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It's Time to Plan the Gardens

winter garden

This is what our neck of the woods looks like right now. But I’ve noticed tiny buds beginning to pop on the trees, the days are getting longer and warmer, and many of the songbirds have returned to serenade us in the mornings. All of this is to say Spring isn’t too far off. So, it’s garden planning time.

We are expanding our growing space this year. We’ll have at least 5 times the square footage previously allowed if we want it. This has led to many squeals of excitement and conversations about produce possibilities. We’ve had a garden for the past 14 years, but we were space limited. In order to maximize our yield, we’ve been creative. We grew squashes and cucumbers on trellises, and we installed some raised beds to eke out just a few more feet of space. We’ve even grown cilantro and rosemary in our peony garden.

This year we’ll be able to give our plants more room to grow, so that maybe we won’t run into some of the insect and blight problems we’ve faced in years past. And we can try some new vegetables, as well.

spring garden

I ordered seed catalogs a few weeks ago. I’ll warn you now, there is nothing more satisfying (and frustrating) than sitting down to browse through a seed catalog in February, especially if you live in a northern tier state. It’s almost like booking a dream cruise vacation that you won’t go on until six months later. Supposedly, planning is half the fun but looking at all the different produce photos makes me itchy for warm weather and the smell of fresh turned earth.

Now is the time to consider your gardens.

  • What do you want to grow?
  • What needs to happen to get a good return on your time and money investment?
  • Do you need to plow fallow land?
  • Do you need to amend the soil?
  • What kind of space do you need?
  • Do you want to grow up as well as out?
  • Do you want to grow vegetables only, or do you want fruits and herbs as well?
  • How many zucchinis do you want to have to pawn off on friends and family?

We’re planning on growing things we haven’t been able to before now. Potatoes and cabbages are at the top of the list. We’ve never had enough room to make growing them worth it, but now we will. We also want to grow strawberries. If anyone has any tips on how we can get to the berries before the birds and bunnies do, please leave a comment.

Vinegar As A Household Cleaner


We live in a small, old house. As such, our electrical panel does not allow us to have a water softener. The problem with this is that we end up with a lot of limescale on our faucets and bathtub. Commercial cleaners don’t work that well, not to mention they don’t smell nice at all. As an alternative we use vinegar as a cleaning solution. Vinegar is readily available at most grocery or big box stores. It is inexpensive – a gallon costs less than 3 dollars. And the scent isn’t overpowering and doesn’t linger for hours after using it.

Vinegar is an acidic liquid produced through fermentation. Vinegar is made through the fermentation of ethanol alcohol. Any ingredient containing ethanol may be used to make vinegar, including distilled grain alcohol, wine, champagne, beer, cider and more. The two types of vinegar we use are apple cider and white vinegar.

Vinegar is as old as civilization itself. It’s been found in Egyptian urns from around 3000 B.C., and it’s mentioned in Babylonian scrolls dated to around 5000 B.C. Vinegar was often carried by Roman legionnaires and the Bible states that Roman soldiers offered vinegar to Christ at the Crucifixion.

I cleaned out my coffee maker last week with white vinegar. I filled the reservoir with 4 cups of vinegar and then turned it on. Once that was finished running through the machine, I ran two more pots of water through. No more hissing, gurgling or waking up to no coffee.

Other things vinegar is good for cleaning:

  • Windows - Mix 2 tablespoons of white vinegar with a gallon of water and dispense it with a spray bottle. Squirt on, then wipe off with a dry cloth.
  • Towels - Washing with 1/2 cup of white vinegar - and no detergent - will help remove detergent

residue and minerals that are making them feel scratchy.

  • Stainless steel
  • Shower walls and shower heads
  • Wipe off mirrors
  • Clean toilets
  • Clear slow-moving drains when mixed with baking soda

What you should NEVER clean with vinegar:

  • Granite and marble countertops. The acid in vinegar can etch natural stone.
  • Stone floor tiles
  • Egg stains or spills. The acid in the vinegar makes the egg coagulate which can make clean up more difficult.
  • Irons - Vinegar can damage the internal parts of an iron.
  • Computer Monitor or Smartphone - It could eliminate the oil-resistant coating on the screen.
  • Pearls - Pearls consist of calcium carbonate like limestone, so vinegar has been known to dissolve them.

And a couple of important things about vinegar:

  • Vinegar is a mild acid, but it is still an acid. If using it without dilution with water, wear gloves as it may irritate skin.
  • NEVER mix vinegar with bleach! It creates chlorine gas which is DEADLY.

