Monday, March 30, 2009

Free Music Giveaway


This week on Anne Bradshaw's blog, she's giving away a copy of Fiddlesticks Celtic music CD, Return to Nauvoo, their first collection of hymns. I've been familiar with their music for a while now, and really enjoy their arrangements. To learn how to enter to win this great CD, pop on over to Anne's blog.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cold Frames Extend the Growing Season

Every spring gardeners everywhere compete to see who can get the earliest tomatoes, or the first corn of the season. Wall of Water and similar products are sold specifically for this reason. Another option for frugal gardeners is the cold frame.

A cold frame is basically a box that you plant in on the ground with a cover that allows light in, but keeps the cold at bay. Usually this takes the shape of an old window, but you don't have to be limited to that.

First, figure out what you are going to use as the top of your cold frame. If this is a window, you need to make the planting box the same size as the window. In most cases you'll want to use 2x4, 2x6 or 2x8s for the box, but if you look around, you might find other things around the house that you can use. On a budget? No problem! There are lots of great places to scrounge free or low-cost lumber and windows.Can't get windows? I've heard of people using translucent shower curtains, doubled up dry cleaning bags, heavy clear plastic (Which you can sometimes buy at the foot at some hardware stores), clear, heavy garbage bags, or anything else that lets in plenty of light.

Freecycle is a favorite organization for frugal gardeners everywhere to find thing other people are trying to get rid of. Craig's list is also a great resource. In Utah we have the KSL.com classifieds section, which has lots of areas to look from building materials to free stuff people are just trying to give away.

A lot of home stores like Home Depot or Menards sell cull lumber at a big discount--this is lumber from packaging, runners from the bottom of pallets, pieces they cut off of full-length boards that arrived damaged, etc. You can get some really great deals if you're willing to check back often.

Another option is the wavy clear PVC stuff you find in home stores by the metal roofing. It is durable, inexpensive, and easy to work with.

And I personally love Habitat For Humanity's Re-Store. Donated goods that are in good condition can be bought at great deals here. You can pick up cabinets, windows, doors, paint, scrap lumber, hardware, and more for a fraction of the usual price--even new stuff sometimes. Not sure where one is, do an Internet search for Habitat for Humanity in your area. Most medium-large cities have one.

So now you've scrounged your materials, the frame itself is easy to put together. Simply connect four boards in a rectangle so they're the same size as the window you're going to use on top. Hinge the window so it can be easily opened. Most of the time a hinged 2x2 is added to the bottom to allow the user to prop the top up. You probably want to let it sit closed for a few days before using it to allow the soil temperature to come up a few degrees, then go ahead and plant in the frame. On many bright, sunny days you'll have to prop the window open a little to allow excess heat to escape, otherwise you'll cook your plants.

Ideally you'll build the cold frame so it faces south, and with a ten-degree angle on the top to increase heat in the frame, but if your building skills don't stretch to figuring angles like that, even a flat cold frame in a good, sunny location will be beneficial. Also, if the bottom of the frame is buried even a little under the ground, you'll get better heat retention.

Alternately, if you can't find a window, but have access to lots of clear plastic, you could stretch the plastic over the top, then weight it down on the corners with rocks or other heavy objects. The end results are the same.

In most areas, using a cold frame or similar system will allow you to grow your own vegetables for months longer every year, starting in the early spring, and stretching into late fall. In milder temperature areas where it only dips a few degrees below freezing in winter, you might even be able to garden year-round this way.
If you really don't have the time or talents to build a cold frame yourself, there are companies that will build and ship them to you. A quick Google search is bound to come up with lots of options, like the one shown above.

Don't forget to prepare the ground with plenty of compost or other organic humus to the soil to break it up and help it retain water better. If you add compost, there should be no need for regular fertilizing the first season, but if you do feel the need, a light, slow-release fertilizing can be beneficial, especially for green, leafy vegetables.

