Garden Quest #3 – Soil Amendment Experiments

The easy solution when building out vegetable (or ornamental) gardens is to get cubic yards upon yards of good soil delivered. Mushroom and animal manure-derived compost are both especially rich, loose hummus to work with. Even in bulk, however, the expense adds up.

I’ve been purchasing bagged soil for most of my garden expansions because it’s not terribly priced compared to small (less than 5 cu yard) bulk orders in my area and the plastic waste can be recycled. This year we’ll have some interesting experiments in yield.

Our one raised planting bed has 2-3 inches of topsoil and compost mix on top of tilled sod. I think we had a little bit of our homemade compost ready when I made that as well.

The second bed is mostly tilled sod, a little leftover potting mix, a heap of mostly decomposed compost, and unburned charcoal in fragments too small to burn:


This shot is before I tilled it a second time.

Nothing has sprouted here yet, but we just planted it a few days ago, so it’s early. I know the soil is poor, but I put pumpkins (a long season crop) and basil (pretty hardy) here so I’m hoping for the best.

We’ve got some helpers in the soil, but not as many as I’d like:


Two of my three goblins are absolutely fascinated by worms, and the third is hot and cold toward them, so I think I’m going to try and find a store within biking distance that sells worms and set up a worm bin or two. We’ll definitely get it set up before cold weather to compost more effectively during the winter (instead of setting the scraps outside to freeze right away) but I’d like to experiment with the benefits of “worm tea”.

Our remaining beds this year will be even poorer. The budget allows for maybe an inch of store-bought compost (not enough of our home blend yet), with homemade compost added over top for a boost later in the season. But each year the soil will get better as we continue composting and raise the soil level.


Garden Quest #2 – Direct Sow Sprouts and Weeds

We’ve got more sprouts now. I spotted the first cucumber two days ago, but now we’ve got at least one sprout on every hill. I’m realizing it’s hard to get the goblins excited when they’re not the biggest vegetable fans 😛

cucumber sprouts

Our first green bean sprouts just popped today. I’ve always loved the way those particular sprouts emerge from the “shells” of the seed pod. So cool.

bean sprouts

We’ve got a lot of critters in our neighborhood, so I’ll be curious to see if we get any chompers breezing through. Quite a few birds have been hunting for worms and grubs. A couple especially fat squirrels poked through my compost amended beds (searching for leftovers?). If rabbits have visited us, there’s no evidence yet.

The peas are getting tall enough that I should probably cut some long stakes soon.


For a sense of scale, that’s a 2×12 with relatively little dirt added to it. We’re trying to do our soil addition and amendment as slowly as possible because we don’t have much working capital in the house-dedicated bucket right now. I broke in a bit more sod over the weekend. Initially I was going to do rough sod planting and hope for the best but I may break down and put a thin layer of compost over the top to start raising the beds and improve drainage. The lawn soil is heavily compacted clay that even professional core aerators barely put a dent in.

I can typically identify most weeds as weeds quite easily, but I’ve spent a decent amount of time researching pictures of sprouts and seedling leaf shapes to make sure I don’t pull the good plants. The weeds in my spinach area have stumped me until today:

spinach in bed

The spinach emerges with two very distinctive long, thin leaves which then die off and leave the leaves we’re used to eating as baby spinach. The weed right next to it doesn’t do this, but the leaves were just similar enough that I’ve left them alone until peering more closely today. There’s nothing quite like kneeling next to your garden and staring for a while.

Eventually I determined a quick, easy way to tell what was salad and what was a (maybe edible, maybe not) weed. The leaves of the weed have slightly toothed edges, whereas spinach leaves are smooth edged. See the rough edges:


Experienced gardeners, please correct me if I’m wrong!

Last but not least, I transplanted a few of my baby cherry tomatoes over the weekend. I didn’t realize how under-developed they were until pulling a few. They were tall but with very little root development. I now realize after reading a bunch of NWEdible over the past few days that my seedlings are/were “leggy” from not getting enough light. All I have is a bank of west-facing (not even south-facing) windows. Next year I am definitely building some grow lights.

That said, they aren’t showing signs of stress, so maybe I haven’t killed them:

tomato seedling

That’s it for this update. I’m pretty pleased so far. My next major decision will be how many additional beds to cut in the lawn and how thoroughly to amend them.

Apparently we live below the poverty line

The federal poverty level for a family of 5 in 2014 is: $27,910. This works out to $2,325 a month.

Here’s what our core expenses are per month:

  • Housing: $1,065 (varies slightly year to year based on property taxes)
  • Food/Household/Personal Care: $450 (does not include alcohol or luxury non-essentials like CO2 for our seltzer machine)
  • Fuel/Repair & Maintenance: $200
  • Gas/Electric: $200
  • Medical Out-of-Pocket: $100
  • Car Insurance: $83 (we could easily live with a single car, which would half this, and may do this soon)
  • Water: $80
  • Internet: $60
  • Phone: $25
  • Total: $2,263 (97% of the poverty line)

Maybe we’re poor, but we stop and smell the flowers!

