Expanding the Garden and Using What You’ve Got

This is one of the many reasons I love my husband: While I was at work the other day, he doubled the garden spot next to our driveway. I’ve been meaning to do this myself, and it magically appeared, covered in newspaper and composted soil from last fall’s leaves, ready to be planted with spring vegetables in a few weeks.

For perspective, here’s how big it was last summer, when I first dug it up and put tomatoes out front rather than in the back where they weren’t getting enough sun. (Look over Sylvia’s head; this is the best picture I have!)

And a few days before the driveway garden expansion, Phil finished the expanding job I started in the front of the house, even adding stepping stones (from a never-used path on the side of the house) so the mailman doesn’t have to change his route after dropping our mail in the box by the front door. I’m planning to replace the little bushes with blueberry bushes, add rhubarb in front of those, and then plant herbs in front of the stepping stones. Sort of hard to envision right now, but in my head, it’s going to be fabulous and lush.

The new space doesn’t just give us more planting room, but it connects the little plot in front of our window with a plot that lines the sidewalk going to the house. Here’s how that spot looked before Phil curved the garden:

Our vegetable garden space has been creeping. The first summer we lived here I had a relatively new baby, and all I could muster was digging a tiny plot in the backyard. I also had a couple EarthBoxes on the deck, but, not having grown up with vegetable gardening, a few tomato plants was all I could handle. And as we got more babies, some summers I didn’t even muster the energy for those tomato plants.

But a couple summers ago I finally read Square Foot Gardening and got inspired to build a couple of very poorly constructed 4 X 8 raised beds using these instructions. Max filled the beds with composted dirt from an out-of-control leaf pile for $1 per wheelbarrow load. He made $15, and I didn’t have to work so hard. That’s what you call a win-win. Last summer I added four more 4 X 4 boxes and, finally realizing our backyard was too shady for tomatoes, I dug a new plot next to the driveway, where the tomatoes grew beautifully. Also last summer I put in strawberries, raspberries, sorrel, and asparagus — perennials that appeal to lazy gardeners who don’t want to replant every plot every year. It was also the first time I planted potatoes, which, if you haven’t done this, is a magical and exciting thing to harvest.

The side garden in back, which was just a dirt pile with a dead bush when we moved in, is cleared and planted full of garlic. Come summer, I’ll probably also mix in some wildflowers. The front side garden and the little plot in front of the house will now hold lots of herbs.

I find it encouraging that we still have plenty of yard for kid play, and I don’t spend every moment tending the garden, but we still have lots to eat come summer. And not having tackled lots of garden space when we first moved in, but letting it naturally expand as we got a little more free time and learned a little more about gardening, has been a nice rhythm for Phil and me, who never jump whole-hog into anything.

Looking at these pictures from last summer make me hungry for a time when everything isn’t gray. C’mon Spring!

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Something from Nothing: Recycling Old T-Shirts

Last week, putting away laundry and tired of stuffing t-shirts into already-full drawers, Phil told the boys that one of their weekend projects was to weed out their t-shirts and sort the ones they wear and the ones they don’t. Usually any task involving getting rid of anything is met with a lot of groans and procrastination, but they got down to business this weekend.

Tommy’s method of determining whether a t-shirt was too small, by the way, involved putting on the t-shirt and jumping as high as he could in front of me. If I could see his bellybutton on the jump, it went into the Donate pile. You might want to adopt his method if you have to do similar weeding. Tommy’s an innovator.

Anyhoo, back to the t’s. The boys had a pretty large pile, we’d weeded a good deal from Sylvia’s drawers, and because my t-shirt drawer was also out of control, I sorted mine, as well, getting rid of ones that were getting old or that I never wore. (I love the idea of the bright-red, size-Large, R Crumb “Devil Girl” t-shirt Phil bought me years ago, but I’ve probably worn it twice in a decade.)

Usually we just donate clothes to Goodwill, but this pile included some favorites, as well as some that really weren’t appropriate for donating. If we gave shirts with tiny holes or worn fabric, they’d just end up in a landfill anyway. So on Sunday we did a little recycling with the sentimental favorites or too-worn-to-donate shirts.

First, I sorted the super-sentimental shirts to save for making quilts. My sister gave my nephew a graduation quilt with all the shirts from sports teams he’d played on over the years, and I’ve always had it in my head I’d like to do the same for the kids.

