Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas credits

I quit. The hundred dollar holiday simply can't be done-at least not by me if I remain part of any aspect of mainstream life this time of year. I couldn't even pull off the $800 holiday. We tried to cut back and just when I think we're doing ok, I remember I haven't bought for the teachers or even my husband! It isn't even the gifts, it is also the white shirts and black pants my kids needed for their holiday concerts, the cookies that I said I'd bring to church, the pointesetia fundraiser, the nights out with friends who are in town just this week. I am not sure which of those things I could have, or would have wanted to, cut out.

So this is my new thought. Maybe we can go overboard at Christmas-buy things just for fun, eat too much, drink too much, light too many lights, travel great distances and on and on. The wimsicle gift that gets a laugh is more memorable than the "needed" gift on someones list. Is it ok to be wasteful once in awhile if it is more personal and meaningful?

What if we could only do this though if we offset our consumption with giving. I try to have my kids pack up a "give away" box of toys they've outgrown each year (before the landslide of new ones comes in). Maybe I could do the same-whatever I spend, I have to donate to a charity. If I have a $100 holiday, I donate $100. If I choose to spend $1000-well I have to donate that much as well. It certainly would be more in the spirit of the holiday and might even make me think twice about each purchase. Maybe I could even start small-donate a percentage and then see if I can raise the ratio of donating/purchasing each year.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nature's Decoration

Every year I've purchased a boy scout wreath from my friend's son. Since he is no longer in scouting, I thought this would be a good year to challenge myself to come up with something festive for free. Last weekend when we were doing our fall yard clean up, I collected these cuttings for a back-porch holiday decoration. I am not too talented when it comes to floral arrangements, but I thought this was at least as good as a boy scout wreath. $30 saved. 

What to do on Buy Nothing Day Nov 28th

This Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year. Why not celebrate our commitment against excess consumption by joining in on Buy Nothing Day. For more info go to the New American Dream at

This is what my 5 year old I did today instead of shopping. Next she wants to have a party for her doll (If she can get me off the computer). That sure beats at day at the mall. 

Sunday, November 23, 2008

gifts for kids to make and give

Tina's comment on the advent calendar reminded me that I need to think of an idea for my kids to make for gifts this year. I too and thrilled that my children love to make and give gifts. However, a few years back it got out of hand, with each child wanting to make a multitude of gifts for every family member (all starting in December!). An easier solution has been for us to make a family gift, from all of us to each of the households in our family. If the kids come up with extra ideas and we have the time, that is fine too. I like to think of ideas that are somewhat simple for all ages to participate in making and useful (not just something that gets set out and then tossed). Here is a list of what we have done in the past:

homemade rootbeer (made last Solstice eve: very fun and yummy!)
pinecone firestarters (dipped in wax and salt)
rolled beeswax candles
bookmarks (ribbon with beads and charms)
notepads (you can have a printer make one with your kids' small drawing for really cheap)
hot cocoa mix
lavender sachets
suet bird feeder squares
notecards from photos from our garden etc
bedroom door notepad/message boards for all the cousins

Now I am in need of a new idea! I could go back and repeat, but it is more fun to try new stuff.I just started a subscription to Living Crafts magazine I am thinking of making beaded prayer bowls. Any ideas from all of you?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Advent Idea

Tonight I will snuggle in front of a movie and cut out pictures from last year's Holiday cards for my kids' Advent Calender. I loved opening those little windows as a child! I used to buy the calenders for my kids but the cost added up quickly when we had three children and then it bothered me that we'd just throw them away at the end of the month. I tried reusing them the next year, but it just isn't the same when the seal on those windows are already cracked and you know what is inside. So a few years back I cam up with an idea that I'd give my kids something fun to look forward to each day-an activity rather than a picture or piece of candy.

This is how it works: I cut out a holiday picture and then write on the back something special for one or all of the children for that day. I fold and tape the cards and string them along a ribbon with numbers for each day until the Winter Solistice. Sometimes it is things that we are already doing anyway such as a holiday concert or breakfast with Santa. Other times it is things we like to do but we set aside time for it such as cutting out snowflakes, baking cookies or family snowball fight. I also add a "date" for each child with each parent where we can play a game or go out for hot chocolate one-to-one. Sometimes we have to trade days because plans changed and that evening is going to work a lot better for "dance to The Nutcrakcer" than it is "baking cookies". The kids love it. It ritualizes and makes special ordinary things (like getting out the Christmas books) and organizes the chaos of one holiday event after another. It helps me to slow down and enjoy the season with my kids and, it's FREE!

I'll try to add a picture when I am done.

Goodness at the Yuletide Faire

I went to the Yuletide Faire at the Prairie Hill Waldorf School in Pewaukee last night with Jill and Kris and found myself very nearly swooning over all the great gifts there. I've been to the Yuletide Faire before, but I have never bought anything. This year I went equipped with money and the knowledge that this was to be one of only 2 Christmas shopping experiences this season (the other will be the Art vs. Craft Fair next weekend in Milwaukee). I came away with some great things for Christmas and some even cooler things for my nephew's birthday this week:

  • The book above "Santa's Favorite Story" by Hisako Aoki and Ivan Gantschev is for the book-a-day for advent project I am working on and will write more about after Thanksgiving. The book only came in paperback, a bummer for longevity, but excellent in the price of $6. The illustrations are super sweet and the text is simple, perfect for my 3 year old.
  • The goat milk soaps from Andrea's Alpacas were purchased for possible use in my family's grab bag, though I still have another idea in mind for that so these soaps might end up being used by me :) I bought three fabulous scents: "Quiet Seasons", "My Man", and "Soft Vanilla Sugar". Now smelling the Vanilla Sugar again this morning I'm thinking these might just be for me. Hmmm. The heavenly soaps cost $5 apiece for a total of $15.

I then bought a fabulous present for my nephew whose birthday is coming up next week. It doesn't count towards the hundred dollars since it is a birthday present, but I had to share the cuteness on the blog (Henry avert your eyes). Waldorf people know great toys and this year their school store had a zillion ultra adorable wooden ones. I got this fabulous gnome house and two tumbling gnomes to go in it (thanks to Maya for pointing the cool gnomes out to me). The gnomes tumble head over heels when placed on an incline. The gnome house is so cool that now I wish I had gotten one for me. Not for my daughter, but for me. No idea how this present will go over with Henry, but I love it. Really, isn't that what gift giving is all about? Hee, hee.

Now, for the one that got away. There were many items that I considered buying (but Jill was next to me asking how it fit into my hundred dollar holiday, so she was like a much needed lock on my wallet. Thanks Jill! And there is no sarcasm there), but only one that I woke up this morning wishing I had bought. It was something for me, not a gift for someone else, but it was so cute it made me smile. It was a little bird wallet by Rosybird. You can check out her Etsy store here. I love to see great independent crafters out there selling their wares and trying to make a living from it. You just can't beat buying things directly from the person who made them, so that is another reason I should have bought it. Alas. Sometimes my frugality gets the best of me (I am a total cheapskate, sadly). As luck would have it she will be at Art vs. Craft next weekend so I can buy it then :)

All in all it was a fun evening out with friends and a great feeling to support a really wonderful school (my daughter is in the playgroup there and I can't say enough good things about Prairie Hill).

Total to date: $21.00

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Time vs. Money

In my former life before kids I would try to make most of the gifts that I gave to people. This was easy when time was my currency and I had boundless amounts of free time laid out in front of me. I cross-stitched elaborate patterns for my mother, knit cute things and wrote silly little books for my nieces and nephews, and sewed fun things for my in-laws. But now that I have a little one of my own it is becoming much more complicated to string together enough moments to make gifts for the important people in my life. Which makes the one hundred dollar holiday more of a challenge this year than it has been in the past. I have been working on knitting a scarf for my mother (pictured above) out of this divine mohair/silk blend yarn and it is growing slowly and it could be completed by Christmas. But just yesterday my mom mentioned that she and my dad would most like a printer for Christmas, which made my little knit scarf seem a) insignificant and b) much more expensive because the time that I would put into it would be much more valuable than the money that would go towards a printer (split five ways amongst my siblings and I). Of course, giving a printer would quickly eat away at a third to a half of my allotted hundred dollars, even after the cost has been split five ways. And a printer doesn't seem very Christmas-y to me, whereas a scarf very nearly screams holiday spirit. Alas, we'll see how this dilemma plays out.

