In support of having a live Christmas tree

Cassel's Tree Farm where Ted IV is patiently waiting for us to come get him

Cassel’s Tree Farm where Ted IV is patiently waiting for us to come get him

Our family is lucky to be friends with a family who owns a Christmas tree farm.  The Cassel’s are super nice people and their daughter Sparky is like a second daughter to me since she was attached at the hip to my own daughter Skeetr for many years. We never were sure where one stopped and the other began.

This year we will be waiting to pick up our tree, TED IV, until Skeetr is home on leave from the Marines in California.  Sparky has been nice enough to tag a tree for us so when December 21st rolls around they will still have one for us to come get.

circa 1977 - Blue Spruce and cookies for Santa

circa 1977 – Blue Spruce and cookies for Santa

Growing up my family had a huge blue spruce tree every year.  Dad was an interior decorator and the blue color went best with our gold and silver balls and white lights.  My Mom was the unfortunate one who had to string those dozens of lights.  I am very thankful that TED is not a blue spruce since those spruce needles are razor sharp and I’m the one who has to put the lights on now.

TED in 2010

TED at home in 2010

So we’ll pick up TED and put him in our downstairs to enjoy over the holiday.  Then TED goes onto our back deck where we string him with popcorn and pinecone birdfeeders for the rest of the winter. After that TED gets to become branches and mulch for our growing spring garden.

I know some folks don’t think having a real tree is environmentally sound.  Well, I don’t really see how a plastic tree is environmentally sound either.  Our TEDs are raised on a local family owned farm which we support with our money.  He isn’t made in China or some other country with poorly paid workers and then shipped thousands of miles to a big box store where they put him on a shelf with all the other trees and wait for someone with a coupon to buy him.

We enjoy TED and take his picture and the cats love on him for a few weeks inside.  Then he becomes a home and feeder for birds for four months or so.  Then he becomes mulch and cover in our garden.  An artificial tree can’t do any of that.

And that space that TED used to take up on the tree farm is replanted with a new tree helping to preserve local business, enhance the environment for people and animals and to help give us oxygen and prevent soil erosion.

So, my sincere thanks to TED, TED II and TED III for being great trees.  And here’s to TED IV waiting patiently at Cassel’s Tree Farm for us to come get him.

For the love of the Thrift

Thrift Store, Love the Thrift Store, It’s a Modern Stone-Age Lottery….

Woo-hoo!! Thrift Store Score!

Woo-hoo!! Thrift Store Score!

I am absolutely mad about thrift stores – as in I LOVE them!  The Salvation Army stores are my favorites, but any kind of thrift will cause me to pull over my car.

Last Friday our SAs were having a pre-Black Friday sale and everything was 50% off.  I picked up a few things for future craft projects but my favorite thing to come home with me was the mail sorter above.  I’ve been wanting one of these for AGES but the price tags on them made them out of my league.

So this one was a whopping $3.99 regularly, but I got it half off so for $2.00 this baby is mine!  I may be persuaded to give it away as a gift at Christmas as is since it is in perfect condition, but more likely I’ll be redoing it in a beach theme for my office.  I’m forever misplacing my bills and blog notes.


Homemade Bubble Solution

Homemade Bubbles

After going through quite a few containers of bubbles last year we knew that there had to be another way to make them that would be easier and create bigger bubbles from supplies we could keep around the house.

Enter the homemade bubble solution using Dawn dish soap.

This solution is easy to make and lasts a long time.  In fact, the longer it sits before being used the bigger and stronger the bubbles are.  Mix some up in the Winter as a reminder of the coming Spring.  When it is time to go out and enjoy the sun the bubbles will be ready to float jubilantly in the warm air.

1c. Water
1/3c Dawn dish soap.
2T Glycerin

Mix all of the ingredients in a container with a neck wide enough for your bubble wand and then go out and blow some bubbles!

