Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Are You Ready for Swine Flu?

Just yesterday I received an e-mail from a friend with an attachment from Johns Hopkins on what to do if pandemic strikes in the form of the swine flu. It says to stay home, easy enough. And it says to be sure you have 16 days worth of food stockpiled. Not a problem. I’ve become quite the believer in stocking up. That wasn’t always the case.

I used to make frequent trips to the market and buy “only what I needed” in the firm belief that this was better for our budget. The problem with that logic is that I was forever running to the store for “just this one thing” I needed and coming home with a cartload of stuff because it was on sale or I was sure we were out of it. Let me be clear here – the less you go to the store the less you spend. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out. I don’t “need” many of the things I buy, but that doesn’t stop me from buying them.

Here’s a better plan, and one that saves me money.

1. Stock up.
I try to keep my shopping trips down to one trip to the Amish Market and one trip to the grocery store each week. Some weeks I can even skip the grocery store. I can almost always accomplish this by keeping my pantry and freezer well stocked. It stands to reason if you know you eat pasta at least once a week, you can buy all the pasta you need months in advance (it keeps). Stocking up on staples like pasta, pasta sauce, chicken broth, ketchup, syrup, cereal, jelly, peanut butter, beans and other items that will store well saves you the last minute trip to the grocery store with cranky kids in tow that not only costs money, but costs time. Fill your freezer with the things you need and always have an “emergency” kit in your freezer for “emergencies” (avoiding a trip to the grocery store for that one thing): 1) loaf of bread (even if you make your own bread fresh), 2) a pound of butter (will freeze for the duration), and 3) hot dogs (easiest meal to fix in a pinch that will please nearly every kid).

2. Shop less.
Before you rush off to the store to get one crucial ingredient do two things. First, if it stores well, add it to your list of things you keep stocked up on. Second – think of something else you can serve instead. I’m telling you – flexibility will save you hundreds of dollars. It’s really nice and supremely organized to have the weeks menus made up ahead of time and posted primly on the fridge, but if you haven’t got exactly what you need to follow the plan – improvise or serve something else. That’s why you’re the mom – you always have a Plan B.

3. Centralize your shopping list.
My list is a magnetic pad on the side of the fridge. Everyone knows that if you open the last of anything (oatmeal, peanut butter, ketchup, olive oil), you must write it on the list or Mommy may wig out on you. It’s my system, but it does take a little enforced guilt in the beginning to get everyone with the program. This works for us because then it’s not up to me to inventory the kitchen to make up my list or rely on my ever-decomposing memory to remember all the things we might need.

4. Shop alone.
Under no circumstance should you be taking your kids to the grocery store. Not unless you’re doing math homework that requires that you go there. I know, I know, I’m usually all for the teach the children by example thing, but honestly, if I take my kids to the grocery store I leave stressed out and laden with things I didn’t come there to buy (like Cheezits in every flavor) and almost always missing at least one item I planned to buy but left behind in the interest of my children’s safety and my sanity. There will be time to teach them about shopping for groceries (like when they come home from college). I’m here to tell you that if you are serious about living a kid-friendly organic life on a budget, don’t shop for food with your kids.

5. Organize your cupboards. Clean them out. It’s about time for that at my house. We have a pantry that is so deep I must stand on a high bar stool to see the back of the top shelf. Things could be lost back there for decades. It’s important to know what you already have before you end up buying yet another package of cornmeal (we currently have three) you think you need because you haven’t seen it in awhile, but in reality is happily molding in the back of your cabinet. This is a case of do what I say not what I do, (a line that never works on my kids) but I’m going to try to be better at this. I know how happy I felt on the few occasions when my pantry was organized. Most times it was because the house was for sale (I even faced all the labels out – amazing how that makes a cabinet look truly organized). It takes time to organize. You need to have a garbage can, a recycling bin, and a give away box handy. I’m putting it on my to-do list. Knowing what you have saves you money.

I’m going to expose our food budget for the last four years on Friday’s post and I know that stocking up has played a big part in the numbers. So, just in case the swine flu is headed your direction, consider stocking up. And even if you’ve had your flu shot, stock up to save money. You’ll be amazed.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Being Neighborly

Three things happened this weekend that reminded me of an important element of a kid-friendly organic life.

My neighbor Nan brought me over 200 hostas. Nan lives at the bend in the creek that snakes along next to our road. She is blessed with lots of morning sun and soil made incredibly fertile from the many natural springs that feed our creek. Hostas go a little nuts at her house and each spring she (or rather her husband) have to clear out hundreds or be overrun. She has the same problem with Daylilys so I’m waiting for the next batch of boxes to appear at the end of my driveway.

My daughter wanted her very own flower garden. I’m thrilled to cultivate her interest in gardening, but I’m not so thrilled to spend lots of money on the plants of her dreams. Lucky for her my neighbor Mary who has a garden that looks like it stepped off the pages of a magazine, gave us some wonderful seeds she had saved from the ‘spider flower’ plants that Addie loves. Between those seeds, the marigold and zinnia seeds we saved from last year, and the seed packets that were given out free at the fall fest garden demo, we had seeds to spare and it didn’t cost us a thing. We spent a beautiful morning planting the seeds and Addie made markers so we would know what was what. We talked about all the people we could give our seeds to after we harvest them this year. We even envisioned starting our own seed swapping club.

Yesterday it was nearly 90 here (which broke a local record, just in case you’re interested) but it was the only chance we had to get our bounty of hostas in the ground. I had envisioned the hostas adorning the two banks that flank our driveway and trickle with water from several springs. When my husband and I pulled the truck laden with hostas, shovels, and our great intentions up beside the banks, we quickly lost steam. The bank was much bigger when the job was a reality and the weeds and grass that needed to be removed to make room for the hostas were very committed to staying where they were. We wrestled with the elements for about 15 minutes before our neighbor Chris happened along in his truck. He laughed when he saw the mountain of hostas and I explained my plans. He shook his head knowingly at my husband and then said he’d be right back with his front end loader. It took Chris only a few minutes to scrap away the offending weeds and expose our muddy bank. I spent the next few hours planting the hostas and reflecting on what great neighbors we have.

