Wednesday, May 28, 2014

After the Storms

It's been a crazy weather week here in the Mile High city. We've had tornadoes, hail, flooding, mudslides and lots and LOTS of rain.

Hail and Street Flooding at a Friend's House
Seems I've spent the past week glued to the weather radar, but thankfully the worst of it missed my house.

This song seems to have invaded my internal radio though! There are SOOOO many versions of it, but I think Lady Day did it best...

Thankfully, I had the foresight to harvest and sprinkle a bunch of marigold seeds before the week began, so now they're all sprouting and hopefully I can look forward to some color in the yard this summer!

The dianthus are blooming beautifully

As are the iris and whatever those little white flowers are

I started some cosmos indoors and they're ready for transplanting, so perhaps I can dig up a bit more turf while the ground is nice and soft and get more of the yard converted to xeriscape.

And the grass is actually green! That almost never happens here since I'm, ahem, not terribly good at keeping it watered. I think I see some mowing in my near future! I'm gonna need the power mower for this job though... or perhaps a machete?

I crafted some hail protectors from old hunks of screen for the tomatoes and peppers and they seem to have survived it all quite well. We only got pea and marble sized hail this time... nothing earth shattering - or window shattering as the case may be!

Perhaps I'll plant some cucumbers and zucchini this week, but I'm gonna have to sacrifice the volunteer pumpkins that have sprung up.

I'm looking forward to getting outside and enjoying the sunshine, but I'd better do so quickly because more rain and storms are in the forecast later this week!

How's the weather been in your neck of the woods?

Friday, May 16, 2014

To Costco Or Not To Costco...

That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the pocketbook to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous grocery store prices, or to take arms against a sea of small packages and by opposing, cough up a yearly membership fee and have to drive out to the suburbs every month or so to stock up at Costco.

So, for the past few years I've enjoyed a free Costco membership. That is to say, I've been mooching off of my parent's membership. Apparently when you join Costco, you have the option of adding another person on your account, and my parents graciously chose to add me.

It was a good way to try it out, but after a few years, my dad (who is THE most frugal shopper ever) determined that it wasn't worth it and gave up the membership.

So I have a decision to make. Should I cough up the dough for a membership of my own, or just bid adieu to fair Costco?

The truth is, I don't shop at Costco very often. So much of what they carry is problematic for me in one way or another. They carry a lot of pre-packaged foods, which I generally don't eat for both health and allergic reasons.

The produce comes in enormous packages which I find difficult to use before it goes bad - plus, they don't carry much organic produce, and it's all pre-bagged, which means I can't pick and choose to get the very best pieces.

Many of their items are enormous packages of brand name stuff... which is cheaper than buying the brand name stuff at the grocery store, but still more expensive than most grocery store house brands. Wait... I think I feel another soliloquy coming on... "Oh Costco, doff thy brand names!"

But seriously, there are a few things that are cheaper at Costco and which I really enjoy. These include:

Organic meats. 

Since I paid off my mortgage and have a bit more financial flexibility, I decided that one of the things I wanted to do was to switch to organic meats, both for health reasons and because the animals are generally treated better. None of the grocery stores in my neighborhood carry organic meats, so I have to travel to get them whether it's at Costco or some other store, and Costco seems to have the best prices that I've found. Plus, their meats don't come packaged with Styrofoam, and it works for me to stock up once every month or two.

Frozen Fruit and Veggies. 

I consider berries to be one of the greatest treats there is, but they are horribly expensive. However, Costco has giant bags of frozen organic berries at a VERY reasonable price. Plus, they carry frozen organic veggies at a better price than I've found anywhere else. They also have a frozen stir-fry mix which I love because unlike most others I've found, it doesn't contain celery (which I'm violently allergic to.)


Costco has some of the best prices on both cheap and expensive cheeses. They sell a shredded Parmesan/Romano mix that is wonderful, and since CatMan LOVES lasagna, we go through a lot of it. They also have very good prices on regular cheap cheeses.