Lego Sunblock

My wife and I enjoy playing board games together and are always looking for something new to try. One day, while out shopping, the Lego line of board games caught our eye when my wife saw Sunblock on sale for $10 at a local toy store. Not familiar with the Lego games she read some reviews and thought it was interesting enough to give a try, especially at this low price.

In Sunblock players take turns rolling the dice and taking the action indication which includes: placing umbrellas of different colors on the beach or moving one of several trashcans, the large striped umbrella, or their own beach chair. Whenever a player knocks over any of the umbrellas or is unable to place a new one, they are out of the game, and play continues until only one person is left on the beach.

Game play is deceptively simple and we have found you are competing not only against the actions of other players, who are constantly trying to make the next move more difficult, but also against your own patience and dexterity. Rushing to place or move a piece can result in an umbrella being pushed over and that player being out. Of the dozens of times we have played, only one game has ended because an umbrella could not be placed. The rest of the time we knocked over an umbrella. To win: be careful and take your time.

Simple, fast, and fun are the three words I’d use to describe this game. Sunblock has become one of our first choices when we sit down to play a board game.

Pick up a copy of Sunblock and join the Lego beach party.

Players: 2-4
Ages: 7+
Playtime: 5-15 minutes.

Kids and Gardening

Gardening with children has been one of the great pleasures of the unexpectedly early spring of 2012 that came to Pennsylvania.  This is the first year where both of my youngest children are finally old enough to spend time together in the garden where they can be handled sufficiently by one parent.   As either of my wife or I help the children play and learn about the garden, the other can work on bigger tasks like weeding or moving compost.  After spending much time whispering the gardener’s lament, “There is always next year.”, the garden is finally in a place where we will have what we want while also increasing the amount of quality time we have with our children.

The fun part about having the children out and gardening is how naturally they take to it.  Whether they are digging for dinosaur bones, our very own pair of Dr. Scott the Paleontologist, or helping to transplant strawberries, they don’t need encouragement.

Having spent time volunteering with a local community organization helping to build garden space in Harrisburg, children’s desire to be out, garden, do hard work, all while learning amazed me.  Not only with my own children, but also with those children from the city, there was little need for support on my part.  They only required instructions to start the project and they jumped right in including planting apple trees, hauling mulch, or shoveling manure,

If you want to teach children to garden, the job is made easy for you.  Lead them to a space where they can dig, plant, and grow.  With a little guidance along the way they will take care of the rest.

Gardening With Children

When teaching children to garden, there are three items essential items: a hat, sunscreen, and insect repellent.  To make it more fun for children, and so they can emulate adults who are working along side them, a pair of gloves and set of work tools can also be added for little cost.

Bucket Hat

A good hat helps to protect our children from the sun, absorb sweat, provide shelter from a light rain, and overall keep them cooler so they can enjoy their time digging in the dirt. My favorite style of hat, for children or adults, is a bucket hat. These hats, if you haven’t see one, have a vertical crown, flat top, and a uniform brim around all the way around. Usually made of cotton or a cotton/poly blend, they are inexpensive if you buy one new, or can be purchased for a dollar or two at a thrift store or yard sale. My son has at least 5 of these hats right now because of grandparents and other family members picking them up for him when they see one they think will make him look cute. I thank them for getting a hat that will shield him from the elements, and is sized loosely enough that a spare one can be kept in the van for him or his sister.


Sunscreen is a point of much debate among myself and my friends with children.  Which sunscreen is the best?  Which sunscreen offers the best protection? What chemicals are used to block the UV rays?

I use a children’s continuous spray sunscreen, broad spectrum SPF 50, but am considering moving to a cream based product after having problems applying the fine spray in moderate winds even when shielding the can and spraying into my hand to be rubbed on. If you are concerned about the contents of your sunscreen, look for a product that uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the main ingredient. Badger and Burt’s Bees both make well reviewed products and a friend of mine recommends California Baby, Jason, or Alba Botanical.

