Do-it-yourself projects and plans for anyone who can swing a hammer.

Beginner’s Guide to Installing Crown Molding

sliding chopsaw 

Sliding chopsaw. Photo by Steve Maxwell.

Of all the ways trim can make the inside of your home look better, crown molding delivers the most bang for the buck. It had fallen out of favour for decades, but the 1980s saw the beginning of a resurgence in crown molding popularity. These days crown is at least as popular as it ever was, and not just because it looks great. Crown is also easier than ever to install if you prepare yourself with the right tools and know-how. Follow these real-world tips and you’ll enjoy excellent results even if you’ve never installed crown molding before.

Crown Molding Tip #1: Get a good chopsaw

Also called miter saws, chop-saws make it fast and easy to complete the kind of smooth, precise, angled cuts every good crown installation requires. Once adjusted correctly, a chopsaw allows anyone to make cuts as quickly and as well as any professional carpenter. The best chop-saws for crown installation have two features. First, they spin a 10-inch or 12-inch diameter blade on rails that slide back and forth for wide cuts. A big blade with sliding action means crosscutting capabilities up to 12” wide and beyond. And second, the best crown molding chop-saws tilt both left and right from vertical. This is called “dual bevel” capability and it really helps with crown installation. Taken together, saws that can do both sliding and bevelling are called “dual bevel sliding compound chop-saws” and there’s a reason almost no one installs crown moulding without one of these tools on their side. Nothing else works as well, especially for beginners.

Crown Molding Tip #2: Use an anchoring system

anchoring system crown

Anchoring system. Photo by Steve Maxwell

Apart from using a chop-saw, this is the most important advantage you can give yourself when it comes to installing crown well. If you’ve never installed crown molding before you’ll probably be surprised to discover what the most challenging part of the job is. Finding and making use of a solid support surface underneath the drywall to hold nails is essential to anchor crown molding properly, but it’s trickier than it looks without some kind of help. The reason is because house walls are almost never framed with crown molding installation in mind. In fact, some kinds of houses don’t have anything at all below the wall surface that will hold nails, and that’s where you need a solution.

The best system I’ve seen so far for making it fast and easy to anchor crown molding is called EZCrown. Invented by Florida dentist Athas Kometas, this economical system uses a sheet metal base with angled wooden nailing blocks mounted to it. Fasten the sheet metal to the wall and ceiling, then nail the crown molding to the wooden blocks that are part of the EZCrown system. It’s simple but highly effective.

So how does a mounting strip make things easier? One advantage comes from the fact that you can mount anchoring strips anywhere along its length, or using drywall anchors if there’s nothing solid at all under the wall surface. The crown molding itself is mounted with precisely located and oriented nails driven into the mounting blocks, but it’s easy to drive them properly when using a mounting strip.  

Crown Molding Tip #3: Choose a paint-grade installation

paint grade crown

Paint-grade crown molding. Photo by Steve Maxwell

If you’re new to crown molding, you’ll want to make installation choices that are as easy as possible. And in the world of trim, there are two approaches for any situation: stain grade (the more difficult) or paint grade (the more forgiving). Stain grade installations use high-quality solid wood finished with a transparent or translucent finish, allowing wood grain to show through. This creates a beautiful look, but it also means that filler cannot be used to cover up loose joints. The filler would look terrible because it won’t be hidden by stain so you only get one shot at cut accuracy. You need to get the cuts perfect for stain-grade trim installations to succeed, and this is why the paint-grade option makes more sense for beginners.

Paint-grade crown molding, by contrast, is more forgiving than stain-grade because you can fill less-than-tight joints with latex caulking. Paint over this filler after it has dried and the results look great.  

Crown Molding Tip #4: Sand crown molding before installation

sanding mop spin hands

Sanding mop. Photo by Steve Maxwell

No matter how smooth a piece of wood seems when it’s bare, it can always benefit from sanding before finishing. When it comes to crown, mill marks are the main reason why. All trim is made by machines that have rotating planer blades and invariably tiny repeated marks are left behind on the surface of the wood by these blades. These might not be noticeable at first, but finishing brings out these imperfections unless you get rid of them first. Sanding crown molding my hand using 120-grit sandpaper is one option, but something called a sanding mop is better. It’s a rotating abrasive disk for a drill or drill press, made with narrow fingers of abrasive material. These fingers smoothen the trim but without rounding over the all-important crisp corners and edges. You wouldn’t think something like this would work, but it really does.