Being a good neighbor and having good neighbors sure makes a kid-friendly organic life much easier. We don’t live in a traditional neighborhood, so when I say neighbors I’m talking about people who live a mile down the road. It can take awhile to cultivate a neighborhood in these parts. To that end, we hosted a “neighborhood” potluck the first year we lived here. I made up a flyer and my kids and I took them to all the houses in about a one mile radius. We were able to meet lots of neighbors. It’s very easy to get insulated in your own little life especially if you’re busy with work and kids, but building a community should be a priority. There is great security in knowing there are people nearby who will help you in a crisis or even just to plant your hostas (or give you the hostas in the first place). We all need each other and if we take the time to know each other there is much that connects us besides geography.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ah- Aspragus Season!

Just yesterday I spotted the first little purple edged green tip of asparagus poking up through the straw in our asparagus bed! Can you find it in the picture? Made my day. Not that I will get to eat that particular inaugural spear. We’re in year two of our asparagus bed. More about that later.

Asparagus is, hands down, my favorite spring vegetable. I’ve been watching the tightly packed bundles of asparagus in the grocery store. They are still labeled “Mexico” so I leave them where they stand in their dingy water trays. I don’t have any real evidence to back it up, but I’m fairly certain that vegetables grown in Mexico have a higher than average chance of being laced with unapproved pesticides (all pesticides are unapproved in my book unless they’re natural, but I’m talking about federally approved pesticides). Having spent some time in Mexico volunteering with a group of teenagers one summer not so long ago, I’m familiar with the Mexican disregard for quality or regulations when there is a dollar to be had. So I steer clear of their produce if at all possible. Besides asparagus season is almost upon us and soon there will be local asparagus!

As for my own asparagus, not this year. Or next. It takes three long, long years to establish an asparagus bed. But after that – you’re golden because asparagus is just about the easiest and most rewarding vegetable you could grow. It’s perennial so you never have to plant it again once it’s established. We lived in a home years ago with an asparagus bed that was most likely over 20 years old and still producing much more asparagus than we could ever dream of eating. And sadly, I’ve never figured out an acceptable way of storing, freezing, or canning asparagus. It’s just not the same. You have to eat it fresh. And once you have, you’ll never be satisfied with grocery store “fresh” asparagus shipped in from Mexico. So you just have to eat and eat and eat asparagus for the month or so that it produces. Lucky us have friends nearby with an established asparagus bed and they sell it to the lucky few who know about it. I’m checking my e-mail anxiously waiting the announcement that the asparagus is ready. Meanwhile we are hovering over our own asparagus babies celebrating their second appearance in the garden.

If you’d like to try your own hand at asparagus, it’s not too late to put a bed in this year. First, you need to buy “crowns” (preferably organic and heirloom – check out or if you’re local head to the New Freedom store). Directions for planting asparagus generally come with them, but basically you plant them in a sunny spot with good drainage. You dig a deep trench about 18 inches deep and spread the crowns out along the bottom of the trench. Asparagas crowns look like dried up squid, so be sure to spread out all the tentacles. Cover them up with about six inches of dirt. As they begin growing the first year, continue to fill in the trench covering them up to their necks until you have the soil at ground level. Then water them regularly and watch them grow from skinny spears in to feathery ferns. But you can’t eat them. Like I said, it takes three years to establish your asparagus bed. The fourth year you can finally harvest them. So you better get started now! I promise you it will be the best investment you make in your property.

If you don’t have a space for asparagus, poor you. Start searching now for local asparagus. If you’ve never seen it growing it looks just like it does in the store. Single spears grow straight up out of the ground. They look a little Dr. Suess like and they grow so quickly that I’ve always thought you could sit and watch them grow. At our house with the asparagus bed, we used to pick it all first thing in the morning to take to our coworkers and by the time we got home from work there would be an entire new crop to pick. There’s nothing like it. I drove past a field starting to grow up in Seven Valleys this week. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a guard posted. It was very tempting.

There are lots of ways to prepare asparagus. I love it in omelets or simply roasted with sea salt and fresh pepper. My husband and I chanced in to a restaurant in Lititz, PA recently and ordered the asparagus. Even trucked in, as I’m sure it was, it was delicious and prepared in a novel way. I loved it so much, my husband actually went in to the kitchen and asked the chef how it was prepared. Here’s the recipe, loosely, since Nick only had a napkin to write on and the chef was busy:

Steam a bunch of fresh asparagus for about three minutes (keep it crisp), then quick sauté it in butter with fresh parsley, salt, pepper, and chopped walnuts. Serve immediately. I’m telling you it was outstanding. Walnuts and asparagus – who would’ve thought? Try it this month.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Live an Earth Life, not just a Day

I’m having trouble writing something for Earth Day because truth be told, Earth Day frustrates me. It’s ridiculous that on one day each year we talk about the importance of reducing, reusing, recycling, and caring for our earth and then the next day we go back to business as usual. Why is it we feel driven to keep our homes immaculate and in perfect running order (some more than others I know), but we don’t feel the same way about our planet? Isn’t our planet truly our home? It’s our responsibility - each one of us, not just the hippy-leftover lady that picks up trash along the side of the road. We wouldn’t walk by a bag of trash lying on our living room floor, so why is it so easy to look the other way at the trash lying on the sidewalk? We wouldn’t throw away money, so why is it so easy to throw away recycling? I’m as guilty as anybody. I’ll throw out the jar of peanut butter rather than try to clean it out for the recycling.

We recycle when it’s made easy for us and when it’s not we look both ways and then pitch the item in the trash. It’s just one bottle, can, newspaper, envelope, whatever. But that’s just it. We don’t think just one of us can make a difference and just one of us can’t. But just one of us times a million makes a huge difference. My paper’s obligatory Earth Day article on the front page recited some interesting facts: Recycling just one aluminum can creates enough savings to power a TV for 3 hours. Now I don’t know how “they” get to that number, but think about it. It’s kind of like trading your carbon rights. You recycle that can and you can watch TV for three hours and not feel guilty. (although personally I think three hours in front of a TV should make you feel guilty or at least bored out of your mind.)

