Decking the Halls

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When I was a child, earning extra money was an important part of life for me and my twin brother. My father was a forklift driver at a plywood mill, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. With five children, there was not a lot of money for childhood fun.

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In the summer, we had neighborhood bottle hunts, looking for glass pop bottles that would earn us three cents each—five cents for the big ones. We had lemonade stands, too, and at eight years old, I started picking strawberries at the farms. They paid a few pennies for every box of berries picked, and it added up. I still remember the three dollar church shoes I bought with my strawberry money.

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In the fall, my twin brother and I sold pumpkins we had grown over the summer in our parents’ garden. We set the pumpkins up on picnic benches in the front yard, with a big sign, and people came to our door to buy them.

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The winter, though, was our big money-earning season. We made evergreen swags and sold them door to door, earning enough money to buy Christmas presents for our family. Back then, we used pruning shears to hack off any branch within reach. My mother must have shuddered, watching the trees she had raised from seedlings being so carelessly pruned. She allowed it, though, hoping we would learn the value of money.

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We pooled our allowance money to buy basic materials: craft wire, ribbon, and spray snow. Our father loaned us his tools–with threats of terrible consequences if they were lost or damaged.  We worked together in our garage, wiring branches together and adding large red bows, pine cones, and the occasional spritz of snow.

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I became more purposeful over time, and more careful. During the last year, I took note of branches that needed to be removed: a branch that continually triggered a motion-activated light on windy nights; one that rubbed against the garage roof; another one that drooped in the rain, to brush my head with dripping greenery.

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I tried to trim the branches more carefully, too. Most of the time, I clipped the branches as close to the trees’ trunks as possible. When that wasn’t possible, I tried to clip them where branches divided, or at least bent.

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I have always liked to use a variety of greenery in my decorating. In my childhood, we had two Douglas Fir trees, and one Mountain Hemlock. We also had a holly tree, but that was out of bounds. After retirement, back in Western Washington, I had a small property that included fir, cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees, as well a a large, berry-covered holly tree. The holly tree was ten times larger than the one in my parents’ yard, so I didn’t feel bad stealing a few branches—especially low hanging ones.

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When I went out to gather greenery, I was planning a swag and a wreath. I also liked to hang tiny swags and garlands around the house. They smelled good, and brightened my mood.

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I clipped all of the problem branches I had identified, and a few others as well, moving around my yard, leaving piles of clipped branches below the trees I trimmed. Some problem branches would have required a ladder to reach, and I wasn’t able to wrestle my very heavy ladder around. I’d have to get those later. For the moment, I was focused on getting branches for decorating.

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Once I had cut as many branches as I wanted to, I gathered them near the house. I couldn’t work on the deck, because my daughter’s dogs would have chewed, eaten, or dragged away a fair portion of my greenery. That meant I had to work near the driveway.

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It seemed logical to make separate piles of the different types of branches. I had a very large pile of hemlock, because we had a lot of that. Smaller piles of cedar, fir, spruce, and holly added to the variety.

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I began the swag—my first project—by stacking a few nicely shaped branches of hemlock together, adding other types one by one. Hemlock, cedar, and fir were easy to handle. Spruce required a gentler touch, because it was very prickly.  My cat came to help, and to soothe my sore fingers.  I knew he really just wanted to be petted and carried, but I tried to pretend he had generous motives.

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I had picked up some craft wire at a fabric store a few days earlier. Any thin, sturdy, flexible wire will do, and hardware stores had often been my source. It just had to be strong enough wire to hold without breaking. Of course, as soon as I unfastened the end of the wire from the spool, it unwound itself, leaving me with vast coils of thin wire.

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My wire clipping pliers worked well to cut a two-foot length. I wrapped the bottom layers of greenery first, twisting the wire around the top of the branches, just below a fork, so the branch couldn’t just slip out of the wire loop. There was nothing as disheartening as hanging a swag and finding a branch or two on the floor later.

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Layer by layer, I added greenery. After the hemlock came cedar and fir. Spruce brought a blue tinge to the swag—and a few grumbles as the much more prickly foliage scratched my hands. Maybe I should have let the dogs eat that one! When it was all safely wired together, I brought out my roll of wide red plastic ribbon. The ribbon was not expensive, and could be re-used, so a roll lasted a very long time. I wired the bow in place.

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My brother and I used to attach large pine cones to the swags we sold. None of my trees made the right kind of pine cones, and I didn’t think I could re-train them. I decided to watch for cones during the year. Meanwhile, three non-breakable round ornaments added a note of colorful contrast.

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The last step in this process was to loop a triple strand of wire around the top of the swag, and twist it into a loop for hanging the swag. A single strand would probably have done the job, but I wanted to be sure the swag did not fall.

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We used to recommend putting a tack into the top of the door, and dangling a wire from that to suspend the swags we sold. A few years ago, though, I bought a wreath hanger, so I used that. The prevalence of metal doors has made the tack idea less practical.

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The swag was larger than I anticipated. I got carried away, for some reason. It was green, and fragrant, and colorful, and the process of making it had brought me sweet memories. I didn’t mind the size, though my son-in-law laughed at the jungle hanging on the door.

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I still had a wreath to make, though. Wreaths have always been harder for me, and there were several options for making them. I didn’t like to buy foam or straw wreath bases in craft stores, though. They work, and are easy, but I wanted something more natural. Instead of buying a base, I trimmed my greenery until I had a number of thin, flexible, branches of decent length.

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I laid them out in an overlapping pattern, and began to wire them together into a straight line of green foliage. As I wrapped the wire around them in a spiral, I tugged small twigs free of the wire, for a fluffy wreath. If I had stopped after making straight bundles of greenery, I could have used them as garlands, with a few pine cones or ornaments added, and some wire looped for hanging them.

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I wanted a wreath, though, so when I had the four- to six-foot line of branches securely fastened, I overlapped the ends, and continued spiraling the wire. The wreath was complete, and after easing a few more pieces loose, I was ready for the fun part. What that was depended on my mood.