Crown Molding Tip #5: Consider corner blocks

corner blocks crown

Corner blocks. Photo by Steve Maxwell

When Athas Kometas invented the EZCrown mounting strip system he did something else to make crown installation easier. The optional corner blocks that are part of the system eliminate the need to complete any kind of angled corner cuts. The butt joint on the end of the crown simply butts up against the pre-installed corner block. You get an elegant result that’s simpler to succeed with than anything else because no angle cuts are required.

One of the nicest things about doing your own home improvements is the ongoing satisfaction it delivers. As nice as it is to increase the value and saleability of your home, you can’t beat the sense of satisfaction you’ll get every time you glance up and see some excellent crown moulding well installed by your own hands.

Steve Maxwell is co-author of The Complete Root Cellar Book. Get how-to and self-reliance answers directly from Steve at

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How to Rescue a Smelly Soft Chair


Reupholstered chair, photo by Kristi Nebel

This is a story of two curbside cast-offs, and a tale of two pink chairs.  Now I should precede this episode with my own hypocrisy on the topic of furniture left on curbsides.  I’ve got a whole high-minded, judgemental rant about it.  I’ve long held a firm belief that people who do this cling to the foolish notion that there is such a thing as a garbage fairy who magically picks up their unwanted furniture.  Furthermore, they are: a) too lazy to take it to the dump, and b) contributing to my neighborhood blight.  Sadly, they ignore the all-too-frequent disassembly of sofas by homeless people taking away the cushions for bedding.  And lastly, in a very wet climate such as mine, they somehow think padded furniture will disappear before being ruined by rain and subsequent mildew. 

But a few days ago, all that changed for me.  I had a pink winged, tufted Queen Anne chair covered in vinyl which had been my favored reading chair for 33 years.  It was purchased for $100 and not from a well-respected source of fine furniture.  I got bored one day and decided to rearrange the books on my shelf beside it, without moving it first.  I kneeled on the vinyl to do the job, and when I was done looked down at the vinyl to find that my knees had split the vinyl in numerous places.  I wasn’t broken-hearted.  I just made up my mind that it had served me well and it was time for a replacement.

Chair Rescue

So, I began shopping on-line for a used chair as similar to it as I could find.  A few days went by of searching with no luck.  In fact, I wasn’t even seeing new chairs like it, nor anything that appealed to me.  Then two days ago while driving home after a performance, we dropped off the third member of our folk trio in our neighborhood, and my eyes fell on a pink winged, tufted Queen Anne chair on a curbside.  My very compliant, patient husband backed up our car so I could give it a better look.  I sniffed the cushions and looked closely at the upholstery for cat-scratch damage.  All looked good, in fact, considerably better than the one I ruined.  The upholstery was heavy velour and the woodwork had more detail; it was bigger as well.  This was clearly no cheap $100 chair.   I was delighted.  Here comes the hypocritical part of the story.  We first went home and put our beat-up vinyl chair on the curbside in front of our house.  Then we went back in hopes the other (most-wonderful) chair was still on the curb.  We were in luck!   We put it in the car and headed home.  Just as we were about to turn into our driveway, we spotted a young woman in shorts and high heels trotting happily down the street with our old chair in her arms.

Malodorous Mystery

We lugged our “new” find into our living room and began to notice a smell.  Don’t ask me how I missed it at first.  It seemed to get stronger and stronger by the minute.  I couldn’t quite place the origin of the offensive stink, and in retrospect suspect I believe were several; possibly a leaky baby, an old man, and without a doubt a dog.   After washing the foam in the bath tub, I found a surprising amount of soot residue that I think could only have been left by a dog. 

I found a box of Arm & Hammer Carpet & Room Extra Strength Odor Eliminator (available at Target) and followed directions, sprinkling it all over the chair, then vacuuming it up.  Then the chair smelled like a combination of that product and the other strong, nasty smell.  On closer inspection it was clear to me the problem was in the cushion.  Once I removed the cushion the chair smelled fine.  The carpet deodorant succeeded in removing any odors in the rest of the chair.  I could see someone had unzipped the cover and begun to try to pull out the foam inside the cushion.  I believe that said someone got discouraged by the muscle required to do so, as well as the prospect of cleaning the foam itself which clearly had a very bad smell. 

