Friday, March 25, 2011

Lovely Links: "Hoping I Have a Baby By Now" Edition

I'm writing this post on Wednesday, March 23, which makes me two days overdue (which would mean four days on Friday, when this posts). I had a sneaking suspicion this would happen (my son was born a week late). Even so, it's an emotional roller coaster, to say the least. One minute, I'm feeling calm, telling myself, "Babies come when they're ready"; the next minute, I'm crying my eyes out. So yeah, I'm hoping that by the time this scheduled post comes up, I'll be cuddling with a newborn. If not, well...ummm...let's not go there. (Feeling the hormonal weepiness coming on again...)

In any case, I thought I'd share some of the great things I've come across lately, especially as I've been trying to keep myself distracted. Thankfully, it's pretty easy to be distracted by all the useful/fun/informative/ingenious things in the blogosphere.

I just discovered this blog and I absolutely love it. She just finished a five-week series devoted to all things boy-related. {insert contented sigh -- boys are so much fun}.  I want to make these pants, these crib sheets, this men's sweater turned boy sweater, this shirt, this t-shirt turned jacket...basically, everything on the blog.  I honestly never thought I'd ever make clothes, but she makes it seem so possible. I especially love how she refashions old clothes (usually used grown-up clothes) into really cute stuff for kids. 

7 Principles to Simply Your Family Life -- Simple Mom
I agree with every single principle in this post. They truly are universal.

Some Thoughts on Cost -- Eco-Novice
Last week, I wrote about 'splurges that save' and how we should choose quality over quantity. One area that I'm passionate about choosing quality over quantity is in regard to food. I thought this post over at Eco-Novice (a great site about going green gradually -- and frugally) had a lot of good points. I especially loved all the Michael Pollan quotes -- I've mentioned how his book, In Defense of Food, changed how my family eats. I think that guy is definitely right on the money about our modern diet.

Plastic Bottle Herb Planters -- Family Fun
This is such a fun way to reuse and recycle. Plus, who doesn't love having fresh herbs at the ready? 

Cinnamon Sugar Pull-Apart Bread -- Joy the Baker
If I don't have a baby by Friday, I'm making this. And I might just eat the whole thing, too.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Homemade vs. Pre-Made: Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies

I didn't know you could buy pre-made cookie dough at the grocery store until I was probably ten or eleven years old. Even after that, I thought it only came in refrigerated chocolate chip cookie dough. It wasn't until years later that I noticed that there were dry mixes for cookies, too.  Call it a sort of spoiled naïveté, I guess. I grew up making and eating homemade cookies.

Anyway, not too long ago, I was standing in line at the store and as I was loading up the conveyer belt with all my groceries, I couldn't help but overhear the conversation between the clerk and the woman ahead of me in line. The clerk had commented on the package of cookie dough the woman was purchasing and saying how great it was. The woman said something to the effect, "Yeah, I just don't have time to make them the old-fashioned way. I think I've only done it like once."

As I listened, I just wanted to write down my go-to recipe (since I have it memorized), hand it to the woman, and tell her that I can make a batch of them in around 20 minutes, including baking time. It wouldn't be in a braggy, know-it-all way -- I just wanted to help out and let her know that from-scratch cookie-making really isn't such a formidable task. Plus, homemade cookies are much, much better than the kind made from a tube of dough.  At least I think so. I may be a little biased.

Not only do they taste better, but they're cheaper to make yourself. With the tubes and packages of cookie dough, you can spend up to 21 cents per cookie (that's for the new, all-natural dough put out by Pillsbury); to make an entire batch from scratch costs considerably less, maybe a $1, $2 at most, for a couple dozen cookies.

