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

What’s the Deal with Cloth Cage Liners for Small Pets?


A couple of years ago, my oldest son asked for a guinea pig for Christmas. I think caring for animals is an important skill for kids, and my oldest has always been a great helper with our dog and ducks. We had a discussion about how Santa doesn’t bring animals and that mommy needed to be sure he would be responsible for caring for a pet before she’d allow one. 

We picked up books about caring for guinea pigs at the library and spent weeks reading over them. We talked about what type of jobs he would need to do. We talked about how animals poop and when you have an animal, you’re responsible for the poop- even if it does sound gross. 

On my part, I did a lot of research on cage size, supplies, and bedding. I quickly discovered that small animal bedding can be pricey. With the recommended size for a guinea pig cage, you can go through a lot of bedding in a short time.

Not only is the bedding expensive, but some types of bedding can be hazardous to your pet’s health. Cedar and pine shavings can cause respiratory issues, allergies, and skin conditions. I try to minimize the expense of my animals by making sure we care for them properly… it’s nice to avoid unnecessary veterinary bills. 

And while paper bedding is compostable- the plastic bag it’s wrapped in is not.

Did I mention that bedding is messy? Guinea pigs kick the paper bedding out of the cage, along with everything else. 

I discovered that many people are now using fleece cage liners as an alternative to traditional bedding. You have an initial upfront cost for the liners, which you can make or buy, and then you reuse the bedding.

It’s easy. It’s affordable. And it’s oh-so-cozy. It also seems to prevent a lot of mess from ending up outside the cage. 

Benefits to Cage Liners

  • There are quite a few benefits to cage liners.
  • They’re eco-friendly
  • You can shake out the hay and poop into a compost pile
  • They’re compact and easy to store
  • They’re affordable
  • They can reduce bedding mess
  • When made correctly, they can protect the bottom of your cage.

Guinea pigs are a bit delicate and can't have wire under their feet like rabbits can; my understanding is that they're prone to bumblefoot which you may be familiar with if you have chickens. 

As a result many of the cages have a soft bottom made of vinyl fabric. It's easy to wipe down but spilled water or excess urine leaks through to the floor or table under your cage. 

I sew my cage liners so that they're heavy enough that the guinea pigs can't move them, and thick enough that the urine shouldn't leak through, provided you care for your pets regularly.

Drawbacks to Cage Liners

There are a few drawbacks to these cage liners. 

  • The cage may need to be cleaned more frequently to remove waste
  • Sometimes guinea pigs find ways to dig underneath to hide 
  • There's an upfront cost
  • You have to wash them
  • They need to be brushed off very carefully before you put them through the wash or you'll make a mess of your washing machine.

Cleaning the Guinea Pig Cage

I was told that cages with reusable liners needed to be cleaned more frequently. I have not found that to be true. The reality is is that poop smells and guinea pigs smell, and paper bedding shouldn't be hiding that smell any better than reusable bedding. They don’t poop more with reusable liners, it’s just more obvious. 

Daily Cleanup 

Ideally, you want to scoop out poop daily to keep the cage floor clean, regardless of what type of bedding you use. Keep a tiny dustpan and broom by the cage, lift one edge of your liner, and the poop will all shift downhill into a nice neat pile.Sweep up and place in a bin to go out to the compost. 

Weekly Cleanup 

My process is pretty simple for cleaning the cage. I get a big empty bin. I carefully transfer all of the cage liners into the empty bin and carry the bin outside. Because guinea pigs eat a lot of hay and they poop a lot, you have a lot of waste that can get all over your floor if you're not careful. 

Once I get outside, I take the liners to my compost pile which is next to my fence. I hang my liners on the fence and use a small brush to brush the hay and waste into the compost pile. 

Here's a video of my process:

Making Cage Liners

These cage liners are easy to make. You simply sew together three layers of fabric. You'll want a stay dry layer on top, a fabric for absorbency in the middle, and preferably something water resistant on the bottom. 

All fabrics used need to be safe to wash on hot so they'll survive your wash cycles.

Check out my blog for more information on how to sew cage liners for small pets

Washing Cage Liners

After the hay and waste is off, I bring my liners back inside and put them through the washing machine. I wash them on hot and heavy cycle. They are dried on hot as well. 

In the meantime, I put fresh liners, hay, feed and water in the cage.

If I have an area that gets soiled more than another, I may add two liners overlapping. If one gets wet, I can remove it and use the one underneath the rest of the week. 