Deconstructed chair cushion. Photo by Kristi Nebel

My aim in writing this is to discourage anyone from dumping a good chair just because it reeks so badly that no one in the house can stand it anymore.  Here’s where my determination to tackle the problem begins.  I had experience cleaning pillows in my bathtub and figured this couldn’t be much more difficult.  Anyway, what could I lose if I failed?  It was a free chair to begin with!  Removing the cushion did take a bit of effort.  But I had a plan and a few warm, sunny days ahead. 


  1. Remove the cushion. Sprinkle the entire surface of the rest of the chair with Arm & Hammer Carpet & Room Extra Strength Odor Eliminator.  Then vacuum it up.  
  2. Fill the bathtub with enough very hot water to cover the cushion; about 5” deep. Add about an ounce of Clorox Scented Splash-less Concentrated Formula chlorine bleach (available here:  This may seem a bit harsh but in this time of pandemic seemed to be the better part of caution to me. 
  3. Set the cushion on the water and push it down to soak. Sprinkle about two ounces of Gain Ultra Concentrated Aroma Boost liquid clothing detergent (available here:  on the foam.  I chose this because I was hoping its pleasant scent would abate the strong odor in the foam, and it worked as I’d hoped. 
  4. Now, remove your shoes and socks and step all over the foam. This will distribute the detergent and soak it as well as the water into the foam.  Step aside and flip over the foam.  Repeat the process with another ounce and a half of detergent on the other side.
  5. Drain the tub and rinse out the detergent with another 5” of water. Drain again and fold the foam in half.  Walk all over the foam to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. 
  6. Get out of the tub and set five or six bath towels on the floor, in a square large enough to fit the foam. Set the foam on three of the towels, and cover with two more.  Walk all over the foam to soak up as much water as possible.  The foam by now should feel just slightly damp, not wet.
  7. Wash the upholstery fabric cushion-cover in your washing machine using the same detergent, in hot water on a full wash cycle with a second rinse, set on slow / hand wash speed.
  8. Set the foam outdoors in the sun to dry. I left the foam cushion out in the sun for a full day in spite of the fact that it felt dry after a few hours.  Foam absorbs so much moisture that it's best to be safe with the drying to avoid mildew later, from hidden moisture deep inside the foam.  Do this also with the upholstery fabric.  This serves the purpose of killing any remaining bacteria with sunlight.
  9. Re-insert the foam cushion into the cavity of the fabric cover, taking time to carefully push and prod, fitting the corners and curves into place.

In retrospect I’m quite sure the practice of washing upholstery in a washing machine is considered inadvisable by furniture manufacturers.  And as one can see from the photo, the resulting effect is crinkled velour, which may be seen as less than aesthetically optimal. 


Clean cushion cover. Photo by Kristi Nebel.

I guess I’m innately a wrinkled American; I might have tried ironing it, I suppose.  But I believe in time it will smooth out from being sat on.  I did it because I wanted to make sure to get out that wretched odor from a good hot soak in water as opposed to dry cleaning, and also with the advantage of a scented detergent.  It was a way of dealing with a very stubborn odor.  In any case, it didn’t shrink such that the foam couldn’t be re-inserted into it.  And it smells great now!

Other Options

This isn’t a simple solution to a stain on your furniture.  There are experts who can guide you in that direction, such as the this website.  Rather, it’s intended for a cushion with foam that has been soaked through with urine or other stubborn, rank smells.  Nor is it a primer on how to disinfect your furniture from possible COVID-19 infection exposure.   The Bertolini manufacturers of cleaning products states this from their website.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends using the following products to sanitize against the coronavirus:

  • Asepticare™
  • Bleach 1:10 (10% bleach)
  • Bleach-Rite® Disinfecting Spray
  • CaviCide™
  • CaviCide1™
  • Clorox® Healthcare Bleach Germicidal Cleaner
  • Clorox® Hydrogen Peroxide Cleaner Disinfectant Spray
  • Diversey™ Avert® Sporicidal Disinfectant Cleaner
  • Lysol’s Clean & Fresh Multi-Surface Cleaner
  • Oxivir® 1 RTU
  • Oxivir® TB
  • OxyCide™ Daily Disinfectant Cleaner
  • Vire

In summary, don’t throw out that expensive chair just because your grandson got out of your sight before you could get the diaper on him and he dashed around peeing everywhere, and the dog claimed it as his favored spot every time it came indoors after a good splash in a muddy puddle, and your incontinent grandmother-in-law came to visit again (with whom you’re not comfortable enough to mention the unmentionable).  Just roll up your sleeves, take off your shoes and socks and fix it!

