Sunday, September 27, 2015

Dressing for Comfort in a Minimally-Heated Residence

This is the first post in a short series on ways to stay as comfortable as possible in a minimally-heated residence. For the last several years Mike and I have heated our residence to 60F / 16C during the day (63F /17C for 5 hours in the evening) and 50F / 10C at night for economic and environmental reasons. We even set it as low as 55F / 13C one winter and managed, though I prefer to keep our house a little warmer than that to keep my spirits and activity level a little higher during cold weather.

My toes and fingers turn white and become numb if they get too cold. This can happen in an excessively air conditioned environment in the summer but it happens much more frequently during the winter if I do not take care to prevent it. While I haven’t been formally diagnosed, my symptoms are consistent with Raynaud’s disease, and it isn’t pleasant when it occurs. So the fact that I can manage in a house whose warmest portion is 60F most of the winter means that most all of you can put my tips to good use.

Who am I aiming this information toward? Everyone who lives in a place where it gets cold enough to add heat indoors at some point during the year and who have some control over how much heat is added. I will provide some tips appropriate for both renters and owners and some that are only possible for owners. We have done almost everything I mention, so as always what I share reflects personal experience. If I have only read about it but not tried it myself, I will say so.

Why should I care about this, some of you might be thinking; I can afford to heat my place as much as I want to! Natural gas prices are lower now than they were 10 or 15 years ago, before the fracking process became widespread. But one of the dirty little secrets of fracking is that fracked wells deplete very rapidly, so frackers must find new fields faster than the current ones deplete. So far they have been able to do that, but the folks with the best data and most realistic thinking on the issue suggest that within a decade the pace of new wells being brought online won’t be able to offset the depletion of old wells. We’ll likely see a period of volatile pricing around that time, maybe earlier. In addition, oil has its own depletion issues and may not be keeping pace with demand within a decade or so as well, which may affect those of you who heat with electricity if your utility burns oil to produce electricity and those of you who burn oil directly for heat. Since it takes fossil fuels to grow the economy, once fossil fuel supplies can no longer keep up with demand, economic growth must stop too. When that happens, more people will find themselves without jobs, perhaps with reduced pensions or other aid. They will have to choose what they spend money on, and that may mean they choose to heat less, or not at all, during winter. I’d like for everyone to know how to keep themselves as close to comfortable as they can in such a world. Folks have done this during lean times in the past and some are doing it now; most of what I write here is what I’ve learned from them, and I’ll include a list of references at the end of the final post. I think more of us will be facing lean times in the next five or ten years. So even if you can afford to heat your residence as much as you want, you might want to bookmark this post, or print it out and put it someplace you can find it later if you should need it. And for those of you who are already enduring being colder in the winter than you’d like to be, I hope that you’ll find a tip you can make use of in one or more of the upcoming posts.

Layers are not just for cakes

Whether you rent or own, the easiest way to improve your comfort is to keep your body’s internal heat in and around your body as long as possible. Clothing yourself in several well-chosen layers will go a long way toward accomplishing this purpose. I’ll describe the layering system I’ve worked out over the years that enables me to stay comfortable in our minimally heated house. Even if you don’t need as many layers as I do to be comfortable, you might find that adding another layer or two of the right sort increases your comfort level enough to lower the heating temperature, saving you more money than you spent on the clothing if you pay for your heat. And you can take the clothing with you should you move.

The innermost layer: long underwear

If you aren’t already wearing long underwear, I suggest getting a pair and trying it under what you usually wear. Some of you may find that it is the only extra layer you need. For me, it is the first layer of defense against cold air.

