Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Victory Garden- Making a Molehill out of a Mountain (or "I have my mulch to keep me warm)

I could have called this post "Musings on Human Nature" or any number of other things, but I like it the way it is. I learned some valuable things while out working in the miserable weather yesterday.

The original plan for the Victory Garden involved a LOT of dirt and probably even more time spent weeding and so forth. Thanks to my friend Steve the organic farmer's suggestion, I just had DH build me the beds (I helped, but really can't take any credit) and then I filled them in with about an inch and a half of composted dirt. I planted, watered, and so far my plants are all coming up and very happy. Steve also said that the way to combat weeds and keep in moisture (don't want to raise that water bill if I can help it!) is to mulch the crap out of the beds once the seedlings are up. I'm about at that point.

DH finally got the trailer rebuilt, but unfortunately needs it this weekend, and I have to have the beds mulched before next weekend. So, looking at the forecast and my schedule, I decided that yesterday was to be my day to go get mulch. So, since DH was out of town, it fell to me to hook up the newly revamped trailer, drag the tarp out of the back yard, strap it down, load up my implements of destruction (shovels) and head to the composter. I'm lucky- the city I live in recycles yard waste and provides 1 load per day of screened compost (dirt) or as much as you can haul of chip mulch. Sure, it's not near as pretty as the stuff you buy, but who cares? I'm not particular about mulch aesthetics. It's free, and it'll quash my weed problem. Hopefully the garden will survive a day or 2 without water if we go out of town, and it doesn't hurt to cut down on the evaporation rate anyway- summer is brutal here!

So I put the hitch on my trusty Land Cruiser, Clementine, backed her up to the trailer and set to work with penetrating oil trying to free up the latch on the tongue of the trailer...I knew it was a bear and DH warned me that he had forgotten to oil it. Add oil, off to back yard to drag the very heavy tarp up front. Tossed in the back of the trailer and then to confront my nemesis- the ratchet strap. They are brilliant in design, but they hate me. I finally got DH to explain to me how to "start" them when we were moving a freezer...and I was pretty sure I could pull it off. And I did! Hooray for me! That was a major accomplishment. I'm proud. Back to the trailer....of course I was able to get the socket over the ball on the hitch no problem. But the collar that holds it in place? Yeah. Sure. I cuss, I beg, I plead, I swear...I even went so far as to call a friend for a reality check- the collar IS supposed to drop down, right? Yeah, I thought so. ("Do you even know how to drive a trailer?" he asked. Thanks for the vote of confidence bud! I'm pretty sure he thought nothing good could come of this endeavor) I beg, I cuss, I plead and swear. Finally, I resorted to name calling, and hissed a real zinger at it. It dropped right into place. VICTORY! I did a dance and actually cheered. It was starting to drizzle.

It was the sort of weather in which most people try to avoid going outside at all, let alone spending a long time outside working, but no matter. I hurried myself off to the composter figuring I'd get wet, but not real worried about it. I maneuvered the trailer into position (Hooray for me again! 3 victories!) and grabbed my shovel and gloves. DH has this funny investment in me having nice soft hands. I confronted the mountain of mulch. Steam rose off of it and wafted gently in the chill morning air. Composting is a HOT process as the bacteria break down the plant matter. I'd guess that the internal temperature of the heap was close to 108 degrees or more. I kicked myself for not bringing a thermometer. And started shoveling. I realized VERY quickly that a shovel is NOT the right tool for the job of moving mulch. After about 10 minutes I called a friend and inquired as to whether or not he had a pitchfork. It was a long shot and fell short. I told him that if I didn't find one and shoveled all that mulch, my official status as a human being would be upgraded from "bad ass" to "hardcore". Most people don't have pitchforks it seems. None to be had anywhere. I contemplated going out and buying one, but that would have lengthened the errand considerably. So I put my back into it and tried to move as much as I could.

Eventually I discovered that if I pulled some of the top mulch off of the "cliffs" the loosened up stuff was much easier to shovel. And your aim counts- the last thing you want to do is kill yourself shoveling and miss the trailer. And if you're obtaining your mulch from a place similar to where I was getting mine, there will be odd things in there. I nearly put out the back window of my beloved Clementine with a chunk of clinker (rocky stuff made from incinerated tires that is used to make cement) that was in the mix.

Of course, as I worked, it started to rain harder and harder. It never poured, but it was really raining. I was the only person interested in mulch on a rainy day it seemed. I saw lots of people dropping off tree limbs, yard waste and even whole felled trees. I stopped to help a couple of them unload unwieldy items, but no one offered to help me. No one even offered to call me a paramedic- odd, I thought, since I was beet red. I always get that way when I"m working. I shoveled, I sweated, I was soaked and muddy. And I was starting to grumble about human nature. I'd been out there working for almost 2 hours, surely the guy at the gate would have noticed I'd been out there for so long? Hmm, surely not. But I was there, I was already wet and muddy, and by God I was going to get as mulch as I could so I wouldn't have to go back! And I pushed myself harder than I should have, I knew I was doing it at the time. But I was goal oriented- I wanted to get this done so I could get home! Eventually, I slowed down and when I went to get a shovelful and didn't have enough wrist strength to convince the shovel to anymore than land softly on top of the mulch, I knew I was done. It was time to throw in the shovel...