Another benefit of making them yourself is that you know exactly what goes in them. The refrigerated cookie doughs I looked up contained pretty standard ingredients, though a couple contained partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil (I try to skip any kind of hydrogenated oil, but especially cottonseed oil) and the ubiquitous and vague "natural and artificial flavor".  Some, I'm sure are much more processed and have questionable (as in, "What is that?") ingredients in them. A couple years ago, there was a recall of all Nestle cookie dough due to E. coli contamination. This isn't really common, but food recalls do happen with processed foods.  I like making things myself because I feel like I'm in better control of what my family eats, including treats. 

 Max thought it was hilarious to try to get into every picture.

And there's one big reason I prefer making homemade cookies -- it gets my son involved and comfortable in the kitchen. We started with cookies back when he was around 18 months old (even at that age, he would go to the pantry and start pulling out the ingredients we needed) and he's been helping me ever since. Now he's always at my side in the kitchen, whether I'm whipping up a batch of cookies, a loaf of bread, homemade pasta, or that night's dinner. I believe feeling comfortable in the kitchen and learning about food prep is an important skill for kids. Plus, I have so many good memories of working with my mom in the kitchen -- I wanted to pass that on to him.

If you Google chocolate chip cookie recipes, you'll get thousands upon thousands of results. Chances are, you already have your stand-by chocolate chip cookie recipe. But in case you're trying to get away from the pre-made stuff or just want to try a new recipe, I thought I'd share my current favorite recipe for classic chocolate chip cookies.

I used to have my tried and true recipe, but once I stopped using shortening, they were hit and miss. This was due to the temperature of the butter -- it would either be too hard or too melted. As a result, the cookies sometimes would be just right, other times they'd resemble pancakes. Then I came across this recipe on the blog, Smitten Kitchen, and I've been using it ever since.  I like it because I get consistent results, plus it uses less butter, sugar, eggs, and flour than my old recipe. The yield isn't that different, either.

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cold and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cup chocolate chips

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.

Unlike many recipes that call for room temperature butter, this one calls for cold butter, straight from the refrigerator. Using cold butter has made my results much, much more consistent.  Anyway, cut up the butter into pieces that are about a 1/2" or so.

Beat the butter and sugars together until smooth. It takes a little while to really pulverize those butter chunks, but give it a few minutes -- it works, I promise.

Add the vanilla, egg, and baking soda. Try to resist temptation to start tasting cookie dough. Who am I kidding? Such resistance is futile in our household (Want rationalization and permission for eating homemade cookie dough?  Go to this link from Free-Range Kids. I love it.).  Mix, then add flour and salt. Mix again.

The chocolate chip to dough ratio is pretty high in this recipe. I think that's why you can get away with less flour. It will almost seem like you've got as much chocolate chips as dough in this recipe, but I promise it works. definitely works.

Scoop the cookie dough onto a lined baking sheet. Remember my mention of the Silpat a couple posts ago? Well, here it is. You really should get one.

Bake the cookies for about 16-18 minutes, or until golden brown.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Grab a glass of milk and bask the sheer and utter deliciousness of the warm, homemade chocolate chip cookie.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Super Sewing Project: The Superhero Cape

I've been doing a little more sewing than usual lately. First the quilt, then the nursing pads, then homemade wipes (I'll share the details on those later -- got to test them out first).  Most likely nesting mixed with cabin fever. Or maybe because it's one of the few things left I can actually do at nine months pregnant (today is actually my due date). Anyway, after I finished my other projects, I decided to sew something NOT for the baby, though, really, my first-born will always be a baby to me, but that's another story.

Like many four-year-old boys, my little guy is obsessed with superheroes. I am in love with this phase. I think it's completely adorable. His favorite superhero is none other than Superman.  He has a Superman shirt that he wore day in and day out because it has an attached cape. In an attempt to get him to wear his other clothes, I thought I would try and make him his very own Superman cape.  I think it turned out pretty well -- it didn't take too long and the materials cost next to nothing, maybe $3-4 at the most. My little guy loves the cape I made and he wears it everywhere. Now I don't have to sneakily wash his Superman shirt when he's sleeping anymore. The only problem is that he keeps telling me I need to make capes for his cousins -- a pink one for one of his girl cousins and a blue one for another so they can be the Justice League.

