Yard Project: Gardening Corner

So, this is our big project from this summer.  We have a corner of our yard that is next to the house and surrounded by fence.  It doesn’t get a lot of sunlight and the grass wasn’t growing, so it was pretty eroded.  The previous owners seemed to have been using it as a compost heap.  Combine that with the fact that our back porch was crowded by my gardening supplies, our grill, and our potted plants, and we needed a solution.  I will admit my husband did most of the planning on this.  He was itching to get his hands dirty on a big project.

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We skipped a few steps before the first photo.  Prior to this, we dug out the area and leveled it as best we could.  It was pretty sloped, and on the right side of the photo, we were hitting the edge of the foundation.  You can kind of see how far it had eroded, compared to the grass at the edge of the photo.  So in addition to creating a place for my gardening tools, we were hoping it would stop more erosion from happening.  We did have a lot of extra dirt from the leveling, hence the bucket.  We added that to our flower beds.

The first set of bricks went down, and we tried to really focus on getting them stable.

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After the first layer of bricks, we put down landscape fabric.  This is supposed to help keep the stones and gravel from travelling away from the pit.  In addition, it should keep it from getting too muddy underneath the stones.  Note how we tried to keep an edge of the fabric on top of the bricks.  When we put down the second layer of bricks, the landscape fabric will be caught between the layers, making it even more stable.

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Second layer of bricks.  The white stuff is adhesive.  We might not have needed it, but again, anything to make it more stable.

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The first layer of stone.  This is just regular drainage stone.  Supposedly it will also help keep the smaller gravel from traveling.

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The rest of the pit is filled with pea gravel.  At this point, it’s ready.  We did have a couple of extra bricks.  We got paranoid that we wouldn’t have enough and so bought some more that we ended up not needing.  We might use them in another project, but for now they’re stacked on the edge.

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The final results.  My trunk/bench back there is filled with my gardening hand tools, extra pots, and various fertilizers.  As you can see, we also had several bags of garden soil and a big bag of peat moss.  Our porch opened up so much once we got all that stuff off of it.  And next spring, replanting all my pots should be a breeze, with this nice little corner to work in.

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Drainage Area – Yard Project

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One of the first projects we attempted this summer was to make this drainage area.  The garden hose hangs next to the back door, but just off the porch.  During the summer we were watering our container garden every day.  This area beneath the hose didn’t have any grass and so it turned muddy every day.  This project was pretty easy, but it did require two people, mainly due to our choice of edging.  I chose this very thin edging because I didn’t want to take out a lot of the yard, but if I did it again, I think I’d choose something sturdier.  We had a lot of trouble trying to get it to stay in the ground.  We lined the bottom with landscape fabric.  Then we filled it with one bag of egg rock (this isn’t the brand we used).  I was going for a round river rock bed sort of feel.

As you can see, it turned out pretty ok.  We haven’t had any more problems with mud in that area, and I think it looks nicer than the little bit of grass we had there before.  This leads into a larger project that will post about soon.

HOW TO: Adjust a Basic Hem

I know I haven’t written in a while.  Life’s been busy, and unfortunately a lot of the projects I would normally write about have fallen by the wayside.  I’m slowly picking them up again, and in honor of NaNoWriMo, I thought that I would try to start posting on a more regular basis.  We’ll start with a post I’ve been sitting on for quite some time.

So, let’s say you’re short, like me, so every pair of pants is too long. Or you found the perfect skirt, but it’s below the knee instead of above like you like. Instead of leaving that perfect item of clothing on the rack, go ahead and buy it, and learn how to do a basic hem. This is one of the things that a lot of people don’t know how to do, but it is fairly easy. If you’re nervous, you can always take the clothing to a tailor.

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This pair of trousers is one that I bought on a whim online. They fit everywhere just fine, but they are too long. And where else would I find a pair of eggplant colored trousers? So, I needed to get them hemmed. The first step is to figure out how much you need to take the hem up. This will mainly depend on what shoes you want to wear with the pants. It’s a good idea to have a friend help, as trying to mark and keep it even while wearing the item can be rather difficult. These pants were already pinned before I started writing this post thanks to help from my friend, Erin. Just seeing how much I had to fold the hem back should give you an idea of how long these were on me.

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In this tutorial, I’m doing what I’m calling a folded hem, because my trousers were made out of a woven material, which is prone to fraying once it’s been cut. That might not be the term you see in sewing books, but once you see the method, I’m sure you’ll understand why I call it that. If you only need to take the pants up a little, you might want to try preserving the original hem as much as you can. Here’s a tutorial on that technique for jeans. For my example pair, they were much too long, so I needed to actually cut them. Be very careful, as you can’t undo the cutting once it has happened.

