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Me Versus the Yellowjackets

Our front garden is a haven for pollinators this summer, and we are thrilled! In early July, though, we noticed an influx of yellow jackets. I wasn’t too fazed until one day I noticed dozens of them clustered near the path to our front door.

Upon closer inspection, I realized that they were zipping in and out of a hole in the ground. As I searched for information, I learned that yellow jackets have underground hives (sometimes huge ones), they can sting victims repeatedly, and they get more aggressive as the summer wanes. In other words–we were in trouble. How could we get rid of these creatures without spending loads of money and keeping green?

On the internet, the most popular suggestion was to pour gasoline into the hole. No way! Keeping our lawn a chemical-free play zone was key. This method is illegal, dangerous, and can have long-term consequences for the ground and its inhabitants. Rigging hornet spray on to a pole and putting that into the hole was another common suggestion. That seemed  complicated, dangerous, and we were worried about what that would do to our lovely organic veggies.

Ultimately, we decided that capping the hole with a glass vessel would be the easiest, safest, and cheapest tactic. The theory is that no wasps get in our out so the colony starves plus the glass creates a killer hotbox. But, would it work?  Since the yellow jackets were able to dig a hole to make the nest in the first place, wouldn’t they just dig new holes and ditch the capped one? We had nothing to lose, so it was worth a try.

I waited until after dark one night to put a mason jar cap over the hole. Since yellow jackets go in the ground for the night, I could get close without much fear of being stung. The next day,  yellow jackets emerged from the hole but couldn’t get out. They flew around inside the jar, contained.

By the second day, though, they dug their hole wider than the jar and a few managed to get in and out through the gap. I needed a bigger jar. In the dark, once again, I swapped out my containers. A thick, glass flower vase fit the bill.

As I worked, I  noticed several new holes had popped up in the yard. Interestingly, it looked like the escapees were digging down versus the trapped yellow jackets digging out. I put some jars on top of those, too.

The next day, scores of yellow jackets tried to leave the confines of the glass at the main hole, but they could not. Dead bodies piled up as the day wore on. I left everything alone it for several days. A few wasps still emerged and buzzed in the vase, but there were no escapees. The other holes stayed firm with no change. We were victorious…temporarily.

After about a week of nothing, more yellow jackets emerged. We suspect that the adults died out the first week and the second wave was babies that survived the famine as egg. With the vase still in place, they were all gone again after a day or two.

It has now been two weeks with no sightings. At one point, we talked about going out after dark one night, covered head-to-toe in thick clothing, to dump boiling water down the hole to eliminate any remaining life, but we think we are in the clear now.

Remnants of the yellow jacket hole

Brewing Kombucha: Step-by-Step

Now that you’ve gathered all of the supplies to make kombucha, now it’s time to brew!

(If you are wondering what kombucha is, start here.)

Day 1: Brew

Today, you will need

  • 1 gallon water
  • 3-4 bags or 2-4 tablespoons loose leaf tea
  • 1 cup sugar            
  • 1 symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) and fermented liquid   
  • Pot
  • Spoon
  • Large glass brewing jar (mine is an old pickle jar)
  • Sieve (if using loose leaf tea)
  • Piece of cloth large enough to cover the jar opening
  • Rubber band or twine(Additional details about these items are here.)
    1. Boil water in the pot.
    2. Remove from heat and stir in tea leaves and sugar.
    3. Let the sweet tea cool to room temperature. (I go about my day and then come back to it when I have time.)
    4. Pour the room-temperature sweet tea into the glass container/fermenting jar
  • Strain while pouring if using loose-leaf tea.
  • If your SCOBY came in fermented liquid, be sure to add this to the jar. Alternatively, you could add a bit of store-bought kombucha. If you do not have any already-fermented liquid, plan for your first batch to take a minimum of ten days rather than seven. If you are maintaining a SCOBY hotel, refresh your backup jar with any remaining tea.
  • Cover the jar with cloth and secure with rubber band or twine.
  • Leave in an out-of-the-way, warm place out of direct sunlight (indirect light is fine).