To make a cape for your own superhero, the materials you'll need are:
  • - 1/2 - 1 yard of fabric (how much you need depends on the child's size
    - Bias tape (I used extra wide double fold)
    - Coordinating thread
    I didn't really follow a pattern for this cape and I just kind of winged the whole thing, so please excuse the not-so-precise instructions that follow. I promise, though, this is a really, really easy project that anyone can do.
I started by measuring the boy from his shoulders to the back of his knees, then from shoulder to shoulder, just to give me an idea of the size I needed to cut. From there, I picked up the fabric and draped it around his shoulders to give me an idea how I wanted it to fit and then measured again. In the end, I cut a rectangle that ended up being about 20"x30".

The next step is to hide the raw edges and sew a hem. For mine, I did a narrow double-fold hem. To do this, I folded the raw edge to the wrong side of the fabric about a 1/4" in, then I folded again another 1/4". I pinned it in place as I folded. Once the side I was working was all pinned, I ironed the fold. I did this one side at a time. Only do this hem on three sides of the cape - the longer sides and wider bottom. We'll be doing a bigger hem for the top of the cape where it ties around the neck.

Stitch the hem in place. I used a zigzag stitch for mine, but you could also do a straight topstitch, too. I thought the zigzag looked a little more interesting and decorative.

Once the three sides of the cape are hemmed, you're going to make the casing for the drawstring at the top of the cape. I thought about just doing all four sides, including the top, with the same hem and attaching ties to the sides of the cape, but I think the drawstring works well because my son can either pull the cape around his shoulders or let the fabric cinch up in the back while he's "flying". I've seen both methods used, so do whatever floats your boat. I did it partly this way because it's how my mom made my awesome Batgirl cape over 20 years ago.

To make the casing, press the raw edge of the fabric to the wrong side of the fabric 1/4" in (like you did with the double-fold hem). Determine how much room you'll need for your drawstring. My bias tape was about 1/2" wide. Once you've figured out the width of the drawstring, add another 1/2" for wiggle room. Press under the top edge to about an inch in. Edgestitch in place. There should be a 1" opening at each end of the top of the cape.

Measure how much bias tape you'll need to thread it through the width of the cape, with extra for the ties around the neck. You don't want this to be too short because it will be too tight around the neck; you don't want it to be too long because the fabric will just gather in the back and hang low because there's so much slack.

Once you've cut the length of bias tape you need, stitch along the middle. I did this so it wouldn't come unfolded. Plus, the zigzag adds a decorative touch.
Attach a large safety pin at one end of the stitched bias tape and pull the bias tape through the casing.

Tie around your superhero's neck -- I did it in a fairly tight knot (and so I wouldn't have to tie it every few minutes). I tied it at a comfortable (and safe -- not too long that he could get caught on something) length so he could slip the cape on and off easily. The second I put it on him, he went to his usual Superman pose (fists on hips), stated resolutely that "this looked like a job for Superman", and he was off.

Did I mention that I love the superhero phase?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Scraping By...Literally

What do these pictures have in common?

Any guesses?  Hint: the bottom picture kind of gives it away.

If you guessed that they all have to do with the rubber spatula, you are not only right, but also quite perceptive. Congrats.

Are you a compulsive spatula scraper like me?  I can't help it. I have to eke out every drop of batter out of a bowl and every bit of sauce out of a jar.  Each picture above is the amount I saved by using a spatula before washing the bowl or throwing the container away. The spatula gave me a couple extra waffles, one last sandwich's worth of peanut butter, an extra sour cream pancake (totally worth scraping for -- these pancakes are ridiculously delicious), the last of the honey I buy in bulk (in the picture, I was transfering it from the plastic container at the store to a reused spaghetti sauce jar), and enough homemade pluot jam for a piece of toast.  Scraping extra batter can mean an extra cupacke or muffin; a swipe of the tomato sauce jar can mean a few more tablespoons. Sure, it's not much, but as the old adage goes, "Waste not, want not."

