The Smopsicle

July 25th, 2011 § 10 comments § permalink

If, in fact, you did come over sometime soon (and our fingers are crossed), my little team and I would whip you up a batch of our favorite simple, all-natural organic summer smopsicles—quick and easy smoothie pops that run salty preservative-y saturated fat-ty high fructose corn syrup-y snacks clear out of town.

Most ingredients can be found at a farmer’s market like ours.  But we’ve been known to make these pops in the thick of winter.  As luck would have it, we’ve found that frozen fruit works best, so these days we squirrel away peak-season favorites in our freezer.  Thankfully, though, we’re not picky.  We’ll freeze and eat just about anything smoopsicle-worthy.

Here are some of our superfabuloso recipes.  Most are not ours, really.  We’ve stolen bits and pieces from aunts, close friends, neighbors and complete strangers.

 

Basic Smopsicle Ingredients:

1 cup plain or vanilla organic yogurt (Greek live and active bacterial culture is best)

3 to 4 Tbs concentrated fruit juice (orange, pomegranate, cranberry, any favorites will do)

1 cup fresh or frozen fruit (plus extras for testing)  (strawberries, raspberries, sliced peaches, mmmmm)

Blend all ingredients, saving 2 or 3 Tbs fruit, until smooth.  Pour a few Tbs of blended ingredients into pop molds.  Add fresh, whole fruit layer.  Add another blended layer, and fruit layer. Finish with a blended layer.  Pop in pop sticks.  Pop in the freezer.  Wait…..

 

Waterminty Pops:

2 cups seedless watermelon chunks

3/4 cup plain or vanilla yogurt

¼ cup raspberries (frozen or fresh)

3 to 4 fresh mint leaves

Cinnamon

1 Tbs honey, stevia, agave, maple or your favorite natural sweetener, to taste

Puree watermelon, honey and mint in blender.  Pulse in yogurt and cinnamon just until smooth.  Pour into pop molds and freeze.  Note: we’ve been known to pop chocolate chips into this recipe post-blending for “watermelon seeds.”  Mmmmm.

 

Mangopsicles: (inspired by Moosewood)

1 large ripe mango, peeled and cut into chunks

2 ripe bananas

3 to 4 Tbs orange juice concentrate

1/8 tsp ground cardamom

Puree all ingredients in blender.  Pour into pop molds and freeze.

 

Note: as a quick alternative to any recipe above, add ½ cup crushed ice and blend with ingredients to make smoothies.  Drink immediately.

 

Sometimes it’s hard to wait.

Rules are Made to Be.

July 14th, 2011 § 30 comments § permalink

Summer arrived while I wasn’t totally paying attention.  The days got hotter and longer; the girls got stronger and picked the first sweet fruits of tomato, zucchini, cukes and sugar snap peas.  We watched the sparrows fledge; the supersmart baby rabbits devour the perfectly perfect crispy radishes; the catbirds feed their saucy fledglings, (and we carefully buried the one that did not make it); the ladybug larvae tyrannize the meadowsweet aphids; the swallowtail caterpillars eat the parsley, change from third to fourth to fifth instars, and then magically transform into camouflaged chrysalises.  Now it is here.

But summer is deceiving.  As carefree as it appears, with its crazy messy hair, p.j. pancake breakfasts, sandy wet beach towel floors, puzzle-piece days, and lazy late sleeping girls, it reminds me each year of this: small people can get really out of hand.

Because in the summertime something happens between my two joined-at-the-hip girls.  Something spellbinding.  Yes, they have always loved each other.  There has always been idolization and fierce protection and love, love, love.  They get each other.  “Let’s pretend….” one of them says, and they make funky paper reading glasses and make handmade paper pets that play together with intricate social relationships, and they make each other laugh so hard that they make me laugh at them laughing.

But as the school year comes to an end, we are here.  And it is just us.  And so it is now that quickly things can change.  The “on purpose” bump, the “stolen” crayon, the intentional pinch—it is time for them.

 

And I think that if you and I are going to continue with our great friendship, you’re going to have to admit that you, too, at least occasionally have small people in your house that get completely out of control.  In fact, it is true that once, in one such moment, my small sweet one pushed a chair down a flight of stairs.  And then threw in a five-fingered scratch from shoulder to wrist.  To my mom.  On purpose.

Sometimes during the hot summer it is like they are putting themselves together by tearing me apart.  Building themselves out of tiny collected pieces of this, that, him, her, me.  And so, because of this, sometimes you just have to go back to the source of something and let it wash over you.  Sometimes you just have to review the rules.

I know this much is true.  Our rules are simple and we make them together.  They range from “Drink your Milk” and “No Pushing” to “Be Kind” and “Help.”  In earlier years, as a visible reminder, we wrote them on a family chalkboard and kept them nearby.  More recently, I permanently painted them on an old stretched canvas.

To replicate this project, you will need an old canvas or scrap wood (size is up to you), wood stain or paint for background, paint for lettering, small- and large-tipped paint brushes, a sanding block, chalk or transfer paper, and a your trusty list of family-generated rules.