I don't eat a lot of tuna, mostly because the vast majority of tuna packed in "water" is actually packed in vegetable broth, which contains, you guessed it, celery! However, the Costco house brand tuna is packed in plain water, so it is one of the few brands that I can eat... The only other ones are the sustainable harvested ultra expensive ones that cost around $4 per can. However, the last time I was at Costco, they didn't have any of the house brand tuna, so it may be that they've discontinued it.

Dishwasher tabs. 

This is one of the few places where I am brand-loyal because my Bosch dishwasher really seems to require Finish Powerball Tabs in order to work properly, and Costco has them much cheaper than anyplace else that I've found.

And... that's about it. Although, truth be told, each time I go there intending to buy only things on the above list, I inevitably come home with more stuff, even if it's not any cheaper than buying it at the regular grocery store.

Soooo... maybe I need to do some number crunching.

A general membership costs $55 for a year and an "Executive Membership" costs $110. For my purposes, the main difference between the two is that at the Executive level you get a 2% reward on most purchases (gas doesn't count toward the reward). So... in order for the rewards to cover the cost of the membership you'd have to spend $2750/year.

Holy Moly! That's like $230/month! Even if I did virtually all of my grocery shopping at Costco (which ain't gonna happen), it would be a challenge to spend that much. When I look at my records for the past few years, I seem to average closer to $50/month of Costco purchases - which does include a few non-food items.

But even if your goal with the Executive Membership was just to make up the difference between its cost and the cost of a general membership, you'd still have to spend $1375 over the course of the year to recoup the extra $55 in membership costs. So any way you slice it, I think the Executive Membership is definitely out.

That leaves the general membership. So the question becomes, would I save $55 over the course of one year over grocery store prices? Hmmm... perhaps I should have kept better records.

Well... just for the sake of argument (and easier math) let's be generous and assume that I would spend $1000/year at Costco. That would mean that in order to break even on the membership, I'd have to get prices that were 5.5% cheaper than what I could find at the grocery store.

If I spent $600/year (closer to what I actually have spent there) the prices would need to be 9.1% lower in order to break even. When you factor in the reality that probably at least half of my Costco purchases were made out of convenience rather than because the prices was actually cheaper than buying the item elsewhere, that sorta seems like a tall order to me.

Of course, there are the intangibles to consider. I really, REALLY like those frozen berries, and I'm more apt to treat myself to them if I think the price is reasonable. Plus, having tuna that I can eat is really nice. But maybe it would be more cost effective to just buy expensive organic berries and expensive tuna at the regular grocery store.

Plus... driving out to the nearest Costco is sort of a pain. It's about 12 miles round trip, which I guess isn't too bad, especially if I combine it with another trip, but it's not like I can just walk or bike there like I can with my neighborhood stores. And I'm really not a big fan of driving.

So I suppose if I'm really gonna nit pick the numbers, then I should include about an extra $1.50-$2 per Costco trip for the cost of the gas to get there and back.

But, there is the packaging to consider. Buying in bulk does mean less waste, but in truth, I think the difference ends up being pretty negligible.

So, I really don't know, I think I could go either way. I suppose in the broad scheme of things this is one of those decisions that really doesn't matter very much.

But I'm curious to hear what you think about it. Do you have a Costco membership? Do you think it's worth it?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Yes, It's Mid May - Why Do You Ask?

Well... one could be forgiven for being a bit confused.

This is the scene I woke up to yesterday:

It actually wasn't too bad... the ground was so warm that nothing really stuck to the pavement. I was fearing a lot of broken branches, but it looks like we came through fairly unscathed.

And the plants were happy in their little coverings. They actually got an extra layer since it was supposed to get down into the low 20's this morning.

I'm not sure how cold it actually got, but everything seems to have survived just fine.

Even the uncovered stuff did OK... like the oregano and catnip that I recently transplanted.