So I headed home, almost high from the exhilaration of overcoming so many stumbling blocks, for being one bad-ass chick, from all the hard work. I was feeling pretty darned good. It didn't last long. I knew my trailer backing skills were lacking. I've never had much practice, the last time I backed a trailer was 15 years ago, and DH says that this trailer is pretty tricky. I got it in the driveway, but couldn't get it straight- decided that angled was fine since it was still in our half of the driveway. I grabbed a block of wood to block the wheel and then went to move Clem to the street. And the trailer was headed right for me! (thank god it was "parked" on an angle!) I tried to maneuver Clem so that I could catch the trailer without getting seriously rammed. I did succeed in catching the trailer with my rear bumper (the goal- the bumpers are pretty serious boxes of plate steel) and even more fortunately, I caught it by the truck box mounted to the front instead of the tongue. I hopped out of the car and wondered how on earth I was going to get the stupid thing back in the driveway and get it to stay there when out of nowhere my neighbor (or possibly guardian angel against psychotic break from reality) appeared and just sort of picked up the trailer and put it in place. (no small task- the trailer weighs about 800 lbs empty) We held it there with a scrap from a metal shelf that would grab and hold better than my wood block had. Hooray! Tragedy averted.

And I wasn't so doubting about the kindness of humankind anymore- apparently when I was shoveling I just wasn't needy enough to deserve a random act of kindness, but I believe it was important that I stopped to help others- you just never know when you'll be the one needing help...and then saviors and knights on white horses DO have a handy way of appearing when you really need them to.

Monday, May 17, 2010

DIY Gifting- Macrame for the 21st Century

Recently I told my hubby that we needed more deer in our freezer- relying on the generosity of others is a lousy way of getting what we need. I told him he needed to take up hunting and fill the freezer himself. "I'll need a rifle" he said, happily thinking that this was either the perfect way to get out of getting up mindnumbingly early and going hunting, or the perfect way to get a new toy. "Of course you will" I told him. And our "romantic" Valentine's weekend was spent comparison shopping rifles at various gun shops in town. I guess we're not an average couple :P D's pretty darned happy that his wife will buy him a rifle for his birthday. His best friend is pleased beyond words that D will finally, after many years of pleading, be joining him in the predawn hours to stalk deer. I'm happy that we might soon have deer in the freezer for me to cook.

Once he had the rifle, he needed a sling. We looked at various types, and then I happened to stumble onto an interesting tidbit on the internet. There's a company that makes "survival" bracelets- the basic theory being that they use 550 cord (military spec parachute cord) and knot it into various things (bracelets, dog collars, belts, and *rifle slings*) and then if/when the buyer gets into a survival situation, (s)he has at their disposal about a foot of 550 cord per inch of "thing". So if they have an 8 inch bracelet, they have about 8 feet of cord; a 30 inch belt= 30 feet of cord- and so forth. Their hook is that if you use one of their products in a survival situation, you just send your bits of unraveled cord and your survival story to them and they will send you a new one for free. I thought it a brilliant idea, and when I looked at them closer I noticed immediately that they used the EXACT same knots as I had used in the 4th grade to make my mom a macrame plant holder. How convenient! I could make one!

You can use this same knot and technique to make, obviously, a rifle sling or a plant holder, but you can also use it to make bracelets, keyrings, belts, luggage straps, purse handles, pretty much anything that you need a durable, flat bit of "strap" for. You can also use just about any material- from the nylon rope I've used here, to twine (for a plant hanger) to embroidery floss (for bracelets)- It's very versatile. I've made a bunch of keyrings, and now that the sling is done, I plan to make D a belt as well since he tears his up so fast he gets new ones every 6 months, and the dog needs a new collar too. You can use knots for closures (a large knot like a "monkeyfist" and loop will hold a bracelet closed), for the belt I plan to use a plastic 2 part buckle. I can't remember what they are called, but I've included a picture. For the rifle sling, I knotted the strap directly onto the rifle swivels.

Basically, if you can tie a knot, you can macrame. There are a number of knots that are commonly used, and the one I've chosen has got to be one of the easiest. This particular knot is called a sinnet knot and it's kind of a series of overhand knots. You will need 2 central cords (which are the length of your finished item) and then a left and a right "knotting" cord. It's easier to work the piece if you anchor the center cords. I used a safety pin to affix it to the knee of my pantsleg or to a pillow I'd hold in my lap. And since my knotting cords were stupid long, I bundled them up and secured them with rubber bands, so I was working with sort of shuttles, instead of LOOONG cords. You first make a "4" with the left cord OVER the central cords, and a backwards "4" with the right one, going under the cords. Bring the tails through the opening (like a pretzel) and pull snug. You don't need to pull it impossibly tight- just snug. Snug will result in an attractive and strong knot. Tight will result in a weird bunchy knot that is no less durable in the final product, but is a lot less flexible. So snug is really better. Your next knot will be a "4" with the left cord UNDER the cords, and backwards 4 over the cords with the right. If you always go over with the left and under with the right, your final product will spiral. Repeat, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, until you've either completed the length of knot work you wanted, or filled your center cords. If you have trouble with my tutorial, there are about a dozen videos on the internet you can look up and watch.

If you're double knotting, at this point you flip your work so that your knotting cords are now at the top, secure the new "top" and then use the part you've already knotted as your "center cord" and just knot over that til you've reached the other end.

When you've finished as much knotting as you like, the handy part about using parachute cord is that it's nylon, so you can work the ends into the last few knots, then cut them, melt them and press them into the knots to secure them. And presto! You're done!

For D's rifle sling, I wanted to make it double knotted, so I calculated 2 feet per inch (which is what all of the information I could find on the internet said to use- unfortunately it wasn't quite enough- next time I'll just measure out 100 feet and use what I need. In truth, I think the calculation for double sinnets should be more like 2.5 feet per inch of finished project, plus the length of the central cords, plus a couple of inches for the knots to hold it onto the swivel). I measured the sling mounts on his gun and his chest and we agreed he needed a 37 inch sling, so that's what I made (nice that I could give him a rifle sling that is custom fit to him!) But that gives you an idea of how to measure.