If you are interested in making things for Christmas this year I highly recommend these two blogs: Elise Blaha's Handmade Holidays and Sew, Mama, Sew. Lots of fun ideas on both.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Obligatory Giving

I love giving gifts. I love getting gifts. I hate feeling like I have to give gifts. I hate even more the feeling of not giving a gift when I feel like I should have. It's that last sentiment that I wish I could shake today.

This past weekend our family shared a day making Norwegian lefse (delicious potato crepe with wrapped up with butter and sugar). It is a wonderful tradition that we share with my husband's family and their best friends. It is the kind of tradition that I am so grateful that I married into-shared work followed by a wonderful meal, an ethnic tradition passed down through the generations and a day so special that we all skip whatever we have going on to make it happen. This is the kind of day that the "hundred dollar holiday" is made of. 

It is perfect except that it has become transformed into another gift-giving holiday. It might have started because one of the kids has a birthday that same weekend. Or maybe it was the year that one woman bought us all "lefse making t-shirts". That was fun, but it should have stopped there. This year we drove home with three mini-basketballs, a clip on flash light, a holiday coloring book, holiday room spray, a holiday lotion 3-pack, a holiday double shot glass, a holiday jar opening/trivet, and a parafin wax foot spa. 

I brought nothing to give. I did this on purpose because I was tired of feeling like I should when there was no justifiable reason why I should.  I did this because all these little $20 mini-gifts and hostess gifts etc. add to our massive credit card debt every December and I am trying to put an end to the overspending. I did this because anything I would have bought would have been just because, not because they had any meaning. 

Now I feel like crap. I feel bad because I came empty handed and came home with a trunk-full, I feel bad because I like these people and it is fun to give... yet I didn't. I also feel bad because I now own a bunch of stuff that I didn't really need and how need to find a place for. I feel bad for feeling ungrateful. 

I am sure we all have "obligatory" gift giving scenarios we face each year. How do we handle these in a proactive way? How can we show our appreciation for others, give a gift of meaning etc without falling into the trap of more spending, more waste? Looking forward to everyone's insight.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hundred Dollar Holiday

We're back... for a bit. Over the next month and a half Kristin and I, along with a few other guest bloggers, will be challenging ourselves to create a more meaningful holiday season by, among many other things, spending less money. The inspiration for this came from the title of Bill McKibben's book, Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for More Joyful Christmas, which explores how we can make the holiday season more about traditions, family, and meaning and less about spending money. Our plan is to document over the course of the next 40-odd days how we spend our days and our money. At the end of each blog post we will give our monetary totals to date, but most post will also discuss how we spend our time and how that enhances or detracts from the meaning of the season.

So... to our 1 and a half readers out there, please check back over the next few weeks and chime in on how you are spending your days or money this season!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Farewell for now

As I'm sure you have noticed, I have become a pathetically infrequent blogger.  While I kept trying to tell myself I could keep up with the posting with a brand new 2-year old underfoot, the reality is I'm just unable to find the time (or energy) to contribute to this blog anymore.  We had high hopes for this blog to become a network for lake country enviros, but for now we will have to put those hopes on hold as I get a better handle on parenthood.  We will leave the blog up so that the resources and ideas that we have been able to compile will still be available, but we will not be posting regularly for some time.  We appreciate all the comments and ideas that people have shared over the past 6 months.  Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Raising Environmentalists Without Rallies

Ever since I was 4 years old I have been going to a rustic cabin on a remote lake in Ontario Canada with my family. The water is clean enough to drink right from the lake, there are few people and there are more stars at night than a city dweller could ever imagine. Over the years this became a place where I recharged my soul for the year ahead. It is where I feel one with all of creation. It became sacred to me by the time I was 8. Around that time, we heard that the government was going to open up the land to logging and a road was going to be built near our cabin. Prior to that time we had to take a boat across a 10 mile lake to reach our cabin. I am sure the adults initially saw this as a relief and a welcome convenience. My brother and I were horrified. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. After I cried over the news, I became angry and wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Canada letting him know how logging was going to ruin this place for my family and all the animals that lived here. This was my first act as an environmentalist.

I share this story to illustrate that I did not learn to protect the earth from anything I was taught at school, from Earth Day celebrations or from hearing about pollution in the news. I learned to be an environmentalist when something I felt a deep connection to was about to be taken away. I felt the wrongness of it in my core, even at that young age.

As an environmentalist I hope to share my convictions with my own children in hopes that they too will learn to live lightly and make the world a better place. I have been tempted to take my children to rallies and I admit that I have shared too many of my frustrations about the latest political/environmental clash from the news. Our young children don't need to know what is wrong with the world, at least not yet. Adult problems are for adult to work on. Children these days have enough of the despair of the adult world to carry around on their shoulders. What young children need is to spend time in nature in a state of wonder and awe. They need to find their own sacred places that become a part of who they are. My hope is that one day they too will be enraged at threats to the environment, but not because of what I have taught them, but because of how they have lived.

Spelunking at Ledge Park

I grew up in Wisconsin and have lived here my entire life minus three years, yet I am still discovering new and wonderful places. Our family's new favorite place to go is Ledge Park in Dodge County. This park is a few miles East of Horicon at the base of the the Horicon Marsh. It is about a 50 minute drive from the Lake Country area. The park has camping and the marsh, effigy mounds and the Wild Goose bike trail are all nearby. 

What makes this park so wonderful is the Ledge trail. This is a cluster of big rocks that make a series of "open caves" (feel like caves but are open at the top). Kids and adults alike have a fantastic time exploring and climbing. Both times we have been there, the kids were literally squealing with delight! 

Courtney and I would to hear about your favorite nature outings so we can keep discovering.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Nature Kids - Taking a Power Vacation

This month Kris and I will be blogging about ideas for exploring nature with your kids, places in and around Lake Country that are great for nature hikes, and ways to get your kids outside. We hope you will add your favorite places and ideas in the comments!

This weekend my husband and I hosted our 6th annual Cousin Camp, an event we host during the summer for our nieces and nephews. Each year we have a different theme (space camp, archeology camp, Survivor camp...) and this year the theme was "Unplugged". The premise was that no electricity could be used during camp (2 days). This theme paved the way for many cool activities (like tubing down the Bark River, as shown above) and it was great how not using electricity became a sort of game for the kids. Actually, pretty soon it was apparent that no one even missed the electricity... brushing teeth by the light of the campfire was fun, not a sacrifice. After camp my husband mentioned that we ourselves should have occasional "power vacations" where we turn off the power for a couple days. I thought this was a really cool idea and a great thing to do with kids as summer break winds down. What can you do on a "power vacation"? Here are just a few ideas:
  • Spend the whole day outside, making it a goal to not go inside (except perhaps to use the bathroom!)
  • Make tin can lanterns in preparation for an evening by candlelight
  • Cook dinner over a camp stove or campfire
  • Make a solar oven and bake cookies or some other goodies
  • Play outdoor games, a great list of all those old-time games can be found here
  • Build something (we built a play fort during camp using no power tools... the kids had a blast using old-time, manual drills and saws)
  • Put on an outdoor play
  • Read
  • Talk amongst yourselves
  • Go on a nature hike. Then go on another. Then another. Re-visit the same trail at different times of the day and see how it changes.
  • Count stars
  • Sleep in a tent
  • Make your own music
  • Bust out your old Snoopy Sno-cone maker or ice cream maker and build muscles while making tasty treats
The list could go on and on, of course, this is just a start. The point is to take yourself off the grid for a day and see where it takes you.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Another great reusable bag option

Check out this reusable bag company, Bags on the Run,
They are inexpensive ($1.50) so you can get some extras for the trunk of your car so you don't have the "I'd like to use cloth, but I keep forgetting my bags" excuse. I like the option of getting an organization logo printed-could be a great school or church fundraiser or promo.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Clean Your Plate

I grew up in the era where you ate everything off your plate, without complaint, before you were excused from the dinner table. While I wish I could have carried over the "without complaint" part, I made a decision early on in parenting not to force my children to eat. I wanted them to learn to listen to their own bodies rather than eat food simply because it was there. We do have rules-they need to try everything (3 bites) and eat something from every food group. I also give them a small helping and encourage them to finish that before having seconds on what they love. And, even though I said I would never do it, we do bribe them with desert.