Kristi Nebel is a musician and a local activist in the Tacoma Veterans for Peace chapter. She has done nine tours of the U.K. with her husband, Steve, and plays bass as well as sings original Americana. She has filled her shelves and freezer so far this year with the harvests from nine crops of fruit and vegetables and eats from them every day.  Find her at You can read all of Kristi’s Mother Earth News posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Turn Garden Abudance Into Handmade Soap

Overgrown Cucumbers are Great for Making Soap 

Overgrown cucumbers are great for making soap.
Photo by Sarah Hart Morgan

We all know canning, freezing, and drying are the best ways to use and store the abundance from our gardens. But have you ever thought of making soap with your garden abundance? This time of year is my favorite; the garden is overflowing with tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, and herbs. But at some point in late August, early September I am frankly, quite tired of washing, cutting, milling, canning, and cleaning up from a day spent of processing vegetables. Dont’ get me wrong, I love being able to grow my own food, to share with others, and put away enough for the winter months but I also love experimenting with different ways to use my garden abundance.  

I love making summer soaps. My creative juices get flowing, mixing oils that have infused with different flowers and herbs from my garden, I feel like a witch over my cauldron of magic potion as I mix a little of this and a little of that together to make something wonderful. In addition to infused oils, I absolutely love using vegetables in my soaps, especially tomato and cucumber! It’s a great way to use those cucumbers that were hiding under leaves and have gotten too big to eat or can. It’s an easy way to use up those bruised, split, or overripe tomatoes too.

Heirloom Tomatoes are a Personal Favorite 

Heirloom tomato
Photo by Sarah Hart Morgan

Heirloom Tomato Cold-Process Soap Formula

Below, is the formula for my Heirloom Tomato Cold Process Soap formula from my book, Forrest + Thyme Apothecary: simple skincare formulas you can make uniquely your own. You can apply the same formula and use blended cucumbers instead. I like to freeze my cukes before blending as it helps to pull all the moisture out for easy blending. Just be sure to filter out seeds, pulp, and skin from both vegetables prior to mixing with the lye.

  • 7% Superfat
  • Olive Oil 51%
  • Shea Butter (unrefined) 22%
  • Coconut Oil (76 degrees) 20%
  • Castor Oil 7%
  • Add 1.5% of total oils of melted beeswax at a light trace
  • *Substitute blended and strained tomato juice for the water
  • A small amount of turmeric for color (use a light amount as turmeric can dye your skin if used too much)
  • 1T Bentonite Clay (my mold makes about 14 bars of soap, you can adjust this amount to suit your own needs
  • *Run recipe through a soap calculator to determine the correct lye and liquid ratios for your soap holder.
  • **10% Water Discount

Cold Process Soap Made from Cucumber and Mint from the Garden 

Cold-process homemade soap
Photo by Sarah Hart Morgan

Be sure to search through the Mother Earth News database for instructions on how to make cold process soap if you’ve never tried before. With a few safety precautions it's an easy and fun process to make your own handmade soaps that are also great for your skin.

Sarah Hart Morgan is an artist, photographer, teacher, and author of Forrest + Thyme Apothecary: simple skin care formulas you can make uniquely your own. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley, where she works with foraged plants in her skincare and apothecary products, camera-less photography, using plants as a developing agent in film photography, and creating natural inks for painting. Connect with Sarah on her website, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

DIY Homestead Well Pump Replacement, EVERYTHING You Need to Know About a Well System!

DIY Pump

Replacing a well pump. Photo by Kerry Mann

I recently went to our homestead kitchen faucet to get a glass of water and nothing came out! 

What a "sinking" feeling that was!  After checking the breaker, testing the well control box and pressure switch, I determined our well pump was at the end of its life and so we decided to try to remove the old pump (over 100 feet in the ground) and replace it all by ourselves.  did a video showing this entire process here.

We’ve been homesteading for about 6 years now. When we lived in the city we had a simple water pipe entering our home with pressurized water at the pipe. We sure did take that for granted. After moving to our homestead and switching to a well system we learned about all of the additional components involved with a well. 