Day 6+: Prepare to Bottle

  1. Clean the Day 7+ bottling and brewing equipment (see preparation instructions).

Day 7-10+: Bottle and Brew

Today, you will need

  • 3-5 glass bottles
  • Something to label storage bottles with
  • Funnel
  • Sieve
  • Flavoring agents
  • All Day 1 supplies, if starting another batch
    (Additional details about these items are here.)
  1. One to two-ish weeks after you’ve brewed, it is time to bottle. The longer you wait, the less sugar will remain and the benefits of fermentation will be stronger. However, the taste will be more vinegary. Each family will have their opinion on when the brew is ready. We like 7-10 days. We did three weeks once, and it was not palatable.
  2. Inspect your SCOBY and the brew. Mold is bad. Colors in the realm of cream and brown are normal variations for a SCOBY. Bubbles also are normal, but not required.
    The bottom picture shows the various colors and textures that a healthy SCOBY can have. You do no need to remove the SCOBY from the jar (though you can, if you’d like to rinse off the stringy and chunky bits)
  3. If you are doing the continuous brew method,  boil water and add tea and sugar. Let sit in the pot to cool. (See Day 1 for a review, if needed)
  4. In the meanwhile, bottle last week’s batch. The dishwasher door is a great place to do this and contain any spills.
    E is not amused at being left out.
  5. Pour the kombucha into glass bottles using a funnel and sieve (to strain out debris).
  6. If you would like carbonation, leave a good amount of head room.
    The red is the kombucha. You can see  I’ve left several inches of headroom on this narrow-necked bottle. I’d leave less with a wide-necked jar.
  7. Leave some of the brew in the fermenting jar for the next batch (or to feed your SCOBY if you are not brewing again right away).
    The SCOBY remains covered with old kombucha in preparation for a new batch.

  8. You can drink your kombucha now, or you can flavor it and then do secondary fermentation. Flavor the drink by adding pieces of fruit, herbs, or juice into the bottles. A post just on this is forthcoming, but I’ll share that my favorite is freshly squeezed orange juice plus the rind.
    Yummy organic oranges.
    Cranberry, mango, and plain
  9. Label the bottles with the date and flavors.
    A grease pencil works well for labeling.
  10. Let the filled bottles sit at room temperature for a few days to carbonate and undergo secondary fermentation (if desired).
    The top of the refrigerator is a good storage space in our small kitchen.
  11. If you are doing the continuous brew method, start your next batch by adding the cooled sweet tea from step 2 into the fermenting jar (along with the reserved fermented kombucha).

3 Days Later

  1. Put the bottles in the fridge to end fermentation (so it doesn’t become alcoholic).
  2. Drink as desired. (Take it slow if you are new to kombucha. The benefits to your gut health can be a little too good if you start with too much, too soon.)
    Berry Kombucha

Over the past two years, I’ve grown increasingly aware of where my food comes from. My stance on organic produce used to be that, save for the dirty dozen, conventional produce didn’t faze me; local trumped shipped-in organic as the greener choice. But, I’ve come to realize that those chemicals not only impact the people who consume the food but also those who grow it. I want better for those people as well as the rest of the natural order around them.

My journey with meat has also progressed. After a period of being so consumed with the ethics of meat that it was difficult for me to eat, our family made the decision last fall to segue into buying locally and humanely raised meat.
One way to make this switch more affordable is to purchase whole animals or bundles. While I had my first experience grinding a beef heart this year (to mix in with ground beef), my guest poster today, Alexa, has been ordering whole and cooking whole animals for about a year. Using a whole pig piece-by-piece just got a lot easier thanks to the new book Beyond Bacon: Paleo Recipes that Respect the Whole Hog by Matthew McCarry and Stacy Toth, known in the blogosphere as Paleo Parents. Here is her review of the book.
There are a few things you should know about me before reading on:
  1. I cook a whole lot.  I often wonder if I spend more time in the kitchen than I do doing everything else combined.
  2. I am not what you would call a “reader.”  I very rarely read non-fiction books for pleasure.   It is hard to engage me long enough to get really interested in something unless it has a great story line.  
  3. I don’t like cookbooks much.  I think this goes back to #1.  I am not the kind of person who looks up a great recipe, goes out and gets everything I need for it & comes home to cook it up.  I am more the kind who opens the fridge, freezer, and/or pantry and uses whatever I have to whip up a meal.  Cookbooks just don’t usually fit into that.  

