Category Archives: By Hand

chicken run

This past weekend was full of more beautiful sunny days–perfect for an outside construction project with the boys. So on Sunday we started the day with a trip to the hardware store and plans to make a
portable chicken run.

As soon as the pullets (the technical term for a hen less than a year old) are old enough to move outdoors they’ll have a proper coop and a run, and then free-range when I’m working in the garden. But for now (when they’re young and just having daytime visits to the outdoors) we need to protect them from hawks and other predators. And later when they can free-range more safely I’ll still occasionally want some way to contain them to certain parts of the yard (so they don’t eat new seedlings etc.)

I had a vision of what I wanted the portable run to look like and was lucky enough to find a detailed how-to for building just what I had in mind on Mother Earth News.

Even though it would have been fun to design on my own it was incredibly helpful to have the quantities and dimensions all worked out in advance. (Thank you Troy Griepentrog!) There were so many times during the building process when I imagined the trouble I would undoubtedly have gotten myself into without Troy’s plan (like not basing the framing dimensions on a standard width of chicken wire.) The only real change I made to the original plan was
substituting 2 x 2s for the 2 x 4s that were called for. Even though
this compromised the structural integrity of the run, I really needed
it to be light enough (it barely is even now) for me to lift and move
around on my own.

The best part of having the step-by-step guide though was that it allowed me to relax and be able to focus on guiding the kids to do as much as they could. Having them involved was a lot of fun and a great learning opportunity on so many levels–visualization, design, use of materials, measuring, adding, spatial thinking, physics etc. Except for the sawing and drilling (which I did) they were really able to help with quite a lot of the building. Because they were so involved it really held their attention from start to finish. And when we were done they clearly felt a huge sense of accomplishment. An extra bonus to the whole project.

I’m very happy with how it turned out and its already getting a lot of use–not just by the chicks but also by the boys who like to play in it too!


kids’ artist trading cards

The project I had really been looking forward to doing with my kids in February was The Great Backyard Bird Count. I was talking it up for weeks in advance, we had all our bird checklists printed out, binoculars at the ready…and then…when the weekend arrived, so did the rain. And not just a little rain, non-stop downpours for all four days. So unfortunately no birding for us.

Luckily, I had a great indoor project also lined up thanks to two resourceful moms in the blogosphere, Erin and Blair who organized a Kids’ Artist Trading Card Swap based on the same guidelines as the “grown-up” ATCs. Over 900 children from all over the world participated (amazing for such a low-key, homegrown effort.)

Since my kids had a lot of pent up energy from all the rainy days, I knew a careful session of watercolors or pastels was out of the question. So I decided to train their creative energy into something with a good physical component–hammering! They picked out leaves from our garden (carrot tops were the favorite), taped them to the pre-cut cards (Bristol board), covered that with a sheet of parchment paper and hammered away. The first few were messy green blobs, but eventually they each figured out the knack of how much and how hard to hammer to get a result they were happy with.

After they finished making their cards (five each), they had fun addressing the envelopes and using their globe to find all the places they were sending them. Then we had an exciting trip to the post office where they picked out their own stamps and had a lengthy Q&A session with the postal worker about how long it would take for their cards to arrive and how they would be transported.

Now the return cards are starting to arrive in the mail, which they are absolutely thrilled about and displaying proudly. My friend Jacqueline also gave me a great suggestion to use Google Earth to show them the locations of the other kids in their swap groups. Seeing the difference of residences from an apartment building in Manhattan to a rural home in North Carolina and then flying around the world to England and then Australia, was very dramatic for them.

I am so glad to be part of a network of mothers around the world who connected our kids in this way. And huge thanks again to Erin and Blair for organizing!

felt slippers

The holiday season always send me into cooking and crafting overdrive. In some ways having kids has amplified that (so many things I want to share with them) but at the same time it's also slowed me way down in terms of what I actually have time to accomplish. Pre-kids, by this time of year I would have already had a small assembly line of homemade food gifts–chutneys, preserves, pasta sauces plus whatever crafts I was currently into–soap, bath salts, etched glassware…the list goes on. Now post-kids, I usually try to focus on just one main project for the season plus doing some smaller craft and baking projects with the kids. But every once in awhile I break down and just have to squeeze in an extra impulsive project.

Ever since the fall chill (finally!) was in the air, I've been wanting to felt some wool and make slippers for the boys. So yesterday I went to the local Goodwill and picked up a cute olive green wool snowflake sweater for a couple dollars. Came home and tossed it in the washer on hot. It didn't quite felt up as well as I'd hoped, so I boiled it on the stovetop for a few minutes, washed again and then tossed it in the dryer for good measure. Finally it was small and stiff as a board. Perfect!

I used a cute Burda pattern which you can download for free and printed it at 75% which was perfect for the boys' small feet. A friend and her son joined us and we were able to cut three small pairs out of the one sweater, including double thicknesses for the soles (which I would definitely recommend – one layer of felt is way too floppy).

The top of the slippers is actually the wrong side of the snowflake pattern that ran across the top of the sweater. I actually liked the abstract graphic look of the backside better and it also makes the slippers less seasonal.