My favorite kind of spatulas are the silicone spatulas -- they work at any temperature, so you can use them while you're cooking and working with hot foods. If you haven't harnessed the frugal power of the rubber spatula, I think you should. Pretty soon, nothing in your kitchen will be left unscraped. Frugality is about stretching things just a little further -- and we all know that the little things eventually add up.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Quilting Post: The Reveal, Plus 10 Reasons Why You Should Try

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I'd been taking a quilting class as a birthday present from my parents. It was a great learning experience and actually more fun than I thought it would be. Anyway, I've finally finished hand-stitching the binding around the edge of the baby quilt, so it's officially finished!

Drum roll, please...

Ta-da! My first quilt. The top side follows a sampler style (as shown in the book mentioned below). It has a mix a mix of rail fence, log cabin, friendship star, nine-square, and windmill squares.

On the back, I used a light yellow fabric called minkee -- it's really, really soft. It's a little tricky to use, but I know baby will love it.

It's not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. If you look closely, you'll see crooked stitches, seams that don't line up, and random repair jobs on squares. Still, I'm proud of my first effort.

For the class, we did the sampler quilt, as outlined in the book, Start Quilting with Alex Anderson. A couple people in the class complained about the book, but I think it's a great introduction to the art of quilting. The only thing I'm dubious about when it comes to the book is the claim on the cover: '8 Quick Projects'. Quick? Errrr...maybe someday. This quilt was not a quick project for me, but I'm still learning.

Anyway, why mention quilting on this blog? Am I just showing off? What does it have to do with living frugally? Here are some of the reasons why you should consider quilting. Really.

1. Anyone can do it.
When the class started, I was the only student who had recently used a sewing machine. Seriously. My mom wasn't comfortable with hers, the other lady in the class borrowed a neighbor's machine, and the other woman pulled hers out of a dusty box. All four of us made quilts, though -- and they all turned out great. To quilt, you just need to do a lot of cutting and you have to know how to sew a straight 1/4" seam. No fancy skills required.

2. It can be economical.
Please note the emphasis on the word "can".  If you're like me, you can step into certain fabric stores and want to buy everything in them. I can see how someone could get really, really carried away and spend a fortune on quilting. That said, quilting really can be economical if you choose your materials wisely. One of project I've been working on for a while is my denim quilt. I love the idea of reusing old jeans, old ones that you can't even donate, in a practical way.  My quilt is still in the collecting phase, but I think I may start putting some squares together. The quilt will take time to make, but not a lot of money since I'll only need to buy some material for the binding and backing and some batting for the middle.

3. Quilts are practical.
Some sewing projects may seem kind of superfluous, but quilts are practical and useful. Granted, there are some quilt designs that are a little over the top and not necessarily meant for their function (also known as 'art quilts'). That said, I know I plan on frequently using the quilt I just made.

4. It's actually kind of fun.
I was suprised how much I liked doing this. It's satisfying to see the quilt squares come together. Plus, if you're working with someone, it's just fun to chat while you sew. My mom and I spent hours together finishing our quilting class "homework" and it was a nice way to pass the time. The whole concept of those old quilting bees actually makes sense to me now.

5. It can also clear your head and help you relax.
One of the reasons I picked up sewing over a year ago was to clear my head. I was really struggling with anxiety at the time and my mind would just race with worries. When I sew (and now, quilt), I have to focus 100% because it doesn't come naturally to me. I really have to think about what I'm doing. As a result, I forget my worries and feel so much better afterwards. The teacher of the quilting class told us she picked up quilting for the same reason -- she was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer ten years ago and needed an outlet. She said it kept her sane during that trying time of her life. I know working on this quilt helped me focus less on how uncomfortably pregnant I am and how the baby feels like he'll never come. When I finished working on it, I felt clear-headed and ready to face everything else. A stress-reducer that ends in a tangible, beautiful result is a win-win situation.