The cotton thermal weave type is readily available and is the cheapest, but it is not the best choice if you can afford something warmer. While the thermal weave helps to trap and hold warm air around you as long as it is dry, wet cotton clothing will make you feel colder rather than warmer. (That’s why cotton clothing is popular in summer in temperate climates and all year long where it is hot all year.) You might think you won’t sweat in the house, but then you might start doing some housework or you might have a hot flash, and all of a sudden you are sweating. You could change to a dry pair of long underwear when needed, but as many layers as I’m wearing, I’d much rather not have to do that. Thus I suggest choosing a fabric that keeps you warm even if it gets damp from sweating. A number of retailers sell this kind of long underwear, marketed to people who engage in outdoor activities during the winter. The most affordable versions are made of a single layer of synthetic fabrics such as polyester. I find Polartec versions to feel a bit itchy so I choose smooth fabrics instead. Long underwear that clings to me feels colder than looser-fitting styles, so I choose the latter. Some more-expensive fabric choices exist among this kind of long underwear, including silk and wool; I have not tried either so far. The single-layer synthetic long underwear I have is several years old and still in good condition. If you can’t or don’t want to spend that much money, go with old-fashioned cotton thermal underwear. I’d suggest buying multiple pairs so you can change out of them if they begin to feel cold and clammy.

The second layer above the waist: turtleneck or mock turtleneck shirt or sweater

Unless you have an unconventional fashion sense, you’ll want to cover up the long underwear with something more conventional-looking. A turtleneck or mock turtleneck shirt or sweater does a good job of this. They are easy to find at stores and online. If you need to look professional, you’ll probably choose a button-down shirt for this layer.

For several years I wore cotton mock turtleneck shirts, until I learned about the superior warmth of wool. It happened that cashmere turtleneck sweaters made their way to upscale used clothing stores like ScholarShop here in St. Louis by that time. I now own three of them, none of which cost me more than $20, all bought since 2009 but not in the past couple of years, so I am not sure if you can still find them or not. At a different upscale used clothing store I found a white crewneck cashmere sweater for $35. These have become my second layer of choice. They are warm, lightweight, and good-looking. They do need to be hand-washed and line-dried, however. That’s why I own multiple such sweaters. I minimize how often I need to wash them by allowing the one I had previously worn to air out for a day to a few days before I put it back in the closet. Doing that, I can get several wearings out of it before it needs to be washed. To cut down on insect problems, I use cedar blocks that hang on either side of my collection of cashmere sweaters. I have mended holes in some of the sweaters, using cotton thread that is a close match in color. The cashmere layer made enough of a difference for me to recommend it if you can afford it. If you’d like to try it, check out upscale used clothing stores to see if you can find them there. I’ve yet to see one in the more common thrift stores, although they are good places to find other good used clothing, and you might get lucky. However, you can get by with a cotton shirt for this layer as long as you wear warmer, looser layers on top of it and change it if it gets damp from sweat.

The third layer: a heavy sweater or sweatshirt

For this layer I choose a wool or acrylic sweater. I used to use a cotton sweater for this layer, but once I tried a wool sweater instead, I found it kept me warmer than a cotton sweater did. I found the three wool sweaters I have at ScholarShop, but because this layer is of a more readily available wool than cashmere, you may have more luck finding them at thrift stores. You can find these easily new (some of them claim to be machine-washable) but those you find in thrift stores will be much more affordable. If you’re layering it over long underwear and a shirt like I am, you’ll want to buy a size larger than you would if you were wearing it over just one layer. The larger size will slip over the rest of the layers and trap some more warm air closer to your body. If you don’t like wool, I have found that acrylic sweaters are almost as warm. If the second layer you chose is cotton, it’s best to choose acrylic or wool for this layer, in my experience. Most of the time I choose for this and the layer beneath it to be wool for maximum warmth. But if all you have or can get for this layer is a fleecy sweatshirt, hooded or not, it will serve.

The fourth layer: a fleece-lined vest

Once the inside temperature drops under 65F, I’m ready to add another layer to the three layers above. Several years ago my mother-in-law gave me a fleece-lined quilted cotton vest, and it has become the fourth layer of my five-layer system. It’s large enough to go over the three layers below it, and it keeps more warmth in my trunk, which helps warm up the blood as it returns from my extremities. It’s still in very good shape and I should get many more years of use out of it. I found different versions of fleece and down lined vests at L. L. Bean’s website, which I mention only because it suggests that different styles of vests should be widely available. If I find a wool vest in a thrift store I might buy it, but the fleece-lined cotton vest I have seems to be good enough at this point.