Another statistic quoted said that each person, on average, creates 4.4 pounds of trash each day. Wow! That’s nuts. But I’m guessing it’s fairly accurate. Just think what could happen if each of us changed a few habits – recycled all the envelopes and junk mail (or better yet called a halt to the endless junk mail by logging on to and other sites like it and requesting an end to it), compost your coffee grounds and filters, filled a box for donations, recycled even the yucky peanut butter jar. Each of us could easily become less than average if we made one small change. 4.4 pounds per person is more than this earth can, or should, handle. So cut out the garbage.

On this Earth Day make a real change. Sit down with your kids and talk to them about Earth Day. They’re probably getting it pounded in to them at school so ask them what they learned. Make a pact to change just one habit. Let this Earth Day last longer than just one day. Maybe for your kids it can be an Earth Life.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Milk in the Raw

There was a story in our newspaper on Friday about the return of the milkman. I, for one, am excited about the possibility of having my milk delivered like when I was a kid. But it got me to thinking about milk. I’m as confused as anybody about whether it’s the basis of a healthy diet or the root of all evil. Two of my kids don’t drink much milk, but the third loves milk and drinks several glasses a day. We go through 2 and ½ gallons a week. Other than cereal, we use it to make yogurt and pudding, but not for much else. When I was first diving in to this organic, healthier lifestyle, I read a lot about milk. I was particularly interested in “raw milk”. The milk industry and the media in general give it a very bad rap, so that immediately peaks my interest. I can always smell a conspiracy (even if there’s none). Other than the internet, which we all know can be very self-serving; much of my information comes from the book Nourishing Traditions. Sally Fallon is an excellent writer, making even the most complex and bland subjects fascinating. She is also an amazing researcher and sites study upon study to back up her words.

The first issue that always comes up when you mention raw milk is its safety. When I was using raw milk, my friends pointedly requested that I not give it to their children. They were concerned about the safety of raw milk. For anyone not familiar – raw milk is milk that is not pasteurized, homogenized or frozen. It has not been altered with chemicals, additives, or light. It’s milk the way our great-grandparents drank it – straight from the cow. Modern milking machines and stainless steel tanks, efficient packaging and distribution, plus strict guidelines for all of this make pasteurization unnecessary for sanitation. Besides pasteurization does not guarantee your safety. All outbreaks of salmonella from contaminated milk in recent years have happened in pasteurized milk. There are many states that won’t allow the sale of raw milk; Pennsylvania is not one of them.

What’s so great about raw milk? Lots of things. But before I tell you them, I want to point out that while modernization of food production has helped us in many ways, it may be harming us in even more ways yet unknown. Our society continues to experience an increase in chronic illnesses. While, I’m no scientist, I have to note that the way we feed ourselves has changed drastically in the past 60 or so years. It’s easy to point the finger at the environment and genetics. They are big and vague and certainly responsible in part for some of the increase. But I am more inclined to search for the real problem and I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with what we are putting in to our bodies. Were we designed to process such complicated, fortified, chemically altered food? Any machine not given the appropriate fuel will break down and the more bad fuel you give it the worse the problem and the quicker the break down. Just saying.

Pasteurization of milk destroys good bacteria, along with any bad. This includes lactic-acid-producing bacteria that protect against pathogens. To quote Fallon: “Heat alters milk’s amino acids lysine and tyrosine, making the whole complex of proteins less available; it promotes rancidity of unsaturated fatty acids and destruction of vitamins. Vitamin C loss in pasteurization usually exceeds 50 %; loss of other water-soluble vitamins can run as high as 80%; vitamin B is totally destroyed. Pasteurization reduces the availability of milk’s mineral components (she lists them here – there are lots). There is some evidence that pasteurization alters lactose, making it more readily absorbable. This, and the fact that pasteurized milk puts an unnecessary strain on the pancreas to produce digestive enzymes, may explain why milk consumption in civilized societies has been linked with diabetes. Pasteurization destroys all the enzymes in milk. These enzymes help the body assimilate all bodybuilding factors, including calcium. That is why those who drink pasteurized milk may suffer from osteoporosis.”

Yes, you’re right milk companies do add back some of these vitamins that have been destroyed by pasteurization, but Fallon writes, “synthetic vitamin D2 or D3 is added – the former is toxic and has been linked to heart disease while the latter is difficult to absorb.” If you want the whole scoop, read if for yourself. The book is a wealth of eye-opening information about what modernization of food production is doing to our health. And like I said, it’s very readable. Plus it contains not just what we’re doing wrong, but how to do it right and gobs of recipes.

After saying all that, you’d probably deduce that we’re a raw milk drinking family. We’re not. We did try though. Raw milk is not homogenized, so that means it seperates and your milk can be very clumpy. You have to shake it before you drink it. But even with shaking there is still some separation. My kids could not get past the clumps. And I could not die on that hill (parents must pick their battles). So I buy grass fed, locally grown, and minimally processed and stored milk. But I haven’t given up my belief in raw milk. If you can’t handle the actual milk, you may still love raw milk cheese.

Raw milk cheese is sold all over the country and many, if not most, of the international cheese you buy is made from raw milk. Not only does it have much of the benefits of raw milk, it also tastes amazing. You can buy it in all the popular forms (except the individually wrapped “cheese food” version that kids seem to love). We love the raw milk Colby cheese or just the plain cheddar. Several farms nearby produce raw milk cheese and, while it may cost a little more, it’s worth it. My kids eat it on nachos and I cook with it exclusively. For a list of raw milk and milk products check out

I hesitated to write this post because milk can be very controversial for many people, and that includes soy milk which has received its share of bad press. But I suppose this invites the discussion. So if you have something to say about milk – raw, pasteurized, soy, or otherwise, I’d love to hear it.

Note to anyone living in Southern York County: The farm that has begun milk delivery, Apple Valley Creamery, does not deliver this far south. They would consider adding a route if there was enough interest down here. If you’d like to become a delivery customer for their grass-fed, no hormone added milk products (they’ve got lots of other local products available for delivery too including raw milk cheese), give them a call or an e-mail: 717-528-4520 or They have a store in East Berlin. I’m thinking of making a road trip out there – I’d love company!