Quite frankly, this amazes me. This doesn’t include the various benefits (Medicaid, EBT, EITC) that we’d qualify for if our income was actually at this level. And it includes paying a mortgage on a house! Renting a decent 2 bedroom apartment or buying a cheaper house at a lower interest rate (how I wish we could!) would easily get the home expense into the $600-$700 territory. When our house is paid off, taxes and insurance alone would ~$250/month.

Optimizing to a single-car family, something we essentially are already (I use my car only 1-2 times a week and could save those trips for when the Alchemist was home) would knock about $100/month ($50 each from maintenance and insurance). Our gas/electric bill may actually end up lower than $200 a month with our Mustachian usage. It would certainly be less in an apartment setting.

We live a pretty fantastic life. Our kids are happy and healthy. We have shelter. We eat lots of fresh food and are starting to grow some of our own. We live within walking distance of three parks, biking distance of many others. We live within walking distance of two supermarkets, biking distance of countless shopping opportunities. Entertainment is a bit thin, but that’s where the magic of the public library comes in – and the second-best library in the area is a mile or so down the road.

We’re thankful for what we have and we certainly don’t feel poor.

*Regular readers will note I’ve left out all of our debt payments on student loans. I did this because: 1.) they are not a core expense; 2.) based on these numbers, we certainly didn’t need to go to college to support our lifestyle!

Garden Quest #1


Today’s science lesson was getting out into the garden and planting some of the frost-sensitive plants. I’ve got limited prepared soil and no budget to build more raised beds, so we co-opted a bed that normally has decorative annual flowers planted in it. The goblins actually got quite into it.

First, I turned the dirt to loosen it up. In one half of the bed I made the “hills” for the cucumbers and gave them each a handful of seeds to poke into the dirt. Next we set and hoed the rows for green beans. They took care of the planting and covering up the rows. They also “helped” with the watering can. It’s a small effort so far, but they seem excited. I’m hoping it will click more as the plants actually start to bloom and fruit.

Our peas are about 2-3″ tall at this point. Our spinach is being pokey. I’ve only managed to spot one seedling so far. Worst-case, I’ll try to re-sow that area if we’ve still got nothing in a couple weeks. Our cherry tomatoes are small but we’re getting awfully close to solidly warm weather that I think I will risk it and transplant them now versus moving them into intermediate pots from the “jugs” I started them in. I think our Thai hot peppers have finally sprouted.

We biked over to Lowe’s to check out steel prices for Frankentrailer 2.0 If all goes to plan, I will be able to make it for <$100 of raw materials. While we were there, though, we picked out a few more seed packets: pumpkins, sunflowers, and basil. That pretty much exhausts what Lowe’s has that I’m interested in. I might check out some other stores, but the dedicated garden centers are not in terribly great biking areas, so I may go online to check out other things.

What are you growing this year?

When employment becomes optional

We have reached the point in our FI journey that my small part-time income is optional. This initially excited me quite a bit, to the point I began fantasizing about quitting and having weekends off for the first time in 8.5 years. So, I turned in my notice, right?

Not quite.

It’s when work becomes optional that you get to really examine your priorities. What you value. What you want from life.

On the one hand, I would absolutely get more time with my wife and kids. That is a major pro for quitting now.

On the other hand, we’d be back to living close to the edge. We live very simply and continue to remove clutter and unnecessary expense from our lives, but without my contribution – that would be everything. Justifying basic travel like a half-hour drive to a state park would become difficult, let alone the dream of taking the goblins on road trips to national parks and whatnot.

Knowing that I don’t need my job anymore is empowering, but money is a tool. Right now I want enough of that tool to speed our journey to FI and provide cushion for a more enjoyable life without being wasteful or overly damaging to the environment. Not to mention it seems really silly to “retire” (even to being a SAHD) when our net worth still remains negative.

Like knowing whether to finally pull the plug and declare FI/early retirement though, at each step of the journey we can ask “what is enough for the time together to outweigh the money?” As we accomplish each sub-goal, we’ll step back and examine.

  1. Pay off same-as-cash home improvement loan before interest accrues
  2. Retire my graduate loans (~$300/month cash flow gained)
  3. Replace two ageing cars with a single, more efficient, car.
  4. Retire PMI on mortgage ($80/month, lowers effective APR on mortgage)
  5. Retire Alchemist’s graduate loans (~$340/month)
  6. Retire all outstanding debt
  7. Reach halfway point to FIRE, when a PT job can sustain our core living expenses without drawing on assets.
  8. FIRE

At this point, I’m guessing this will happen somewhere between steps 2-5. Our tentative FIRE date will be right as our youngest goblin turns 19. I’d much rather have more time with them while they are kids, delaying FIRE a few years if necessary.

