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

DIY Coffee Can Bird House (with Video)

empty coffee can 
An empty coffee can ready for use.
Photo by Fala Burnette

You've just brewed a pot of coffee with the remnants of your can, and are now left with an empty reminder of the aromatic grounds that formerly filled it. As you go to open the new container, you wonder how to put the old one to use and upcycle it into something fun or useful. Consider using your old coffee can to make a bird house through a craft that is suitable for an individual, or even for the family to help with! Some of these materials, including the wood and screws, can be sourced from leftovers found around the home.

SAFETY: Please remember to take safety precautions when working on projects such as this, and youngsters especially should have an adult present, and have them use the tools for them! Also, take care when mounting the bird house if using a ladder.


  • 1 x Coffee Can (plastic or metal)
  • 1 x Scrap Piece of Wood (pallet is easy to source/use)
  • 4 x Screws (recommend two short ones, about 1 inch, then two a bit longer- see instructions)
  • 1 x Drill (with accompanying drill bit to drive the screws)
  • 1 x Hole Saw (drill attachment; we used a 1 or 1-1/4 inch)
  • 1 x Sandpaper (a small hand-sanding pad block works well here)
  • OPTIONAL: 1 x Twist Drill Bit, Acrylic Paints, Paint Brushes, Polyurethane (if painting), Hot Glue Gun

Gathering Materials

Start by ensuring that your coffee can has been thoroughly washed with mild soapy water, then rinsed and dried. I recommend using a durable plastic can, or metal, for this project (some coffee cans are now made from a cardboard-like material and will fall apart easily). If you have scrap one inch thick lumber or rough cut wood, or maybe even a few pieces of pallet lying about, this is ideal for making the backing that you can use to fasten the can to a tree or post. Gather all needed tools for ease of access once you are ready to begin.

Now is the time to research the type of bird you hope to attract, and learn more about the size of the opening, location of the house, and height placement. For instance, we have many Carolina Wren in our area, and they have a wide variety of locations they inhabit (we've had them nest in a coffee can bird house at head level, or almost on the ground hidden behind the wheel of an ATV wagon/dump cart). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great website called NestWatch that allows you to see data about nest box height, entrance holes, and where to place them ideally for different birds in your area. NestWatch also is a place where members of the public can learn how to properly collect data on nesting sites without disrupting the bird and their eggs/young, and submit it to help them learn more about the nest successes/failures different birds species.

Step One: Painting

If you are going to paint anything on your scrap piece of wood, this would be the best time to do so. Start by by sanding the surface of the wood you will be using to help the paint bond to it. Line up the coffee can where you want to place it, but do not attach it yet, and lightly mark with a pencil the outside of where the can will rest. This will help you paint in a visible area, and also help line up the coffee can when you place it on here. Acrylic paints work well with this, so paint your chosen design on here. This is a great step to let kids help along with, by encouraging them to paint a welcoming design on the board! If you're exposing the painted wood to the elements, such as attaching to a tree, we recommend using polyurethane to coat the painted area. Make sure to apply outdoors or in a well-ventilated area and take proper precautions to not inhale fumes. If you use this step, give your board a few days to air and dry properly to reduce fumes. Do not paint anywhere inside where the birds will be staying!

cutting entry hole
The entryway hole and perch stick hole have been cut out from the lid, and sanded smooth.
Photo by Fala Burnette

Step Two: Drilling Hole(s)

Set your coffee can lid on a suitable wooden surface where you can cut the main entry/exit hole out safely. Have a look at nest box diagrams to see where the hole should be placed on your can, as some nests require a bit of depth for the bird to build an adequate nest. With one hand, hold the lid firmly, and use the other to cut your hole using the hole cutter attachment on your drill. If you want to add a little perch outside the bird house, use your twist drill bit below the larger hole and drill a small hole. Find a small twig that's a bit wider than the hole, and wedge it snugly inside. Or, find a twig smaller than the hole and use a glue gun to fit it into hole for the perch. (Another option is to use a mini wooden dowel here). For the entryway, use your small piece of sandpaper or handheld sanding block to gently scrub and remove any roughness.

screws through can
Screws have been drilled through the inside of the can to secure it to the wood backing.
Photo by Fala Burnette

Step Three: Attaching the Can

With the lid off of your can, use your drill to insert two screws through the back part of the can and into the board you are using for a backing/mount. You'll want to do it this way, because coming from the back side of the board and through the can will leave the pointy ends facing inward, and you don't want a bird to be hurt in this way. We used two spare 1 inch sheetrock screws for this, as they're short and provided just enough length to attach the can to the board.

