or seasoned brewer.

Also, the time spent making it has a unique feel. It’s like being in a science lab that’s been draped in old and colorful tapestry. The science meets art aspect of brewing is appealing to me because it’s creating something as you would in a lab, but enlisting the senses to bring it together the way you would your favorite meal. The elements, fire and water, but also the equipment and live cultures of yeast bubbling away that will soon turn the wort into something satisfying to the taste buds, that bring the whole experience together. There’s also the added benefit of its cost.

For the quality of beer you’re producing, you are saving loads of money. Some of the clone recipes are spot on, and if you drink occasionally, then it’s a great way to have some quality brew on hand for when you have company over, or to get in the habit of having a rotating selection of seasonal brews that will bring another dimension to your enjoyment of the time of year.

There is a lot that goes into it, so be prepared to spend some time doing the research if you decide to dive in. I once had a batch explode on me. Luckily it was in the closet, but I found shards of glass sticking out of the wall. They call those bottle bombs, which happens during the bottle conditioning phase if you put too much priming sugar in before bottling. I’m not saying this to deter you in any way, just as a reminder of how important it is to become familiar with the process.

Repurposing old furniture can be a rewarding experience. If you have a few tools and the creativity to see new purpose for old pieces. I was rooting around in my basement not too long ago when I found the bamboo bottom of an old dish strainer. I was going to throw it away when I realized it was durable, water resistant, and made for drainage. So I thought I’d use it to some degree for my house plants. I brought the piece upstairs, left it on a chair, didn’t have time for the plants and the bamboo strainer started collecting things, as things that lay around are apt to do.

It was collecting linens, towels and face clothes, to be more specific, and I enjoyed the aesthetic of the white towels on the bamboo “shelf”. So I decided to keep it as a linens shelf and find similar pieces to create an open storage concept. With the light wooden tones that remind me of a spa, a piece of “would be garbage” turned into something aesthetically pleasing, and functional as well. All I need are a few candles, a diffuser and some ambient lighting and I’m on my way to a relaxing, sustainable and functional environment. My own little spa.

Something else I’ve been making a lot of are bandanas. If you’ve read my post, “Read the Labels, No New Clothes, Well Maybe…” you’ll know that I wear a lot of bandanas. For my working life I’ve pretty much always worked in the food service industry to some degree. And as a result I have always had to wear a hair covering. Since I was already wearing bandanas, being a hippy, I just continued to wear them during work as well.

I started making them not too long ago out of old shirts I had. I used to wear paisley bandanas exclusively. I even made a window covering by patchworked together a few dozen. This gave my bedroom a Boho vibe in my first apartment when I was 19. It was enjoyable from what I remember. But the bandanas I make nowadays are of a solid color and much softer than their paisley cousins. I rotate between four of them, and made them with no sewing involved. When it’s a bit safer to go shopping, I plan on going to some local thrift shops to look for old Tee-shirts that may be suitable to make the jump from worn-out shirt to new bandanas.

If you are handy with a sewing machine, or want to learn how to use one, a project I have planned is to take some of my old articles of clothing, ones that I have a sentimental attachment to (that’s normal, right?), cut them into squares and make a blanket from them. A sort of patchwork quilt, where your memories are embedded into their very fabric (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and you’ll also have a comfortable throw laying around for the colder seasons.

Another project I enjoyed putting together was a wall of windows I created. By making a frame out of 2″x 4″s, and hanging old windows I found and collected over time inside the frame, it created a transparent partition. It had loads of character, while salvaging some windows that would have been garbage along the way. This isn’t the most kid friendly piece of furniture so if you decide you’d like to try it, find a place where it will be out of reach of the little ones in your life.

For the pantry, sauerkraut is pretty easy to make as are most fermented vegetables. You’ll need some fermentation vessels. I use mason jars as they are a convenient size and shape for storage and easy to sterilize. I made this recipe from Minimalist Baker not too long ago, Gingery Apple Cabbage Sauerkraut.

Pickled cucumbers and other veggies are just as easy. You can use the same mason jars and you need only make a brine for the veg you want to pickle. More sterilizing and pour the brine over the veg and either can them, which involves boiling them in water for a certain amount of time, or put them directly into the fridge for a quick refrigerator pickle. And making either from veg you grew yourself is most satisfying and budget friendly as well.

Speaking of veg, if you haven’t started a garden yet, there are few things more gratifying in life. Watching the seeds you planted during the colder months grow and bear fruit as the year progresses. I like leafy greens such as kale and collards. I use these vegetables often. Two to three times a week, so I like to have a few plants going to harvest from.

Other varieties, such as cucumbers and squash, are prolific producers. So if you plant some of theses guys, make sure you have a plan for what you’ll do with all the veg you will be reaping! Other treats, such as watermelons, produce once towards the end of the season. So make sure you are watering and tending to your plants with diligence.

There are so many ways to make and curate the things we need and use. We’ve been bred to believe however that we often must buy the things we desire or need. And if you think about it for any length of time, we live in a capitalist democracy. Sure, we can vote whomever we want into office to make changes to the laws that we see fit as a community or on a societal level, but they’re still getting paid by our tax dollars. And they are most likely being earned at the industries and corporations that are running and controlling the economy of our country.

The prase, “vote with your dollars” has always struck a chord with me and for this very reason. The better we are as a community at saving those dollars by embodying a thriftiness, making the things we need or shopping locally to support our local community, the better we will be at not buying whatever’s popular or trendy because we saw so and so eat/wear/use brand X. And we will embody the spirit of community that’s connected and built from a sustainable place. One that values craft and diligence in the items we use, above those of being disposable and/or with ease of use.

