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.

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.

Plan for next year, save your tomato and pepper seeds!

Never too early to plan for next year - save those seeds!

Boy was it hard to get motivated this morning.  I didn’t sleep well plus the weather is just oppressive and doesn’t make you want to leave the house.  Ugh!

As I was fixing dinner the other night I found myself doing something that I bet a lot of people don’t think about any more.  When I was cutting up a green pepper I saved the seeds instead of throwing them out.  I wrapped them in a paper towel to dry, taped it shut and labeled them with what they were and the date.  After a few days drying on top of the fridge they’ll go into my seed box for planting next year.

I do the same thing with tomatoes and sometimes stone fruits too – just to try my hand at growing them from seed.

“Way back when” (which in most places was pre-WWIII) people used to do the regularly as it was the best way to get seeds for your garden.  Somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten that the seed sold by Burpee for $2.99 a packet  is the same seed we get free inside our food.

It is true that if you are eating a hybrid crop (and if it came from the supermarket most likely it is a hybrid) the pepper you get next year may not be the same as the one you ate today, but it will be a pepper for sure and the seed will be free.

It is kind of fun to put all your pepper seeds (separating hot and not hot if you like) in the same container and then plant them without knowing exactly what you will get.

Tomatoes work the same way though for those the prep is a little messier.  For them I mix the tomato seeds/pulp in a baby food jar with some water.  I let it sit for a few days, shaking to mix the stuff up when it separates.  Eventually most of the seeds will drop to the bottom and you can get them out to dry on some paper towels and then pack them away.  Sometimes the stuff in the jar ferments and smells unsavory, the seed is still OK but it is best to not soak the seeds in a plastic container since you’ll never get the smell out.

Keep all your seeds in a cool place or in the fridge crisper drawer (I have way too many for that) and next year you’ll be set.

Other seeds you can be collecting for next year are:  columbine, sunflower, marigold, thyme, oregano, chives, catnip, basil, four o’clocks and lots more.

A two-hour perennial bed – how to make one fast

The Perennial bed is in the front - too long to get all in the photo

Last week we had 50 or so perennial plants that needed a new home.  We’ve been having hot and humid weather so I avoided the task as long as I could, but finally I set myself to do it.

Scott knew where he wanted things but when I went to dig in the ground I couldn’t.  It was hard as rock – so…. I decided to improvise.  Fortunately for me we had all the makings for a “lasagna” garden.  It took a lot of trips in the wheelbarrow but that probably was easier than the digging I’d have had to do if I did it the normal way.

First I put down a layer of cardboard that we get from the grocery store.  These are the boxes that frozen food comes in.  Boy is that an education seeing what people eat and how much packaging is involved.  Made me swear off of frozen food.

I didn’t have enough cardboard so I finished with thick layers of newspaper.  You aren’t supposed to use color pages or glossy pages, but if your paper is like ours EVERY page has color on it now, even the classifieds.  So I did skip the glossy pages and heavily colored ones, but used the rest.

The point of this first layer is to block out all sun to the grass beneath to kill it.  Some folks say to poke holes in it for the plant roots to go through but that also means you have holes for grass and weeds to come up so I don’t.  It will break down completely over about 2 seasons here.

Next I put down a big layer of straw, probably more than a foot, in the center of the cardboard.  This straw we bought to mulch the strawberries but we had too much. It was already starting to break down.

Then I put a thick layer of compost over the straw – about 6-8 inches.  I made sure all the straw was covered.  This was the planting area for the plants.

Next came the wood chips to put on the border where you could still see the cardboard.  This is playground mulch we got to work on the yard earlier and it was left over.  I put that on thick to to make sure the cardboard was held down.

Then I planted the plants.  Tansy, yarrow, lavender, coreopsis, shasta daisy, lambs ears, purple bee balm and others I can’t remember.  These were either given to us by a neighbor we found on Freecycle who needed to clean out her garden or they were bought for .99 at our town florist who is cleaning out the plants nobody bought.  The plants from the florist were badly root bound so I had to break apart the root ball and in some cases cut it because it was too densely matted for me to pull apart with my hands.  I also cut off any blooms so the plants could put their focus on growing new roots.  Made them look pretty ugly.