6.  You create something uniquely yours.
Sure, you could go to the store and buy a quilt made by someone else. I have a beautiful storebought quilt on my bed right now and I absolutely love it. That said, there's something special about having things in your house, whether they be quilts or placemats or a bathroom rug or an apron or whatever, that are one-of-a-kind because you made them. You get exactly what you want when you make it. In our world of mass-produced everything, I find something really satisfying in having something unique in my home.

7. You can go at your own pace.
There's no need to feel overwhelmed with quilting. You can do as much or as little as you want or as your time demands. You can spend an afternoon designing, cutting, and sewing all your squares, or you can just spend an hour putting a couple together. You can leave the project and pick it up whenever. I really like that about quilting compared to full-on sewing projects. With sewing projects, if I don't just get it all done at once, I can lose my place and get frustrated. With quilting, I can do it piece by piece, step by step, whenever I feel like it.

8. Quilts make awesome gifts.
When my son was born, my mom and dad made a beautiful quilt for him out of squares of colorful fabric and various  sock monkey prints.  (Dad is the first quilter of the family -- he's been doing it for years. He even made me a tied quilt when I left for college. I love that guy.).  Mom even handstitched the binding while they were driving to the hospital to meet my little guy, their first grandchild. My sister-in-law also made a lovely star quilt for my my son when he was born and a friend of ours made an adorable frog patchwork quilt for him.  I loved all the gifts I got from people when my son was born, but there was something extra-special about those quilts. Not only are they useful gifts, but really meaningful because quilts take time. Knowing that someone would go to the trouble to devote hours to making them is the best gift of all.

9. It's a link to the past.
I know I'm a little weird about this. I'm an admitted history geek. I get all nostalgic about using a clothesline and canning produce because it feels old-fashioned, like something that my grandmothers did for generations. But I think there's something to be said for making homemaking a type of art. I mean, you have to do it anyway, why not make it enjoyable and beautiful while you're at it. As I sewed the log cabin quilt square design, which is pretty old and traditional design, I couldn't help but feel a connection to the women who came before me.

10. You can create an heirloom.
It doesn't have to be perfect to be at heirloom status. I think that the sentimentality of a quilt made by hand is enough. I know that I still have a couple of my own baby quilts stored away.  One of my future projects is to work with my mom and make a quilt out of all the fabric scraps and remnants we found while cleaning out my grandpa's house after he passed away. My late grandmother was an incredible seamstress and had tons of fabric left from her projects. Lots of the fabric is from the 60s and 70s and I can't wait to put to use all those fun prints in a quilt. This way, all that fabric will get used, plus we'll have a neat, tangible way to remember my grandma.  It's amazing the kind of feeling you can get from something thoughtfully stitched together.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Splurge to Save

I've known my share of both frugal people and cheapskates. The cheapskates I've known are the type of people who will complain about everything and anything at a restaurant or store to get discounts or things for free ("This book has a page with a bent edge. Can I get a discount?"). Or they'll fudge numbers or even lie to save a buck. Not cool.

On the other hand, my mom is one of my examples of how to be frugal instead of cheap. She knows how to be smart with money, but she also knows how to spend it . She knows when something that seems like a splurge is really an investment. Sometimes, she even reminds me to spend a little extra (especially when it comes to getting things for myself).  So that's the topic of this post -- sometimes, a splurge actually saves money. Really. {For a great read about the difference between cheap and frugal people, go here.}

There's a book I've been wanting to read (add it to the list of hundreds of books I want to read...) called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. From what I've gathered, her book is about how our culture, in the pursuit of a "good deal", will forgo quality.  I watched an interview with the author and one of the things she said that stood out was the old Russian proverb she quoted: "I'm too poor to be cheap."

