Friday, April 22, 2016


In honor of Earth Day, I thought I would try to post something earthy, so let's talk about compost.

First: my enviro disclaimer:
I consider myself to be a bit of a lapsed environmentalist - it was very important to me when I was in my 20s, so I got a couple degrees in environmentally stuff, and then sort of burned out. I found the obsession of other environmentalists to be overwhelming, and didn't like the idea that for many issues, there just isn't a good answer and tradeoffs were often as bad or worse. I have been slowly trying to get back into the swing of things in a balanced way, looking at one aspect of our lives at a time. First, we adopted a Meatless Monday and mostly organic diet, then I upgraded all of our cleaning and personal use chemicals when I was first pregnant and still feeling productive (here). This year is all about reducing our trash, and specifically compost. I do not want to be preachy - and in fact really despise unsolicited advice -- so please don't take this as a preachy holier-than-thou thing. My goal in most life aspects is to try to make one small step towards doing a better job- so this is just the smallish step for us for this year.

Why Compost?
Generally, most food scraps and yard clippings are sent away in our trash and ultimately sent to a landfill. This is a problem for a couple reasons:
  1. Food waste and yard clippings are currently 20-30% of the volume of our trash. Many cities, and large East Coast ones in particular, are out of places to put their trash, so they truck it many miles to mega-landfill facilities. Not only does this mean that we're turning more nice land into really gross land, but we're burning more fossil fuels to get it there.
  2. Once it arrives at a landfill, the organic materials are covered with other trash, preventing a free flow of air, so they decompose anaerobically (meaning without oxygen). This type of decomposition produces methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, 20x more powerful than plain carbon dioxide. If those same materials are able to decompose aerobically (in the presence of oxygen), then they instead produce carbon dioxide, which is less potent. 
  3. Farming is roughly a process by which seedlings pull nutrients and water out of the soil in order to build big nutrient-rich things like leaves and fruits.  So, the soil left behind is inherently less nutrient-dense because the nutrients are in the leaves and stems and tomatoes. So the farmer has to add back nutrients through the process of fertilization, which can be done with organic or otherwise friendly materials, or can be done with some really strong chemical fertilizers that often just run straight into our waterways creating other havoc downstream.  (This isn't true of all plants - some plants actually pull nutrients out of the air and put them in the soil - but they usually aren't food plants and I would say they are generally not very attractive plants either, so not stuff you likely want to grow in your garden).
Instead, we can take those yard scraps and food waste, let them decompose in oxygen-rich air, keep them out of the landfills, and stick the nutrients back in our yard so that we don't need a lot of other fertilizers. AKA, composting.

look at this fun flower

Previous Attempts:
So I have really wanted to compost for a long time - I actually took a college class on farming and found the whole process to be really inspiring. I waited patiently through several apartment years, and when we finally bought our house - I bought a composter that day. It arrived in early January - long before we'd unpacked any boxes or we'd even really looked at the yard or thought about the garden. I put the massive thing together, hauled it outside, and immediately started dumping our kitchen scraps into it. I bought a little ceramic vessel to sit on the counter and collect the scraps until I could eagerly carry them outside to put them in the composter. I cannot express to you how excited I was to finally get started.

But it didn't work as well as I had hoped. First, I would forget to empty the counter-top container, which would inevitably fill up with bugs and slime. Second, I would forget to water or turn the composter, so it dried out and didn't do anything. Third, I failed to add other types of materials, so the composter started to smell and get gross. Spouso has been threatening to get rid of the thing since it arrived, which is heartbreaking - so this year I'm committed to making this thing actually work.

better soil makes prettier flowers

I really want this to work this time, so I started out with some basic research. I found a bunch of great sites, here, here and here. The gist is pretty simple:
  • You need a space for the compost to go. If you have a big yard, then you can just dump it on the ground or in a fenced-off area, but if you don't have a lot of space or live in a city, then you probably want a tumbler like mine.
  • You need a mix of materials. "Green" materials are nitrogen dense, like kitchen scraps. They need to be balanced with "Brown" materials, which are carbon dense, like leaves and paper. You don't want anything with meat, dairy or animal waste or you'll attract rats, and you do want the materials to be chopped up or this will take forever.
  • For this equation to work, it needs plenty of water and oxygen, so keep the pile moist and turn it often.