I assume our household is not unique in that we have a lot of food that goes to waste. I recently heard that the national average is 40%. Scary! I am pretty sure that we come in below that number. I wrap up half-eaten sandwiches for another lunch and reserve the same helping a few times rather than throwing it away (don't tell my kids). A friend of mine has a diet plan where she just eats what her kids have left over (she always lost her pregnancy fat quickly!). I tended to do the opposite and eat my meal PLUS the rejected bread crusts. At some point I stopped doing this deciding that I was worth more than PB&J bread crusts.

Of course those crusts don't just go in the garbage! In our house food gets recycled too. Here are our top recycling systems

1. Dog and cat. I honestly don't know how anyone could have a toddler without a pet. I'd be spending all day cleaning the floor. I remember one of the first times we ate out at a restaurant and I was horrified to see how much food ended up on the floor. With a dog, I never knew. The downside....fat pets.

2. Chickens. Our girls get many savory morsels. They especially love those over-rip strawberries that are rejected by everyone but still free of mold

3. Worms. Yep, we've got a bin of red worms in our basement that eat some of our fruit and veggie scraps. Vermicomposting is a fun educational project and it is amazing how these worms turn food into good fertilizer for the garden. They are so easy that they we have been unable to kill them despite months of neglect. The little ones love picking out (saving) the worms from the finished compost come springtime. Another bonus-good fishing worms!

4. Outdoor compost. This is a must-have for families. I now see all the waste as a RESOURCE! I don't encourage waste, obviously, but I also don't stress about it either. Todays tossed banana peel is tomorrow's garden loam. My kids know that I am a compost freak and just love seeing how this food and weeds get transformed into dark rich soil every season. It is another perfect educational opportunity to learn all about micro-organisms, soil life and bugs and worms. Another bonus-taking out the compost bucket is a easy do-able chore for almost any age child.

Instead of "clean your plate", my kids will have memories of me calling out "scrape your plate"

kudos to Camp Invention

My son is attending Camp Invention this week and I was happy to see that not only are the kids building their inventions out of broken appliances and recyclables, but they are being taught how to disassemble their contraptions at the end of the week to separate out trash from items that can be recycled. They were taught that 85% of household waste is recyclable and that Waukesha Co has a higher rate of recycling than the nation as a whole. One of their "challenges" is to figure out ways to clean up a polluted Sludge City (today was contaminated water). It is always nice as a parent when I know my kids are hearing the same message away from home as in the home. Thank you Camp Invention.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Free Lunch at Mom's

We can't have a Green Parenting month without mention of the environmental benefits of breastfeeding. I realize that this is a decision that can only be made at a specific time in a woman's life and that not every woman or baby can breastfeed, even if they wish to (although, medically, this is not common). I also realize that there are many other health and personal benefits that breastfeeding families enjoy, but that is a topic for another blog. For anyone out there reading this who might be expecting or planning a pregnancy, here are the reasons it fits with Green Parenting:

Think about the energy that goes into making formula. First you have to either grow soybeans or have a dairy production-both that require lots of energy input and chemicals such as pesticides and hormones. Yes, I realize that there are organic formulas out there which is wonderful for those unable to breastfeed, but this isn't the choice made by the majority of formula-feeding parents. That commodity is then sent to a plant to be processed and then likely another plant to be made into formula. Other chemical vitamins must also be produced, shipped and then added to the formula as well. The product is then shipped to stores around the country. Parents then drive to the stores to buy it and mix it with water in bottles (that also had to be manufactured, most from plastic). This doesn't count the miles put on the cars of all the 20-something sales reps as they canvas the OB/GYN's offices or other marketing. Then there is the energy output to heat the formula and the energy needed to clean the bottles.

Now lets talk about the energy needed to breastfeed. Human milk is made from the energy from food that the mom eats or that is stored in her fat cells. Talk about sustainability! What if we could run cars off fat cells? What mom doesn't have a bit extra at the end of a pregnancy? The milk is the perfect temperature, always at the ready, comes in it's own attractive container and doesn't need to be refrigerated between feedings. All that and healthy too.

If you are not in a point in your life to be making a decision about breastfeeding, you can still help by supporting others that do make this choice. Smile when you see a breastfeeding mom in public, bring a meal or other help to a new mom, stand up for a baby's right to eat wherever he/she is hungry (not in the public restroom), support breastfeeding moms in your workplace when they need to take breaks to pump milk.

If you are expecting or a new mom with breastfeeding questions or concerns, check out a local La Leche League group at
There are several groups that meet monthly in Waukesha County. Trained leaders are available for telephone help 7 days a week.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Living in Abundance

Why is it that green living is often defined in terms of what we should do without-big cars, excessive shopping, air conditioning, bleached paper, water bottles etc. What if, instead, it was defined by what we choose to add to our lives-more time with family, better tasting food, creativity, cool technology, learning new skills etc. Very often our choices are not an either-or option, but we tend to emphasize one side of things. I-tunes and MP3 players have certainly decreased the wasteful packaging and plastic in music CD's, but most people don't think about downloading music for that reason, instead we emphasize the fun and convenient new technology. Why can't other choices we make also be about more fun and new ideas? A resuable bag can be MORE stylish instead of less convenient. Coffee in a resuable mug can be about BETTER taste rather than less waste. Refinishing a second-hand table can be MORE satisfying instead of less fashionable.

How we perceive and talk about the choices we make in our lives matters. Our children are watching and listening. Do they hear us making choices that emphasize the downside of our choices or the upside? Do they hear a righteous self-sacrifice or a sense of adventure or fun? I hope that when my children and I bike to the park, they are just having fun and not feeling that we are "doing without" our car to save gas or that we are better than the people who drove their SUV's there. I hope they don't give it much thought at all so that by the time they are adults, it simply becomes an obvious way to travel short distances when the weather is nice. Choices based on fun will last much longer than those based on guilt or superiority, for children and adults alike.

A few years back I heard a woman being interviewed on WI Public Radio (sorry, don't remember who or what the actual topic was). She was admitting that she was a prior book addict. She bought and kept hundreds of books until she hit a personal financial crisis and was no longer able to support her habit. It was then that she discovered the library. Her discovery was not that she could check out books for free, for she already knew this. What she learned was a new perspective on the books in the library. She realized that the books were bought with her tax dollars, so they were actually "her" books (well, at least in part). She pretended that she owned all the books in the library system and that she was simply being nice and sharing them with everyone else. Suddenly her feelings of self-pity in her financial crisis changed to abundance. She said that even though she has recovered financially and can afford to buy all the books she wants, her sense of abundance about life in general has stayed with her. What if we took this perspective about all the land that we "own" in all the area parks and nature preserves? I am reminded of the stories where families of modest means always set an extra plate at the dinner table in case a visitor arrives in need of nourishment. Unless we truly are struggling to make ends meet (and there are those that are, even in wealthy Waukesha County), how can we not feel a sense of abundance in this land of plenty?

My personal challenge for the rest of this month is to listen to myself and the messages I send to my children about abundance and depriviation and to find opportunities to see the MORE in the green living choices our family tries to make.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Green giving and Birthdays

If you have school aged children, you probably spend a number of weekends of the year taking your child to birthday parties. I've spent more time than I'd like in the Target toy aisles trying to find a last minute gift that is affordable, meets the cool factor (according to my kids) and the good gift factor (according to moms). Today my son received an invite in the mail that asked the children not to bring a gift but rather a donation to the Humane Society. We've gotten a few of these invites in the past and it always warms my heart that these kids are fine not getting a mountain of gifts and that my kids are choosing to be friends with such selfless children.

My daughters have birthdays coming up and I am almost late getting a present to my niece so gift giving is on my mind. I love giving gifts to the children in my life. Thinking about what they would like makes me feel connected to them and there are so many really cool toys and books these days that it is hard to resist the temptation not to go overboard. I have been happy with some of the gift giving we've chosen in the past that has been "greener" than the other outings to the toy aisle so I thought I'd share some and hope that you will do the same

1. Make a gift. I had fun making a stuffed felt pizza for my niece and it cost hardly a thing. My uncle and his wife made those fleece tie blankets for all the little ones one year. All the kids love them for the couch snuggling blankets.

2. Give an outing. I took another niece to a gardening class at the Botanical Gardens in Milwaukee and we had a wonderful day together. I got to know her much better than at big family gatherings. I've done plays, concerts and other shows for other children and now the grandparents are starting to do the same for my kids

3. Give a class. My mom and dad often give money for a class for my kids. I make sure I bring it up any time my kids are having fun with the class so they remember the gift and it is more than just a monetary donation for us.