Lettuce, spinach, carrots, green onions, raddishes and endive and other greens are great for growing in a cold frame. Alternately you can use it to start seeds and grow seedlings to a size for transplanting. This can also be a great place to start new plants from cuttings, especially rhododendrons, camelias and azaeleas.


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Monday, March 23, 2009

Win a Free Copy of Tower of Strength

Anne Bradshaw's giveaway this week is a free copy of Annette Lyon's newest book, Tower of Strength. Pop on over to her blog to find out how to enter! You can see the book trailer on my blog here. And I'll be reviewing it as part of Annette's blog tour next Monday, so check back!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Adventures in Cake Decorating

I grew up in a home where my mom decorated our birthday cakes super fancy (at least while we were younger and she still had time to breathe). I have a vivid memory of Cookie Monster and Big Bird. I even remember a fun one with a picket fence and flower garden (Mom may post and say my memory is faulty in this one--I was younger then.).

My sisters have since carried on the tradition with their kids. My sister Kristi has even started selling her masterpieces. I stood staunchly on the side of those who have no children and therefore have no reason to make spectacular cakes.

And then my parents started selling Wilton products at their store. And while they were gone on vacation I had to ship said products for people who purchased stuff off their Website.

I was hooked.

Before they came home I had blown a serious chunk of my (admittedly small) paycheck on tips, bags, a how-to book, colorants...you get the picture. So, for the past month I've been pulling out my decorating equipment on Sundays and making fun masterpieces to share with my parents for Sunday dinner. And several neighbors are benefiting from my desire to NOT eat a whole batch of cookies or cupcakes by myself.

Anyway, I was so pleased with today's attempt, I had to share. It's far from perfect, but for my second cake in I don't know how many years (and my first real try at roses), I just had to brag. Did I mention I've watched dozens of how-to videos on Youtube? I LOVE that site!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Seed Starting on a Budget

There are lots of kits available to start seeds in specially built 'green houses' with pricey mini pots, but some of the commercial option are way out of my budget.

I like to provide bottom water for my seedlings--it ensures even water for sprouting seeds and new plants as they develop root systems and grow stronger. If you have leftover six-packs and other pots from last spring, those will work great. For those of us who don't have room to store them, or didn't think ahead, there are lots of other great low-cost or free options available.

Cut the top off old milk cartons and plant in them. You can plant a number of seeds across the top and just transplant the strongest.

Use those little tiny paper bathroom cups--for a couple of bucks, you can start half your garden indoors. Don't forget to poke holes in the bottom for drainage. If water pools at the bottom of the cup you could end up with root rot before they are ready to put in the garden.

Use cans from soup or vegetables. Again, don't forget to create drainage holes.

Peat pellets are about 7 cents each, and come with the advantage of not having to remove the plant from the pot or pellet before planting in the ground. For the more eco-conscious, you may want to avoid this choice. Peat bogs take hundred of years to create, and are being destroyed at an alarming rate to provide additions to our gardens. I still occasionally use peat, but prefer to use other, more renewable options when possible.

My favorite option is to make my own biodegradable mini-pots out of newspaper. We don't get a daily paper, but I contacted the local delivery people, who were happy to unload their extra papers on my doorstep instead of the landfill. I cut the paper into pieces about six inches wide and the length of a paper from top to bottom. Then roll the strip around a glass or soup can so a couple of inches hangs off the bottom. Then tape the bottom closed and slide the can or glass out.

I made my newspaper pots while watching a movie in my living room. Remember not to use the glossy ads--that paper will mildew and cause problems with your seedlings.Then simply fill with damp potting soil and plant your seeds. These can be added directly to the ground when you are ready to plant, just make sure you bury the entire newspaper under dirt, or rip it down so none shows above the ground, since it can whick water away from your plant.

If you don't have anything to put your pots into or on to keep the water where you want it, go to a local thrift store and see if they have any old cookie sheets for sale cheap. Did someone bring a snack tray or bakery cake with a clear top to the office? If it's going in the trash anyway, take it and use it for a trough under your pots. You can even line more permeable containers with plastic (plastic wrap, grocery bags, garbage can liners, etc) and use them. Get creative.