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Some years, I have used wire to attach a few ornaments to the wreath. Other years, I preferred pine cones. Once, I attached small red and white gingham bows. The decorations added to the wreath depend on taste, so I learned to have fun, and I’ve seen wonderful wreaths decorated with chili peppers, cinnamon sticks, candy canes, hard candy, plastic birds, gold garland, and many other things.

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I usually wanted a big red bow on a wreath, but a bow of any color, or no bow at all, has been just as pretty. The wreath was always beautiful, and more versatile than I would have expected. One year, my daughter wanted an advent wreath, so I found a way to attach bows and candles, though not the right colors. Instead of hanging the wreath, I set it on a table for her.

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I have always loved Christmas: the lights, and trees, the tinsel, all of it. I love the public decorations, and the mood in town. I enjoy the energy of the season, and all of the busy things I get to do for other people. Being able make swags, garlands, and wreaths allowed me to decorate a lot more than I could have if I had needed to buy everything. I think, if a child came to my door selling swags, I would find a way to buy one, just for the joy of seeing my own childhood tradition carried on.

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Coping with a Coop

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I have had chickens for most of my adult life. For many years, I kept 25 hens, replacing the whole flock every three years to keep egg production high. I had three growing children, and we ate eggs scrambled, fried, boiled, in omelets and casseroles, and creamed on biscuits. We sold a few, and gave a few away, too.

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When I moved home to Washington, though, I didn’t have a coop for chickens. I didn’t have the time, energy, or money to build one, either. Other projects kept getting in the way—projects that needed done sooner than a chicken coop.

Then one day I saw a small shed outside a local thrift store. It was small–three feet by three feet–with a slanted roof, but since the experts recommend a minimum of one square foot of coop per chicken, it would hold nine chickens—eight if I subtracted space for a nest box. I didn’t want that many, so the little shed would make a good coop for four chickens. Maybe five!

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The shed had a small door on the front, another on the side, and a back wall on hinges so it opened up. I could see possibilities. One small door could let me reach a nest box. The other could allow the chickens to go in and out of the coop, once I fenced in a run for them. The large back door would make cleaning out the coop easy.

I was excited, especially when I learned that the coop was priced at $20. The owner helped me load it into the back of my truck, and I drove home, grinning because I finally had a chicken coop.

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Partly because the roof of the little chicken coop was three feet tall, I decided to put it on posts. I didn’t want to bend that low to get eggs, or clean out the coop. I might never get up again! Raising the coop would also keep it off the wet ground, and make it last longer in the wet weather of Western Washington.

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I looked around my back yard for something to use for posts. I had some pieces of a tree I had cut down a few months before. They were too fat for fence posts, but they would make sturdy pillars for my chicken coop, so I used my rechargeable chain saw to cut four 24-inch-long pieces. That was the easy part.  The hard part was coming.

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Before I could use my wonderful posts, I had to was pick a spot for my coop. I wanted the chickens to be safe, easily accessible, and close to the garden, so I could let them into it in the winter.  They could clean up weed seeds and pests–including slugs—and fertilize the ground.  I wouldn’t even have to shovel the manure. I planned to fence the garden, so the chickens would still be safe from predators.

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Finally, I decided that the back corner of the garden would be best. In trying to enclose as much garden space as possible, I had made the fence on one side notch out, making an area about four feet by twelve feet, which I had hoped to use for vegetables. No matter how I tried, though, I couldn’t get the sprinkler to cover that spot. Hand watering that space had tried what little patience I had. Putting the chicken coop in that corner of the garden, and fencing the short bed off as a run, would do everything I needed to do. I decided to set the shed up with the biggest door toward toward the house, the egg-gathering door toward the back fence, and the chickens’ access door toward the garden.

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To help with soil drainage, I dug four shallow holes and filled them with gravel salvaged when we planted a fruit tree in an area that had previously been graveled. I set the four posts on top of the gravel.

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Getting the posts level was the hardest part of the preparation. It sounded so simple, too! I fastened each pair of posts together on top with 2 x 6’s. I got each pair level, and then tried to level the two pairs. The more I adjusted, the worse it got. Finally, my daughter told me to just get it as close as I could, and then shim the shed if necessary. Using shims has always felt like failure, but these are half-baked home projects, so I took her advice.

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I’d worried about moving the shed, because I didn’t believe my son-in-law and I could do it alone. Aside from the weight, we would have had to cross a slightly sunken bulb garden, move between two fence posts, and then cross a raised-bed garden. It just sounded tricky. Horrifying, really.

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The muscle problem was solved when my son-in-law arranged for two young men from church to help. Removing obstacles was my job. I moved long sections of cut-down trees out of the way, and used plywood and 2 x 6’s to build a bridge over the bulb garden, which took care of that issue.

I wasn’t willing to move the fence post, but I did move all of the garden beds’ frames off to the side of the garden—temporarily.

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There was more.  There were dozens of milk jugs full of water in my garden.  They were intended to provide a little solar heat, and I believed that was why I always had tomatoes ripe two weeks before my neighbors. The milk jugs were ugly, and I kept meaning to paint them a dark color, both for camouflage and to increase their heat storage capacity. Someday I’ll get around to that. For now, I moved them into a corner of the garden so we wouldn’t trip over them.

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With the pathway clear, I was as ready as I was ever going to be.  A time and date was set for our helpers to come. To my surprise, they showed up in white shirts and ties, while I was wearing my oldest, grubbiest clothes. The shed was pretty dirty, but they weren’t worried. I backed my truck in as close to the garden as I could, and my son-in-law slid the shed out.

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When I felt the weight, I got scared. It was too heavy. It hurt. My head spun. I didn’t think we could do it. It got easier, though. Step by slow and careful step, we carried the little shed to the back corner of the garden.

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We pivoted, and pivoted some more, and when we had the shed facing the right direction, we shuffled, moving it into place and setting it onto the posts with a sigh of relief. At least, I sighed. They may not have felt like it was a big deal. They were young. I was not.

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I adjusted the posts a little, and nailed 2 x 6’s up to box in the posts at the top, for stability. I knew I was going to want to add more braces, but at that point, the chicken coop felt very solid. It didn’t wobble when I pushed on it, and that was a good start.