Upcycled Material for Liners 

While I would love to have color coordinated liners and matching themed sets, I am thrifty. I used upcycled towels and pilled fleece blankets for many of my liners.

For my prettier liners, I buy fleece for the top and bottom, then sandwich old towels in between for absorbency. I sew the layers together. They are thicker to sew, and take longer to dry as a result, but they’re easy to change.

Estimated Cost Savings

I asked a few people how much litter they use each month and it seemed like 60 L is typical for two guinea pigs in the recommended cage size. This would cost anywhere from $150-300/year for bedding for two guinea pigs. Guinea pigs live 6-8 years so that’s roughly $1-2k in disposable bedding.

If you were to purchase cage liners, the nice ones range from $40-60/each. You’d want two so you can swap them out while the other is being washed. Properly cared for, I don’t see a reason why those liners won’t last for the guinea pig’s lifespan. Total cost: $80-120. 

Naturally, if you make them these will cost less. They can cost anywhere from FREE (upcycling items in your home) to $22/liner. If you want a better idea of how to save and details on how to sew the liners, this is a detailed breakdown of the costs of paper bedding vs. reusable cage liners or check out my book, Sewing for Guinea Pigs.

I can’t say how these would work for rabbits or other small pets, but I imagine they would be similar.

Danielle Pientka is a stay-at-home mom to three boys and a blogger at When she's not chasing children, goats, or ducks, she's gardening, reading, sewing, or brainstorming her next DIY project. She is the author of How to Sew Cloth Diapers, as well as a few other sewing books. Her husband and she developed a sewing phone app, Sew Organized, available for iOS and Android devices. Connect with Danielle on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube, 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

No-Sew Heavy-Duty Curtains

drop cloth curtains
My daughter-in-law's drop cloth curtains.

Did you know painters’ drop cloths can be used to make super-simple but classy curtains? This inexpensive DIY decorating hack looks anything than cheap. My savvy daughter-in-law hung drop cloth curtains on her screened porch and they look fabulous. Here’s the skinny.

What you Need

Canvas drop cloths; curtain rings with detachable clips; hardware and curtain rods of your choice, either wood or metal; drill and screwdriver for attaching rods.

Measuring for Curtains

Generally, curtains should be at least two times the width of your window for a full, drapey effect. If making two panels per window, each panel should be as wide as the window. Rods typically extend about four inches beyond each edge of the window frame.

There are several factors to determining drapery length Drapes can hover just above the floor or puddle—a great solution for uneven floors. For puddling, add about three inches to your measurements. Determine rod placement—the closer they are to the ceiling, the taller your windows will appear.

If your drop cloth is too long for your needs, you have two options to avoid cutting and sewing. You can puddle curtains on the floor and/or fold the drop cloth over at the top. If you want the look of a valance, turn the extra material toward the room. Otherwise, fold extra fabric behind the curtain.

Next Steps

Detach rings from clips and slide desired number of rings onto the rod. Attach rod to wall.

Attach ring clips to fabric. For even distribution of ring clips, attach a clip to each end, then fold the fabric in half to clip on the center ring. Fold each half in half for the next ring, and so forth. Aim for adding clips every eight-ten inches. If you want a pleated effect, create a folds at top edge of fabric and clip at the back edge of each fold.

Slip clipped curtain onto rings.

All Drop Cloths Are Not the Same

Look in your local hardware or home improvement store or search online for canvas drop cloths. Look for ones that are hemmed on all sides.

Drop cloths come in a variety of sizes and weights. Choose the size based on your measurements. Heavy-weight cloths are much harder to work with, and light weight ones won’t hang as well, so I prefer a medium weight.

Some drop cloths have a seam running down the middle. Look for those with no seam for a smoother look.

If you are purchasing multiple drop cloths, be sure all of them are the same color and texture.


The oatmeal color of canvas drop cloths is great for a natural look. But, if you prefer something more vibrant, you can dye (if all cotton), stencil, or paint them freehand.

metal curtain rod
My daughter-in-law saved even more money by using metal electrical conduit for curtain rods. They can be cut to length with a hacksaw.

Drop cloth fabric is stiff. For a softer look and feel, wash and dry fabric. All-cotton fabric will shrink, so factor that into your measurements.

Iron fabric before hanging if you want a crisp look. For a more rustic style, skip the ironing. If you wish, you can dampen the hung curtain by lightly spraying it with water. Time and the weight of the fabric will pull out some of the wrinkles.