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I marked my pair where I wanted the fold to happen, and where I want the actual hem to be. This told me where my cutting line was. I used a hem gauge to try to keep it consistent between the two legs, but a regular thin plastic ruler should work fine. I also used a rotary cutter to cut my fabric. I prefer these because they are quick, they do straight lines easier, and they cut through multiple layers of fabric at the same time. Be careful though, they’re not pizza cutters, and they are very sharp. You’ll also need a protective mat so you don’t cut your surface.

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After cutting, I did a zigzag stitch on the edge. We’re going to do everything we can to keep this cut edge from fraying, hence the folded hem. A zigzag stitch is a good substitute for using a serger, which is what professional seamstresses and commercial companies use to finish hems. Think the hem on your t-shirt.

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Then I folded and ironed, and folded and ironed. Ironing helps keep all the edges crisp and keeps things lined up for when you’re planning to sew. Notice how my zigzag edge is now tucked completely inside the folds of the hem? That will also help to minimize fraying.

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The last step is to hand-sew the top of the ironed fold to the actual pant leg so the folds don’t come undone. I’m hand sewing because the original hem on these trousers was an invisible hem, so I don’t want any obvious stitching. If it’s blue jeans, or you don’t mind having an obvious line for the hem stitch, you can use a sewing machine, but most of my trousers have this invisible hem. Just use a needle, pick up the fold with the thread, and pick up the pant leg. You can almost spot my hem here because I have a tendency to pull my thread too tight.

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And the results. They look much better, and I can wear them with flats or heels. So have no fear. Hemming is one of the simplest alterations you can make to a garment, and if you want to take it to a tailor, it tends to be one of the cheapest.

Post-Turkey Day Broth

So yesterday was Thanksgiving.  I had a few friends over, made a turkey, dressing, gravy, the whole big deal.  There, as there are every year, were a few hiccups.  My turkey ended up being done a whole two hours earlier than I expected, so I had to scramble to pull together the side dishes.  Thankfully (har har), my friends were understanding.

Now it’s the day after, which for me means cleanup and dealing with leftovers.  Now, I’m actually a big fan of Thanksgiving leftovers.  Eating the same thing for 3 or 4 days in a row may sound boring, but I don’t really eat this stuff any other time of year, so it’s a treat.  I have convinced Andrew that maybe we should attempt turkey more often so I can try some of those other “Thanksgiving Leftover” recipes.

But one tradition that I’ve never done before that I’m doing right now is making Turkey Broth the day after.  I do this with chickens all the time, and my method is pretty much the same.  So it made no sense for me to not do it with a turkey.  If you haven’t already thrown your carcass away, I totally recommend this.

Recipe: Turkey Broth

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Ingredients:

  • Turkey carcass, preferably not completely cleaned (or add raw meat)
  • Celery, chopped
  • Onion, chopped
  • Carrots, chopped
  • Flavorings: I use a bay leaf, some thyme, some parsley, and a parmesan rind.

Directions:

Making a broth isn’t too hard.  You put everything in a stock pot, cover with water, and simmer until everything falls apart.  It normally takes a least a couple hours with a bone broth like this, just to get everything cooked.  Some people like to skim any nasty bits off the top, but I normally only worry about that after it’s all done.

My secret to easy clean up is using a steamer basket in the bottom of the pot.  Then, when I’m done, I grab the handle with tongs and pull it out and place it in a bowl.  No fiddly chopped veggie bits to give me problems.

When it’s done, let it cool.  If you want to remove the fat, put it in the fridge so the fat all rises to the top and solidifies.  It doesn’t bother me, I like having that extra flavor.  I also like to divide it up into freezer bags and then freeze it.  That way, if I need broth for a recipe, all I have to do is pull it out of the freezer.

HowTo: Make Soapnuts Liquid

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So, I realized something not too long ago, which was that I do not use normal laundry detergent.  Some people might find this strange.  For me, it only makes sense.  If I want to go more “natural” with my food, why not in other aspects of my life?  Now, of course, not everything that is “natural” is safe.  Many poisons are natural concoctions.  But things like detergent tend to be made from chemicals or petroleum products.  Not exactly something I’d consider sustainable.  So, here I’m going to tell you what I do for laundry soap.