Once the plants were in I watered them well and then covered them with more wood chips to help retain the moisture.

I thought the bed looked really nice for only two hours of work.  It is over 10 feet long and I still have a lot of space to put things in. The plants won’t be much to look at this year, but next year they should do better and spread.  We get nice sun in this part of the yard which will help them.

Hope that helps any of you wanting a new garden bed but not really wanting to do the heavy digging.  This method has worked for us over and over and it makes a real nice looking flower garden that grows well.

Make one change at a time to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly – they add up to something big!

Some nice fruit on our everbearing strawberries

It’s a little after 6am here, a late start for me but it is a Saturday and I was really tired last night. The kids are all still sleeping which hopefully will last at least another hour or so.

Sometimes I think all the things we are doing to live sustainably and environmentally responsible aren’t enough. There is always so much more we could do. But as I sit here at my desk with the cool morning breeze coming in the window I realize a lot of the changes we’ve made and the way we do things do add up to a life that is more thoughtful toward saving the environment than that of most of my friends.

For instance, my Excaliber dehydrator is running in the background. I’m drying plums at the moment for use in the winter in my fruit cobbler. I pulled out kale and pickles just a few minutes ago. Not sure yet what to do with them but heard you can dry both. The pickles are like little bursts of salt (since they were are sun pickles who had a little too much salt) so I’m not sure I can use those for anything, and I didn’t try the kale yet. So we are taking farmers market produce and saving it for winter in a way that won’t require further electricity. That’s a good thing.

Also I just put in a load of diapers. We are still using cloth diapers most of the time and every one of those has saved thousands of disposables from going into a landfill.    We hang a lot of our laundry outside to dry which is probably the single biggest thing we do to save energy.  Dryers use a ton of energy and I much prefer the free sun and wind out there to do my drying.

The diapers are rinsing now but will be washed next with our homemade laundry powder. This actually is not a more environmentally friendly product than regular detergent, but it does eliminate the traveling of water over long distances. Liquid detergents are mostly water and carrying them in trucks from who knows where is a waste of energy. If we all used dried powder so much more could be transported using the same fuel – plus we wouldn’t be loading our recycle bin with plastic bottles. The containers for our homemade soap are cardboard and paper.

Then there is the fact that I have the windows open. We have a ductless AC unit here now thanks to my mother gifting it to us last year and it is very “green” but it still uses electricity. Have the windows open in the AM when it is cool costs us nothing and smells so much better.

Upstairs I’ve just turned off the crockpot which has been cooking overnight with pork and barbeque sauce. The pork was gifted from a friend so there we are building community which is so important to permaculture and the future success of our world. The sauce was homemade and contained no high fructose corn syrup or other manufactured ingredients so we are saving ourselves all those chemicals. The sauce was stored in a Ball canning jar so we didn’t use a plastic container or something else that must be thrown out.  I used the crock pot to save on the electricity of my stove both in quantity and price since I cooked in the off hours.  I’ll pull the pork when it cools and store it for a fast lunch today when we’re busy.

In the hallway upstairs are 3 bags of clothes ready to be donated to the Salvation Army. Sheridan (finally) cleaned out her closets and drawers and packed up the stuff that no longer fits. I have a bag in my room too of things that I just don’t really like – you know the things that hang in your closet that you pass by nearly every time unless you’re late with laundry? So we are allowing those items to be reused rather than going to a landfill. We’ll be dropping them off on her way to school so we are not using any extra gas to get them there. In addition we are helping support the community efforts of the Salvation Army.

Later today Scott and I will be heading into the city to hopefully pick up a new dining room table and chairs. While on our anniversary trip last week we saw it at a thrift shop. $150 is a lot for us to spend on anything but it is solid wood with 6 chairs, and it is in pretty good shape. The top needs refinished but we can do that. The table we are using now was found at a yard sale for $10 in 2001 and it wasn’t good quality to begin with but it held on pretty well. The main problem is we need a larger table to fit 5 of us so hopefully this table will still be there. If we get it we won’t get rid of the old table, it will be turning into a craft table for me in the basement and Scott will get the table I’m using now for a bigger and better desk. He’s using a drafting table as a desk that I got for a birthday present over 20 years ago. It’ll be kept to use as a drafting table for his permaculture designs.