A Second Try:
So, with the wisdom of my prior mistakes, I've been slowly trying this again for the past couple months or so. I moved the composter to a new location, closer to the hose so it can get watered more regularly, but hidden from sight. Instead of the counter-top container that didn't get emptied often enough, I've been using a colander. It just collects the scraps of the day and gets dumped during the evening kitchen cleanup, so nothing has enough time to get nasty, and I can't forget to empty it because I can see the grossness clearly. Every week, I add whatever paper was shredded and some torn-up news print, plus a good douse of water and then I give it a couple turns.

this morning's kitchen scraps

So far, we're doing ok. It doesn't smell and doesn't seem to attract any vermin. There are a few bugs in the composter, but they aren't coming outside or causing issues and appear to be the correct ones that are needed for this process to work. If all goes well, I should have my first batch in a couple months, hopefully during the summer so that I have time to start a second batch.

the composter is tucked away in the corner- mostly out of sight

Concluding Thoughts:
The downfall of my early environmentalism was the feeling that you had to be 100% consistent and get it perfect, or there was no point in trying. Obviously, that's stupid. Just because I don't like to eat salads for every meal doesn't mean that I give up vegetables altogether and eat nothing but pizza-wrapped bacon cookies. (mmmm- now i'm totally thinking about it).  Like everything else that we know we should do - it's better to do a little than nothing at all. So, I'm giving this another go and hoping that it works this time. Happy Earth Day!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Master Bedroom Closet and a New Wardrobe

A couple thoughts as spring settles in:

Hello, springtime. Let's talk about clothes. 
  1. Goodbye, Winter Clothes! I don't want to think about winter ever again. In fact, every year as soon as it gets warmish, I boldly take all my coats and hats and heavy sweaters and store them away, out of sight. This is partly so that I have more room in my closet to see the stuff I'm actually using, but also because I hate winter and I don't want to be reminded that it will eventually return. (Actually - it's supposed to snow in a couple days. [sigh])
  2. Hello, Spring Clothes! Just as the winter stuff is getting put away, the summer stuff is coming out of hiding. It's fun every year to pull out the things that were stored away a few months ago- something between getting a bunch of gifts and being reunited with old treasures.
  3. What fits? To make things more complicated, this time last year I was massively pregnant, so none of these spring clothes were getting worn. In fact, between being pregnant for 9+ months, and then spending another 9+ months slowly losing the weight, it's been a really long time since a lot of my clothes fit me. I boxed up a bunch of them to put them out of sight, and now I'm starting to dig through everything to figure out what I have and what fits now.  
  4. Less is More. One of the things I really liked about being pregnant was that I had a really tiny wardrobe (as in, number of items, not size of clothes). I refused to buy a lot of temporary clothes, so I literally only had about 5 outfits- which meant each day I knew exactly what I was going to wear. There are plenty of examples of smart people choosing to have a really small wardrobe to avoid wasting mental effort on trivial choices, so let's go ahead and argue that this is my intent, and not just being otherwise lazy and cheap.
  5. See what you've got. An important part of being organized is being able to see everything you have. You can easily group similar items, and then avoid buying duplicates and know if something's missing. One major issue my closet has is that I can't see what's in it. There's a clothing bar hanging in front of shelves, blocking them from sight. I have a tall dresser hand-me-down with really deep drawers that clothes seem to disappear into. Plus, there are boxes of extra clothes hidden under the bed and various other places - so I have no idea what I have because I can't see any of it.  
The current master closet is this whole wall long, accessed through the door on the left

View to the right: It's a long and skinny closet, with a hanging rod in front of shelves 

So - with all that in mind - I decided to turn my efforts to my closet and the clothes in it. You may remember that our big plan is to convert the current master bedroom, the spare room beside it, and the old sleeping porch into one big master suite. We started it during the Big Renovation, which is now several years ago, when we turned the closet of the spare room into our washer/dryer closet. That small step was a huge improvement for laundry - but a big loss for closet space. We lost a very useful closet that the Spouse Man had been using, so he moved into the Greenroom and I had to move into the closet in the master bedroom. Despite the fact that it's quite big, the closet in the master bedroom is long and narrow, making it really difficult to actually see what's inside - turning it into a huge blackhole for clothes. Our plan is to create a new walk-in closet in the spare room which will be more open and accessible, and to knock down the current useless closet - making the bedroom bigger. I decided to start on making the new walk-in closet so that I could get my wardrobe better organized.

The Long-term Plan for a Master Suite

Step 1. Paint.
I started out by repainting the future closet space. When we first moved in, we (I) picked a tragic shade of baby blue. Then, when the contractors covered over the old door to the old closet, they left the new sheetrock primed white. I figured the new closet needed to be as light and bright as possible, so I just grabbed a leftover can of the slightly off-white shade that we used in the basement.

the corner of the spare room at the start, needing a paint job

Step 2. Get Shelves and Brackets
I priced out the options for wire shelving units, and was surprised to see that they were more expensive than getting real wood - which seems much more solid and attractive anyway. So I ran over to the Depot, picked up some 1x12 boards and brackets,  cut them down to size, and gave them a quick coat of white paint.