I love our well water. It’s the best water I’ve ever had. We actually have extended family who bring empty jugs to fill up on it. Absent our well though we don’t have any rivers or water sources nearby. Last year we attempted to manually dig an emergency backup well by hand but after 40 feet and no water we gave up. We had an old well at 25 feet on another part of our property but it must have dried up. We later learned that our main supply well is over 100 feet deep!

In my attempt to fix our water, I learned a lot about how a well system works, there is much more involved than simply the pump. It all starts at the circuit breaker for the pump and that was the first thing I checked. Then we have power going into the well control box. I learned that this box is like a big switch with a capacitor on it that sends power to the well after getting a signal from the pressure switch. The capacitor energizes and helps get the big well pump motor initial turning. Later I troubleshooted and learned how the pressure switch works. Ours is a 20/40. When the pressure in the well pressure tank goes under 20 PSI the pressure switch clicks and contacts and sends voltage to the well control box which then sends electricity from the capacitor and control box to fire up the well pump. The pressure switch sort of keeps an eye on the pressure gauge and when it hits 40 PSI it turns OFF the power sent to the control box and the pump turns off. Throughout the day the pressure switches goes on and off many times energizing the well. The pressure tank holds about 40 gallons of water and there is a big bladder/ almost like a waterbed filled with air inside it that keeps pressure on the water. Because of the pressure tank we have pressurized water (like the city used to provide at the pipe) and it provides a constant supply of pressurized water so that our well pump doesn’t have to turn ON every-time we open a faucet. Without a pressure tank we’d put a lot of extra wear and usage on the pump.

Pretty basic stuff- but I never knew any of this coming from the city. So besides our well pump we have many components to provide pressure and manage the usage of the pump. If you don’t want to pay a plumber each time you have an issue with your well system, knowing about these components can really save you a ton of money. Last year, a new pressure switch cost me just $25 and about an hour to install myself, saving me a great deal of money from hiring a plumber and giving me more peace of mind because if something goes wrong I know how to troubleshoot it.  

So those are the basic components. Our well pump just hit its 20 year mark and unfortunately it's at the end of its life. So I decided to DIY replace it myself. This is not a job for everyone. We were able to pull our old pump and about 100 feet of pipe and wire and replace the pump. We purchased a new ¾ pump (same specs as the former) for $425 from Menards. While changing the pump we were very careful to ensure the pump wires were triple protected from the water. From what I’ve heard, oftentimes the wiring/connection will fail before the pump does. We used waterproof butt splices with a shrink tube, then we used an extra shrink tube over each splice and then we used some waterproof tape over that. 

Something else I learned during this process is about the pit-less adapter. I went in blind and when I removed my well cap I could see the pipe /connection going towards my house about 6 feet down. This makes sense to stay below the frost line. But I had no idea how I would remove that connection and hook back up to the house after replacing the pump. I did some research and learned that what I was looking at 6 feet under is called a pit-less adapter.  The top of the well pipe goes into this connector which is kind of like a wedge shape with a hole in the center of the wedge for the water to pass through. The wedge sits into a holder with a hole in its center and that is how the water goes into our house. You can connect a 1 inch threaded pipe into the top of the pit-less adapter to pull it (and the 100 feet of pipe below) up and out of the well. We replaced the pump and when we were done we seated the pitless adapter with a new O-Ring back into place and the weight of the pipe and pump below (and gravity) hold it into place and allow the water to flow into the house. It’s a really smart design and this was all new to me! Unfortunately (after we did all the hard work of replacing the pump and putting it all back into place) we struggled to reseat the pit-less adapater. The pipe was too heavy for us and we just couldn't seat it. We called a plumber and they had a crane/winch on their truck to hold the weight and they easily reseated it. Pays to have the right tools for the job and experience. Those guys were great!

I made a quick video showing our well system and how we pulled 100 feet of pipe and replaced our pump ourselves. 

Kerry W. Mann, Jr. moved to a 20-acre homestead in 2015, where he and his family use modern technology, including YouTube and, to learn new skills and teach homestead projects. Connect with Kerry on his Homestead How YouTube page, Instructables, Pinterest,  Facebook, and at My Evergreen Homestead. Read all of Kerry’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Basic Tree Care: Assessing Root, Limb and Trunk Health


Trees of autumn add beauty to the homestead. Photo by Elijah M. Henderson on Unsplash

As many of us are aware, trees can play a vital role in even the smallest of homestead operations. Trees are to a homestead, what branches are to a tree. 