Enter Beyond Bacon

I ordered a whole pig from my favorite local farm last year and have been cooking my way through it, so when Stacy and Matt from Paleo Parents announced that they were working on a new cookbook called Beyond Bacon, I was excited to have some new ideas to add into my family’s menu rotation.  I saved several of the more uncommon cuts so that I could try them using recipes in the book.  When I was lucky enough to get a preview copy, I flipped through it and was immediately drawn in by the amazing photographs by Aimee Buxton. The food looked incredible.  
I got it home and hoped to get some time to check it out.  Then it got lost in the shuffle of life with kids.  When I finally got a moment of quiet, I decided to reach for it.  That was it.  It had me at Bacon. I sat and read the entire thing. For several hours.  I thought everything looked and sounded amazing, but still wasn’t sure about using a cookbook for my family’s meals, so I decided to look for recipes that I could make using just with what I currently had in the house.  I hoped to find maybe one or two.  I started writing them down and once I got to fifteen recipes I stopped writing.  That’s right, over fifteen recipes with no special grocery shopping needed! Finally a book that just used wonderful real food ingredients that I buy anyway.  Amazing!  
Things I love about Beyond Bacon:
  • Wonderful information at beginning
  • Layout of the pages was very easy to navigate
  • Mouth-watering pictures of every recipe
  • “Notes” or “Tips” listed on many recipes were extremely helpful
  • Engaging story and/or information in the intro paragraph to each recipe
  • Division of the recipe sections by preparation
  • Farm house aesthetic
  • Recipes with real, whole foods without too many hard to find ingredients
  • Focus on pastured meats from sustainable, local sources
  • Encouragement and ideas for nose to tail eating
  • Great index listing both recipes and ingredients
  • Easy to follow instructions (even on more difficult preparations)

Things I would’ve loved to see:

  • Full recipe list in one place (They are listed in the front of each section.)
  • Sample menus/combinations (There are some suggestions at the bottom of several recipes, but it left me wanting even more.) 
  • A few more green vegetable recipes. (My family eats a whole lot of green veggies.

I set out to start testing and wanted to start with a cut I had been saving for months, the jowls.  I set myself to work on this one recipe and I worked my way through it (with lots of help from my little kitchen helpers).  

Once I was done with the recipe, I had a lovely pot of broth just asking to be used and some extra fat that I had trimmed from the jowls.  I flipped through again and found the egg-drop soup, lard and crispy lardons.  
I got four recipes out of my one jowl recipe! I love it when nothing goes to waste and we all eat well because of it.  I had planned on only making that recipe before writing this, but then I just couldn’t help myself.  I had to try more, so off I went to cook.  We are still eating our way through all the wonderful food!
Recipes I’ve tried so far:
Was incredibly easy to do following the instructions in the book.  I have only ever done it in the crock pot before and mine has often been dark.  It was a beautiful snowy white this time!

Asian Short Ribs
These were incredible!  I’m still thinking about how 
good they are. Darn.  Now I have to go order some more short ribs.

Egg Drop Soup
I loved this!  What a wonderful way to have some protein with your healing bone broths. This will likely become a staple for me.

Ham Pot Roast with Horseradish Mustard Glaze
The meat was so tender and delicious.
Hawaiian Pork Roast
The sweetness of the pineapple was delicious with 
the flavor of the meat and spices in the marinade.

Perfect Pork Chops
Just like Stacy says in the book, I think steak and me have 
officially broken up.  Pork chops are my new one and only.