Now place the lid back onto the can, and take your finished product to the location you've selected for the bird house to be mounted. I recommend making sure the area is covered/sheltered from extreme temperatures and elements if possible. Whether a post, a tree, or on a building, remember again to use care if you will be climbing a ladder. On this step, you'll want screws that are a fair deal longer than your mounting board is thick (for instance, if the board is 1 inch thick, use 1-1/2- to 2-inch-long screws to give it a good hold into the location you'll be mounting it). Again, we sourced leftovers, and actually used two roofing screws on this part! Place one screw on either end of the board, whether left and right side if made to face horizontally, or top and bottom of the board if meant to face vertically. This will help secure the bird house to its new resting place.

finished bird house
This finished bird house waits to welcome a visitor!
Photo by Fala Burnette

Now that your bird house is completed and ready for a feathered friend to move in, keep an eye on it from time to time at a distance and see who comes to visit! Before you know it, there just may be a bird scouting the new location for a potential nest (these houses may also double as a later home for chipmunks if forgotten about, and the former tenant's nest has not been cleaned out). It's your turn to take that empty coffee can, and create a unique new home for your local birds!

old bird nest 
This 2019 coffee can bird house (lid removed to reveal inside), once a nesting site for a Carolina Wren to hatch young, was later occupied by an Eastern Chipmunk.
Photo by Fala Burnette

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.

DIY Vertical Gutter Garden with Auto-Watering System

Photo by Pixabay/kriemer

We built this A-Frame garden because our homestead soil has failed us the last few years. This is a simple DIY project and a good opportunity to teach my daughter some building lessons. I designed this project in 3D using Google Sketchup. Those plans are free for you to use here. We also have a gravity fed rainwater setup from last year that can — with the help of 2 AA batteries and a RainWater Kit from Amazon — auto-water the garden on a set schedule for us! Because some people learn better by seeing, we also made a video (which was really fun) for this project. You can see it above.

This is a beginner-level DIY project using some 2-by-2s and some PVC gutters. My 13-year-old daughter, Katie, built almost this entire project herself (with just a bit of help from Dad). The setup is nice, because we can position it where we want and Katie can own it 100 percent. Also, our homestead garden failed the last few years. While we are amending our homestead garden soil, we want to be 100% sure we grow a good crop this year and this will be a great help.

Sometimes people learn better via video, so Katie and I also created a video version of this project (take a look above). The supplies needed for this project could be found at most large home improvement and hardware stores. We picked our supplies up at Menards.


  • 8- 2x2x8 pressure-treated boards
  • 1- 2x6x8 pressure-treated board (this will be cut down to 5 feet long not 8, so get shorter if you can find it. In our project we used cedar because we had it)
  • 3- 10 foot PVC rain gutters
  • 12- gutter end caps
  • 12- gutter attachment brackets
  • 4- 4-nch flap hinges
  • 1- box of 2 1/2-inch construction screws
  • 1- container of wire staples or similar. The Auto-Watering Kit comes with some staples but we needed more.
  • 1- Automatic Watering Kit from Amazon


  • Saw
  • Drill/driver
  • Wire cutter/aviation snips (something to cut the small water tubing)
  • Countersink bit or bit to predrill holes

Step 1: Start Cutting Your Material

Step1 Cutting Material

OK, there aren't any ladders in this project but the two sides of the A-Frame garden look like ladders and that is what we will call them for simplicity.

The two ladders are comprised of three rungs and two side: 3 + 2 = 5 times 2 = 10. So we need to end up with 4-foot pieces. So start by cutting five of the 2x2x8s in half to end up with ten 4-foot lengths.

Next, cut the three of the 10-foot-long gutters in half to end up with six 5-foot lengths. I carefully and slowly did this on our miter saw.

Finally, cut the 2x6x8 "shelf" down to 5-feet-long. The ladders will be 4-feet-long and the shelf and gutters will overhang and be five feet long.

Step 2: Prepare the 2 'Ladders'

Step 2 Prepare the Ladders

Lay out the ladders on the ground. Each rung should be one foot down from the top/next piece. Now we want to mark the holes for each of the three rungs so we can drill pilot holes

In the picture we positioned 2 pieces even with each other and measured down one foot and marked both boards with a speed square and pencil. Afterwards we realized we should have done four at one time. So do four at once. Measure down one foot, mark all four boards (this is your top rung), measure down another foot from your mark and pencil all four boards for your second rung and then down one more foot for the bottom rung.

With your boards marked use a small drill bit our counter sink bit and drill a hole in the center of each mark. This is where you will screw through to attach your rung to the side boards.

Now your ladders and rungs are all prepared for the next step, assembly.

Step 3: Assemble the 'Ladders'

Step 3 Assemble Ladders 

Now it's a matter of screwing in the rungs to each side. We used our drill and the construction screws. Don't go too tight on the rungs. We left them slightly loose so that we could tilt them level once the gutter is attached. Plus you don't want to split the boards.