I'm sure that rifle slings are not everyone's cup of tea, but the reason I shared the technique and instructions is because macrame is an easy, EXCELLENT handmade craft for gifting. Anyone of any age can do it. A plant hanger is just twine knotted into 3 macrame sections that are worked on a ring (that you will use to hang the plant), then knotted at the bottom to hold a potted plant. I made that at about age 8 or 9; a little older I used this knotting technique to make bracelets as gifts for my friends. You can do two tone knots too. This is a great activity for adults if you're looking for a durable, unique handcraft. It's a fantastic activity for groups of kids (like art classes, scouting or birthday parties). Sure, it takes some time. A LOT of time in the case of the rifle sling (which took me probably about 20 hours or so to finish). But if you're looking for a simple yet beautiful handmade craft (especially if you're not wanting to deal with any mess, or if you've got limited space), this one is hard to beat. Even non-artistic types can make gifts with macrame. Sure, we all remember the 1970's when everyone's grandmother had every potted plant in her house dressed up with some sort of macrame'd tasseled nightmare of yarn- but macrame itself isn't dated and is easy to "modernize" and use to create great crafts for today.

A bracelet I made for D using a monkeyfist knot as a closure, and a cobra knot. He wanted this something fierce, since the knotwork really looks snakelike and is pretty cool, but it's too round to be comfortable to wear- it makes a great keyring though since he can tuck the knot through his beltloop and the keys drop in his pocket and it's almost impossible for him to lose them. A keyring I made with "leftovers" from the above bracelet. The keyring is also the cobra knot, simply made with 4 cords instead of 2 as I did with the bracelet. Keyrings are an excellent way to practice new knots, use up odd bits of cord, and also make fantastic little "extra" gifts- whether tied onto a package as a useful decoration, to enhance another item (see the top picture, where the ring of a drinking bottle has a knotted handle) or just as a "little something".

I'll try to keep this thread updated with photos of other macrame and knotwork items I make. There are literally hundreds of other knots and patterns you can learn and use, and it's actually a lot of fun to learn knots. I wish I'd have paid more attention to lanyard making in scouts, but the info is easy to find and with a little practice, the knots are easy to make too. In addition to the belt and collar I mentioned above as being on my "to do list", I also plan to make a net to carry my aluminum drinking bottle, and I may look into making a knotted reusable grocery sack instead of crocheting one. Look around for ideas and most of all: Have fun with it!

The Victory Garden- Serpentine Serendipity or "Fake Snakes and Belly Aches"

In the beginning, The Victory Garden was bestowed with 6 plastic snakes; two in each bed. There were 2 bright yellow, red and black ones- I assume they were meant to look like Coral Snakes- but they didn't. I hoped they would look enough like Copperheads to suffice. Two were cobras, which I thought was hysterical since we live in Kansas. There was one that was black with bright green bands. And my favorite looked like a garter snake. And after almost 2 months of life in the garden, in the span of just a couple of days first four of them were "liberated", then the last two wandered off suddenly in the night. I suffered a small psychotic break from reality over this occurrence. I was pretty upset that anyone would be stealing things from about 15 feet from my back door, and of course once the snakes were gone the animal kingdom set upon my poor garden in very short order. Fortunately for me the bunnies have been too lazy to jump over the boards and into the beds, but the birds have sifted through ever inch of the garden looking for seeds. I can only hope that everything has sprouted sufficiently so as to not be appealing to bird palates. But I digress.

So after my small psychotic break, I set about trying to think of everything I could possibly make for free or very cheap to keep bunnies and birds out of the garden. Being assured by numerous sources that bunnies hate anything shiny- I made very festive garden stakes from foil noisemakers and chopsticks. I buried every glass bottle I could lay my hands on since I had it on good authority that bunnies hate the noise of wind blowing across bottle necks. I began a paper mache hawk. And I put my mind to the topic of snakes.

How to best make pseudo-snakes for the garden that would fool the animal kingdom? How to do it with things I have on hand? Hmmmmm. Well, I had nothing even the slightest bit "snake-y" on hand. DH made me a very cute little snake from a bit of flexible tubing and some bailing wire (remember how much I *LOVE* bailing wire? It will come up a lot in the weeks to come :P). We figured it would get a coat of paint, and likely work fine- but I needed more. One snake is just not enough to keep the animal kingdom from my veg beds. A dear friend was kind enough to gift me an old hose she didn't need, and I figured my snakeless woes were over. I cut a few 18-24 inch lengths, scattered them in the beds and figured that I was covered. I don't think that any birds or bunnies even noticed them.

They all ignore the noisemaker foil tassel bed stakes. I'll leave them out, they're kind of festive and fun. They ignore the cute little snake D made me. They don't even see the hose sections. So I had to come up with new snakes. And of course, I refuse to buy more fake snakes. Especially since I'm pretty sure they will just get stolen again. (My faith in humanity was pretty well shaken over 2 incidences of snake theft, but I'm getting over it). So I cut some of the hose into little bits- maybe 1" to 2 1/2" lengths. And working from a picture I had in my head, I threaded them onto a doubled over piece of bailing wire (see? I told you it would come up again). The idea was to have a fully articulated, sort of segmented snake. Idea #1 didn't work. the pieces of hose were just too loose. So I tried using 2 lengths of doubled bailing wire, and it was perfect.