And that is just the things that came to mind immediately, but there are plenty more. We each have choices every day which can reduce our impact on the environment and support our local economy. All these little things add up to something big.

The point is, if you are feeling overwhelmed by all the things you COULD change in your life, just pick one and make it a part of your routine. In a few months when that becomes second nature choose another. Eventually you will have found your lifestyle has changed dramatically and you barely noticed it.

Hope everyone has a great day!

Garden plastic – free source, your newspaper

Newspaper Bags get a new life

When we start seeds indoors I usually need to cover the flats with plastic since I have a lot more flats than I do lids.  Before I’ve used plastic grocery bags for this, but I have fewer and fewer of these now that reusable bags have come onto the scened.  So I looked around and found a stash of old newspaper bags.

Most people I know with dogs use these while they are walking their dogs, but we don’t have a dog and I hadn’t found a use for them yet.  They are really too small for collecting much garbage and too thin for anything heavy. 

Flat plastic from newspaper bags

So I cut one open and ended up with an 18.5×19.5 inch piece of plastic.  These are a great size to cover my flats of seeds waiting to sprout and they are light enough that they don’t weigh down already sprouted seeds if I have multiple varieties in a flat.

What a great way to reuse these bags and get some help in the garden too.

Poisonous Plants can hurt your pets – be careful what you grow

Kitties enjoying the sunshine on a plant free deck

A fact sheet I picked up at this year’s Farm Show talked about the problem of pets eating poisonous plants.  I remember as a kid my mother always warning me about our cats eating the pointsettias at Christmas time.  We had one cat who would eat them and be sick repeatedly throughout the holidays – seemed he would never learn.  Well, neither did we.  We still kept bringing them into the house.

Since then I’ve tried to avoid having house plants that will make my cats sick.  Not too difficult since I can’t really grow house plants anyway – but what about garden plants? 

One year I was growing tomato plants on my deck and let my cat Puss E Cat out to get some sun.  I walked out a few minutes later to find him laying on the deck unable to move and breathing heavily – with a half eaten tomato leaf in his mouth.  I was lucky, and so was he, and he made a full recovery in a few minutes, but I was more careful with him after that.

Folks who have dogs and roaming cats may be growing things in their garden or on their decks or patios that will make their pets sick and not even realize the danger. 

Here are some common garden items that are poisonous to your pet from a list put out by the PA Veterinary Medical Association:

  • apples – seeds and leaves
  • apricots – pits and leaves
  • azalea  (highly toxic)
  • buttercups
  • cherry – leaves and pits
  • clematis
  • coleus
  • chrysanthemum
  • foxglove (highly toxic)
  • garlic
  • geranium
  • hyacinth
  • hydrangea
  • iris
  • ivy
  • kalanchoe
  • lily (highly toxic)
  • lily of the valley (highly toxic)
  • morning glory
  • narcissus
  • peach – leaves and pits
  • peony
  • periwinkle
  • plum – pit and leaves
  • poppy
  • portulaca
  • potatoes – leaves, sprouts
  • rhododendron (highly toxic)
  • rhubarb – leaves (highly toxic)
  • tomato – green fruit, stems, leaves
  • tulips
  • wisteria
  • yew (highly toxic)

Signs of plant poisoning are: drooling, diarrhea, lethargy, seizures, unconsciousness, irritation of skin and mouth and vomiting.  If you suspect your pet has been poisoned call the pet poision helpline at 1-800-213-6680 for guidance.

The ASPCA has a wonderful web reference discussing plant poisoning and your pet.  It includes a comprehensive list of dangerous plants and a searchable database so you can find safe plants for your pet. Check it out here.

I’m growing an invasive plant species of PA in my garden, are you?

Butterfly Bush - on the Invasive "Watch" list for PA

One of the brochures I picked up at the PA Farm Show discussed invasive plant species in PA and I was suprised to find a few of the plants I was growing in my yard on the list of situational invasives.  Specifically we have English Ivy and Periwinkle.

Invasive plants are those which are not native to the area but have been introduced either directly by planting or indirectly by seed spreading and are agressively spreading into areas and threatening the native ecosystems.