Holiday Traditions

Pickle ornament on Christmas tree

It’s December, the month of Christmas songs everywhere and anxiety over family get-together deadlines. One way our family has found to slow the season down is to pick a few things we love about Christmas and focus on those. We bake breads, cookies and pies and share them with family and friends. We pick out a live Christmas tree and then moderately decorate our living room. We listen to Christmas songs sparingly. We go for drives to see our community’s light displays. These activities have become our family traditions.

A tradition is the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way. Traditions are things that get repeated year after year, but they must start somewhere.

One of the quirkiest traditions I’ve seen is a pickle ornament. No one seems to know the true origin, but I have one on my Christmas tree. The most consistent story I’ve found is that the first child to find the pickle Christmas ornament is to be awarded the job of handing out the presents.

Another story I found a few years ago is about how some people put a beaded spider ornament on their Christmas tree. Supposedly, this is a tradition that began in Europe. The story behind the ornament is that a widowed mother and her children were too poor to decorate their Christmas tree. Friendly spiders spun elaborate webs on the evergreen. The family woke on Christmas morning, opened the curtains and sunshine reflected off the webs, turning them silver and gold which made them look like tinsel. The family’s future was brighter from then on.

My kids and I made some beaded spiders and we placed them in our tree. In creating our own spiders, I had the opportunity to share with my children their great-grandmother’s love of beadwork. She made the most beautiful, Victorian style ornaments. I still have some of them.

Homemade cranberry sauce

Food is one of the most common ways to pass down family traditions. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to cook. Unfortunately, our home is far too small to host a large holiday gathering. In December of 2012, I was honored to be asked by my husband’s stepmother to cook Christmas dinner for the family. My husband and I did a lot of the cooking at our home, and then finished the meal at my in-laws’ home. It was a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings, but I added in some new twists. The cranberry sauce was homemade, and instead of green bean casserole, I made asparagus casserole. The stuffing was made from breads my husband baked, and we added brown and wild rice to the mix.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal. And I was so happy to have shared my skills with family. I’m also incredibly grateful for that experience as my mother-in-law died unexpectedly a little over a year later.

Another tradition we have is to make eggnog pie for my father-in-law. I made the first one years ago, and he loved it. Now, I make at least one to have for dessert with him and his new wife, and one to send home with them.

Traditions are what build our family story. They remind us of what was and allow us to build new memories for the future.

Please leave a comment to share your special holiday traditions.

Food Is Love

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

It seems as though people have become disconnected from food. It’s either a need or an enemy, depending on how you feel about it. “What’s for dinner?” has become an anxiety inducing question for many folks. It doesn’t have to be a difficult subject.

Food is a universal language. We all have to eat to survive, but I’d rather eat to live.

Almost every holiday centers around food. I’ve known people to be planning their Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts half an hour after they’ve eaten the current one. Food is the thing we offer to people when they’re celebrating, hurting and every moment in between. It’s how we show love and care.

As a mother of four, one of the promises I made to myself was that my kids would know the very basics of cooking and know how to create at least one dish they would be proud to serve to their friends. All four of them have attained those skills. Lately, I have been receiving requests for recipes. My 28-year-old son asked for my Apple Crisp recipe and my 30-year-old daughter just asked for my Shepherd’s Pie recipe over the weekend. My 22-year-old son requested the one for Pot Roast. It occurred to me that passing down my recipes is an act of love.

My mom has sent me copies of recipes that belonged to her mom. My husband has recipes that belonged to his great-grandmother. The dishes we grew up with bring us back to a time that, hopefully, makes us feel secure and loved. The way we create food is a legacy and a source of connection and comfort.

Food is also a tribute to our family culture. My husband’s and my ancestry are both in the general UK area, predominantly Irish and English. He’s a meat and potatoes guy, whereas I’m much more likely to experiment with new foods. Having said that, if someone puts Cottage Pie in front of me, you can bet I’m going to eat it and truly enjoy it.


The easiest way to share recipes is to create a family cookbook. I’m working on one now, and I thought I’d share the process. You’ll need a one 1/2“ three ring binder to begin with. There are some affordable, adorable cookbook binders on the market, so if you’re looking for one, Google recipe binder. The rest of what you’ll need follows.

Make Your Own Cookbook


  • 1 1/2 inch 3 ring binder
  • Sheet protectors
  • Paper


  1. Print out or make copies of recipes you want to share
  2. Slip them into the sheet protectors
  3. Add them to the binder

It’s that simple. The great thing about creating your own cookbook is you can add to it. Or, if a recipe isn’t to your liking, you can change it, or get rid of it completely. My cookbook is bursting at the seams right now with all of the recipes I’ve added to it over the last fifteen years. I’ll probably weed it out on a cold snowy day in January.

