Friday, April 25, 2008

Starting a Garden in Your Dorm Part II

The key with potted plants is to start small and gradually get bigger. Planting seeds directly into one-gallon pots has worked out horribly for me. What I have found to work wonderfully is starting seeds in ice-cube trays. Head out to goodwill and buy a few old ice-cube trays, then fill them with soil and put a couple seeds into each compartment.

Once the plants grow too big for the ice cube tray, put them into something slightly bigger. If you cut a .5 liter water bottle in half, then re-pot each section from the ice-cube tray into the watter bottle bottom, it's usually exactly the right size progression. And, since most water bottles are clear, you can see when the roots reach the bottom, and it's time to re-pot.

Once the root ball fills the bottom of a water bottle, it's big enough to put into a one gallon pot.

With a few types of plants (green beans or tomatoes work the best) making an upside-down hanging planter can maximize your space. Here's how it works:

1. Take a piece of cotton around 3"x3" and cut a slit in it.

2. Take a plant from the ice cube tray and gently push it through the hole so that the plant is on one side of the fabric and the roots are on the other side. Whip stitch the slit in the fabric closed .

3. Carefully feed the roots into the neck of a plastic bottle and secure the fabric around the neck with rubber bands. You may want to put the rubber bands on the bottle first, then feed the plant through, then secure the fabric, because you're less likely to hurt the plant this way.

4. Flip the bottle upside down and carefully cut out the bottom.

5. Fill the bottle up most of the way with potting soil.

6. Poke holes near the top of the bottle and string some cord or embroidery floss through them.

7. Find a nice place in the window to hang your plant!

Note: If you're not a big fan of the recycled-chic look, you can decorate the plastic bottle before hand with sharpies, nail polish, fabric, or anything else you want.

Starting a Garden in Your Dorm

Most people who don't have a yard don't even think about the possibility of gardening. At most, I've seen college students with a potted plant or two. But if you utilize your space well, you can actually get a full garden going in your dorm. Right now, I have spearmint, peppermint, lavender, rosemary, basil, dill, oregano, chamomile, cilantro, beans, tomatoes, broccoli, cucumbers, lettuce, and spinach growing, and will soon have carrots as well. (No, I am not messing with you)

Of course, gardening out of pots in your dorm room is going to require some forethought. Here's some things to start thinking about before you plant your garden:

1: How much light can you get?

I happen to be pretty lucky in terms of how much natural light and window space I have. In my room, I have some short plants on the windowsill, and also plants on my desk, which is right next to it. I also have a common room with an enormous wall of windows, and I have planters all along that windowsill, as well as hanging baskets. Not having access to a common room can limit what you can grow, but you can still have a surprising amount growing in just one little window.

2. What will you do with them over break?

If you drive home for summer or winter break, this is no problem for you. But if you fly home, taking plants on the plane isn't very feasible. But do not despair: find a few friends who drive who can each take a plant or two home. If you absolutely can't, then only plant annuals, and plant in time to harvest your crop before you go home.

3. What will you put them in?

You can go to any store with a garden center and buy plastic gallon planters for less than a dollar each. But if you're a cheapskate like me, and a little bit creative and resourceful, you can get all your planters for free. Save water bottles, soda bottles, milk jugs, even Styrofoam take-out platters, anything that could hold dirt in.
Also, if your college has a ceramics studio, go to the ceramics professor at the end of a term and ask if they could hold on to stuff as they're cleaning out the studio. TONS of ceramics pieces are left in the studio by students who take a class and never return to take their work home, and if you're lucky you can find some really nice things for free. But please ask first. Don't just take stuff off shelves.

4. Where will you get soil?

Again, you can go to a garden center and get potting soil cheap. But there are other ways of getting soil. If you only have a few small plants, you can just wander around campus and get a cup of dirt from here and a cup of dirt from there until you have enough. You can start a vermicomposting bin in your dorm/suite, which will give you nice compost and reduce the amount of trash going to landfills. Or, if your school has a greenhouse or any place where plants are grown for experiments, ask if you can use their soil. I know Knox has a compost pile for the greenhouse, and lots of people on campus get soil for their potted plants there.

Next post I'll talk about the process of starting your garden.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Since I've been talking about organizing, I thought I should put up some pictures of how my own room is organized.

As soon as these thoughts entered my head, my camera promptly died.

So I finally got a hold of my boyfriend's camera and took some pictures.

This is my closet:

My Closet

I can't get a very good picture since my bed is in the way, and to the untrained eye it pretty much looks like a blob of crap, so I used my mad paint skillz to make a schematic of how it's organized. (Yes, it is actually organized)

My closet layout

This is where most of my stuff lives. The remainder (my luggage, my fabric stash, and some winter stuff) lives under my bed.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Organizing Your Dorm Part 2: Where to Put the Stuff you Brought

Because each dorm is going to be a different size, with different furniture and features, some of these hints will be less useful than others. But there are some fairly universal features between rooms, so hopefully something will help you out.
Before you head off, see what you have to work with. Many colleges will tell you online how big dorms in each building are, and what furnishings you will be given. If they don't, call or e-mail and ask. Before you get there, have a rough idea of where things may go, but be flexible. Your roommate will have their own stuff, and their own idea about how the room should be organized.

