Mesh Produce Bags to DIY Dish Scrubbie in 4 Easy Steps

Do you ever buy onions or citrus in plastic mesh bags like these? Do you hoard them under the sink like I do?

More than a year ago now I figured out how to turn a pile of these into a scrubbie and I have been washing dishes with one ever since. I finally gave up the nasty *dish sponge* and I have not missed it. In fact, I still have to keep sponges around for the occasions when My Man washes up, and I am not even tempted to use them anymore. What a gross and unnecessary invention, that nevertheless took me many years to figure an alternative to that I liked using.

(Many people use a wash cloth and like them just fine, but I found them too flappy aroundy. I did eventually find some terry cloth diaper inserts that are a good size for dish washing, and I use them often, but this scrubbie fits perfectly in my hand and has the full force of scratchy nubs to clean the dishes!)

So, to turn your pile of bags into a scrubbie:

Step 1: Cut off all the end closures so you have just plain sleeves of mesh.

Step 2: Starting with one, curl the ends around itself so that it rolls up into a circular sausage.

Step 3: Repeat with each sleeve until you have a big fat wad, much bigger than you think it should be (it will get scrunched up).

Step 4: Reserve you longest, nubbiest one for the last. Instead of rolling it in like the others, tie a knot in one end to reform the bag, turn it inside out (so the knot is on the inside bottom of the bag) then insert your sausage roll. Work the knot up into the center of the roll. Scrunch the wad up inside the bag until it feels like a good scrubbie size and density, then tie up the top of the bag, fold the top back under and tie again so that your outside bag is wrapped twice around the whole shebang. Tie again, but this time attempt to not pull the end all the way through the knot so that the scratchy ends are not pointing up into your hand.

Scrunch the knot down flat and then use with the knotted side cradled in your palm.


Didn’t I say it was perfect?

Truly Green Investment

These few years in New Orleans have been really great, this place is as good as a city gets– charming old architecture steeped in history, a vitally important music and art scene, fabulous restaurants, a very un-American lack of prudishness, and whole seasons of jasmine and magnolia flowers. But, I am not a city girl. As our return to Alaska approaches I’m getting quite eager for our sleepy little hole in the wilderness where a Saturday drive ‘out the road’ yields adventures like this:

Just as much as the place, I am really yearning to be back in Our Own Home. This rental stuff is fine, but I have been realizing just how much my ‘work’ and my homeplace are intrinsically bonded. I can shop at the farmers’ market and grow a small garden anywhere, but that’s just treading water. To really move forward with the lifework I aim for, to climb the rungs of my chosen ‘career’ ladder, I need to stay in one place. One home which I can continually make more efficient, one chunk of land which I can build up towards my edible Eden, one particular ecosystem which I can come ever closer to knowing.

I have felt it here, the loss. The landscape so unfamiliar, the weather patterns confounding, the flora an almost complete blank (I am a wild plant buff in my home territory). Even eating confused me for a while– a responsible local diet here consists of things I had rarely let myself buy at home and didn’t know how to turn into mainstay meals; let alone that cooking itself is all wrong as a way to approach dinner when it’s 95 degrees in your kitchen. And unlike when I was young and resilient with energy to burn, I found it hard to rally myself for re-learning and re-building everything.

This homesteady lifestyle is all about investment and return. And I’m not talking metaphor. I have put 4 years of hard labor and hundreds of dollars worth of soil amendments into my Alaska garden. I built it up from a sorry looking lawn over a bare inch of topsoil with gravel fill substrate, to 160 square feet of luscious dirt in raised beds. In a town where you cannot, no matter how much you are willing to pay, order a truckload of dirt, those garden beds are pure gold. And they are only going to get better! After the very large up-front investment there is only so much work necessary every year to maintain the beds and build up fertility, but the return will continue to grow.

The garden is the best example, but really my entire lifework is wrapped around sticking to one place. Back in this now proverbial Home, I had also built a tight little chicken coop, put in a 20 foot long raspberry hedge to close off our yard, and spent years setting up an efficient kitchen (not to be underestimated!) Beyond the tangible accrual of humus and building projects, the knowledge of the area and the skills for using local resources grow slowly, over time. I had several years under my belt of ‘local university,’ learning which varieties of vegetables did best in our ridiculously rainy climate, how to process 35 whole sockeye salmon in two days, and creating an internal map of where all the best berries, wild mushrooms and edible plants grew in proliferation.

Very few of you have such an intensely localized tie to one place. Down here in rest of the 48 states, the most green responsible lifestyles are based of farming– whether you do it yourself or support someone else’s effort– and farming is at least recognizably similar throughout the temperate world. Even moving across country doesn’t shake everything you’ve ever known to the ground. Nevertheless, I think we all underestimate the profit to be realized from staying put.

The books always stress that “even renters can grow a garden,” and while that is true, I have built up and left behind a few times now, and I can tell you it is a certain kind of heartbreak. You don’t get to take your equity with you. No one else will recognize the value of your hard work, or care about the money you spent. When you leave, you leave it all behind.

I don’t mean to discourage those of you who do not own your own place, but rather to remind those of you who do how much it means. Don’t take your investments of time and money for granted. Just like in business, the ‘profit’ goes right back in as further investment for many years, which makes it hard to see. But so long as you manage to stay in place (a feat these days), you are building up for future dividends.

I can hardly wait to get back to my own double lot homestead and do some re-investing. My garden beds have been cover cropped for three years and I have a chicken coop full of aged manure. I’ll know what to plant, and when to do it. Times are going to be good.

The Carbon Free Home

Before I move on from January’s Quiet Riot focus of electricity, water and garbage, I want to review a great energy book– The Carbon Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Reduce the Fossil Fuel Habit by Stephen and Rebekah Hren. I had looked past this book several times, something seemed too fad-ish about the cover and I expected the projects to be along the lines of ‘replacing your incandescents with CFLs’ and ‘setting up a recycling system.’

But when I finally bit the proverbial bullet and got it out from the library, I realized I had been duped by a good cover designer to think it was fashionable. When in fact it’s a meaty book with loads of substantive projects! The authors are approachable and honest, clear and thorough. I liked it so much, I ordered my own copy.

The book includes a full range of projects– from insulating your fridge to installing solar heating tubes. Each project has a list of stats including the approximate cost, time and potential energy savings. Some are appropriate for renters, though I think the book is much more useful for homeowners who can really re-cap their investment over time. The small to medium sized projects are the stars of the book, in my view– the low to no cost things that most folks could do if they set aside a weekend for set up. The more complex projects would require considerably more information, but this book provides an overview of what’s involved as well as just plain inspiration for things like masonry stoves (yummy).

I look forward to outfitting our own home back in Alaska when we return. I never wanted to live in town, in a real sheetrock and plumbing house (I was going to build a log cabin in the woods), but over time as I’ve come around. I’ve realized the usefulness of it, given the way things actually are. I’ve re-written my goal to owning this modern system, knowing how my plumbing works and how to fix it, and eventually how to divert it into gray water garden irrigation! This book is not just empty inspiration for beginners though, as these books can sometimes be, it’s got real meat.

If you are thinking about putting a little time into the energy efficiency of your home, this would be a great place to start.

Welcome to the Sideshow

Well, hello there new readers! That last post apparently hit a vein. After a small interval of cyber-sharing, we had a banner day here at Apron Stringz with 1,491 views! Holy mama!

I feel I must take a moment to introduce myself. I wrote that post with my regulars in mind, knowing that they know me and would fill in the other half of the story. Because that post alone could sound awfully high and mighty, and I usually do my damndest around here to keep it down.