Easy Peasy

closed drop cloth curtains
Closed curtains keep the porch cooler but let in summer breezes.

Making DIY drop cloth curtains is quick and easy. If you’re looking for more detail, you can find illustrated step-by-step instructions on You Tube videos. Drop cloth curtains look great, and you will save a bundle by making them yourself.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, and modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts here. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

6 Easy Gifts to Make with Beeswax

Pine Cone Fire Starters

Beeswax is a great choice when it comes to making gifts for family and friends.  It is non-toxic, great for your skin, and has many practical uses around the home.  It can also be sourced from your own beehives or those of a local beekeeper.  If you don't have a local source, you can easily search a site like Etsy for beeswax straight from the beekeeper.  Or, if you need the wax faster, you can get a high quality option from Amazon or a local craft store.  Just make sure that if you are making skin care products you get beeswax that is approved for that purpose.

As beekeepers ourselves, we lean toward products that are useful and help our wax to go far.  Candles are an excellent option if you have tons of wax available but since our supply is usually somewhat small, we aim for products that combine a little bit of beeswax with other high quality products.

If you are going to work with beeswax, I highly recommend getting a double boiler from a second hand shop to use for melting.  Wax can be a challenge to clean up (never put it down your drain!) so this way you aren't too worried about ruining your own nice pot.

Here are 6 easy ideas for beeswax gifts and links for how-to articles to make them!

Beeswax Furniture Polish

1. Beeswax Furniture Polish  

When we started making beeswax furniture polish for our Etsy site, we were amazed at how popular it became.  Not only is it extremely practical and useful, but packaged up nicely it can make a great gift for someone who seems to have everything.  To make beeswax furniture polish you simply melt the wax and combine with mineral oil (we prefer food grade so we can use it on cutting boards).  Then you pour into a container and let it cool.  The polish can then be used as a finishing coat on bare wood or to nourish furniture or cutting boards!  Click here for directions.

Beeswax Lotion Bars

2. Beeswax Lotion Bars

Lotion bars are basically lotion in a more solid form.  When cool, it keeps its form, but when you rub it over your warm skin it melts just enough to soak in and nourish event the toughest cracks.  When you combine beeswax with a few other high-quality skin care products you wouldn't believe the power it has to heal!  We make our beeswax furniture polish with shea butter, coconut oil, and vitamin E - plus a little dash of honey.  You can also add a scent like vanilla or lavender to personalize your lotion bars.  Many recipes are available online; click here to see our recipe for Honey Almond Lotion Bars.  

Beeswax Lip Balm

3. Beeswax Lip Balm

The healing qualities of beeswax can also be utilized for dry, chapped lips.  A beeswax lip balm combines beeswax with a complementary oil - such as olive or coconut.  The combination creates a smooth and shiny product that can compete with anything you could buy at the store. Lip balms can be poured into tubes or metal tins, depending on the finished look you prefer.  This is a great project to do with kids, as you can add flavors to make it fun (just be sure you look for food-save and/or flavors that are approved for skin care).  Our recipe for honey lip balm adds the healing power of honey plus a subtle honey flavor.

Beeswax Ornaments

4. Beeswax Ornaments

For a purely decorative gift for the holidays, consider making beeswax ornaments.  These are quick, easy, and infinitely adaptable.  All you need is beeswax, a pan to melt it in, a silicone mold of any shape, and string.  You simply melt the wax, pour it into your mold, wait a few minutes, then add your string and let it dry.  You can choose fun holiday shapes or a shape specifically geared toward the gift recipient!  Click here for simple directions.

5. Beeswax Food Wraps

Another infinitely adaptable and highly useful choice is a beeswax food wrap.  These wraps seal when you wrap them around your food and warm them with your hands.  They are made by coating fabric with beeswax (and a few other products), which means that you can choose almost any design or theme you want!  For a great set of directions, check out this article by Mother Earth News.

Pine Cone Fire Starters

6. Beeswax Pine Cone Fire Starters

Pine cone fire starters are simply pine cones with a wick, both of which are coated with beeswax.  Since beeswax burns more cleanly without releasing toxic chemicals, they are great choice for a fire place, wood stove, or camp fire. You simply build a fire around the pine cone, light the wick, and watch it burn!  So easy, and a great gift for self-sufficient types.  Click here for simple directions.  