The fifth layer: a large hooded sweatshirt or fleecy hooded shirt

Major requirements for this layer are that it be large enough to fit over all the other layers and that it have a hood to keep my head warm. The other thing I hope to find in this layer is that it’s free or very cheap, to offset the cost of the other layers. My mom gave me two sweatshirts she didn’t want, and I found a fleecy zippered jacket with a hood at ScholarShop that I use for this layer. I’ve seen plenty of sweatshirts at thrift stores that should work fine. A fleece-lined flannel shirt or heavy wool shirt would also work for this layer.

Below the waist: long underwear and fleece-lined jeans

Jeans that aren’t lined just don’t cut it for me in a 60F house, even with long underwear worn underneath them. Thick, warm sweatpants worn over the long underwear are warm enough but don’t fit my sense of style if someone other than Mike will see them. I’ve found that lined jeans worn over long underwear keep my legs acceptably warm, and jeans wear well in most places I go. I find fleece-lined jeans to be warmer than flannel-lined jeans. I always buy them from L. L. Bean, which gives you an idea of my fashion sense, but experience shows that they fit me well and last for several years, so they are in my opinion worth the price. I use older pairs for gardening and other grubby work so the younger pairs stay good-looking longer. Wool pants might also work for this layer, but I haven't seen them in thrift stores and they cost more than I want to spend to buy new.

On my head: one or more hats

The people who told you that a hat will keep your feet warm weren’t kidding, even though you may have thought they lacked fashion sense (who likes hat hair? Not me). However, even though hat hair offends my fashion sense, the rest of me wants that hat on when it’s cold in the house! Brains suck up a lot of blood for their volume. While hair has some insulating value, it isn’t insulating enough for me when it’s cold, and some of you may not have any hair to help insulate your brain against heat loss. Heat lost out of your head translates to cold hands and feet. The solution: a hat, or more than one. That’s why the fifth layer in my winter clothing system is hooded and I wear that hood in the house. When the house is only 60F, I like to have another hat underneath the hood for extra warmth. The one I use is an alpaca wool cap, but a cotton or wool watch-style cap is readily available and cheaper. Mike usually wears a watch cap, often one he’s found while walking, under the hood of his sweatshirt in the winter. (We often wonder how the clothing we find in the streets got there. But maybe it’s better not to ask.)

On my hands: fingerless gloves and/or mittens

Wool mittens would be the best choice to keep my hands warm in a cold house, but they cut down on dexterity too much, as do full-fingered gloves (ever try to turn the pages of a book while you are wearing mittens or gloves?). So I wear fingerless cotton knit gloves that a friend of mine found at a dollar store and gave me as a gift. My hands still get cold, but not as cold as they would without the gloves. When I saw a pair of wool fingerless mittens in a catalog I bought them, hoping that by layering them over the fingerless gloves I could keep my hands warmer. But it turned out that cold air could still flow through the opening for my fingers. Of all the aspects of my winter dressing system, this layer is the least satisfactory. I’ll keep searching for a better solution as I do the best I can with the fingerless gloves and mittens.

On my feet: wool socks and over-the-ankle slippers

Since my feet are farther from my heart than any other part of my body, they are the coldest part of my body in the winter. Keeping a hat on keeps my feet a little less cold, but they still need extra help.  Luckily they are easier to find proper clothing for and still keep their essential functions than are my hands.

Wool socks are my friends in the winter. But not just any old wool sock. I have two pairs of single-layer wool socks that I wear in spring and fall for a little extra warmth. However, in the winter I need the equivalent of a layer of insulation inside my socks. The socks I now have and like very much are the Killington Hiker socks from Maggie’s Organics. You may be able to find similar socks at sporting-goods retailers. On top of these I wear bootie-style insulated fleece slippers so I can pull my jeans down over the booties, keeping cold air from falling down into the slippers. This combination is better than anything I’ve yet found for keeping my feet reasonably warm in a cold house at a price I am willing to pay.

In the next post, we’ll start moving away from our clothing to consider other ways to keep ourselves tolerably warm in a minimally-heated residence.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Autumn work

With the autumnal equinox less than a week away, the wildflowers of autumn are in full bloom. I took these photos in various parts of our yard so that I can share their beauty with you.
The yellow flower in the middle is showy goldenrod, and it lives up to its name!
These are woodland asters. The delicate, small blue flowers are among my favorites.
This is yet another member of the aster family, as are the two previous flowers.