First, full disclosure. I am a woman of many and varied sensibilities. I am married, happily, to a man of many different sensibilities. Our two firecracker kidlets are making their own marks on our family life, and this all adds up to a household that might surprise you new readers with it’s multitude of transgressions. I fear you might have been accidentally led to believe I am some kind of punk goddess, rocking the home like it’s 1999. I thought a bit of reality was in order.

As I mentioned afterwards in the comments, I spent days gestating and then birthing that post. For those days (and many other unrelated days in my life) I completely neglected those righteous homemaking duties for the more glorious job of writing about them. On the day I finally set pen to paper, as it were, I plugged my kids into dvds all morning and then left them with Papa all afternoon while I drove our car to the coffee shop to write. As I was doing the last edit in a rush at 5:15, My Man took the kids to Wendy’s for dinner. To unwind after our long half-sick day, we watched a dumb movie in one room while the kids watched another in the other room.

I would like to say such activities are rare.

I can’t.

I’m telling you all this because– if this ruins it for you, you might as well leave now. I understand the inspiration of voyeuristic perfection, I have imbibed myself on many occasions. But there is another kind of inspiration, much more subtle and possibly longer lasting. This is the inspiration of other real people, just like you. Fucked up and wonderful, just like you. Generally confused with bright moments of epiphany. Succeeding sometimes, failing often, but keeping at it.

With this blog I do my best to champion that radical punk housewifery I wrote about in Why Are We Doing This; to describe the mechanics as well as the psychology of my own particular trip. But my highest aim is the uniting of all of us. The kick-ass radical punk bitches, the harried just-trying-to-survive-two-kids-under-the-age-of-3 moms, the homesteader grandmas who remember and support us. I can jive with just about anyone who tries to make a change in this life, no matter where they started or how far they’ve come, no matter what canvas they work on. It’s that heart-binding intent that I believe in.

So, welcome you. Welcome to the sideshow. Take a seat and introduce yourself to your neighbor. We’re making this show up as we go along.

A selection of introductory posts for you new readers:
Why We Do What We Do -- the important other half of the question
Hello You Shy, Confused Feminist Housewife, You
Priorities, Compromise and the Privilege of Doing Good
Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts
Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?



Why Are We Doing This?

Many years ago now, from the depths of mothering two little firecrackers, I made a small zine. After an epiphany at copy store, I wrote this post which I still believe to be one of my best works. I decided to pin it here to the top of the home page, because it really nails what this blog was all about. Enjoy, and welcome. May you find solace and solidarity within these words.


I finished my small but satisfying zine recently, on the subject of Getting Shit Done (With Kids). To clarify, the shit I am referring to is all the same ‘sustainable home’ stuff that I generally write and obsess about. Growing some of your own food, responsibly sourcing the rest, cooking everything at home, consuming a minimum of our world’s resources, finding the smaller and simpler pleasures in life– all in the context of homemaking.

After finally getting the zine all laid out, I spent a few hours at Kinkos printing it. While I stood organizing my piles of pages, I felt myself and my work laid naked before the world. There it was for any passerby to glance at– the Apron Stringz cover page. What at home had seemed clever and spunky suddenly seemed trivial and indulgent. Embarrassing. I felt a tiny crash in my heart.

I’m so excited? I wrote a zine about being a housewife?

Here, in this corner of cyberspace, we are together. All of us strange people who value home work. We come here to remind each other that we are important, to take shelter in one another. But out in the big world, people still think housewifery is for women who can’t get a job. People don’t understand what we might be doing all day, at home, and even if we explained what we were doing they wouldn’t understand why. Why go to so much trouble to make something you can buy at the store for $1.99?

As much as I want to believe that I am this strident renegade who doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks, it’s not true. Of course I care, everyone worth anything does. It’s destructive and beautiful, but absolutely human– our pack mentality, our sensitivity to others.

So I go along, carrying my secret work in my heart, brandishing my beliefs occasionally in public too loudly and with too much passion. Confusing well meaning relatives, alienating myself and consequently those who try to be close to me. It’s a hard row to hoe, and I would be lying if I claimed to never have had a breach of faith.

Having kids is hard work. You know. Unbelievably, previously unimaginably hard work. Sometimes I find myself wondering why on earth I try to do anything else. Why do I spend so much time and energy with this whole punk housewife thing? Is it really so important? Isn’t the “revolutionary” tagline in my header just tongue-in-cheek? Who do I think I am that what I do matters so very much. What precociousness!

My lonesome Kinkos moment was just me, out in the real world. Remembering that I am a freak. Questioning my self, my motives, my outcomes. Not feeling at all sure of the answers.

It was somehow much easier to keep a grip on the import of my ‘work’ when we lived in Alaska. My daily activities just seemed more revolutionary– even after having a kid reduced my efforts to the household realm, at least I was making stock out of deer bones. We drank wild salmonberry juice and picked chantrelles out of the mossy forest. Whenever I needed a good jolt of ‘why’ I had the big wild mountain right there out the window.

Here in the city, the sustainable lifestyle looks less radical. I make my stock out of plain old chicken, even if it is from the farmer’s market. We buy organic juice concentrate from Whole Foods, and locally grown shitakes that come in a plastic box. Is this revolution? Really?

Maybe not revolution exactly, but inglorious though it may be, this work needs to be done. Figuring out how to live happily in a thriving wilderness ecosystem will not save humanity at this point (though it well might be our salvation in the future). Right now we need to figure out how to sustainably keep large populations happy and healthy in cities where their concentration is most efficient, we need to come down off of the drug of convenience slowly and explore the genuine possibility of change. There is much work to be done to turn cities and urban homes into sustainable working systems, and it is helpful to have someone actually in the home to do the work.

Wendell Berry is, arguably, the grandfather of the now very fashionable ‘local’ movement. He writes about farming primarily, about staying in place and owning up to land use, but he always honors the home itself as the nucleus of everything. His monumental book, The Unsettling of America was the first place I ever read the word housewife used without malice. It is obvious that he reveres the traditional rural housewife, but– perhaps because he himself is the farmer and not the farmer’s wife– he doesn’t focus much on the role.

Wendell and the local food movement broke ground, but Shannon Hayes was the first public voice I heard with the balls to say, without mincing any words, that choosing not to have a paying job, and instead staying home to care for yourself and your family is radical political action and will effect significant change, change that we desperately need.

Shannon’s book Radical Homemakers, gave us some real meat to chew, a fat gleam of pride. But like Wendell, she lives rurally. Although some of the people in her book live in the city, the overall effect is the feeling that if you’re going to quit your job, you’d better move to the country and start raising your own grass-fed beef.

Then came Harriet Fasenfest with The Householder’s Guide to the Universe. Dramatically less academic and achingly more intimate, Harriet lays out her own struggle to turn the farmer’s ethic of thrifty, hard working, conscientious living into an urban reality. She uses the genderless word ‘householder’ to describe this more tightly focused work. Harriet started right where she was, with what she had, and there is great inspiration in that. But Harriet’s kids are mostly grown and she has has been able to give incredible energy to the task.

I feel that there is a great untapped labor force– people like me, and maybe you– stuck in the city, partner working full time, little kids providing the greatest motivation for positive change that mankind has ever known and simultaneously carving our time and energy down to within an inch of it’s life. We can’t get anything very big and impressive done, but there are so many of us. Our actions might be small, but our potential is big.

This post is not meant to be a declaration, an imperative or a manifesto. Purely an explanation, to myself above all. Because, although it is absolutely true that I do what I do because I love doing it, it’s also true that I often don’t love it at all. Sometimes it’s a downright shit job, a literal shit job, and I do it anyway (mostly). DIY punk housewifery as described herein is dirty, tedious, time consuming and, after the inital high of aquiring the skills, often flat out boring. Today I need to remind myself, and any of you who haven’t had a good pep talk lately, why we do this thing.

Let’s be frank.