Assemble both ladders.

Step 4: Attach the Top Shelf Hinges

Step 4 Attach Hinges

The next step is to attach the top shelf with the four-inch flap hinges. Lay out the ladders and the shelf on a large table or on the ground.

Keep in mind you are looking at it upside down. Measure 6 inches over on each side of your shelf (since your shelf is 1 foot wider it will overhang the ladders by 6 inches on each side). This is where you want your hinge to attach to the ladders so mark your shelf. Our shelf wasn't wide enough to allow both ladder hinges to align perfectly without overlapping so we staggered them slightly. Attached the hinges to both sides with the screws that came with the hinges.

Step 5: Attach the Gutter Brackets

Step 5 Attach Gutter Brackets 

Next we want to attach the gutters to the rungs. But first we need to secure this wobbly A-Frame. Attach a temporary board across the top to keep it upright. We had some leftover boards from the shelf we used. You don't have to be fancy here. Remember this is hinged so at the end of the season we could remove several screws to collapse the unit for easier storage.

It will be much sturdier once we add the braces across rungs and under the gutter. The gutter is supported by two gutter brackets in the center- and in the next step we will add some cross braces which will add stability and support the edge of each gutter even more, but let's focus on the brackets first:

Measure in 16 inches from each side of the rung and mark the rung for all six rungs on both sides. This is the location of each of the 12 brackets, two per rung. Next screw in your gutter brackets.

Then install the gutter end caps on each gutter.

And finally click the gutters into place on each rung. Once in place slide the gutter left or right so that you have a six-inch overhang on each side to match your shelf.

Step 6: Install Your Cross Bracing, and Final Assembly

Step 6 Install Cross Brace and Final Assembly

The cross bracing are simply boards that go across each rung from one ladder to the other side, under the gutter.

They serve two purposes, they provide stability and they support the edge of each gutter (while the center is supported by the brackets).

We took our remaining 2x2s and placed them under the bottom gutter and across and we marked the board so it would be long enough to support both gutters on each side but not hang over beyond the gutters. Then we cut each to size and screwed into place as pictured.

At the end of the season if you want to collapse your garden- you will remove these same screws and set the bracing aside to fold this up.

Next drill a ton of holes in each gutter to allow for drainage. You could use the same bit you used to pre-drill your screws in the earlier step.

And now your basic structure is built! You could now remove the gutters now and paint it if you want. Since we used pressure treated boards we are going to let them dry out a bit before painting it white. White is a good color to reflect heat.

Step 7: Install the Automatic Watering Kit

Step 7 Install Water Kit 

The final step is to install the Automatic Watering Kit we picked up from Amazon.

With this kit we can set a timer to auto-water the garden whenever we want. This kit was enough for all of the gutter plants but not enough for the top shelf. We plan to expand the kit once we get the containers on the shelf - we can T off of the tubes to auto-water the shelf.

Follow the directions for your kit. We did three feeders per gutter.

First measure the length across from each gutter on the bottom and then cut six pieces of line half that length (we will have a T in the center aiming up. Then assemble three cross lines (two of the cut lines with a T in the center and drippers on each side). Pass them across and staple them in place. Repeat the same for the center rung (which will not be as long) and then the same for the top rung.

Next measure up from the bottom T to the center rung and cut 3 more pieces of tube. Attach to the bottom T and cut the hose above and tap in with a new T. I know it's a lot of T's! Repeat for the second rung of hoses. Then on the top T your way back to the right side where we will connect to the auto-timer. You could connect the auto-timer to the A-Frame or leave some extra length. We plan to place ours near a fence so we left a longer length from the A-frame to the auto-timer.



This was an easy project with a clever design and it will be nice to automate the watering setup. I designed this project in 3d using Google Sketchup. Those plans are free for you to use here. Please consider watching the video version of this project here.

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.

Blazing New Trails on a Rural Property

Tree-lined trails bring beauty and maintenance. Photo from Pexels

Take a walk down the trail of any two homesteads and you will likely come away with two entirely different experiences. It should come as no surprise that most homestead trails reflect the owner's different tastes and the ways in which they typically use their homestead.

Homestead trails needn't suffer their appearance in exchange for utility, nor do they have to affect any extremes in design to make them both useful and functional.

Trails can offer homestead owners a golden opportunity to improve the utility of their trails, while increasing the homestead's overall beauty and value.

I should mention that the word trail is used broadly. It includes most roads, paths or passageways typically found on a homestead.

In their simplest form, trails provide an accessible  means of transport. They should allow for the most frequent and commonly used homestead transportation situations and a few specific ones, if necessary.
They do not need to be excessively manicured or play any part of an expensive, poorly functioning landscape design. Homestead owners should consider all of their typical uses to guide their design choices. Trails can be as welcoming and gracious or as rugged and utilitarian as desired.