Insect Repellent

When it comes to insect sprays, I’m not a fan of DEET bug repellent, due to the damage it can do to synthetic fabrics and plastics which seem to be in abundance, or permethrin clothing treatments because of the list of potential warnings. That lead to a search for something that would offer protection and not be based on one of these ingredient. After trying a long list of natural bug sprays, a trip to Oregon introduced me to Liquid Net by the Liquid Fence company, which is based in my home state of Pennsylvania.

Now, I am what you might call a bug magnet. For example, on a camping trip I received over 100 mosquito bites, that I could count, while the victim with the next highest number in the group was in the low teens. Finding something that works is important or I am left to spend another summer either itching or wrapped up from wrist to toe. Surprisingly, after using Liquid Net I went bite free during a particularly bad mosquito season. Since then, I apply this whenever heading out of doors and have not had any serious bites to report since.

Liquid Net is a great product because it is effective, first and foremost, but it also goes on light, meaning it doesn’t leave any feeling of film or residue on the skin, has a pleasant smell, and a 12oz bottle lasts a long time. Oh, yeah, and did I mention it works? Really well. Compared to the cost of other DEET free products it is competitive, especially when you realize how long a bottle lasts. Liquid Net is a good value and will remain my insect spray of choice until it is no longer available.

Once these essentials are covered for you and your children’s foray out into the garden, now comes the accessories that make the time spend digging and planting more fun: Work Gloves and Tools.

Work Gloves

My children love wearing their own gloves because they get to look like Mommy and Daddy as they dig and gives them a sense that they are doing real work, not just playing. If they don’t have their gloves on, but the gardening tools are out, then they will dig in the dirt looking for dinosaur bones or so that they have a deep enough spot to put in rocks and make stone soup. Once they have their gloves on, it is time for business and they begin asking about what we are going to plant and start talking about where things should go and asking what they can do next to help get things ready. If only I was so collected as a 2 or 3 year old. From the stories my parents told it was always about what I could eat from the garden, not what I could help plant.

Finding good gardening gloves for children took quite some time. Once the search was over we bought each of our children a pair of gloves from Womans Work. The gloves come in two sizes, small, for 3-5 year old, and large for 6-9. The sizing is right on the mark. Both of our children’s hands fit in them nicely, even if it takes a bit of wrangling to get the littlest one’s hands in, and there is even a place for the child, or a parent, to write their name and have their very own set of gloves. Then they can get down to hard work while protecting their hands and I can relax knowing that getting their hands clean is one less task when we go inside.

Garden Tools

Now that their heads, skin, and hands are properly protected for in the garden, it is time to fill their hands with tools and set them loose in the garden under the watchful eye of their parents. Finding a good set of gardening tools for children was much easier, and less expensive, than I expected. The surprise came when the Lee Valley Tools and the Small Garden Tools Set. For under $10 you get a set of 6 tools: a wide trowel, four-prong cultivator, weeding fork, narrow trowel, two-prong cultivator, and weeder. Made of glass-fiber-reinforced polypropylene, they are light and easy for children to use, won’t rust, are brightly colored and easy to find if forgotten in the grass, and hold up to the elements if they are left behind. My children have used them heavily without an issue. Also, if you have never dealt with Lee Valley before, they stand behind their products and have one of the nicest customer service departments I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

Teaching our children at a young age to garden and spend time outdoors can lead to a life time of learning. As their parents, relatives, teachers, or mentor it is important to get them into the world so that they can grow and explore. With a few precautions and some inexpensive investments we can take them into the garden where they can play, and at the same time learn skills that will last them a lifetime.