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I still needed a nest box. I’d had too many hens perch on the sides of regular boxes, leaving eggs covered with manure, to choose that option. A bucket on its side prevented that, and a lid cut in half contained the eggs and nesting material. I didn’t want to give up any of the five-gallon buckets I had, though, because they were so useful for hauling dirt, gravel, and mulch. It was time to get creative.

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I found a sturdy plastic pot that had held a fruit tree, and cut the bottom off so I could collect eggs through the little door. I fastened a small board across the front to keep things from rolling out, and set the pot in place, bracing it with small pieces of 2 x 2.

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A branch went kitty cornered across the shed, below the highest point. That gave the chickens a place to roost at night. They like like to sleep there.  Bats like to hang upside down, too, and I’ve never understood either one.  Still, roosting above the floor did help protect them from small predators.

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I built a low gate that let me feed the chickens underneath the coop, where food would stay dry and clean.

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A dish in their run served as their water source. Most of the year, rain kept it filled. In the summer, the garden sprinkler filled it if I set it in the right spot.

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I built a chicken run using metal fence posts and six-foot welded wire.  I gave up on regular chicken wire after it rusted out at the bottom for the forty-seventh time, allowing the hens free run of my fruitful garden–right when I did not want them eating my lettuce and tomatoes.  Our rainy weather does seem to encourage rust.  A gate framed in 1 x 2’s let me into the run, and in the winter I could leave it open to let the chickens into the garden–when there was nothing there that I wanted to eat myself.

I had a chicken coop at last, complete with a nest box, roost, and feeder .  The chickens would be safe, and I could once again gather eggs from the nest box each day.

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The paint had long since disappeared from the coop, so when we had a spell of decent weather, I painted the little chicken coop green, so it would blend into the trees surrounding our house.  The coop was not visible from the road, or even the driveway. It was concealed by the angle of the house on the lot, and that was fine with me. I was content to know it was there, solid, safe, attractive, and well-equipped enough that when spring came, I could add some bedding material and buy a few chicks knowing I had a place to put them.

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Practical Planters

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I have always loved gardening. I enjoyed digging in the dirt, watching baby plants sprout, and best of all harvesting produce in the fall. I have never been very good with house plants, though. At least I wasn’t, until someone gave me a spider plant. It has grown in my house for 17 years. I’ve given the baby plants to students in my classes, to illustrate the need to be tough and survive difficult times, like the spider plant does. I have re-potted the plant repeatedly. It has kept growing.

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When the spider plant needed water, it turned kind of grayish, which reminded me to water all of my houseplants. Suddenly, I was able to keep house plants alive. I learned as I went, and even learned to feed my houseplants, something they had never before lived long enough to need.

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When one plant died, and the soil smelled obnoxiously suspicious, I learned that one of my cats had been using it as a litter box. I couldn’t believe a cat with a clean litter box only a few feet away would prefer to dampen the soil of a 6-inch pot with his output, but he did. I enjoyed my newfound success with houseplants too much to give up because of a cat, so I looked for a solution. Small rocks scrounged from a pond kept the cats from digging, so they didn’t, um, do all of that other stuff.

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The rocks also prevented holes from forming in the soil when I watered the plants. I began putting at least one decent sized rock in every potted plant, specifically to deflect water.

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I was puzzled when I noticed that the leaves of some plants were constantly ragged and broken. Then one day I saw a cat eating spider plant leaves with relish. I wasn’t sure that eating the leaves was good for the cat, and I knew for sure it wasn’t good for the plants.

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I had two cats, both of whom I totally adored, but the male urinated in the pots, and the female ate the plants. Clearly, this was a vast feline conspiracy to eliminate the plants that were beginning to claim a small portion of my attention.

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Finally, I began to hang all of my houseplants—all of them—from the ceiling to protect them from the cats. I bought macrame plant hangers at garage sales, and used simple arrangements of string or wire to hang others. The plants began to flourish even more.

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With a growing number of decent sized house plants, I began to look for interesting—and inexpensive–practical planters. Plastic pots were relatively inexpensive but a little boring after a while. I found myself intrigued with ideas for more interesting planters.

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I had a wonderful heart-shaped vase my older, artistic daughter had made in a high school pottery class. That held my spider plant for a long time. It had no drain hole, though, so it needed quite a bit of gravel in the bottom for drainage, and I had to be careful not to over water. I preferred pots with drain holes, and trays under them to catch extra water. Even then, I found that gravel in the bottom of the pot helped. Without the drain hole, the gravel was critical.

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Teacups made pretty planters for very small plants, like miniature roses, or bonsai trees. Some houseplants (on clearance, of course) came in tiny, interesting pots.

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I found a small bathroom sink at a thrift store. Boxed with painted 2 x 6 boards, it made a wonderful planter for a collection of plants, almost like a tiny fairy garden. I enjoyed having a fairy garden in my home, and began to add some commercial fairy features.

 

Just for fun, I began to play with some shells I had collected. I had bought a large clam shell at a garage sale, which people found hilarious. Inlanders sometimes assumed that if you lives near the ocean, you had a constant supply of seashells. Our sandy beaches, though, provided very few shells.

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The large clam shell formed the base of my favorite planter. I filled it with smaller shells of a variety of shapes and sizes, and planted small plants in them. An African violet went into a fairly large shell that happened to have a hole in the bottom. When I filled the main shell with water, the violet could soak it up from below, which worked well for it. Into smaller shells, I put small varieties of sedum, and other tiny plants. I played with the arrangement, stacking and re-stacking the shells so they were easy to water, and allowed each plant to get enough light. Plants in the smaller shells had to be watered very frequently, and I killed several before I caught on.

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Birdbaths made interesting planters too. My favorite was a hanging glass mosaic one that I hung from the branch of a tree. Trailing plants, like a green waterfall, added one more point of interest. Any birdbath would work the same way, but a thick layer of gravel would be necessary in the bottom, unless you could drill a drainage hole. The birds would just have to find other places to bathe.