First, prepare your canvas.  It need not be perfect.  In fact, the more rustic and unfinished, the better. Prime, roughly paint all sides, allow to dry, and sand edges with a sanding block.  My friends Lea, Helen and Susan (who, unlike me are superstar painters) would proceed at this point to paint the rules freehand.  Instead, I prefer to print them out supersize, cut each word or phrase out, and place them strategically on the canvas.  With transfer paper and a sharp pencil, trace the outline of each letter onto the canvas.  Remove the paper.  Fill in using teeny paintbrushes.  Allow to dry.  Lightly sand the canvas.

Just a note:  I suggest you not follow my black canvas background lead on this one.  Envisioning a chalkboard-like background, I painted a black oil base over my scrappy canvas.  I then hand-painted our rules in white.  Don’t do this.  Instead, either lightly stain a wood background or paint a light-colored background on canvas or wood.  You will avoid the headache of transferring letters onto a dark background.  Uggh.  If you are chalkboard-obsessed like me (we have five), you will not heed this warning.  In that case, use white chalk as a transferring agent instead of transfer paper.  Thoroughly rub the chalk on the back of each paper rule printout, and then use a sharp pencil to transfer the word or phrase onto the canvas.  Remove and fill in with paint.

On another note:  Our rules are referenced incredibly often.  Choose your rules wisely.  For instance, beware of ones that may slip in like “Get Muddy,” “Ask Questions,” or “Try New Things.”  Outcome may be entirely different from your original plan.

And on another note:  Surely some of you will think of easier ways to do the job.  Feel free to reveal any tricks of the trade.

A Bird in the Hand

June 15th, 2011 § 9 comments § permalink

ChickadeeTwenty thousand years ago, before the babies arrived, before the Era of Massive Laundry, I spent some time living in the woods.  It was during this time that I could smell the dusty sweet scent of an approaching storm, could lean on a tree and determine its type by the bark, could work out which direction the fox was heading from its tracks, and could decipher just about every forest snap, cackle, and peek—separately noting, unriddling and interpreting each sound in my mind.  Each revealed something of importance— bird-twittering love, hawk overhead, nestlings being fed—and each evoked a vivid image of feathers or fur and a sense of belonging to it all.

I did this unknowingly.  Would just sit there and listen.

I am rusty now.   And everything takes more work.

Field GuideThis spring at our house we’ve been making homemade field guides for these kinds of things.  And we’ve been trying to get a good look and listen.  We hold hands and hold our binoculars and hold our sharpened pencils and little guides, and we just sit there and listen.

PhoebeThe past two weeks were spent attempting to find out who moved in next door—a hardy fly-catching little guy, with a creamy belly and olive-colored wings.  And just this morning we got a good look at him while heading out to school.  A phoebe.

Looking at nestThere are over 10,000 species of birds in the world.  About 925 have been sighted in North America.  In New York’s Hudson Valley, where we live, there are just over 100 commonly breeding species.  With practice, these birds can, of course, be identified by sight.  But a good birder can identify a species just by hearing their call or song.  There is something to be said about “seeing” a bird with closed eyes.  Some species like our cedar waxwing have just one single simple call.  Others, like our brown thrasher, can sing over 2,000 songs.  No kidding.

NestlingsLearning bird songs takes patience, perseverance, persistence and a great deal of practice.  Ideally, while in training (which could literally, if you are like me, take a lifetime), you would befriend  (or preferably marry) a spirited warmhearted nature-lover, who, energized by your incessant pestering, repeats excitedly, “That’s a Dark-eyed Junco; Yup, that’s a Dark-eyed Junco; Yes, sir-eee, Bob!  That’s a Dark-eyed Junco; You got it!  That’s a Dark-eyed Junco.”  And just when it’s fairly clear you’ve perfected it all—well, just that one single passerine—the same patient friend will suddenly announce “That chipping sound is an alarm call of the Dark-eyed Junco, but the call before that was it’s contact trill note” and so on and so on as the tireless bird goes through its repertoire of 200 zillion sounds.  That’s an actual number.  It is potentially overwhelming.

My birding advice:

  • Listen to one instrument, not the entire orchestra.  Pick out the piccolo, then the oboe, the cello, the bass, etc.  Find individual notes from each instrument.
  • Learn one or two common local birds first.  Use these calls and songs as the standard for new ones that you hear.
  • Imitate what you hear.  If you can, count the notes and sketch the bird and the sound.
  • Use gimmicks.  If a bird sounds like a perky R2D2, then take note of it.  You can use your own gimmicks, putting words to a bird’s song, or you can use the widely accepted ones—called mnemonics.
  • Use field guides and online resources like Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Song Mnemonics, Nature Songs and What Bird
  • Write everything down and keep it close.

Nestling in HandWhy?  Birding provides a fantastic opportunity for us to connect to the natural world.   It allows a deeper understanding of habitat requirements and intra- and inter-species relationships, provides an even playing field—with both parents and kids starting at the same level, actively listening and working together for a common purpose, and requires no fancy terminology, musical training or conceptual framework.  By putting a teeny, feathered face on the world outside us, birding helps foster a sense of unity with nature and prompts interest and involvement in local green issues.  It can help teach an environmental ethic and can demystify basic ecology concepts.

