Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Container gardening: start-up costs

My recent focus on personal finance has affected more than just the ways I spend money. As I mentioned in my first post, it has also kindled an interest in new hobbies. One of these is container gardening.

I became interested in starting a garden partly because of the infamous 'nesting' instinct that hits many pregnant women in their third trimesters. Unlike some of the other nesting-related urges I've had (remodeling our kitchen, replacing our old carpets ...) this one is relatively low-cost, yet will hopefully improve our living space. Our balcony is sadly underused - it holds our BBQ and is sometimes used to store junk. Big windows from our dining room and living room look onto the balcony, but the view isn't much. We're street-facing, and although there is some greenery, it's nothing to get excited about. I think it'll be much nicer when we've got our veggies and herbs growing out there, and if we plan it well, I think it'll also be cooler. In the summertime the sun streams in all those windows, and it can get very hot. I hope to position hanging baskets and a trellis for our climbers to partially screen the hottest windows. My tomatoes will love it.

In keeping with our resolve to track spending, I've made another spreadsheet to track hobby expenses so that we can re-evaluate the costs of our hobbies vs. their benefits. The start-up cost so far for my garden is $35.70:
  • Soil: $11.97
  • Seeds: $18.11
  • Pots: $7.36
  • Other: $2.24
I have some big pots left over from previous years that I plan to use, but I'll probably need to buy or beg a few more to accommodate all my seeds.

If there's one area that's easy to get carried away it's seeds. Each packet is usually only a dollar or two (though I discovered after buying the first batch for $1.99 a packet at Superstore that the dollar store sells seeds three for $1), but I splurged on some fancy seeds too - $4.99 for a medley of five types of sweet red peppers and hot peppers all on a pre-spaced seed disc intended to fit a 4" pot. Even though I bought more seeds than I really need, I don't regret it - I wanted to experiment with different types of plants so that I can see which kinds I like growing. If my tomatoes don't thrive, well, I'm pretty sure the chives will.

The seeds we bought are:
  • Peppers (Early California Wonder, Super Chili Hybrid, Jalapeno Jalapa Hybrid, Red Bell and Mini Bell)
  • Tomatoes (Tiny Tim)
  • Lettuce (Cos/Romaine)
  • Peas (Sugar Snap)
  • Beans (Tendergreen)
  • Onions (Yellow Sweet Spanish)
  • Carrots (Touchon)
  • Squash (Zucchini)
  • Dill
  • Basil (Cinnamon)
  • Chives
I long to plant Cape Gooseberries, but I haven't seen them for sale in stores, and I'm not quite ready to order more seeds online! I'm tempted to get some strawberries too, but I think I'll hold off until I get the rest of these in their pots. So far my seedlings are growing strong and hearty. The lettuce was the quickest to sprout. I've been told that I didn't really need to start it inside, but oh well - this whole thing's a learning experience!

It only took a few days in my gro-dome before the lettuce sprouts started to push through the soil. The chives and basil were next, though they didn't grow quite as enthusiastically as the lettuce. The sturdy zucchini started more slowly, but is now taller than my fiesty lettuce, with great thick leaves and hearty stems. The tomatoes were the slowest to sprout, but are now the same height as the basil. The leaves are a little broader, though, and the stems are slightly thicker.

When I first started this project, I began with a Google search. In case others are looking for useful advice for container gardening newbies, here are some of the sources I used:
The next step will be to transplant my little seedlings into full-sized pots. I don't really know much about that stage of things, so I'll have to do some Googling first. It's warm enough in Vancouver for all but the tomatoes, I think, and definitely a good temperature for lettuce and zucchini, as they both like it cool.

I've gotten some advice on companion planting via Google, so I have made a list of which plants to plant together based on that:
  • Chives and/or basil with tomatoes
  • Dill with lettuce
  • Peppers go with any of: onions, basil, tomatoes, carrots
  • Keep onions away from peas, but they can be potted with tomatoes, dill , carrots or lettuce
  • Peas go with beans
I remember reading something about 'hardening off' plants before moving them outside for good, by exposing them to cooler air in small doses. I have also seen special plant food meant to help the transplanting process ... but I don't know if it's really necessary. I also know that I need to 'thin out' my seedlings, but I'm not sure when that should happen or how I do it. Clearly Google will be coming in handy!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New beginnings

My husband and I started this year with a resolution to get control of our finances, motivated by the happy news that we are expecting a baby in May. Inspired by personal finance blogs like Get Rich Slowly and The Simple Dollar, we made up our minds to track all our expenses starting January 1, with the goal of finally creating a budget we can stick to.