Not only are trees probably the most useful vegetation on a homestead for basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter and health, but they add considerable value to most properties for their energy savings, landscape and aesthetic appeal. This post will highlight a few basic tree care and maintenance tips which may be of use to you on your homestead. Keep in mind that no two properties are alike. Every homestead is different, regarding its plants, trees, soil and the climate where the property is located. 

When considering tree care on a typical homestead, you should take a look at how the property currently functions or will need to function in the future.

You may begin by subdividing your homestead property into manageable zones. Within each zone, consider the location of crops, animals, trails/roadways, fencing or structures and any activities that regularly occur within each zone. Consider how plants, animals or structures will harmoniously coexist or be negatively affected by any particular tree or trees. Think about the four seasons and any possible seasonal impacts which may affect the trees, if any. 

Consider the land's natural typography and any prevailing climate characteristics within each zone. Note if any part of the zone is particularly windy, sunny, shady, hilly or flat, etc. Also take into careful consideration any possible flooding or irrigation issues that may possibly affect the trees.

Once the zones have been assessed, a more complete picture of the homestead should emerge and how it relates to the trees. Next, observe the general condition of the trees. On very large acreage properties, you may want to work in progressive stages of priority, addressing the immediate areas of concern first and then moving on from there accordingly.

Identify which trees are obviously in good or poor condition. You should safely remove, or have removed, those trees which are in very poor condition or have issues or concerns that are beyond control. Observe the following areas for generally maintaining a tree's health.

Root Area 

Roots need oxygen and nutrients, as well as moisture. Keep young and newly planted tree roots properly watered and fertilized. This is especially important as young trees and their roots are getting established. Another important step is to apply a natural mulch made of wood chips, tree bark, oak leaves or pine needles around the base of the tree. Mulch allows an adequate amount of oxygen in, while preventing excessive moisture and nutrients from escaping out. The mulch should not be applied too close to the base of the tree. In other words, the mulch should not actually touch the tree's trunk. Be sure to leave a space margin at the base of the tree to allow for ventilation. Also, be sure to apply appropriate measures of caution with any exposed roots extending up and out of the soil, as they may cause obstructions to people, structures or equipment.

Trunk Health

Watch for issues affecting the health of the tree such as cracks, peeling bark, fungus, dry hollowed out areas, moist decaying areas, excessive vines and insect infestation.

Limb Health

Identify and support the area of a tree known as the "leader." The leader is the tree's main trunk. It is the primary structure from which its stability is built. You should aim to establish solid growth and development of the main leader, while eliminating or discouraging any competing leaders, which could negatively offset and impair the tree's overall structural strength.

Branch Health

Keep branches evenly spaced and distributed to allow good air flow through. Good air flow helps to alleviate strong wind pressure, which creates wind resistance. Strong wind resistance could result in toppled and damaged trees.

Twig Health 

Address any wayward twigs that are growing in a direction counterproductive to good balance. It is far better to address any balance and stability issues early on, while they are still manageable, than if left to grow out of control, causing further and more complicated issues in the future.

Leaf Health

It is through the process known as abscission that trees begin to lose their leaves. The word originates from the Latin root word scindre, which is similar to scissors, meaning to cut. This hormonal process normally occurs during the fall and winter seasons, when the hormone ethylene is cut and begins to diminish. However, there are certain trees which shed their leaves in the spring and it is completely normal for those species. Those species normally include: Hackberry, Hickory, Holly, Live Oak and Southern Magnolia, but do keep an eye out for trees shedding their leaves excessively or inappropriately for the season.

Rather than purchasing mulch, use the raked leaves. Leaves make a naturally great mulch or compost. As they break down, they produce vital ingredients helpful for plant and tree health.

Tree Health

Assess the tree's overall health, then decide on an appropriate tree care plan for its general health and maintenance. Address any trunk, root, or branch issues early and often. Determine if any fertilizer or additional water or nutrients are necessary.

Planting Trees

Consider the placement of trees near structure.Photo by Sikes on Unsplash

When planning where to plant a tree, strive for the best location as possible. This should be a location that will set the tree up for success. Plant a tree where it will not only survive, but thrive. You stand the best chance of success armed with knowledge. Know your particular tree's water, soil, nutrients and sunlight requirements, as well as allowing the proper spacing necessary for full growth and maturity.