More importantly, it can stimulate curiosity and passion.  Like you’ve never seen before.

Mnemonics we often use:

Bubble, bubble, glee-gleek 

Cheer-a-lee, cheer-up….

Cheer-a-lee….fancy Robin-y song

Cheer, cheer……woop, woop, woop

Robin with sore throat, and Chick burr

Chik-a-dee-dee-dee

Chipping trill (mechanical)

Chirping trill (softer than Chippy)

Chirr, chirr, chirr

Conk-a-ree

Drink your teeeeeeea!

Drop it, drop it!  Cover it up! (repeat)

Fee-bee

Here, here, come right here, dear

Here I am.  Where are you?  (repeat)

Meeee-ew…. and mocking phrases

Oh, sweet Canada Canada Canada

Cheeva, cheeva, cheeva, cheeva

Pee-a-wee…. Pee-yer

Queer, queer, queer

Teacher, Teacher, Teacher

Three-A….. Three-A

Wich-ity, witch-ity, witch-ity

Whinny (downward)

Whinny (evenly-pitched rattle)

Wik, wik, wik, wik, wik, wik

Wolf whistle, squeaky squeal, clucks

Who are you, you, you (sadly)

Yenk, yenk yenk (with a cold)

Zeee-zeee (high-pitched crickets)

Zee-zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee

Zur-zur-zur-zree!! (raspy)

Cowbird 

Robin

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Cardinal

Scarlet Tanager

Black-capped Chickadee

Chipping Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Red-bellied woodpecker

Red-winged blackbird

Eastern Towhee

Brown Thrasher

Eastern Phoebe

Northern Oriole

Red-eyed Vireo

Gray Catbird

White Throated Sparrow

Tufted Titmouse

Eastern Wood Peewee

Red-headed Woodpecker

Ovenbird

Yellow-throated Vireo

Common Yellowthroat

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Flicker

Starling

Mourning Dove

White Breasted Nuthatch

Cedar Waxwing

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated blue warbler

Just walk outside and listen.


The Family that Camps Together

June 2nd, 2011 § 29 comments § permalink

Indian LakeIt is essential for every family to spend quality sleepless nights together in a tent—to strip off the tie, the watch, the shampoo, the cell phone, the bed —to forget the paperwork, the appointment, the meeting, the post, the tweet and get seriously dirty.  Camping allows unstructured exploration.  Every day starts with only the faintest outline of an agenda, with little expectations, rules or constraints.  Pajama fishing, rock scrambling, hill hiking, worm finding, fairy house making, dusk swimming, s’mores making, star gazing—each puts your problems into perspective.  And every day ends with a snuggly grubby family zipped up in an undersized bug-free (hopefully) spot.

FishingAdmittedly, planning for a weekend camping trip is overwhelming.  To streamline the process, all our gear (tent, sleeping bags and pads, first aid, fishing poles, tackle box, pocket knife, lantern, flashlights, tarp, matches, cooking supplies) quietly anticipates an upcoming adventure in a corner of our small attic.  As well, over the years we have found that the key to camping success is to 1) talk it up beforehand, 2) share the pure camping joy with another valiant venturesome family or two, and 3) have good bug stuff.

BreakfastAlthough we typically camp in the Catskill Mountains, we spent last weekend in the Adirondacks.  Here in the Hudson Valley, our particularly cool, wet spring has produced a bumper crop of spicy garden radishes and crisp looseleaf lettuce.  Yum!  Sadly, the overflowing lakes, ponds and streams just to our north have also produced a bumper crop of vampiric pests.  A contingent of four different types of pests form the core of the biting or blood-sucking brigade within the Adirondacks right now, protecting the area from human overpopulation—black flies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums and deer flies.  They have much in common—mouth parts that bite or pierce, females that feed on blood, and love of water.  Alas, we camped on a lake.

CampfireIn the Adirondacks, great swarms of insects, capable of raw torment, exist in such large numbers that the term “the Adirondack wave” is commonly used to describe the act of swatting these vermin hordes away.  It has been said, “If you don’t use bug dope, you’ll be eaten alive.  If you do use bug dope, you’ll only be eaten half alive.”  Last weekend, we were eaten half alive.

Bug GoopJust a note on DEET.  The majority of bug repellents contain DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) as their active ingredient.  DEET is a registered pesticide.  Need I say more?  Don’t use it.  My friend Jen makes superamazing bug lotion and spray with shea butter, lemongrass and pennyroyal.  Due to differences among insect species, repellents containing multiple essential oils are more effective than those containing a single ingredient.  Any mixture of following is fine—citronella, eucalyptus, peppermint, rosemary, cinnamon, lemongrass, cedarwood—but keep in mind that some people are sensitive to plant oils.  Before applying to skin, put a small drop on a cloth and keep it nearby to test for any allergic reaction.  Also, don’t be skimpy with natural remedies—reapplication every half hour is necessary, especially if you’re busy swimming and sweating.