First of all, what is a soapnut?  According to Wikipedia, soapnuts are the fruits of a tree or shrub related to the Lychee family.  Soapnuts are also known as soapberries.  The outside of the nut contains saponin, a natural surfactant, or substance that messes with the surface tension of the water.  It’s basically a natural soap.  They grow mainly in the sub-tropical regions of Asia and India, so that may be why it seems only recently they’ve gained popularity.  You can see in the picture above what they look like and how big they are.  They are supposedly great for people with sensitive skin, but I don’t have super-sensitive skin, so I can’t say.  Another advantage to soapnuts is that they don’t bubble or foam like commercial detergents, which makes them great for high-efficiency washing machines like mine.

So how do you use them?  Well, if you do all your laundry on the same day, you place three or four of them in a drawstring bag like the one above, and toss them right in with the clothes.  (Hot water works better than cold for this method.)  Andrew and I tend to do a single batch every couple of days, and try to minimize our use of hot water, and so making a soapnuts liquid makes more sense.

1.  Take 12-15 soapnuts and place them in at least a 2 qt pot.  If there are halves, two halves count as 1 nut.

6034393536_81d24ea334_o2.  Add 6 cups of water, and bring to a boil.

3.  Once the mixture boils, lower the heat to keep it simmering, and simmer for at least 30 minutes.  The goal is to get the water to condense into a concentrated soap liquid form.  You may need to add some liquid to keep the pot from drying out, so keep an eye on it.  However, I’ve never had to do this.

4.  After mixture is done boiling, turn off the heat and let it cool in the pot.  Set up whatever container you want to keep the liquid in.  Here, I’m using a wide-mouth quart glass jar.  You’ll need a funnel also.  Take some paper towels (or cloth ones if you like) and dampen them before lining the funnel with them.  See the picture.
6034395254_6ae4534366_o  The point of dampening the towels is to keep from losing liquid to the paper towels, which will filter out the nuts and any other little pieces we don’t want to put in with our clothes.

5.  Begin pouring the soapnuts liquid into the top of the filter.  This may take a while, because you can’t dump it in there all at once.  You’ll notice a fruity smell; that’s perfectly normal.  These are berries, after all.

6.  Once done, put on the cap and put it in the fridge.  Putting it in the fridge keeps it from spoiling, though if you notice a fermenting smell, you’ve probably let it go too long.  I haven’t had a problem with it.

To use, put 3 tablespoons where your normal detergent would go.  If handwashing an item, use 2 teaspooons.

Now, I know you’re wondering if it gets your clothes clean.  I haven’t had any problems.  My clothes don’t have a noticeable detergent smell anymore, but they certainly don’t smell dirty.  For stains, I add Borax in with the detergent.  If the stain is really tough, I use a commercial stain remover stick.  I’ve heard vinegar works, but I don’t like the smell, so I avoid it unless I really feel it’s necessary to get rid of other smells (forgotten loads in the washer, anyone?)  Vinegar also supposedly works as a fabric softener.  I don’t use it in that way, and I don’t use dryer sheets.  I use wool yarn dryer balls.  They make more noise, especially if you have a small batch in the dryer, but I feel like they agitate my clothes well and “fluff” them.  I put in two dryer balls for each batch.

Sources for soapnuts: I got my first small batch at my local health food store.  If you can’t find any there, I recommend Naturoli on Amazon.  Start off with a small tester batch to see if you like it, and then you can do what I do and buy them by the kilo.  Soapnuts liquid can also supposedly be used as a dish soap, hand soap, even shampoo.  I don’t use it for any of these, though I might consider it for hand soap in the future.

P.S. Make sure you label the jar or have some other way of identifying it, especially for other family members or roommates.  You don’t want to accidentally eat this!

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Happy 1-Year Anniversary!

So, due to the craziness that was my general exams, I missed the 1-year anniversary of the blog.  That’s sort of sad, but I’ve made surprising progress over the last year, regardless.  To celebrate, I’ve changed the appearance of the blog.  Let’s take a walk down memory lane and go back to a couple of old posts, just to remember how it all started.