Watering Trees

Each tree has its unique set of water requirements during different seasons, life stages and in different climates. Pay attention to the particular needs of specific tree species, as well as any irregularities which may occur.

Preventing Disease

Keep moisture conditions controlled by trimming through thick, dense branch networks. The trimming should aim to be modest, yet effective in allowing more air and sunlight penetration. 

There is a particular pruning practice to be mindful of as it relates to disease prevention. When making pruning cuts, aim to leave a 45 degree downward angle, to encourage water runoff and to discourage pooling water or standing moisture from accumulating on the cut area. 

Placing an excessive amount of mulch over the roots or mulch placed directly against the tree's trunk can introduce moisture and fungus issues, setting the tree up for possible fungal growth and disease.

Timing Tree Pruning

When Should Branches Be Cut?

Fall and winter is the best season for cutting.

This would be the time when a tree is in its dormant state. The tree would have stored its necessary water and energy requirements until spring. Branches cut at this time would likely not impose any excessive requirements on the tree.

When Should Branches Not Be Cut?

If possible, refrain from pruning or cutting during the warmer months. The practice can set the tree up for pest infestation, at a time when bugs are in higher concentration and attracted by the resulting open sap wounds left from the cuts.

Protecting Your Investment

Protect newly planted trees from deer and other small animals with protective wire mesh cages. A 4 foot tall cage encircling the tree's base should keep most small animals out. Keep the cage diameter small and enclosed at the top to keep animals from crawling down or jumping in. The cage should also prevent persistent animals from digging under to the best extent possible. Of course each situation is unique, so construct the protection accordingly.

Trees are one of the most valuable resources on our homesteads. Basic tree care requires time and effort. They are best managed with proper care and consistency applied over the long haul. Trees provide for us well and are one of the smartest investment features on our homestead. The investment of time and effort put into basic tree care pays worthwhile dividends. Trees give back so much to us. We should, in return, give back to the land and our homesteads by planting more trees. Trees not only stand tall and proud, but they stand to serve future generations for life!

Monica White is a freelance writer, member of the Georgia Air National Guard, and an avid runner and cyclist who loves the great outdoors and all things DIY. She divides her time between Tampa and her central Florida property, where she's growing a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Monica on her outdoor lifestyle blog, on FacebookTwitter and InstagramRead all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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DIY Blueberry Ink from Fresh or Frozen Berries

Blueberry Ink-1

Photo by Sarah Hart Morgan

It’s blueberry season! If you have an extra amount this season, may I strongly suggest that you use some to create blueberry ink — I don’t think you’ll regret it! At the beginning of last month, I led an in-person workshop (it was so great getting to see people again!) on making wild inks where we created this blueberry ink. I ended up using frozen blueberries during the workshop, so if you are reading this in the off season, know that using frozen berries is a good alternative.

6 Colors, 6 Papers

Using my method for creating ink and using several different modifiers — baking soda, washing soda, citric acid, apple cider vinegar, and hydrogen peroxide — we were able to make six different ink colors in beautiful natural hues. We also experimented and played with different watercolor papers and quickly found out that those six inks reacted differently to each type of paper, expanding what the inks could do even more.

Here's the short version of those steps, but see the longer post for details:

1. Boil plant material in a stainless pot. Depending on how much ink you want to make and for what purpose, you’ll want to add more or less water. I use water straight from the tap but depending on your own water, you may want to use spring or distilled water. With the way I work, I end up with 1 or 2 ounces of ink and I probably start with about 4 cups of water when I start.

 While the water/plant mixture is boiling, keep an eye on the plant material, I pull the plants out of the pot once all the color has been extracted. Depending on the plant, the color will actually disappear from the plant while boiling. At this point, just keep an eye on the water so the pot doesn’t boil dry.

2. Test for color. I like to test my color while the water/plant mixture boils, testing at different times. I tear a few strips of paper (use a heavier weight paper for this. Watercolor, cardstock, etc.) and dip them into the pot to test the color. Once you are happy with the color, you can stop the boil.  I like to make test strips of color on watercolor paper, being sure to make any notes on the strips for future reference.