4. Give books. I have given a "book a month" to a niece and nephew. I bought books (some new, most used) and wrapped them up for the parent to "deliver" each month. It was fun finding books that we loved at garage sales and sharing them. The parents said their kids loved getting presents all year long

5. We donated money to a chosen charity for each niece and nephew for the Baptisms.

6. Give consumables. One Christmas my dad gave us kids a large supply of our favorite snacks. My brother got a case of Captain Crunch cereal and I got a mega container of peanut butter to dip carrots in. We thought it was a riot, partly because this was before Sam's Club so the big sizes were really funny.

Going Green Conference

Check out this Green Living Conference to be held in Oconomowoc in September. Good talks on green business plans, community development, green living at home, and local food networks. It is hosted by the Wisconsin Town and Country Resource Conservation and Development network. They are involved in working with communities to develop a sustainable development plan that is good for the local economy and the earth. Oconomowoc and Jefferson are two nearby communities that are developing such a plan. Is anyone aware of other efforts in your communities such as "the natural step" program?
opportunities for sustainable economic growth, healthy communities and a healthy environment in the Town and Country RC&D area through the support and coordination of our region's agencies, municipalities and organizations."r mission is to optimize opportunities for sustainable economic growth, healthy communities and a healthy environment in the Town and Country RC&D area through the support and coordination of our region's agencies, municipalities and organizations."

Monday, July 14, 2008

Were You Born in a Barn?

I can still hear my dad say that when one of us kids left the back door open in winter. I can also hear, "Turn off the lights" "If you are cold, put on a sweater" and "Don't hold the fridge open!". Usually he could call these things out from the other room and I was always amazed that he knew that I did actually forget to turn off my bedroom light even though he was sitting in the living room. We were conserving energy in the 1970's long before it was hip to be green. We were conserving energy because there was an energy crisis, because my dad was a cheapskate and because he was raised by depression-era parents who wasted nothing.

Now it is my turn to yell out, "Why is every light on in the house?" and "Don't let the water run while you are brushing your teeth" (from the other room). The hip green movement has led to some pretty cool options like hybrid cars, bamboo clothing and high efficiency appliances, but as a culture we are often more interested in what we can buy than how we can conserve. Doing without or doing with less is practically un-American. Yet, as wonderful as a hybrid car is, the better option is to simply drive less. Compact flourescent light-bulbs are great, but it doesn't mean we should leave all our lights on. We need to combine a bit of the 1970's conservation ethic with the 2008 green consumer fashion.

To get our kids engaged in the kilowatts we were using, we took a look at our We Energy bill and compared usage from one year to the next. We were excited to see that after some swapping out of light bulbs and high-efficiency appliances, our usage actually went down (although the cost still went up!). This motivated us to challenge ourselves to lower it even further-"how low can we go???" Kids often want to do something to help global climate change and turning off the lights, not wasting water in the shower and putting on an extra blanket in winter is something tangible they can do to make a difference. When we sat down with our kids, they came up with lots of ideas on their own. Now when we remind each other to turn off the lights, it isn't mom and dad nagging, but a kind reminder of a family project.

There are some cool websites where you can calculate your family's carbon footprint, such as
It is a nice reinforcement for what you are doing well and shows concrete areas where you can improve. By looking at it in sections, this can be less overwhelming and allows us to tackle one area of change at a time. As I am writing this, I am thinking of ways to keep kids and families engaged in this. Like many families, we give our children daily and weekly chores. I wonder how it would work to have each of them "in charge" of a specific area to oversee for the month (water, lights, heating/cooling, transportation etc). They could monitor the rest of us/keep us in line and think of ideas for how we can do better. I think I might find that it is not only the kids in our house that need some gentle reminding from time to time to turn the lights off.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Earth-friendly eating on a family budget?

Over the years I've made feeding my family one of my top environmental priorities. Feeding children seems to connect with my deepest maternal instincts. Choosing organic, locally grown, and unprocessed whenever possible reduces our family's fossil fuel consumption, minimizes chemicals going into the land and water and supports sustainable farming practices. This choice has made groceries our biggest household expense after mortgage.

I've justified it knowing that I was paying the "true cost of food", not passing the cost to other taxpayers or asking migrant workers to work for nothing so I can eat cheap or asking my grandkids to pay to clean up the world we trashed for them. I've justified it by knowing that for $6, I not only know that the milk I drink is better for the earth, but is also healthier (and tastier) for my kids, puts more money in Wisconsin farmer's pockets, is healthier and kinder to the cows, reduces the trend toward antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and helps preserve the Wisconsin landscape of family farms. Looking at it that way, $6 is a deal! Certainly anyone who has tried to feed their family from a backyard garden knows that we significantly underpay for the food we eat given the labor that goes into food production. Factor in processing and packaging and shipping and it seems impossible that you could buy a box of Cheerios for a few bucks (I heard recently that the farmer that grows the wheat gets 10c).

Given all that, I should be content, even proud of the $900 we are now spending each month to feed a family of 5. In fact, I will admit that when fuel and food prices started rising, I did at first feel smug, thinking to myself "now people know what food/fuel is supposed to cost" and hoped that this would drive society changes (which it has a bit). However the last few times I've gone through the check out line, I have felt nauseous with anxiety. It seems like the tab for my weekly trips keeps going up and up, all during the gardening season when it should be lower than at other times of the year. Like most other American families right now, we need to make some drastic changes to our family budget.

Here are a few tips that I've used over the years to keep my food costs low. I am desperately looking for more tips from others as I just can't seem changing over to food filled with preservatives, high fructose corn syrup and pesticides after all that I know.

1. Eat low on the food chain. Less or no meat/animal products is cheaper, and better for the earth. Whole grains and legumes are cheap and healthy.

2. Join a buying c0-op. I have done this for years and it does save and is fun way to network with others about healthy food resources. This also allows you to buy in bulk which saves money.

3. buy in bulk. Less packaging=less cost and better for the earth. Pick and Save and Good Harvest have bulk food options. Pick and Save also gives a 10% discount if you buy a case of something.

4. meal plan and head to the store with a list. Oh, and you have to stick to it which means the kids should stay at home!

5. eat leftovers. This is usually our Fri night meal. Anything that didn't get eaten for a lunch goes before the weekend shopping trip. I am thinking that maybe cooking less quantity so there are fewer leftovers might be better. Having a salad or sandwich for lunch would be cheaper and healthier than the leftover turkey picata from the night before.

6. grow it yourself. Not sure if this is cheaper for me, but it technically should be.

7. shop on the outside aisles of the grocery store (most of the junk is in the middle)

8. buy up bumper crops from the farmer's market and freeze. I did this with tomatoes last year and made pizza and spaghetti sauce all winter.

9. Cook and bake. Why pay for someone else to do what you can yourself (well, except on nights where there is soccer or track practice).

10. Eliminate non-essentials like soda, junk food, alcohol etc.

11. eat less. OK, this is probably where the problem is for our family.

So what else am I missing? Don't tell me my only choice is Sam's Club or Walmart. I want to believe that I can keep keep my values and pay my bills. I am especially looking for cookbooks or websites that have family friendly recipes that are healthy, simple and inexpensive. I have lots of great cookbooks but most are too involved for the average busy weeknight and involve yummy expensive ingredients like pine nuts and capers. Most of the simple cookbooks I've seen involve lots of processed food. I'd be especially interested in vegetarian options that kids would love (I have lots of great ethnic recipes that I love, but the strong spices etc don't always appeal to my kids). If you have been reading and not commenting, this is your chance. I know you are likely also trying to cut costs and may have found things that work for you that I haven't tried.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Fall of an Environmentalist

I used to be an environmentalist. Really, I did. I was a pretty good one, too... solar panels on our roof, a greywater collection system under our kitchen sink, four compost bins in the backyard, a 40 mpg car that we only used when really needed. I was such an eco-freak that other people actually asked me for advice on eco-friendly living. But then I became a parent. And oh my has my world turned upside down.