Design choices aside, the most ideal feature should include a trail which leads one safely and efficiently across any part of the homestead, at any given time... day or night, rain or shine..

Since there are as many ways of achieving highly functioning and attractive trails as there are homesteads, here are a few basic points that you may want to consider when establishing or improving the trails of your homestead property.

1. Obtain a survey map of the property

Or create a rough draft using draft paper. You can convert the property's actual dimensions to plan scale on draft paper. This can be explained further by conducting a quick internet search. Once the property's dimensions are on paper, identify any major topographical features. Consider if these features may be used to full advantage, when planning and routing the trails safely around them. These are areas which may have the greatest natural potential of enhancing the trail aesthetically or  otherwise.

Plant higher-maintenance plants closer to the homestead. Photo by Monica White

2. Identify the best location for a temporary or permanent worksite

As well as any storage sites which may become necessary for tools, excess soil or brush and tree cuttings.

3. Predict accumulation

Before cutting down trees or brush, carefully plan where you may utilize or store the resulting piles of accumulation. The same applies to any accumulation of soil that is dug up as well.

4. Take care to remove roots as completely as possible

In some cases, with felled trees, leave 3 to 4 feet of tree stump to assist with pulling the trunks up completely in the clearing effort. The remaining tree stump provides adequate leverage to attach to and allow them to be pulled up completely.

5. If a road is required, dig out the road bed and build it back up with leveled, sturdy layers of large rocks

Fill the large rocks in with smaller rocks to stabilize this sublayer of the road. Adding fill bond dirt prior to applying the road's top surface layer, will offer the final layer of stabilization for the structure of the road.

Make use of pine needles as trail mulch. Photo by Monica White

6. Carefully look at any areas which may cause flooding

You may address this by using gravity and slope angles to your best advantage. Pay particular attention to where you will direct and manage the accumulated water runoff. During heavy or constant rains, proper planning will pay off in how fast and how much water pools or drains through an effective drainage system. The proper slope angles will allow gravity to offer fast or slow drainage. Angle slopes for the best rain run-off and dig an appropriate drainage system to handle the greatest capacity of water accumulation. Consult weather charts to get some idea of your area's average yearly rainfall.

7. Add a 'turn-around'

It's also good to make additional maneuvering space in areas where vehicles will need to reverse course safely and efficiently.

8. Consider making your own concrete stepping stones

You can use uniformed or creatively shaped molds. The stones may be customized using colored stain and imprints. Making your own molds are an inexpensive way to add beauty, form and function to a trail. An 80-pound bag of general sand-concrete mix should work well and will easily accept small glass chips or pebbles embedded as decoration.

Overall, your primary objective when establishing or improving trails, should be to create form and function. Take a good look at your trails and their use. Identify all that is working well and not so well; making improvements where needed. Use the property's natural features to their best advantage when planning, routing and orienting trails. As a nice touch, offer comfortable places of respite in the most ideal or even surprising places along a trail.The trail should be an experience onto itself. At the very least, when establishing or improving trails, a homestead owner may take the opportunity to add beauty, form and function, while increasing the property's overall value.

In closing, I will share a short story:

On a lazy spring morning, a homesteader was found working peacefully in a small garden shed. A torrential rain shower blew in from the south. Needing to hurry back inside, the homesteader rushed down a narrow path leading back to the main house. In rugged, muddy boots, they struggled hard to keep their footing. The ground, soggy and soft, seemed to give way with each unsteady step. Nearly falling, the homesteader caught their balance by landing on a solidly placed stepping stone. The stones had been laid recently.

Feeling lucky to have escaped the fall, the grateful homesteader thought of widening the path with additional stones. This led to the thought of adding a covered walkway leading from the back of the main house to the garden shed. Which then led to another thought of adding an enclosed, covered walkway along that portion of trail. Then an immediate thought came of that one, for converting portions of the enclosed covered walkway, into extensions of glass greenhouse segments. And so it went, on and on the never ending trail of projects which lead and follow the homesteader home.

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.


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 Pantry Door for Under $20

Pantry Door

Our pantry is the heart of our homestead. Going on year five of homesteading, our pantry has seen its share of homemade canned goods from the garden rotate through. While our pantry serves a great purpose, it’s also a bit ugly. It's tucked away at the end of our hall and hidden behind an old folding door. While looks don’t mean much to us, we do spend a ton of time at home and we enjoy investing in our home and improving it, because it only increases the overall value.