The brochure I have was put out by DCNR and you can see their information online here. This listing is somewhat different and does not include situationally invasive plants.  They are right out there with the rest of them.  This list also includes a watch list which includes one of my favorite plants – the butterfly bush.

Recycling food packages for gardening use – tea boxes, yogurt containers and more

Tea box outside

We make a lot of iced tea at our house and I just emptied a Salada tea box this week. When I took a look at the box I thought “Hmm, this would make a great seed starting box.”

The box is square and has 4 dividers. My mind says to fill it up with dirt, divide the sections and use it to start larger seeds that are easy to place. Or perhaps tomato seeds or peppers. The box will degrade and the inks are most likely not safe to use in the garden so it would be a temporary home only, but it still would give me another place to plant seeds this spring and judging from how we didn’t stick to our plan to not order seeds, space it going to be at a premium.

Tea box inside

If you are looking for seed starting space, look to your trash before you go and buy trays and pots.  Here are some of the things we use as seed starting locations:

  • egg cartons (the two part plastic ones like Egglands Best Cage Free make great mini greenhouses, I’ll post on that later)
  • yogurt containers – wash well and put holes in the bottom or cut up for plant markers
  • cans – watch for sharp edges and put holes in the bottom
  • large and small plastic bottles – cut tops off to make mini greenhouses, plant in the round bottom section
  • milk jugs – clear ones work best for greenhouses, but white ones can be cut off to use the bottom as a planter.  The top (with the lid off) makes a good funnel.  With the lid on it makes a good scoop for birdseed or other dry goods.  Also can be cut up for plant markers.
  • formula containers – the plastic ones, put holes in the bottom
  • salad containers – great mini greenhouses
  • aluminum trays – great to put under plants when watering.  I’ve also used them as flats to sow seeds in a pinch.
  • old cookie sheets, baking trays, etc – again great for watering trays or planting
  • large plastic containers of any type – wash well, fill with 1 inch of vermiculite in the bottom with seed starting mix on top, don’t overwater.  Cover with plastic wrap for greenhouse.
  • popsicle sticks – use as plant markers though ours have all rotted and molded up quickly, even with good washing
  • jars, bottles etc – use for vases for flowers or for rooting cuttings, jars are good for saving seeds

Saddleback Caterpillar Sting

This little guy, about an inch long in real life, is a Saddleback Caterpillar.  They are of note for two reasons:

1.  They are general feeders that will munch on a wide variety of garden plants.  In large numbers, which I’ve had this year, they can defoliate a 3 year old blueberry bush in a matter of days.  On doing a garden walk two weeks ago I noticed that all four of the blueberry bushes were in various states of being denuded.  A cursory glance didn’t reveal anything, so I went ahead and started picking blueberries figuring I would find the predators in the early morning or late evening. That’s when it happened.  I got stung.

2.  The are a stinging caterpillar.  I’ve been swarmed by ground hornets on several occasions, usually because I ran over a nest with a mower, and hit by bumble bees, but nothing compares to the stings I received from the Saddleback Caterpillar.  I didn’t know what hit me but it hurt like crazy.  I rushed inside to wash my hand and check the damage, thinking I disturbed a wasp.  There were three stings in total, that I could see, all clustered in the soft part of my hand between the thumb and forefinger.  The pain was like an electrical current pulsing into my hand, and yes, I’ve electrocuted myself before so know what that feels like.

A rash raised up across the back of my hand.  Application of ice took out the peak pain and a follow up with a topical anesthetic made it tolerable the rest of the day.  The next morning the rash and pain were gone.  Though it didn’t last long, it did incapacitate that hand while it lasted.


I have been hand picking them while wearing a heavy pair of leather gloves and then disposing of them.  Manual control works without much effort.  Though I pulled over 40 off of the 4 bushes the first time out after discovering them, and recovered from the sting, in days since I have only picked another half dozen or so.  Because of this, I don’t see a reason to spray or dust for them because the alternatives, such as BT also kills butterflies and other beneficial insects indiscriminately.

However you choose to handle them make sure and wear protective clothing and to be careful!  These little guys pack a powerful punch.