Step 3. Install Brackets and Shelves.
Then my spouse very nicely agreed to help me install the new shelves and brackets, which was great since it's easier as a two-man job, and he's not really benefitting from this project just now. He's still using the greenroom closet, so this project is all about me (for now). We just drilled pilot holes to find the stubs, then screwed the brackets into the studs- and then just screwed the boards onto the brackets. We made one high shelf for rarely needed items, one accessible shelf for things I use often, with a hanging bar beneath it, and then one lower shelf for shoes. We added a mirror too, and moved the bookcase that I made for the old office into the space.

brackets going up, saucily

Step 4. Move Everything into the New Space
Very quickly, I moved all my clothes over to the new spot. I was overwhelmed and confused to see that I had so much stuff, knowing that I wear a very small fraction of said stuff. It was clear that I needed to get organized and get rid of some things.

so much stuff.

Step 5. Make a Wardrobe Design Plan
Following my appreciation for a super small maternity wardrobe and my affinity for making design plans before a renovation - I decided to create a capsule wardrobe, if you will. Before we renovate a room, I spend an inordinate amount of time making a design plan. The process is really helpful for me to figure out what we have that I like, what we need for function, and then what looks good and goes together. This takes way more time than you might expect, but it's totally worth it. Once a design plan is done, I have my marching orders - I don't expect to get everything at once (though I occasionally toy with the idea by putting everything in my carts at once to see what it would cost), but I know what to watch for sales and things to keep my eyes open for. I figured the same process would work for a wardrobe too.

So, I scoured my go-to online shops for items I liked, put them all together in a powerpoint slide, and then culled and tweaked until I had a good collection. I tried to build off of the things I already have and like, adding in the stuff that is missing. It's built off a strict color scheme, so that everything goes with everything. I tried to balance the number of items - having more shirts than pants, some long-sleeve and some short-sleeve, etc. I also tried to balance the types of clothes I need with the lifestyle I actually have, (ie, one thing for a date night, one thing for a big meeting, lots of things for the average work day).

My Wardrobe Design Plan
Top Row: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Second Row: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Third Row: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Fourth Row: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Bottom Row: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Step 6. Cull Ruthlessly
Once I had set my wardrobe design plan, I went back and got rid of anything that didn't fit it. Anything that was outside of the color scheme was easy to get rid of. Next were the items that would definitely never fit again (I'm still losing baby weight, so I had to walk the fine line of keeping clothes that were slightly too small and would likely fit again, while ditching the clothes that were way too small and probably never fit to begin with.). Then I started working on shifting the proportions of things to more accurately fit my lifestyle - 5 black evening gowns were excessive, so I just picked my favorite one or two. It was striking to me how out of proportion everything was - I clearly like to shop for evening dresses and cardigans- you'd think I go to a lot more galas than I do. I had to ask myself, "Do I really need 5 blue v-neck sweaters?" (answer = no). I got everything down to a smaller number of clothes that I actually liked, that fit, and that went together. Everything that was culled went into a pile for goodwill (which will actually hang out at the house for a week or two in case i have second thoughts on anything).

Step 7. Shop with Purpose
Lastly, I had to pick up a few items that were missing. The design plan and culling process identified a couple items that were clearly needed, so I made a list. I did some targeted online shopping as things I had been eyeing went on sale, and then I actually went to the mall. I hate the mall, so I went during a weekday afternoon with a list in hand, knowing that I would be in and out as quickly as possible. I can't express how much I actually hate the mall - but there is value in actually trying things on sometimes.

all done 

from another angle

new use for my bookcase

lots of bins for gym clothes

the top shelf is great for things I don't need often

room between the hangers! 

a mirror on the other wall- framed by my race bibs

Concluding Thoughts:
Obviously the new closet isn't finished. This is only half the storage space we are planning on, and it's lacking some walls, doors, lights, etc. But, it goes a long way towards defining the space and figuring out the best layout for eventually finishing it. For now, this is a huge upgrade for my closet space and really allows me to see what I have. Plus, I'm now completely out of the closet in the master bedroom, so I can toy with the idea of just knocking it down to enlarge the room (perhaps a fun idea for a slow day this summer).

The whole wardrobe process really clarified for me that I have been shopping wrong for a long time. Clearly, just randomly ordering stuff that was on sale didn't result in a useful wardrobe - it just wasted money and left piles of randomness to take up space. I'm really embarrassed by the number of items that got donated with their original tags still on. So, now that I have a better closet space that allows me to see everything I have - I'm committing to being a better clothes shopper, knowing what I have and only shopping for what I need. The idea of a capsule wardrobe is to get down to just 37 items. I'm still way over that, but I made a lot of progress. I see this as more of an aspirational approach that will take constant work. While this is a project that will never be done, for now, it feels so much better knowing that I have a plan and a system in place.