I believe the world is fucked up. We have ravaged the wilderness into near oblivion, sucked the life out of every arable piece of land, bombed and enslaved our fellow humans, all in order to provide for our extremely decadent first-world lifestyle. I know I can’t change things to any significant degree, but neither can I turn aside and pretend I haven’t noticed. I cannot, in good conscience and healthy mental condition, proceed at full speed. Over time I have accepted that I can’t and don’t want to withdraw from my countrymen into the wilderness. In fact, since having kids I find that I am drawn more and more back from the fray. I am guilty of participation at every level, but I cannot reconcile a life that does not at least try for something better. If I am weary with effort, I will know I am doing what I can do.

And here’s what I can do.

If I believe that massive-scale agriculture is defiling our land, and corporate food products are defiling our bodies, I can base our diet instead on whole foods from local farms.

If I believe that using fossil fuels supports global bullying and violence, not to mention environmental degradation, I can make the time to walk and bike whenever possible.

If I believe that the immense resources sucked down and shit out for every piece of plastic crap we think we deserve is inexcusable, I can mend broken things, reuse materials, buy second hand, do without.

But you know damn well those choices are not so simple, and that is where the skill and craft and countless hours of housewifery become meaningful. After the romance of changing the world has subsided, it all comes down to the number of hours in a day and the number of dollars in your bank account. In case you’ve never been to a farmer’s market let me tell you that local, sustainable food is enormously more expensive. If I want to be able to afford the luxury of responsible purchases, I need to defray costs by cooking everything from scratch. Creativity in the kitchen is worth money– stretching that costly ethical meat by picking every last shred off of last night’s roast chicken and cooking the bones into stock; planning ahead for variety and convenience so that we are less tempted by the many corporate foods surrounding us on a daily basis; and ‘adding value’ at home by making our own jams, yogurt, granola, and bread.

Although cooking tends to monopolize my own housewifery, cleaning up after everything is a law, like gravity. It has to be done, and someone has to do it. The infinitely humble task of washing dishes is radical political action, because after cooking your ethically and sustainably raised chicken into stock to make a second or third meal out of it so that you can afford to keep supporting that righteous local farmer, there is a pile of greasy dishes to be done. If a=b and b=c, than a=c. In other realms, it doesn’t take very complicated math to realize that eschewing 2-3 years’ worth of disposable diapers, per kid, has radical environmental impact.

And if you want to quit your job so that you can be home to do all this radical chicken cooking and diaper washing that means that you probably can’t afford day care for your filthy little angels, which means you will be involved in the now political act of picking up the floor on a more or less continuous basis.

Welcome to my world.

DIY Play Fountain

I don’t want anyone to panic after that DIY vs BUY post. It’s still me– same old, same old. I still believe in and love the ethic of DIY. Especially when it’s something that you couldn’t buy even if you wanted to. I didn’t make my daughter’s Christmas dollhouse because I found one used, and I never got to that train table either. But I did manage to slap together this brilliant little water saving device.

Kids love water, there’s nothing to be done about it. My 2yo son’s favorite thing in the entire world is a hose. Turned on full. And he knows how to turn it up himself when I attempt to lessen the flow. This summer we were going through a truly shocking amount of water. Here at the mouth of America’s largest river, it’s not such a big deal to waste water, but what a lot of energy is wasted to pump it and purify it just so my 2yo can spray it back into the gutter.

We had a plain old kids’ waterplay table, as well as a small plastic swimming pool. Not to mention sinks and tubs. But nothing could compare to running water, and the 2yo would have a fit whenever I turned the hose off. And what’s more wholesome than playing in water? How could I want very hard to stop him? So, I thought, couldn’t I make some kind of perpetual system? Like a fountain, but not remotely fancy. Just a faucet of sorts that would run into a container and get pumped back up, closed loop.

Lots of kinds of containers could work, but we had the water table so I decided to go with that. I went to the store for a small pond pump, not knowing anything about ponds or pumps. It was rather intimidating and confusing, and I almost gave up when I saw the price range was $30-$260!!! But I ended up settling on the $40 size and so far it works just fine and is well worth the money.


waterplay table or any kind of bucket or tub that can hold at least 3 gallons

small pond pump– 80 gal/hour or greater (A pond pump is a small, submersible electric pump. There is an inlet and an outlet, make sure to get one with a sponge filter guarding the inlet.)

2 feet flexible vinyl tubing, whatever diameter fits snugly onto your pump outlet

1 hose clamp to fit tubing

2 feet rigid pipe, pvc or similar, whatever diameter the tubing can fit into comfortably

2 elbows

some piece of wood for mounting

plumber’s tape (the stuff that’s not like tape at all, but a thin strip of metal with holes)

1 small shelf bracket

associated screws


Heat one end of the flexible tubing in hot water to relax. Remove cover and filter to get at pump outlet, then jam tubing onto outlet. Slide the hose clamp down over and tighten. My pump barely had room for the hose clamp under the filter cover. If yours just doesn’t fit, I think it would probably would work fine without a clamp, as long as the tubing is very snug on the outlet.

Cut your pvc into three lengths to form a “faucet” high enough above the water container that the kids can fill buckets and things under it. I cut mine approximately 11 in, 5 in and 2 in. Slide the long piece onto the flexible tubing, right up to flush with the pump. Now slide on an elbow (not as easy as it sounds) and seat it firmly onto the end of the pipe. Be careful as you do this that the other end of the pipe stays flush with the pump. Continue with the medium length pipe, another elbow, and lastly the little piece of pipe. When you are sure you’ve got it right, cut the end of the tubing flush with the end of the pipe.

Sorry I didn’t take more pictures of the process, but like many DIY projects, it’s much more straightforward when you’re actually doing it than it sounds in description. Fear not.

Now attach the wood to the tub however you can figure. It should be pretty well secured. Set the pump in with the “faucet” sticking up where and how you want it. Use a section of plumber’s tape to secure the pipe against the edge of the wood.

Then mount the corner bracket onto the wood so that the sticking up side is flush with the pipe. Use wire to secure. You want this whole apparatus to be as tight and strong as possible if your kids, like mine, are likely to yarf on the faucet.

Fill the tub with water and plug in the pump. Does it work? Hoorah! Allow kids to play to their heart’s content. They will still waste water, filling buckets and watering cans and dumping it everywhere, but you’re looking at one or two gallons per play session instead of 50 or 60. Do keep an eye on the water level, as the pump shouldn’t be let to run dry while it’s on.

I didn’t add any chlorine or anything, so I have to dump and refill every few days. But it’s worth it not to have to worry that the kids might drink the water (they do) or pour it on my garden plants (they do). I consider it just watering the grass anyway.

If anyone gives this a go, please come back and tell me how it went, what changes you made, problems, etc. Good luck!

DIY Glass Sippy Cup

Hallelujah. We made it through. My Man finished his last test Thursday– beginning almost 30 days of semi-freedom and familial bliss!

I have so many (many) posts in my head, gathering to a complex hurricane of thoughts. But I’m really trying to relax just a bit, instead of charging into my free time with the panic of starvation. Instead of diving straight off the deep end, I thought I’d start with this simple, season-appropriate DIY project.

Up until recently my kiddos largely drank out of plastic. It always bothered me, bothered the shit out of me in fact. I hate to drink out of plastic, so why was I allowing my tiny budding babies to pollute their otherwise pure systems with leaching chemical compounds? I’d give them jam jars when I could, but so often I just couldn’t face up to the possibility of yet another wipe-up of spilled fluids, number 57 of the day. So I’d defer to plastic, oh beneficent god of the spill-proof sippy cup.

But a few moths ago I was grazing Simple, Frugal, Green and I found these kids’ cups made out of jam jars (half pint mason jars) with a hole punched in the lid to put a straw through. Brilliant! How had I never thought of that?