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Sedum had by then become one of my favorite outdoor plants. It grew as well in Washington as it had in North Dakota. There were sedums in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, and they worked as house plants, as well as out in my yard. They were so easy to propagate that I once dropped a small piece of a plant next to a rock in North Dakota, and found a flourishing plant in the spring. They even bloomed, making clusters of bright flowers at the end of the season. As a house plant, sedums were attractive and un-demanding. They were happy just to sit there and grow, wherever they were.

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After a while, I turned my attention to pots for the outdoors. I had some large pots that I had found at garage sales. Some were plastic, but some were heavy ceramic pots. They were large enough to work for mixed plantings, so I started combining plants to create special mini-gardens in the giant flower pots.

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We put one just outside the door, and filled it with mint. It was intended as a “tea pot” with multiple types of herbs for teas—mostly varieties of mint. The mints made a lush green display. I had read about using aromatic plants near doors to keep insects out, and mints were among those listed, so the “tea pot” had a dual purpose.

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I planted another pot solely to deter insects, and called it the stinky pot. In it, I put lemon grass, garlic, chives, and marigolds. All of those acted as insect repellents, and I had used them in my garden for years with good results. It made sense that they would be a good thing to have near the door, too. Some of them actually did have another purpose in life, but my goal was to just keep the buzzy–and biting—things out of the house without resorting to insecticides.

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My daughter wanted an aloe plant, to use on burns and scrapes, so a third pot was dedicated to that, but I added a variety of sedums. They grew and flourished.

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In the fall, we moved all of the pots inside. Even in Western Washington, the winters were too cold for things like aloe and marigolds. Sadly, it was the death of the marigold that inspired the move. I vowed to act more quickly in future years.

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Actually, the demise of the poor marigold did get me thinking. We had a giant, sprawling tomato plant near the back door. My daughter had clipped a branch and put it into a vase in her house, and when it sprouted millions of roots, I put it into the biggest pot of all, which had held the marigolds, and which was sadly empty. The tomato filled the space, and could grow inside through the winter.

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My cats did not bother the plants in my daughter’s house, but her dogs did. They liked to eat the house plants just as much as my cats had. The large pots were all too heavy to hang up, though. We protected most of them by using small branches from fallen trees to make a sort of fence around the outside edges of the pots. Surprisingly, a few of those sticks came to life, putting out leaves and flourishing happily. The living sticks were later planted outside in the spring, where some became living fence posts.

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STICK FENCE ON POT

As time passed, I watched thrift stores and garage sales for interesting containers I could use as pots. I’ve never liked old toilets in the front yard, even if they were filled with flowers. There were other things, though, that worked well. Aside from bathroom sinks, there were jars, and canisters, and buckets and bowls. I had seen cowboy boots hung up with plants flourishing inside them, too.

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The weather at my Washington home is much more conducive to year-round growth than the weather in North Dakota was. A few pots here and there lightened and brightened my yard, and brought the green of Washington onto the deck and doorways. Once I learned how to keep potted plants alive, I was able to enjoy the touches of green, and occasional color from blooms, in a way I never had before.

Fixing Up A Floor

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When I moved into my one-room home, it had wall-to-wall carpet, except in the bathroom. I have never liked carpet in the kitchen, though. I tried it for a while, but it didn’t take long for stains to begin showing up from minor spills. I had good intention, but things got spilled.

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I thought about pulling out the carpet in that area and putting down vinyl. I have laid vinyl flooring before. Dealing with trim pieces for the edges, though, might have been a problem. On top of that, even vinyl flooring remnants cost money, and the glue and edging pieces cost even more. Because I was on a tight budget, I tried to manage projects with what I had on hand, as much as possible.

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One thing I DID have on hand was a piece of three-quarter-inch plywood, three feet wide and eight feet long. It had been left in the garage when I bought the property, and had been shuffled around, as I tried to find a place to keep it that was out of my way. I needed to find a use for it.

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I looked at that plywood for a long time before I decided how to use it. I could have built shelves. I actually needed some shelves in my workshop, and more in other places in my house. I could have found a dozen uses for the plywood—for quite a lot of plywood, and for lumber of all kinds, given the opportunity.

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One day, though, I decided to use my solitary piece of plywood as a kitchen floor. Unlike vinyl flooring, plywood could be laid right on top of the carpet. Vinyl would have felt strange with soft carpet beneath it. It would also have had a much greater chance of tearing or cracking, especially when I dropped things on it—and since grace was not my strong point, things were going to be dropped. The plywood, though, would provide a hard, relatively easy to clean surface. Spilled milk could be wiped up without soaking into the carpet.

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I knew I did not want to use bare plywood. Aside from appearance, spills would have tended to soak in, and my bare feet might have been at risk for splinters. I needed to paint the plywood, which meant I had to decide on a design. I considered a plain color, or a carpet-like design, with a border.

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I thought about doing a fake marble design—or maybe granite, like expensive counter tops. I pondered the possibility of painting squares to imitate ceramic tiles. Tiles and marble were intriguing possibilities, but would have been most realistic in neutral colors, which I did not want. I wanted color.

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I did a floor of plywood once before, in a checkerboard pattern, and that gave me a chance to use color. Somehow, though, that no longer appealed to me. This time, living alone in my little home, I decided to cater to my feminine side. It has never been easy to see that side of me, what with all of my more typically male projects, but it’s there.

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To begin, I moved the plywood from its most recent hiding place and leaned it up against a bookcase. I didn’t want to risk stepping on wet paint, or spilling something on it. I slid a strip of heavy duty aluminum foil under the bottom edge to protect the carpet from leaks or spills.

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While I considered my options, I cleaned the plywood thoroughly (and repeatedly) and then primed it. My checkerboard floor had lost paint extremely rapidly, and I wanted to prevent that as much as possible. It’s taken me a while, but I have finally learned the value of primer on painted wood projects.

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The wall-to-wall carpet was a strange pinkish purple color. I didn’t know if that was what people called mauve or not, but it was not a color that I would have chosen. I decided to try and come up with a slightly lighter, brighter version for my plywood floor, just so it didn’t clash too badly. That meant mixing paint colors once again.