And while you're there, subscribe to our fantastic newsletter. In addition to being able to shop in the new virtual neighborhood, our newsletter brings you articles, products, services, resources and interviews from around the world—all with an LDS focus. Look for issues delivered to your email inbox every week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.Neighborhood Newsletter Subscriptions are FREE, and joining is easy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Book Review: My Fair Godmother

After Savannah’s picture-perfect boyfriend, Hunter, dumps her to go out with her older sister, Jane, she idly wishes she could find a true prince to take her to the prom. Instead, she gets Chrissy, a “fair” godmother (because she’s not a very good fairy student)). Chrissy attempts to grant Savannah three wishes, which get her sent back to the Middle Ages: once as Cinderella, once as Snow White, and once to save Tristan, the surprisingly cute boy from her school who’s also found himself a victim of Chrissy’s mistaken wish granting. From trolls to dragons, to the mysterious Black Knight, Savannah and Tristan must beat the odds to make it back to modern times together.

I love how Savannah develops through the story. Chrissy, the bungling fair godmother is self absorbed, immature and not very smart--even though her results are great. Eventually. Through dealing with Chrissy's bungling, Savannah sees sides of herself (they are two sides of the same coin, after all) she doesn't like very much. After all, what kind of smart, kind, handsome, charming prince wants someone who is so wrapped up in clothes and hair that she doesn't care if she graduates from high school?

Janette Rallison has been one of my favorite writers for years. Her stories are always full of humor, her characterization spot on, and her plots keep the reader coming back for more. And what’s more, her books are clean enough to hand a much younger reader without worry.

Among her many titles, Janette is also the author of It's a Mall World After All, Revenge of the Cheerleaders, How to take the Ex out of Ex-boyfriend, and the recently released, Just One Wish.

Visit Janette's Website here. You can buy this book here on Amazon. The hardcover edition is 311 pages, ISBN 10: 0-8027-9780-6

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Sweet Sound of Bird Song

There's nothing quite like waking up at three in the morning to the sound of birds trilling. That is, unless the "trilling" sounds more like a rooster crow, or geese and ducks that have been excited by the passing of a deer or coyote in the dark.

Don't misunderstand me. I placed the birds far back on the lot, more for my neighbors than myself. That means the birds don't wake me up, but if I happen to be awake when they decide to make a ruckus, they are audible even though my closed windows. I've considered, more than once, getting rid of the noisy geese, but they are so fun to watch I just can't bring myself to do it.

My neighbors say they think the birds are beautiful, so I hope they aren't silently gnashing their teeth when I get home from trips late and the geese decide to extend their greetings to me at eleven p.m.

This morning I went out to let my birds out for the day and saw a couple of Canadian geese flying above my pens--probably no more than forty feet. They held a conversation with my mostly land-bound birds as they passed. My loud mouths never get more than five feet off the ground, and rarely fly anymore, now they are full grown.

There are all kinds of bird noises at my house. Besides the grown chickens, geese, and ducks out back, there are the quail in the fish tank my living room, and my favorite bird noise of all is waking up to peeping coming from the room where I have my incubators.

I love seeing baby birds hatch. This may seem odd if you've never seen it happen, but it can be quite addicting. This addition is the leading reason why I need to list chicks for sale again.

In other news, my sweet husband bought me a desk for my office, which I have been using a lot over the past few days. I'm not sure if it's the newness of the desk or me actually following through with my writing goals, but if feels good.

Speaking of writing goals, I've got a manuscript I'm working on that has been through two rounds of critiques. I'm doing one last serious round of edits before I tackle the final polish. My plan is to submit it before the end of the month. I made it through the first five chapters, adding three thousand words, on Saturday. Sixty-three pages down, only about 200 to go!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Win a Copy of Tiny Talks

I was visiting over at Anne Bradshaw's blog today and noticed she was giving away a copy of Tiny Talks by Lee Ann Setzer. This is a great resource for parents, grandparents, and even wards. The Primary presidency in my ward always keeps one of these on hand in case one of the children scehdule to speake or give the scripture is gone that week. There is a short talk and scripture that is focused on the topic the children are studying that week for every week of the year, along with suggested visual aids.

With this resource, an older child can easily step in and fill the role. It would also be a great idea for the parent whose child forgets to tell them of an upcoming talk in Prinmary until that morning. Beyond that, it makes for a quick mini-lesson for other times you want to teach your children about the gospel. This year's Primary theme is all about families.

Lee Ann is also the author of Sariah McDuff, Primary Diva, and the soon-to-be-released Famous Family Nights. Visit Annes blog for more information and to learn how to enter to win her contest.

Friday, March 13, 2009

How to Perk up Your Yard on a Budget

In these lean economic times, everyone is concerned about money, even if you haven't lost your job recently, many families are facing a rising cost of living even while pay freezes are being implemented all over. That doesn't mean you can't upgrade your yard this summer, however. I'll be covering some frugal gardening ideas today, and plan to do a few more segments on similar topics in the near future.

I mentioned last week that starting your own plants from seed can be a great money saver. That isn't the only way to grow your garden. Do you know someone with flowers that are too crowded? A woman in my area was thrilled to have me dig up dozens of irises from her yard because they needed thinning so badly.

Daffodils and Gladiola are other tubers/bulbs that naturalize, or multiply all on their own. Plant ten this year and they'll double in a couple of years. It's best if you transplant the extras after they bloom, or anything you dig up this spring most likely won't bloom this year due to stress. Don't transplant undersized bulbs, however. Give them another year to mature and they'll be more likely to thrive in the new location.

Cuttings are a great way to multiply your plants. Many bushes can be started from branch cuttings. There are hardwood cuttings, and softwood cuttings. Some plants do well from either sort, but now is a great time to root hardwood cuttings . Later in the season you can still take a hardwood cutting, but it is easier on the plant while it is dormant.

Soft wood cuttings can only be taken in the spring after growth begins, since this is the only time of year when there is softwood to cut.

Many trees and bushes can be started with cuttings including roses, butterfly bush, hydrangeas, lilacs, willows, citrus, grapes, and many berries. Not all plants will grow from a cutting, so if you aren't sure about something, feel free to ask and I'll check around.

Another option is going with annuals that will reseed themselves. I planted a lot of wild flowers last year. Soon I'll scrape the top layer of soil in my garden beds so the seeds are under a thin layer of dirt, then I'll let mother nature do her job. Not all of them will come back on their own, but most will.

And then there is splitting plants that get too large. Some things like day lilies, daisies, and purple cone flower (also known as echinacea) grow larger and larger root balls. Overtime the plants become too thick and need to be divided.

So you don't have any of these plants? Do you know an avid gardener? Catch them in the yard and ask them about their plants, chances are they'll be happy to share some of their seeds or extra plants with you.

Another option for those who just can't bring themselves to ask strangers for free stuff might want to talk to the Relief Society President or other leader at church. They are bound to know someone who is willing to share, or better yet, might be willing to arrange for anyone wanting to do a seed or plant cutting swap. Check out gardening bulletin boards. Many like Gardenweb.com have areas specifically for people living in a certain area of the world, or in a state. In the past people in Utah have gotten together to trade seeds. And if you live far away, you might be able to swap some via the mail.

Another option for those with a black thumb is to not add new plants, but add interesting things to look at instead. little statues, gazing balls, and other interesting art can add a lot of personality to a space without requiring a lot of upkeep. I'll defintely be doing a couple of posts on great garden decorations you can make for only a few dollars.

Don't think you need to start big--put in a smaller bed this year, upgrade an area that didn't do well last year, reseed grass in a bare spot. Little things can add big impact to the garden.

Rachelle asked about more information on pruning, so I've got a little extra help. Cuts on rose bushes should be made above a leaf node that faces away from the center of the bush. Always use a 45 degree cut and as you can see from the picture to the side, the cut should be made a quarter or an inch or so abover the leaf node.

In the second picture you can see a bush and the different ways to trim it. I generally lean toward a light trim simply because I like mine to look like of rambly, it fits in well with my cottage garden.

If you like yours morecompact for a more formal garden, a moderate pruning might be in order. The only reason i would do a heavy pruning is if the plant was diseased, or if the wood was so old it didn't really produce blooms last year. You probably won't get many blooms this season on a plant that uses old wood, but it'll make for a healthier plant over all.

And while you're at it, don't forget a good rose fertilizer, or my preference, a slow-release fertilizer.



And while you're there, subscribe to our fantastic newsletter. In addition to being able to shop in the new virtual neighborhood, our newsletter brings you articles, products, services, resources and interviews from around the world—all with an LDS focus. Look for issues delivered to your email inbox every week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.Neighborhood Newsletter Subscriptions are FREE, and joining is easy.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Great Giveaways

To celebrate the launch of her newest book in the temple series (none of which are related to each other) Tower of Strength, Annette is giving away a plethora of free stuff on her blog. To learn how to enter, visit her blog here.

A while back she posted up her book trailer, which I totally love. I'm totally trying to figure out how to make something similar work for my book, which is coming out in June. Take a moment to watch it--it's short, has fabulous music, and totally has me excited to read her book. Watch for a review of Tower of Strength here next month.

Book Review: The Forgotten Warrior

Sydney Morgan is no wimp. A black belt in karate, her defensive moves help keep her tough even when her mom is diagnosed with cancer and her long-lost dad shows up to play nice guy. But when an unexpected gift transports her through space and time to the land of Zarahemla, Syd just might be in over her head. Accused of being a spy, she has to prove she's no threat to the locals--including Captain Helaman himself!

As war quickly approaches, Helaman calls upon Syd to help his stripling warriors prepare to fight. Torn between concern for her family and for her new friends, Syd musters her wits, strength, and faith to face the coming battle--but her feelings for chief warrior Tarik put her heart on the line. Who will survive the Lamanites' fierce onslaught? And will Syd ever make it home again?

Kathi Oram Peterson tells a compelling story of a teenage girl torn by opposing forces, even in her own world. The characters are well developed and believable, the dialogue interesting, and the descriptions are vivid. The story is a fast-paced adventure and is hard to put down. I'm already anxious to read the sequel to this story and hope she won't keep me waiting long.

Paperback, 257 pages, Published by Covenant, ISBN-10# 1-59811-551-0

Friday, March 6, 2009

Start Your Own Plants to Save Money

Snow may be falling again outside, but the daffodils and crocuses I planted are still brightening up my yard--at least in a couple of places. Despite the fact that winter is not quite finished with much of the country, it's time to think ahead to spring gardens--both vegetables and flowers.

The last frost date for most of Utah is Memorial Day, though most years the final frost is weeks earlier, so now is the time to start thinking about starting seeds indoors. Depending on where you live, your last frost date could be earlier or later. Check with your local extension service if you don't have a good idea of when it it.

Many vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale can be started indoors right now, and even lettuce, which will deal with cooler weather than the previously mentioned plants, can be sowed indoors four weeks before moving outside. Seed starting is easy, and doesn't have to take a lot of expensive equipment. It can also save a great deal of money over buying started plants.

Most everywhere that sells seed has already got their displays up, so go on the hunt and see what seeds you can rustle up. Flowers that reseed themselves can be direct sown into the ground as soon as it is soft enough to be worked--right now if you live where I do...well, I'd wait until the snow melts, but the ground can be turned over with a minimum of effort. If you are going for a less structured look to your yard, and you aren't afraid to let the weeds run for a couple of weeks while you wait to be able to tell them from the flowers, this is a simple way to go about it. Lettuce can be started the same way--just don't expect it to germinate as quickly as it would indoors.

If you are going to start seedlings inside, there are a few basic requirements:

A fine seed starting soil (or good quality compost that isn't full of big chunks). Any fine potting soil will do, so don't worry about spending a mint, just buy whatever is available to you.

Some kind of container (paper cups, newspaper pots, peat pots, milk cartons--almost anything will work).

Light (I have a lamp that mimics sunlight and there are 'grow' florescent bulbs available, but any good florescent bulb will do a decent job for the short term.) Regular light bulbs don't provide the right kind of light and will result in your plants being long and spindly. Windows also don't offer enough light in most circumstances, so you'll need to plan on at least a few hours of accessory lighting. Make sure you can place your light only a couple of inches above the top of your soil, and that the height it variable, so you can raise it as the seedlings grow. I have a florescent tube light that I place on books, with the seeds in between, then I add a book to raise the lamp as needed.

There are systems out there that cost hundreds of dollars, but with a little creativity, you don't have to spend much at all.

Water.

Yep, that's it. It doesn't hurt to start seeds with a weak fertilizer--I recommend it. I often start seeds with one of those granulated, slow-release type because it feeds the plants constantly for a long time--and fertilizer is not one of those things where if some is good, more is better. Follow directions on your fertilizer labels as too much can burn the newly developing seedlings. In fact, going a little weaker than suggested is not a bad idea when you are just starting. Some bagged seed-starting soils come with fertilizer already in them, so check to see what you have.

Most seed packages will tell you how deep to plant, but if you buy in bulk or anything not in an original package, the general rule of thumb is four times as deep as the seed is long. If you don't need many seeds for your garden, check around and see if someone else wants to split some. You might find a neighbor who also wants only a few plants and is willing to share.

Dampen the soil so it holds together when you squeeze it, but doesn't drip water. When you are starting with dry potting soil, it will absorb more easily if the water is on the warm side, and once the soil is totally dried, it takes more work to get it to absorb water. I often put a bunch in a container of some kind, then add water and mix it with my hands until I reach the right consistency, especially with seeds.

I usually cut or punch holes in the bottom of my containers so I can bottom water them--this is a much easier way to keep consistent moisture to your growing plants.

Fill your containers. Push your seeds down and press on the soil just firmly enough that the seed will have contact with the medium, but not so much that the air is all pushed out of the soil. Then place the pots in a warm place. The room should be 70-75 degrees. There are bottom heating pads available and I understand they provide great results, but I've never tried one yet. Some people have had luck growing in egg cartons, but I've found it hard to keep the soil damp enough because there is so little in each compartment, and if you use the cardboard type you can't let it touch a porous surface or the water will all wick away.

You don't have to start with the light right away, since it takes a few days for the seeds to soften and the new plant to pop out of their shells, but within a few days of starting the seeds, you should have a light on them. I prefer to leave mine on all day to provide optimal conditions--unless I start them outside to begin with.

In my post about Winter Sowing, I mentioned putting your seeds in containers outside all winter and letting them sprout when they were ready. You can modify this in the spring, and do it now. Simply place your containers outside as soon as they are planted, into a place where they will get at least seven hours of direct sunlight. If you use open containers like disposable cups, cover them with clear plastic at night to prevent freezing. And actually, you can keep it covered all the time until your seedlings start to pop up. Just remember to vent the covering well when it warms up during the day or you'll bake your babies.

Advantages to starting them outside includes a reduction in loss of plants to damping off disease, and not having to harden them off. Hardening off is when you move seedlings outside for increasing periods of time during the day over the course of several days to adjust them to being outside to minimize death before planting outside. For example, you might take them out for two hours one day, three the next, four the day after that, and so on.

Keep the soil damp, and watch the plants grow.



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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My friend Rachelle shared this with our writer's group, and I had to post it up. It's a great short video about the creativity in us all.