My mind worked at it a bit more though, and I thought, why jars? Why not these cute apple shaped bottles I’d gotten at the store to use as small sized glass water bottles? And instead of just a plastic straw, like Abby used, why not invest in a set of stainless steel straws?

Thus, my (half mine anyway) brainchild was born.

Don’t you want one? Don’t you want half a dozen, since 5 are always lost under the couch anyway?

As you might imagine, this cute apple shaped bottle was sold with apple juice in it. For $1.75. How’s that for a cheap sippy cup? With free drink no less!

The stainless steel straws get you though. $10.99 for 4. I strongly recommend you get ones that come with a special straw cleaning brush. (You know I hate to link to Amaz*n, but here they are if you don’t want to mess around looking for them.)

So, how to punch that sweet little hole that brings it all together. Of course drilling a hole just the size of the straw would be the logical way to do it, these lids are pretty soft metal and would be easy to drill. But my drill bit chuck is stuck tight, I can’t get the phillip’s head out to put in a drill bit. (Any advice?) So short of that I used the phillips head bit and a screw to make a hole, which wasn’t big enough, so then I used a phillips head screwdriver by hand, just yarfing it back and forth, to open the hole up enough to get the straw through. Don’t overdo it though, the tighter the hole around the straw, the less leaking action you’ll see.

And no, these aren’t spill-proof. But then, no sippy is. Even the best ones we found (Playtex) would start leaking after the kids chewed the plastic mouthpiece enough. These apple bottles are a good shape for the sippy, partly because they’re squat– low center of gravity– but also because if they’re less than half full when they get tipped over, the level of the liquid doesn’t reach the hole, and they don’t leak at all! But even when mostly full, if you’ve been careful to make the hole perfectly fit the straw, the leaking isn’t too bad.

4 apple juice bottles $7

4 straws + cleaning brush — $11

no more worrying about poison laced orange juice — priceless

Self Irrigating Planters Made Easy!

Growing food in containers can be useful for so many situations– it’s quick to set up and can utilize very small outdoor spaces. Since it requires no commitment to a piece of ground, it’s renter friendly. Because growing in containers is so approachable, it’s where many people start gardening. Unfortunately, although the setup is undeniably quick and easy (albeit expensive) actually getting food plants to grow and produce in containers is often much more challenging than in the ground.

Perhaps the biggest problem for container growing is inconsistent moisture– while herbs and some flowers do fine with the occasional droughts, food plants often never recover from even short gaps in watering. When you’ve planted into the ground, once your plants get a good root system established there’s almost always a little moisture down under there, but a containers can go really and truly dry in not very much time at all. Unless you live in a cool damp place, and are a good every-day-without-fail waterer (very much not me!) you are likely to hit some trouble.

This is partly because of the other reason food in pots can fail– almost every garden pot sold is much too small. In addition to not providing enough root space for any food crops except lettuce, spinach and radishes (not coincidentally the three crops most sensitive to dry soil), a small amount of dirt is considerably more prone to drying out, especially if it’s in a terra cotta pot. Those suckers ought not to be allowed in sizes smaller than 12 inch. I’ve even managed to kill plants in small pots in Cordova, the cold northern end of the temperate rainforest! When something dies from lack of water in Cordova, it is truly impressive.

Ever since I read about self irrigating planters (SIPs) on Root Simple years ago, I have been fascinated by them. The idea behind SIPs is to use a large container such as a rubbermaid tote, create a water resevoir in the bottom and some form of a wick up into a peat-heavy potting soil. When you water, you fill the resevoir, and it slowly wicks up into the soil providing consistently perfect moisture for your plants. I am a sucker for simple technology, particularly when it repurposes trash, and loved the quiet brilliance of this design.

At home in Cordova I had no reason to build a SIP, I had all the ground-based growing space I could manage. So I was excited when we moved to a rental house in New Orleans and I finally had a good excuse to give it a try. Shortly after our move, with a toddler helping and newborn fussing, I made three SIPs out of rubbermaid totes.

with good help you'll be done with this project before you can say, 'self irrigating planter'

Of course, I don’t like to do anything the regular way, even the regular alternative way, so I made some adjustments to the classic SIP design. I’m not sure if my adjustments are an improvement, but it does make the design more accesible.

The classic design uses upright sections of PVC with holes drilled in them to hold up the divider between resevoir and soil, as well as a “pond basket” to hold the wick of pure peat moss. I didn’t want to have to drive all the way to Lowe’s to buy PVC and a pond basket. Even though these items are cheap, I had some kind of mental block against buying them, which for a few months prevented me from tackling the project at all. Do you do this? I knew I was being ridiculous, losing months of good growing weather, but I couldn’t get over the idea that I ought to be able to scrounge good substitutes.

Eventually I hit on a slightly different idea. Lots of materials wick water, couldn’t I use some kind of old cotton cloth? Like these old sheets, cut and braided into a fat wick?

And why did the resevoir need to be integral? Could I use something else, put into the tote, like…. an old milk jug?

So was born my super simple scrounge SIPs. I bet you have the materials on hand to make one of these right now!

  • one rubbermaid or similar large tote, not clear (or algae will grow)
  • two old gallon milk jugs, scrubbed scruppulously clean and bleached (if you can find water jugs in someone’s recycling you can skip the scrubbing and sterilizing)
  • two small (12 oz) drink bottles
  • one old bath towel or cotton sheet
  • razor blade or very sharp knife

With the traditional SIP design, you need the tote to be free of holes or cracks, but for this design, because the resevoir is in the jugs, you can use any old tote off the side of the road, so long as it’s sturdy enough to fill with soil. In fact, it needs to be able to drain so that rain doesn’t pool up in it. So, start by drilling a dozen or so holes in the bottom, or if you don’t have a drill, punch holes with a nail.

emergent DIYer? or upcoming corporate exec out of pure rebellion and spite?

Cut your towel in half lengthwise, trim to about 2 and 1/2 feet long, and roll into a tight log. Squeeze your hand around the roll and try to estimate the size, then cut a similar sized round hole into the top of your milk jug. Cut it smaller than you think, you can always cut a bit more. You want the towel to fill the hole completely so that dirt doesn’t fall in. Work one end of the towel roll through the hole (a butter knife might help) and all the way to the bottom of the jug. Repeat with your other jug. [If you are using an old sheet, cut in half widthwise, then cut each half into three pieces. Braid them together and rubberband the ends to secure.]

Set the jugs into the tote at opposite ends of the same side, and flop the towel ends over the edge of the container. Cut the bottoms off of the small drink bottles, and invert, setting the mouth into the mouth of the milk jugs. These will be where you stick the hose to fill the resevoir jugs.

If you have access to top quality potting mix you can use it straight up, but if all you can find is that crap with sticks and chunks in it, mix with an equal quantity of good, finished compost or if you’re really desperate, peat moss and organic fertilizer. The mix needs to have a large proportion of fine organic material in order to wick the water around. Add in some perlite or vermiculite if you have it.

Pour soil mix in around the jugs, tamping down firmly as you go. When the dirt is even with the wicks (make sure it’s well tamped), lay them down on the surface. Being careful to keep the drink bottles in place, continue filling with dirt right up to the rim of the tote, it will settle a bit over the next few weeks.

Fill jugs by sticking hose into the inverted drink bottles, when the water level rises into the top bottle, it means the jug is full. Since it’s not a tight seal, extra water will leak out where the two mouths meet, but it doesn’t matter. Soak the soil itself thoroughly and then plant.

The classic SIP technique is to sprinkle fertilizer on the soil surface and then cover the whole thing with plastic mulch. You cut the middle out of the lid to make a rim, then just cover the tote with a black plastic bag (white if you live in a hot climate), snap on rim, and cut holes for your plants.