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Times They Are A-Changin'

My husband recently installed a GPS in my car. Not that I asked him to. Not that I even wanted another technological gadget added to my already technologically challenged life. But it’s the thought that counts, right? Until I figured out how to shut up the robotically sweet voice (he calls her “Betty”, hmmm), it was almost eery. Even silenced, I am constantly distracted by the video game like quality of the screen that is forever in my field of vision on the windshield.

Still, it could come in handy he insisted. It would help me find customer’s houses. Or the houses hosting the birthday parties that my children attend almost weekly. And when we go on vacation just think how great it will be to have Betty leading our way! I was sucked right in to this bigger, better life until I was happily observing Betty observing me as I drove to the hospital to visit a friend. As I got on the exit ramp suddenly the road disappeared and according to Betty I was flying through the air not attached to any road! That exit ramp is relatively new, but I’m sure it’s been open at least a year. What else does Betty not know? If I trust her and throw away my maps – I might become irrevocably lost.

Will having this GPS in my car strip away another life skill? Reading (and folding) a paper map? My children have already grown up shoelace challenged from a lifetime of velcro and unreliable clock readers thanks to the gift of digital. I have friends that might just starve to death if you took away their microwaves. Most elementary schools don’t bother teaching script anymore. My children are amazed at my cursive writing. How do I do that? I am terrified that they will someday be in a life or death situation and have a note explaining their escape slipped to them only to discover it is written in script and they can’t even read it. Or what about an old-fashioned boss who still uses that ancient form of communication – paper and pen and heaven forbid, even writes in cursive? All this progress seems to be making us more helpless than ever. I take a strange pride knowing that I can cook over an open flame, my hands don’t cramp up after writing a few sentences, and I can tie a slip knot that holds. I’m an excellent navigator with a map and can even tell which direction I’m going based on the sun.

None of my children stuck with the scouts. But I am trying to raise them to be competent, self-reliant individuals, still I wonder if they could survive in a third world country with no Velcro or digital clocks? Could they have a written correspondence with anyone over 50? Of course you could argue that who really needs to tie a shoelace – you can find a slip on version of just about any shoe. And what isn’t digital these days? No one has real clocks. I grew up in a house with a clock that had roman numerals. My children just wrinkle their brows in disbelief at that reality.

Tell any teenager these days that you grew up without a microwave or DVD player or Direct TV. (Don’t even mention that you didn’t have a video player because they barely remember them anymore!) They are shocked, horrified – how could you have survived? No cell phones? The horror!

I’ve been thinking that a great new job might be as an electrical outage survival consultant. Or maybe a generational communications consultant. The gap seems to be growing and I truly don’t want these abilities to disappear. Maybe that’s because if they did that might make me pretty obsolete too. Or maybe that just makes me eccentric. Either way, I hate to see a day when a person can’t function without his handheld electronic organizer or find her way around her own city if all the satellites were absconded by aliens.

I’m all for progress, truly I am. I have nothing against it. I am amazed by what is possible these days. But at the same time, I’m not ready to trust it all either. I feel better knowing I don’t really need any of it. I do like to play sudoku on my palm pilot. And Betty is a form of entertainment too; trying to find roads that don’t exist in her reality is a strange thrill. I love to hear her incredibly calm voice telling me to make a U-turn at the next available safe intersection. I picture her sighing in frustration and disappointment as I ignore yet another of her simple directives.

I guess what I’m trying to say is – it’s important to know how to tie your shoes and read a clock. It’s important to know how to heat water on a stove and read a street map. Maybe they seem just like learning trigonometry – unnecessary skills you will never use in real life. But I believe they are important because the world will always change. And the further we move in the direction of complete dependence on all things technological, the further we get from the earth and where we came from. Just because there are calculators, doesn’t mean you don’t need to learn arithmetic. When it comes down to it, depending on technological advancements can make a brain pretty lazy (unless you are the brain coming up with the technological advancements). So humor me, teach your children how to make popcorn on the stove (or better yet – over the fire). Teach them how much fun it is to write a capital Z in cursive. Buy them a pair of sneakers with real laces. And if they don’t seem to be particularly motivated, ask them just who wins Survivor anyway?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Planting Seeds and Inspiration

This past weekend we finally got our garden off the ground, or maybe I should say in the ground. I love walking past the freshly planted weed free rows this time of year, but I was concerned about how late we were planting. It got me thinking about all the things I want to plant in life, so instead of just planting my seeds, I also planted some values. On one side of my seed markers I wrote the name of the seed I planted and on the other side of the marker I wrote a value I wanted to plant in our lives – things like humility, honesty, laughter, and kindness. My husband was helping me with my pea fence and although I know he noticed the signs, he didn’t say anything. Maybe he knows better or maybe he just wishes it was as easy to plant those things as it is to plant seeds.

My daughter, on the other hand, is a kindred spirit. She loved the idea of naming the plants. We discussed the scientific studies that say plants do better when you talk to them. This was her kind of world. She quickly grabbed the paint pens and began naming my plants. We pushed her markers in to the opposite ends of the rows from my signs. She named two similar sounding seeds Rhonda and Wanda. She named our plum purple radishes Cinderella. But my favorite was the name she game my lolla rosa lettuce. She named it Layla. Layla Lolla Rosa. It’s just fun to say. Even without the plants, the garden looks pretty colorful and it makes me smile when I survey it.

Getting kids involved in your garden is always a good idea. The rows may be crooked and a few seeds may be sacrificed, but that’s a small price to pay for their interest. The way I see it is if they have invested some of themselves in this garden, they just might eat some of the results. And that’s always a good thing. You can involve your kids in choosing seeds, laying out the garden, planting the seeds, and certainly making the seed markers. My seed markers are paint stirrers (free from the hardware store) and wood scraps my husband cuts out for me. I used to use popsicle sticks, but they get lost once the plants start coming up. Big markers expect big things.