Crispy Lardons
My kids ate these for an evening snack.  
With a spoon.  Enough said.
Green Papaya Salad with Poached Jowl
Amazing flavors in this one!  Will definitely be making again!
Mashed Cauliflower
The creaminess was delicious.  I added some fresh herbs and loved it!

Faux-Tato Salad
The only one that got mixed reviews, but we were never big potato salad people anyway.  I was intrigued by cooking jicama as I have always eaten it raw. It does cook up to a  potato-like consistency, but I think I still prefer it raw.

Sautéed Green Beans
A huge crowd pleaser.  Will enter dinner rotations immediately.  
Rosemary Carrot Mash
Another huge pleaser!  We make carrots all the time but have never mashed them.  So yummy!
I am a huge fan of mayonnaise but hate all the junk that is usually in store bought versions.  I’ve made my own many times, but this one is going to be my new favorite, for sure.
Ones I plan to try soon:
       Corn Dogs
       Sautéed Cabbage
       Triple Chocolate Freezer Fudge
       Mexican Chorizo
       Lengua Carnitas
       Sweet Potato Drop Biscuits

…Who am I kidding?  I want to try them all


I am getting to ready to order a pork bundle that includes backbone, and I can’t wait to see what the Paleo Parents have to say about preparing this. Beyond Bacon comes out July 2, 2013. It is available at and Barnes and Noble.

About today’s guest poster:

Alexa is a stay-at-home mother of two and co-leader of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Holistic Moms Network. Growing up in a “crunchy-hippie” household, she has created the same for her own family. She believes that what you eat directly impacts overall health and well-being. This belief was further reinforced when giving up wheat in 2005 put a stop to the daily migraines she was having.

Today, Alexa concentrates on feeding her family real, whole foods sourced mostly from local and sustainable farms. She spends her days homeschooling her children, cooking delicious meals for the family, and continuing to nourish her local Holistic Moms community who has given her so much.

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Preparing to Brew Kombucha

It takes some time get all of the items needed to brew kombucha. But, this part is probably the hardest step, as the brewing is easy. Here is how to prepare:

Gather Ingredients

Water (1 gallon)
I estimate by using a large pot. Precise quantity is not important. If using tap water, you do not  need to prepare this ahead of time.

Tea (3-4 bags/2-4 tablespoons loose leaf)
Black tea works well.  Quantity varies based on quality and type of tea. I have had success with Wegman’s decaf orange pekoe (bags), and Frontier’s Organic Black Decaf (loose). Herbal tea and chai turned out vile.

Sugar (1 cup)
I mostly use raw cane sugar because that is what we have, but the cheap white stuff works just as well. You can use honey or other natural sweeteners, but it can produce an off taste. Note that the sugar feeds the SCOBY, and little sugar will remain in the fermented product (the longer is brews, the less sugar remains).

Symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY)
Reserve the liquid the SCOBY comes in. Obtain from a friend, online, or even Craigslist.

Gather supplies
Needed for Day 1

  • Pot
  • Spoon
  • Large glass brewing jar (mine is an old pickle jar)
  • Sieve (if using loose leaf tea)
  • Piece of cloth large enough to cover the jar opening
  • Rubber band or twine 
  • Optional: small glass jar, extra fabric, extra twine (for backup SCOBY)
Some of the Day 1 Supplies

Needed for Day 7+

  • 3-5 glass storage/drinking bottles (Old glass jars with lids work just as well as beer brewing bottles. If using jars with metal lids, place a piece of parchment paper in between the jar and lid.)
  • Something to label storage bottles with (grease pencil, masking tape, post-it, Sharpie, etc.)
  • Funnel
  • Flavoring agents (fruit, juice, herbs, etc.)
  • All of the equipment from Day 1
Some of the Day 7+ Bottling Day Supplies

 Clean Your Equipment

  • Using a dishwasher on heat dry is an easy way to sanitize (even if you don’t have a sanitize cycle).  
  • Alternatively, boil water and then submerge small items in the water (provided they are heat-safe). For your brewing vessel, pour some of the water inside, cap, and swish around, being mindful that the glass will get very hot. Dump out the water. 
  • Let all items cool to room temperature before using.