We’ve had our eye on one of those fancy glass pantry doors they sell at the home improvement stores, but with prices in the several hundreds of dollars, we just couldn't justify purchasing one so we decided to make our own for under $20! Whether you want to make your own pantry door or not, we have a frugal tip that should help any homesteader.

Our main tip is: Buy used and save the difference! We are a frugal bunch here and I would say our frugality has allowed us to purchase our dream homestead and live a relatively free lifestyle. One of our favorite thrift stores for homestead items is the Habitat Restore. If you are not familiar, think of a thrift store for home improvement projects. They have over 900 locations across the U.S. Restores recycle and salvage doors, cabinets, windows, tools, garden implements and so much more. The prices are often good (more on this below)  and per their website: Proceeds are used to help build strength, stability, self-reliance and shelter in local communities and around the world — a good deal for you, your community and the environment.

We’ve scored some amazing deals at the Habitat Restore over the years. But we’ve found the prices are hit or miss: some items are way overpriced while others are a steal. We’ve found doors and windows to be priced really low. On our homestead, we’ve got some amazing and unique windows mostly from the Habitat Restore. For example we have a really unique arched window in our homestead dog kennel which we bought for $9 from the Habitat Restore.

So about a year ago, after deciding we wanted to spruce up our pantry but couldn’t justify spending hundreds on a pre-made pantry door, we started looking for a glass door at the Habitat Restore. My wife, Jen, owns a Cricut Crafting Machine and could make a "Pantry" label  for the door — or we could buy a “Pantry” decal online.

So without urgency, we’ve been checking the Habitat Restore from time to time and last week we found a perfect glass door. The price tag said $65 but at Habitat Restore they have colored tags and each tag has a specific discount, we got lucky with this door (we have been looking for quite some time) and it was 75% off. Grand total of $17 for a heavy-duty really nice glass door!

I had to work on the door a bit for it to fit in our space. Jen used her Cricut Maker to create a vinyl decal to stick to the door she also frosted the glass with some frost spray in a can. Best of all we personalized the decal. We used our little homestead logo but replaced our homestead name with the word “Pantry”. It really turned out amazing, increased the value of our home and all for under $20!

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.

Lessons from 30 Years of Knitting Clothing

Sweater before changing waistband and before washing. Photos by Jo deVries

This months’ blog post is a follow-up to last November’s Knitting with Natural Fibres. Most autumns, I start planning at least one knitting project. Knitting makes my long winters in Ontario, Canada, pass more pleasurably. It also produces a warm garment that keeps me cozy and happy while knitting it.

I usually start by looking through my inventory, to see if anything catches my interest. My yarn collection was severely depleted three years ago when I went on a knitting spree. I tackled all my unfinished projects that had accumulated, and knit up of bunch of odds and ends for gifts. What a great feeling to complete that task! The result: three sweaters, a headband, two pairs of bed socks, and at least six sets of wrist warmers.

This time, I was looking for a yarn to make a fairly thick outdoor sweater for myself; something that would knit-up relatively quickly. Most of the yarns left in my stash were high quality, thin cottons — that take ages to knit-up. I prefer to use those types of yarns for baby and children’s sweaters. Cottons are comfortable, durable, and machine washable; great for kids. So, I decided to save those yarns for the future children of friends and relatives. After sorting through everything and not finding what I wanted, I went to my mom’s wool shop, “Wool-Tyme” in Ottawa, probably Canada’s largest yarn store. I was like a kid in a candy store. And my mom owned it all.

Finding the Right Yarn

The choice was overwhelming; good thing I had lots of time to look. Hundreds of yarns to choose from, and the colours — absolutely dreamy! Finally, I found something spectacular! It was a beautiful wool and silk blend; a superb mix of many jewel tones, and super comfy to squish in one’s hands. The raw silk squeaked like fresh cheese curds.

Unfortunately, there were only four 100-gram balls left (discontinued yarn), and I guessed I needed about seven or eight for a large sweater. I can only a wear a wool garment if it’s really loose fitting and not the least bit picky, so, I was planning on knitting a sweater with at least a 44-inch chest.

I decided to add four skeins of another yarn, and just use each of the yarns, on alternate rows. This would make the yarn I loved, go twice as far. The second yarn was a wool and acrylic blend. I shuddered a bit, at the 60% synthetic content (true yarn snob) but convinced myself that the acrylic would probably help the sweater keep its shape. If I found out that the sweater wasn’t comfortable enough to wear, my son Jordan would gladly inherit it.

I knew the yarns would be fantastic to knit with, even if I couldn’t wear the finished garment. This second yarn was also a bit thinner than the first yarn, so I decided to knit an extremely thin 100% wool along with it. It’s truly amazing that wool can be spun as thin as thread, and wrapped in those complex skeins without complete mayhem.