Our daughter came home about a week and a half ago from Thailand where we adopted her. Since then I have made two trips to Target, have made daily trips to the garbage can (whereas I used to just empty our inside wastebaskets on trash day, we generated so little), wasted more food and water then I ever thought possible and have found myself on numerous occasions thinking of things to buy, just because our daughter would love them. Before we left for Thailand I was all set to use cloth diapers. Upon our return, jet-lagged and with more than a bit of anxiety due to being thrown into parenting during the 'terrible' twos, I found that rinsing a poopy diaper in the toilet at 2 am was just one thing that I could not handle at that point. The next day I found myself at Target buying disposable diapers (chlorine-free from "Nature Babycare", but disposable nonetheless) and a large Starbucks Frappachino. Oh how the smug enviro has fallen.

So here I am, finally over my jet lag and slowly getting into a parenting routine and I am ready to take a step back and evaluate how I can be a good mother and a good environmentalist. The one thing that I feel we are doing right so far is teaching our daughter the joys of a backyard garden. She now happily eats her way through our backyard (see above photo), snacking on raspberries, strawberries, currants, mulberries, and sugar snap peas. We have a ways to go to get back on the green path, but hopefully this month of July will be full of inspiration and good ideas for us. And maybe, just maybe, I can face those cloth diapers now that my head is back on straight!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

July challenge: Green Parenting

Courtney and I have decided to dedicate the next two months of our blog to issues related to parenting and children since she is the new mom of a 2 year old little girl (Congrats!). Even if you are not a parent or your children are grown, some of the topics may apply to running a green household in general.

I remember when my youngest was a baby and I sat nursing her on the couch and contemplating my life. I looked around my living room and saw that my home appeared to be breading plastic contraptions-swing, bouncy seat, high chair, car set, play gym, mobile, crib, stroller, etc. All these things seemed so necessary at the time. It was true that the swing happened to be the only thing that calmed my daughter during one particularly hard night of the "evening fussies", but every other day it sat there taking up space because she, like most babies, preferred to be held rather than stuck in a plastic substitute. A common parenting guideline shared at the La Leche League meetings I attended at the time was "people before things". This was meant to be a guide as to what babies really need, but it has stuck with me as my children have grown and works well for green living and family budgeting as well.

Little by little these things were sold off at rummage sales only to be replaced by toys, sporting equipment, videos etc. I am amazed at how much stuff a child "needs". Obviously no child needs all this stuff, but yet in it comes....and keeps coming, faster than I can pack up the outgrown items to donate. I can blame part of this on the grandmothers, one who is an expert sale shopper and another who is an expert second hand shopper and both who adore my children. One Christmas I was sickened by all the stuff my children received so I counted the number of presents received (including 3 stockings each) and it was 99 presents. My daughter even said that she knew which grandma loved her more because that grandma bought her more stuff. People before things? We've made some changes since then!

I have to admit that I am partly to blame too. Rummage sale bargins are too tempting and I am a sucker for children's books and games, and apparently girls shoes! Today I had an experience that reminded me that I can be tricked by the cultural mantra of "gotta have it". Our family spent the day at Pike Lake State Park where we did some kayaking and swimming. I packed light and when I got there I immediately regretted that. Every child had an inflatable raft, a bag of sand toys or a ring toss game. My littlest asked, "Mommy, didn't you bring us anything?" I felt terrible at not having a brightly colored noodle for her to swim with. But I told myself it was a few hours and they'd be fine. Of course, they were. I was reminded that one can actually make a sand castle with only your hands, that splash war is a great game on a hot day and that children love having their bodies buried in the sand. We came home with a collection of beautiful rocks, snail shells and happy memories. Yes, "people before things" still applies.

This month we'll contemplate what it means to be a "green parent" and challenge ourselves to take it a small step further from wherever we are on our journey

Sunday, June 29, 2008

making local a habit

I must admit that I haven't been too good about eating local this month. Yes, I have a few things in my garden, some local meat in the freezer and the local milk and bread staples that I can get at the grocery store, but beyond that I've disappointed myself during our June Locavore challenge. I wondered what was different this summer than last, when I was eating local produce almost exclusively. What I realized was that my weekly routine has changed. Last summer I had Saturday mornings mostly free and I made it a habit to visit the Farmer's Market with my mug of coffee and cloth shopping bags. I usually went to Oconomowoc and found that I not only loved the food, but also the atmosphere and the people. I quickly established my favorite vendors and could anticipate what food would be on my Saturday AM shopping list. Since I rarely had more than an hour to fit this outing in, I typically went alone and relished my time to myself and didn't feel guilty doing so since I was gathering food for my family at the same time.

This summer our family has been busy with kids sports on Saturday mornings so the Farmer's Market simply hasn't happened much. I know that there are market's on other days (Dousman on Wed aft and Menomonee Falls on Sun), but I haven't yet built it into my routine so that I can count on it. Other things seem to come up and I find myself back at the Piggly Wiggly buying California food saying that next week will be different. Whether it is working out or farmer's market shopping, routine and convenience are half the battle.

Once I realized what was behind the change, I felt much better and headed to Dousman for some sugar snap peas, strawberries and bacon at their Wed market. This time I was with the kids and a friend which was a fun in a different way from my solo outings. I am hopeful that this is the start of a new habit (for this summer's schedule anyway) and will look forward the the local blueberries that I have heard can only be found at the Dousman market in the weeks to come!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Best Strawberries Ever!

"These are the best strawberries ever!" exclaimed my 4 year old with red juice running down her chin. We had just picked two buckets of organic strawberries from Shadow Lawn Farm south of Oconomowc. She was right, these strawberries really are amazing. Those bloated imports from California can't compare to the freshly picked variety. 

As I have tried to transition more and more to locally grown produce during the summer  months I have reflected on what we have lost in the span of two generations. During my grandparent's generation much of the food was locally produced, now you really can't find anything in a grocery store (except perhaps sweet corn in July) that is freshly picked. We live in an agricultural state yet we have become content to eat bland food imported from across the country and the world without complaint. I would imagine that there are many children now who don't even know what a real tomato tastes like. No wonder they won't eat their veggies. 

Until a few years ago I had never had fresh asparagus. No one in our family cared for the stuff, but when our neighbors gave us some, we tried it. It was so delicious and unlike any asparagus that we had had before that soon the kids were fighting over who could have the last stalk. This is how food is supposed to taste! As I have rediscovered the real taste of food, there are some fruits and veggies that I find not worth eating unless they are fresh-strawberries, tomatoes, sweet corn, and asparagus. I have decided that don't need to eat them all year round. Instead we look forward to their season and then eat them like crazy. Just about the time we can't eat another bite, they are out of season and the next delicious food is ready for harvest. 

To try some of these yummy strawberries yourself, you can pick your own or buy them by the quart at Shadow Lawn Farm at 826 N Griffth Rd, Oconomowoc. It is 2 miles south of I94 off Hwy 67. The rows are widely spaced so it is easy for kids to help pick. They also have goats and sheep and chickens so it is a fun outing all around. 

Anyone know of other self-pick options in the area?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Eating Local on Vacation

I haven't posted for a bit because I was on vacation in Estes Park, Colorado with my hubby. I was hoping to return with stories of my adventures in Colorado cuisine, but alas, most of what I have to report is a large consumption of locally brewed beer (Poudre Ale and Fat Tire).  I did purposely order pork on my way through Iowa, but after smelling the pig farms/factories, I regretted that decision. We do try to stop at ma and pa restaurants while on the road, which I know has more to do with supporting local economies than locally grown food but is more fun than skipping from one fast food chain to the next. Plus eating what the locals eat is part of experiencing an area in my opinion. A few finds that we did stumble across:

1. Kind Coffee each morning. Just down the street from Starbucks but featured organic, fair trade coffee in mugs or biodegradable corn cups. They also composted their grounds. 

2. We ate a romantic dinner on a private balcony at The View (ok, every place has a view in Estes Park). The menu did report that they use locally grown produce when available. Our veggies were yummy, but I am guessing we were there a bit before the peak of harvest season. We went there though to have some local trout and that was delicious. Next time we'll try our hand at fly fishing. 

3. Our first hotel had a rain barrel and the second was a registered as a "green hotel".  Not sure what that means beyond not washing the linens daily which is a start. 

4. Fat Tire beer is made by New Belgium brewery in Fort Collins, CO.  Check out their website for cool stuff they are involved with like protecting salmon in local rivers, handcrafted wind turbines etc. Rumor has it that one of the owners has a brother who has a brewery in WI and that they have an agreement that no Fat Tire beer is sold here but that he makes the same beer under a different name. Anyone know what it is????