Planting is done now except for cover crops, due to be sown as I clear off beds over the next few weeks, and garlic and potato onions, which will be planted around the end of October or early November. I enjoy the slower pace of garden work in early autumn. This week I harvested nine good-sized butternut squash, the first-planted of the four beds of popcorn, and, for the second time, the dry pods of blackeyed peas. I also harvested about two pounds of arugula, with a good deal more remaining to be harvested. At least I can grow one good salad crop during autumn! Even better, arugula will remain usable into December, possibly January if winter is warmer than usual.

Speaking of winter, it isn’t all that far off, only about two months away. With that in mind, I began making the glassed-in front porch ready to receive the container plants that spend the warm months on our patio. I have already moved a few plants to it and have seedlings of calendula in process for flowers during the winter. I expect to move most of the rest of the patio plants to the front porch over the next week or so. Although our first frost is probably still a few weeks off, I’d rather not have to move all the plants in a hurry, perhaps during bad weather.

Meanwhile, Mike has begun to frame-in the woodshed that will provide wood for the wood stove we bought and had installed late last autumn. Rather than chuck any old piece of wood into the stove, we intend to burn dry, properly seasoned wood. By doing so, we minimize the risk of creosote formation in the chimney as well as minimize the pollutants produced when wood is burned in a careless way. Thus, the woodshed will be roofed over to keep the rain off and have open walls to allow air to pass through to dry the wood. We have some wood stacked up elsewhere in the yard under a tarp, waiting for the woodshed to be finished. Most of it is from the silver maple tree that we had removed in 2012, where the garden shed now stands. The rest of it is from large shrubs and small trees I’ve removed and limbs that have fallen on our yard or on the lot to our west, where no one currently lives. As my shrubs and trees grow larger, some of the prunings are large enough to burn, as kindling if nothing else. Later on, I intend to try coppicing some of the larger trees in our back yard. Our goal is to minimize the use of purchased firewood. Mike will process all the wood with human-powered tools, including a hydraulic human-powered wood splitter that works well! I’ll talk more about the wood stove later on, after we have more experience with it.

In the meantime, I am writing the first of a short series of posts on keeping warm in a minimally-heated residence. I don’t know yet if these will be the weekly post for the next few weeks or if I will put them up in between these a-week-in-the-life-of posts. While I work on that series, I wish all of you in the northern hemisphere an enjoyable autumn equinox, and an enjoyable spring equinox to those of you in the southern hemisphere!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Homegrown meals

Blogger seems to be behaving better today, allowing me to import images again. Above is Autumn Joy sedum. Although my point-and-shoot digital camera doesn’t have the resolution to show them, bees are busy working the flowers.

As we leave summer behind, the planting decisions I made last winter and the combination of my actions to prepare, plant, and weed beds along with Nature’s provision of air, sunshine, water, and soil have produced enough food so that some of our meals are now almost entirely homegrown. This week I’ll share with you what we’ve been eating and how that will change over the next few days and weeks.

For the salad course, Mike, our primary household cook, has been preparing a mix of homegrown ripe sweet peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, and onions for about the last month. Not all of these have been featured in every salad but the base has been peppers, cucumbers, and onions along with whatever of the others we’ve had on hand when the salad was prepared. It’s been a good year for each of these three crops; even though the red and yellow onion crop suffered from the excessive June and early July rains, we have some remaining and I have more than enough potato onions (a multiplying, perennial onion that tastes the same as yellow onions) to provide all the onions we’ll need into winter and perhaps next spring.

Now, however, the squash bugs and the hot, dry weather of late August and early September have put an end to the cucumbers and nearly so to the zucchini, and the small carrot harvest has been eaten. To compensate, however, the arugula has grown enough to be included in our salads. The only issue with it is thinning and eating it fast enough to allow the remaining arugula to grow on and to avoid having any harvested arugula go bad before we can eat it. By necessity, those who have a big garden have to plan the kinds and amounts of crops grown to provide an ongoing harvest and also must put in the time in the kitchen to convert the harvest into food on the plate.