Basically, you start with 2 equal lengths of baling wire- I wanted a finished snake between 18-24 inches, so I used lengths of bailing wire about 50 inches long, doubled in half. You hold them together and sort of work the middle area into a largish loop. This will be your snake's "head". Then slide the first hose bit on. flex the "head" so that the hose can't slide off. Then bend two of the lengths of wire at right angles to the hose- outward (we'll call these wires "A" and "B"). The other 2 will stay to the middle- we'll call those "C" and "D". Thread the next hose bit onto the 2 middle wires. Pull the outer wires - A and B- close to the hose, and bend them in toward the middle of the hose opening a bit. Pull the inner wires- C and D- taut and bend them outward at right angles. Then you'll thread the next piece of hose onto wires A and B. Bend A and B outward at right angles, and bend C and D inward. Thread the next piece of hose onto C and D and bend them outward. Pull A and B close and bend them in and slide the next piece of hose onto them. Repeat. It sounds complicated for some reason, but it's super easy, you're not even really weaving. You just always thread each hose piece onto only 2 of the wires and the other 2 will wrap around the outside. Then for the next piece, you switch and thread on the opposite wires and wrap the other pair around the outside. Easy, I promise. I found I had the best result if I tried to keep the wires all close rather than letting them wander as they pleased around the snake...also, I'd alternated the direction I folded the wires, so for example when A wrapped the hose and moved inward and C came out of the middle of the hose to wrap to the outside of the next piece, then A would wrap behind C. When C wrapped, it wrapped to the front of A. I hope that I've been able to capture that in the pictures. When I was done adding as many pieces of hose as was required to give me the length of snake I wanted, I just folded the remaining wire into the last bit of hose so there were no pokey ends. And Voila! You've got a snake. I figure I'll use some spray paint and maybe paint pens or some small brushes to dress these guys up to look like some "scary" local species. There's also this idea:

Before I made any snakes at all, I was tossing ideas around in my head to make them. One of the ideas was to use cloth to either make the snakes, or to "dress up" some of the snakes I would be making (as in, instead of paint, I'd make sort of sleeves and "dress" them as snakes). After making a few of the segmented hose snakes, I decided to dress one up one of them in snakeskin print fabric. Conveniently, I had received some ugly snakeskin print shirts in a bag of stuff from freecycle. I figured that making snakes was as good a use for them as any. I didn't do anything fancy- I didn't even use my sewing machine. While D and I were watching a movie I just sort of pulled the fabric around the snake and whip stitched it on by hand. I LOVE the way this little guy turned out!

To keep my newest "family" member from wandering off, I just took a length of chain about a foot long and attached one end to "Friendly"'s head, and then attached the other end to the garden frame with a screw. The chain will allow me to move him around the garden a little- to change his position once in a while to keep the birds on their toes. Sure, Friendly looks like he might have been a bad snake and therefore is tethered to the garden. But at least he'll be sticking around, and I can bury the chain to keep it from sight until I'm ready to move Friendly a bit. The birds and bunnies have been suitably impressed so far and are staying away. A second snake, "Slimy", is in the works, and I plan to also leash him to the garden. Hopefully, I'll be able to enjoy my new friends in the garden for quite a while to come!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bunny Threats, Art Undertakings and Rambling...

I'm sure that those of you who don't know me in real life (come for a visit- I'd love to meet you!) probably have guessed I'm pretty crafty. I don't mean wily or sneaky...I'm frankly terrible at that- but I mean I love to make stuff- cooking, arts, crafts, and so forth. And if ever anyone asks me "is there *anything* you can't do?" I answer them honestly..."yes, I can't make bread turn out right and I can't do calculus." Someday soon I'm going to take another crack at bread. Calculus I'm going to leave to the professionals. But if anyone ever asks me what my favorite art media is I can guarantee you that paper mache won't make the list.

This all started with the Victory Garden- my heroic attempt at feeding my hubby and I (and the pets too, if they'll have any of it), making our yard give something back, and developing a more personal relationship with our food. But aside from the fact that my victory gardens of years past have been colossal failures, there was one HUMONGOUS stumbling block to garden success this year: bunnies. Our yard is positively overrun with them. They are EVERYWHERE. So I was pretty sure that they'd be a considerable threat to the garden. As such, I took quite a few steps to thwart them preemptively. I built my garden in raised beds- sure, it was more for convenience, but it helps. I planted marigolds (I have since read that bunnies don't like potatoes, onions or squash, but I'm not buying it. I've grown potatoes in the past that the bunnies nibbled to nubs) And, after considerable search of 3 stores, I added two plastic snakes to each bed. The snakes fooled the birds (who wouldn't land near my beds), the bunnies (who stay away and nibble clover in the corner of the yard), the neighbor (who came after one with a shovel) and even a handyman (attack with a hammer). I don't have a very good picture of the garter snake (handsome little devil, my favorite), but one is all I got. So all was relative bliss until....

The neighbors' grandkids stole my snakes. What were the kids doing in my garden you ask? Trespassing, that's what. And stealing. And I was LIVID. (for point of reference the kids are 10 and 13, that's definitely old enough to know better) And the neighbors, their kids, their grandkids...didn't care one whit. Now, for point of reference, if my neighbors had come to my parents or grandparents and said that they suspected I had liberated *anything* out of their garden, I'd have had to give the item back, apologize, and probably spend the day helping them out in their garden for a day as repayment for their trouble. *I* was lucky enough to get so angry I got a terrible headache. And no recourse. grumble grumble. As I have no funds with which to buy MORE snakes (not to mention how dang hard they are to find)...I had to get creative.

I had no hose to cut up to make fake snakes, but have had two wonderful generous friends since offer hoses, so hopefully my issues of snakelessness will be short lived. Who knows, maybe I'll be able to make them so adorable that a cottage industry will spring up. D made me a lovely little snake from a bit of tubing and some baling wire- it's adorable all coiled and reared up to attack...I will give that one a paint job or some snake clothes and a fun name.

I bought a package of streamer topped noisemakers from the dollar store (fer a dollar) that I'm in the process of strapping to chopsticks and paint stirrers to stick in the garden, as I've been told that bunnies don't like sparkly. With my luck I'll scare the bunnies only to become inundated by crows :P I repaired an eagle statue my cats broke and will stick him out in the garden as well.