Prepare a SCOBY Hotel (optional)
Sometimes SCOBYs go bad. Other times, you might make a really vile batch of kombucha and you want to have clean starter liquid on reserve for your next batch rather than perpetuating the nastiness. To make a SCOBY hotel, assemble a jar containing a small bit of SCOBY (perhaps one layer of your large SCOBY) and a small amount of kombucha. Top with cloth and rubber band or twine. Leave in an out-of-the-way, warm place out of direct sunlight (indirect light is fine).

Preparing the SCOBY Hotel and Fermenting Jar


This is part of a series on brewing kombucha. You can view all of the kombucha entries here.


Using Glass For Expressed Milk

We have a minimal-plastic home, so when it came to pumping milk for our little ones, I wanted to find a minimal-plastic option. Ultimately, we decided to go with Ball’s quilted canning jars in the 4 ounce size. These are also called jelly jars.

This little 4 oz size was a good fit for our occasional bottle usage, but the 8 oz size would be great for higher-volume needs. (Locally, check Ace Hardware and Wegmans any time and Walmart during canning season.)

 Quilted jars are different than other glass because they are designed to be freezer-safe. Other glass can get microscopic cracks through freezing and defrosting or even completely shatter. Many folks are fine with freezing food or drink any kind of glass jars, but I wasn’t comfortable with that for breast milk, especially.
I pump into the plastic bottles that came with my Ameda Purely Yours pump and then immediately transfer the milk to a quilted canning jar. (I do have some small glass bottles that fit on my pump, but it makes it too heavy for my super-amazing Made By Moms Pumping Band to support comfortably.)

Once the milk is in the jar, I top it with the typical canning band and lid paired with a piece of unbleached parchment paper or a BPA-free plastic lid, also made by Ball. (Yes, it is plastic. Yes, they are worth it.)

With either kind of lid, it is easy to write the date on the top with a grease pencil or put the date on a piece of tape.

The milk defrosts at a reasonable speed in the fridge or quite quickly when placed in a bowl of hot water.

Best of all, when our nursing days our over, we’re left with something perfectly usable. These little jars are great for packing dry snacks (like nuts or trail mix) or something wet, like yogurt dip for raw veggies.


Freezing Whole Eggs

We switched to buying local, pastured meat via monthly pick-up earlier this year. While we are very happy with this choice ethically, we are still navigating keeping costs down. One way we do so is by taking advantage of sales. Each month, the farm runs a different seasonal special. This month’s special was discounted eggs, but only with a minimum order of six dozen.  Our refrigerator is only so big, but with the power of a chest freezer, we decided to go ahead and place the order knowing that we could freeze the eggs.

OK, it was only theoretical knowledge. I’d heard that it could be done, but not tried it myself. What I discovered is that it was quite easy, once I figured out our setup.

I decided to wrangle one dozen at a time. I cracked a single egg into each silicone muffin liner. 
(I used the edge of a bowl to get a good crack, the silicone is too squishy.)Once all dozen were cracked, I covered the eggs with wrap and then laid it flat in the chest freezer. (I’d previously prepared a flat spot for the tray.)

After a few hours, the eggs were frozen.

It was easy to flip the silicone liner inside out and pop the egg pucks out into a container. At first, I put the egg pucks in Pyrex, but there a lot of wasted space in each container.  (More on that in a moment.)

Rather than cleaning the liners, I started with the next dozen and got everything back into the freezer quickly. V was eager to help, so I put him in charge of putting the empty shells into a compost bowl. he liked getting “juicy” from the tendrils of egg white. Ah, two-year-olds. I love it!

Anyway, back to the storage issue. I decided to move the egg pucks into a plastic bag. We rarely use bags, but sometimes they really do fit the bill. Ultimately, I got three dozen eggs into a one gallon bag.