I never got around to doing this though, I just couldn’t get over cutting the soil off from the world to such a complete degree. The top plastic would keep a lot of moisture in, keep weeds from growing, and allow the top-dressing of fertilizer to absorb slowly. But plastic on all sides? Couldn’t do it. Instead I mulched my totes with a thick layer of leaves, just like I do in the garden. Worked great, but then our climate is very damp.

Which brings us to the question of outcome. How did my alternative SIP design work?

Well, it worked just fine, I only needed to water once every few days, and the soil stayed very moist. Plants grew large and healthy, and produced as well as those in the ground. But, given our incredibly damp climate (summer is downright wet) I was not entirely convinced that plain old totes would not have done the job perfectly well on their own. They hold such a large amount of soil that it even when I got lazy and forgot to water for days on end, the soil stayed reasonably moist 6 inches down and the plants seemed fine.

I grew out 3 seasons of plants before I dumped the soil out to refill with fresh stuff (I needed organic material for my dirt garden, if I hadn’t I would have added in a good quantity of compost and fertilizer and kept going with the same stuff for a few more seasons). When I dumped it out, I discovered that the wicks had almost completely disappeared. Oh! Of course! Cotton + consistent moisture + heat = compost. Whoops.

To be honest, I didn’t re-make them as SIPs. I just filled them up to use as regular, very large planters. I planted salad greens, who’s shallow roots are very sensitive to lapses in water, and so far they’re doing beautifully.

I’m still a fan of SIPs though. If you live in a dry place, or go out of town often, and want to give them a try, this super easy set-up has the advantage of immediacy. No complicated trips to the store, which can put a mama with kiddos back for months. No fancy tools. No questionable PVC. Almost no money outlay at all if you’ve got an old tote around, though you still have to buy potting mix. The wicks lasted at least a solid year, and replacing them every spring wouldn’t be hard.

Even easier though? Skip the stupidly small and infuriatingly shallow (but darn aren’t they pretty) regular garden pots and plant vegetables in a plain old large plastic tote with drainage holes. If you live in a damp climate, this will probably be enough to make the difference.

Just don’t tell your neighbors it was my idea.

For the bible of SIPs, including several designs as well as spacing recommendations for planting and other good tips, check out this pdf from Seattle Peak Oil Awareness. If you want to use a couple of old 5 gallon buckets, or just want to be entertained punk urban survival style, check out this video from the old Homegrown Evolution (now Root Simple.) Lastly, here’s a couple more great pictorals for totes and buckets from Crestone Solar School.

Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts

Each of us enters into this world of punk DIY housewifery from different angles. It’s easy enough to look down the street (or more likely, through the screen) at Ms. Jones’ new chicken coop, the handsewn banners in her window, the pie cooling on the sill, and compare straight across to our own shamble-stead. Assuming we ought to be even.

But there’s no reason whatsoever we should be ‘even.’ Everyone started in a different place, and took a different road in. People say this all the time. Start where you are. But I feel like we don’t give this fundamental truth the credence it deserves.

Adult jobs require training. Some jobs require years of schooling. Why is it we think we should be able to just step right into the kick-ass housewife role? Why do we think we should be able to cast off 20 years of academic schooling and suddenly, without training, become a super-hero urban homesteader? It’s yet another sign of how we devalue the work.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been, perhaps uniquely, well trained for this job. I grew up with hippie parents who fixed rather than bought, valued healthy food, believed in responsible action. They started me out with the values and the basic skills of the DIY lifestyle. When I left home, instead of going to college, I spent 3 years traveling around in rural areas, doing interesting, unusual and eminently practical work, and generally learning everything I could about the possibility of a more simple life. I spent the next 4 years with my partner on a friend’s land, building a sort of practice homestead, testing out everything we had learned. In the world of DIY/homesteading I am, I think, unusually well educated for this day and age. As far as more the classically ‘domestic’ skills go, I grew up in a restaurant and as an adult have cooked in professional kitchens where speed and efficiency rule. Cleaning and kids were my big blank spots (very big, very blank), the rest I had pretty well covered.

I don’t mean to gloat about it, but rather to say, look– I’ve had all the training a person could hope for considering the times, and I still think this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, still feel like I’m falling short every day. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you mamas who are just getting into all this stuff. I know the excitement of first love is heady, and hopefully it will carry you through, but damn you must feel overwhelmed! I just want to remind you to consider your training, or lack of it, and give yourself a break.

If you went to college and then spent your twenties working an office job, and now you are home with two kids trying to change the world one household at a time, you have just weathered an abrupt career change! Think of it as if you had lost your entire field of work and had to find and train for something radically different. Maybe you knew nothing about this new job. Maybe your family growing up rarely cooked, and a housekeeper scrubbed the bathtub. Gardening meant watering the rhodedendron. Maybe you hadn’t been around kids since you were one.

This is no small matter to brush carelessly aside, this is the crux of it really, because we have lost vast stores of knowledge about how to run an efficient, thrifty, coordinated home. It used to be that girls would learn this stuff before it was their responsibility, they would leave their parents home into their own new home having ‘apprenticed’ with their mothers and grandmothers. Not that those old days were so glorious, and I surely don’t want to be mistaken for saying women shouldn’t go to college, but what would it look like if an education in homemaking were a respected choice? Or perhaps available as a double major? Anything beyond a laughable elective in high school would help.

We have run in such panic from our past that now that we consider homemaking knowledge non-less, demeaning or even hateful. The cruel irony is that many women nevertheless continue to bear children, keep a home, run a budget and even cook for their families! But instead of proceeding with the confidence and success of training, we have to plunge in clueless. Without any real idea how to go about these jobs we all have to re-invent the wheel. What a waste of our (limited) energy! It’s sad, and as anyone reading this blog can identify with, it’s damn hard!

Several months ago, Harriet Fasenfest asked what we would look for in a “nuts and bolts” book about householding. The question has revisited me many times, partly because it was the bug in my rug before I had ever even heard of Harriet. What is it that would make our training? What exactly do we need to know? Is it the practical skills of cooking, preserving, cleaning and gardening? Or the less tangible skills of budgeting, time management and community building? But recently it hit me that whatever the knowledge base, information is only a part of training. Reading books and watching experts is valuable, but at some point everyone just has to dive in and get their hands dirty.

At the Foxfire Museum, on our trip to mountains last week, we got to watch the resident fiber artist for a while. She asked my girl how old she was, and then went on to explain which part of the process would have been her job at that age. “At four girls started carding, at five they made rolags, six they learned to spin, by seven they were using the loom.”

The beauty of a traditional “education” in homemaking arts was that it took place over ten or more years, under the direct tutelage of one’s instructor, and involved every day practice of a skill set which built on itself. How frustrating not to be able to use the loom till you’d put in three full years of fiber arts, but then again, how comforting really. Imagine if all the basic housewifing/homesteading skills were so viscerally ingrained in us. Imagine what we could accomplish!

My Man and I had a good long conversation on the train back from our trip. I am so envious of his ability to be flexible. He started out chaining himself to trees, and yet feels no regret about the way his life has changed since, no regret about his new vocation of paper-wrencher. He has this fantastic way of taking a distance perspective.

“It’s not a revolution right now. I wish it were, but it’s not. All we can do in a single generation is work for some degree of change in the right direction, and then trust that our work will be carried on by the next generation. Trust that eventually it will add up to something significant… Or just see us through until real revolution comes.” He added with a grin.

So, if you started your path in a mainstream, consumer household, spent years in the career world and are just now carving yourself some kind of responsible homemade life, take heart. Start small. Remember you are training on the job, with probably no teacher. Give your kids the values of thrift, simplicity, respect, conscientious living. Do what you can, as much as you can. Then trust that the next generation will continue our work.

Or start praying for revolution.