It’s time to plant your seeds. If you haven’t got a garden in the ground, make one in a container. Grow lettuce in a window box or carrots in a big pot. Radishes are a quick reward. Many kids love cherry tomatoes and they are easy to grow too. Plant them now in a pot inside and move them outdoors in May. Ask your kids what they’d like to grow and then find a way to make it happen. Don’t let space or sunlight limit you. Last summer I even grew peanuts (in an old manure bucket). We are really not that far removed from our ancestors who grew all their food. There is no magic or mystery. Anybody can do it. You can do it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Homemade Laundry Detergent

I’ve been conducting my own scientific experiments again. I guess I shouldn’t call them “scientific” seeing as I’m not a scientist and they’re really pretty loosy-goosy experiments of my own devising. Several weeks ago I made my own homemade laundry detergent and then I tested it on my kids’ laundry. I tried several formulas and compared them to the brand name “green” detergents I’ve been using. I’ve been using green laundry detergents (no phosphate, biodegradable, good-for-the-environment, etc.) for several years and to be honest, they don’t work as well as the conventional detergents. So I’ve been wondering for some time if there wasn’t a better alternative out there.

In my search for the perfect laundry detergent, I discovered literally hundreds of recipes on the internet. I was going for simple and least messy, so that narrowed it down to powder formulas. The liquid recipes involved adding gallons upon gallons of water to each mixture and then stirring the slop before using. That’s too much work for me so you know I am fundamentally a lazy laundry lady. I was looking for something you just dump in and are done with it. After about 20 loads of laundry, I’m a believer. Making my own laundry detergent is simple and saves me money. I’m tired of choosing between spending a fortune for “green” laundry detergent and feeling guilty. This is a simple solution.

The recipe I chose has three ingredients: Fels Naptha bar soap, Washing Soda, and Borax. Only one of those ingredients was familiar to me, so back I went to the search engine to learn more. (My favorite search engine is because it donates money to your favorite cause with each search. I’ve chosen the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. Whether you’ve got a cause or not, it’s an easy way to make a difference. You can even check to see how much has been donated to date.)

Washing Soda (or Soda Ash) is sodium bicarbonate, which means very little to me. What did peak my interest is that it is effective in removing oil, grease, and alcohol stains. It can also remove wax. It’s most common use is in the manufacturing of glass. Washing Soda is pretty basic stuff and the most popular brand is made by Arm & Hammer. I found it in our local family owned grocery store right next to the Borax. It costs less than $3 a box. And that box has already made 6 batches of detergent and is still more than half full.

Fels Naptha Soap required a bit more research. I found it in the same grocery store and it was just 99 cents a bar. If you aren’t familiar with Fels Naptha (I wasn’t) it’s a bar soap that has been around for a century or more. It’s what your grandmother rubbed on her clothing when she used a wash board to do the laundry. A quick internet search uncovered lots of controversy surrounding the safety of Fels Naptha. Apparently Fels Naptha used to contain lye. Whether it still does or not seems to be debatable. I decided to believe that there isn’t lye in the fels naptha. As you probably already know you can find support for just about any idea you want on the internet. After reading multiple posts and getting completely confused as to the safety of using fels naptha, here’s what I decided - It’s probably safe. I sided with the 71 year old woman who wrote that she’s been using it all her life and is incredibly healthy and never had a skin irritation from it. The primary complaint from the nah-sayers seemed to be that it can irritate skin, shouldn’t be ingested, and the government has never done any kind of testing with fels naptha. All of that said, it’s your call whether you want to use it or not.

Several sources said that you can use other soaps in place of fels naptha and achieve the same results. So I tried this. I spent $4 on a bar of Dr. Bronner’s organic castile soap and mixed up another batch of laundry detergent. It seemed to work fine on towels, but definitely didn’t measure up on children’s clothes covered with grass stains and the unidentifiable stains covering the front of my daughter’s barn jacket.

Homemade Laundry Detergent:
1 cup finely grated fels naptha soap (or any other soap that does not have moisturizers, dyes or perfumes in it)
½ cup Borax
½ cup Washing Soda

Use 2 tablespoons per load. (I know that seems like only a tiny amount of detergent, but truly, that’s all you need.)
The original recipe I found on the internet said to grate the soap in your food processor. I couldn’t do that to my food processor, so I went to Walmart and bought a cheap fine grater for a few bucks and did it by hand. The bar grated easily and quickly. One bar made 2 cups of soap shreds. Each batch of detergent is enough for 16 loads of laundry. I was happy with the results in hot, warm, and cold water.

Considering fels naptha costs $1 a bar and borax and washing soda are less than $3 a box, and each box will make something like 15 recipes. The total cost of a load of laundry is pretty cheap. Add white vinegar as your fabric softener (1/2 cup per load) and you can save plenty making your own laundry detergent.

In all my reading I also saw dish washing soap mentioned as a great pre-treater. Haven’t tried that yet, but I’m sure I will. I know that even my simple version of laundry soap seems like a lot more work than picking up a bottle of detergent at the store, but consider the other costs. It’s easy for me mix up some more detergent if I run low, that saves on gasoline for the trip to the store and the packaging for each batch of detergent. But more than that it’s one more way for me to take care of my family in a way that is good for the planet, good for them, and good for my pocketbook.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Compost Happens

Compost happens. Good bumper sticker. Compost does just happen, there’s not much work involved other than gathering the right stuff and dumping it in. We’ve had lots of different compost set ups over the years; currently we’ve got two composts going. We have one that is specifically for the high rent plants (tomatoes, peppers, new perennials that cost a lot) and one for everything else. The high rent compost is kept in a fancy composter that I purchased from Gardener’s Supply catalog in a fit of this-is-an-investment-so-it’s-OK-to-spend-a-fortune. Really it’s not necessary. My friend Lisa got her composter free from the extension service by attending a seminar on composting. You can easily build your own and there are lots of plans out there. You can also simply designate an area and start piling. Depends on how seriously you take your composting.

We began our composting journey by reading the book, Compost This Book! By Tom Christopher and Marty Asher. It’s very readable and even funny. There are lots of other books out there. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to read a book, there is a great website that explains it very simply and clearly I’m going to steal shamelessly from the information found there, so if you want the complete scoop (so to speak), stop reading right now and just click on their site.

Compost needs green stuff (nitrogen), brown stuff (carbon), water, and air. That’s pretty much it.

