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.


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.

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.

The Feline Pine Adventure

Ronnie is on the left, Hunter on the right

I think kitty litter is the worst part about having cats.  Ours do not go outside so there is no outdoor privy for them, they have boxes in the basement.  I don’t mind changing kitty litter, but I do mind seeing it on the cats’ paws.  Hunter is a Maine Coon and has a lot of hair between his paw pads so he often has clumpy litter stuck to them.

Enter my bright idea to try a more healthy, and environmentally friendly, kind of cat litter.

We tried Yesterdays News which is a nice option since it uses waste materials, but our cats did not like it at all and I didn’t either.  It didn’t keep the cat boxes from smelling like ammonia.  So it was a no-go.

Then I tried Feline Pine which, when compared to clumping litter, seems very expensive.  I loved the way it worked and the cats seemed OK with it.  It keeps the boxes smelling fresh which is great.  Problem was cleaning the boxes was tough since you scoop out the still usable pellets and leave the sawdust behind.  Not an easy task.

So I bought sifting cat pans.  They work wonderful.  With two pans and a sifter to each set you can alternate out bottom pans to make cleaning easier.  They were not cheap – we’re talking $30 or so for both of them and we could really use a third for upstairs.

Then I read online that you could use heating stove pellets instead of Feline Pine.  They are MUCH cheaper and made of wood so are basically the same thing.  Only they aren’t.  A friend has a pellet stove and had a few bags partially damaged by water so she let us have a bag to try.  The pellets are larger than Feline Pine and are made of hardwood not softwood.

They DO work and perhaps could be successfully used by certain people, but they didn’t control odors well and our cats rebelled by using the floor instead of the box.

So I had had enough and switched back to scoopable litter.  I bought an average priced brand and used the sifting boxes thinking they’d work really well and make cleaning easier.  NOT.  The litter clung to both sides of the sifting lid and ended up like cement.  I also found that I was spending way more money on clumping litter than I had been on Feline Pine.  A $13 container of clumping litter was used up in a week and we were back to stuff being stuck on the cats’ paws and dust everywhere.

I finished that container of litter and went back to Feline Pine.  It took an hour to pry the scooping cement off the litter boxes, but I got them clean and the cats and I are now happy to be back to the sweet smelling pine stuff.  I’m trying extra hard to keep their litter area vacuumed and so far they are pretty happy.

So ends the Feline Pine adventure – for now.  I’m sure someone will protest soon and I’ll need to find another solution.

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!

Sunshine Dill Pickles – make them in your yard!

Perennials waiting to go into the ground

It’s 5:30am here and I’m trying a new posting scedule for Earth to Eats. I’ve been reading The Amish Cook’s Anniversary Book: 20 Years of Food, Family, and Faith
and it has inspired me to try writing early in the day.  This book is an enjoyable read for me and helps me keep my work in perspective.  Reading all about an Amish family who get up at 4am and all they do before leaving for work or school motivates me to get more done.  It is just amazing all they accomplish – and it is important things too like cooking, preserving and keeping their homes clean.  It isn’t watching TV or playing video games.

I made some pickles last week in our front yard.  Yep, in the yard.  I forgot to take a picture of the jar, but they turned out good enough that I want to try them again.  I just put dill in and not garlic and something was definitely missing.  A little too much salt went in too since I didn’t have a gallon jar.  I’ll adjust all that next time.  You can find the recipe here.

I’ve been chatting with some folks from Paperbackswap this week and that is what pushed me to try a different writing schedule here.  The discussions and ideas we are sharing there would benefit so many people if they were put here in this public forum so hopefully I’ll get more posts up.  I especially want to thank Jamie G for chatting with me about frugality and making a better life for our families.  You’ve been inspiring Jamie so keep up the great work!!

Above you see a picture of perennials I purchased at our local flower shop for .99 a piece.  These are the ones she hasn’t been able to sell and it is a great way for us to extend our garden without spending much money.  I got 40 plants for $39 or so and put in a perennial bed the other night.  I need to take pictures of that and explain how I did it in another post.  Yes these plants are pot bound something awful, but if you bring them home and soak them and then break up the root ball they do just fine.  I even picked up one of my favorite plants – lemon verbena.  MMMMMM…..  Not a perennial sadly, but at least I’ll have it till frost.

Must get things moving here.  Hope everyone has a great day.

Have a drummer in the family? Best green cymbal cleaner? Lemon juice!

Jack with her tenors – they don’t need cymbal polish, but if they did we’d use lemon juice!

Updated 8/3/13 – wow, looking back at this post made me weepy.  Jack is now a Marine!  Yup, she’s in California learning a language I can’t spell let alone say.  We are super proud of her.  And the lemon juice still works.  :-)

Jack, our oldest daughter, is a drummer and she is making a special appearance with the elementary school band in May.  She has to clean up her drum kit and take it with her for the performance, but we noticed her cymbals were not looking their best.  So we checked the cupboards, no cymbal cleaner.

A quick check of the internet revealed a green, and frugal, solution – lemon juice.

Luckily lemons were on sale last week and I picked up a bunch of them.  She cut them in half and rubbed them on the cymbals and the results were even better than cymbal cleaner – and it smelled a lot better too.

So, if your drummer needs cleaner cymbals, try lemon juice!