I know that I've forgone quality in the name of a "good deal". I've bought my share of "disposable" furniture at IKEA. But where will that get us?  In the end,  when we buy things that are cheaply made, we're often wasting more money than we're saving.

 Here are a couple examples of how skimping on things ends up costing more and how "splurges" can actually save.
  • My husband grew up in a family of six kids. His dad was an artist (He actually worked on the Smurf cartoons back in the day. How cool is that?). From what my mother-in-law has told about my husband's early childhood, times were very tight financially. However, despite their family's limited budget, she would always splurge to get Hanna Andersson t-shirts for her boys.  For those unfamiliar with the name, Hanna Andersson is a clothing company from Sweden -- their clothing is very well made and it isn't cheap.  The reason why my mother-in-law could justify spending as much as she did for a Hanna Andersson t-shirt instead of one for $2 at a discount store was that the shirts lasted and lasted and lasted. They even held up for the next younger sibling to wear later. This is saying something considering the way boys play. In the end, she saved money because she got more wear out of the quality product. If she'd purchased the cheapest things she could find, they most likely would have had to been replaced more often.
  • I am in love with my KitchenAid mixer. At around $250, they're not a cheap kitchen gadget. You could buy a similar mixer for less at a discount store, but chances are, it won't last as long. I have proof because this happened to my mom. My dad knew she wanted a mixer so he got an inexpensive model somewhere else. It worked all right, but the motor burned up after about a year or two. That following Christmas, he ended up getting her the KitchenAid she'd wanted in the first place.
  • Have you seen the documentary Food, Inc.? It's a great film and I think everyone should see it. (I wrote a review of it on my personal blog a while ago, if you want my take on the whole thing). One part of it that drove my husband and I absolutely nuts was the family featured in it who rationalized that fast food and cheap products (like soda) were better deals than fresh produce.  Why buy two or three pears for a dollar, when you can get four 20-oz. bottles of Pepsi for the same price? Isn't that more for your money?  Isn't eating fast food more economical because you can feed a family of four for around $10?  Of course not. It seems outrageous when you watch these people, but it's not a totally uncommon mindset.  Instead of purchasing whole foods, so many people opt for processed foods in the name of convenience. More natural, less processed foods sometimes cost more than their mainstream counterparts, too, so many people skip them because they claim they don't have the money in their budget. Instead, I believe it's all about priorities. This is one of the problems I have with couponing -- you can get a lot of food for hardly any money when you use coupons, but very often those foods are overly processed and nutritionally lacking. So, really, are you saving money by buying those kinds of food, food that isn't healthy or filling, that could eventually negatively affect your health? 
But splurging to save doesn't always come down to an issue of quality over quantity. Sometimes, you just have to spend more money up front to save in the long run. Here are a few instances in my own experience:
  • I just stocked up on all our cloth diapering supplies for the new baby. All the diapers (a mix of prefolds and pocket), covers, liners, the sprayer, and all the other accessories together ended up costing us a considerable chunk of change Even so, that amount (which ended up being around $400 for everything) will only be a fraction of what we would pay if we did disposables exclusively (most estimates are that it can cost anywhere from $2000-$3000 to use disposables for three years).  I'll also be able to reuse the diapers with baby #3 (oh boy, I can't even think that far ahead...), thus stretching the initial investment and spreading out the savings. {(for a good cost breakdown between cloth and disposables costs, check out this link).
  • My husband used to hate shaving until he tried traditional wet shaving. The start-up cost for the razor, blades, soap, and badger-hair brush was around $75, if I remember correctly. That may seem like a lot, but really it isn't. The razor he purchased is made out of metal -- it's actually pretty heavy in your hand, especially compared to the mainstream plastic cartridge razors. I can't imagine him ever getting a new one. Ever.  The blade refills only cost about $1.50 for a box of ten. Waaaay cheaper than the cartridge refills. This razor and shaving method will easily pay for itself. As for the badger-hair brush -- when I was shopping for it (it was for his Father's Day present), I read a bunch of reviews. A quality brush can last for a really, really long time. In fact, the badger hair ones get better with wear -- one reviewer said that he uses his grandfather's shaving brush that's over 50 years old!
  • I used to buy parchment paper for lining my baking sheets. When I ran out, I would just use non-stick spray. Then I got a Silpat for around $15. It seemed pricey for a single sheet of silicone, but I haven't purchased a box of parchment paper in years; a can of non-stick spray lasts a lot longer than it used to. I still use that same Silpat all the time. Plus, it gives me better results than the other options I used before anyway.
  • Remember my post about the Diva Cup?  Sure, it seems pricey to spend $25 for "that time of the month", but in the end, it cuts your costs dramatically over an extended...ahem...period. {did I really just write that?}
  • I know I've already mentioned my KitchenAid in this post, but it's another example of spending a little more up front to save money. I use this machine constantly -- for making bread, whipping up dinners and desserts, and even making ice cream. The thing is, it makes cooking easier and more enjoyable, which makes me much less likely to just buy the premade stuff at the store. Same goes for my
  • Cuisinart food processor - I use it all the time for shredding cheese, chopping up vegetables, making pie crusts, making salsa, and other cooking processes. I also plan on using it to make fresh baby food. Investing in this kitchen tool saves me the extra expense of buying things "conveniently packaged". 
The best way to sum it all up is in the saying, "You get what you pay for."  Am I against getting a good deal? No way. I love being able to shop sales and use coupons for things I normally buy, the things I would purchase at full price anyway. Do I splurge on everything? Of course not. But I do have my standards. I do my research before I buy. And all of that makes parting with money not quite as difficult.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Gardening Book Round-Up

