Thursday, September 30, 2010

Little things that make life easier, second-hand

One thing I love about thrift store and yard sale shopping is that I can find so many little things--things that I might never pay full price for, but that make life easier. Here are some recent example:

--A key case for 25 cents. I was tired of my keys piercing holes in my pockets and purses.

--A large bucket with a secure lid (this was the key feature) for $2.50, for soaking such things as my reusable menstrual pads without exposing them to others.

--Eight handkerchiefs for $4. This came in handy when I had a recent cold--I could use them with the five or so I already had, and wash them out each night. It was the first time I didn't need to rely on paper tissue when I was sick.

--My daughter's Halloween costume for $6. She wants to go as a doctor this year. At Goodwill, I found a plain women's white blouse with snaps down the front for $4 that, on my child, looks just like a doctor's jacket. Then I found both a real set and a toy set of a stethoscope and blood pressure cuff. Both sets were $2 each. Knowing my daughter (who wants to be a doctor when she grows up), she'd want the real set to actually hear heartbeats and be able to puff up the blood pressure cuff on someone's arm, so that's what I bought. (FYI, I'm to go as her patient this year. She will cover me in bandages).

--A stainless steel covered cake plate (round) and an oblong covered casserole/cake pan, $5 each. Now I no longer have to cover cakes and other dishes with foil and hope the icing or food doesn't get stuck to it.

--Two little silicone trays for $1, each with 12 small pumpkin molds in them. I think these were to either create pumpkin-shaped candies or pumpkin-shaped pieces of ice. Nevertheless, I have my own use for them: so that my daughter can mix paint colors together. If I allowed my daughter unrestricted access to her Crayola paints, we'd end up with 10 jars of muddy brown color. Instead, I pour a little of each color paint into different pumpkin holes, and she can mix them together to her heart's content.

--A beautiful, small but sturdy covered picnic basket for $3. I start a new job on Monday, and I will use it to carry a lunch plate, glass, mug, utensils, place mat and cloth napkins for easy and discreet storage under or near my desk.

--A large glass casserole dish lid for $1.50, which we are now using to cover food in the microwave. Our previous options were a plastic microwave cover (which deteriorates over time), or using plates (not the best, since they smash your food and can get too hot to easily remove), cloth napkins (messy) or paper towels (wasteful). This lid is a better alternative than all of the above. It sits high enough not to touch the food, and has a handle for easy lifting.

Bonus yard sale discovery: I wrote a while ago about being frustrated that I couldn't find anyone who could repair my leather purses. I buy them used (usually for $4-6) and have several now sitting in my closet because I always break the strap. Otherwise, these bags are all in great condition, and it seems a waste to have them sitting there gathering dust.

At a recent yard sale I visited, I noticed a "Tailoring and Clothes Repair" sign in the window of the home. I asked the woman about it, and she told me to step inside and talk to her husband, who is the tailor. I described my purses and asked if he could repair leather--and he can! I'll post again after I've had a bag repaired (provided the price is reasonable!).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cheap green tip: toilet cleaning

I have mentioned before that one of the drawbacks to the "yellow, let it mellow" method of saving water (in other words, not flushing after #1, unless the bowl is filling up with paper or we have guests) is that your toilet bowl gets dirty pretty quickly and needs to be cleaned every couple of days.

I had heard about the method of using baking soda and vinegar to clean a toilet bowl. As anyone who has ever made a "volcano" in fourth grade science class knows, mixing these two items together produces quite a reaction.

I was skeptical, however, because I have found the mix of these two to be less than effective in another often-recommended green household tip: freeing clogged drains. The idea is to add one cup of vinegar and one cup of baking soda to the drain, wait 15 minutes, and then pour in a kettle of boiling water. When I've tried this, water may begin to trickle down what had been impassable pipes, but the drain never completely clears. This method might be good as a way to regularly maintain your drains and prevent clogs, but clearing already existing ones? Not so much.

So, how to clean my toilet? I've tried several homemade tricks: using baking soda alone, using vinegar alone, and using a baking soda and hydrogen peroxide mix. None of these works very well. I read a list of the best "green" toilet cleaners, and Clorox Greenworks was recommended. I've tried it, and it does work. However, with every other day cleaning, you can go through a bottle very quickly, so it's not very cost effective.

This week, I found myself out of Clorox Greenworks toilet bowl cleaner and a dirty bowl, so I thought, why not try the baking soda and vinegar method? It couldn't be any worse than anything else I'd tried. Here's the method: add 1/2 cup of vinegar and 1/2 cup of baking soda to your toilet bowl. Wait about 10 minutes until the two stop reacting, and then scrub your bowl with a toilet brush.

It worked! My toilet bowl was sparkling afterward. My guess is that the chemical reaction between the two helps scrub the stains, in a way that vinegar alone or baking soda alone can't do. Best of all, this method is cheap!

Update: The baking soda and vinegar method even cleaned the ring around the toilet bowl in our second bathroom. This ring had been there since before we lived there, I think because my in-laws rarely used that toilet. And now it's gone! The natural method strikes again!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Gourd watch and garden update

Nada. Yup, that's what my experiment in growing squash plants has produced.

This year, we kept all of our plants in pots on the deck, except for the few that like to spread long and wide: the mints, the cucumbers, pumpkin, zucchini and butternut squash.

As I had noted in an earlier post, for some reason the deer had left our yard alone this year. Until my birthday in late August, that is. We were celebrating on the deck when a deer decided to visit. Hubby scared it off, and I then told him he needed to make his "deer-be-gone" again (a mixture of urine, garlic and cayenne).

It was too late, however. The next morning, everything except the mints and the pumpkin were gone. The rest of the vines were completely stripped of all leaves, bulbs and flowers.

Why the deer left the pumpkin alone, I don't know. And now I know that if we try to plant pumpkin again next year, I do need to hand-pollinate (here is a handy set of instructions, complete with photos), since the pumpkin plants produced flowers but no fruits.

Nevertheless, I think we still had a pretty good year for the garden. We successfully grew spearmint and peppermint in the yard (not hard at all--mints grow like weeds), and in pots on the deck, we've grown tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, basil, collard greens, and for a short while, Swiss chard. Surprisingly, we've even picked a few cucumbers from the yard--apparently the deer missed a few. As a result, fresh salads have been a favorite meal for us this summer.

We did fail at growing a few other random herbs and once again, spinach. However, on a visit a month ago to an otherwise verdant urban community farm, I noticed that their withered spinach patch looked much like my poor spinach pot. A farm staffer informed me that spinach is very tough to grow, so I don't feel so bad about it.

Add to this the joy of discovering fresh blueberries, blackberries and plums growing in our yard this year. The plums, sadly, were ripe for only about two weeks and then withered into prunes right on the branches. The blackberry bush, I have also learned, is considered an extremely invasive plant that can easily choke out other plants growing around it, so we may at some point have to try to get rid of it. Still, eating freshly picked fruit all summer has been wonderful.

I know we have a long way to go in being gardeners--for example, we have yet to grow enough to not only feed our family but to share with neighbors or food pantries; grow a winter crop; or learn how to preserve/can foods and save seeds. Still, for year 2, after being afraid I couldn't grow anything during year 1, I'm pretty satisfied.