I’m not saying that everything disposable and easy to use are inherently bad. But that’s another topic for another post. What I feel is most important about making the things we use and need is the sense of capability in caring for ourselves and those that we love. And in so doing, creating a deeper sense of community and connection.

So go make things! Enjoy the process. Start a project you’ve always wanted to do or find something you use or drink everyday and see if you are able to make it at home. Instead of saving up for something that’s on your wish list, why not see if you can make it yourself. Who knows what a little research may yield. You may be surprised at how much you enjoy the work and how satisfying the fruits of your labor feel.

Image Credits: “Tools” by shoesfullofdust is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Grow Your Veg! How Growing your own Food Could Help You Live Zero Waste

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing in my father’s vegetable gardens. My love for gardening and veg at large started for me while I was a child in the 80’s. Watching episodes of “The Victory Garden” on PBS and helping my dad in his little garden. I remember lazy summer evenings running around the grounds of an old mansion turned public land/park and reservation. The sun just setting  leaving a soft ambient light floating in and among the dragonflies and fireflies, while Van Morrison, ever so faintly in the background, plays his album, “Astral Weeks” front to back 😉

Okay so maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But the gardens were beautiful. A mosaic of lovingly molded parcels of patchwork land thatched together and yielding fruit and veg of all kinds. It was no Monticello but it had charm. So when I was old enough to have my own garden, a small community plot 15’x15′, I couldn’t wait to revisit some of my fondest childhood memories.

At the time I think I grew tomatoes, scarlet runner beans, spinach, lettuce and broccoli. I added hops when I started brewing my own beer. Cascade I think and there were more to be sure but it was constantly growing and changing. And some of the more gratifying aspects of the garden was when I would harvest fresh veg for dinner or for the next few days.

I was a bit different back then. I’m mostly vegan now and I eat dairy on occasion. Then I was a ravenous meat eater. I’m an advocate for recycling, composting and renewable energy sources, all kinds now. Then I could care less about the state of our planet and its resources. Though one thing hasn’t changed and that’s my love of high quality foods. And there’s not much better than freshly grown vegetables from your own garden.

The benefits of growing your own veggies are numerous. The cost of growing veg is considerably less to comparable buys at the grocery store. You have control over how your food is grown and who you choose to support when purchasing your seeds. You can’t beat the shelf life and you can grow varieties you can’t find at your local store. Also reduced waste by avoiding shipping and packaging. This last reason is one that is priority for me.

If you’ve read my blog post, “No New Clothes, Well Maybe” then you’ll know one of my goals is to live a life as zero waste as possible. This is no easy feat. Especially at the grocery store where everything has been encased in plastic. And I’d like to say that plastic isn’t necessarily the issue. It’s how much we produce and rely on it in almost everything we make. Also the amount of plastic that doesn’t get recycled in some way.

Growing your own veggies is a great way to reduce the food miles from farm to table. Because in most cases the “farm” will be in your backyard. Little to no processing required. Just a quick rinse in the sink and it’ll be ready to eat, cook or store. There’s a great book  called “The Backyard Homestead” that goes over ways to produce your own food in short space and helps you through the process from garden planning and seedlings to harvest and storing your crops.

They cover a lot of ground so it could be a bit overwhelming to delve into a book that is literally teaching you how to live off the land. But the essential bones of planning and planting are covered and who knows what may spark your interest. You may read a chapter on foraging for dandelion greens and develop a passion for making dandelion wine! As long as you know your limits and don’t bite off more than you can chew, books like these are a good resource for discovering new ways to produce more with what you already have and are already doing. Because the more you make the less you have to buy. That means more waste you avoid producing.

Feel as though you are short on space in your current location? If you have a lawn you can do what my dad did and rip up the yard and replace it with topsoil. He has all sorts of usable growing space now. And the garden looks much better in full bloom than the lawn ever did any time of year. Plus,lawns take an awful lot of resources to keep up with and maintain. And with very little return. Half of the resources that go into care and upkeep of a lawn could grow a lot of produce and put a serious dent in your food budget for the growing season.

Of course this idea isn’t for everybody. Some folks love and use their lawns frequently. And if that’s the case by all means, enjoy your lawns. But it seems as though home ownership and lawns go hand in hand and I’m just suggesting that maybe we question the wisdom of this perennial knowledge. See if it’s right for us.

Community gardens are a great alternative resource for those who don’t have the space for their own garden. Maybe you rent or own a condo. Or are in an apartment with no useable green space. In any case community gardens will help you to put fresh veggies on your table. It’s also a good chance to get to know your neighbors. When I had my my plot I would swap gardening tips and get new ideas for planting next season and share some of my harvest as well.

And the location was phenomenal! It was in a small park right on the harbor. A 15 minute walk from the neighborhood where I lived in. Working on hot summer days with a cool breeze coming off the water was a privilege. I looked forward to days when I would go down to the garden and arrange the plot to fit in all the seedlings I had prepared or bought.

If you’re looking for a place in your community to garden this post on finding a community garden near you is a good resource. As well as a quick google search with your city or town’s name and community gardens, should yield some results. The people who organize these gardens are usually pretty excited to get the word out too. So asking around your local shops or even at your library should help to connect you with a plot.

Living zero waste is no easy task. And one that will take a lot of different initiatives to cobble something together that will produce a greener, healthier lifestyle. I’m not even sure this is an obtainable goal. But it’s one that’s worth trying for. I feel that no matter how small the change, every little bit helps. Hopefully more people will get behind this goal and the more people that try, the more solutions we will find.  And hopefully the easier it will be. I’ll share what I find along the way and if you come along I hope you’ll throw your two cents in as well 🙂 So eat your veg, it’s good for us!

“6175 Vegetable Garden at Monticello” by lcm1863 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

%d bloggers like this: