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

Knitting with Natural Fibers

Beautiful hand-dyed wools create wearable art.

It’s the time of year when I turn my attention to choosing a winter knitting project. I will probably spend most of the next six months feeding the woodstove and shoveling snow. Having a trunk full of luscious yarns will keep me happy in my little cabin in the woods. Who cares about freezing rain? I’ve got nowhere to go anyway.

I learned how to knit when I worked for my mother, who bought a wool shop in the 1980s. I started designing my own things from the get-go. Within two years, I had designed and knit the bodice of my wedding dress. I had grand ideas of becoming a sweater designer, my creations being featured in Vogue Knitting, and traveling the world for shows. Well, I have designed over 200 sweaters, but I never made much money at it.

I did have a design featured in Chatelaine magazine and two in Crafts Plus, but that was over 20 years ago. For about 10 years, I provided the artwork for Luce’s wholesale/retail store in Ottawa; they had my designs knit in China and distributed them across Canada under the Aston label. That dear couple closed up shop years ago, and now I just design the odd thing for myself or for presents.

A Multitude of Choice

Yarns today are nothing like they were in our grandmothers’ day. The choices are scrumptious to look at and therapeutic to hold. Having a good stash of yarn (as all true knitters succumb to) is better than money in the bank. Who knows when you might get stuck at home for an uncertain amount of time? If your stash fills shelves from floor to ceiling, you are increasing the R-value of your home. More is better.

There are bulky yarns that will enable you to knit a sweater in no time, and thread-like silks and mohair’s to create the most intricate shawls. There are a multitude of colours to choose from, and yarns that create a colourful pattern, all by themselves.

Just handling my stockpile of yarn each autumn ives me the encouragement I need to move forward, and do something new and creative. Feeling that silky cotton gliding through my fingers or squeezing a large skein of alpaca, gets my fingers itching to knit something. Knitting means I’ll get to enjoy that feeling for hours. And hours. And hours.

Wool yarns, including roving, two-ply, fine merino, super-wash, and Lopi.

Yarn Categories

There are three major categories of yarn: animal-based, plant-based and synthetics. Most yarns are blends, but there are still pure natural fibre products on the market.

Animal-based yarns include: wool (sheep), angora (rabbit), mohair (goat), cashmere (goat), silk (silkworm) and alpaca. Lesser known specialty yarns include yak, possum, camel, and the most expensive, qiviut: soft inner wool from the musk-ox. One single 28-gram ball of qiviut will make a small, luxurious and amazingly warm scarf, but at a cost of almost a hundred dollars. Many animal-based yarns are blended with wool and/or silk to reduce cost and increase durability.

The oldest woolen mill in Canada is Briggs & Little Woolen Mills Ltd in York Mills, New Brunswick. Despite being lost to fire four times, the owners have rebuilt and are continuing to uphold a family legacy of producing wear-like-iron natural wools.

I’ve heard of people spinning their dog hair with wool, and creating their own unique yarn for a truly one-of-kind item. Imagine turning all that dog hair into a memory blanket — a winter coat for a short-haired pooch, slippers for the postman, the list goes on.

Plant-based yarns are predominantly cotton, linen, bamboo, and hemp; many being produced as blends. The plant-based yarns lack elasticity, and blending them with a bit of synthetic helps the finished garments keep their shape, also making the yarn easier to knit with.

Today, there are thousands of different yarns on the market: from super-soft, machine-washable wools to fashion-trendy yarns with flare. I have an incredibly soft baby sweater made from 100% milk yarn. I’ve heard of yarn being made from banana peels. High in demand now are the hand-painted yarns; every skein being unique.

These days, most people are spending a lot more time at home, and the knitting business is booming. Being able to work with fabulous yarns on your lap while listening to an audio book or music is a great way to enjoy being creative, practical and productive. Who doesn’t love a pair of handknit socks, warm mitts, or those cotton dishcloths?

Cashmere, possum, camel, yak, silk ,alpaca, mohair, angora and qiviut.

How to Choose Top-Quality Natural Yarns

Most yarn shops today have websites and ship anywhere, sometimes for free. My mother’s shop, Wool-Tyme, in Ottawa, Ontario, one of Canada’s largest yarn stores, ships daily, around the world. With the convenience of shopping at home, and an incredible selection of the most amazing yarns to view and research on the web, why not plan a hand-made natural fibre project?