The key to fitting all your stuff in our alloted space is organizers. Extra shelves, drawers, and boxes will be your saviors.

1. Boxes under your bed.
They don't need to be the fancy ones with wheels on the bottom. They don't even need to be plastic; most college computer labs will let you take the cardboard boxes that printer paper comes in, and if not you can buy them for $1-2 a piece. Under your bed will be your "deep storage" space; where you put your luggage, seasonal items, and pretty much anything you won't need on a day-to-day basis. Put the stuff you only need once or twice a term at the very back, near the wall, and things that you'll need to keep more accessible towards the front.

I came to college with 2 dozen, thinking that would be plenty. I now have 45, and could probably use another dozen or so. Hanging up your clothes saves tons of space in your dresser drawers (if you even get a dresser) and it means you never have to dig through to get that shirt at the very bottom of the drawer.

3. Shoe Organizer
I'm a girl, and I have lots of shoes. That's kind of how it goes. In addition, I'm on the ballroom dancing team, and I have four extra pairs of shoes for that. That's a lot of shoes, and I use the floor of my closet already for my laundry baskets. Getting one of those hinging shoe organizers was SOOOOO helpful. You can make one yourself with some fabric and dowels, but when I found one on sale at the container store for $10, I said why bother. It has 10 slots for shoes, but if you have skinny shoes like sandals, you can fit 2 pairs in. If you would rather have that hanging space for clothes, the racks that sit on your closet floor also work great.

4. Laundry Hampers
Have multiple hampers for the different loads that you do. My hampers are just the right size so that when one is almost filled up, it's a full load of laundry. Also, if you're the sort of person who doesn't put their clothes away right after they're washed, or who wears clothes multiple times before washing, having an extra hamper for clean clothes that need to be put away is a good idea.

You also don't need to use them for laundry. Pretty much anything can go into them.

5. Hanging organizers
There is a great variety of hanging or over-the-door organizers for all the small, random crap that you accumulate. Put them on pretty much every door in the room. having different kinds lets you store a wide variety of things this way. These are also quite easy to make, either by sewing or with a glue gun.

6. Shelves or Drawers
These are great for books, clothes, your stash of food, pretty much anything If possible, get the kind of shelves where you can adjust the height of each shelf, or drawers with a variety of sizes, again so you can store a wide variety of things.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Organizing your Dorm Part 1: Taking What You Need

The absolute number one key to fitting all your stuff comfortably in your dorm room is to only bring the things that you need.

While this may seem painfully self-evident, it takes a lot more thought and effort than you might think to make sure you only have the stuff that you need. If you're driving, you can fit a lot of crap into a big car; a lot more than you probably need. And if you fly home, it's very easy to accumulate more and more unnecessary stuff as you go back and forth from home. You start off bringing only two suitcases of stuff, maybe shipping a few boxes, and everything fits in fine. Then you go home, and all you take back is a few favorite shirts, shoes, or books. But when you come back to college, your suitcase if filled to the brim with Christmas present, more clothes, every DVD you own, as if there is some compulsion to fit everything you possibly can into your allowed baggage. I definitely fell into this pattern.

So before you go off to college, whether moving in your freshman year or coming back from break, think about these tips as you consider what you really need at school:

1. Leave the mementos at home.
Graduating from high school is, for most people, an emotional experience that can leave you with a lot of precious objects as you say goodbye to your friends and scatter away to different colleges. Additionally, most of us still have things hanging around from our early childhood, like stuffed animals and pictures. Especially your freshman year, it is important to bring something to school that will remind you from home. That first term before you form strong bonds with your new friends can be a hard and lonely time.

But don't go overboard. There is no need to bring framed pictures of your family, your best friend, and your dog when you can just put some digital photos on your computer to look at when you get lonely. For people with extensive stuffed animal collections, bring only one or two favorites, rather than the whole bunch. Bring mementos that can act as something useful; the baby blanket your grandmother made for you or the scarf your best friend knit is better than a porcelain figurine because you need a blanket and a scarf anyways, whereas a figurine will just sit on you desk and more than likely get broken.

2. Cut down on packaging.
Many people have extensive DVD, CD, and video game collections. One DVD or videogame, in original packaging, is about 7.5 inches long, 5.5 inches wide, and .625 inches thick. So if you have a collection of 100 DVDs, it would take up almost 2600 cubic inches, or 63 inches of shelf space. No dorm room is going to give you 63 inches of easy to access shelf space, and even if they did, you should use it for better things. Rip all your CDs to your computer, then stick any videogames or DVDs into a binder. You can admire all the pretty cover art online or when you get home.
And while DVDs are the most obvious and commonly overlooked example, plenty of other things can be stripped of unneccesary, space-filling packaging to save you space while the item is in transit.