Hobo Stick Stove, Revisited

We’re settled in back home after the pandemonium and ecstasy of a 6 day vacation with little kids. We covered all possible bases– train travel, model train museum; mountain hike, mountain farm museum; camping, deluxe B&B. The mountains of North Carolina were very satisfying. I was worried I would be disappointed, I was not. We enjoyed spanning views of hazy ‘blue mountains’ and deliciously chilly breezes. It was wonderful.

As I mentioned before, in the process of packing the camping stuff last week, I had a dilemma about our stove. Since we’re traveling by train as far as Atlanta, we would need to pack as light as possible. We have a tiny backpackers stove back in Alaska of course, but here in New Orleans with the two itty-bitties in tow, we only ever go car camping, so we just have the family style 2-burner propane monster. I just didn’t want to bring that behemoth for a mere two nights of camping. We’d cook sausages over the fire for dinner, but what about breakfast and most essentially, what about coffee?!!?

DIY camp stove-- first model

I have been wanting to make a new improved hobo stick stove since I made this first one two years ago, and necessity was the mother of my ass-whupping once again. I had a rectangular olive oil can saved for just that purpose, so I broke it out the morning before our trip, with a tuna can and some tin snips, and put together a real beauty. Oh I do love design. I think maybe I was meant to be an engineer. Of small, practical, recycled home stuff. This kind of project makes me positively giddy.

There are lots of ways to approach the stick stove, depending on what materials you’ve got around. My first one was a large size tomato can and although it worked, it was not quite big enough. I had this olive oil can saved, but when I took it out and played around with orientation I realized that it was too big. Then I got the idea to cut it in half. Perfect! Oh joy!

The other main problem with the first model was lack of air flow. As you can kind of see in the photo, I had set sticks across the open top of the can to lift the pot up and create the ‘chimney,’ right under the pot itself. In case anyone is embarking on this project without knowing much about fire-making in general, here’s an important fact. Fire needs a lot of oxygen. To get oxygen to flow through your fire, there has to be what’s called “draw” which means hot air going out (at top) pulls air in (at bottom hopefully). The size of the exit hole is what determines how much air your fire gets. A huge entrance hole makes no difference if the exit hole is too small or otherwise constricted.

My exit hole on the first stove was inadequate. A fire without enough oxygen will never get very hot, and that’s a lot of why it took so long to boil water. This time, I had an idea to use a smaller can to create a grate on top, like on a regular stove. Something to hold the pot well up off of the stovetop, and let the hot air and smoke flow out relatively unimpeded between the tines.

I also added a grate underneath the firebox (where the sticks go) so that air can get in easier too. I was so excited when I finished I almost peed my pants.

Sadly, we seem to have lost the camera cord on our trip, so I can’t add in photos of this fucking adorable stove in use. But at least I can give the full report.

It worked great. Certainly better than the first model, though I feel there’s still lots of room for improvement. Even with the ‘burner’ at top and ‘ash grate’ at bottom, it still had air flow problems. I think that just as important as the design of the stove itself is the knowing how to use it, and just like every other of these homemaking/homesteading pursuits, and maybe life as a whole, practice is the definitive factor.

Here’s a few tips for use I discovered in my relatively brief stint:

  • Use only crackly dry sticks, this stove doesn’t have room for lesser fuel.
  • Size matters. It seemed like a mix of pencil to fat finger sized sticks worked best.
  • Have everything ready and at hand. This stove needs more or less constant feeding.
  • The time to add more sticks is just when the fire is flaring it’s highest and looks like it doesn’t need any. If you wait till it dies down and looks ready, the new sticks will cool it down too much and you will just straggle along never getting hot enough to boil water.
  • Keep the firebox mostly full of wood for the fastest cooking, but don’t pack it in there too tightly or you lose your air flow again.
  • Because of the already difficult air flow, orientation is everything. You have to be catching the breeze, not blocking it. Since morning and evening breezes are often in flux, I had to rotate my stove a lot. Any elevation off the ground will help, but bear in mind this sucker gets hot, so no setting it on wooden picnic tables like I did in that photo up top. Char mark. Bad girl.

Enjoy the primal experience of cooking on a tin can with a bundle of sticks! It’s great fun.

DIY Chicken Waterers

I promised you a bit more detail on my DIY chicken waterers. These are both easy projects, with cheap or scavenged materials.

Let’s start with the more standard version. This gallon sized bucket waterer sits outside in their run and lasts 3-4 days for four birds in wicked heat.

This one works on the same gravity/suction principles as the commercially available waterers. It’s really quite simple. You turn the bucket right side up, fill with water, set a dish of some kind on top, then gripping both tightly, in one deft maneuver, flip the whole lot upside down. The water runs out through drilled holes near the (proper) top of the bucket (bottom when in use), and fills the dish. The holes need to be even with the desired water level, just below the lip of the dish. Meaning, if your dish (I’ve used a terra cotta planter dish) is one inch deep, make your holes about 3/4-7/8 inch from the top of the bucket, 1/4 inch-ish in diameter– it’s not very critical, the water will make it’s way out into the dish because gravity is a law. Why the water stays otherwise in the bucket I’m more hazy on. Something about suction and vacuum. Anyway, you don’t have to understand it, it works.

You can use a larger bucket to last longer between fillings, but I think more than 2 gallons would be unwieldy for the ole flipperoo.

I didn’t want to use the bucket kind inside my coop, because the coop is very small and the access door (that little piece of plywood mid-way down) is very skinny. I had dreamed up an alternative kind of waterer for my last coop in Alaska but never got around to the actually making. It seemed like it would be perfect this time around, since the bulk of the water sits outside.

First of all, are you familiar with that homesteaders’ best friend, the gravity “pump?” It’s a genius way to move water up and over something, even for some distance, so long as the end destination is lower than the start. For example you can use this to empty your kids pool across the yard and onto the lawn (if the lawn is even ever so slightly lower than wherever your pool sits). You have to somehow fill the hose with water, traditionally by putting one end into the water then sucking on the other end until you get a mouthful. So long as the mouthful end is lower than the pool end, gravity and suction will pull the water up over the edge of the pool and out onto the grass. This is also how hoodlums empty your gas tank at night so they can go joyriding on your hard-earned dollar.

As far as chicken waterers are concerned, my idea was to fill a big tote outside to an appropriate level, dunk a length of tubing under until it was full of water, plug the end with my thumb, then up and over the coop wall to a little trough inside, which would be slightly lower than the water level in the outside tote. Because the hose would be full of water, and water wants to flow to the lowest place, it would create a suction and pull the water up and over the coop wall to the inside trough. As the chooks drank the water level down, the trough would continue to fill from that outside tote.

But who cares? you may ask. Well, the point is that that little trough inside which conveniently takes up a mere 6 square inches of space, quite inconveniently can only hold about 2 cups of water. Four hens would polish that off in a couple of hours. By connecting it to the large tub outside, I can effectively offer up a couple of gallons of water, in that same 6 square inches of coop space. Plus, it’s easier to fill than the bucket waterer.

Of course, I am well aware that there exists on-demand waterers which draw off an outdoor water supply. But they’re expensive. This set up cost me about $7, the cost of the big tote and the length of hose. The little ‘trough’ I found in my stray tupperware cupboard. And although it’s going to sound complicated in description, it’s actually extremely simple to set up.

When I originally spawned the idea for my Alaska coop, I envisioned placing the outside tote under the eave of the coop, so that our (copious) Cordovan rainfall would fill it, at least some times (like the times when it was raining cats and dogs and I didn’t feel like going out to fill the chooks’ waterer). I still think this is a stellar idea, but is a bit more complicated since it requires guttering.

Instead, I just haul the hose over every three days or so and fill the outside tote up. Rain or shine.