Knowing that at least two of these yarns would relax after washing — meaning they would lose much of their elasticity, stretch and change in texture — I decided to knit a 42-inch sweater.  After washing, I guessed it would stretch to about 46 inches at the chest. Perfect.

Knitting is a Labour of Love

The yarn I had picked was considered a chunky weight yarn which meant that it wouldn’t take forever to knit up. Most people have no idea how many hours it takes to knit a sweater. A thick (bulky), small adult sweater could take as few as 20 hours, while a thin knit garment in a large size, with a detailed pattern could easily take 125 hours. Then, there’s the extra hours…

The first step in knitting any garment is to make a tension swatch. This will determine whether or not your knitting produces the same result as the person who wrote the knitting pattern. I need to use at least one size smaller needle than what is required by the yarn manufacturer if I want to achieve the proper result.

I’ve been designing knitwear for 30 years, so I don’t usually follow a pattern, but I still have to make a tension swatch to determine how many stitches I’ll need, and what size of needle I’m going to use. Although the knitted tension piece needs only be a fairly small square, a complex pattern knit in a fine yarn could mean at least an extra hour of work. If one is not completely happy with the sample result, it means ripping-out one’s work and knitting another sample on a different size needle.

Sometimes, three or four samples are required before I’m satisfied with the fabric texture I’m looking for. That’s a lot of extra hours, but luckily, I love knitting. Once that’s done, I’m ready to work out the math required to design a garment, then I’m ready to start knitting my sweater. Or almost…

Tools to Make Your Knitting Project Easier

Many yarns are sold, wound in skeins. In the old movies and photographs, grandpa is sitting with both arms out in front of him, with a skein of wool wrapped around them. Grandma would wind the skeins into balls, to avoid a big tangled mess. The whole procedure could take an entire evening, just to rewind the wool required for one sweater. Sometimes grandpa bailed, and the back of a chair was used instead.

Today we have gadgets (of course we do) to make the job quicker and easier. Luckily, only two of the yarns I was using were in skeins. With the aid of a ball winder and a skein winder, I had all my yarns ready to go in about an hour.

Ball winder and wkein winder (sample yarn)

Knitting Needles

My knitting needle collection consists of circular needles and sets of sock needles (called sets of four, although some companies sell five in a pack). I’m very clumsy with straight needles, and I prefer to avoid sewing-up seams, so I usually knit in the round; which requires circulars and sets. Because I have arthritis in my fingers, I usually use bamboo, wooden or plastic needles. The steel ones are too cold to hold, for hours on end.

Straight pairs, circular, and sets of sock needles        

The Finished Product

Sometimes, I’ll design an item while knitting it (usually because I’m too lazy to spend the time on the math), but that means taking a big chance of messing up, and having to rip-out hours of work to re-work a section. Being Dutch (wooden shoes, wooden head, wouldn’t listen…), that is my usual course. Still, I love knitting.  Although I had to knit the yoke twice, and re-work the waist-band design a couple of times, the sweater was finished in about 60 hours. I wore it once. My son has been living in it ever since. This makes us both very happy.


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.



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These Reinforced DIY Tomato Cages Can Be Used in All Seasons


Photos by Kathy Shaw

Tomato Cages aren’t just for use in the summer any longer. We find uses them just about year-round. In the spring they serve as low tunnel frames with plastic to warm up soil and get a jump start on the growing season for lettuce and other greens as well as support for tall pea vines.

Summer has them supporting indeterminate tomato plants and as well as vining cucumbers, melons, beans and squash. They also work as a low tunnel support with insect barrier fabric over broccoli and other cole crops.


Fall brings them back to the ground as low tunnels with plastic to extend the season, while others just lay on the ground to the west (prevailing wind) side of the pond to stop blowing leaves from entering it.


Then in winter, they do double-duty as protection around shrubs to keep the deer from nibbling or rubbing and also on top of our frozen pond so the deer don’t fall in where the aerators keep the water either open or with thinner ice, dependent on the actual weather. The first year we had the pond we learned this the hard way since we saw a deer go into the water and couldn’t get back out again in the approximate four foot zone. Pat, my husband, and I had to wade through over two feet of snow to get to the pond, then Pat lassoed the deer and hauled her out to safety. Come spring we found that a second deer had fallen in one of the other six aerators and wasn’t so lucky, as it stayed unnoticed under the ice until it thawed.


Cage Instructions

We use 5-foot-tall concrete reinforcement wire for our tomato cages and four-foot T poles to keep them upright. Pat counts out 13 of the 6-inch squares of the wire or about 12 feet and cuts it off the roll, then cuts off all of the last square except for two wires, the second from the top and second from the bottom. This gives us about a 2-foot circle with the two wires to fold back along the other edge and keep the frame circular. Having the other wires cut flush with the squares helps the harvester to not get scratched when reaching in to grab tomatoes or cucumbers. 