Any local eats on your June vacations?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Local Eggs

Meet "The Girls". This is Iris and Tulip, our backyard chickens. Eggs don't get any more local than when you walk out behind the garage for breakfast. Three years ago we decided to expand our garden to include eggs as well. The eggs are so beautiful (bright orange yolks that hold together) and so much more tasty, that I could never go back to the factory eggs. I have read lots of great factoids about health benefits of "free range" eggs as well. If I want Omega-3 eggs, I give them a scoop of flax seed or let them bug hunt a bit more.

Our girls spend much of their time in their coop and run, but when we can, we let them out so they can forage for bugs in our lawn and garden. They practically hyperventilate with excitement. Chickens make great pets that require no more care than a cat and are surprisingly entertaining with their own little personalities, and, of course, "pecking order". Their poop makes such a great additive to the compost pile that friends actually have a waiting list for taking the discards from the coop cleanout. The other day I actually saw chicken poop for sale at Stein Gardens.

If you are interested in backyard chickens, don't think you need to live on a farm. Many municipalities allow a small number of hens (although we did have to get a permit) and since they need such small space, they can be happy even in an urban setting. Roosters are usually not allowed for obvious reasons.

If you are interested in backyard chickens, there are lots of good websites and books. We found
the book "Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces" by Barbara Kilarski lots of fun (there was no turning back after I read this!). Also, the website is really helpful. Locally you can get feed and chicks at a variety of places. The Merton Feed Mill in downtown Merton and this is worth a trip just for the feeling like you are walking back in time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cheesehead pride

Our friend Jill doesn't like cheese, but we let her stay in Wisconsin anyway. I admit that I have not been a fan of milk ever since they served it to us warm and in a bag in Kindergarten. I had a friend in 6th grade that was allergic to ice cream (she would actually throw up). In this state of proud dairy lovers, these stories come as a shock to us. I heard that when margarine was first created it was illegal to sell it in Wisconsin (that may be rumor, you can fact-check it yourself).

To me, buying Wisconsin dairy products is a consumer decision that carries a lot of bang for the buck (yes, even when the organic milk is $6/gallon). Buying local milk supports the local economy, family farms, a rural landscape and reduces energy usage by less transportation. After all, do we really want to be second to California?

Milk and cheese are pretty easy as there are many options just at local grocery stores for conventional products. If you are looking for organic milk, it is Organic Valley and Wisconsin Organics (Horizon is from California). When I looked for locally made yogurt, it was harder to find a Wisconsin producer. I recently found a yummy local and organic yogurt produced south of Madison called Sugar River Dairy. I have found this locally at Hartland Market.

If you are interested in Wisconsin dairy artisans, check out this directory

Summer Must Reads

If you are interested in learning more about where your food comes from or eating more locally, there are two books that I know of that should be on your summer "must read" list.

The first is Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver. She chronicals the journey of her family as they take a challenge to eat food that they produce themselves or purchase from farmers within 100 miles from their house. It is informative, and filled with lots of good stories as you'd expect from Kingsolver. Some of the recipes and tips are on her website and one of these days I am really hoping to try my hand at making cheese

The other is Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. This books is also combination information and personal experience. The author dives into the origin of our food from the politics of corn to the hidden secrets of mass-produced organic food, to the question of whether or not to eat meat and finishes with foraging for mushrooms.

I'd love to see comments of any other suggestions of books that you've read on this month's food topic.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

reusable bags update

Just a quick FYI to let you all know that the Piggly Wiggly in Hartland is now selling reusable bags for 99c. I was there today and saw lots of folks using them. They look nice and are the kind with bottoms.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Dandy Dandelions

The other night I fed dandelions to my family for dinner. I was starting to panic over the army of tall naked dandelion stalks marching across my property. I found myself avoiding inviting people over unless we had just mowed. I started thinking that maybe a little herbicide might be a good thing. I needed to regain control before these pests made me do something that I regretted.

So I went out and cut off their heads, deep fried them and ate them. The recipe came from the La Leche League cookbook, Whole Foods for the Whole World. You basically dip the flowers in a mixture of milk and egg, roll in flour with salt and pepper and deep fry. They were actually pretty good-tasted like any other deep fried veggie you might order at a bar with a cold beer. My daughter said they were good but had trouble getting over the fact that she was eating a dandelion. My son asked if I could send them as a school snack and ate them all up. My husband had seconds on the main dish. My youngest wanted to know if that counted as her vegetable.

I am not sure we'll be eating dandelions every day, but it did shake me out of my feelings of defeat and was a great way to launch the June "eating local" challenge. Now I am curious about what else my backyard has to offer.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Farm Fresh Atlas

If you are ready to take the local challenge, you will want to get a copy of the Farm Fresh Atlas. This is a wonderful resource of farmer's markets, farms that sell direct, meat and poultry producers, orchards, community sponsored agriculture and other businesses that sell locally grown food. They are published by region so you want to get your hands on the Southeastern WI version. The 2008 edition is out at your local library, chamber of commerce, etc or you can go to

Monday, June 2, 2008

June Challenge - Eat Local

Last June a few friends of ours decided to challenge ourselves to eat local for one month. It was this challenge that eventually led to this blog and the idea that it is good... and fun... to challenge ourselves to do better each month and rethink how we do things. So here we are one year later and it is time to once again challenge ourselves to eat local. How will you challenge yourself?

  • Will you grow a backyard garden? (I have high hopes for my garden, pictured above)
  • Will you plan to visit a farmers market each Saturday?
  • Will you plan to make one completely local meal once a week?
  • Will you go all out and only eat food that has been grown in Wisconsin?
  • Will you decide to be inspired and read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver?
  • Or will you really go all out and be like this guy who is foraging for all his food in a forest for one year? Yeah, me neither.
Let us know in the comments section how you will be eating this month!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Light Green Laundry

So for those of you readers out there that think we are nuts by hanging out the laundry, making our own soap and using cloth diapers, just a parting list of things everyone can do, even those on the light end of the Green spectrum. Every little thing counts. We'd love to hear other ideas of what you have tried. 

1. Run only full loads of laundry so you don't waste water and energy. I remember washing a single pair of jeans as a teenager because I just had to have them for the dance on Friday. Now I try to stuff it full just to get it all done!

2. Use cold water for all or most of your laundry. I have pretty much switched to cold for everything (need hot for diapers) and my clothes get just as clean. Don't stains come out better in cold anyway? Other than killing bacteria in dirty diapers, what is the hot water for anyway? I've never seen a tag on a piece of clothing that says to wash in hot. 

3. Set your drier so that it goes off when the clothes are dry or for the least amount of time needed. Don't waste energy drying dry clothes. Not all clothes need the high heat either

4. Use laundry soap without phosphates and harsh fragrances. There are lots of environmentally friendly detergents now that really work. 

5. Skip the drier sheets. Jill said she gave this a trial and didn't really notice much of a difference. I've really never used them because I wasn't sure what they were for. If you want to avoid static try letting your synthetic fabrics line dry (as they cause most of the static) or take the clothes out when they have just a hint of dampness left. Or take the clothes out with damp hands. Winter is really the only time we have much static anyway, so try skipping them in the summer. If you must use them, reuse them in several loads. 

6. Skip the fabric softener. Those chemicals in there are not at all snugly. Vinegar is a natural fabric softener and works well. 

7. Reduce your laundry. Bath towels that you use on your clean body don't need to be washed daily. Can you spot clean that shirt that is fine except for the bit of food that dropped on it? I remember as a kid having "school clothes" and "play clothes". We would change into our play clothes when we got home and get those all full of grass stains and keep out cute school clothes clean and ready for another wear. The problem is my kids come home dirty from playing at school too. My four year old sometimes goes through 4 outfits a day. This likely balances out her older sibs that like to wear their same favorite shorts every day. 

Laundry Apron

After years of using a little clothespin bag that I would hang on the line while doing laundry, I finally decided there had to be a better way. So, this spring I whipped up a little laundry apron for myself and my hanging out routine has been revolutionized! I don't know that the apron wins points for cuteness, but for functionality is gets a perfect 10 (please excuse the poor photo above and the huge mess in the background, we are in the middle of packing for an epic trip). Basically I cut out two large rectangles, sewed them right sides together, flipped them right side out and then attached two hugely oversize pockets. The pockets are sort of pleated at the bottom so they can expand out when filled with clothespins and then lie flat when empty. I attached really long ties so that I could wrap them around my waist twice to better hold up the heft of the full-of-clothespins apron. Now when I do laundry I just walk along the line, plucking clothespins from my little laundry apron. Ahhhh.