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I looked at some lavender paint I had mixed for my stairs, and thought maybe a little blue would help. Then I needed some pink. I added a pinch of that, and a dash of this until I got a color that sort of looked like my carpet. Then I added a bunch of white paint to tone it down. I didn’t want a floor so light it showed every speck of dirt, but since I have always liked pastels, and since it is a tiny home, I didn’t want a color that was too dark, either.

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Once the primer had dried, I gave the board two coats of the newly mixed color—which didn’t match quite as closely as I had thought it would. Still, it would do.

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While I waited for the second coat of paint to dry, I prepared for the decorative part of the project. I had some leftover pieces of an old foam mattress pad I had used in an earlier project. I used inexpensive scissors to cut leaf and flower shapes out of some of the remaining scraps of foam rubber.

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I had used kitchen sponges, and even bath sponges, and those worked pretty well, but there was a lot of texture in the things I printed, because there was a lot of texture in the sponges. I wanted flowers of smoother texture for the plywood floor, and the smooth foam rubber of the mattress pad looked like a good option.

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Using my scissors, I made a daisy shape. At least, I tried. Freehand clipping didn’t work very well, and after several attempts, I found that if I drew on the flat side of the foam rubber with a pen, I had better luck producing the shapes I wanted.

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I finally did produce a large daisy shape, which I later cut down and re-used for a second, smaller flower of a different color. Then I made a second flower shape with rounder petals, and several leaf shapes of different sizes. I also made some round dot-type shapes to use for the centers of the flowers. I love bluebells, roses, and daffodils, and sometimes envy the hydrangeas and hyacinths I see in people’s yards, but I didn’t think I could carry off any of those.

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 Before I started making flowers on the plywood, I practiced on some colored paper. I needed to see how the flowers made by the sponges would look, to see if I needed to adjust their shapes. I was lucky. It looked like the shapes were going to work.

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To decorate the plywood, I started by using the largest daisy-shaped sponge, dipping it into white paint in a shallow bowl and wiping excess paint off on the side of the bowl before pressing the sponge onto the painted plywood. Even after my practice on paper, it took a little experimentation to get the sponges to make good flowers. First I got too much paint, which resulted in drips of paint. I wiped away all the drips and dribbles, and a few failed flowers. Then I got incomplete, blotchy flowers, because I had too little paint. I wiped those away as well. I finally started getting the appearance I wanted, though I did have to press a finger tip to each petal of the flowers to get complete contact.

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I did white flowers first, randomly spaced around the edges of the plywood. After the white daisies dried I made smaller yellow flowers, mixed among the white daisies. IMG_0335

Then I made a lot of even smaller blue flowers with rounder petals. Because I was making so many of these smaller flowers, I ended up getting frustrated. I finally used a finishing nail to attach the sponge to a short piece of 2 x 2. It worked well for stamping the blue flowers onto the plywood, especially if I rocked it in all four directions before lifting it off the plywood.

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With all the flowers printed onto the plywood, I began to add dots in the middle of each. Yellow dots went onto the white flowers, and smaller purple and pale yellow dots on the yellow and blue flowers, respectively.

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I wasn’t done yet. I had leaf-shaped sponges in three sizes. I used a small shape first, with a dark green paint. I scattered the leaves among the flowers, and then added larger leaves in a slightly lighter colors, and even larger ones in a still lighter color.

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I had considered putting a straight-line border just inside the flower border, or scattering small flowers across the center area of the plywood. In the end, I decided I liked the plain center.

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Having decided that the design was complete, I started to protect it. Floors get a lot of wear, and I wanted the design to last. I put eight coats of clear polyacrylic finish on the plywood, instead of my usual two coats. Soon, the board was shiny, protected, and beautiful—at least as much as a half-baked home project can be.

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I spilled milk on the floor later. I didn’t cry over it. I wiped it up. The new plywood floor, with the multiple coats of varnish, was protected. Spills would not soak into the floor any more, or stain the carpet.

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Another Kind of RICE

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Few people have reached middle age without experiencing neck or back pain—not even me. Heating pads helped, and ice packs, and in the last few decades, massage chairs, hand-held massagers (some with heat) and massage pads that could be placed on chairs have offered relief.

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Doctors have often suggested “RICE” for treating an injury and relieving pain. They were using “rice” as an anagram, meaning rest, ice, compression, and elevation. It was valid advice, but not for every situation. I found another use for rice that was even more effective. It was also easy and inexpensive.

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Many years ago, my then-husband bought me a trendy pain-relief device for Christmas. It was basically a knit tube, about four inches in diameter and eighteen inches long, filled with some kind of gritty, granular material. When heated in the microwave, the warmed tube could be laid across an aching neck or back for comfort and relief. Sometimes, in the throes of a tension headache, I laid it across my head like a headband. It brought sweet relief without even the mildest of pharmaceutical pain relievers.

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Over time, the cover grew soiled. Repeated heating led to a few small holes, allowing the sand-like contents to leak out. It started to smell bad. I considered making my own version by filling tubes of fabric with sand, but worried about it leaking out. Sand was sneaky that way.

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Then I thought about using rice the same way. I decided to try and make my own rice-filled bag to heat in the microwave. For my first attempt, I used an old sock. I filled it half full with rice, and tied it closed. When I filled it too full, I couldn’t curve it around my neck, so half full was about right.

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Remembering the problem with the fabric getting dirty, I made a cover out of a scrap of fabric. If the cover got dirty, I could pull it off and run it through the washer and dryer. Another old sock worked just as well.

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The rice smelled good when it was heated, and the starchy, bread-like smell added nostalgia to the sense of comfort. I also learned that a frozen rice sock helped an arthritic knee or a recurrence of tennis elbow caused by anything but tennis. I decided many years ago that it should have been named “hammer elbow” or perhaps “weeding elbow.” Anything but tennis elbow, with its implications of wealth and leisure. Unlike commercial ice bags and packs, the chilled rice bags did not leak, or drip condensation all over me.

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Over time, I made a number of these sock tubes. I even gave some away as Christmas gifts one year. I began sewing the socks closed, rather than just tying a knot in them. Eliminating the lumpy knot made the sock bags even more comfortable.

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My collection of mis-matched socks had found a use, and when I bought the cheapest rice available, the rice socks were inexpensive. They were also a lot more comfortable than heating pads, with their plastic edges and inconvenient cords and controls.