I thought about enlisting the MMM community by doing a case study, but for now I’ve answered the question myself: not yet. It’s exactly what I would have advised a stranger if I were reading their case study.

Bike Errands

Last night I turned my regular ride into a series of errands, one of which I could not have done without the kids unless I used my clown car.

Riding during the early evening is a weird time to be out. Traffic has calmed down a bit from rush-hour, but there’s still an awful lot of cars and work vehicles out and about. I run my lights in flashing mode to be safe, but even if I had a thousand lights on my bike, some drivers just never pay attention to hand signals. Forcing cars to yield so I can merge left to make a turn is always an interesting experience.

One errand required going out into the ‘burbs on an eight-lane (non-restricted) federal highway with massive intersections. I actually got a “whoa! kickass!” comment from some teenagers driving their parents’ minivan while waiting to turn left in a double-lane left-turn. I don’t get why some bikers are scared of these huge roads. Yes, the relative speed of car-to-bike is high, but the shoulders are wide, and with the sheer number of lanes, cars have numerous options to go around you. I’d bike on these over a twisty two-lane road any day.

I felt bad getting to OfficeMax right before closing (8PM). I didn’t even realize it until they were lowering the gates while I checked out. I wasn’t the last customer in the store, but I hate when customers make me stay late at my job so I felt bad. That said, the manager got a chuckle when she saw me loading two 10-ream boxes of paper into the trailer. Everything just takes so much longer on the bike, something I’m still adjusting to seven months in. Doing it by bike saved $4 in mileage just that night alone, though.

I’d really like doing a dry run of being a single-car family for a while and see how it goes. It’s harder in the winter, but last winter was so bad we barely went anywhere anyways – and the goblins were fine. This means doing groceries at the far away store alone by bike one evening, or using the local (but more expensive) stores by bike with the kids since they can handle biking short distances. My current trailer should handle a week’s worth of groceries, but I can always build something like this if I need something more cargo-oriented.

Master Recipes: No-Knead Bread

Unless you have celiac disease or you’re one of those weirdos lovely people who eat carb-free, making your own bread is a great skill to develop in the kitchen. I use this recipe more than any recipe besides my pancake/waffle mix. We go through 3-4 batches a week.

To give credit, this is my lightly tweaked version of this recipe.

Yield: 2 8″ loaves, or 4 baguettes


  • 433g Bread Flour (I buy this in 50lb sacks at Costco)
  • 433g Whole Wheat Flour (I get the best results from Gold-Medal brand)
  • 1.5 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 tsp yeast
  • 709g water (cold to lukewarm from the tap)


  1. Using a food scale like this one, measure out the dry ingredients in a LARGE mixing bowl. You can vary the flour to taste. I’ve successfully used up to 700g whole wheat but I prefer the flavor and mild cost savings of doing 50/50 flour.
  2. Mix dry ingredients together thoroughly with a whisk.
  3. Using a wooden spoon, make a well in the center of the bowl.
  4. Pour water into the well. Stir dough together, slowly working the spoon outwards in the bowl to incorporate more flour. By the end, it does require some muscle to keep stirring. You want the flour thoroughly wet to avoid dry spots, but the dough will be rough or shaggy looking.
  5. Cover bowl with a wet towel and let rise 5 hours at room temperature. Going longer than this is acceptable. I’ve forgotten the bowl overnight before and had the bread turn out just fine.
  6. After the dough has risen, you can put the bowl in the fridge and store for several days, or prepare it for baking.
  7. To prepare for baking, turn dough onto a floured surface. Divide it into two halves. Shape each half into a roughly 8″x12″ rectangle. Fold it in thirds like a letter and place seam-side down in a greased 8″ loaf pan. You can also take a loaf portion and split it into two to make baguettes.
  8. Recover loaf pans and allow to rise for about an hour. The crest of the loaf will be around the top of the loaf pan when it is ready to bake.
  9. Bake at 450F for 30 minutes. Allow to fully cool before slicing.

This is a wonderful bread that requires very little hands-on time and turns out a very nice and tight-crumb perfect for sandwiches but still has a crispy crust when fresh – perfect for baguettes and plain bread-and-butter. Some days I am on top of my game and get it all made the same day, but typically I’ll forget to mix the dough until dinner time. I’ll let it rise, put it in the fridge overnight at bedtime, then bake it first thing in the morning before leaving for work.

More importantly, unlike recipes which require lots of kneading, I’ve never had this recipe “flop”. It’s incredibly forgiving.

Variation Tested 7-1-14: Add 1/4 flaxseed meal. Turned out quite tasty.