3. Strain your ink into your sanitized bottle of your choosing through a mesh sieve.  To preserve you can add Wintergreen essential oil or Clove essential oil. I found in my own research that some recommend a whole clove bud but I’ve noticed the ink will color shift after a few weeks with a whole clove bud so I choose to use Clove essential oil instead.

Blueberry Ink Keeps 1 Month or Longer

It’s now the middle of July and those inks from the beginning of June have stayed in my fridge and I am happy to report that each ink is just as fresh as the day they were made. I’ve been experimenting with new techniques for using the inks in my creative practice and I can’t wait to share with you what I’ve been up to.

Blueberry Ink-2

Photo by Sarah Hart Morgan

Sarah Hart Morgan is a designer, photographer and author of Forrest + Thyme Apothecary: simple skin care formulas you can make uniquely your own. She lives in the Shenandoah Valley, where she works with foraged plants in her skincare and apothecary products, camera-less photography, using plants as a developing agent in film photography, and creating natural inks for painting. Connect with Sarah on her website, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our blogging guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

Build a Sand and Water Table for Sensory Play

Ready to build sandcastles 

Ready to build sandcastles, photo by Sheryl Campbell

With a few dollars of lumber, a couple of tubs, and some simple tools you can make a sensory play table for the toddlers in your life. This is an easy enough project for even a work-away-from-home parent to do on a weekend or for grandparents to crank out en masse for all their young grandchildren.

When we found our lives full of young parents with toddlers my husband wanted to do something to delight the children. Our son’s favorite toy as a toddler had been the plastic sand and water table that occupied him for hours of play. But these are expensive.

 water tub and sand table

Time to play in the water!, photo by Sheryl Campbell

After scouring the internet for DIY tables, my husband came up with the following pattern for the tables he’s now been giving to the toddlers in our lives. They can be made out of simple lumber or even scraps you have laying around, but pressure treated wood will make the table last longer out of doors. You’ll need the following:


  • 1 2x6x8 board
  • 1 2x4x8 board
  • Outdoor paint (marine paint is even longer lasting)
  • 28 wood screws
  • Power saw (a mitre or circular saw works best)
  • Tape measure and pencil for marking
  • Drill
  • A cement mixing tub (28x20x5.5 size) with lip
  • A sturdy rectangular plastic tub with lid (we use the Hefty 34 qt. tub)
  • Sandpaper
  • Bag of play sand

 bottom of unfinished table

Upside down view of assembled table, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Cutting Directions

Measure your cement mixing tub carefully as they vary slightly in size which will affect how you cut your wood. Your goal is to put the wooden tub holder together so that the tub slips in easily but doesn’t slide around much. Use the cutting directions below as a guide and adjust based on your tub measurements.

  • Cut the 2x4 board into 4 pieces that are each approximately 18 ¾ inches long. Cut a 5th piece 20 inches long.
  • Cut the 2x6 board so that you have two 20-inch pieces and two 25.5-inch pieces

 Assembly Directions

You’ll be building your table upside down so that the legs point up.

  • From the 2x6 board cuts, lay out a rectangle with 25.5 inch long sides and 20 inch ends (the long boards will fit inside the short boards as shown in the picture)
  • From the short sides, run two screws into each end of the short boards to attach the long boards to the short ones
  • Lay the extra 20 inch board (the brace) across the middle from one long side to the other
  • Screw the brace on with two screws at each end
  • Attach each of the legs to the outside corners and screw each one onto the table using four screws

 Ready to paint the table

Time to paint the table, photo by Sheryl Campbell

Using sandpaper, sand the table to a smooth finish and dust it off. Carefully apply two coats of paint to all surfaces making sure to completely cover all the screw heads to protect against rusting. Allow the table to dry fully and you are ready to play.

Setting Up For Play

  • Set the cement tub inside the table so that it rests on the brace – this tub stays permanently in the table and can be filled with water, cooked spaghetti, or even foam pieces to allow your child hours of play
  • Fill the lidded tub half full of play sand – this tub can sit inside the cement tub so your child can build sandcastles or excavate
  • The sand tub (with the lid on it) sits perfectly under the table when the water tub is in use – the lid is tight enough to keep water out of the sand even when stored permanently outside

Studies show that children need sensory and tactile play to activate their learning processes. Here’s an easy way to give them hours of fun while increasing their ability to learn. These delightful brown tables now sit in yards and on decks at the homes of many of our young friends. Start now to build one to bring joy to a toddler in your life when the weather turns warmer.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

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