3. Be reasonable about your hobby equipment.
I cycle through lots of phases with my hobbies. I enjoy reading, sewing, knitting, beadwork, drawing, painting, and a variety of other arts and crafts, and I have the whole gamut of equipment for all of them. I brought a lot of it here, and in my two years I have yet to touch quite a bit of it.
Pick the hobby that you like the most right now, and bring stuff for that. Leave the rest at home for when you're on break. Realistically, you'll be spending most of your time on schoolwork or with you friends, anyways, so don't worry about getting bored.
A note for all you bibliophiles: this includes you! If you love books, it can be hard for you to leave so many of your most beloved at home, but you won't have the space for all of them (nor the time to read them all again.) Bring a few for car or plane trips, and the rest of the time either swap with friends or use your college or community library to check out books.

4. Limit your clothing.
This seems to be a much bigger problem for girls than guys, but people tend to bring WAY TOO MUCH CLOTHING to college. I will readily admit that I have far more clothing than I need, and I am in the process of transferring it all back home. At most, you're going to go two weeks without doing laundry (maybe three if you're in the middle of a crunch time) so don't bring more than 14 of anything. That may seem easy, but go through your closet and count how many t-shirts you have. Unless you actively limit your wardrobe, you have way more than 14 t-shirts, guaranteed. You probably have more than 14 t-shirts that you really like. As tempting as it is, don't bring them all. This will also save you the hassle of taking clothes back and forth from home to school, since there's no need to take home as many clothes if you have plenty waiting for you there.
Also, plan out what sorts of clothes you will need at given times in the year, and leave everything else at home. If you're going to college in New England, where winters are freezing, you'll want to have plenty of warm clothes. But there's no need to bring them in August, when it will probably be in the 80s. Similarly, you won't need shorts, sundresses, or tanktops in December and January. Look up the typical temperatures for the time you'll be away from home, and take the appropriate clothes. When you come home for winter or spring break, bring the clothes that you won't need anymore, and take back the ones you will.

5. Cut back on electronic gadgets.
We have a billion of them. Some are essential. Some are just useful. But some are pointless, especially to a college student. If you can get coffee in the cafeteria when you go to breakfast, do you really need your own coffee grinder and coffee pot? If the only printing you'll need to do is three papers over the course of a term, why not put the file on a flash drive and print it at the computer lab instead of bringing a printer? Also, make sure you coordinate with your future roommate about bringing microwaves, mini-fridges, and fans, since there is no need (and no space) to have two in a room.

6. Limit decorations.
A few posters makes the room more like home, but don't go all Martha Stewart. Just like with the mementos, it's better to have your decorations also be functional. The most eye-catching part of any dorm room is the sheets on your bed, so make sure you get a set that you like. They also make a variety of lamps, mirrors, even laundry hampers and trash cans with decorative aspects, so you don't need to go for plain and boring.

These are just a few tips to get you started on thinking about what you really need to bring to school. Next post will be organizing it all when you get to your room.

The Beginning

I am currently nearing the end of my second year as a college student at Knox College in Galesburg, IL. I've found my friends, my scholastic interests, my extracurricular activities, and while I expect that the next two years will bring plenty of excitement and novelty, I feel confidant that I have this whole college life thing pretty well figured out. And maybe I'm being egocentric, but I think I have some useful things to say to the rest of the world about living in college.

There are hundreds of colleges out there in the United States alone, all of them different in some way. But there are still universal traits that bind us together.

1. We live in teeny-weeny dorm rooms.
I admit, I was spoiled as a kid. I had my own room for most of my childhood, somewhere around 15x20, and I kept it pretty full of stuff. Now I live in a 12x15 room that I share with my friend Scrat. From what friends at other colleges tell me, this is pretty normal, if not on the large side, for a dorm room. So unless you've got a lot of money to throw around for nice housing off-campus, chances are your living space is pretty cramped.

2. We don't have lots of money.
Parents are beginning to (or have already) cut off financial support. College itself is friggin' expensive, and more and more students are having to foot the bill themselves. Studies make it almost impossible to get a full time job during the school year. And on top of all that, you want a little money saved up for after graduation when you enter the big, bad world. All things considered, college student usually don't have a ton of money, and even those who aren't acutely feeling the pinch don't mind saving some extra dough.

3. Most of us are hippies.
I don't mean the kind that only wear organic hemp clothing, never bathe or shave, and are followed by a perpetual cloud of weed smoke, though there are plenty of those on most college campuses. I mean any of the children of this generation, who tend to be more conscious and caring about their impact on the environment. Most of us have a little bit of hippie in us, and all other things being equal, we would like to do the right thing by Mother Nature.

With these things in mind, I begin Nerfulness' Guide to College Life, my field guide to living inexpensively and eco-consciously in a tiny space. Because while it seems like these are some pretty severe limitations, you can do a lot of surprising things on a limited budget with your dorm room. So to all you college students, college-bound seniors, or anyone else basically living like a student, I hope someone finds this useful.