Oregano transplant
The herbs have been completely taking over my vegetable garden, so I'm trying to move them to the front yard where they can spread to their heart's content and hopefully fill in the xeriscape a bit. Hey... I figure if they're coming up in the cracks in the driveway, they can probably survive the neglect they will suffer in the front yard!

Even the lilacs seem to have made it through with flying colors.

So the sun is shining, the melt is on, and all is right with the world!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Springtime in the Rockies (AKA - A Gardening Challenge)

Gardening here in Denver can be... well... a bit of a challenge. Our weather tends to be a bit unpredictable, especially in the spring and fall, and without any large bodies of water around to moderate the temperature, extremes are not uncommon here... but they seem to becoming much more frequent these days.

So, I suppose it shouldn't come as any surprise that while last week this time we had high temperatures in the 80's, today we have a big storm moving in and predictions are for 4-8 inches of snow over the next few days.

It's a little bit hard to complain about this since we desperately need the moisture... but... really? 4-8 inches of snow on Mother's Day?

Anyhow, in keeping with my "gardening lite" plan for the year, I decided to skip starting seeds indoors, and purchased some seedlings from a nursery about a month ago. My goal was to keep them indoors until mid-May, but alas - they grew faster than I had anticipated.

So here's where my other gardening challenge comes into play - cats. My babies don't go outdoors, so window space is at a premium here. When you add in the fact that Smoky will eat anything green, whether or not it will kill him... well, protecting the seedlings from the cats and vice versa becomes quite a challenge.

The seedlings very quickly outgrew this first cat protection device. This system had the added disadvantage that the plants would overheat when in the direct sunlight, so I ended up having to move them inside and out every day... and still managed to singe the tips of the leaves on a few of them.

Sooo... then I had another brilliant plan. When I first rescued Princess she was pretty darned freaked out by the whole indoor experience. She didn't understand litter boxes at all, and she had to be kept separate from the other cats until we where sure she was FIV/FELV negative, and if left on her own in a room she would go hide, and I was quite worried that she'd end up getting hurt or getting into some tiny place where I couldn't get her out.

So I bought her a "stress cage" which is really just a big cage where you put the cat with a litter box, bed (in her case kitty heating pad) and food - and you can cover the whole thing with a blanket to help them get over the freakout factor.

There she is in her cage... poor thing, had to have most of her little body shaved because she was covered with so many mats.

Anyhow, the cage has just been sitting empty for the past 3 years, so I figured, maybe I could haul it upstairs and put the plants inside the cage to keep them safe from Mr. Marauder Cat. Seemed like a great idea... only, the cage was kinda... well, enormous!

Smoky rather enjoyed his new lookout, but I decided it was overkill, and that the hassle of dealing with the curtains and squeezing past it every time I went in or out was a deal killer... besides, by that point I'd already given up on the tomatoes and put them in the ground, so it was really just the peppers. Anyhow, maybe if I decide to go all next year and do early seedlings I could set it up in the basement with grow lights or something.

But for the moment... the plants all went outside in their wall-o-water plant protectors.

They're actually doing great... and that's my concern! If they were smaller they'd be fairly protected down inside the little shelter, but they're getting so big that the tops might get nipped by the cold, so I gave them all an extra covering this morning.

The only other things that are up are the peas and potatoes, so they also got covered.

Truth be told, the peas would probably be just fine without the frost cloth, but hey, it was easy insurance. It does feel like I've managed to make my easier & simpler gardening year a bit more complicated though! Oh well... best laid plans...

I suppose there's always the "make lemonade" approach...

So tell me... has anybody else started their garden yet? How's the weather in your neck of the woods?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Bike Lane Pipe Dream

As y'all probably know, I like to ride my bike.

In the broad scheme of things, Denver is a great city for bike riding - especially recreational riding. We have a system of bike trails that run for hundreds of miles over the whole metropolitan area.

These paths are WONDERFUL because they are for bikes and pedestrians only, and the majority of them are constructed right along either waterways, highways, or rail lines - meaning that they bypass intersections almost entirely via a system of underpasses and bridges. It really is biking bliss.