But my big brilliant idea was to make a hawk. I'm sure you can buy them at the hardware store... some carry owls at least. But they're not cheap, and being me, of course I figured I'd make it. And what do you make a hawk out of? Well, at first I thought of making it from a juice bottle and a milk bottle cut to be wings, but D was out of pop rivets and I couldn't figure out how to hold it together without them. So I decided on paper mache. (ah, now the beginning of the blog makes sense!) I think I have only ever had one prior experience with paper mache. I remember as a girl scout that we made "hot air balloons" from a balloon covered in paper mache, then pop it and hang a sort of basket from it. That was easy enough. Heck I was probably in 4th grade. So how horrible can it be?

So I used the juice bottle for the body, formed some bailing wire into wings, and used news paper and masking tape to give it some shape. A form if you will.

A momentary pause to contemplate bailing wire. Used to be everywhere, and I suppose if you still have horses or livestock, you probably have a ready source of it. But regardless of where you live, on a farm or in the city, you NEED a reel of bailing wire. It's almost universally useful. You can obviously use it to help make a bird, D uses it for all sorts of things in the garage, has used it to rig a headlight to stay in place, to hold a cabinet door shut...brilliant. Get some. Nuff said.

So after you've got your basic bird form, use wads, rolls, and sheets of newspaper to flesh it out. The closer you get to the final form you want BEFORE you start applying the paper mache, the better. Now you're ready to mix up your paper mache. First you'll need a heap of newspaper. Ask everyone you know. I'd guess for my overambitious (as usual) hawk project, I'll wind up using at least 2 Sunday editions. And you'll need some extra to lay out on the floor so you don't make a huge mess on the floor. Cut as much newspaper into about 1 inch x 10 inch strips as you can bear. You'll need about 140,000. Ok, you won't need anywhere near that many. But unless you can convince your kid, your friend's kid, or your kid sister to cut them up for you, it may very well FEEL like that many.

Then you need to mix up your paste. Just use about 1/2 cup of flour (I used some old stuff I didn't want to use for cooking that I happened upon), and some hot water. You want a sort of thin paste, or thick liquid. Too thick is gloppy, too thin and it won't stick. Once you've got your paste, just pull your paper strips through the paste, use your fingers to slip off the excess and apply it to your form. It's an easy process, refreshingly mindless, and if you are able to work quickly and uninterrupted, you will not have to deal with the unpleasantness of cold paste. The idea is to overlap the pieces just slightly and cover your whole form.

Once the whole form is covered, let it dry. Then repeat. You'll need to do several layers, but be sure to let it dry inbetween layers. You'll know when it's done when it seems sturdy to you. Then, you can paint it (which I will do with my nameless hawk once its finished). I also plan to put some sort of weatherseal on the hawk, so he doesn't get destroyed hanging outside. And scaring the bajeezus out of bunnies.

Here's the hawk with a few more layers of paper mache applied. After the first paper was put on, I curved his beak a bit so he didn't look so much like a seagull. Also, when I was adding the second layer of paper mache, I added carefully placed strips of paper to widen his wings to make him appear more hawk-like (and less seagull-like). Once your basic "form" is done, you can make a LOT of detail adjustments with the paper mache- that's the whole idea in fact. The form is just the base shape that you work from.

I am currently considering making a few more paper mache critters for the garden- maybe a little garden gnome with a hunting rifle, or weasels or foxes or a skunk- something that eats bunnies. Could be fun.

I still need to find a way to keep undisciplined children out of my yard. I personally liked the idea of the exploding dye packs they use for bank heists, but that makes me sound curmudgeony and where do you find exploding dye packs anyway? Besides, I'd wind up covered in dye. So I will have to comfort myself by making some "No Trespassing" signs, and dream of electric fences and people who teach their kids that stealing is wrong.

Monday, May 10, 2010

DIY Gifting- Handmade Seed Cards

In honor of Mother's Day, albeit this post is going up a day late, I give you handmade seed cards. What better way to show mom you care than by giving her a ready to plant bouquet of her favorite flowers in a card that you've made just for her? These cards are also fantastic to use for any other occasion, birthdays, holidays, thinking of name it. The real beauty of this project is that it really can be done at any age. Little ones should have an adult help, but even they can make a card themselves.

My friend Lea had asked me if I knew how to make these, as she wanted to make some for her clients. Of course, I was more than happy to help her out- since I used to make papers in my fibers classes and always thought it was a lot of fun.

Required Hardware/Software:

Blender - I have one that is specifically for crafting in case I either break it or put something in it I wouldn't really want to come in contact with my food.
Large, flat-bottomed basin- I use an inexpensive cat litter box that you can pick up at the dollar store
Assorted paper- White printer paper from your recycle bin, paper towels, construction paper in various colors, scraps of cardstock, whatever you've got on hand. Newspaper will work, but the ink in it makes for a gray, rather unpretty final result. I suggest paper that's not printed.
Screen- I used the aluminum sort of window screen. You may be able to make the fiberglass stuff work, but I've always thought it tears awfully easy. I plan to re-use the frames, so I wanted to be sure they'd last. I find it easier to make some frames to hold the screen- instructions below
cheap wood slats to make frames
several packets of seeds- I used wildflowers as the "wildflower garden" seems to suit this project especially well in my mind. I also love the idea of an herb garden.
Food color, paintbrushes, rubber stamps, paper punches, etc. for decorating

Frames: The best way to make the frames is to find inexpensive slats of wood, and sandwich the screen between the slats. To do this, you'd make frames the same way we did, but make 2 sets of the wood for each finished screen. Then you would cut your screen to size, sandwich it between the 2 screen frames and use finishing nails to hold it all together. We opted to just use the 1 wood frame for each screen.

First, cut your wood slats into the appropriate lengths. We mitered the corners, which is pretty simple once you get down to it. Each wooden piece will have a short side and a long side, and each of the ends will be cut on a 45 degree angle. If you want a frame with finished inside dimensions of 4"x6" (about standard postcard size) you'll want to make sure you cut 2 slats with the short side measuring 4" and two with the short side measuring 6". As I said, cheap wood is good for these- we determined that a pine yard stick ($0.62 at the Home Depot), was the cheapest source of wood- they were about 1 1/2 inches wide, 1/4 inch thick and obviously 3 feet long. You can cut them with a miter saw, hack saw, any sort of handsaw, whatever you have.