Food is a gift, not only because it nourishes our bodies, but our souls as well.

Jewelweed: A True Gem

Mary LewisOne of my fatal flaws is insatiable curiosity. My dad calls it “got-to-know-itis.” So, when I see something new, I try to find out information about it. And that’s where my jewelweed story begins.

My husband and I were hiking one of the beautiful trails here in Minnesota when I saw a pretty plant next to a creek. The blooms looked like tiny orange orchids, and I was smitten. When we got home, I opened Google on my laptop, and started searching. I discovered this orchid like flower is called jewelweed (Impatiens capensis).

Jewelweed is a common plant that grows in moist, semi-shady areas throughout the northern and eastern areas of North America. It thrives in floodplain forests and around the forested edges of wetlands. Jewelweed contains a compound called lawsone, in its leaves, proven to have antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties. According to the USDA, “Jewelweed has a long history of use in Native American medicine. When applied topically, sap from the stem and leaves is said to relieve itching and pain from a variety of ailments, including hives, poison ivy, stinging nettle, and other skin sores and irritations. The sap has also been shown to have anti-fungal properties and can be used to treat athlete’s foot.”

After doing my research, I figured someone must have a way to preserve jewelweed for use when it’s no longer in season, so I did a little more digging. And, yes, of course, I found that the sap can be infused into a carrier oil, and then made into a salve.

flowering jewelweed plant
Photo by Katera/AdobeStock

A friend of mine has a large patch of jewelweed growing on her land, and she was happy to let me harvest some back in August. I cut about 20 2-foot-long stems. Then I cut those into 1-inch pieces, added them to small jars and just covered them with olive and almond oil, and let them simmer in a couple inches of water in a crock pot for about 6 hours. (I set the lids on top of the jars loosely to keep the condensation out of the oil.) Once the oil had cooled, I poured the contents of the jars through a fine sieve into a measuring cup. I wanted the infused oil, not the jewelweed stems. Then I poured the oil back into the jars.

My husband hunts deer, and when he was out scouting for sign, he purposely brushed his hand against some stinging nettles, so that we could see if jewelweed would actually work. He washed the affected area with soap and water, and then applied the oil. Within minutes the itch was gone, and the rash was gone within a couple of hours.

Now that I knew it was an effective treatment, I got to work making the salve. Salve is an ointment used to promote healing of the skin or as protection. I melted an ounce of beeswax in a double boiler and then poured that into 4 ounces of the warmed jewelweed infused oil. I added a splash (half a teaspoon) of vitamin e oil and then poured the warm mixture into lip balm tubes. The end result was 22 tubes of salve.

The lip balm tubes are a convenient way to carry the salve with you. They are small enough to fit in a purse, pocket or backpack, and the salve is less messy than the oil.

Here are a few hints to help if you decide to make the salve yourself.

  • Have a designated double boiler to melt beeswax, because beeswax is incredibly difficult to wash out of a pan.
  • Have a designated pouring vessel for the salve and plan on recycling or throwing it away.
  • Some ingredients may not work well with others, so always use a clean container if you are making a different product.

Facts About Foraging

Mary LewisPlease read all the way to the end. Never, EVER, eat any food you forage without knowing for certain that it is not poisonous. Do your research, or better yet, take an expert along with you on your foraging adventures. Always wash wild edibles before eating.

Growing up in Maine, I gauged my summers by harvest times. June was strawberries, July was blueberries, and August was blackberries. The blueberries and blackberries only cost us in time, because we picked them on public land. This is called foraging, and you can do it, too.

Foraging is defined as searching for wild food resources. This is how humans used to survive, before factory produced foods and grocery stores existed.


My husband and I were hiking at the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area a few years ago and came across wild plum trees. It reminded me of when I was young, and I wondered aloud if we could pick some plums. As fate would have it, we made the acquaintance of a DNR Conservation Officer, and we asked about foraging. He told us to feel free to pick the plums, but damage to any plants was a fineable offense. Minnesota code, under 6100.0900, Subpart 2, states explicitly: “Collecting or possessing naturally occurring plants in a fresh state in state parks is prohibited, except that edible fruit and mushrooms may be harvested for personal, noncommercial use.”

secrettree (3)

We have foraged for plums, black raspberries, and apples over the years. We stumbled upon an old apple tree 4 or 5 years ago on public land. A neighbor and her daughter went with us to pick apples from that tree. We assume the land was originally a farm or homestead, and the tree was the only thing that remained. We still have a couple of bags of apple wedges from that tree in our freezer.