Make a 2020 heirloom. If you don’t know how to knit or crochet, learning is easy with an abundance of free videos available on the Internet. I recommend starting with a dish cloth. No matter how ugly, it will be put to good use.

So how do you choose a yarn? Synthetics, the most popular, are the least expensive, durable and wash well, but they don’t breathe and I don’t think they’re comfortable as garments. Read the label and research feedback. Are there allergies to consider?Natural fibres aren’t cheap and some need to be hand-washed but I think they’re worth it considering the hours involved in knitting.  A beautiful hand-knit garment is a work of art; why not use the best of materials?

Plant fibres: Linen, bamboo, cotton and hemp.

Considerations for Washing Natural Fibers

The things I want to know about a yarn are: how comfortable is it, and how will it react when it’s washed. Far too many dollars and precious hours have been thrown away by a hand-knit project gone bad. As long as you know how a yarn will respond to wear and washing, you can prepare for the result.

Knitted cotton garments tend to grow, so I’ve learned to account for that, in my designing. I knit my cotton wedding dress bodice one foot shorter then needed, then wet it and hung it to dry, pulling on it to get the extra length out of it. Otherwise, it would have stretched a foot during the day of wearing it. Knits will stretch when hung. Simple as that.

I learned that angora shrinks, even as you wear it. The sweat from your hands makes the rabbit hair in mittens felt, which means the fibres tighten, and the fabric shrinks. Two winters ago, I knit my treasured angora stash into half a dozen pairs of mitts, socks and wrist warmers. It was a knitters’ dream working with that yarn — like knitting with a cloud! I made the items larger than needed, so that after they were worn and washed, they would shrink to fit the person wearing them.

Natural fibres are environmentally the better choice. Understanding how they will react to washing, and even wear, will help avoid disappointment in your expenditure of time and money. Keep warm and happy knitting!

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’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.

How to Make Watercolor and Ink Using Plants


Finished abstract landscape ink painting  

For anyone reading this, it’s a given you love plants and nature. I am constantly looking for new ways to use plants in my life. Whether it’s in a new reciepe, ways to incorporate herbs in my daily life, new ways to incorporate them in my skincare routine, and in my art practice. 

My art revolves around nature. She is my inspiration; my muse.  I am always looking for ways to incorporate nature more into my practice.  Earlier this year, during the pandemic, I started experimenting with plants even more. I did a little bit of research and started making my own ink to paint with.  Now, I don’t consider myself a painter, but I do enjoy the meditative practice of putting my inks to paper to create abstract landscape works.  I’m going to share the basic concept of how to make your own inks using plants that you can grow or forage for right outside your door!

*Qusai disclaimer - I am an intuitive artist, so I rarely have any ‘real’ recipes giving actual measurements. I prefer to go with the flow, allowing nature to take control. There is no ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ way to do this- I am simply offering my method, feel free to add/change to this process to suite your own artistic needs.  Different plants will give different color results depending on the processing time, whether it’s fresh or dried, any additives to shift the color, different seasons will give different color results too. I prefer to work this way, always being surprised by the colors I get- I think of it as a gift from Mother Nature.

Gather Plants for Making Natural Paint

First, gather your plant material. I’d say a nice size bunch of fresh or died plant material, say 1 to 2 cups. You can use plants from your garden or forage in your area for materials. You can use leaves, flowers, stems, berries, bark, and even roots. *be sure to practice sustainable foraging. 

 Dogwood Leaves in the Autumn for ink making

Gathering Japanese Maple Leaves

Marigold blossoms

Fill Pot with Material

Fill a stainless steal pot with water, bring to a boil, and then add your plant material. This is where the process can get ‘tricky." 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 1-2 oz of ink and I probably start with about 4 cups of water when I start. 

Boiling Dogwood leaves


While the water/plant mixure 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 dissapear from the plant while boiling. At this point, just keep an eye on the water so the pot doesn’t boil dry. 


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. 

Japanese Maple ink testing strips jpg

Japanese Maple ink testing strips 


Osage Orange Ink tester strips 


Wild Ink Tester Strips 

Strain, Bottle, and Preserve

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.