Green stuff is fruit peelings, vegetables scraps, eggshells (crush them), coffee grounds + filters, and tea leaves. It’s pretty much anything that doesn’t have animal fat or meat in it. When we designed our kitchen we added a compost collector to our pull-out garbage bin. Before that we kept a fancy compost collector on our counter. It was porcelain and had a lid with a built in filter. Any upscale garden catalog will have lots of versions of these. Prior to that, we had a plastic bucket under the sink. Anything will work, but if you don’t want to be running out to the compost several times a day, I’d encourage you to use something inconspicuous and large, with a lid. When compost begins breaking down, it does smell a little, but it’s not a bad smell. If it starts to stink badly, think carefully about what you’ve been putting in your compost. It will attract fruit flies, so a lid is a good thing.

Green stuff is also manure of any animal that isn’t a meat eater. In other words don’t try to compost your dog or cat poop. Not good. But horse, cow, and chicken manure are all good. Chicken manure is especially good, and rabbit manure is even better. If you haven't got any of these animals yourself, make friends with a farmer. They'll usually gladly give you whatever you'll pick up. Grass and flower clippings are also green stuff. You can even throw in weeds if you’re sure they haven’t gone to seed. Otherwise you’ll be only creating problems.

You need 2 parts brown stuff for each 1 part green stuff. Brown stuff is generally dryer to begin with. It’s things like dead leaves (preferably chipped up so they break down quicker), newspaper (don’t use the glossy circulars), shredded cardboard, egg cartons, corn cobs & stalks (chopped up), wood chips, sawdust, wood ash (lightly), pine needles (go easy – they’re very acidic), straw, and shrub prunings (chopped up). I’m sure I’m forgetting something, but basically it’s anything that is organic and will break down. The more you can begin that process, by cutting up or chipping the brown stuff, the faster your compost will happen.

Your compost also needs air. This requires that you turn it occasionally. The fancy composter that I purchased is not supposed to need this turning because of its amazing design. Alas, that promise was too good to be true and getting a pitchfork in to its fancy design turns out to be pretty difficult. But we paid way too much good money for the thing, so we persevere and find our ways. If you layer your compost steadily with brown-green, it shouldn’t need too much turning.

The last thing your compost needs (besides time) is water. You can uncover it periodically and let the rain take care of that or you can manually water it yourself. Too much water and too little drainage will turn your compost in to a murky, solid mess. So make sure that there is a way for your compost to drain.

Our other compost pile is enormous and basically a free-for-all. It’s where we pile our yard clippings, horse manure, leaves, straw, miscellaneous paper, and cotton clothing. It is a long term investment. It is not covered, but is in the woods on a hill, so it doesn’t seem to be oversaturated and has plenty of drainage. Turning it requires our neighbor’s front end loader, so that doesn’t happen much. I’ve been saving it up to use in the terraced beds we are planning to build in to the hillside “some day”.

So compost happens and then what do you do? We use up nearly all of our high-rent compost each summer when we transplant the new babies. We will dig a hole much bigger than necessary for the transplant and then work lots of compost in to the bottom of the hole before planting. Our tomato plants were over six feet high last summer and produced, literally, wheel barrows full of tomatoes. Compost works.

And compost doesn’t just work for your garden. It also works for our world. It reduces waste and adds nutrients back to the soil. Start composting today – drill some holes in the bottom of a garbage can and get started. Teach your children about composting. There’s a great science lesson in all this nitrogen and carbon. It’s also a lesson in life. Everything is useful – even garbage and when you add in all the right garbage, you can make gold. Pass it on. Compost happens.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Even More Trash Talk (just can't get enough!)

In my house we eat with cloth napkins every night. In fact, we eat with cloth napkins for breakfast and lunch too. It’s not that we have a formal dining habit (far from it), it’s just that I can’t stand the waste of paper napkins. Huge pet peeve of mine. I can’t bear to use a small piece of a tree to wipe my mouth one time and then throw it in the trash. Such waste. No, it’s too painful for me. So long ago, I gave up the paper napkin habit.

Not only is using cloth napkins more responsible ecologically, they look better and make every meal feel more important. I’ve been using some of the same napkins for well over 10 years. Some were made by my mother for me when I got my first apartment. Some I collected from sale bins at linen stores and gift shops. Some were Christmas presents. I keep them folded in a big basket sitting on the piano in the corner of my kitchen. My kids don’t know any other kind of napkin. I could go on, but that’s more than enough about cloth napkins! I know there are some of you out there who are mumbling about the water and energy wasted when I wash my beloved napkins. Here’s the thing – with the exception of my six year old, most of my family can use the same napkin for multiple meals. Truly. They don’t get that dirty. We just shake out the crumbs and hang them on the back of the chair at the end of our meal. Then they’re ready for the next one.

My mother-in-law called to tell me she had given up her paper towel habit. She knows about my fetish with the napkins, so she was sure I’d be impressed with her new paper towel replacements – and I was! She decided that she had way too many old cotton t-shirts, but instead of tossing them, she cut them in to small paper towel size pieces. She rolled them up neatly and arranged them in a basket on her counter. Now, when she has a job that calls for a paper towel, she grabs a t-shirt piece and it does the trick. Then she can wash them or toss them if the job is too gross.

Here’s another idea for old t-shirts. I’m a runner, so I have a huge collection of t-shirts (they give them out at every race). Compost them! Yes, I mean it. If they’re 100% cotton, they’re 100% compostable (is that a word?). When my kids’ shirts get too stained to pass down or pass on, or my collection gets too unwieldy for the closet shelf, I cut them up, keep a few pieces for cleaning rags and then toss the rest in my long-term compost pile. They do take some time to break down, so they probably won’t be feeding our tomatoes anytime soon. If you’ve got a leaf/yard leftovers pile going somewhere, that’s the perfect place for your t-shirts.

I’m still considering the t-shirts-as-paper towels alternative, but meanwhile I have some real paper towels on my counter. I buy the kind with no dyes or perfumes and I compost them. They break down quickly and along with egg cartons, add some “brown” to the “green” in my compost. (Note: that’s a little teaser for Friday’s post. I know, you can’t wait!)