The Red Key Tavern t-shirt that never fit right becomes a knitting bag.

After that, we made some bags using this ridiculously quick method from Instructables. Total, I made eight bags, and it probably took no more than half an hour. This let Tommy keep some belly-baring special shirts like a couple of his Lego Star Wars shirts. Sylvia was a little honked off because she’d had her eye on the one with Darth Maul, but it turned into a bag. Sometimes life is harsh. He even had me make one for his best buddy down the street. After four bags, I realized I wanted them to have a little more shape, so I boxed the bottom corners. Still, this was super-quick.

Then Sylvie and I made some t-shirt yarn using this tutorial. My plan is to knit or crochet a back-up kitchen rug, as our cream-colored rug is always in the wash and, frankly, has seen better days.

We also, though, made some cool finger-woven bracelets using this tutorial. If you’re a girl and of a certain age, you probably spent some recesses with friends finger-weaving long strands to no purpose. I know I did. After I looked at the first few pictures, my muscle memory took over on these bracelets. An old Old Navy fitted t-shirt that wasn’t fit to donate made two four-strand and one two-strand bracelet. The two-strand was for Sylvia’s best buddy. The kids were in a giving mood on Sunday.

Red-carpet ready.

Thanks to the creativity of bloggers and the accessibility of Pinterest (I love you so much, Pinterest), you can find a ton of smart ideas for upcycling old t-shirts. Here are a few I’ve got my eye on:

According to sewgreen.org, in one year, the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing. More than 3/4 of the discarded clothing goes into landfills. It makes sense to try to slow that flow into landfills.

Happy upcycling!

The Beauty of Buying Used

This is what greeted me when I woke up and stumbled to the kitchen a few days ago. Phil says he was just warming up some pizza for a midnight snack, and the stoneware broke right in his hand.

I might have been really annoyed had I bought this new, but it had been a $1 yard sale find a few years ago — a yard sale where I also got a leather Coach backpack for $5 — so it really was no big deal. The Riedel O martini pitcher that broke the other day while we were cleaning up for dinner, however, is still breaking my heart because I bought that new (albeit discounted). (We don’t have to use the passive voice. It didn’t break itself. I broke it. –Ed.)

We’ve been buying more and more used lately. I’ve always been a huge fan of the thrift shop and yard sale, and I love vintage dinnerware and glassware like Fiesta and Russel Wright, so I was a weekend antiquer before we had kids. Now that Phil’s home with the kids, he and Sylvie will sometimes drop a donation off at Goodwill and pop by the thrift store, coming home with treasures like new Brooks Brothers shirts, vintage cocktail glasses, and pint-sized cashmere sweaters.

Shopping used has a lot of advantages:

  • If you’re into shopping, the treasure hunt is fun. Walk into a thrift store, and you’re going to just see a load of junk. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find some amazing things.
  • The price is right. My favorite fruit bowl is an earthenware batter bowl from probably the 1930s. It would have been around $30 at an antique store, but I spotted it at a yard sale. It didn’t have a price tag, so when I brought it to the woman manning the table, she went into Negotiator mode. Looked it over, pointed out it was a good bowl with no chips, looked at it contemplatively. I mentally told myself I’d pay $5, $10 tops. Then she said, “How about 50 cents?” That’s what I’m talking about. If the bowl breaks, I’ll be sad because I love the bowl, but I won’t rail against the heavens about the wasted money.

Max fancying up lunch with grapefruit juice in a vintage glass from Goodwill. If he broke it, I'd be okay with losing the 99 cents.

  • It is so much more environmentally friendly. I don’t need to belabor this. Buying used and getting more use out of something is obviously going to be more Earth-gentle than throwing away something that doesn’t suit you and manufacturing new.
  • For us crafters, it’s a great source of supplies. I’ve specifically hunted thrift stores for supplies to create something. Like this great skirt from Maya Donenfeld. Or these fun Anthropologie-inspired mugs.

Making party favors for Tommy's recent birthday. These had packets of hot cocoa in them, and cost about 50 cents to make with Goodwill-purchased mugs.

In the summer, I know that if the kids are in the car, one of them is going to scream “Yard Sale!” when they see the sign, the tables of displayed stuff, or the crowd. And we almost always stop. They’ve got the fever, too, and I believe that learning to appreciate used is going to serve them well in life.