Rose Of Sharon ink swatch 


Marigold Ink swatch 


You can try adding a few additives to shift the colors of your inks. Try salt, baking soda, cream of tarter, citric acid, a rusty nail.  Try adding gum Arabic to thicken the ink depending on your use - a little goes a long way here and by adding the gum arabic, you will lose some of the 'flowiness' of the ink. I personally don't use it in my work but it would be perfect to use in calligraphy. 

Have fun

Experiment! Have fun with the process- that’s half the fun!  Get out and enjoy nature, see what plants ‘speak’ to you while you are out. It’s a great way to learn more about the local plants in your area. This could be a fun project to do with kids and anyone looking for a more sustainable art practice. 

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.

Needle Felting is Fun and Easy to Learn!


I’m very much into fiber arts as anyone who knows me will tell you. I’ve been a seamstress since junior high when I first took a Home Economics class and I’m now an Old Granny! We called it Home Ek back then and we learned by making simple A line skirts and such things. After that I made my own clothes all the way through high school because the selection of clothing styles in the stores in our small town in Iowa weren’t to my liking. Since then I’ve branched out into crocheting, specifically rag rugs, and within the last year I’ve taken up spinning with a drop spindle. I’m now learning to weave on a Navajo backstrap loom.

Needle felting is a simple craft with a short learning curve that uses wool. It also doesn’t take a lot of expensive equipment to begin. You can get going quickly and pretty soon you’ll be making gifts, toys, tree ornaments or anything you can think of.

You only need three tools to begin needle felting: a felting pad, felting needles, and wool. I, personally, think you also need finger thimbles to protect your fingers. I use a utility sponge easily procured from the hardware store and Merino or Corriedale wool roving. For the needles I use a size 36 with a star point.

I recommend finger thimbles because if you accidentally poke yourself it’s a most unpleasant experience! Felting needles have tiny little barbs on them that cause the wool to grab onto itself. They’re not ordinary smooth needles. I’m going to tell you how to make special finger thimbles. I’ve never gotten poked so far.

Thimble supplies

  • Lightweight cardboard or heavy paper
  • Scissors
  • Duck tape

You might be familiar with the special band aids that fit over the tip of your finger. Using lightweight cardboard or heavy paper, cut 2 of these shapes for your thumb and index finger. Cut them so the material covers most of the length and width of your fingers as shown in the picture. Then fold it over your finger and cover it with duck tape. You might need help covering. You hold the cardboard in place while another person covers it with duck tape. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just effective.


Make your thimbles first so you’ll be ready to start felting.

Now let’s get a feel for how felting works before going on to a project. I’m going to start with a round ball that will become a pumpkin.

General Supplies

  • thumb and index finger guards
  • wool roving at least 5 ounces. More is better because it’s not fun to run out mid-project.* (if you want a realistic pumpkin buy half orange and half brown dyed roving.)
  • Felting needles size star 36 ** (Buy a variety set. Needles break on occasion.)
  • Felting pad (I use a utility sponge from the hardware store).

Pull off a short length of wool and roll it into a rough ball about 2 inches in diameter. After the wool gets poked it will shrink by about half as you work.

 1 roll up

Position the rough ball on the pad and start poking. I poke from many directions with short quick jabs straight up and down. You can poke in & out at any angle as long as the tip of your felting needle stays straight. Don’t poke all the way through. Like I said, short quick jabs. Also don’t bend your delicate needle or pick at your wool with the needle. Needles are relatively easy to break.

Wherever it’s lumpy poke there until it smooths out. I do not recommend holding the ball with your bare hand for the reason I mentioned above. I don’t have my thimbles on in these pictures because I’m experienced and living dangerously!

2 poke

Roll the ball in your hand like you’re making meatballs and add more wool as you need. Keep poking until the wool is firm to the touch and in the shape you want. Don’t worry if you make mistakes. You might even find that your “mistakes” can be used to make something later. Don’t throw them away.

3 rolling

Pull off a short amount of wool for the stem. Roll it in a small cylinder.

 4 stem

Felt it. This time I used thimbles. Too close for comfort!

 5 poke stem

Once you have it felted to your satisfaction spread the ends out a bit with your fingers.

6 spread stem

Holding the stem poke the spread ends into the top of your pumpkin.

7 poke stem base 

This quick project should give you a feel for what it’s like to felt and you can move on to other projects.