The disadvantage is that, unlike those fancy on-demand waterers, you do have to clean the trough every day. Chooks love to scratch, and they fling their bedding all over the place in the process. No big deal, I just take the trough out (it hangs from two screws), dump the icky water and swish some clean water around. I ought to keep a brush out there to scrub it with, but haven’t gotten around to that seemingly simple task yet. I just use my fingers to rub the slime off. I’m that kind of girl.

Let it be known, there have been a few blips. First off, it’s imperative that both ends stay in the water. I have… umm, twisty ties… holding the tubing in place. One time I didn’t twist the tie enough, it came undone and the tubing got flipped out of the trough. The tubing then drained the entire tote’s worth of water right onto the floor of the coop. Fortunately it was on the very edge of the coop and didn’t cause a problem.

Also, right after I first installed the whole set-up, we left for an overnight trip. When we came back, it had just stopped working… There were bubbles of air in the tubing, and the nothing was moving. Not sure what happened exactly, but it hasn’t happened again. A fluke?

Anyway, point is, although this system can deliver 3 days worth of water, don’t count on it with your chooks’ lives. If you’re going out of town for more than one night, have someone come check on them. Which you would probably do anyway, right? Just had to say my piece.

DIY Gravity Pump Chicken Waterer


  • Tote or large container of some sort. Shallow is fine, actually it only needs to be a few inches deep, but the wider it is, the more water it will effectively be able to deliver. Don’t use something clear– if standing water gets light, algae will grow. Even more important, it must have a lid to keep mosquitoes out. I meant to cut a notch in my tote’s lid for the tubing to exit, but never got around to it, so I just set the lid on top lightly. Fortunately, the little gap created by the tubing doesn’t seem to be a problem, but if I leave the lid truly askew, the skeeters get in. If you see some weird little creatures swimming around, dump that water immediately! I’m pretty sure they die once they dry out.
  • Flexible vinyl tubing. It’s easy to get, it’s used for refrigerators’ ice makers, among other things. Our teensy little corner hardware store had several sizes. I used 1/4 inch (outside diameter), and I wouldn’t go any skinnier. Bigger would probably be better, but make sure you can plug it with your thumb. The length will depend on your situation (see below), just be sure to get a bit more than you think you need. Any extra can be coiled up in the bottom of the tote, or just cut off.
  • Drinking trough. Any old plastic container could do the job, so long as it’s sturdy enough to drill holes through, and hang up full of water.

Set Up:

First thing you need to do is consider placement. The trough needs to go inside, the tote needs to go outside, and the tubing needs to run in between the two, in a way that can easily be taken down and put back up (while your thumb is plugging the end). In other words, you can’t just drill a hole in a wall to run the tubing through. Capice?

So, install the inside drinking trough as near to your access door as possible. Drill two holes in the container big enough for a screw head to fit through, then put in two corresponding screws to hang it off of. Make sure to mount it at chicken chest level, the higher the better really, so long as they can still get into it comfortably. This helps keep the water clean.

Now, set your big tote outside the coop, also as close as possible to the door. It needs to be up at the same level, approximately, as the trough. It’s the water level that gravity will equalize, so keep that in mind. If you use a very deep tote, like mine, you will just be filling up the bottom 6 inches or so. Any more would be unnecessary, and you will want to change the water out completely once every couple of weeks, so why waste more than you need? I set my tote on top of another tote that I keep the feed in. Then whenever the feeder needs to be refilled, I consider it time to dump and clean the water tote.

Get one end of your tubing into the trough and the other into the tote outside. Don’t worry about water just yet, you need to affix the tubing to both the coop wall and the inside of the tote in a way that can be undone repeatedly. As I mentioned I use twistie ties. In the coop, since my ‘walls’ are made out of woven wire, I just twistied my ties right onto the wire. For the tote, I drilled two small holes well above my guestimated water level and put the twistie tie through the holes. If you are attaching to a solid wood wall, you could staple your twistie ties up. Whatever works. Make sure you put one down right by where the tubing goes into the trough, since that’s the spot most likely to get pulled on by a stray beak.

When you’re ready for water, start by filling the tote up to what you guess is about level with the middle of your trough. I had it easy because I can see my trough from the outside, so I just eyeballed it. But, this ain’t rocket science. Just wing it. You can adjust soon enough.

Now fill the trough up, just by hand. Then remove the tubing from the twistie ties and slowly dip it into the tote, a little at a time, watching to make sure it’s filling with water. Once it’s all under water, shake it around a bit and see if any bubbles come out. When you’re sure it’s all full of water, plug one end with your thumb and (making sure the other end stays in the water in the tote) get it into place in the trough, releasing your thumb when the tubing is fully under water.

Twistie tie that sucker up, then run inside and grab your sharpee and a pot. Don’t take too long. The water will quickly move towards equilibrium. Keep your hose handy and watch the level in the trough. If it goes down, add some more water into the tote. If the trough fills all the way up, and starts to overflow, dip some water out of the tote (it shouldn’t overflow very fast, mine just drips slowly when I’ve filled the tote too much). The speed it fills will depend on the size of tubing you used. Something about surface friction per square inch…

Once you’ve discovered the Sweet Spot, and the trough is full but not overflowing, mark the water level in the tote with your sharpee. Now every time you fill it, you can just fill it to that mark.

If you were setting this up to fill with rainwater, you’d want to drill big overflow holes right at the spot we just marked with a sharpee, otherwise big rains would flood right into your coop via your waterer.

Okay, got that? It sounds just so very complicated once I write it all out that I’m afraid no one will tackle this actually extremely simple project. Never fear, my dears! Once the basic principle is seen in action, it all makes sense.

[One last thing about daily use. When you take the trough down to clean it, unless you live somewhere that moisture is a problem, you can just leave leave the tubing hanging down, dripping. That way it stays full of water and you don’t have to do the whole dunk and fill process again. If you were concerned about moisture, you could stick a yogurt container in there to catch the dribble while you clean out the trough. Then when you hung the trough back up, you could just pour the accumulation in…]

Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions.

Why We Do What We Do

This alternative lifestyle we’ve carved out for ourselves is full of booby traps. One of the many I fall into is self righteousness, and a general desire to show off just how green and groovy I am.

There might be a few true altruists out there, but I suspect that most of the rest of the green movement is about like me. I do care, deeply and passionately about the earth and her human and animal inhabitants. I have lay slain in my bed with grief, many a time. A strong sense of responsibility is certainly a part of what directs my daily life. But there’s a more primary reason, not to be overlooked or underestimated.

Like most of us I think, I do what I do because I love to do it.

I like to think that making all our bread instead of buying preservative rich loaves shipped from distant factories helps me stick it to The Man, just a teeny bit. But if baking bread was a dreaded chore for me, if I tried but couldn’t like the dark wheat flavor, it wouldn’t last. In the end, I make our bread because I enjoy manual chores with edible results, and I love homemade bread. Similarly, I hang our laundry partly to save on electricity and therefore participate just a little bit less in the war of petroleum, but perhaps more compellingly because I love hanging laundry. I love having a chore which requires I go outside, I love the feel of wet cloth and the sound of the breeze and the smell of sun dried clothes.

Even when my life was very extreme, and much more self righteous, the reality of my motivation was always the same. Ascetisism was appealing partly because consuming less helps save the world, but also because there is an immense satisfaction and subtle joy in an ascetic’s life. Nowadays, I keep up with many of these “green chores” largely because the doing of them keeps me sane. It keeps me grounded and able to remember that I was once someone. A ‘me’ outside of mama. I might not love each individual chore in a DIY lifestyle, but I love the lifestyle that encompasses those chores.