  1. The First Real Post – The first non-intro blog post was about how I was attempting to give certain fashion trends a fair shake.  Since then, I’ve worn several skirts, dresses, my shoe collection has ballooned.  I got the courage to empty my closet of almost everything that doesn’t fit.  Expect another fashion post or two, as a tribute back to the beginning.
  2. Best Recipe Success – There were several attempts at slow-cooker success over the past year, but by far, the tastiest is the slow-cooker tortilla soup.  I’m going to dig out this recipe and make it again, as the craving for home-cooked food comes back.  It’s also a reminder to attempt to reproduce the green sauce.  A project for this summer, perhaps?
  3. Productivity! – In the fall, I implemented Getting Things Done for College Students.  I never really did a follow-up post, but fall semester was almost entirely stress-free (except for big exams), and this semester was very stressful, but definitely would have been more so if I didn’t have this system.  This will be helping me stay on top of things this summer too.
  4. There were How-Tos, and other recipes too.  We also discovered I don’t like turmeric.
That’s just things that have happened in the crazy first year of this blog.  Prepare for another year of crazy productivity, more recipes, more how-tos, and more stuff I haven’t thought of yet.

HowTo: Crisp Lettuce for Salads and Keep It

sd530709So, I’m starting yet another new series of posts.  This is my HowTo series, where I show you how I do some things around the house, or my craft projects, or various other things that I know how to do that other people may not.  (There won’t be any serious math work here, I promise!)

For my inaugural post, I’m going to show you how I prepare lettuce to keep in the fridge.  I like salads; crisp, crunchy, sweet, sour, fruity, collections of random tasty stuff.  However, I used to have a problem with my lettuce going bad, long before I used it all.  Produce isn’t cheap, so this was very disappointing for me.  This method fixed all that.

So, here’s my process.  First, I buy a head of lettuce.  I’m sure this will work on any kind, but I’m partial to green leaf lettuce.  It has darker green leaves, which makes me think it has more vitamins than iceburg or romaine.  Not a nutritionist though, so don’t quote me on that.  Green leaf lettuce tends to have cone-shaped heads, narrow at the stem at the bottom, and spread out due to the thick leaves at the top.  As soon as I get it home, I do this:

  1. Prepare a bowl of ice cubes, ice water, and water from the tap (to finish filling it up). Tear off whole leaves from the base of the head and submerge in the ice water.  Fit as many as you can while still having the top leaves covered in water.  You’ll probably have to do 3 or 4 batches, depending on the size of your head.
  2. If you notice in the above photo, there’s a white thing in the upper right corner.  That’s my salad spinner.  I used to think these were useless unnecessary contraptions, used by yuppies and lazy cooks.  My view has definitely changed.  The first time I tried crisping, I used only paper towels, and wasted almost a whole roll trying to dry lettuce leaves!  Mine’s super cheap, so I recommend getting one, even if you used to think like me.   So step 2 is to run your leaves through the salad spinner.  Don’t overcrowd the spinner.  You’ll probably need to spin in 3 or 4 batches for one full ice water batch.  Also, be careful not to break or tear the leaves.  That will cause them to brown in the fridge.
  3. Now you should have some nice crisp dry leaves.  Pull out some paper towels (or cloth towels if you’re going eco.  I haven’t found any that I like touching my food yet.)  Arrange the leaves on the paper towel like the photo at right.  I alternate the orientation so that when I roll up the paper towel, I don’t get a cone shape.  This makes them fit better in the plastic bag.  Once you have the paper towel full of leaves, roll it up like a yoga mat.sd530710
  4. Place your new lettuce paper towel roll in a gallon size plastic food bag.  (I don’t have any eco suggestions for this one, sorry.)
  5. Repeat the above steps until you’ve gone through the whole head of lettuce.  This process probably takes about half an hour, but then you’ll have lettuce ready for a week or two (however long it takes you to eat through it).  You’ll probably also notice that when you are done, your ice water will have some dirt or sand in it.   You didn’t really want to eat that, did you?  So the process serves two purposes.

To use the lettuce, pull the bag out of the fridge, take out the top roll, unroll it and select your leaves.  Tear them up into a salad, put them on a hamburger, whatever you use lettuce for.  No further prep work.  I like this compared to some other crisping methods I’ve read about because the leaves are ready whenever you want them, and there’s no additional prep work.  Some methods have you crisp right before you eat, but that means you’d be pulling out the salad spinner every time you want to eat salad.  Here, you only have to pull it out when you buy the lettuce.

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The bag of lettuce, ready for the fridge

At the moment, I’m buying my lettuce from the supermarket, but the farmer’s market is supposed to start next month, and I’m going to try growing some mixed baby lettuces indoors this spring.  I will definitely try this method on those as well and report back.  If it works, this means that my garden lettuces could potentially last much longer and I wouldn’t always have to wait for new growth to have an interesting salad.