Next up, we need to decide how we’ll use them and see how easily they defrost.


Kombucha Homebrewing Kick Off

I was at a Holistic  Moms Network (HMN) when I first drank kombucha. I had no idea what kombucha was, but the bottle said it was ginger and lemon flavored, so I gave it a try. Surprising! Zingy! Yum! It had some effervescence to it and a light sweetness but also a slight vinegar taste (a good thing in my book).  Then I found out what kombucha is: fermented tea.


On the one hand, that freaked me out. It makes it sound like I am going to get food poisoning. On the other hand, fermented foods (e.g. kimchi) and drinks (e.g. wine) have long been a healthy part of many traditional diets. I actually had been looking to add fermented foods to my diet to help with acid reflux and it seemed that kombucha could fit the bill in a delicious way.

I bought a couple of bottles at the store but at nearly $4 a pop, that could only be a special treat. Inspired by some fellow HMN members, I decide to try brewing my own. I got a one-gallon glass pickle jar off Freecycle to be my brewing vessel. A new friend from the group gave me a SCOBY (the living part of the kombucha) along with a crash course. 

SCOBY is short for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. The SCOBY digests the sugar from the sweetened starter tea and turns it into the fermented kombucha. The SCOBY looks really slimy, flimsy and disgusting in pictures. I find it less gross in person. It looks wet, but is fairly dry to the touch and it sturdier than I expected it to be.

 Armed with tea, SCOBY, bottles, and some courage—I gave it a go and am now on my fourth batch. I am shocked at how easy brewing it is. I spend just 20 minutes per week of active time with the brewing, flavoring, and bottling. That said, I just ended up with my first truly yummy bottle today. Needless to say, I need to work out some more of my kinks before I do a full tutorial.

 In the meanwhile you can learn from some of my early mistakes…

·       Starting off with a good non-herbal tea really is key. Believe the internet on this: herbal tea can lead to funky kombucha. Getting so excited about brewing kombucha that you grab the remainders of a box of a coconut chai, red tea/herbal tea blend and just go for it gives instant satisfaction. But you pay for it when the kombucha is ready 10 days later and tastes utterly vile. In this case, water your compost pile with it or offer it to a non-discerning two-year-old who will (shockingly) ask for more.

·       In the case of bad starter tea, do not retain 1/3 gallon of the vile kombucha to help ferment the next batch with a superior tea, as it will make the next batch taste gross, too.

·       Do not freak and think your SCOBY has gone moldy when really all you are seeing is the new baby SCOBY growing on top.

Healthy Baby SCOBY

Habitat for Humanity ReStore: Highs and Lows

We hoped to get as many supplies as possible for our basement remodel from Habitat for Humanity ReStore. ReStore is like a thrift store for building supplies, selling  new and used building materials at 50-90% off retail prices. In my area, we’ve got the  Habitat for Humanity ReStores of Northern Virginia in Chantilly and Alexandria, VA as well as the Manassas ReStore.

Here are the highs and lows from our ReStore visits…

The last day of 2012, armed with an end-of-the-year 20% off coupon, my father-in-law’s van (plus trailer), a list of supplies and specs, tile samples, and baby Elden, we headed to the Chantilly ReStore. We were particularly interested in their large tile selection, which we’d scoped out on an earlier visit. We also hoped to find a vanity, medicine cabinet, light fixtures, and whatever else could work.
These stores are not luxury stores. They can be cluttered, smelly, overly hot or cold, etc. While the deals are amazing, you have to be prepared to work to unearth some of the gems. It is very much a self-help environment and you do have to know what you are looking for and pay attention to details. If you have a smart phone or tablet, bring it so you can look up any needed details (e.g., a user’s manual for a dishwasher, if the lightbulbs that a old light fixture needs are still made, etc.) Looking through the tile was tedious work. We spent about 45-minutes moving boxes, looking through stacks of open tile, scrutinizing thickness and color, and making calculations.  