I made these hedgehogs with natural colored wool and toy eyes and noses purchased from a toy-making store. Colors used were natural off white, black, gray and light brown. No dyes were used. The bodies are simple hot dog shape. The faces are a small round ball slightly pointed. The backs are covered with a flat coat of felted wool. The ears are little balls with indentations. The mouth is drawn on. The same technique used to make the pumpkin is used to make a hedgehog.


Wool Roving link

Felting needle link

Renée Benoit is a writer, artist, ranch caretaker and dedicated do-it-yourselfer who currently lives in a 26-foot travel trailer with her husband, a cat, and two dogs while they travel the Western United States in search of beautiful, peaceful vistas and hijinks and shenanigans. Connect with Renée at RL Benoit, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.

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

Building a Covered Wicking Bed

Clinker cinders, also called scoria or lava rock, is great for the base layer of a wicking bed 

Clinker cinders, also called scoria or lava rock, is great for the base layer of a wicking bed.

I have been interested in aquaponics and hydroponics for a long time, and they are the reasons I built the nice personal greenhouse that I built at my home. Our growing season is fairly short here on the Southern Colorado River Plateau of Arizona, and winters can be bitter, bitter cold, so the greenhouse made sense for that reason as well. I spent years researching various methods and setups for both growing styles and one doesn't spend much time researching hydroponics or aquaponics without learning about a wicking bed sooner or later. 

Popularized by Murray Hallam of Australia, the wicking bed works much like an oversized self-watering pot. The water, whether from the fish tanks as in aquaponics, or nutrient water, like in a hydroponics setup, sits under the growing medium and wicks itself upwards, keeping the growing medium moist, but not soggy, and growing the plants in the top. 

The beds are very often fashioned out of large fish tanks, vinyl-lined wooden grow beds, or even old stock tanks, just something that will not leak and is at least 24 inches deep or so. A fill-pipe, usually like a 1.5-inch or 2-inch PVC pipe, is run down from the top of the bed to the bottom. Some designs have notches cut in the bottom end of the PVC to allow water to flow down, some have holes. Some designs, like the one I found, uses an elbow and a bottom pipe that runs the width or length of the bed, just for filling ease and to help the pipe stand upright. 

The beds are filled to a level (at least 8”, but could be more) with some sort of very coarse scoria (also called lava rock or clinker cinders if you get them from a landscaping company, see photo above), then covered with a sheet of landscaping fabric or fine shade cloth, so moisture can wick through, but it will hold the planting media from going down into the water. An overflow pipe should exit the wicking bed just about the level of this landscape fabric, so that water doesn’t accumulate at the planting media level and leave everything soggy. The planting media, in my case a mixture of peat moss, good quality homemade compost, and some store-bought organic potting soil, is laid on top of the landscape fabric, at least 12 to 16 inches deep. The water then wicks up through the landscape fabric into the planting medium, supposedly keeping it moist. (See terrible drawing that I made, below)

Terrible drawing, but you get the picture

As I said, the wicking bed seems to have gotten its popular start in Australia, and although some parts of the land Down Under are very jungle-y, some is as arid as my part of Arizona, so I thought I’d give it a try here. The first thing I did was research online (why reinvent the wheel, right?) and then I hit up all my hydroponics, aquaponics, and Kratky groups on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, and I learned there are no gardeners in those particular groups who have either done what I was attempting, or none that wanted to share, so here’s what I came up with.

IBC containers come in two common sizes; 275 like this one, and 330 gallons 

**It is important to note at this point that I do understand not everyone has the same access to the same materials for the same prices. For me, this entire build was completed for the cost of a couple hinges, some 2 ½-inch wood screws, and a couple 2-by-4s. It cost be about $20 to make this entire thing, given MY particular situation and access to materials. For someone else who doesn’t have access to hundreds of linear feet of recycled lumber, free IBC containers from a nearby shampoo factory, basically unlimited amounts of homemade compost, and buckets and buckets of PVC fittings, bulkhead fittings, hinges, and hardware, this could cost several hundreds of dollars to replicate.**

I used two 275-gallon IBC containers, like this:

I cut off the top 14 inches, for the lid. IBC containers come with Aluminum cages. I cut the cages with an angle grinder, and cut the plastic container, also called a tote, with the jigsaw. My son is helping me cut this one. 

I drilled a hole in the side of each tote, about 24 inches from the bottom, for the overflow pipe. I used 3/4" bulkhead fittings that I had laying around from a previous aquaponics project that never worked well. They are about $6 to 7 each on Amazon, if you buy them new. 

After I had the cages and IBC totes cut, and the drain pipe hole drilled, I laid them out where I wanted them in the yard: 

Cut IBC totes in their new home

And then I used old 2x12 boards, from old raised beds, and made a nice cover to keep light away from the water reservoirs and make it look nicer:

Wood around the beds keeps out light from the water and looks nicer

I put the fill-pipe, which I used 2-inch PVC and an elbow, next. I did drill 1/2-inch holes in the bottom pipe to help water flow out in all directions.

I put the lids on before filling the beds, so I'd know how everything was going to fit and I could be ready to cover them as soon as I had soil mix in. 

Cleaning out all the dirt and plastic shavings is important at this point. 

Clean the containers before putting the cinder in

Then I put in about 24 inches of coarse cinder. It is available for  $20 a ton from my local landscape company. I understand that you can get small bags of it from big box home improvement stores, but I needed about a cubic yard for the two bins, so there was no way I was going to buy it in tiny bags. 

After the cinder was in, I covered it with an old shade screen I had from a dog pen cover. I did wash it carefully and dry it in the sun, but it was HUGE, and it was laying around, so it worked. I know big box home improvement stores carry this, too, but they also carry landscape fabric and all sorts of other things that would work. I just happened to have this, so I used it. I had to cut a hole in the shade cloth, so it would fit over the top of the fill-pip and be snug around the cinder.

My little grandson decided he needed to try out the cinder layer before we put soil in. Such a good helper. 

Children love to help!

Then I filled with a mix of quality homemade compost, peat moss, store-bought potting soil, and a little soil from my garden piles. 

Layer the cloth, then the growing medium on top of that

Once I got the soil mix in, I went ahead and planted the beds. As of the writing on November 15, I have spinach and beets coming up in the raised beds!

Here are some more pictures of the build:

Soil mix in one bed

Testing the overflow

 Regina Hitchock is a high school biology teacher in St. Johns, Arizona, where she co-founded the Gardeners with Altitude organic garden club and brings gardening, aquaponics, aeroponics, hydroponics, and seed starting into her classrooms. She serves as Secretary for White Mountain Community Cooperative to promote food- and economically secure self-sufficiency in Arizona. Connect with Regina on Facebook, 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.

7 Delightful Mini-Indoor Garden Ideas to Liven Up Your Living Space

Adding a bit of greenery to your living space is especially welcoming during the winter months. As the outdoor world is lacking color at this time of year, indoor gardens can bring an element of life and vibrancy to your home. When space is an issue, a mini indoor garden will add just the right amount of verdant ambiance to your space.

There are many creative ways to create mini indoor gardens, but the greatest ones incorporate innovation with the simplicity of plant life. Let’s take a look at 7 examples of indoor gardens and learn how you can make them a part of your own living space.

Lightbulb Planters

With lightbulb planters, you can enjoy the delight of Edison’s creation for longer than the life of the bulb. Repurposed old lightbulbs can find a new use as mini terrariums to create an inexpensive mini garden. Combine a few of these to a window sill or shelf or create a hanging version to accentuate your living space.

Lantern terrariums take up very little space and bring a beautiful element of life to any room. Making them can be as complicated or as simple as you like, but the idea is that the sealed space of a terrarium creates a perfect environment for indoor plants. It’s basically its own recycling facility. Plants breathe in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Sunlight and carbon dioxide are taken in through photosynthesis and the plants provide food for themselves and water from the condensation from terrarium walls.

Assorted Potted Plants

Anyone can create a lovely mini indoor garden space using pots and plants, and then arrange them in an interesting way. It can be as simple or as bold as you’d like. You can choose a variety of shapes and sizes for the pots, or keep everything uniform. Even the type of plants you choose can be simple or elaborate. The arrangements can also be as effortless as stacked shelves or an intricate as hanging shelves for pots.

A garden of potted plants is especially wonderful if you grow your own plants from seeds. After they sprout and grow a bit, they can find a new home in your garden.