Lay out your frames (I did this on my patio so I wouldn't tear up my table). Using a staplegun, tack the corners together. I used 2 staples per corner- one on the outside and one on the inside. This seemed to hold pretty well.

Cut your screen to about 1 1/2 inch longer and wider than the opening in your frame. Then carefully (screen WILL poke and cut you, and it stings like a splinter) fold each edge 1/2 inch. When you've done all 4 sides, fold each side 1/2 inch again (to completely fold in the rough edge). This should give you a rectangle of screen that is still 1/2 inch longer and wider in each direction than the opening of your frame. Using your handy staple gun again, and working from one end to the other, tack the screen in place on the opposite side of the frame from where you stapled the frame together. I found it easiest to secure 2 corners and the side between them, then gently pull the screen tight as you staple until you've stapled the whole thing down. It's not critical to get it all tight or even. We made 13 frames since it's easier to work with the paper (which has the consistency of wet toilet paper at first) if you let it dry overnight before trying to move it about. Having a lot of frames lets you make a number of cards at once, rather than having to stop and start a lot.

If you're making the frames by the sandwich method, skip the screen folding step. Just tack the screen in place to one frame with a few staples, then secure the 2 frames together.

Once your frames are done, you're ready to make paper. First, fill your basin about half way with warm/hot water and set it on your workspace. The basin is where you will "lay out" your paper, and makes the pulp tremendously easier to work with.

Then fill your blender about 1/3 to 1/2 way full of HOT water. Hot water from your tap is fine. Tear up several sheets of paper into pieces about 1 inch square, and toss them into the hot water in your blender. It's best to let them soak for a couple of minutes to loosen up the fibers in the paper. Starting on low and working up to high, blend the paper and water into a pulp. It should be watery, but there should be plenty of paper pulp to work with. If you don't have much, add more.

This is your base. From here, the sky is the limit- let your creativity go wild. You can add some shredded construction paper to color the whole mass, or if you want a lighter tint you can add a couple of drops of food color. One of my favorite "details" is to shred a couple of different colors of construction paper into tiny bits or use a paper punch to get circles, stars, flowers, whathaveyou, and toss those into the white or tinted pulp and just stir. Then you get a sort of confetti or stained glass pattern in your final paper. You can add dried flower petals or herbs, Play around with this and have fun.

Once you've got your pulp looking the way you want it to, stir (don't blend) in some seeds. You'll have to sort of guess at the amount, but a bit of trial and error will get you where you want to be. A teaspoon or two should do the trick to start out.

Next, place a frame in your basin. Since I used pine, my frames conveniently float, which will keep your seeds from floating away. (If you have trouble with the seeds floating anyway, just lift the frame out of the basin a bit while you're pouring the pulp.) Gently pour some of your pulp into the frame, trying to get a thin, even layer. If you plan on doing single layer cards, keep adding pulp until its about 1/8" thick. For 2 tone marbled cards, pour the pulp in a little unevenly, then go back over the thinner spots with your second type of pulp.

After you've got your pulp poured, drain the frames a bit on the side of the basin. You will want to do pretty much everything in your power to get rid of excess water to speed drying time. After the excess has drained out (you can hold the frames vertically to drain a bit more as well), you can very gently press your hands together on each side of the paper to squeeze out some more water. Just be careful when you peel back your hand from the wet paper though, as it is very susceptible to tearing. If you want a sort of tye dye effect, you can paint on some food color or water color at this point. The colors will likely bleed all over, so be sure you don't let this frame touch any other for a while.

After as much water has been removed as possible, lay your frames out to dry. You can put them on towels, or paper towels or whatever you've got that will work. I put my frames on some old refrigerator and tomato racks I had to allow for better air circulation. Baking racks would work just dandy too. Having racks available is especially nice once you've taken the papers out of the frames for the final drying. At this point, you can use food color or water color to paint a design that will run a bit, but not all over. Put them near a fan or heat vent to dry. Allow them to sit for at least 8-12 hours (or overnight) before taking the next step.

Next, I put paper towels (or napkins) on each side of the paper and squeezed to get more water out. The less moisture that remains in the cards when you try to handle them, the less likely they are to tear. Then, turn the frames upside down (so the paper will fall to your workstation) and gently tap them. If you're really lucky, the whole card will fall out in one neat piece. More likely, one end will come free and you'll have to gently coax the rest out. If you get any tears, just gently press them back together with your finger. Lay the paper on your racks to finish drying.

Once the cards are dry, you can finish decorating them. You can punch holes and add a ribbon, use markers to write a message, or use your stamp pad to stamp a garden theme (or valentine's Day or Christmas, whatever holiday you're going for) on the card. I will note that some markers will tend to bleed a bit on the loose fiber of these cards, so you might want to write your greeting on a piece of cardstock and attach that to the seed card- or at least test the markers first. Make sure you include instructions for planting the card! (Instructions will be to plant it at the depth the seed packet indicates. If the packet gives a certain spacing, you could indicate that the card needs to be torn up before planting.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Strawberry Butter vs. Strawberry Butter

When I was looking for a recipe for Strawberry Butter (see last post), I couldn't find any at first that were for cooked pureed strawberries. What I did find was a couple dozen recipes for "strawberry butter". Basically, it's butter. With strawberries. Pretty simple, and sounds delicious.

Obviously, you'll need some butter. I'd recommend using the real deal for this. Just basic salted butter. Also, you'll need some strawberry stuff. I saw recipes that used real, whole strawberries and some sugar. I saw recipes that used crushed fresh strawberries and strawberry jam. I saw recipes that just used strawberry jam and butter. I think it pretty much will work however you choose to make it.