For the main dish on our homegrown meal days, we are eating snap beans and potatoes in some form. It has been several years since I grew a successful snap bean crop, so I had almost forgotten how much a good stand of pole snap beans can produce. About 3 1/2 pounds of the long, flat Roma-type beans, about 2 pounds of a shorter heirloom snap green bean, and about 2 1/2 pounds of a Red Noodle type bean (really a cowpea but eaten whole, similarly to a snap bean) await use in our refrigerator. Meanwhile we have 80 or 90 pounds of potatoes holding in the darkest part of the basement. Mike and I have differences in how we prefer to use these foods to make up the main portion of lunches and dinners. He likes to boil the potatoes and then add slightly cooked beans to the pot with the potatoes so the beans cook the rest of the way in the pot, eating the mixture as a stew. I like this well enough but have a slight preference to eating the potatoes and beans separately. The beans can be boiled or stir-fried; the Red Noodle beans seem to be especially good when stir-fried, in my opinion. Potatoes can be mashed, boiled, roasted, fried, or made into a casserole. A week or two ago, I made scalloped potatoes in a slow cooker rather than in the oven, following the recipe in The Gourmet Vegetarian Slow Cooker. They tasted nearly the same as when the dish is made in the oven, with less heating up of the kitchen and, I suspect, less energy usage as benefits of choosing the slow cooker to make the dish. As I type, potatoes are roasting in our sun oven, to eat for lunch along with leftover snap beans (and there should be plenty of leftover roasted potatoes for future meals). Together, potatoes and beans provide a complete protein profile as well as calories and various nutrients: along with the salad, this is the sort of meal that a backyard garden can readily provide in this climate. We’ll have fresh beans until frost, stored potatoes longer than that. Later on popcorn and dried beans will take over for the green beans, and winter squash and sweet potatoes will join the potatoes. Along with greens and root crops to come later for use in salads and stir-fries, these will form the foundation of homegrown meals through fall, winter, and perhaps early spring of next year. My goal is to learn how long we can stretch out the food supply and, knowing that, modify the garden plan and how we store food to stretch out the availability of homegrown food into spring and even early summer, before summer’s main crop harvest begins.

On September 6, the high was 96F / 36C. On September 10 the high was 88F / 31C. By September 12 the high was only 70F / 21C. At our house on September 13, the morning low was 46F / 8C, a few degrees cooler than the official low of 51F. This is autumn in the Midwest: warm or even hot spells followed by ever stronger cold fronts sweeping through, then followed by more warm weather until the next cold frontal passage. Over the three months of autumn the bottom of the cold spell will become colder and the rebound become less warm, till by late November we should transition into mostly cold winter weather punctuated with brief spring-like warm-ups. We received some rain from the weekend cold front, but once again much less than the official St. Louis weather station about 10 miles away. It’s not the fact that the rainfall varies so much over short distances that puzzles me; that happens often. It’s the fact that starting in June, the pattern has so consistently favored the official station getting more rain than we do. I don’t think anyone can explain it. It will just be one of Nature’s mysteries, even quirks.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The case of the missing seedlings

A little over a week ago, I planted seedlings of lettuce, kale, bok choy, collards, and mustard greens, happily anticipating meals later on this fall with these cool-weather leafy crops as star players. All went well at first; they survived their first night and full day in the ground. But then seedlings began disappearing. Time to put on my detective hat and get to work. What or who had motive and opportunity to kill my seedlings, and how might I prevent further occurrences of this dastardly crime?

Young seedlings can die from a number of different causes. Sometimes they just keel over, in the seedling flat or in the garden. Plant people call this damping-off. It’s caused by a fungus attacking the stem of very tiny seedlings and can lead to heavy losses in seedling flats. This doesn’t often cause the loss of seedlings transplanted into the garden, however, because most of my seedlings get pricked-out of the first flat and grown on in cell packs for a few weeks before transplanting into the garden. Even the younger seedlings I planted this time should have grown large enough to no longer be vulnerable to this particular criminal.