Surprisingly, we actually kept our resolution. We've been religiously tracking our spending since the beginning of 2007, and each month we've revised our original Google Spreadsheets template to make it easier to keep our eyes on our money. We focused on gathering data, not on making a budget, but we found that knowing our purchases would be recorded motivated us to begin packing our lunches most days at work, clipping coupons and watching prices at the grocery store, and curbing impulse purchases. We also finally tabulated all our consumer debt (a scary process) and savings (turns out we had more than we realized!), so for the first time ever we have a very clear picture of what we earn, what we spend, what we owe and what we save.

But even that's not enough.

Having taken these baby steps towards financial responsibility, we are now branching out into other areas. While I've focused on monitoring our finances, my husband is turning into quite the grocery store guru, tracking prices of our most commonly purchased items (especially meat, coffee and certain fruits), scouring flyers, clipping coupons and shopping at multiple stores to ensure the best deals. We've learned that Superstore, for instance, seems to have the best prices for meat and staples. Their produce, however, is often sub-par. Kin's Farm Market has generally good prices and a great selection of fresh fruits and veggies, but they don't sell much else. Safeway and Save-On Foods seem to be hit-and-miss: we've gotten some very good deals, but you really have to keep a sharp eye out.

We're buying a lot more groceries now that I'm eating for two, and we're eating dinners at home and brown-bagging our lunches. We probably could cut back on our grocery spending, but we really value good, nutritious food. We've decided it's worth it to spend a little more on luxuries like asparagus, strawberries, salmon and the occasional steak. With such great food available at home, we don't feel deprived for not going out. We used to eat out several times a week, and bought our lunches almost every day.

From bills to groceries, we move to hobbies and other habits.

Both obsessive book collectors, we realized we had to purge our library (again) to make room for a crib in the nursery. Whereas in the past we've simply given away discarded books on Freecycle and brought the remainder to thrift stores, this time we're going to try to sell some of them first, to recoup at least some of the cost. Today we sold our first book for $21 on - far more than we would have gotten at a garage sale and with less effort than eBay (and no listing fee!). We've got something like 60 more listed for sale, and if even a fraction of them sell it'll be worth taking the extra time (and keeping those piles of books in the corner of our condo). I do also plan to try listing some of the books on eBay to compare the experience. Whatever doesn't sell online will go to a used bookstore, and whatever doesn't sell there will be Freecycled or Sally Anned.

And finally the explanation for the photo that begins this inaugural post: as I look forward to a year at home with my baby, my 'nesting' urge is kicking in. The urge to start new projects, buy new things, and just generally feather our New Westminster nest is amazingly strong. I've been trying to channel those energies into more productive (and frugal) pursuits than shopping: I'm giving container gardening a try.

It's cheap to begin (about $20 in starting supplies), rewarding and will hopefully provide some of those fresh veggies we just can't live without. I've got several packs of seeds to plant, starting with lettuce, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, basil and chives, which are all sprouting in my seed-starter box right now. I've also got a pepper medley (sweet and spicy peppers), beans, carrots, onions, peas and dill to plant soon (maybe this weekend, if it looks like the weather will remain warm).

All in all, it's an interesting experiment. It'll be challenging in the coming months as our income drops due to the maternity leave, but we've made a really good start at reshaping our attitude towards money. We've both been far too laissez-faire about frivolous spending, and unfortunately that's left us with an ugly pile of debts to pay off. Still, by taking a realistic look at our finances, we've developed a plan to repay it, hopefully within five years despite the financial impact of a new baby.

We've already killed about a third of our debt this year by cutting back on spending and prioritizing debt repayment, while building up our emergency fund and continuing to save for retirement. It's been helpful that we've had some substantial windfalls (bonuses at work, a raise, sold some company shares) but without the internal work to change our attitude towards money, that extra cash would probably have been spent on new computers or a down payment for a new car. There's still a lot to do to fix our finances, but I feel optimistic that we're on track.
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