The Cherry Creek Bike Path
The only issue is that due to the nature of the geography, the system sorta looks like a skeleton, with the South Platte serving as the backbone.

So while there are literally hundreds of miles of paved paths that are fantastic for recreational riding, they're not terribly useful if your goal is transportation - unless, of course, you don't mind riding about 20 miles out of your way to get where you're going!

But Denver has really been encouraging people to bike for transportation and in recent years the city has even created a bicycle rental program.

They've also added a whole slew of bike lanes. The problem with the bike lanes is that the vast majority of them are in what's known as the "door zone" which just scares the pants off of me.

Photo Credit:
The above photo was taken at the scene of a fatal accident in Massachusetts caused when someone in a parked car opened a door just as a cyclist was going by. This is BAD... it is VERY BAD, and makes me feel that the bike lanes in the door zone are really not a very safe option.

The other thing is that bike lanes do nothing to address the problem of intersections, where the vast majority of bike-car accidents take place. In fact, bike lanes can often worsen the problem because it puts cyclists right into the path of turning vehicles.

But, Denver has recently received a grant to build a few "protected bike lanes" and I'll be curious to see how it turns out. I think the money will mostly be used downtown, and from what I understand they're basically bike lanes with barriers between the bikes and cars. Something like this:

This would certainly be a vast improvement, moving the parked cars to the inside of the bikes and creating a physical buffer... but it still seems that there must be a better way.

Enter my pipe dream.

So - the background story: CatMan and I went for a long ride last week which took us through Red Rocks, and up over something known as Dinosaur Ridge, which, as you might guess, got its name because the area is full of dinosaur footprint fossils.

We had wanted to ride up the ridge for a while, but the road is very narrow with no shoulder, and we were a bit concerned about dodging cars.

However... I had heard that the road was recently closed to automobile traffic, and that they were basically converting the area into a park, so we decided to give it a try - and it was FABULOUS!

The road is still the same as it always has been, but they've re-designated it so that half of it is for bikes only, and the other half is shared by pedestrians and a little shuttle bus which takes the non-walking crowd up and over the ridge.

I fear I was too busy huffing and puffing my way up the hill to stop and take a photo, but the layout basically looks like this:

The experience reignited a little bike lane dream that I've had for some time now. It's always seemed to me that instead of trying to take relatively busy streets and add bike lanes to them, it would make much more sense to take relatively quiet streets and convert them into bike and parking only streets.

At the moment, Denver has a lot of residential streets that are laid out something like this:

They're not the greatest for bike riding because there's not a lot of room for cars to pass you and you pretty much have to take the lane in order to stay out of the door zone.

But these streets don't usually have a huge amount of traffic - they're mostly used by the people who live there, and by folks looking to circumvent busier streets.

So, what if we took a few of those streets and re-designated them for bike and parking use only using a model similar to the Dinosaur Ridge road - I'm envisioning something like this:

With the use of barriers and right turn only designations at the intersections, you could ensure that there would be no thru traffic, and also keep cyclists out of the path of most of the turning vehicles.

There would still be cross-traffic to deal with at intersections, but that could be mitigated through the use of stop signs and lights, and it would be a VAST improvement over the current situation.

I'm not suggesting that this should be done on all residential streets - just a handful laid out in a grid pattern, creating a system of "cycling arterials" if you will.

There would be little impact to the residents living on those streets, since by angling the parking you'd be able to keep pretty much the same number of total parking spaces per block. My bet is that property values would improve significantly on those streets because there would be much less traffic and congestion.

OK. I realize it's probably WAY too much to hope for - hence the pipe dream part. I mean, it would require a complete shift in mindset, which, experience tells me, is not easy to accomplish. But hey, a girl can dream, can't she?

So, what do you think? Is my idea totally crazy? Is there some reason (other than the obvious lack of political willpower) that it wouldn't work?

I'd love to hear what you think, and I'd also love to hear how your city or area deals with the whole bicycle vs. automobile traffic conundrum.