Jelly from the Backyard

Several years ago, Phil and I would get the lawn treated. Not sure why, but it seemed like the thing to do. At some point, with two little kids running around out there, I got less comfortable with a company that used to have “Chem” in their name spraying our lawn, and we quit. Our yard is also too shady or too sunny in a lot of spots, infested by moles, and frankly, not a high priority, so with the burst of summer-like weather this spring, it looked like this:

Last year I made some violet syrup from the violets. Tommy loves it on ice cream (the light-purple syrup is gorgeous on vanilla). Never having met a malapropism he didn’t embrace, for months he called it “violent syrup.” I was sorry when he learned its proper name.

Anyhoo, I’d also tried a violet jam from a blogger I adore, and it was nasty. I’m sure the problem was me, but mine looked nothing like her bucolic photo, and the texture, with little bits of violet, was horrible. I eventually threw it away. So this year, I thought I’d try violet jelly. Not wanting the prolific dandelions left out, I also made dandelion jelly.

“Don’t mow the lawn until I can harvest the weeds!” I yelled at Phil on my way to work last Friday morning. He’s getting used to these strange, barked commands.

The recipe for this kind of jelly is very simple. First, you pick a bunch of weeds. In the case of the violets, I picked the flower heads. With the dandelions, I picked the flower heads and then trimmed the bottom of the head so I mostly had the yellow seed part, with some green that surrounded the yellow head mixed in. (Long way to say, Stay away from the milky part, which is bitter and nasty.)

Put two cups of these prepared flower heads in a jar, cover it with two cups of boiling water, and let it steep about 24 hours. I picked more like four cups of each due to the bounty of my lawn and having invited a good friend over for this backwoods jelly making. Just use the same amount of boiling water as flowers. After about 24 hours, strain this through a cheesecloth or paper towel so you just have the infused water left.

Dandelion or Violet Jelly

2 cups infused water
4 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 package (3 oz.) liquid pectin, like Cert-o

Combine the water, sugar, and lemon juice. Bring to a full rolling boil. Add the pectin and keep stirring, boiling, for two minutes. Seal this in canning jars; this recipe makes between five and six 8-ounce jars.

The violet jelly is a lovely purple color, but the dandelion, on its own, is more brownish, so we cheated and added a bit of food color (maybe 15 drops) to make the color prettier. We added this before the pectin.

If you want to make Violent Syrup, just bring the infused water, sugar, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice (rather than 1/4 cup) to a boil. Then lower the heat and let the syrup simmer for about 10 minutes. Put it in a pretty, pourable bottle; we used old single-serving wine bottles (you know, the kind that comes in a four-pack). I don’t seal the violet syrup, although I could. Instead, I keep it Tommy-ready in the fridge.

Happy weeding!


Something from Nothing: Super-Quick T-Shirt Shrug

Recently a co-worker pinned this cool and super-quick t-shirt reconstruction project on Pinterest, and I noted it. A few days later I passed her in the hall wearing one, and it was so cute I nearly tackled her to find out exactly how she did it.

Last night I started doing our taxes, a task I loathe. Loathe. And while the ancient computer I’ve always done the taxes on was grinding through downloading TurboTax, I went through the pile of yet-to-be-transformed t-shirts from Sylvie’s and my t-shirt reconstruction day. I didn’t find an appropriate plain t-shirt, so I tried this on an old work t-shirt advertising a book on knits inspired by roller derby. (I kid you not.) Fifteen minutes later, I had this one-of-a-kind shirt. Initially I had a little wilder ribbon on it, but Phil looked, well, bemused, so I replaced it with some of the t-shirt yarn I’d made earlier and roused Phil from his book at 11:00 p.m.: “Take a picture of my shirt!”

I love it.

Something from Nothing: Larry’s Thorn Cocktail Picks

My father-in-law Larry is one of the most resourceful people I know. As long as I’ve known him, he’s lived in a suburban ranch house, but he has the sensibilities of a farmer: Always looking for new and more practical ways to stretch his resources.

Larry’s retired and a part-time lifeguard at a local YMCA. He walks the mile and a half to and from the Y on those days he works. Did I mention he has the 5 a.m. shift? On one of these walks he noticed a Honey Locust tree, also known here in Indiana as a Thorn Tree. Rightly so–they pretty much just harvest thorns. My understanding from a friend who punctured his thigh with one of the thorns while clearing his property is that they’re wicked and near-lethal. But as always, Larry didn’t just see a dangerous tree sprouting six-inch swords; he saw opportunity.


He came back to the thorn tree with some pruners and carefully cut off some 4-inch thorns. Back home, he rounded the dull ends with a nail file. And then he got out the olives. He gave me and Phil a set of these cocktail skewers, with dire warnings about not letting the kids touch them, and they’re Phil’s favorites.

Cocktail picks from lethal thorns — because making lemonade from lemons would be too pedestrian for my father-in-law.

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, 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!

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, 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.