Of course, if you've got a batch of lovely homemade strawberry butter on hand, you could mix that in.

What you want to do is let the butter sit at room temperature so it is soft but not melted. Then mix in as much strawberry ingredient(s) as you wish. When you're done, you've got strawberry butter. It's sweet, creamy, salty- all mixed up in one.

Excellent on pancakes, waffles, toast, and of course on hot biscuits. Just thought I'd give you a choice of what sort of strawberry butter to make :)

DIY Gifting- Strawberry Butter

Another installment of DIY gifting. Frankly, this probably could have been attached to the previous post on apple butter and just been called "Making Fruit Butters" or some such thing, but strawberry butter is soooo amazinglyFantasticallyGood that it really deserves its own post. A note before you begin though- make strawberry butter when you've got something going on that will keep you in the kitchen for an hour or so. You don't want to leave this stuff unattended for long, and if you don't have something else to do, it would be brutally boring to just hang out watching butter bubble.

The process is essentially the same as for making apple butter. You wash about 3lbs of strawberries (I used just a few berries short of 3 quarts), remove the tops and cut into pieces. Yes, it's time consuming. It took me the better part of 30 minutes to do just the cutting up part. But it's worth it, trust me!

As you're cutting the berries up, toss them into the blender. After the addition of about every 1/2 cup of berry chunks, you'll want to puree them. In my first batch I added about an ounce of water just to get the berries going, but the second batch I didn't have to add any water-n you really want to avoid adding extra water if you can as it will have to be cooked off later.

Eventually, you wind up with about 5 cups of strawberry puree (at this point you could do all sorts of fun things with it- you could put it in a squeeze bottle to put on ice cream, you could make jam or run it through a fine sieve to strain out the seeds and go on to make jelly, you could add some simple syrup and sparkling white wine and put it in a sealable container in the freezer and make a sort of sorbet...mmmm, gotta love strawberries!). Put the puree in a large pot on the stove and heat on low-medium heat. Once it starts to steam, you can add about 1/4 teaspoon of citric acid (which you will have on hand if you make your own dishwasher detergent. It's available at brewery supply stores. If you don't have any handy, use about 1/3 teaspoon of Kool Aid powder- lemon lime works best. That stuff is almost pure citric acid. If you don't have either on hand, use a Tablespoon or so of lemon juice. Any of them will enhance the strawberries' tart bite, and also preserve the color. I used it in the first batch, but I really think I liked the second batch where I didn't use it better.) Let the butter cook, gently bubbling, for about an hour- you should notice it getting thicker after about 1/2 an hour. Make sure to stir it every few minutes so it doesn't stick in the pan. After the butter has cooked down to about the consistency you want it to be, add 1/2 cup sugar. If you add the sugar later in the cooking process, rather than at the beginning, it will be less likely to stick. The sugar part of this is a little tricky, as everyone likes a different amount. I tend to err on the side of caution with the sugar- you can't take it out once it's in. The recipes I've read say use 1 cup sugar for every 5 cups of strawberry puree. Let the puree cook get good and hot again after you add the sugar to make sure it all dissolves. It will be gently bubbling at the right temperature. DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK ON IT! Unlike applebutter, which you can ignore for long periods, strawberry butter will stick to the bottom of the pan at a moment's notice and the part that sticks, while still tasty, will turn a sort of dark brown/black color. Not very pretty in your jar when done. You can make it as thick or runny as you desire, but the key to remember is to make it a little runnier when hot than you want it once it is cooled. Obviously, it will thicken as it cools. Once it is at the point of thickness you want it, taste it and make sure that it is sweet enough to suit your taste. If you want it sweeter, add more sugar. If you like it fine, leave it. The amount of sugar you use will probably vary with every batch anyway, as the berries may be more or less ripe and sweet each time.

I then covered my strawberry butter and removed it from the heat to sit overnight. This is by no means a required step, but I prefer to be able to sample the taste and texture of my final product before I can it.

Now you're ready to can! You should remember to write the name of what you have made and the date on the canning flats BEFORE you start, as its so much easier to do before they are on top of a jar. I always forget. But I guess the important part is to make sure you've got the jars labeled. I used the water bath method described in the apple butter post. Same exact technique- you just need to bring your butter back up to where it is just about to bubble and it's ready to go into the hot jars. I'd have to say that my canning funnel is one of my more favorite possessions. Work quickly, but you can probably avoid making as much of a mess as I always do! Any jars that don't seal should go straight into the fridge to be used first- they should last a couple of months at least.

Once the strawberry butter is canned, it's ready to gift. I usually take the rings off and lay a square of pretty fabric on top, replace the ring and tie with a ribbon. Something else that looks very nice is to do a little cross stitch pattern and put that under the ring. Either can be made specific to the gift giving occasion. Christmas? use red and green or holiday themed fabric. Or cross stitch some holly berries or a wreath. Birthday? Find some pretty fabric and use a bunch of ribbon, or cross stitch "Happy Birthday". Hostess gift? Use the hostess' favorite colors, or find something to match her kitchen. You get the idea.

Another fun idea is to use strawberry butter in a gift basket. If you're like me, you make different things at different times of year. Apple butter is made in the fall or early winter. Strawberry butter is made when strawberries are at their peak (and inexpensive to buy!). So you could make a dozen jars of it and use them to make gift baskets at any time of year. The possibilities are vast, but a few ideas are: Mother's Day: make mom a "breakfast in bed" basket- a jar of strawberry butter, a jar of applebutter, a loaf of crusty bread or some croissants, a spread knife with a pretty handle, some fancy coffee, and wrap them all on a cutting board or a pretty platter. Add a large flower to the bow. Or a picnic basket- a gift idea that works for just about anyone. For men: buy a fishing creel or a small cooler and pack it with a few other "snacky" goodies. Another fun idea would be for a little girl's (heck, or a big girl's) tea party- a few mismatched pretty plates and tea cups from the thrift store, a pretty piece of fabric for a tablecloth, a loaf of bread baked into a fancy shape (flowers and hearts are what you usually see), some fun teas and you've got yourself quite a party!