I have friends who love wild mushrooms. They really look forward to Morel season in the spring. I’m not a fan, but I definitely applaud their enthusiasm. If you do go mushroom hunting, be absolutely certain the mushrooms you take are not poisonous. Pinch the mushroom from the base and pull up. And collect them in a mesh bag, so that the spores can scatter as you walk through the woods.

If you’re fortunate enough to have friends who own land, foraging opens up to things other than fruits and mushrooms. One of my friends owns over 20 acres, and has offered up comfrey, jewelweed, and other plants. If I wanted acorns, I would have more than I ever needed.

Hints for Foraging

  • Check the weather forecast and plan accordingly
  • Be prepared for mosquitoes, ticks and stinging/biting insects. Use your bug deterrent of choice.
  • When foraging for mushrooms, collect them in a mesh bag so that the spores can fall freely as you walk.
  • Bring along a bucket with a handle and cover when picking berries.
  • Backpacks are great for carrying apples, pears or plums.
  • Never take more than you will consume.
  • Only harvest in areas where the plants are abundant and be sure not to collect where plants are rare or protected.
  • Use caution when collecting along heavily traveled roadsides or areas likely to be polluted.
  • Beware of pesticides, herbicides, and other pollutants. Plants near busy roads are tainted with exhaust fumes.

In the United States, 38 out of 50 states allow for foraging, but there are different laws for every state and state parks. Wildlife Management Areas also allow taking of fruit and mushrooms for personal use. Contact your local department of natural resources or ask a forest ranger for your local laws and regulations.

Save the Bees

Mary LewisI have a secret. I used to be terrified of insects that sting.

When I was a small child, I was stung by a bumblebee, and it scared me. To tell the truth, I’ve never been stung since, and I don’t actually remember what it felt like. I still have very little appreciation for hornets and wasps, but I suppose they have a job to do, too. These days, if a bee finds its way into my house, I try to remove it without injuring or killing it. I try to coax the bee into a jar and then take it outside and set it free.

My perspective changed a few years ago after writing an article about bumblebees. Through my research, I learned how important bees are to the world. If the bees die, so do we. And the bees are dying.

According to an article on ABCNews, there was a nearly 40% decline in the honeybee population last winter. Bee colonies have been disappearing over the past 15 years, in what is known as "colony collapse disorder." The main factors affecting the bees are pests and disease, lack of forage and nutrition, and incidental pesticide exposure.

If you talk with beekeepers, they’ll tell you there has always been hive loss, usually over the winter. Some loss is expected, but many beekeepers are losing their bee colonies to hive beetles and varroa mites.

Honeybees are critical for the pollination of flowers, fruits and vegetables – without plants, there is no food. People jokingly refer to plants as “our food’s food,” but in this case it’s no laughing matter. Without the pollinators, there is no food for animals to eat, so not only would there be no fruits and vegetables, there would be no beef, chicken, or pork. Approximately 1 in 3 bites of the food we eat every day relies on honeybee pollination to some degree. The global food supply is impacted due to the huge role that honeybees play in North American agriculture. North America is one of the largest food exporting regions of the world.

Minnesota, the state I live in, has earmarked $900,000 dollars for bee-friendly spaces. The endangered rusty-patched bumblebee has just been named the state bee and the Minnesota government will pay the gardening bill for residents who are willing to turn their lawn into bee-friendly spaces. Gardeners willing to grow plants, such as creeping thyme, self-heal and Dutch white clover, known to attract bees could have the cost covered. The program should be up and running in the spring of 2020. This program benefits all pollinators, not just our state bee.

Other plants that attract bees are chives, onions, peonies, roses, and dandelions. Dandelions are pretty much the first plants available to bees in the spring. Yes, they are a weed, but also an important food source for bees.

Ways that we can support pollinators are as follows:

  • Grow plants! If you don’t have a lot of space, window boxes or patio planters will do. Try to grow plants native to your area.
  • Use the BeeSmart Pollinator Gardener App (available for Apple and Android devices) or the Ecoregional Planting Guides.
  • Plant in clusters to create a "target' for pollinators to find.
  • Plant for continuous bloom throughout the growing season from spring to fall.
  • Select a site that is removed from wind, has at least partial sun, and can provide water.
  • Reduce or eliminate the impact of pesticides.
  • Support local bees and beekeepers. Buying local honey supports the beekeepers in your area
  • Buy organic.
  • Buy local.


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