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Finally, though, I decided socks were not the best option. The knit fabric did allow a little rice to leak out now and then, through the fabric or when holes inevitably developed.

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Instead, I began to make what I called “rice bags” out of scraps of fabric. I preferred flannel, because it felt good, and it was so closely woven I didn’t have to worry about the rice escaping—another advantage of rice over the grainy contents of that first, long-ago gift. Any solid, closely woven fabric would have worked, though.

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I pulled out my flannel supply and cut two eighteen inch long, five-inch wide strips from one end. Actually, I cut four pieces, because I wanted to use a double thickness, just to be safe. That took about a quarter of a yard, an easy amount to buy at a fabric store for people who didn’t have fabric on hand.

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With the right sides together, I stitched both sides and one end of the tube I was making. I cut both ends of the fabric tube to a rounded shape, and followed that shape in stitching. After I trimmed the fabric and stitched the seams, I turned the tube inside out, making a long narrow bag. Just like the sock version, the tube was filled half full of the cheapest rice money could buy. I turned the edges of the open end to the inside, and ran a double line of stitching across to close the end. A separate flannel bag made a washable cover.

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One of the first surprises was that, because I had set my rice bag down beside my chair when it cooled off one evening, it became a dog toy. My daughter’s four-ounce dog (not really) thought it was a wonderful toy, and though it didn’t budge when she gave it a death shake, she seemed to enjoy the attempt, and loved dragging the rice bag around my house.

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It looked like way too much work to me. I finally made her a rice sock of her own, using the old method of tying a knot in the end of a sock. I made it from a smaller sock, and she was able to carry it around, and “kill” it much more easily.

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I heated my rice bag for three minutes in the microwave, and used it on my neck and shoulders, where it stayed warm for almost half an hour. It helped with headaches, earaches, and sore joints, and even made a nice neck pillow.

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There were things the rice bags could not do. When my shoulders ached, from old age or digging fence post holes, the rice bag didn’t quite cover enough area. I needed something more.

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Then one day I saw an item in a catalog that intrigued me. It was almost like a cape that reached from the neck to the shoulder joint. I pulled out my box of flannel once again. Fortunately, I had stocked up on flannel a few years before when a fabric store had a huge sale on it. I had flannel with flowers, and turtles, musical notes and stripes. I’ve never been more grateful for that supply.

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I decided to make myself a rice-filled shoulder cape. I didn’t have a pattern, so I was going to have to figure it out on my own.

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I started with two half yard pieces of fabric, and draped them around my neck, making the edges meet in the front. Then I checked where it had folded at the back of my neck. I clipped and trimmed the fabric until it sat smoothly around my shoulders. Laying the fabric flat, I cut a curved outer edge, about six inches wide in the middle back, narrowing gradually to just a couple of inches wide in the front. I stitched the outer edge of the cape, and the narrow ends in the front, and turned the whole thing right side out.

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I must have been feeling a bit frivolous that day, because after turned the cape inside out, I decided to run a contrasting line of decorative stitching around the outer edges. The cape was red, so I used a white feather stitch.

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I wanted to divide the little cape into separate sections, to keep the rice from bunching up in one place, so I ran lines of stitching from the neck to the hem, leaving a half inch un-stitched at the neck edge. The sections were all open at that edge, and I used a funnel to fill them with rice. Once again, I decided half-full would be about right, and that worked. With rice in all of the sections, I was ready to close the neck edge by tucking the un-stitched portion inside and sewing it closed with the same white feather stitch as I had used before.

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I had to try out the cape, of course. Into the microwave it went, and experimentation showed that five minutes gave me a nicely warm cape that stayed warm for quite a while. A few badly blackened spots on earlier rice bags had taught me to avoid letting rice bags come in contact with the metal plate on the side of the microwave, so I rolled my cape up into something that vaguely resembled a cornucopia to keep it well away from that plate. I considered adding ribbon ties, to fasten the roll closed for safety, but it hasn’t been necessary.

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There has been little in my life that has felt as warm and comforting as my rice cape did that first time. I could feel my muscles relax, and the nostalgic bread-like smell enhanced the warmth. The cape wasn’t perfect. Some of the sections were smaller than others. If I make more of these in the future, I will be careful to place the dividing lines of stitching more evenly, but despite the mistakes, this worked. Now, when a doctor advises RICE, I smile and think about my wonderful rice bags. They aren’t quite what the doctor ordered, but they should be considered. Relief without drugs is never a bad thing.

Over the Rainbow

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Most of my projects were totally practical. I made a house for the pets, a sign for delivery people, and a storage rack for my canes, because they each met a real need. Sometimes, though, I have taken on a project purely for the joy of it.

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When I first moved into my little home, the stairway walls were white, but the stairs and railings were stained a very dark color. It was overwhelming. Almost my first project after I unpacked was painting the stairs. I had a hard time deciding how to paint them, though.

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I didn’t want to paint the stairs white, because the dirt tracked in would have showed too much. I didn’t want a dark color, because getting rid of a dark color was the whole point. Then I realized I could make a rainbow out of the stairs—and I do love rainbows.

My first step was to double check the order of colors in the rainbow. I have never been able to remember whether red or blue was on the top, so I checked an embroidery piece I had done years ago. I confirmed that red was on top, and then I began to plan.

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First, I scrubbed and sanded the stairs. The top step was a 2 x 12, but all of the rest were made of two pieces of 2 x 6. They had knot holes, splits, and rough grain that left ridges in the wood. I did not try to fix those things. I didn’t have enough energy to sand that rough grain down, and though I could have used putty to fill the knot holes, it didn’t seem worth the effort.

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Next, I primed the steps. Every time I have decided I didn’t need to prime something, I found paint flaking off in a very short time. I did not want this to happen to my stairs, because they would be getting enough wear and tear without paint failing because of poor preparation. The sanding would help the paint stick, and the priming would help even more.

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With the stairs primed and ready to paint, I pulled out the cans of paint I had left over from earlier projects, and lined them up on the work bench. I had many of the colors I needed, but I was going to have to mix others. I nearly always bought exterior latex semi-gloss, so I could use it outside if the need arose. Because my paint was all the same type, mixing new colors was possible. It would not have been if I tried to mix oils or acrylics with latex.