March is a tricky month.  Last week, my son and I enjoyed a picnic on our brown, somewhat soggy grass. It was sunny and the temperatures were hovering in the low 50s. Needless to say, after all those months of winter, it felt heavenly. Then it snowed within a couple days. The nice thing about snow in March, though, is that it usually melts within a day.  I don't mind winter at all, but by the time it's March, the frequent swing between winter and spring that's so typical of this month can take a toll on your spirits -- at least it does mine.  That's why I have a pussy-willow in my yard. The puffy little buds start to emerge in mid-February and they are my reminder that spring really is going to return and that the cold weather won't last forever.

Around the time the pussy-willow starts to blossom back to life is when I give myself permission to pull out my gardening books. If I do it before then, the winter just seems to drag more because I'm so excited for spring gardening. Although it's still a little too cold to start planting just yet (and I couldn't do yard work if I wanted to anyway -- only 10 days left until my due date as of this writing!), you can still work on your garden. To help you get you going, I thought I would share some of my favorite gardening books. Write down a few titles, hit the library or (my weakness), and get ready for your best growing season yet!

My Gardening Reading List

Martha Stewart Living -- The Gardening Issue
As you can see, this first suggestion really isn't even a book. It's actually the special gardening issue of Martha Stewart Living. I've said this before and I'll say it again, most of the time this magazine makes me feel like an unorganized slob. But, I get a renewal usually for free or at a very low rate when I renew my mom's gift subscription of it every Christmas. The reason why I always renew, though, is for the Halloween issue and the gardening issue. I love those issues.

I save my Martha Stewart Living gardening issues every year because they are full of awesome tips and gorgeous pictures. They really are a great resource. If you don't have or want a subscription to the magazine, you should at least pick up a copy every March (coincidentally, the gardening issue always arrives at about the same time I pull out all my other books).  Let me just say, too, that you really should get this month's issue (pictured at left) in particular because it has tons of great ideas for planting fruits and vegetables. One thing from the issue I'm particularly excited about: using window boxes for growing herbs. Why didn't I think of that?