If you want to make a laundry apron there is a tutorial for a very cute one at My Byrd House (be prepared for the music on her site). Or be inspired by the many types of aprons at Amy Karol's Tie One On. I would write a tutorial for my apron, but my sewing method is more, um, stream-of-consciousness than follow-a-pattern.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Nothing Cuter Than a Baby Bum in Cloth Diapers


I entered the cloth diapering world almost 12 years ago after being shown one of the "Diaper Genie" things.  If you don't know, these are contraptions that take your plastic poopy diaper and shrinkwrap it in another later of plastic so that it is stink proof until you take it out in the garbage in another plastic bag. Besides the fact that I couldn't figure out how to use the darn thing, it simply seemed like way to much plastic for one human being who was less than 10 pounds. I also read at that time how the chemicals used to make the gel in disposable diapers was being detected in the breastmilk of polar bears in the arctic and I knew that it was time to call my mom to find out how she did it. 

Luckily, cloth diapers have come a long way since the 1960's. Pins are no longer needed (although still an option) and no more soaking the diapers in a bucket of bleach water (we actually tried this at first but found other ways after I accidentally spilled the bucket of poop-water on my way to the laundry in the basement). There are tons of adorable diaper covers that can be fastened with velcro or snaps that make diapering almost as easy as disposables. 

Three baby bums later, I have discovered many other benefits as well. I love knowing I am not putting scary chemicals right on my baby's genitalia and there is really nothing cuter that the bubble-bum of a baby in a cloth diaper. I know there are heated debates about whether cloth or plastic is the better environmental choice. To make it more complicated, we now have other choices such as bleach and gel free disposables, organic cotton or hemp diapers, and in some areas, a diaper service. Most comparisons I've seen come out without a clear winner. To me it is hard to overlook the fact that 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown into a landfill every year, taking 500 years to decompose. If you decide to use cloth, here are a few links to get you started from Mothering Magazine. 

It has been a few years since I had a little one in diapers, but I wasn't too successful at finding a good local source of diapering products. Target had some prefold diapers but the covers they carried where not very good and leaked. Mostly I ordered from mail order (often mom-owned) companies. In Madison, you can try Wild Child or Happy Bambino 

Top 10 reasons to hang out

I've been feeling very list-y lately, making lists left and right, so it seems appropriate to include a list on the blog. So today I present you with my top 10 reasons to line dry your clothes, inside or outside, January or July.

  1. Hanging clothes outside on a beautiful, sunny day is like meditation. It calms me down. It makes me slow down because it is something that can't be hurried. It allows me to soak up some Vitamin D while getting a chore done... and both things serve to make me happier.
  2. A laundry line of clothes gently blowing in the breeze on a sunny day is one of those picture perfect things. Seeing a laundry line always makes me stop and appreciate the simple, utilitarian beauty of it.
  3. Drying clothes on a rack inside in the winter helps raise the humidity in our dry, Wisconsin homes. This was brought to my attention by my Weather & Climate professor in college. An indoor clothes rack or line is like a free humidifier. Why whisk that free winter moisture out through a dryer vent?
  4. Clothes last longer when they are line-dried. This is obvious when you think of all the tumbling and rocking and rubbing that clothes do in a dryer.
  5. Clothes don't shrink when they are line-dried. This is typically a good thing, but my sister, a recent clothesline convert realized that she had actually been banking on the shrinking to help clothes fit her kids. Now she has to re-think sizes. I think this is an isolated problem with a solution.
  6. It saves money. According to it can save households over $100 in electricity in a year. One hundred dollars a year. That amazes me. Of course, that number may be for households in sunnier climes than Wisconsin, but still.
  7. Perfectly crisp cloth napkins, no iron required.
  8. It is just one more little thing you can do that can help slow global warming. I personally find the little things to be hugely empowering.
  9. It makes me feel proud that I live in a neighborhood that hasn't banned clotheslines (many newer subdivisions across the U.S. have for aesthetic reasons). And when I can see 4 clotheslines on my block just from the vantage point of my front yard it makes me even prouder.
  10. It makes me feel retro, cool, and eco-saintly. All from one chore!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Martha Stewart Drying Rack

As an answer to Kris' query below, I think that the Martha Stewart Foldout Drying Rack above is just about the super coolest indoor drying rack possible. It folds down to hang clothes on and then folds flat against the wall when you don't need it. I think it looks like art in its folded-up state. You can find directions on how to make it here on Martha's website. Because I know Kris' husband has, like, a ton of time to tackle a new project :)

Of course, knowing the layout of Kris' super sweet laundry room (I am a bit jealous of it, actually), an indoor, retractable line stretching across the room might work best.

Friday, May 23, 2008

indoor laundry line

One of my goals for this month was to rig up an indoor line or two for winter hanging. This wouldn't be for all the clothes as I don't have a big area, but could be for my daughter's pants that I don't want to shrink faster than she is growing, maybe a sweater drying rack etc. I have a "laundry closet" that is long and narrow-just the depth for the washer and dryer and twice as long. 

I am looking for suggestions on what might work or design ideas from other people that might be more fun and useful that just stringing up a line (although that is an option). I am thinking there may be ways to do a pull out drying rack or that kind of thing that maximizes space. If you have something that works, especially for small spaces, I'd love to hear about it! Once my tomato plants are off the shelf, I'll be ready for the next project. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Soil Test Results

The mail arrived on Saturday and I opened the envelope from the UW Soil and Plant Analysis Lab with some trepidation. Would my soil be found worthy or would I be found out as a slacker home owner who has neglected to apply the required fertilizer and be kicked out of the suburbs? I chuckled a bit with how similar this felt to the time I had my breastmilk analyzed in the hospital lab to ensure it had adequate fat content for my 2 pound preemie ( I, or it, passed). 

I am happy to report that I have a high, off the charts, amount of phosphorus (for root and bud growth) and Potassium (for disease and drought resistance). I think phosphorus is high in WI in general which begs the question of why it is in fertilizers around here. The pH was on the high end of optimum (7.5) which at first I thought was good and the lab even reported that no adjustment is necessary. However, I have since read the dandylions love this pH and I'd be wise to reduce it a bit with some sulfur.

Nitrogen levels were not measured and this bummed me out because I figured I'd score big on this one too. I figured all that all that mulch mowing, my three backyard pooping chickens and nitrogen-fixing clover everywhere should count for something. However, adding nitrogen was the only recommendation they gave me (for green and leaf growth). Turns out that grass is a big fat nitrogen hog and wants me to give it more and more. They tell me I can skip the Sept application if we mulch mow. Time to look into some organic fertilizers with ingredients such as dehydrated manure, fish emulsion, and blood and bone meal (yikes!). Since so much of my lawn is shady, it looks like I can use less of the stuff. Speaking of chicken poop-I did check it out and it is a good nitrogen source and you can by it by the gallon for 16 bucks. I'll sell you a gallon for half of that!

Leaving on the grass clippings did give me a proud 3.9% organic matter in my soil. Seems all the good soil microbes like it between 2-5%. Maybe a bit of compost top dressing and I can score a 5 by next year.  I would have liked to know more about my soil's ecosystem. What critters are working for me out my backdoor. Sounds like a good summer project for my 11 year old and her microscope. 

So I am happy with my report card but still not happy with the ever expanding mass of thistle, creeping charlie and crabgrass across my property. The whole topic is overwhelming but I continue to learn and this past months blog topic has kept my husband from buying the weed and feed for another season while we get it all figured out. Still looking for that natural lawn service. 

Homemade Detergent Lab Trials, Part 2

As promised, here are the results to my detergent trials, presented in classic lab report style for easy comprehension and grading.  I think I deserve at least a 7 out of 10, if not an 8 out of 10 for neatness.

Homemade Laundry Detergent Lab
Chem Study/Mr. Busse/Hour 7

Hypothesis: The homemade laundry detergent will work as well as Mrs. Meyers laundry detergent, but it will not smell as good.  (As an aside, what was the point of writing hypotheses? Do kids these days even have to write them?)

Purpose: To test the efficacy (love using that word ever since seeing the movie "Side Effects" with Katherine Heigl.... I realize I am mis-using the word here) of homemade laundry detergent in comparison to the always perfect Mrs. Meyers Clean Day laundry detergent.