The boys love their new slippers so much they asked if they could wear them to bed. As if making them hadn't been satisfying enough!

orange peel dilemma

Growing up with a Depression-era father and a first-generation Italian mother, I definitely had the “waste not want not” maxim well-ingrained at an early age. Nothing edible was ever thrown away in our house and the end of the line for many items was either soup or stock. After that, vegetable food wastes (and eggshells and coffee grounds) had only one other destination–the compost bin (and then back into the garden to feed the next crop).

I still live this way as an adult (earning me the nickname of “Nifty Thrifty” among friends). I get a lot of satisfaction every time I find a secondary (or tertiary or…) use for something that would otherwise be refuse. (I’m also a big freecycler.)

But citrus is one of the few plants I don’t put in my compost because it takes too long to decompose. So what then, to do with the peels? Candied? No thanks, way too sweet for me. Infusing olive oil? I guess so, but it’s not really the taste I’m looking for in oil. I used to dry them for kindling for the fireplace (very flammable and great smell!) but I’m not burning wood anymore because of the air quality issues.

I’ve heard that orange oil is supposed to have beneficial properties for the skin, stimulating circulation and softening rough areas, so I decided to see if there wasn’t some topical aplication for these peels. I ground up a handful in the blender and tossed them into my bath tonight. Of course there was the great smell (that’s got to be some kind of aromatherapy) but it’s hard to say whether there was any real effect on my skin.

Bottom line: I still don’t think I’ve come up with the perfect use for these. Any good ideas out there?



The last few weeks have been all about the Halloween costumes. Of course the kids' first requests were for all the horrible commercial characters I can't seem to screen out of their radar no matter how hard I try–Spiderman etc. But once we got past that I was happy that both of them came up with fun, imaginative costume ideas–a king cobra and a jellyfish. I'm pretty sure the jellyfish idea came from the crazy jellyfish invasion we had at our local beach a few months ago, and king cobras, well I guess they're just cool and mean!

The cobra costume was definitely the more challenging project to figure out (the conceptual design always comes easily but then I really struggle with the "engineering" and pattern-making). The illuminated jellyfish was a lot of fun and came together better than I expected. At the last minute (literally, this afternoon) I decided to also give the cobra a little more 'wow" by giving him light-up eyes (LEDs that I wired to a small battery pack). Also a nice safety bonus when trick-or-treating!

animal log

The kids love spotting animals in the yard so I made them "animal logs"–notebooks with photos and names of all the animals we regularly see out the window of our house. My initial idea was just to encourage their interest and curiosity about nature and the environment but an educational side bonus was teaching them to count by tallying (the background of tally marks is also really interesting.)

the stench of vanity

Okay, this is one of those embarrassing revelation posts. Okay, here we go… A couple weeks ago I was sharing one of my favorite lifestyle books, "Back to Basics", with a friend of mine and I noticed a recipe for an old time homemade hair dye for covering gray hair.

Now before I go further, I feel compelled to offer a bit of background for the record: I have always been someone who thought I'd be fine about turning gray. My mom turned gray in the most beautiful way–first a marked wide stripe of it against her dark chestnut hair and then a sprinkling throughout that looked like frosted highlights. I never thought there was anything unattractive about gray hair. Besides that, I so highly value authenticity and a natural/organic life, I couldn't imagine doing anything as "fake" as coloring my hair. Plus, the whole hair dying thing seemed like a really bad slippery slope–once you start, when and how do you stop? (At a certain point it starts to look ridiculous to be old and not have gray hair, right?)

Anyway, all those ideals were nice in theory until I started actually getting gray hairs. I was surprised to find I really didn't like it. I felt like I was looking prematurely old in a way that didn't feel right. So at first I'd just pull out the occasional gray straggler. But then this year they started coming in more abundantly and pulling them out wasn't really an option anymore. I felt really conflicted about what to do. So when I saw this recipe that used sage leaves to darken gray hair, I was intrigued. It didn't seem any more invasive or unnatural than an herbal bath.

The recipe called for steeping sage leaves in boiling water and then mixing with glycerine and "Bay Rum." Not being a connoisseur of spirits, at first I thought Bay Rum was some particular type of drinking rum (like dark rum, light rum etc.) but then I realized it was actually the name of an old type of aftershave. Of course none of my local drugstores carried such a thing but I was able to find it online at As soon as I saw the photo of the bottle I burst out laughing and knew I had to order it just for the ridiculous joke of it all.

Well it arrived in the mail today so I set out to brew up the concoction. The sage infusion was straightforward. Then I added the glycerin. But when I opened the Bay Rum I almost keeled over. The bottle described itself to be "As refreshing as an island breeze." No I don't know what island they are talking about, but whatever it is the breeze must have been blowing from the wrong side of town. The sickening spicy/sweet smell conjured up I don't know what image–a sleazy pimp?

Against my better judgement I mixed it in equal parts with the sage infusion and then applied it to my hair. After that I didn't dare leave the house so foul was the odor. Finally I couldn't stand the smell of myself and had to shampoo it out, of course without seeing any noticeable results. I don't care how vain I am, I'm not going to be trying this again. Luckily, I've since read a number of posts online that talk about using solely the sage infusion to cover grey hair. So I think I'll have to try that going forward.