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew
When my husband and I first moved into our home almost six years ago, we both knew that we wanted to grow a vegetable garden in our yard. Granted, I was definitely more excited about it than he was, but he agreed that it was a good idea. Anyway, after some research, I came across the first edition of Square Foot Gardening. Not only did the author's idea of how to grow food in less space make a lot of sense, but it also made the prospect of growing our own food not so overwhelming. Mr. Bartholomew makes gardening approachable and possible for just about anyone. After I read it, my husband built the boxes and we've been using this method for most of our gardening ever since.  I love both editions of his Square Foot Gardening books for different reasons -- but if you want to read just one, go for the newer one. I can't recommend it enough.

The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch
I actually just got my copy of The Garden Primer in the mail a few days ago. I found out about it in the aforementioned Martha Stewart magazine. Though I'm still busy reading and flipping through it, I could tell right when I opened it how this book really is, as the cover puts it, a "gardener's Bible".  This book is jam-packed with everything you could possibly want to know about gardening. It's not a book I'll read cover-to-cover, from start to finish. For me, it's more of a reference, a guide. Sure, I could just turn to the Internet and Google my question, but I like having a book ready to answer my questions, from an authoritative source. Whenever I have a question about gardening -- planting, pruning, fertilizing, anything -- I can already tell this will be my go-to book. I just wish I would have found this one sooner.

Sunset Western Garden Book
I don't mean to be exclusive by recommending a book meant for only the Western half of the United States, but I have to mention it. The Sunset Western Garden Book is a must-have for Western gardeners. This comprehensive guide contains information about every plant, flower, vegetable, tree, shrub you could possibly want to grow and it tells you, in detail, where they can grow, what kind of conditions they need, what diseases to watch out for, what to pair them with, everything. I use this book all the time - while I'm planning my garden, before I buy any plant for my garden, when I plant it, and I check back when I have questions about that particular plant. It's the perfect companion book to The Garden Primer -- I'll have my general gardening reference in that one and my detailed plant reference in this one. What can more can I say? It's such a great reference  -- I'm tempted to just recommend it to everyone, no matter where you live!

Garden Home: Creating a Garden for Everyday Living by P. Allen Smith
I love this book. It's seriously beautiful. Garden Home is different than the others I've mentioned in this post because it focuses more on landscape design principles, with explanations and examples of how to use shape and form, texture, color, rhythm, and other principles to make your yard beautiful. In the book, he shows how to create a space outside like you would inside. Just like a house has designated spaces for designated activities and functions, P. Allen Smith does this with the yards he designs. My yard isn't even close to being the "garden home" I want it to be, but this book always inspires me and gets me daydreaming.

What I'm Reading Right Now

The Complete Compost Gardening Guide by Barbara Pleasant & Deborah L. Martin
I also got this one in the mail recently (like I said, cheap books on are a weakness of mine) because my compost pile needs some help. I keep adding stuff to it and it's breaking down, but I'm not getting that awesome, black compost I want. I've already learned that part of my problem is that it's too dry (hence all the ants in it).  The Complete Compost Gardening Guide is a little overwhelming, I'll admit. Who knew there was so much to know about composting? I can tell, though, that I'll learn a lot from it. And once I get a handle on my compost and once I start getting the results I want, I will definitely pass the info on to you.

An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter
I started reading An Island Garden while the boy was playing out in the snow a couple weeks ago. I couldn't resist. I've been saving it for months. So I cleared off some of the snow at our picnic table, put down a towel for me to sit on, watched the boy do a few snow angels, and then I started reading. I first heard about this book when I read about in a bi-monthly journal called The Storybook Home. After reading an excerpt, I requested An Island Garden from PaperBackSwap and got it months ago. Let me just say, if you love to garden and get a little too giddy about the idea of getting dirt under your fingernails and picking out flowers at the local nursery, you should read it. The book is one-part practical manual, one-part love letter to the art of gardening.

Read a book or two. Get a notebook. Start planning things out. Spring is right around the corner.

{Do you know of any gardening books I should be reading? What are your favorites?}

Note: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 
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