I don’t mean to dismiss morally driven action. On a daily basis my sense of morality keeps me in line. There is nothing enjoyable about washing the shit out of cloth diapers, but I do it– every day. I believe in ‘responsible action,’ absolutely. I believe that we as a culture have lost respect for it, and that’s not okay. We’ve taken our lackadaisical ‘whatever’ attitude too far, as a culture we think it’s cool to not give a shit about anyone else. Look out for number one.

I don’t have much hope for the human race, but I’ve always believed that a sane person cannot discover the horrors of the world and then go on as before, without trying to effect change. What I do may not be very significant in the big scheme of things, but how can I sit idly by? I have to feel like I’m doing what I can, just to keep my wits about me.

Nevertheless, I know myself. I am earnest, and hard working, but I don’t have an unusual amount of self-discipline. I would not be able to stick to my guns if I didn’t overall like the feel of the steel.

I think this distinction is important because otherwise it’s just too easy to climb up on my high horse and ride away. Otherwise some poor mama might be reading this blog somewhere and feeling guilty because she doesn’t hang her laundry. She might read about me making laundry soap and soaked wheat berry bread in the midst of having two little bitties underfoot, and she might feel less. Honey, let me tell you a secret. I was teetering on the edge. Homemade laundry soap was my life preserver.

Not everybody has the desire, or furthermore the instinct or inborn ability for these manual chores of homemaking. My Man for example. Not interested in the home like I am. He appreciates what I do, he truly does. But doesn’t have much desire to share the work with me, nor are tangible skills his strong point. His is the brainy path. He has always known that, and has tried to form for himself a way to be useful in the world with what he has. An oversized brain.

Sometimes I am sad that we don’t work together day to day as a team on all of these home projects. But honestly, my last lover and I were that tight, and I think we were a bit insufferable. I find value more and more in My Man’s separate-ness, the way we each cover our end of a true partnership. I have also come to realize the essentiality of his brainy environmental work. And in general, the importance of every person doing what they can with what they have.

And what about me? I used to do stuff. Now I write about stuff. I mean, I do stuff too, but if I quit with all this computerized time wasting, I’d get a hell of a lot more done. In the beginning of my writing obsession, I got down on myself about it. It seemed indulgent. Writing takes so much time! Time that I could be lessening our dependence on The Man.

But writing felt so good, every post like a much needed bowel movement. It kept me sane, and thrilled me. And then eventually people started reading what I was writing, and apparently it meant something to them, to you. I still feel indulgent, every time I write. But would you all rather I get down to business in my household? I’ve come to accept that this “computerized time wasting” has a use in the world, even if it detracts from the efficacy of my household.

And moreover, it has a use to me. That’s what this is all about right? The truth of it is that, as much as I have come to appreciate you the reader, I write this blog for myself. Because I want to. Because I can. Because I am inclined toward writing, to no one’s surprise more than my own.

I grow a big garden, cook all our meals, hang my laundry and bike my kids to the farmer’s market because I want to ‘be the change,’ yes. But also because in my freakishness, I think it’s a damn good time! I adore the directness, the dirtiness, the satisfaction of a day hard worked.

I like the feel of the steel.

15 Minute DIY Camp Stove

Okay. Let’s get this straight. First off, I sure didn’t invent the idea. I saw a more refined version of this stove when Erin and Hig of Ground Truth Trekking passed through Cordova en route from Puget Sound to the Bering Sea by foot (and pack raft). Though I found it hard to believe, they claimed to have used this stove the whole way, burning only twigs to boil water in just 10 or 15 minutes. Often with wet wood!

Secondly, although I have been intending to make a tin can version of their stove ever since I saw it, I had just never gotten around to it. What really motivated me to finally kick my own butt into gear was my addiction to good coffee, and a purely selfish desire to stay out of Walmart.

We were going to be heading out of the good-coffee-island of New Orleans, into the surrounding good-coffee-less sea of The South for four whole days. How would we survive? We hadn’t known if we would do any camping at all down here, so we had only brought minimal gear. Our tent, sleeping pads and one sleeping bag (blankets would make up the extra). No Whisperlite. No blackened from the campfire cooking pots. I had sort of thought that if we did end up camping much, it would be car camping, and it would be worth it to just buy one of those folding two burner propane dealies. But the only place I’d seen here that would sell that sort of thing was a Walmart. And what with our last minute road trip idea, I’d have to make the journey to the dreaded Walmart on Thanksgiving morning. No way in Hell I could want to do that.

But I did have a large size tin can in the recycling bag.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Or, as in this case, the mother of ass kicking.

No tin snips, not even a crappy knife to punch holes with. Didn’t have the right size piece of wood to wedge into the can to make hammering a nail through possible. Hubby and Toddler asleep, Babe fussing, I didn’t have much time. I used a screw and my drill to make a ring of holes, and then punched through the holes with a butter knife to cut out the door. A few other details and 15 minutes later I had an adorably ghetto camp stove!

Of course, I had no idea if it would work. Kind of didn’t believe it would. But ground a bunch of coffee and packed the french press just in case.

I am proud to announce it did work! Beautifully well for a first attempt, 15 minute hack job. The first morning using it was gleeful. I didn’t mind the need for constant feeding and occasional blowing, who doesn’t love playing with fire? To think I made it out of an old tin can! To think I almost went out and bought a camp stove!

Of course, it’s pretty much just for boiling stuff. Not a very adjustable heat source, it’s high or nothin’ baby. But, the simplicity of it is fantastic.

After a little research online I found a good list of homemade stove links. The tin can stick stove appears to be called a Hobo Stove. Who can’t love a name like that? There seems to be lots of variation in the richly creative world of DIY. I intend to trial a few a these, and I promise to keep you updated on the results.

BTW: It took about 14 minutes to boil a quart of water. I’m sure this would be extremely variable based on the quality of your wood, breeze, feeding frequency, etc.

Note: Those holes you see in the back were my idea of exit ventilation, but were inadequate. I had to set two sticks on top of the can, and set the kettle atop those. Which worked fine, really.

Vermicomposting, Here I Come

Yup, it’s been on my list since we got here. I’ve got a rubbermaid tote waiting to be drilled, two giant trash bags full of shredded paper I found by a dumpster at the university, and a friend waiting to give me the worms. Why is it taking me so long, you ask? I dunno. No good reason.

Today I woke up thinking worms. Just did a little internet research and found a great web site by a total worm fanatic. One of those weird and brilliant people who’s always testing boundaries and challenging the frontier. How about making a worm bin out of some old Levi’s?

This will be my second worm bin, the first was a total failure. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be so easy, and no,  I don’t know what went wrong. After not very long it bred something entirely different, and since I didn’t know what the hell, and those tiny white wormy things were composting my stuff (sorta), I let it go on for some time before accepting that I had killed my worms.

For those of you who’ve never heard of it before, vermicomposting (vermi means worm) is a great compost pile alternative for city folks. A worm bin is much smaller, works much faster, and shouldn’t produce hardly any smell. So you can supposedly have it in your house, right under your sink even. In fact the worms need to be kept from freezing, so unless you live somewhere with mild winters (like New Orleans) you’ll need to keep them inside. The upside of that is that they keep composting straight through the winter.

Worms need a moist but never wet environment and a continual supply of food. An ideal worm bin is made from wood, which can breath, but plenty are made out of plastic, and I’ll be making mine from a rubbermaid tote. You just have to drill holes for air flow and drainage. Then you need bedding (any moisture absorbing, easily digestible carbon material like shredded paper or cardboard) and a few handfulls of dirt. The web site link above has some decent instructions for getting started, but like many mad scientist types, he doesn’t do a very thorough job of explaining things for beginners. The classic book on the subject is Worms Eat My Garbage, which is thorough for sure, but you don’t really need to read a whole book on the subject to start a bin! (But then, look at me, I read the book and still killed my worms…) If I find a good in between beginner source I’ll be sure to post it.

And watch for my next Building a Worm Bin post, which I intend to document!