While we love incorporating our kids in all kinds of projects, we were glad that Vaughn was hanging out with his grandparents for this part. If sorting through tile tested my patience, it definitely would’ve tested the patience of a toddler. On the other hand, Elden was in a wrap and pretty happy as long as I kept bouncing.

Thank you, Kindercoat, for keeping us both warm! The store was chilly with the big bay doors open.

We ended up finding a close match for the tile we brought in with us (scavenged from the shed of random things that conveyed with the house) and managed to gather up about 80% of what we needed.
After the tile hunt, things moved faster. We found a medicine cabinet that had some retro appeal as well as enough door handles for the entire basement. While brass doesn’t fit in with what we have in mind, these have some style to them. At a mere $2 a pop, we can afford to spray paint them to create the oil-rubbed bronze finish we’re planning.
As we walked around, we were struck by the idea of a deep bathtub (with our without jets). Dave loves a good soak and our beloved turquoise 1950s tub on the main floor doesn’t quite cut it in terms of size.  But, in a house with a mere 1,100 square foot footprint, a big tub doesn’t really fit. We hemmed and hawed.  We moved tubs out of the way to get to other tubs.  We measured. We squabbled. We walked away. We walked back. 
Finally, we agreed on a small Jacuzzi tub that is a standard length, but is a bit wider and deeper than a normal tub. With our coupon, it would cost us just $64 (down from $80). At that price, we wouldn’t be out much if it didn’t work out.
After paying our tab (about $110), we loaded up and headed out. Victory was ours!
The following weekend, we borrowed the van and trailer again and visited the Alexandra ReStore. The big thing at this store is cabinetry. There is tons of it. We found several things that we sort-of liked–a bathroom vanity as well as cabinets to create a small wet bar (i.e., green cleaner creation station) but neither had a counter top. After much debate, we decided that we were not up to dealing with obtaining those on top of all of the other decisions we needed to make. So, we walked away empty-handed, which was deflating. On the up-side, we had both boys with us for that trip. Vaughn had lots of fun being worn on Dave’s back and trying to saw anything he could reach with his toy saw.

For our trip to the Manassas ReStore, we decided to forgo borrowin the van and trailer since that adds at least an hour. Late one Friday afternoon, we packed up the kids in the Matrix and headed out on a whim. We figured if we found something we liked, we’d send out contractor back for it within 24 hours. The Manassas store is really well organized and the staff and volunteers were exceptionally friendly. This is a two-level store. The main level is all kinds of things: cabinets, lights, vanities, etc. The basement is flooring and doors. There was loads of modern looking, new, in-the-box tile–enough to do a whole small project. There also was loads and loads of  plain 4×4 square tiles. Unfortunately for us, there was nothing that matched the other elements we’d already selected for the bathroom. So, we passed. But, someone else is going to be thrilled with those finds. We saw several folks carrying around things that we would’ve bought, had we been just a few minutes earlier to snag them first. We got there only 30 minutes before closing time, which was very stressful. This is the kind of store that I like to have lots of contemplation time in (let alone time for making calculations, measuring, etc.). Plus, it was almost dinner time and our boys were melting down.

The days we walk away empty-handed are a bit deflating, but as with any secondhand shopping trip: you win some and you lose some. That said, at prices with that huge of a discount, it is worth an attempt (or two, or three). Inventory at these stores changes rapidly, so we know to keep on checking back. We also follow the various ReStore locations on Facebook because they post a few pictures of new items each month.

If we end up with a free day to drive up to Baltimore, I’d love to check out Second Chance, which has an impressive 200,000 square feet of architectural salvage retail space. Baltimore has so many old homes that they get in really unique things as well as modern stuff.

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Navigating Second-Hand Construction Materials

One of the top ways that my family lives more green for less green is through the wonder of second-hand items. We love used things because they come to us without concerns about responsible raw material usage or ethical production. Plus, we are keeping something out of a landfill. Also, those select plastic or composite things that we do bring into the house are typically done off-gassing. Win, win, win, win!