Mason Jar Wall Planters

mason jar plants

Mason jars are one of the most versatile everyday household items, and they make especially nice hanging herb gardens for the kitchen. With a few simple supplies, you can create a mini indoor garden that’s not only easy to create, but also easy to maintain.

Vertical Wall Garden

Vertical wall gardens require a bit of wall space, and they can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like. The one pictured above can be purchased from Williams-Sonoma, but with a little research and some legwork, you can produce a DIY version for your home.

Mini Hanging String Garden

hanging indoor plants

Add some height and depth to an indoor space with a hanging garden. The beauty and structure of the indoor plants is the focal point of hanging string gardens because the eye is not distracted by pots. Their simple elegance makes them one of the best ways to finish a room’s décor.

Bottle Garden

A bottle garden is a self-watering mini indoor garden. Using any type of bottle, from a pony beer bottle to extra-large wine bottles, you can create a unique conversation piece that doubles as an indoor garden. If you’re busy and don’t want to add more plants to water to your to-do list, consider a low-maintenance bottle garden.

When space is of concern or you’re looking for something small to add the finishing touch to a room, mini indoor gardens might be the answer. They perfectly couple simplicity with innovation, and add the perfect touch of greenery to a living space.

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

Extend Your Living Space

 basement being finished

When COVID lockdowns first appeared earlier this year, summer was on its way in, providing opportunities to get away outdoors. If lockdowns come again, some of us will face what amounts to another round of house arrest, except with the added burden of cold, wet, freezing winter weather outside. All this is why more and more people are scrambling to extend their indoor living space while they still can, and three approaches are popular.

Basic Basement Finishing

An unfinished basement offers the single most useful opportunity to do things to increase your household living area, and the work doesn’t need to take a long time or cost a lot of money if you follow what I call a “basic” approach.

Basic basement finishing is a simplified process that aims to deliver all the physical comforts of a fully finished basement, but without a finished appearance. Heat, paint and a comfortable subfloor are the main ingredients of basic basement finishing and you can make it all happen on your own for a few thousand dollars instead of the twenty or thirty thousand needed for full finishing.

Making It Happen: Lay down subfloor panels on all parts of the basement floor you intend to use. DRICORE is the most widely available, they’re the best I’ve seen, and they’re made right here in North America. You can leave these panels bare as they sit on the floor or paint them. Even urethane looks pretty good on them. While you’re at it, a fresh coat of paint on masonry basement walls makes them look so much better, and painting the exposed ceiling joists and underside of the subfloor makes a huge difference in how the space feels. Most furnaces have the capacity to heat the basement as well as upstairs rooms, but only if cold air return ducts are extended so they draw air up from the basement floor. This makes a huge difference.

working out in garage

Garage as Workout Space

One of the hardest parts of enforced isolation has been the way public gyms have either been closed or sufficiently restricted to make them unusable. This is why people are buying their own gym equipment in record numbers, but that’s not enough on its own. An indoor area to use that equipment is also essential, and this is where a garage upgrade can help. You don’t need much. A comfortable floor and a little heat during winter will do the job.

Game Plan: Lay down subfloor panels in a section of your garage to keep our feet warmer and more comfortable. Panels will also greatly reduce the shock on joints and tendons that would happen if you exercised directly on concrete – something you’re not supposed to do. The kind of plastic-bottomed subfloor panels I recommend for this application can handle more than 6,600 lbs per square foot, so they’re more than strong enough to work out on. A 5,000-watt electric construction heater costs about 75 cents per hour to operate, yet it’s large enough to take the chill off most garage spaces during workout sessions.

kid playing indoors

Tough Indoor Play Room

Got kids at home for longer than usual each day? You can reduce the damage they cause while playing with decent sized space as an indoor play room.

Game Plan: Take down and store pictures and wall hangings, then protect the current finished floor with subfloor panels. For temporary applications like this panels can even go down over carpet, too.

Alter your house a bit and it can go a long way towards extending the living space in your home. And by all accounts, it looks like some of us are in for a very interesting winter of 2020.

Steve Maxwell is a DIY expert and longtime contributor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. “Canada’s handiest man,” Steve and his family homestead on Manitoulin Island, Canada, cultivating a little patch of farmland surrounded by a sea of forest. Connect with Steve at, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter. 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.