Opened tomato cage as low tunnel

Opened tomato cage as low tunnels

Low Tunnels

Using a cage opened up, plastic or fabric can be binder-clipped or clothes-pinned onto the frame. We put a couple of bricks on one long edge of the frame itself to act as hinges, lay down a couple more bricks on the other side of the bed, stretch the other cage edge over them and to hold the tunnel in place. Additional bricks on the material at the hoop ends keep the tunnel closed.

If using plastic in spring or fall, be sure to peel it back from the ends during warm days so you don’t burn your plants. By the way, the plastic underlayment left over from installing laminate floors is the perfect width for these tunnels.

Tomatoes in cages

Tomatoes in cages


We can fit three of the cages into our 4-by-8-foot beds for the sprawling tomato plants we grow. After the tomatoes are planted and caged, the only maintenance is to gently pull the growing tips back into the cage weekly, a very pleasant and easy task to do. Some of the tomato varieties we grow will make it all the way to the top of the cage and back down to the ground in our Wisconsin summer — a whopping 10 feet of growth!

Cucumbers growing up cages

Peas, Cucumbers, and Melons

These plants need some encouragement to get them climbing as they tend to sprawl or reach for other supports, but again, a once a week regiment of moving them to the desired location will keep them growing up the cages. Note that once the melons start to size up, they will need a sling to support them; the cage is heavy enough to tie the slings to. No need to sling cucumbers, they will stay hanging down ready to pick and it’s much, much easier than searching through the picky vines then when they are prostrate.

Pole beans on arch

Pole beans on arch

Beans, Squash, and Pumpkins and Arch Instructions

The varieties we grow have longer vines than five feet so we typically grow these on arches using the same wire with six foot T poles to create 7 foot arches that are four feet wide on the north side of the garden beds. Counting out about 32 squares or 16 feet, Pat cuts the fencing in two the long way to make two 16-foot lengths and cuts the tails off flush with the vertical wires, making two separate arches. The poles are hammered into place and the wires are woven over them in about the middle of the two foot spread.

These arches will last a very long time are sturdy enough for 10 pound pumpkins and add more dimension to the garden. We have six of them, three to grow squash and pumpkins and three to grow beans. We rotate or flip the crops annually.

Two notes. One: make the arch lower if you can’t reach 7 feet or you won’t be able to pick the beans at the top of the arch. Two: squash and pumpkins will need to be trained gently, don’t break the vines. There is no need to sling the pumpkins though and they look so cool hanging in the late summer garden.

Pumpkins on arch

Pumpkins on arch

Uses for Pre-Fab Tomato Cages

Even though we do make our own tomato cages, we still use quite a few of the cages that can be purchased at a garden center. These are great for eggplant and pepper plants which have a tendency to fall over when weighted with fruit. They are also great to prop up taller, floppy flowers such as peonies, hollyhocks, roses, verbascum and the like. We have one small flower garden in the middle of the yard with these types of plants along a couple of bird feeders.

The cages stay in that garden all year. When the plants are cut back in the fall, we cull 3- to 4-foot white pine trees from our woods and just prop them up in the cages to give the birds some perches and extra protection from wind and predators all winter. They make for a nice view for us too.

Pre-fab cages for winter

Kathy Shaw has gardened for more than 30 years, including as a test gardener for Organic Gardening magazine. She and her husband, Pat, are Master Gardeners and owners of Kathy’s Island Botanicals, where they make and sell natural bath products. They live in an earth-sheltered home on 35 acres in central Wisconsin. Read all of Kathy’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.

Soap Making for the Beginner, Part I

Photo by Sarah Hart Boone

If you have never made your own soap before, this is the first of a two-part lesson. It is soap making for the total beginner. I have been making soap for years and recently decided to try to develop a recipe for a reliable batch of soap using ingredients I can easily obtain, instead of ordering exotic oils by mail. This would make it easier for people who are curious about making soap but don’t know how to begin.

Traditionally, people used a combination of wood ash and lard to make soap. The Soap Factory has an interesting account of the history and chemistry of soap making and the traditional methods of rendering fat and obtaining potash from wood ash. I applaud the homesteader who chooses to make soap using materials at hand and traditional methods. Those of us who want to make things easier need to purchase their materials. In place of wood ash we can easily find lye at any hardware store. The oils are more difficult. Many homemade soap recipes use coconut oil, palm oil and olive oil as the base ingredients. Soap made from these oils are nice and hard, it lathers well and it is soothing to the skin. The problem for me is that it is not that easy to find hydrogenated (solid at room temperature) coconut oil and palm oil where I live. When I am going to make a large quantity of soap, like many batches for holiday gifts, I don’t mind ordering oils by the mail from Columbus Foods. They have a "Soaper's Choice area of their website with just about any exotic oil you could want in quantities as small as 7 pounds.  For smaller and one-time batches, this is not practical.  You can’t store oil for long periods of time because it gets rancid, especially in my very hot (in the summer) Chicago home. I thought others may have avoided making soap due to the difficulty of obtaining supplies. Also, some people do not want to use palm oil because of  environmental concerns. I decided to develop a very simple and basic soap recipe for the beginner using supplies you can buy easily. We still want to make a batch of soap that is hard, produces lather and is gentle to the skin, but we are going to use oils that you can find at the grocery store and pharmacy.