Reusable Swiffer Cloths

If you have one of the Swiffer handles, and it seems like everyone does even if it is in the back of a closet because of having to buy the clothes, break it out again because you can still use it to keep your house clean.  Without ever buying another swiffer cloth again, saving you tons of money in the process.  If you like doing something good for the earth, this will also keep some trash out of the landfill. The big secret is:

Use a Dish Towel

Voila! The convenience of a Swiffer in a reusable form with something you probably already have in your kitchen.  Seriously.  The hooks that hold on a Swiffer cloth are perfect for holding a towel.  Dry, the towel picks up dust, dirt, and pet hair just fine. In combination with your favorite spray cleaner the towel will mop floors quickly and easily.

Using this method has kept the floors in our kitchen and bathroom clean for years, without having to break out a mop.  Cleaning the floors has turned from a project that needed to be planned:  in order to move the furniture, corral the children and animals, bring the mop and bucket out of storage, fill it up, wet mop, let it all dry, move everything back, release the children and animals, into a routine cleaning task that only takes a few minutes a week.

Give it a try and let me know how it works or if you have other suggestions for how to make other disposable products reusable.

Simple Homemade Cleaning Solution

Keeping a house clean with two small children, two cats, a teenager, and two adults, isn’t easy.  Cups get spilled across a table where they ultimately run into a crack and drip onto a chair, a child, and the floor.  Potty training leads to new, interesting, leaks and deposits.  An unwanted meal is strewn across the kitchen floor.  Inquisitive faces get pressed onto every glass surface in the house.  Dirt and mud are tracked into the tile entryway, up the carpeted stairs, and across the wood laminate in the kitchen.

One of the weapons in my arsenal against keeping our house closer to  than pigsty, is having an effective all purpose spray cleaner.  Something that can cut through dust and fingerprints, and finger paint, on glass and be turned to laminate, linoleum, or tile with the next pull of the trigger, and all wiped down or mopped up by whatever is on hand, be it a cotton dishcloth or the cotton/poly blend t-shirt recently removed from a happy yet filthy toddler.

That cleaner of choice is made with vinegar, alcohol, and a little bit of soap.

In a spray bottle, mix together:

1c distilled white vinegar
1c rubbing alcohol (recommend 70% or higher)
1t dish soap

If you want to make this cleaner with something that you don’t have to worry as much about should a young child get to it, I have made this cleaner with vodka (specifically Tito’s, smooth to sip and gluten-free)  before as a test and it worked well.

I should warn you, the alcohol and vinegar combination can leave a strong odor in the air you might find disagreeable, but it goes away in a few minutes.  Because of the alcohol, which will evaporate, this is for spot cleaning or mopping up small areas.  Don’t go spraying down every surface in your house with it, I don’t want you to get light headed.  It may also be flammable, I haven’t checked, so beware of open flames.  I know, it’s a long list to watch out for, but have you read the warning labels of other things you bring into your house?  This isn’t nearly as bad.

Now whenever there is any cleaning that requires something tougher than a rag and a bit of water, give it a spray with this cleaner and wipe it up.  For something that is really ground in or stuck to the floor, formerly chewed then spit out day-old raisins or that sticker you didn’t notice for example, give the offender a good heavy spray and let sit for a minute or two.  I haven’t found any foodstuff or residue that this hasn’t been able to loosen and remove.

Best Lightweight Upright Canister Vacuum: The Hoover Windtunnel Air

Cleaning a house that contains small children and pets needs to happen quick and effortlessly.  Part of my strategy for that is a good vacuum cleaner.

After years of using an inexpensive Dirt Devil, in badly need of repairs, the search for a new vacuum cleaner began.  As an obsessive researcher, I looked around, read reviews, checked prices, and talked to friends.  Finding a vacuum with consistently good reviews, even when spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars, was difficult.  After weeks of searching, and with a budget of $200 or less, a friend recommended that we consider a Hoover, as Hoover was the only brand that they considered worthwhile, and this is from someone who has a family member that works for Electrolux.

The only question was: Why Hoover?

The response: Hoover had the least returns when my husband sold vacuum cleaners.  I wasn’t sold, but after reading general reviews for Hoover, they were no better or worse than the other brands.
I happened upon the Hoover Windtunnel Air in a local store, double checked it had decent reviews, and bought it without a second thought.  On getting it home and using it, I’m very pleased with the purchase.