 

Beeswax Bug Goop

2 oz beeswax

2 oz sweet almond oil

1 oz jojoba oil

½ oz canola oil

40 drops essential oil blend

 

With beeswax: Heat almond, jojoba and canola oils in saucepan and add beeswax.  Allow the mixture to cool slightly and then add essential oils.  Pour into a sealed container.

 

 

Lanolin Bug Salve

2 oz anhydrous lanolin (natural wax)

2 dropperfulls neem seed oil

60 drops essential oil blend

 

Warm the lanolin under hot tap water.  Mix all ingredients and pour into a sealed container.  Refrigerate to harden.

 

No-Bite Bug Spray

1/8 cup apple cider vinegar

1/8 cup almond oil, witch hazel or grain alcohol

1/8 cup distilled water

60 drops essential oil blend

 

Mix all ingredients and add to a smallish spray bottle.

 

 

And, just in case….

Mossy After-Bite

Dragonfly 1First, try not to scratch, since you should not apply this to open skin.  Then, soak a cotton ball in witch hazel and apply to the bite for a few minutes.  The astringent tannins, procyanadins, resin, and flavonoids help soothe pain and reduce swelling.  Apply essential camphor oil (mostly harvested from the wood of Asian camphor laurel tree) with a cotton ball and wait for a minute.  Camphor, a common ingredient in commercial anti-itch gels, stimulates nerve endings and relieves symptoms of pain.  Then, apply a drop of essential tea tree oil to further reduce the itch.

ExoskeletonJust a note: Although swarms of vampiric bugs can cause much misery, their presence should not be used as an excuse to avoid camping in the backcountry.  Or the backyard.  Also, remember to wash your hands thoroughly if handling amiable arthropods like our sweet dragonflies or any other cuddly camp critters.

Dragonfly 2And remember, pack in, pack out!

 

 

 

Hand-Stamped Plant Markers

May 18th, 2011 § 25 comments § permalink

Handmade Plant MarkersMy apologies.  I’ve been neglectful.  Spring arrived and I was caught off guard and spent the past few weeks getting my hands dirty, getting splinters and bruises and too much sun and getting darned poison ivy.   There is nothing I like less than an armful of itch, but a new sheriff’s in town and the ivy’s been apprehended—I’ve laid down the law along with my basil, sugar snap, carrot, radish, lettuce, and swiss chard posse.  Everything but the tomatoes and cukes are in.  Yee haw!  I’ll spare you the dirty details.  I’ll admit only that I’m sure to have planted too much.  I always do.

Here in the Hudson Valley, last spring frost is around Mother’s Day.  Our growing season is short.  This means many seeds are sown indoors weeks before final frost date.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, looseleaf lettuce, summer squash, and gourds all spend quality family time with us inside in early spring.  Some hearty ones we plant as seeds directly in the garden—sugar snap peas, radishes, swiss chard and carrots are tougher than the rest.

There are many.  And they are hard to keep track of.  Hence, plant markers.

Plant Markers CloseupThis project requires old silverware.  Teaspoons, tablespoons, iced tea spoons, and soup spoons are perfect for the job, but you nonconformists out there may use forks or knives.  You will also need steel wool or sandpaper, a dishcloth, a black permanent marker, a hammer, cement or steel block, and a handy metal letter stamping set.

First, with your design team, consider what you’d like to display on your marker.  Start simple.  “Dill” and “Mint” are good.  With practice, you’ll soon move up to “Catnip” and “Rosemary.”  Cute lengthy phrases will eventually come easy like “you are my sunshine” or “meet me in the garden” or the cheeky anthropomorphic “water me, please.”

Marking SpoonAnyway, to prepare your spoon for printing (I’ll say spoon since, to spare small delicate fingers, we prefer working with spoons over other silverware) wrap it in the dishcloth and place it face down on a hard, flat surface like a steel block or cement.  Hammer the back of the spoon until it is completely flattened.  Count out the letters in your word.  With permanent marker, mark the number of letters in your word (with dots) on the spoon.   Beginning with a middle letter, carefully place your stamp over the corresponding middle dot, being certain that the letter is facing the right direction.  Firmly whack the top of the stamp once with your hammer.  Repeat with remaining letters, until your word or phrase is complete.  Using your marker, completely fill in each letter—no need to stay within the lines.  Using steel wool or sandpaper, gradually buff away the black permanent marker marks surrounding the letters.

Voila!  Now, get outside and use ‘em.

Be CalmJust a note:  It might be helpful to remember that your markers don’t have to be limited to plant pots and garden beds.  Silverware is flexible and quite forgiving.  It can be hammered and twisted and tilted and bent into gift tags or napkin rings or bracelets as well.  Furthermore, don’t limit your garden dreams to fancy old silverware.  My friend Ian, a roofer, provides me with beautiful scrap copper that can be hammered and bent and sanded and is just perfect for the job.

 

On Dyeing Naturally

April 20th, 2011 § 6 comments § permalink

Eggs Dyed CloseupMy friend Minty Pea recently sent me some disturbing information concerning synthetic food dye.  Following a mandatory food-dye labeling requirement that came into effect in the EU last year, the FDA advisory panel convened in early April to review the safety of eight current food dyes.  After many years of denial, the FDA is reviewing the evidence linking synthetic food dyes (synthesized from petroleum derivatives—even coal tar) to behavioral problems in children.  Evidence that these petrochemicals affect some children’s behavior is quite convincing.  Most of these dyes have no nutritional or preservative value whatsoever—they are merely cosmetic.  Surprisingly, even foods that aren’t particularly colorful—instant mashed potatoes, bread, pickles, hot chocolate, white frosting, and cheese—are, for mostly cosmetic reasons, dyed.

BeetsThankfully, a growing number of natural food dyes—like red (betanin from beets), orange (annato from achiote seed), and green (chlorophyll from chlorella algae)—are now being commercially produced.  Of course, it makes sense to be aware of what goes into your own body, or into the little bodies you’re responsible for.  My design team—naturally drawn towards charming concoctions with infinite potential for furniture discoloration—has been experimenting with natural dyes.  Some of these can be used for projects involving tie-dye, homemade Play doh or fiber (like wool) dyeing.  Mostly, we use them to dye eggs.

CabbageTo get started, prick a hole in each clean white (or brown) egg with a needle.  Hard-boil the eggs.  Collect the dyestuff—leaves, flowers, vegetable peelings, spices, roots—from your kitchen, garden or local market.  See below for a list of items that have worked especially well for us.  Fresh flowers and greens, vegetable peelings or berries require 2 cups material per quart of water.  Dried leaves or flowers require 2 Tbs per cup of water, ground spices require 2 tsp per cup of water. Something to consider: the eggs will turn out to be a lighter shade than what appears in the pot. So, don’t be skimpy!

Place ingredients in several stainless pots and simmer for 30 minutes.  For uniform color, strain each eye mixture through a cheesecloth or fine strainer.  For a whimsical mottled, tie-dyed or spotty effect, leave all solid material in the pots.  Let the liquid cool to room temperature.

  • Onion Skins Onion skins:  Red and orange
  • Shredded red cabbage:  Teal
  • Beet roots and cranberry juice:  Purple
  • Blueberries:  Deep blue
  • Raspberries:  Light fuschia
  • Liquid chlorophyll:  Deep green
  • Tumeric:  Gold
  • Paprika:  Bright orange
  • Annatto seed (Achiote):  Yellow

With a slotted spoon, place eggs in pots and add enough water to cover the eggs and dye material.  Add a little vinegar.

ChlorophyllWhy use vinegar?  The egg-dying process is a lesson in polarity as well as acids and bases.  The shell of an egg is made up of mostly calcium carbonate and is protected by a very thin layer of protein called the cuticle.  The cuticle is neutral—not much is attracted to it.  The dyestuff has a negative charge.  To get the dye to “stick” to the cuticle, the cuticle has to be made positively charged.  Vinegar is a weak acid.  It causes a reaction that releases carbon dioxide bubbles—seen on the surface of the egg.  It lowers the pH of the cuticle and causes it to become positively charged.  Thus the love affair between dye and egg.  So sweet!

Natural Egg DyeSlowly bring all to a gentle boil, reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes.  At this point, either remove the edible eggs and run under cold tap water or place the eggs and dyestuff in sealed glass containers in the fridge for a few hours (or overnight) to deepen the shade.

Steeping EggsSteeping the eggs overnight may cause the dye to seep through the shells, and, though these dyes are natural, the flavors and natural occurring byproducts may be somewhat inedible and downright yucky.  These refrigerated eggs will most likely be overcooked and quirky on the inside, but will be beautifully elegant and refined on the outside.  Something to think about.

Egg SilhouettesMy design team and I are slightly fancy and we opt to produce natural silhouettes of feathery fern tips and small, light flowers with crisp outlines before or during the dyeing process—fern, dill, cilantro, thyme, mint are all good.  Dip the greenery in water-thinned egg white and place on the egg.  Wrap the greenery-wrapped egg in a square of cheesecloth or nylon stocking and tie.  Dip.  Dry.

Eggs Naturally DyedJust a note:  Although your kitchen may take on the appearance of a chaotic chemistry lab, egg dyeing is not an exact science.  Like everything in nature, it is quirky and has its idiosyncrasies—the most obvious being the illusion of color.  A plant does not necessarily resemble the color of its dye—a yellow onion skin yields rusty red hues, a red cabbage yields vivid teal hues.  As well, the color of the dye bath may not necessarily reflect the final product.  With natural dyes, the character of each eggshell emerges.  Some eggs appear mottled or etched like a wild bird’s egg, others absorb the dye in streaked bands.  Science attributes these variations to an uneven distribution of calcium within the shell.  Explore and prepare for puzzlement!

 

 

How to Make A Good Listener

April 14th, 2011 § 11 comments § permalink

Felted sweater owl closeupToday you will learn how to make a good listener.

For this project, you will need a 100% wool sweater and a small collection of wool sweater scraps and cotton fabric scraps.  Solid, striped or patterned.  As with the Tiny Birdhouse, Swittens, and Sweater Mouse projects, add your wool sweater (do not dismantle it yet) to the laundry batch and wash and dry on normal to felt.  This project also requires a needle, thread, an embroidery hoop, embroidery thread, and some stuffing like organic cotton stuffing, hemp fibers or wool.  We are known to borrow synthetic filling from retired threadbare elderly friends.  I’ll admit, I’m kind of fancy and I opt to insert a small bean bag or pebble-filled bag in the base of the owl to provide ballast.

Owl PatternFinal owl size is determined by the size of your sweater.  Cut a sleeve off your sweater near the armpit, leaving the side seam alone.  Lay the sleeve flat so the seam sits naturally at the side.  Trim the armpit end (SLEEVE BOTTOM) in a semi-circle about 10” away from the wrist end of the sleeve, matching front and back.  Cut a long symmetric lens-shaped piece (BASE) from the sweater fabric, matching the length of SLEEVE BOTTOM.  Turn SLEEVE inside out.  With right sides together, sew BASE to SLEEVE BOTTOM.  Turn right side out.  Place a pebble-filled fabric bag (this is simple to make) inside the sleeve.  Insert stuffing into the owl, filling ¾ up to the sleeve.

Now, you and your starry-eyed design team must do a little research and envision your friend’s outcome.  Things you should probably consider: curved beak, facial disk, wings and ear tufts.

All owls have a short, curved, downward-facing beak that is hooked at the end.  It is designed for gripping and tearing prey.  As well, the bill is curved downwards in order to keep the owl’s field of vision clear.  To make the owl beak, cut a diamond shape out of lightweight wool sweater scrap material.  Fold the diamond in half and sew at the edges.  To provide some shape, insert a teensy bit of stuffing inside before putting in the final stitch.  To provide a curve, use small internal stitches to “grab” the pointy tip and pull it down and back toward the base.

Felted Sweater OwlMany owl species have large parabolic facial disks called “ruffs” that focus sound—not unlike a parabolic microphone.  Its shape ensures that all distant sound waves that strike the surface parallel to the central axis (the direction the owl’s face is pointed) will be focused exactly on the owl’s ears.  To make the owl’s facial disk, place a lightweight contrasting sweater into an embroidery hoop.  Sew on the beak.  Add eye “patches” with frayed fabric scraps, stitching at the edges.  Embroider curved sleepy eyes with a backstitch.  Just in case you need it, Purl Bee has a fantastic backstitch tutorial.  Embellish the owl’s face with frayed wool or cotton fabric scraps—add a “cere” or “operculum” at the top of the beak where the nostrils are set, add “brows” above the eyes—use your best judgment.  Then, remove your sweater from the embroidery hoop.  To make the owl’s facial disk., cut a large oval around the beak and eyes.  Sew it to the front of the owl’s body.

An owl’s ear openings are often asymmetrically-set (one ear is placed slightly higher than the other) which increases sound reception.  This is fantastic news for someone like me who finds symmetrical sewing to be somewhat challenging.  Some owls have ear tufts—these are located on the top of the head and are often referred to as “horns” or “ears” but are really just clusters of long feathers and have nothing to do with the owl’s ability to hear.  There are several interesting hypotheses about just why these exist (e.g. provide camouflage, threaten predators, provide intra-species recognition), but the mystery remains unsolved in the scientific world.  Just a small something for you and your tiny team to think about.

Owl PairTo make ear tufts, you must first tuck in the SLEEVE TOP and stitch, leaving about 2 inches un-sewn on both sides.  These unsewn sides will form the owl’s ear tufts.  To fully form ear tufts, make indentations with stitching on outer sides.  Embellish the ear tufts with frayed cotton remnants.  Use lightweight contrasting sweater remnants for wings.

There.  You are done.  You have made a good listener.

And everybody likes a good listener.

 

Egglings

April 11th, 2011 § 16 comments § permalink

Eggling zinniaWhoa, finally.  Spring has sprung. For short-summered gardeners like me, it is particularly important to get started early.  My gardening team and I start many tender annuals indoors.  We avoid purchasing seedling trays or pots and try to start most seeds in biodegradable handmade pots.  Cardboard tubes, newspapers, grapefruit halves are great options—we use eggshells.

To get crackin’, eat lots of eggs.  Prick a small drainage hole in the bottom of the shell with a pin or needle.  To remove the contents, create a small opening in the shell—about the size of a dime—with a sharp knife.  Reserve the egg contents for cooking my friend Jenny’s Back Pocket Quiche.  Carefully pinch the opening until 1/3 of the shell is removed.  Wash each eggshell.  Surprisingly, it does not take long for hungry, motivated gardeners to have a full carton of clean, empty shells.

Select some seeds.  Really, any annuals will do.  For a nice selection, see previous post on Spring Planning.  My gardening team is partial to fancy pinkish flowers and cherry tomatoes.