For Part 1 of this soap making tutorial you will gather all of your materials. Next week you can combine them into a batch of soap.

Equipment soap
Photo by Sarah Hart Boone


  • Lightweight bowl to hold oils while you weigh them
  • Glass jars, one to hold lye, one to hold water. The water jar should be around the size of a pickle jar or if it is a canning glass a #19 Ball jar is good
  • Rubber spatula
  • Digital kitchen scale (Try to borrow one if you don’t have one) 
  • Candy thermometer (able to withstand very high temperatures)
  • Pot to heat the oil in. This must be stainless steel or no-stick. An aluminum pan will react with the lye
  • Paper towels
  • Plastic shoe box or a similar vessel (like a small cake pan) to use as mold. Line with cling wrap or wax paper
  • Hand stirrer (also called immersion blender.) You can find inexpensive models for under $20
  • Newspaper or something to protect work surface 


  • 23 ounces (by weight) of olive oil. The photo shows extra virgin oil. In fact, the best olive oil to use for soap is the lowest-quality "pomace" oil so try to find the cheapest oil possible. Pomace can often be found in tins at Middle Eastern or Greek groceries or Aldi.
  • 13 ounces (by weight) corn oil
  • 4.8 ounces (by weight) red devil lye (don’t weigh it until part II)
  • 2- one ounce cocoa butter sticks (look at a drug store. (They can be found at Walgreens or other drug stores in the cosmetics department) 

Plus, optional...

Herbs. You may add small amounts of dried herbs to your soap for texture and color. The herbs will not add any scent to the soap so don't worry about how they smell. Remember that the lye is so harsh you will not usually retain bright colors from your herbs and instead need to aim for a range of natural colors if you are planning on using herbs for color. (You can also purchase synthetic soap colors at crafts stores to get any color of the rainbow.) For example, lovely purple lavender flowers turn brown after they mix with the soap. Some herbs that retain a bit of color follow:

  • Cocoa powder - for brown tones
  • Paprika -for pale pink
  • Turmeric spice -for yellow
  • Oregano - pale green
  • Spirulina powder (seaweed) - green
  • Oatmeal - adds no color but is said to make soap more soothing
  • Mixed tea- if you find it hard to obtain dried herbs you can buy a mixed tea like "Sleeptyime: and crush that up. 

Scents. You can use either essential oils or fragrance oils to scent your soap. That's it. Do not add old perfume, body spray, or anything else. Those products contain extra ingredients that will interfere with the soap making process.

Essential Oils. Essential oils are all natural, may have beneficial qualities and they are expensive. You can find them at health food stores or at a much better price online at places like Glorybee Foods. You will need to add at least 1-1/2 tablespoons or more of essential oils for this batch to be scented. Oils to steer clear of are citrus oils, they smell great initially but fade quickly. I like to use strong oils that are on the less-expensive side like rosemary, lavender, patchouli, and cinnamon.

Fragrance Oils Fragrance oils can be purchased at craft stores, some health food stores like Whole Foods, or online. They are less expensive than essential oils and made from artificial ingredients. For this recipe you would use around 4 teaspoons of fragrance oils. Occasionally fragrance oils can cause strange reactions when you make soap. This happens rarely, but is a risk you take in order to save enormous quantities of money.

safety soap
Photo by Sarah Hart Boone

Safety: You will be working with very dangerous lye to make your soap. Exercise extreme caution. Plan on wearing gloves and eye protection. You can wear a face mask when you stir the lye into the water or otherwise avoid breathing in the fumes. Keep your work area clear of children, pets, and food or dishes. Do not use tinfoil or aluminum when making soap. Use glass jars, stainless steel bowls and pans. Store your extra lye someplace very safe with the child-safety lid on tight. I clear out my entire kitchen when making soap so that I can use the sink to hold everything. That way if something overflows it will go down the drain and not all over the counters and floor.

Last step before Part II - Line your mold with plastic wrap or wax paper.

Next blog: We will melt the oils, dissolve the lye and combine them to make a batch of soap!

Continue to Part II: Soap-Making for the Beginner.

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