Carrie Williams Howe is a non-profit leader by day and a part-time homesteader by nights and weekends.  She blogs about homesteading at her family's site, The Happy Hive and also at a collaborative site, Homestead How-ToShe and her husband have been beekeepers for the better part of a decade.  Carrie lives in Vermont on a small plot of land with her husband, 2 kids, and a rambunctious Border Collie. You can read all of Carrie’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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Make a Pine Needle Hand Broom

pine needle hand brooms
Pine Needle Hand Brooms, from left to right: fresh green needles, needles that have dried indoors after about three weeks, and fully dried brown needles. Photo: Fala Burnette (Wolf Branch Homestead)

Brooms can be made from a variety of material such as broomcorn sorghum, straw, and plastic. Ones that are full-sized help us keep the home clean and tidy, but what about the often overlooked hand brooms? These miniature brooms help us clean small messes, such as ash around the fireplace or sawdust on the tabletop in a workshop. A dual-purpose hand broom can be made easily from collected Pine needles, that can not only be functional, but decorative as well!

We enjoy making our hand brooms for holiday decor, with fragrantly fresh green needles pairing well with the Christmas season, and dried brown needles being the perfect color for Fall and Thanksgiving. Keep in mind, green needle hand brooms kept indoors will dry out and shrink after about 2 to 3 weeks, losing their coloring. Dried needles will be your best bet for a functional hand broom. Use caution, and keep your brooms away from any heat source, such as a heater, fireplace, or wood stove.

It takes only three things to make these hand brooms: pine needles, scissors, and twine. Alternating the color of your twine to your liking for a personal touch is a great idea, but for this example I have used a basic tan jute twine made from natural fibers.

Step 1: Collection

collected pine needles

The species of Pine trees vary across the world, but our area commonly hosts the Loblolly and the Longleaf Pine. You'll want to collect needle clusters at least 8 inches long for this project (so for instance, a species such as the Virginia Pine with a short needle length of 1 to 3 inches would be unsuitable). Dried needles are easily collected with a rake from the area surrounding your trees, especially during the Fall. For green needles, if you know someone who may be harvesting Pines for lumber, you may be able to collect them then. However, the responsible method is to simply check under the trees after a good wind, and clusters of green needles not strong enough to withstand it are often found then. You will have to strip the needles from the branch if they are still attached.

Step 2: Organize

organized needles in same direction

You'll want to your needles to be in small groups still attached by the needle's "fascicle sheath" at their base. Loose, singular needles are more likely to fall out of the broom. Face all your needles in the same direction, and line up the base of the the needles evenly. Holding the needles all together, you can give them a bit of space in your hand and pack them into the palm of your other hand so that all of them are even at the end. This allows for all the clusters to be wrapped tightly together on that particular end, which prevents pieces from falling out, while also adding to a cleaner look.

Step 3: Wrap

wrapping beginning of broom

A simple slip knot can be used to allow a tight base loop closest to the sheath of the needles, which allows for an easier time wrapping the needles the remainder of the way. When using Loblolly needles, a segment of twine about 6 feet long was needed to wrap one hand broom the desired length. You'll want to bring your wrapping tightly at least halfway down your group of needles, which supports the area that is to be held in the hand along with tightening your cluster of needles closer together for effective and practical use. Finish the wrap with a tight knot that will not slip.

Step 4: Trim and Finish

finished brooms in workshop

The easiest step of the process is to finalize the hand broom by using a pair of scissors to neatly trim the other end of the cluster considered the bristles of the broom, snipping off the ends to an even and uniform length straight across. From here, you are able to decide whether your piece will be for decoration or functionality. Again, remember to keep your needle brooms away from any heat source, and use caution to keep them out of the reach of children and pets.

For a modest decoration this holiday season, or a functional piece to help clean up small messes, we hope that you will enjoy this hands-on craft that allows you make your very own pine needle hand broom. Enjoy the great outdoors as you take the time to source these needles from the land around you.

Fala Burnette is a homesteader with her husband at Wolf Branch Homestead in Alabama. They are currently building their own log cabin and milling their own lumber, along with raising heirloom crops in the Spring and tanning furs during the Winter. Read all of Fala'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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Replace Paper Towels with a Reusable Cloth Alternative

When I heard about "unpaper towels," my first thought was, My grandmother would be disappointed in humanity to hear dishcloths touted as a new invention.