Egglings dozenWith small green fingers and thumbs, fill each eggshell with damp seed-starting mix to about ¼ to ½ in below the shell opening.  Place the soil-filled shells into an egg carton.  Using tiny finger, create a small indentation in the center of the soil. Follow the instructions on the seed package for proper planting depth.  The general rule is to plant three times deeper than the size of the seed.  Place a seed or two into the indentation and lightly cover the seed with soil.  Use a permanent marker to label each eggshell with seed type.  Moisten the soil again gently with a few drops of water.  Allow the water to saturate the soil before adding more water.  Be careful not to drown them!

Seed MorphologyThere are so many many types of seeds.  In a typical dormant seed, like a French bean or sunflower, two future cotyledons occupy most of the interior.  The outer covering is called the seed coat.  The seed coat is usually hard and protects the softer parts of the seed.  There is a tiny hole in the seed coat called the micropyle.  When the seed is ready to germinate, water is absorbed into the seed through the micropyle.  Rapid growth of the seed’s embryo ruptures the seed coat, allowing the radicle to emerge in search of nutrients.  The radicle becomes the root of the plant.  The hypocotyl, the space between the radicle and the colyledons, extends and emerges from the soil.  The hypocotyl is exposed to sunlight, straightens out and develops into a stem.  The cotyledons, two thick, leaf-like thingies, become new green leaves.  The tiny plumule rises up between the cotyledons and develops into the plant’s true leaves.

Seedling growthClearly, seed germination is highly dependent on water.  So, to help retain necessary moisture, cover the egg carton lightly with a large transparent plastic container. Monitor your seedlings daily for growth and water needs.  They should be kept evenly moist, but not saturated.  You should begin to see sprouts in 10 to 14 days, depending on seeds selected.  When the seedlings emerge, they will need space for growth, and sunlight for photosynthesis.  In general, sunlight on a warm windowsill is best.  Keep them in inside until they have 3 to 4 true leaves.

Eggling bunchBy the time playground weather comes around, your eggshells will house a flock of able-bodied, rosy-cheeked seedlings.  Before moving them out of the hen house, take a few weeks to “harden them off”—gradually introduce them to their new growing conditions. Move the “egglings” to a shady spot for increasing amounts of time, several days in a row.  Bring them back inside or cover them if temperature looks like it will drop.  Progressively increase the amount of time and sunlight they receive outside until they appear ready to venture out on their own.  This gives the seedlings a chance to acclimate to sunlight, drying winds and climate changes.  On a cloudy day, plant them directly in the ground, crushing the bottom part of the eggshell so the roots can emerge.  Water the transplants well, but gently.

Why use eggshells?  Eggshells provide good moisture retention for germination, less transplantation shock, a good source of beneficial calcium (especially important for fast-growing tender annuals), and the obvious environmental and monetary advantages.

Cheap cheap.

 

Felted Sweater Mice

March 23rd, 2011 § 13 comments § permalink

Felted Sweater MouseSometimes small fingers (and old fingers) find small projects to be tricky— tying a shoe, handling scissors, zipping a zipper, buttoning a button—they all require precision and a steady hand.  As does hand sewing.  Sewing not only demands dexterity, but also requires patience.  On top of this, it adds the threat of a potential finger prick.  Followed by little watery eyes.  Yowch!

This is incredibly unfortunate, since small people frequently like playing with small friends.  Dollhouse people, finger puppets, Lego people, tiny wooden animals—they are all good company and don’t seem to eat much.  My small people have been captivated by my friend Charlotte’s small friends for quite some time now. This has been a challenge for both them and me since Charlotte’s small friends, remarkably sweet and delicate, are very very small.  They are hand-sewn mice—reflective, contemplative furry friends with strikingly large personalities.  As well, they have microscopic eyes and noses, giving them extra bonus points.

Tortured by the opposing forces of teeny, wild fingers and the love of all things small, my design team and I made futile attempts at replicating Charlotte’s mice.  In the end, we designed a simple, slightly larger pattern with exposed stitching that is just perfect for small fingers.

For this project, you will need a small collection of 100% wool sweater scraps.  Solid, striped or patterned.  As with the Tiny Birdhouse and Swittens projects, add your wool sweater to the laundry batch and wash and dry on normal.  This project also requires a needle, thread and some stuffing like organic cotton stuffing, hemp fibers or wool.  We are renowned for borrowing (well, stealing, really) synthetic filling from retired threadbare elderly friends.  Those of you who are fancy may opt to insert a small rice or bean-filled fabric bag in the base of the mouse to provide some weight.

Pattern: Size is up to you.  I recommend that you size your first mouse on a slightly-larger-than-life size (dare I say, rat size?).  As with the Swittens project, I have found that there is a significant positive correlation between successful project outcome and project size, when measured by various indicators, such as big smiles.  Don’t start out too teeny.

Cut the sweater as below.  In addition, you will need a tail.  It should be a long, skinny rectangular piece (that will later be folded and sewn).