Five Recipes I’m Loving This Week

Bona Fide Farm Food’s Whole Wheat English Muffins: Reading through the recipe, these muffins seem like a lot of trouble for something you can get so easily and cheaply. Don’t think it. These are so much better than anything you would buy in the store: softer and fresher, but with all the nooks and crannies you expect from an English muffin. And the process of making them is fun: Separating the dough, rolling and flattening little dough balls, watching them puff up in a cast-iron skillet before baking. (My 10 p.m. snack snapshot doesn’t do these justice; go see the photo at the link.)

Pioneer Woman’s Campfire Beans: I love the idea of beans: They’re cheap, portable, simple. But it’s hard to find a good bean recipe. This one is about the best I’ve made. Super-simple (you only do anything with the beans about once every two hours), really delicious, and cooked perfectly. You gotta love that Pioneer Woman.

Jenny’s in the Kitchen’s Citrus Pulled-Pork Tacos:These are now part of the regular rotation. Super simple (about 10 minutes of easy, easy prep to get this in the slow cooker), economical, and cooked perfectly. Last night Max asked what we were having for dinner, and when I told him “those pork tacos” he said, “Thank you!” The meat is great if you cook it faster on high or slower on low, but a bit less dry cooked on high for a shorter period.

Sweet Paul’s Go-To Feta Dip: This has become a standard dip around here; I trot it out when there’s even the hint of someone coming over. I noticed we have some feta that I should probably use up in the next few weeks, so, Noah and Holly, there’ll be some citrusy, delicious feta dip for The Walking Dead this week.

Taste and Tell’s Eggless Chocolate Cupcakes: I’m feeling bake-y, and these are the best cupcakes, so they’ll be showing up sometime in the coming weekend. Tommy has an egg sensitivity that results in immediate projectile vomiting, so, for the furniture’s sake, we avoid eggs. These first made an appearance laid out in the shape of a light saber at Tommy’s birthday party, and are the first eggless cupcakes I’ve tried that don’t taste sort of like a sponge. They’re truly delicious; that they’re vegan is just a side benefit.

The Productive vs. Consumptive Household

The short history of the American household in Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes is fascinating. Here’s the 30-second version: Until relatively recently in American history, a couple, and their children, would work together on a homestead, producing what the family needed and often trading for those things they couldn’t provide. The Industrial Revolution made many items easier to produce and purchase, freeing up time. The freed time was then put into work outside the household to fund purchases of more things.

That’s a vast oversimplification and possibly one the author Shannon Hayes wouldn’t approve of, but it was my takeaway. We’ve essentially created a situation in which our need to consume fuels our need to work longer and longer hours. And the eye-popping number of new products on the market keep vying for that money that the work produces. (Seriously? Organic single-serving applesauce in squeeze tubes with lids?)

I’ve been trying to move toward a more productive lifestyle, in which we meet some of our own needs responsibly. Things like a garden, which produces excellent food for a very low price, and has the added bonus of outdoor exercise. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not. This past weekend I saw the contrast between producing and consuming, and which made the kids happier.

Sylvie and I started the morning making cinnamon rolls, something I do rarely but that the kids love. After that, inspired by a beautifully written blog post at Sew Liberated about giving kids meaningful work, I made Sylvie some clothes from leftover flannel and some wood butter using this recipe (I halved it), and she rubbed the wood butter into some cutting boards that were getting dried out.

Later, waiting for Tommy so we could go buy him some shoes, I started her on making a necklace out of leftover beads from a beading phase I went through a few years ago. Other than setting the findings at the beginning and end of the necklace, she made the whole thing herself, and was beyond proud. She’s been asking to make necklaces for her brothers, cousins, and Phil, which she’ll do soon. Later in the weekend she and I started expanding a front garden to hold rhubarb and blueberries, and she loved laying down the newspaper and carrying buckets full of composted soil from last fall’s leaves to lay on top.

Contrast all that activity with our trip to the mall to get Tommy some new shoes, which was frenetic, tiresome, and highlighted the sheer number of products that we can buy if we’re willing to work more to buy them. At this point, I’d rather live simply and invest or donate the overage.

We’re never going to be a fully self-sustaining family. First, that’s not us; we still like things. We don’t aspire to live off-grid. We live in a suburb of a major midwestern city, and no matter how big the garden grows or whether or not we get backyard fowl, we’ll never really have what you’d call a homestead. And regardless of the skills I’m trying to master, cobbling isn’t one of them, so there will always be trips to the mall for shoes. The point isn’t that we have to do it all, but that we can move the needle a bit. That’s what we’re moving toward.