For those who aren't familiar, "unpaper towel" are the reusable alternative to paper towels. They're the millennial version of dish cloths. And while we might be prone to blaming millennials for this idea that dishcloths are a new idea, we can hardly blame them when they grew up with parents who may have used single use products almost exclusively.

Trending Away from a Culture of Waste

I'm not blaming you, mom and dad. Toilet paper became popular in the 1920s, and paper towels followed behind in the 30s. It was convenient and "the thing" to do. For most of us (I'm nearly a millennial), our parents were the first generation raised when those products were expected to be kept in the house.

My grandma lived through the Great Depression. Her family moved back and forth between Quebec and New Hampshire, trying to make a go at farming in the different climates. They eventually settled in New Hampshire, where she raised my mom and her four sisters. She was cut-the-mold-off-the-cheese level thrifty.

By the time younger generations were born, disposable products were the norm and there was societal expectations working against reusable products. Mention you use cloth diapers? There's a good chance a friend or family member will offer to buy you disposables because they assume you can't afford them.

Despite this inclination for the convenience of disposable items, there came a push in the late 1980s to live more sustainably, and that trend has grown. Young people have certainly picked up that trend and run with it. Good for them. It's important to be concerned about the impact we have on our Earth.

Appreciating the Switch from Paper to Cloth

Paper towels aren't the worst offenders, in my opinion, for creating waste — they can be composted with the kitchen scraps, after all. But dishcloths (sorry, I hate the term "unpaper towels) are certainly convenient. We have two small drawers with folded dishcloths, a kitchen wet bag to store dirty cloths, and we use them almost exclusively. 

They're perfect when you have kids. We expect our children to help clean up messes and they frequently spill things. The absorbency of dishcloths helps clean up spills fast. Kids need a job? We give them empty spray bottles of water and a dish cloth to wipe down the glass doors while we do the real cleaning. Just don't ever give a child a full roll of paper towels. There won't be any left when they come back.

For our own purposes, cloth towels just do more work than their paper towel alternative. They absorb more. They're easy to grab. They cost less long term. And they produce less waste. While ideally we compost paper towels, realistically they end up in the garbage in most households. 

While sponges are another common item in households to clean up messes, we've replaced them almost completely. They harbor bacteria and aren't washable. As a washable product that can be used once then laundered, dish cloths don't run into the issue of spreading bacteria around, provided you don't continue to them for a week.

I still keep paper towels for guests and wince to see how many people use when they visit. Occasionally we use them for icky messes that I don't want to launder or any chemical cleaners. Chemicals can destroy the fabric, especially if it’s left on there too long before being rinsed.

Tips for Switching to Cloth Towels

When I run a load of towels, I pop our kitchen towels in with them. It's convenient now that our laundry room is right next to our kitchen. Wash the laundry on hot to kill bacteria and don’t leave your dirty cloth sit in a wet bag too long.

While I’ve found that store bought dishcloths are the least effort option, I occasionally make my unpaper towels, too. When I first started, I added snaps or hook and loop to the edges so I could roll them up like paper towels. What a waste of time! I have three kids and no time for snapping towels together. Quickly folding them makes way more sense.

I have discovered that old towels, particularly thin ones, are perfect to upcycle for this purpose. They’re not as pretty, but boy do they soak up a mess. Because I’m a bit vain, I also keep a couple of “pretty sets” made with two layers of flannel. The fabric goes on sale frequently and can also absorb liquid pretty well.

Whatever you do, don’t forget the wet bag. I made this kitchen wet bag from scrap pieces of PUL (polyurethane laminate) leftover from sewing our cloth diapers.

The main struggle with switching back to dish cloths is remembering to use them. Putting the paper towels in a less convenient spot, say under the sink, and keeping the dish cloths in a convenient basket on the counter can help.

So make grandma proud. Invest in some dish cloths. Get a few different sizes. You'll find small ones are perfect for hand washing, medium size towels for cleaning, and large ones are good for cleaning messes and hanging to dry hands. Your wallet, and Mother Earth, will thank you.

Danielle Pientka is a stay-at-home mom to three boys and a blogger at When she's not chasing children, goats, or ducks, she's gardening, reading, sewing, or brainstorming her next DIY project. She is the author of How to Sew Cloth Diapers, as well as a few other sewing books. Her husband and she developed a sewing phone app, Sew Organized, available for iOS and Android devices. Connect with Danielle on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube, 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Nature Crafting with Children

finished seed picture 

Children love interactive projects and they love doing things with the adults in their lives. Engaging children in craft projects is a great way to connect with the children in your life. My personal favorites are nature crafts. They cost nothing or next to nothing, get children out of doors, encourage creativity, and help kids learn to appreciate the many different aspects of the natural world. Here are two nature craft projects that work well with both younger and older children.