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I counted the stairs (twelve) and sorted out my paints. In addition to red, yellow, and blue, I needed a lot of shades in between. Rainbows are not rigid bands of color.  Instead, the colors blend very gradually. To come as close as possible to that with separate stairs, I added green and orange, and then a shade on each side of those colors. For example, I used orange, but I also used red orange and yellow orange.

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I left many of my colors in their original cans, but when I mixed colors, I put them in plastic throw-away food storage containers. I knew the containers would seal tightly, to preserve the paint, but would clean up easily when the paint was eventually used up. On top of that, the containers were very inexpensive.

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In addition to mixing shades, I realized that I needed to be aware of the brightness of the colors. I wanted to use lavender, light blue, and pink, in their proper places. However, that meant using bright shades of orange and yellow would not do. The rainbow needed to be either all bright colors or all pastels. Since real rainbows are pastel, I went that direction, which meant my brighter paints needed to be toned down a little. I used a kitchen serving spoon to add a little white to each of the brighter colors.

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Because I have always been easily confused, I had trouble keeping the colors straight.  I made lists. I lined paint cans up on my work bench. Finally, I made labels, because I kept getting confused about what colors went where, and even what colors I needed. Lists and labels helped me keep things straight.

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There was one thing about painting stairs that was a lot different from painting walls.  When I have painted stairs, I learned that I couldn’t just paint them and let them dry. If I did that, I either had to stay upstairs or downstairs, one place or the other, until the paint dried. I went up and down my stairs too many times in a day to block myself out on either end.

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Some people have painted every other step, so they were able to use the unpainted ones until the paint dried, and then paint the rest. I wasn’t quite agile enough to skip stairs, though. I’ve had a hard enough time just getting up and down them safely, so I painted one side of all the steps, and then painted the other side after the first side had dried.

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It was only after the first half was painted that I realized a couple of my colors were wrong. One of the oranges was far too red, and the yellow green was too blue. I mixed the colors again, adjusting to get what I needed. Then, I repainted.

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Although I was (usually) able to stay on the dry side of the stairs, I did forget and step on a wet stair once, leaving pink footprints behind me. I cleaned those up quickly, and everything was fine. Most of the time, I painted at night, right before I went to bed. That left enough time for paint to dry before I forgot where to walk.

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The stairs were clean, bright, and colorful. I loved them. My sister pointed out that the different colors made it easier to see where you were stepping, an advantage that had not occurred to me. Mostly, I just liked seeing my bright and pretty rainbow.

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What I did not like seeing, though, was what was under the stairs. The stairs were open, without the risers that most interior stairs have. It had not occurred to me that because of the open vertical spaces on each step, everything under the stairs was visible—including the hot water heater and stored items like coolers, boxes, and wheelchairs. Not the most attractive area in my house, it also tended to get dirty, as unappealing things fell down through the stairs.

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My artist daughter had suggested closing in the upright portion of the steps, and painting them to look like a waterfall. I wasn’t sure I could. My artistic skills have always been seriously limited, and I’ve known better than to get too ambitious. I wasn’t comfortable trying to paint water. I did decide, though, that I could do clouds, and since rainbows are seen in the sky, blue risers with white clouds seemed appropriate.

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In my workshop, I found a piece of fiberboard about 1/8 inch thick. I don’t know where I got it, but it looked a lot like the stuff pegboard is made of, except it didn’t have any holes. I was able to cut it to fit the spaces I needed, although there were a few pieces that were a bit too small, and none of them were not quite long enough. It wasn’t perfect, but it was going to have to do.

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I lined the pieces up in my workshop, and painted each one white—several times, because the paint just soaked right in. Fortunately, I had enough white paint to do the job. I wasn’t sure why I had done the painting this way, but I planned to fill in the areas between clouds with sky blue paint, rather than painting the boards blue and adding the clouds.  I didn’t always have a logical reason for the things I did, but as long a got there I was happy.

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Left to myself, I would probably have painted lots of little round puffy clouds, without much variety. I didn’t want to do that, so I spent some time online, looking at pictures, drawings, and sketches of clouds. I got some ideas for cloud shapes that way, and sketched those shapes onto my white boards before filling in the blue sky.

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To add some dimension to the clouds, I used much lighter blue (the background blue mixed with white) to put shading on the bottom edge of each cloud. It helped, and gave the clouds a little more depth and realism.

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I started out by stapling the boards to the uprights at the end of each step, but I really didn’t like the appearance of staples. On top of that, several pulled loose in the first few days. I went back and pulled the staples, trying really hard not to scratch the paint, and then used small finishing nails to re-attach the boards. It looked better, and was more secure.

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When my stairs were completely finished, I gave everything a couple of coats of clear polyacrylic varnish, using the same one-side-at-a-time procedure as I used with the paint. The varnish protected the paint from scratches, dents, and general wear and tear from the feet of people and puppies.

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I have always loved rainbows, and color in general. Going up or down my stairs was no easier than it had been, but the colors did make it a lot more fun.

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Racking Up the Canes

IMG_0223I used a cane for many years, but rather than using a standard drugstore version, I created my own. My nearly forty canes were decorated with flowers, stripes, butterflies, fireflies, flags, fireworks, and puppy paw prints, among other things. They cheered me up, and seemed to make people in town smile, as well. The only problem was storing them.

Years ago, I bought a wooden tool rack that was divided into sixteen spaces, so I was able to keep my canes from rubbing against each other and chipping the paint. Some of my canes are almost twenty years old, and I wanted to keep them safe and organized. The tool rack had gotten wobbly, though, and began to lean significantly to the left. Straightening it only changed the lean’s direction. I had to give up on the rack. For a while, I kept the canes in a large laundry hamper.

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Then one day, I realized that the cedar 2 x 6s a departing neighbor had given me could be put to good use. I had not wanted to waste cedar on any of my normal projects. Besides, the neighbors had been kind, friendly, and helpful. I wanted a memento. Then everything clicked. I could use the cedar to build a new cane rack. The wood was beautiful, after all.