Ten more ways to reduce your trash:
1. Buy biodegradable cat litter. I toss mine in a particularly prickly area of the edge of our woods. Cat litter is not compostable (cats eat meat), but it will break down and return to the earth on it’s own rather than take up space inside a plastic bag that will not break down in the landfill.
2. Save your not-meat scraps. We feed ours to the chickens, but neighborhood ducks and birds would love your leftover bread crusts and cereal too. I know it’s a small thing, but imagine if everyone did it? (We’d have some fat ducks)
3. Donate your old running shoes. There are lots of organizations that collect these shoes and either turn them in to rubber mulch or donate them to people who can still use them.
For a list of places that will take your running shoes, check our and search for recycling. They’ve got a list of programs all over the world. And speaking of shoes, Crocs also has a recycling program.
4. Break up your cardboard boxes and recycle them. I know it’s a pain to break them down. I toss them in our yard shed until the pile accumulates so high the kids can’t retrieve their bikes and then we break them all down at once and take them to the recycling dumpster at the township.
5. Cut down on paper mail – go paperless with any company that you receive bills from. Almost all companies do this now (it saves them money, there’s the motive).
6. You can cut out your junk mail for just a buck by registering your mail preference service at
7. Sick of getting all those catalogs? I know I am. You can request that companies stop sending you catalogs at
8. Do you have stuff to unload but it’s too big/bulky/unwanted to take to Goodwill? Check out You’d be amazed what kinds of things people will take off your hands. Just be careful you don’t sign up and start collecting more stuff for yourself.
9. There are several swap services out there for exchanging your unwanted books, DVDs, and CDs for someone else’s. Just do a search and you’ll find them. I haven’t used one, so I can’t recommend one yet. I just signed up for swaptree. Future post, I’m sure.
10. My friend Susan responded to Monday’s post and mentioned she has been “repurposing” some of her things instead of tossing them or allowing them to collect dust. She repurposed some souvenirs from England in to a toothbrush holder and soap dish. What a great idea! I pulled out some old china tea cups that I’ve kept forever just because I can’t bear to get rid of them. They’re really just collecting dust, so I’m going to fill them with some of the thyme plants I’m growing for my kids teachers and give them as gifts at the end of the school year. Now I’m eyeing all my underutilized belongings and wondering what else they could do for me.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Talking Trash Again

My daughter came home on Friday all excited about her upcoming field trip. They’re going to the dump! I take great pride in the fact that my daughter is so thrilled to be touring the county dump. Although chaperoning field trips is almost as attractive to me as having a root canal, this is one field trip I’d love to tag along for. I’m really curious what happens after my garbage leaves my driveway, and I’d like proof that they really are recycling the things they say they are recycling. I have my momentary doubts when I watch the garbage men fling all my recylables in to the same receptacle and press the masher.

In Pennsylvania we incinerate our trash. Horrible, I know, but I guess that’s what each state has to decide – do you put the garbage in the ground or the air? Many of my hillbilly neighbors don’t bother with the formalities of trash cans and simply burn their trash themselves. It’s definitely not a perfect world. I’d like to hear from the dump director about the logic behind burning versus burying. So, yeah, I’d love to go to the dump and I’ll be pumping my daughter for information the moment she gets home.

The only real solution to the problem of trash is to make less of it in the first place. It has to be said – if we buy less stuff, we’ll have less to throw away. I’m reading a book called, Not Buying It by Judith Levine. It’s her year of not buying anything but necessities. Nevermind that she paid off a huge credit card debt during that year, she also comes to terms with just what is a necessity and how much she really can live without. I’m thinking of having my own period of not buying it. Maybe I’ll even start a Not Buying It group.

The other ways to make less trash are to reduce, recycle and compost. A friend asked me to write about composting. I’ve been composting for so many years I don’t even think about it anymore. So I’m going to think about it this week and I’ll post about it on Friday. Meanwhile, recycling is pretty basic. We’re all getting good at it, but we could be better. In PA they are now accepting other numbers besides 2 and 5 on your plastics, so there’s more to recycle. But you can also recycle on your own. I’ve mentioned how great yogurt cups are for starting seedlings. Empty prescription drugs bottles are also wonderful for storing seeds. Many plastic containers work great for freezing leftovers (just don’t heat them up in the same container). There is really no reason to ever buy a drawer organizer – check boxes and plastic shredded cheese containers work great. Shoe boxes can be used to hold pictures or organize just about any shelf that’s out of control. We throw away so much, yet constantly troop over to Walmart to buy more containers to hold our stuff.

Packaging is one thing that really fills a trash can. So much is overpackaged. It’s absurd, really. My husband has patiently explained to me again and again, that when a company is shipping thousands of products in containers on ships from Asia, those products must be overpackaged to prevent them from being damaged. The cost of the overpackaging (and all the hours of people twisting the little ties that hold everything in place so they look just so) is much less than the cost of products lost to damage. OK I get it, but that only creates one more great argument for buying locally. So consider not only what you are buying but how it is packaged.

Recycling and reducing saves you money. If you’re serious about it, it could save you big money. More importantly, the example you set is teaching your children. We cannot afford to be a throw away society anymore. There’s only so much room on our planet. Here are a few ideas to help reduce and recycle:

1. Buy in bulk whenever possible (and be sure to recycle the plastic bags you use to hold your bulk items)
2. Take your own bags to all stores, not just the grocery store. Most store clerks everywhere don’t bat an eye when you bring your own bag.
3. Develop a storage system for odd size plastic containers – that’s half the problem with keeping them. Once there is a place for them, you’ll be more inclined to reuse them.
4. Shop Goodwill and yard sales where you can reuse someone else’s goodies (and the bonus is no packaging and you save lots of money!)
5. Give away things you don’t need. If you aren’t using it and/or loving it, someone else might be able to. Figure out which of your friends isn’t offended by leftovers and/or donate your stuff to Goodwill.

I’ve got a bunch more ideas, so I’ll save them for Wednesday because I’m sure you’re tired of reading by now. This week I challenge you to look at everything you throw out and consider whether it really is garbage.

Friday, April 3, 2009

What is an Organic Life?

One thing about having a puppy, I’ve discovered, is that you have lots more time to think. Someone has to take her out to pee nearly every hour. And then stand there and wait. That’s the new way to house train your dog, you see. I remember as a kid you just waited for the new dog to pee on the floor and then you rubbed its nose in it (hence the phrase…). After a very expensive trip to the vet this week, I learned that the new way to house train a dog is to take it out frequently (“after it plays, after it eats, after it drinks, after it sleeps” – does a puppy do anything besides these activities?). And once she does her business, we give her a treat. This training regime was great fun for the kids for about two days, now no one wants to take the puppy out to pee. So, I find myself with many opportunities to ponder the universe while watching Gracie out of the corner of my eye, treat in hand.