1 bar Fels Naptha soap, grated
1 cup Washing Soda
1 cup Borax
4 loads of dirty clothes
3 loads of sheets and blankets
1 front loading HE washing machine
1 clothesline
1 blustery, partly sunny day

1. Make homemade laundry detergent according to this recipe, but omit the Oxy Clean (for no other reason than I am cheap and I remember a very annoying Oxy-Clean ad from the past and therefore refuse to buy it).
2. Do laundry, lots of laundry under usual conditions.  "Normal/Casual" cycle.  Warm/Cold temp.  Vinegar rinse.  Clothesline dry.
3. Take care to note differences in outcomes.  Smell, feel, stain removal, etc.
4. Fold and put away laundry.

Well, I gotta say, I can't tell the difference between loads I did with the homemade and the loads I did with the Mrs. Meyers.  Both detergents got out all the obvious stains.  Neither detergent got out stains that had always existed.  After line-drying all loads smelled the same, that sort of line-dried sort of smell (which some people love, but I can go either way dependent upon whether it was a sunny day or a cloudy day).  My icky, back of the throat feeling I got from grating the Fels didn't exist after the clothes came out of the washer, in fact they smelled pretty good, like good and clean.  One thing I did notice was that the clothes that were washed with the homemade detergent felt softer, but this is hard to quantify and may just have been because I was using a cordless drill right before folding the clothes and therefore had a bit of that numb finger thing going on that makes everything feel softer.  Because of the fact that making homemade detergent is super cheap (Modern Cottage has figured it out to be about 5.7 cents a load, whereas Mrs. Meyers, as much as I love her, is about 40 cents a load) I think I will continue to make my own, but use Dr. Brommer's soap in place of the Fels Naptha to avoid the issues I had yesterday.  Though I did just visit the Mrs. Meyer's site and got sucked in by all the pretty things and packaging and the fact that they have a new line of baby-friendly products.  Swoon.  

Monday, May 19, 2008

Homemade Detergent Lab Trials, part 1

I finally tracked down some Fels Naptha soap at Sentry in Delafield (thanks to the anonymous commenter who mentioned she found it at the Sentry in Waukesha) and was all hopped up and excited to make my homemade detergent. The euphoria didn't last long as while I was grating the soap according to these directions at Modern Cottage I started to get that feeling in the back of my throat. Do you know that feeling? That sorta coughy, sorta icky feeling that lets you know that something is perhaps a bit toxic? Well, I was getting that vibe, a strong vibe, from the Fels Naptha. I grated away and mixed up the potion (Fels, washing soda and borax) anyway and am currently running some lab trials (more on that in a second). However, the vibe was strong enough that I sat down and did some Google investigating and it seems that the verdict is unclear, some people say that Fels is safe for the environment, others say it isn't natural and is bad because it contains petrochemicals. The ingredient list is bizarre: "cleaners, soil & stain removers, chelating agents, colorants, perfume". Seriously? Can a product really get away with being this vague? So, I'm not sold on the whole Fels Naptha thing. If this recipe for homemade detergent works well and I decide to make it again I will substitute Dr. Brommers castille soap for the Fels. Wish I would have thought of that earlier as I could have gotten that by walking a block to Hartland Market!

Anyway, the lab trials are underway. Due to a rather messy and dirty week we have much more laundry than usual, which makes for great experiment conditions. I have two loads of whites and two loads of darks, one of each I will use my ever-faithful, ever-perfect Mrs. Meyers Clean Day laundry detergent in Geranium (which smells like heaven). For the other two loads I will use the new homemade laundry detergent (pictured above, on the right). All other variables in the trials will be kept consistent: water temp, spin speed, clothesline dry. All I need is my lab notebook and it will feel just like a high school lab experiment. Materials, Hypothesis, Procedure, and Conclusion. My lab report will be completed by tomorrow. Please check back for the amazing conclusion. I know you are all on the edge of your seats :)

My laundry day has been made a bit more complicated today, not because of the lab trials, but because of this adorable rabbit who has decided to burrow in to our bed of spiderwort and have her babies right outside our back door. So, I have to be extra quiet and respectful as I head out to hang laundry. No screen door slamming and all that. I think this rabbit is the cutest thing ever, and I said so to my husband. He corrected me and said that, no, the cutest thing ever will be when the baby rabbits appear. I think he is right on this point.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

the good and bad on OxiClean

I have never been all that good at getting clothes clean. I am good with the general dirt and stink, but stains have always resisted my efforts. I realized at one point that the problem might have been in my "collective" approach to laundry. I do sort by color, but after that I push a button and expect the machine to do the job to the load. I don't read the labels much and sort of figure that the socks, shirts and pants are all "in it together". 

Unfortunately, I have learned that getting clothes clean requires individualized attention. I asked a friend (whose lack of stains on her children I admired) what she does and she said that every night she collects the clothes from her four children and inspects for stains. All stained clothes get a treatment of OxiClean for the night and then get washed later. I finally decided to try a stain remover and this approach thinking that using a chemical might be justifiable over throwing out perfectly good but stained clothes. It was magic! I think the biggest factor is simply soaking it right away, but the stuff worked great. 

Since then I have been using OxiClean guiltily thinking it was probably nasty for the environment but possibly justifiable until I got around to a more Green alternative. I told myself that it was certainly better than using bleach. Writing this blog got me looking into the ingredients in my beloved stain remover. 

The Good News: OxiClean is described by some as an "environmentally friendly, natural" product. I was thrilled to find that OxiClean contains two active ingredients: Sodium Percarbonate and Sodium Carbonate. The first is baking soda and the second is washing soda. This stuff is just what my grandma used!  These substances form oxygen, hydrogen peroxide and soda ash when mixed with water.  The oxygen is what cleans and brightens. There are no phosphates or bleach, which are two of the worst environmental offenders in most laundry products. 

The Bad News: What is not clear is what other fragrances or other ingredients might also be in there, but I am assuming there is something as it smells like more than baking soda and works better too. The container doesn't say what else is in there so that is a bit concerning. They do sell a "free" product without the dyes and fragrances, so by default it must be in the original. There is also a newer version apparently with "little blue crystals".  No idea what that is but it sends off some warning lights to me. It is also not clear if the product also contains surfactants, which have a negative environmental impact. The fact that I can't get an accurate ingredient list makes me more concerned than anything.  Also it is sold in a plastic container that is not recyclable. 

I am certainly no expert on this and my research involves a brief before-breakfast search so I'd love to hear from others if you know differently or if you know of a more green product that works well and especially where to buy it locally. Looks like lots of other green household products contain the two active soda ingredients. Do they work as well without the "mystery ingredients? 

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Making Homemade Detergent

I came across this recipe for laundry detergent on the Modern Cottage blog and have been excited to try it, but I can't find one ingredient.  Does anyone know where I can find Fels Naptha soap? I've checked the Pig in Hartland and Pick and Save in Pewaukee, but no luck.  So, if you have an idea, please let me know!!  I'm almost out of laundry detergent and really want to try this!

Monday, May 12, 2008

My HE Washing Machine

A few years back our washing machine died and we were elated. This gave us the opportunity to replace another appliance with a more efficient model in order to continue to reduce our household energy consumption. With the laundry piling up there wasn't much time to do extensive research, but we have been more than happy with our Bosch Nexxt HE model. Here's why

1. Its quiet. We've since moved our laundry to the first floor from the basement and the sound is just a background hum in our daily life.

2. Less water use. HE washers use 18-25 gallons of water per wash compared to the 40 of standard washers. We noticed a reduction on our water bill when we got ours. 

3. Less energy to run them (the HE part). The Focus on Energy website says that you can save $110 on your annual energy bills compared to a model before 1994. They also state that the combined electric and water energy is 50% less. Our btu's did go down that year for us as well, although this wasn't the only change we made. 

4. Spins the clothes drier so that they need less time in the drier, saving more energy and money.

5. Apparently more gentle on clothes making them last longer. Not sure this can combat the normal usage of a 9 year-old boy. 

6. Because these are energy star rated, you get a cash back rebate from Focus on Energy.

The only downside that I've seen is that they cycles take longer than some models. I can't get all my laundry down in one day a week. I have switched to a little each day (part of my morning routine) and this works well for me. 

For more info on energy saving appliances, go to Focus on Energy at