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I had enough cedar to make eight 24-inch pieces. One piece was a 2 x 8, but I didn’t want to try to cut it to six inches wide. I would have needed a table saw, but when I left North Dakota, there just wasn’t room for my table saw.

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The cedar was faded, and sanding revealed the hidden grain, as well as removing paint spatters, shallow scratches, and dirt left by years in the neighbor’s garage. I even remembered to sand the ends. The large-toothed ripping blade on my circular saw left the ends a little rough, with some shredding at the edges. I’d never bothered with that before, which sometimes led to disappointing results. It only took a moment to sand the edges, smoothing the corners just enough for a more finished look.

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Since this was not the beautiful red cedar I was most familiar with, the color was nothing special, though the grain was wonderful. I decided to stain the boards a dark color. I dug out a can of dark walnut stain I had bought for an earlier project.

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The stain brushed on easily, and when I wiped the excess away before it dried, the grain was strong and clear. Usually I use old rags for that, but because the wood had been thoroughly sanded, paper towels worked without snagging on any rough spots as they often do. I still didn’t have any latex gloves, but I used a small garbage bag as a glove. It worked, and then I used it for garbage. The fact that the bag was pink, and rose scented, was an added bonus.

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I stained all four sides of each of the eight boards, as well as the ends, and let them dry overnight. In the morning I applied a water-based varnish. Oil-based products are more durable, and often more attractive. Given my difficulty with clean-up, though, I use water-based products whenever I can. I didn’t need to wear gloves (or a bag on my hands) because I could simply wash off any varnish that got on my hands.

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I have done a lot of varnishing, over the years. No matter how hard I tried, I often ended up with drips, which detracted from the project. I finally learned to paint the varnish on, and immediately wipe it off, to get a smooth, drip-free finish. Some of the antique furniture I re-finished ended up with twenty coats of varnish, and no drips. I did the same thing with my boards.

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I had decided to use the cedar for the upper and lower frame of the rack. I was lacking uprights, though. I hunted through my workshop for anything that would work. A piece of 4 x 6 was too heavy, but 1 x 2s were too flimsy. I couldn’t find any 4 x 4s, which would have been perfect. I worried briefly that I might have to actually buy a 4 x 4—an un-damaged, full price one.

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However, I had just cut down a dead tree. After consulting with my highly intelligent and creative daughter, whose opinion I rely on (she’s reading this) I cut four, 24-inch lengths of the tree’s trunk, three or four inches in diameter.

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The bark was coming off in a few places, and since my whole plan was to have the rough tree lengths contrasting with the polished cedar boards, I drizzled some wood glue behind the loose bark and strapped the bark down. I put plastic between the bark and the tape, just in case.

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With everything stained and varnished, it was time to assemble the rack. I had learned from long experience not to ever put varnished wood materials directly on the floor—especially a concrete floor. A pink throw rug may look out of place in a workshop, but it kept the project’s pieces from being damaged as I moved it around.

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I wanted to countersink the exposed screw heads so they wouldn’t be visible. To do that, I drilled a wide, shallow hole everywhere I was going to put a 3-4 inch screw. When I ran the screw into the frame, it came to rest at the bottom of the larger hole. I bought some small wooden plugs to fit in the holes, and when I stained the lumber, I stained those to match, and set them aside.

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I got both the top and bottom frame put together, and then attached them to the log uprights, using 4-inch screws. I could have used 2-1/2 inch screws, but I wanted a strong attachment to the log upright.

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Attaching the frame to the log uprights was not easy, because the logs were not as regularly shaped as a 4 x 4 would have been. Still, I eventually got everything attached and level. There was some muttering.

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Next, I cut 1 x 2s I had already stained and varnished, and used them to make the section divisions I wanted. Very small L-braces held three of them in even intervals across and along both the top and bottom frame. That gave me sixteen open squares, just over four inches across. My canes could be set in the rack through the top squares, and threaded down through the bottom ones. They would be safe.

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I wasn’t done. It was time to insert wooden plugs everywhere I had placed screws. Ideally, the plugs would have fit so snugly that they would have been secure, but my projects are almost never ideal. I had to add a drop of wood glue to each hole so the plugs would not fall out, which meant (of course) I had to use a damp cloth to wipe away dribbled wood glue, because I never have been able to get it quite where I need it.

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My final step was to add a bottom to the rack. There wasn’t one on the old store-bought rack I had been using, but I had occasionally needed to move the cane rack, because of furniture re-arrangement, or cleaning needs, or to look behind it for something I lost. Taking all the canes out, moving the rack, and then putting the canes back is a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. Still, it was an inconvenience that could be avoided by adding a bottom to the rack.

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I had a 24-inch wide piece of ¾ inch plywood, so I cut that to fit. Although the plywood would not be very visible, I decided to stain and varnish it anyway. I wanted it to be inconspicuous, if not beautiful. Staining it to match the rack helped with that. I was careful to stain the edges as well, for the same reason, and to varnish it to avoid water damage from wet canes.

Once the plywood was dry, I attached it to the bottom of the frame with 2-1/2 inch screws. Casters on the bottom might have been nice, but they can get expensive. I decided I would add them when I won the lottery. I have never entered it, so my chances were slim.

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The cane rack was ready. It fit nicely into the spot by the freezer where I had been keeping my canes. It was massive, and not very feminine, but then the same could be said of me.

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Although I planned to use the rack for canes, it would work really well for garden tools, household cleaning equipment, umbrellas, or even kites. It’s sturdy, solid, and attractive, as well as being useful. Now, as long as I didn’t leave canes behind when I got in my truck after shopping, they would be safe. Although I planned to use the rack for canes, it would work really well for garden tools, household cleaning equipment, umbrellas, or even kites.

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I finished the cane rack at mid-day. I decided to wait to clean up my workshop. Between tools, boxes of screws, nails, other fasteners, papers on the floor, cans of paint, and brushes, it really needed a clean-up. The job was more physically demanding than I had anticipated though, so I didn’t want to do it right away. As the lady said in Gone with the Wind, I’d think about that tomorrow.