Felted Mouse PatternSewing Instructions:  Fold the tail in half and secure with a blanket stitch.  (Just a note:  Futuregirl has a fantastic photo-filled tutorial on blanket stitching.)  With wrong sides together, stitch down the back of the body.  Stitch from the nose down, stopping about ½ inch before the end.  Insert end of tail at bottom of back and secure.  Finish stitching bottom of back.  With wrong sides together, stitch the bottom edge of the body to the oval base, leaving approximately a 2-inch gap for stuffing.

Insert stuffing into the mouse, filling the nose first.  When almost full, insert bean bag and continue stitching to close the back seam.  Fold the base edge of ears in half and secure with a few central stitches.  Flatten the seam and position the ears on the mouse head.  Stitch.  Use a felting needle and wool roving to make eyes and nose.  Use strong button thread for whiskers if you are most able.

(And, “most able” sort of sounds like “vote on Babble,” which reminds me to ask for your vote, since Mossy has been nominated on Babble for an important thingy, and if you enjoy the post you’ve read or any you’ve read in the past, or if you plan to enjoy any posts you’ll read in the future, please give Mossy a “thumbs up.”   It’s just a click.  Here on Babble.  Thank you in advance.  I will mail you a hug.)

Felted Sweater Mouse with CoatNow you have a new small friend.  And you and your family will love your friend more than you ever thought was possible.  I mean love.  More than anyone should.

 

Oobleck

March 14th, 2011 § 23 comments § permalink

Oobleck Goop 1Can we ever so briefly have a celebration for oobleck?  It deserves a surprise party, or at least a pat on the back, and a sweet-smelling chocolate cosmos, scabiosa pod, and hydrangea bouquet.  On days when I have scarcely been able to brush my teeth due to little grabby hands and empty bellies, I simply pour oobleck into a mixing bowl, pop in some little hands, and beam myself just about anywhere I want to be.  Keep in mind that the entire process is meant to be messy.  Prepare to clean up a bit.

This project requires the following: cornstarch, water, a bowl and small hands willing to get messy.  That’s it.  Fancy schmancy oobleck (some of you are fancy, I know) requires an eyedropper, tempera paint, and a mixing spoon in addition to the above.  The cornstarch to water ratio will most likely need some tweaking to get the ideal consistency, but 1½ cup cornstarch to 1 cup water is a good jumping off place.  Pour the cornstarch into a large mixing bowl; slowly add the water and mix.  Add smidgens of additional water with a teaspoon or eyedropper.  Ultimately, the ideal suspension will feel like molasses and will “tear” a bit when small fingers stroke its surface.

Oobleck Goop 2The viscosity of oobleck is not constant.  It behaves like a solid or a liquid depending on how much pressure is applied.  Squeeze some in your palm and it will form a solid ball.  Release the pressure and it will flow out between your fingers.  A material that behaves this way is called a “non-Newtonian liquid”—its viscosity changes depending on the stress or force applied to it.  If large force is applied (compression, agitation), it becomes viscous and stationary.  If a teeny force is applied (a gentle pour), it flows like molasses.  Why does oobleck behave the way it does?  When sitting still, the starch granules are surrounded by water.  The water’s surface tension keeps it from completely flowing out of the spaces between the starch granules.  The cushion of water provides lubrication and allows unconstrained movement of the granules.  But, if large force is applied, the water is squeezed out from between the granules and the friction between them increases considerably.  When cornstarch is heated (mmmm.  gravy, for instance), the molecular chains unravel, allowing them to collide with other starch chains to form a mesh, thickening the liquid.  Hope I have not lost you….

Oobleck Goop 3Oobleck is a “suspension,” not a solution.  Cornstarch does not dissolve in water like salt or sugar.  Instead, the tiny cornstarch particles are suspended in the water.    If you allow oobleck it to sit in a bowl for long enough, the cornstarch and water will separate.  Because of this, it is important to not wash it down the sink.  Don’t gum up those pipes!  In fact, while you were poring through your latest issue of Physical Review Letters, Volume 106, Issue 5, perhaps you came across the related article “Viscoelastic Suppression of Gravity-Driven Counterflow Instability” and then moved on to “Complex Fluids at Work.”  And then, you were super surprised hear NPR’s Weekend Edition discussion “Could Cornstarch Have Plugged BP’s Oil Well?

Maybe not.  You seriously should consider checking these out.

What is cornstarch, really?  It is obtained from the corn seed’s endosperm.  The endosperm of the seed surrounds the embryo (developing plant) and provides nutrition in the form of protein (starch) for the sprout.  Corn endosperm makes cornstarch, wheat endosperm makes flour, and barley endosperm makes, well, beer.  To see the endosperm of a corn kernel, soak a seed in water overnight and cut it lengthwise.  You will most likely be able to identify the seed coat or “pericarp,” embryo or “germ,” and the endosperm.

Corn Seed DissectionAnd the name?  The name oobleck originates from the 1949 Dr. Seuss book “Bartholomew and The Oobleck.”  In the story, the King of Didd, bored with mundane weather, asks his royal magicians to whip up something a bit more dramatic.  Soon thereafter, sticky, gummy green goo falls from the sky and wreaks havoc on his tiny village.  A fantastic story with a typical Seuss-ish moral:  There are some things in life that are best left as they are.

Something to think about.

 

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