The Good:

Great Suction:  This vacuum picks up more than I expected.  Compared to our old vacuum, this one easily picks up twice as much dirt and dust, including pet hair.  Pet hair isn’t a problem at all including the cats’ seasonal shedding.  I want to put the fabric attachment on and vacuum the cats directly, but don’t think either one would like it.

Long Reach:  Combining the tool handle, crevice tool, hose extension, and hose, this vacuum gives close to 12 feet of reach to use the accessories.  You have more than enough reach to clean a set of stairs or get at cobwebs in the corner of your basement.

Long Cord:  27 feet.  Plugged into a centrally located outlet, I can clean the entirety of the upstairs, or basement, and a set of stairs.

Washable HEPA Filter:  Replace the filter only when it will no longer come clean when washing.  And it will trap 99.9% of dirt and dust.  What’s better than that?

Lightweight:  Weighing in at 12lbs exactly according to my scale this vacuum is easy to lift, carry, and take where you need, making cleaning easy.

Easy Empty Canister: Unlock the canister, hold it in a trash can, and push a button on the side, and the bottom swings free to empty out the canister.   Clean hands, less mess, less dust back in your now clean rooms.

Brush on/off switch: Transfer quickly between carpet and hardwood floors with the press of a button.

The Bad:

On-board Tool Storage:  Stuck right beneath the cord storage a small clip extends to hold the crevice and combined carpet/upholstery tools.  This little clip does a poor job of holding the tools, and after having the tools pop off every time while vacuuming we now store them in a drawer.  A more secure clip or enclosure would be better to keep these items in place.  Not a deal breaker, but annoying to reach for the tools and find them on they have fallen off in another room.

Items Stuck in the Canister:  Paper and other crinkly items get stuck between the air-outlet cone and the side of the canister, and don’t always empty out, so I have to reach in to untangle them, or wait until they become unstuck with a future vacuuming.  Another minor annoyance.

I won’t claim to be a vacuum expert, and use ours mostly to clean up the carpet, but the Hoover Windtunnel Air offers great features and power for the price.  Refurbished, I paid $120 and get a noticeably cleaner house for that money.  You can also buy them used or new at Amazon.

Homemade Lime-aid goes over well

Ugh, it is hot and humid here like it is in most of the US.  We’re trying to stay cool and hydrated.  I got a good deal on limes at the store and Sheridan asked if I could make lime-aid.  Well, I had never done it and didn’t find any recipes in my cookbooks and didn’t want to run to the computer so I just gave it a shot.  Here is the recipe:


  • 3 limes
  • 1 C sugar (more or less to taste)
  • cold water

Wash the limes well and remove any stickers. Cut the limes in half and juice into a large pitcher or other glass container (don’t use plastic, they are very acidic.)  I used a Pyrex 1 Qt measuring cup.  Add the sugar and mash the limes into the sugar with a wooden spoon or something like that.  Let sit for 5 minutes or so.  Put this mixtures into a 2 quart (1/2 gallon) container – preferably glass – and add water to fill.  Chill.

That’s it!   I’ve been told it is tasty and it is about gone now so I’ll have to make some more.  I want to try substituting honey for the sugar next time since we are trying to cut down on refined sugar.

I had a shock yesterday while strolling the garden.  The plants I though were cucumber plants are not, well, I don’t think they are.  One of the fruits is softball sized, round and looks surprisingly like a cantaloupe.  I have things things all OVER my garden so whatever they are, if they live until the fruits are ripe we’re going to have a lot of them.  I found ten while I was out there.  Still getting strawberries, peas (almost over), peppers and my first Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomatoes.  Not many tomatoes made it past the deer this year.  <sigh>  Still thinking toward fall.  We may build some hoop houses this year.  We’ll see.

Stay cool!!!