So this morning I was thinking about what to write and that led me to think about what exactly is an organic life. I’m afraid most people confuse organic life with how you eat, but it is so much more than that. Organic life is about living a life that is real.

The term organic, as defined by Webster’s, pretty much means “real or authentic”. So I guess what I’m attempting to do and attempting to promote is a life lived authentically. Close to the earth, close to my children, close to the heart. Things in this world have gotten much more complicated since when I grew up. All I have to do is read the school letters about the intruder drills or sexting. Or open up one of the multiple e-mails that I get each day offering me all kinds of sexual opportunities or discounted drugs or work-from-home-and-get-rich-quick schemes. If I had cable or satellite TV, I’m sure I could find even more evidence that life is very different from when I was a kid.

It seems to me that life has gotten very artificial – and not just the food. The food is where I started, but only because that part’s so obvious. Living an organic life means caring what happens to people I may never meet. It means feeling responsible for the part of the earth I inhabit and how I leave it when I am through. Living an organic life means sharing and not taking more than I need. It means giving what I can and not gathering so much stuff. Living a kid-friendly organic life means passing along these beliefs to my children, not by force, but by example.

Living an organic life means nurturing plants and animals and people. It means sticking to the basics and finding ways to help everything in our care thrive naturally. Right now it means agonizing over when to put the peas in the ground. The nights are still cold, but I’m itching to make my garden green. It means choosing not to spray chemicals on my emerging strawberry plants and trusting the dog to keep the rabbits away and my knees to hold out so I can keep weeding them. That way the ground where my strawberries grow will still be producing strawberries when my grandchildren visit (OMG – that is centuries away!).

It means collecting seeds each year and storing them to plant the next year instead of buying more and more genetically modified plants that are bigger and “better”. It means taking the time to make my own food so that I know what goes in to it. Organic life means listening and learning from others who know more than I do. Sharing ideas and seeds and support. Last night a friend came by and brought me pecans (hand-hulled, fresh pecans from her grandfather’s farm in New Mexico!) and I gave her a dozen eggs in return.

Organic life means being grateful for my blessings and generous with my time. It means watching the earth carefully and listening closely. Sometimes organic life means standing up for or against powers that impact this life choice. And sometimes organic life means taking a pass on some new gadget or gizmo that is guaranteed to make my life easier, knowing that it’s just more “stuff”. It means paying attention and not spending so much time in front of screens of all shapes and sizes.

Living an organic life probably means different things to different people. What I believe is real and authentic, may seem trivial to you. So, I guess living an organic life requires each of us to take stock of what we have and what we need and what is “real” for us. It asks us to pay attention – to each other, to ourselves, to this earth, and to the future.

Kid-friendly organic life is about living a life that is honest, practical, and at times, very messy. It is also incredibly rewarding and tastes great. Kid-friendly organic life is not a way of eating; it’s a way of living. I hope you have a wonderful weekend – go plant some peas!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Let Us Eat Lettuce

Lettuce is one of my favorite foods. If you asked my kids what their Mommy likes to eat the most, without a doubt they would tell you that my favorite food is salad. My favorite food is really good European milk chocolate and jumbo shrimp steamed with Old Bay seasoning (but not together), but beyond that it is probably salad. Take me to any restaurant and I’m likely to pick out a funky interesting salad over the prime rib. This time of year lettuce is eating up my grocery bill. But come summer that will all change thanks to lettuce boxes. It used to be that in this climate the only time of year you could count on lettuce in your garden was late spring in to early summer. Once the big heat arrives, lettuce just bolts straightaway. But I’ve discovered a wonderful secret. Sometime last winter Organic Gardening magazine (another must read) published plans for a “lettuce box” and I quickly began badgering my husband. True to form he built me a lettuce box even better than the one in the magazine.

What’s so great about a lettuce box? And for that matter what is a lettuce box? A lettuce box is a movable growing near constant salad. It is a box of any size (mine are about 2 feet by 3 feet) built with a depth of only about 4-6 inches. Lettuce doesn’t need deep soil to thrive. It has handles on the ends and a bottom made of wire mesh and lined with biodegradable plastic mulch sheets. Built out of relatively light wood, just about anyone can move it, even when loaded with rich organic soil.

My boxes do fine in one location all spring, but once the heat arrives, I began to move them daily. I let them luxuriate in the sun some mornings and move them to the shade come afternoon. By doing this I am able to grow lettuce all the way through summer and into the fall. If it got unbearably hot I could have moved them inside, but last summer was a fluke around here and we never got the killer heat at all. In the original magazine article it showed someone arriving for a cookout with their lettuce box in tow – that’s a little over the top, even for me, but you could do it.

The lettuce box is the perfect solution for people who have too much sun or too little garden space. I keep two boxes going so that when one is still emerging the other is in full bloom. I dream of a third or even a fourth, but for now I’m working with two. I do still grow some of the bigger lettuces in my garden. The boxes are better for loose leaf and smaller types of lettuce like tom thumb. This past week I got my first box up and running. While I wait for the lettuce to germinate, it’s living in my mudroom, but I’m hopeful that the box will be outside full time in a week or two.

I’m sure you can build your own without the help of the plans, but if you need them look online at (search for “salad box”). Lettuce boxes could also be made out of window boxes or pots, depending on your lettuce needs. Mine are many, hence the multiple boxes.

While we wait for our lettuce, here’s my latest favorite salad dressing –

Asian Vinigrette
½ cup seasoned rice vinegar (splurge and buy a good one)
½ cup canola or safflower oil
½ teaspoon crushed garlic
1/8 teaspoon of stevia (or 2 tablespoons of sugar)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper (less if you’re not a big pepper fan)

Combine in a jar and shake until well mixed. Delish. Try it with cashews and croutons – simple and wonderful. I’ve been eating it for my lunch for weeks. Today I made it with orange flavored stevia - I may be addicted.