Sylvia's masterpiece.

The Value of Mistakes

Last summer was not my most focused season. Having just lost my mom, while I appeared relatively in control, I made a lot of bone-headed mistakes. A couple involved the garden, when I seemed incapable of reading what was printed on a seed package.

It’s important to make mistakes, I know. We all learn from them. We won’t truly know the right way to do something until we know the wrong way to do something. Mistakes build character. Blah blah blah. But last summer I learned they’re not only character building, but can actually be beneficial.

Garden Mistake #1: The Aromatic Spinach

When the spring spinach ran its course, I planted a second, small bed within the new asparagus plants that were just taking off. Truthfully, I’d barely eaten any of the spinach from the first planting, but spinach is easy to grow and I swore we’d eat more the second time around. When it started growing, though, I noticed it was a different variety, and then I noticed this variety tasted like basil. Funny thing is, up until last summer, I’d bought basil plants and planted about two of them, four if I was feeling crazy. Last summer I’d lovingly grown basil plants indoors from seed and transplanted them after the last frost. It was all very fussy. But I learned basil, like most herbs, is at its core a weed and doesn’t require that kind of fuss or expense. Last summer, with no work, we had all the pesto, caprese salad, and lemon-basil martinis we wanted. We’re still eating from all the pesto I froze.

Lemon-basil martinis on the Fourth of July. Perhaps ill-advised around fireworks.

This year I’m just broadcasting basil, likely in an even bigger area, and we’ll drown in pesto. Which isn’t such a bad thing.

Garden Mistake #2: The Spicy Mesclan

So again on a successive planting, I reseeded a mesclan bed that had moved on. And when the salad plants started coming up, it wasn’t mixed as it should be — all the plants were homogenous — and every time I took a bit, the leaves tasted spicy. At some point it dawned on me I’d planted arugula, not mesclan. I think the arugula seeds came in a “Go Green” basket I’d purchased at the silent auction at Tommy’s school; I know I never intentionally bought arugula seeds.

Turns out Sylvia and I now love arugula, something I’d never thought to buy at the store, and never thought to plant. I’d plant it again in a heartbeat, although I won’t have to. Although arugula is an annual, it reseeds itself, so acts like a perennial. So we should have no-work arugula year after year now.

Gardening is such a renewing hobby because you can change what you do every year. If something didn’t work out, just do something different the next season. But this year, I’m going to repeat last year’s mistakes. Happily.

Something for Nothing: Upcycled Shirt Cocktail Napkins

Last year while one of our editors was on maternity leave, I had the privilege of working directly with several of our authors, including Maya Donenfeld. Maya, of mayamade.com, has a book titled Reinvention: Sewing with Rescued Materials coming out in April that includes some very upscale sewing projects from recycled clothing and packaging. Working with her really got me thinking about looking at “used” items creatively to give them more life and avoid purchasing new materials and using more of the Earth’s finite resources.

So today Phil told me he had weeded out a few shirts in his closet that simply couldn’t be worn any more; he wanted to know if I could do anything with them or if he should just throw them away. With their terribly frayed collars and elbow holes, they weren’t anything we could donate. Looking at the shirts, I summoned my inner Maya and set to work making us some very simple cocktail napkins.

First I cut off all the buttons. These will probably show up in future baby sweaters.

Then I cut any salvageable cloth into 8-inch squares. There was a cream shirt and a classic blue oxford, and I ended up with 10 8-inch squares of each.

Three piles: squares being made into napkins, leftovers big enough to save for future projects, and a small pile of scraps that couldn't be salvaged.

After that, I just put a blue square and cream square right sides together and sewed around the squares, leaving about 3 inches unsewn so I could turn the napkins inside out. I clipped the corners, turned them right side out, pressed them, and topstitched around the outer edge. I topstitched using a straight stitch, but they’d also be cute with a zigzag stitch. Done and done. These were finished practically before the Chet Baker CD I was listening to was finished.

Maya is right: Items that seem ready for a landfill can have years of life left in them. Phil would have looked like a hobo wearing the shirts in the shape they were in, but the napkins will give us many happy Saturday nights; even before your first cocktail, you’d never know their former incarnation might have been headed for the trash.

And we are now ready for the weekend.