Advance Preparation

For the nature collage, gather projects described below, gather the following supplies: white craft glue and/or hot glue gun and glue sticks; backing material (a rectangle of weathered wood siding or a piece of plywood suitable for display); picture hanging hardware (a simple hanger can be made with a pull tab and a carpet tack; for hefty pieces, use heavy-duty hardware); hammer; and natural materials, as indicated below.

For the seed picture, you will need the supplies listed above as well as the following: chalk or pencil and eraser; enough newsprint or butcher paper to cover work surface; spray shellac or similar protective spray, and natural materials, as indicated below.

Attach picture hanging hardware in the upper center of the back side before beginning your craft. Measure carefully so the finished product will hang straight.

Nature Collage

Grab a couple of paper bags and head out into the woods with your child. Together, seek out items that are relatively lightweight and have a surface which can be glued onto a backing: twigs, lichens, leaves, ferns, bits of bark and moss, small flat rocks, acorn caps, whatever. The more color and texture variation, the better.

Bits of lichen add textural and color interest to a nature collage.

lichen on tree 

Photo by Ron Wynn

Spread the findings on a table or other flat work surface, preferably outdoors (near an electrical outlet if using a glue gun). If items are damp, allow them to dry before working with them.

On the paper, draw an outline of the backing. Let child arrange the nature findings as desired onto the paper. Once she or he is satisfied with the design, it can be transferred piece by piece to the backing and glued in place.

Note: Liberally applied hot glue works best for this project because of the texture and uneven surface of the natural materials. For safety reasons, if the child if young or inexperienced, you will need to apply the glue yourself. In any case, it is a good idea to hold each item firmly in place after gluing to ensure that it adheres well.

Allow to dry. The work is now ready to display.

Seed Picture

Creative placement of seeds, cones, and other natural objects results in a striking and lasting work of art. This seed picture, made by my aunt many decades ago, is still on display. Photo by Ron Wynn.

In advance of project, collect a variety of thoroughly dried seeds (corn, squash, sunflower, pea, okra), beans (different colors and shapes), grains (rice, millet, etc.), and other natural elements such as twigs, stems, lichens, and individual scales and horizontal sections of open pine cones. You can use seeds you’ve collected or you can purchase dried beans and grains from the grocery store and a variety of seed packets from a garden supply shop.

Spread materials on a table which has been covered with newsprint or butcher paper.

Let child draw an outline of the backing piece onto a section of the paper and create a design. Consider a simple ‘floral’ arrangement, a landscape, or an animal face. The materials and your child’s imagination will be the guide.

finished seed picture

Once the design is complete, your child can use chalk or a pencil to make a light sketch of the design on the backing piece, with your help if needed.

Now, the child can transfer and glue the pieces one by one onto their permanent backing, using a toothpick to guide them into position, if necessary. For small items like grains, spread glue onto the work surface and press the pieces into place. Craft glue is usually adequate for this project. Let dry.

Apply a coat of spray shellac over all and allow to dry before hanging.

Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, and modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts here. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Choose a New Heating System: Five Key Questions to Answer

ultimate furnace guide cover 

If you live in a region that gets cold enough that your home has a heating system, that system will eventually need to be replaced. Even homes with woodstoves often still have a furnace, boiler or heat pump for really cold weather or when you’re away from home for a while during winter. And while today’s newest furnaces, boilers and heat pumps are more efficient and reliable than ever, the large variety of options out there can make it challenging to choose wisely.

Want to simplify this challenge? Read answers to the five key questions coming up and it’ll help you make the wisest possible decision. For even more detailed technical information on choosing a new residential heating system, read through a free copy of The Ultimate Furnace Guide.

When Should I Replace My Heating System?

natural gas flame close

Sometimes heating systems break in big and permanent ways. The need for replacement is obvious in cases like this. Other times the old system keeps on working, so replacement is something you need to decide to make happen. The main thing to understand is that newer heating systems are often so much more efficient than older ones that it’s actually a waste of money to keep an old furnace or boiler going – even though it still works fine for now. Depending on the state of insulation in your home, how old your furnace is, and how cold it gets where you live, a modern heating system can save more than $1000 per year compared with what you have now. As you shop, look for figures on total heating efficiency for the various models you’re considering. Overall efficiency ratings of 95% and up are now possible with the best equipment.