Enjoy the strawberry butter- it is so worth every second of the couple of hours it takes to make. And happy gifting!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Make Your Own Dryer Balls

As part of my ongoing attempts to save more money, use less energy and have a 'greener' household in general, I decided to try dryer balls. I picked up a pair of the sort of PVC (I guess- they're pretty hard plastic) ones with the little nubbies all over them. And they work GREAT! I have to say I love mine. One of my followers, themiscellaneousbride, didn't have a kind word to say about them indicating that they tore holes in her clothes and she missed the April Freshness of fabric softener, but really I've been super impressed. They cut my drying time in half, make my clothes, towels, sheets, etc. super soft and fluffy and while I can't say I've ever had any trouble with static in my clothes, the dryer balls certainly didn't make it any worse. I will note that when I used them I tucked them into the clothes so as to avoid having them clang around in the dryer too much. In general anything that makes your dryer thump is very hard on it. Besides, I figured that the whole purpose of the balls is to get pockets of air into the clothes so they dry faster, and static is produced when fabric rubs on fabric, so if there is something in the way that prevents the fabric from rubbing on itself, then the static should have a harder time forming, right?

Anywho...So the dryer balls I got from Aldi are brilliant, and I got them for a song- they were $3.99 (unfortunately they aren't carrying them now)- compared to the $10-20 that I've seen identical ones go for. But storebought dryer balls just weren't green enough or DIY enough to suit me. Surely you can make them yourself?

Of course you can. The gear for the job? A bunch of yarn, a pair of old pantyhose or trouser socks and a crochet hook. Most of the websites I saw indicated you should make them out of 100% wool yarn. But that's pretty expensive unless you happen to own sheep, or have inherited a lot of wool yarn. So I bought 1 skein of a relatively neutral color of wool (it needs to be 100% wool so it will felt properly), and I had some cheap poly yarn on hand (Red Heart brand, if you're counting). The idea is to make a "core" of poly yarn, then cover it with several layers of wool yarn, which you will then felt. Once felted the yarn won't unravel.

You start with the poly yarn and wrap it around and around your hand until you've got a nice hunk of yarn. Gently slide the yarn off your hand.

Then, wind the yarn around the center of the loop you just made. And around and around....several times. just to really secure it.

Next, fold the mess in half and wrap the free end of the yarn around that. It WILL look like a mess at first, but keep wrapping. This is the foundation of your yarn ball. The idea is to continue wrapping the yarn, and rotate the ball ever so slightly on each turn, so that the yarn doesn't overlap itself.

Eventually, you'll have a lovely sphere of yarn. When the sphere is as large as you want it, cut the yarn and use the crochet hook to pull the tail through the ball so it is secure.

Then wrap the poly yarn ball with at least 3 layers of wool yarn. The ball needs to be completely covered in wool in order for it to felt and hold the poly yarn core inside. Since poly yarn won't felt, if it was exposed it would just turn to a giant mass of spaghetti in your washer/dryer.

After you've covered it in wool, use the crochet hook to pull the tail of the wool yarn through the ball to secure it, slip the whole ball into the toe of the hose. I used a trouser sock. They were 2 pairs for $2, and I'll be able to reuse them since I could just slip the ball into the toe and not have to knot it. Then toss it in your washer. I had to wash mine several times and dry it several times before it really looked like it was felting. Basically, felting is just agitating wool in water. The hotter the better, but it will still felt in cold. You could do it by hand.....but I found it easy to just toss it in the wash then move to the dryer with the clothes. When that load was dry, I tossed the ball back into the washer for the next load.

After about 3 wash and dry cycles, I had a partially felted ball of yarn. At this point, you will want to pull it out of the sock and wrap with several more layers of wool yarn. Pull the tail into the ball with the crochet hook, put it back in the sock and felt again.

Once it's felted, you have a completed dryer ball. Just toss it in the dryer with your laundry. I would say that in theory, a wool dryer ball would be kinder to your clothes than a PVC ball would, and wool is an ideal material for dryer balls as it is a renewable fiber and also will not burn.

There is also a method of making dryer balls from old (felted) wool sweaters. I'll try that as soon as I can score a free wool sweater. Stay tuned for that one!

Once my yarn dryer ball finishes it's final felting, I'll post a picture! Happy felting!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Repurposing- Produce Bags from Bath Poufs

I need to make new bath poufs. I'm sick of the ones we buy (for a dollar, can't *really* complain) falling apart after a few months of use. So I'll be making some out of washclothes once I figure out exactly what I want them to look like. I figure those should last for at least a couple years instead of a couple months. But what to do with the net one that just fell apart?

So when you cut the cord off the pouf, you're left with about 15 feet of continuous tube netting. There are probably all sorts of things you can do with it at this point. I was thinking originally about making it into pot scrubbers, and it would also work for keeping your delicates corralled in the laundry. But it also makes dandy bags for produce or wild harvest.

All you have to do is tie a knot in the end (I twirled the net a bit to make it sort of a cord then knotted it- this helps you be able to pull it tight). Pull the knot very tight or it will come undone.

Then you cut the net to the length you want, so that you get the size of bag you want. I cut 2 of mine super long to hold cattails, and then a few small ones to hold fruit or veggies at the market, or wild harvest items.

**NOTE** One of the bags I made seemed to tear awful easily. I'm not sure if that was just a weak spot on the net, or what. But until I am able to test them out further, I'm not sure that produce bags are the best "repurpose" for bath poufs. It did work just dandy to tie around bundles of cattails to keep them together for lugging back to the car, and would also make a nice dish sponge. Oh well, you live and learn, right? :)