Basic Tractor Maintenance


Photo by F. Muhammad from Pixabay

As most of us know, when it comes to self-sufficiency, the more that you can do for yourself often saves time and money. This is especially true when it comes to maintaining your property's equipment and machinery. The tractor, being a heavily used piece of machinery, is a great place to start realizing basic tractor maintenance yourself. This post is not intended to be all inclusive in its coverage of basic tractor maintenance. It merely attempts to point out some of the primary areas of consideration for maintaining your tractor.

Tractor fuel, oil, filters, battery, tires, and brake maintenance

The Fuel. When the tractor's been stored for over a few months, it is a good idea to replace its old fuel with new. New fuel ensures a quality grade of fuel, without water build-up. Water build-up often results from condensation. This water build-up can accumulate and be distributed through the fuel lines. Water in the fuel lines can then be introduced into the engine, compromising the engine or its performance.

The Oil. The tractor's oil should be changed regularly, usually at 100 hour intervals, after a heavy use period or in particularly dusty operating conditions. Check the manufacturer's maintenance manual for the specific type of engine oil to be used.

Changing the Oil. To change the oil, make sure that the tractor is securely parked and free of movement. Place a large oil drip pan beneath the tractor's oil reservoir. Remove the plug screw. Allow the old oil to drain down into the drip pan. After the oil chamber has fully drained, replace and check the security of the plug screw. Open the oil refill cap, insert a funnel down into the oil chamber and refill with the recommended amount of new oil into the tractor.

Fuel Filter. Since the tractor has been refilled with clean oil and maintenance is being accomplished, it makes sense to change the engine oil and oil filters simultaneously. Changing or cleaning the filters prevents any old dirt, dust and debris from being introduced into the new oil /or the engine. You may be able to wash and clean the filters yourself if they are not too dirty or deteriorated.

Battery. Inspect and clean the battery terminals. Check the battery's terminals for rust, cracks, corrosion or grease residue. When the tractor sits for extended periods without operating, the battery can discharge. As the battery discharges, it can weaken and overtax the alternator.

Photo by Adrienne Andersen from Pexels

Tires. Check the tires' overall integrity, making sure that they are not split, worn or cracked. Check that tires' tred depth and air pressure is adequate for proper performance. If you find the tires are in poor condition, consider getting one or more good replacements.

Brakes. Follow these instructions for replacing tractor brakes.

  1. Raise and secure tractor. If necessary, take off the rear wheels to provide easier access to the brakes.
  2. Take off the break linkage by unhooking it from its cam. Take the bolts off the cover.
  3. To take any pressure off the brake shoes, make sure that the brake cam is in neutral.
  4. Using a flathead screwdriver, or other prying tool, carefully pry off the cover. Be careful not to break or bend the cover. Remove the shoes, brake cam and O-ring.
  5. Before replacing the parts, make sure to clean any dirt and build up from the brake cam and it's cover. This prevents contamination with these substances on the reinstalled parts.
  6. To prevent excessive wear & tear on the brake shoes from the brake drum, make sure that no rust or debris is on the brake drum. If so, sand drum until smooth and clean.
  7. Install new brake shoes, O-ring and if needed, new springs. Ensure brake cam is fully lubricated.
  8. For moisture and rust prevention, add a new gasket.
  9. Replace any remaining parts, plus the bolts, linkage, and cover. Lastly, replace the rear wheels.
  10. Check and adjust the brake pedal, if needed.

Tractor belts, blades and body 

Belts. Like tires, check the overall integrity of the belts, ensure there are no cracks, splits or tears. Check that the drive belt is in good condition. You may want to observe the drive belt with the engine running. This will allow you to check that the belt is properly aligned around the fly wheel. The tractor relies on the belts to drive power to all of its internal functions

Blades. Check the security of the blades. Make sure that there are no loose nuts, bolts or screws. Once satisfied that everything is secured properly, you may then remove and sharpen the blades. With a sandstone or grinding wheel, sharpen the blades as necessary. Oil and properly replace and secure the blades back on the tractor.

Body. Finally, regularly inspect for rust on the body of the tractor. Rust breaks down and weakens the integrity of the metal. For rust prevention, conduct a thorough, (topside and underside of tractor) body inspection. If any rust is observed, sand, smooth & paint the affected area.

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 Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 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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