What Energy Source Makes the Most Sense?

Furnaces, boilers and heat pumps are all made to use specific forms of energy. Natural gas, propane, oil, coal and electricity are the most common types of energy input for heating systems. What’s not so commonly understood is that a dollar’s worth of, say, natural gas, delivers a lot more heat than a dollar’s worth of electricity. Propane and oil deliver roughly the same amount of heat per dollar (depending on market prices), but oil poses a greater environmental hazard in the event of a leak. Wood pellets offer one of the most economical sources of heat energy in regions where pellets are manufactured. You can learn more about pellet stove installation right here.

furnace modern gas 

Each form of home heating energy has unique characteristics that you need to think about. Generally speaking, natural gas offers the lowest cost energy source, but it’s typically only available in urban and suburban areas. Propane is like “rural natural gas”, but it’s more expensive than natural gas because propane needs to be delivered by truck to your home. Another issue to consider is local competition. Where I live in rural Ontario, Canada, there was only one propane supplier for years, and they charged accordingly. As soon as a second supplier arrived in our area, propane prices dropped dramatically to reasonable levels and stayed there.

Should I Stick With the Heat Distribution System I Have?

The furnace, boiler or heat pump you have now generates heat, but this is just one part of your heating system. The other part is the ducts or pipes that distribute that heat to various rooms. In all likelihood it makes sense to keep the distribution system you have as you choose a new heat source. This simplifies the selection process. If you already have a forced air furnace delivering hot air via sheet metal ducts, for instance, then get another forced air furnace and connect it to the ducts you have. Same thing for a boiler delivering hot water to existing radiators or infloor heating pipes. That’s not to say that you need to stay with the same energy source. If you currently have, say, an oil-fired forced air furnace, there’s no reason you can’t easily switch to a natural gas or propane forced air furnace. Same goes for a boiler that generates hot water for heating. There’s no problem swapping an electric boiler for another type of boiler as long as both are boilers.

One heat distribution system that makes sense to change sooner rather than later is electric baseboard heaters. All else being equal, electricity will always work out to be the most expensive home heating option because so much energy is lost in transmission from the generating plant to your home. Also, in the case of a power failure, it takes a very large generator to power an all-electric heating system. By contrast, any kind of fuel burning heat source only requires a small generator to operate because electricity is only used to power the controls, fans and pumps.

Heat pumps are the one exception to the high cost of electric heat. Instead of generating heat directly by running electricity through a high-resistance element (as with baseboard heaters or an electric furnace), heat pumps harvest naturally occurring heat from the surrounding air, soil or water. This is why heat pumps typically deliver 2x or 3x more heat than they consume in electricity. These days air source heat pumps have improved to the point where they’re very economical to operate, even at outdoor temperatures below freezing. Most heat pumps can also operate as air conditioners during the summer.

Should I Change My Thermostat?

tekmar thermostat

Probably yes. Modern thermostats are much better than older ones in two ways. Besides allowing you to save energy by being fully programmable to deliver different heat levels at different times of day, the best thermostats use both indoor and outdoor temperature levels to control the heat output by a furnace or boiler. To get the most efficiency out of modern heating equipment, they need to be connected to a modern thermostat system with an outdoor temperature sensor. Besides being more efficient, today’s best thermostats also deliver very fine temperature control. The system I installed in my own house maintains temperatures to within 1ºF of the set point.

How Do I Find a Good Dealer?

Unless you’re exceptionally handy, you’ll need a dealer to help you choose a new heating system and install it. Your main homework is to ask potential dealers for references from at least three past clients each, then call these people and ask how things went. Most home improvement disasters could have been avoided by asking for and checking references. You’d be surprised how many homeowners get lazy about this and never check references. And when you’re checking out dealers, it’s not just installation skill that matters. You’ll also need to rely on them for emergency service calls. Don’t wait for a cold Sunday night with a broken furnace to find out that customer service is not something your dealer is very good at.

Steve Maxwell is a DIY expert and longtime contributor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. He and his family homestead on Manitoulin Island, Canada, cultivating a little patch of  farmland surrounded by a sea of forest. Connect with Steve at, and read all of his 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. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

50 Years of Money-Saving Tips!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS for 50 years and counting, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters

click me