Between Freecycle, Craigslist, household item swaps, yard and consignment sales, and thrift stores, we don’t have to buy much new.  But, is this strategy possible with construction materials? We’re sure trying! Here’s how:

Salvage: Unfortunately, old water damage, cockroach infestation, and general neglect rendered most things in our basement unsalvagable. We are still contemplating rebuilding the toilet innards and reusing that, but we may splurge on a dual-flush toilet instead. The biggest thing we can save is our stairs. We will reuse the knotty pine panels to spruce up the stair walls (they will be painted) and the stairs will be sanded and painted rather than being demolished and rebuilt.

Scavenge: I sent hubby out to the shed to look through the random things that the previous owners of our house left behind. Sure enough, we found several boxes of wall tile to use around the bathtub. There is not enough for the entire area, but we  hope to supplement with similar tile from other sources to create a look like this:

ReStore: Habitat for Humanity runs the ReStore, which is like a thrift store for home improvement materials. There are retro things, modern used things, as well as some brand new materials. I plan to do a whole post on our ReStore adventures, but I will share that we found tile to supplement what we found in the shed (though we still will have to buy a smidge more, new)

Craigslist: The materials section on Craiglist is loaded with a variety of items. Just like ReStore, there is a mix of new and used, retro and modern. We bought a new bathroom vanity for a mere $50 from a guy who bought in on close-out at Home Depot, brought it home and his wife didn’t like it, so he put it in a storage facility to sit.
Freecycle: Over the summer, someone in our community listed brand new tile flooring that they had never gotten around to using on Freecycle. We knew it would be enough to floor the entire bathroom and perhaps a closet, too.
When using reclaimed items  from many sources, it is key to go in with an open mind and aim for mostly neutral items. Now that we’ve managed to piece together neutral flooring, neutral wall tile, and a neutral vanity, we can start thinking about pepping things up. For example, buying a bit of new tile to create an accent stripe around the bathtub stall, or using bright paint, or refinishing the vanity with a color.

Vanity Inspiration

Accent Tile Inspiration

We are big on cooking in bulk and then creating freezer meals with the rest. I figure, if we are going to go spend the time cooking and cleaning up the kitchen afterward, we might as well feed ourselves as many meals as possible from that effort. Because meals last so long in the freezer, we can get a versatile stash of meals built up and rotate through them so our palates don’t get bored.

We’ve experimented with once-a-month-cooking (OAMC) from cookbooks and blogs. We’ve prepared food in bulk at Let’s Dish (which we really enjoy and makes a fun date night but is a splurge for us cost-wise). Ultimately, we’ve discovered that cooking and freezing our tried-and-true normal recipes works best for us. Some of our favorites include white chicken chili, hummus, sweet and spicy pork, French dip, and cranberry carrots.

While zipper plastic bags and foil pans are options for storing meals in the freezer, we avoid disposable products. Plus, I don’t like heating food in plastic. Given that, glass seemed like our best bet. We decided to go with Pyrex because it is safe for freezer and oven and the lids are BPA-free.

Pyrex is not cheap, so we built our stash slowly. Several years ago, I stalked the advertisements for Black Friday for the sets that we wanted. I am not a tidy-house person, but I do love a tidy cabinet, so we decided to pick several sizes for our Pyrex and just get those so they could be organized easily.

Rectangles in three sizes on the left
Rounds in four sizes on the right
Lids by shape and size in the middle

Our families love to use wish lists for gift-giving, so I added the exact sets we wanted to my Christmas list and let the family know that duplicates were great. That started things off. Over time, I continued to ask for Pyrex sets for gift-giving times plus I check for them on clearance shelves and each year we look for them on Black Friday and get more.

Pyrex also now offers water-tight lids, which is great for bringing defrosted soup to work for lunch. Pyrex does make glass lids, but these merely sit on the container and do not seal. Here are Pyrex’s food storage containers.

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