Predation by animals sometimes kills seedlings. I have witnessed rabbits and slugs eating seedlings in the past. A wide range of insects also attack seedlings. Since I have already had rabbits eat carrots and bush beans (a Black Turtle type, for dry beans) this year, and I thought it quite possible that they would enjoy eating lettuce as much as I do, I protected the portion of the bed where the lettuce is planted with Plantskydd, a repellant I purchased from Johnny’s when I discovered that rabbits were munching on the bush bean plants in late July. After I put down Plantskydd according to directions, I observed no further predation of the bean plants, which are now flowering. Does this mean Plantskydd repelled the rabbits? Well, maybe. But because I did not include a control (an area of bean plants that I left unprotected), I cannot conclude that the Plantskydd caused the lack of further predation, only that it is correlated with that observation. Distinguishing correlation from causation is one of the most pressing, and often difficult, problems in science, informal backyard garden science just as much as cutting edge research science. If I had protected a part of the bean bed with Plantskydd and left another part unprotected, and if I had then observed continued predation on the plants in the unprotected area but no further predation on the plants in the protected area, I would have some confidence in saying that the use of the repellant caused the lack of predation. As it is, however, the lack of further predation may have another cause. Perhaps the rabbits happened to find another food source they favored around the time I applied the repellant. And why, you might be asking, didn’t I include the control, unprotected plot? It was because there were so few bean plants left that I didn’t want them to be unprotected and it was too late to plant more beans in time for them to mature.

As every detective knows, in order to solve a crime, we must gather evidence. So I took a good look at the various seedlings, those which had been eaten and those which had not. The first thing that caught my eye was that no lettuce seedlings had been eaten. Hmm, interesting ... the area which had received the repellant had remained crime-free. But wait; so had part of the bed that hadn’t received it. Not only that, but none of the bok choy or mustard greens seedlings had been murdered, though it appeared that a couple of them were missing a leaf or two. Nearly all the attacks had been on collard and kale seedlings.

Now I had a pattern that might narrow down the list of suspects. Investigating, I found that in some cases all the leaves had been eaten off the seedlings, leaving only a tiny stem and maybe a leaf nearby. In others, a withered stem was all that was left. In a few cases, nothing was left. I considered what suspects might act in this way. In those cases where the stem had the leaves eaten off, it seemed likely that a leaf-eating predator was responsible, though I didn’t have enough evidence to finger the culprit. But it might not have been the only criminal. Nor could I think of a predator that would eat only kale and collards and not eat mustard greens or bok choy. Nevertheless, it seemed wise to put a repellant on all the remaining seedlings, one which would discourage insects and slugs as well as mammals. I chose diatomaceous earth (DE), a powder made from the fossilized shells of tiny sea creatures called diatoms, since it is allowed in organic production. As for how it works, let’s let Wikipedia weigh in: “The fine powder absorbs lipids from the waxy outer layer of insects' exoskeletons, causing them to dehydrate. Arthropods die as a result of the water pressure deficiency, based on Fick's law of diffusion. This also works against gastropods and is commonly employed in gardening to defeat slugs.” Mammals seem not to enjoy eating it either. So I dusted the leaves of all the remaining seedlings with DE after watering them well. Maybe, if I couldn’t catch the culprit, I could at least prevent further attacks.

Over the next several days, more collard and kale seedlings died. As of today, only three of twelve collard seedlings remain. No kale seedlings remain of the eight which I had planted. One bok choy seedling was also murdered, but all the rest of them, and the lettuce and mustard greens seedlings, remain and are growing. Hmm, the case was more complex than I had suspected. So I looked again, pondered ... and then I remembered something else. Of all the seedlings that I had planted, the kale and collard seedlings were the smallest. When I had planted the seedlings, the weather had been rather cool, but it has gotten much hotter since then (today’s high temperature at the official St. Louis station was 96F / 36C) and it has not rained since August 22. These are not conditions favored by any of these cool weather loving crops.

So we have hot, dry weather and a pattern of the smallest seedlings being far more likely to be murdered than larger seedlings. It looks like we now have two suspects, the weather and, as much as I hate to say it, me. For I was the one who had started the seedlings too late to obtain good-sized plants that would have the strength to resist difficult growing conditions. I think we can close this case.

But I still have a trick up my sleeve: some extra seedlings that I can plant in place of those that died. I always grow a few more seedlings than the garden plan calls for just for cases like this. In a few days the weather pattern is predicted to shift much cooler and it’s likely that rain will accompany the change. At that time, I’ll put in replacement seedlings. Whatever I get from them will be better than nothing. In the meantime, I’ll keep that detective hat nearby. You never know when I might need it.