Pocket Full of Puppy Treats

When my daughter got a puppy a couple of years ago—and a second a few months later—we knew there would be expenses. Food, veterinary bills, medications, vaccinations, spaying and neutering, and other things added up. Some non-essential things, like toys and rain coats, brought the bills even higher. What we had not considered in all of this was the cost of puppy treats, which may not be essential, but which are enormously helpful in training dogs.


We checked retail stores, including those specializing in pets. We looked online. There were plenty of puppy treats available. Using them with any frequency, though, would have gotten expensive. What we wanted was a very small, inexpensive treat that the dogs loved enough to perform.

One day, I bought a tub of chicken livers in a marked-down meat bin at a local grocery store. I was feeling run-down, and hoped they would help. I soon remembered, though, that I did not like chicken livers. Calf liver, beef liver, even pork liver I had always been able to manage—and enjoy, if there were enough onions to go with it. Chicken livers, not so much. I chopped them up and fed them to the dogs. They were thrilled. I was inspired.

The next time chicken livers turned up in the marked-down meat bin (it doesn’t happen often) I snatched them up. At home, I began to experiment. Some of my attempts were more successful than others. I thought about just dicing the livers, and that would have worked. I just didn’t want to spend the time handling them all that much.

Pureeing the livers seemed like an option, so I tried that. The first time, I pureed them raw, and that was horrible. Not only was the puree a terrible pinkish color, it was far too thin to be manageable. After that, I learned to saute the chicken livers. Sometimes I added a little bacon grease, because who doesn’t like bacon?


Once the livers were fully cooked, I put them into my blender. Although I didn’t add any spices or herbs, I did throw in a couple of eggs. It gave me a better texture of paste, and I figured it added a little more protein at the same time. I ended up with a puree that looked a lot like milk chocolate pudding. The smell was the only thing that gave it away.

Shaping the liver treats was a whole different challenge. The first few times I made them, I used a food storage bag as a pastry bag, cutting off a tiny corner. Then I used the bag to make dozens and dozens of tiny dots on a baking pan. I wasn’t sure if they were going to stick, so I played it safe and sprayed the cookie sheet with pan spray. The treats looked for all the world like milk chocolate chips. After I baked them for an hour or more at 200 degrees, so they were completely dry and hard, they looked even more like chocolate chips.

The only problem was that making the chocolate chip style treats took a huge amount of time. I spent too many hours squeezing the small drops out of my plastic bag/pastry bag. I had to find an easier way.

My next step was suggested by my daughter. She had several ice trays that consisted of a large number of ½ inch hearts. Instead of piping out all those tiny drops, I spooned dollops of the liver puree into the ice trays. Of course, then I had to use a rubber spatula to scrape off the excess so that the hearts would be separate, with nice flat tops. It worked. We even learned that if we baked them for a while on a low heat, they would firm up and we could take them out of the molds and put them onto trays in the food dehydrator to finish drying.


It all sounded very good, but the scraping off of the excess puree was more annoying and time consuming than I had expected. I didn’t like doing it. Not only that, but because there was a limited number of molds, it took me even more days to get all the liver treats dried to a hard, solid consistency so I could feel safe with them. I kept thinking.

I went back to my version of a pastry bag, only this time I piped long lines across my cookie sheet. After the puree had baked for a while, I sliced it into pieces. I tried different sizes of piping, and I tried different knives, until I found a method that worked for me.


Half-inch strips of the puree were too big. After slicing them, I had to cut each slice into quarters to get the tiny size I wanted for dogs the size of ours. People who owned a Great Dane, or a Newfoundland, might have been happy with the thicker strips. For my daughter’s small dogs, though, a strip about a quarter of an inch wide was perfect. It became clear along the way that I was not going to win any awards for my piping skills.  The lines broke, wobbled, and wandered around on the baking pan.  Still, they did the job.

I slid the baking pan into the oven, and baked the strips for about half an hour.  That gve me firm, but not hard, lines of liver paste.


When I cut them into quarter inch lengths, I had a nice, tiny treat for tiny dogs. It was just enough for them to get excited about.


I had to experiment with knives, as well. I thought the sharpest knives would be the best, but that didn’t end up being the case. Anything that was serrated got clogged up with bits of liver paste. Sharp knives ended up with slices of the puree stuck to them. A plain old table knife worked the best. I was able to slice the strips, spread them out evenly on the pan, and bake them again, until they were dry and hard as rocks. It was the only way I felt safe keeping liver out of the freezer.

My little dog treats were incredibly cheap. They lasted a long time, and the dogs seemed to love them more than anything else in the world. If I had a treat in my hand, both dogs would happily spin, lie down, and dance just for the chance of getting one.  Now if only that worked with my cats!

These are not my dogs. I don’t walk them. I don’t clean up after their accidents, or take them to the veterinarian, or even feed them. As the unofficial doggy grandma, though, I do make them treats. Apparently, for them, that is enough.

A Bridge Over Blooming Bulbs

For as long as I can remember, I have admired bridges in people’s yards. Sometimes, they were bridges over creeks and streams. Sometimes, they were over pretend creeks, with empty, rock-lined stream beds. Sometimes, they were just bridges in a flowerbed, or a corner of the yard. It didn’t matter. I loved them all.

Recently, I laid a very temporary bridge over a sunken bulb garden in my yard. We had to move a small chicken coop, and the bridge made getting to where it needed to go much easier. I liked it so much, though, and enjoyed not having to edge around the bulb garden every time I went to the other side, that I decided to build a bridge of my own.


The bulb garden was not very sunken. In fact, the only reason it was a sunken garden at all was that I found bulbs on a good special at the end of the planting season. I needed to get them into the ground quickly, before they were no good, and it was easier to just dig out a space, and pile the sod to one side, than it would have been to weed, sift, and dig the soil. The bulbs didn’t get planted very deep, that first year, but they bloomed. In the dormant season, I shoveled the pile of dirt back into the bed, giving the bulbs more protection and bringing the garden almost to ground level.

Still, I didn’t want to walk through the bulbs for fear of smashing and killing them. I could have put in stepping stones, but it was a perfect opportunity to build a bridge, and I had been waiting many years for the chance. The only problem was that I didn’t know how. I finally bought a book, used and cheap, because I was afraid if I did it wrong, I would fall through while walking over it. I might not have fallen very fall, but I’m old. I break easily.

None of the ideas in the books quite worked for me. They all required buying quite a lot of lumber. Buying lumber, especially the pressure-treated 4 x 4s, 2 x 6s, and other things the plan required, would have cost quite a bit of money.  Some plans even called for teak!  I just didn’t have that much money.


I had trees, though. After studying the ideas in the book, I came up with my own plan. I had two sections of tree trunk from a tree I had needed to cut down. The logs were too fat for fence posts, unless I got a much bigger fence post digger. They would have worked for firewood, but it would have taken me three days to cut each piece, using my rechargeable chain saw–and with no wood stove, my need for firewood was limited. Since I had not been able to find a good use for them, they were available for my bridge. I set them aside.

Before I actually began building the bridge, I dug out the dirt and bulbs in the center of the bulb garden, so they wouldn’t be lost. I covered the dug-out area with multiple layers of landscape fabric left over from an earlier project, in hopes that it would reduce the number of weeds under the bridge. Because I had used old hoses to make a permanent watering system for the bed, I was careful to leave the hoses exposed rather than putting the landscape fabric over them.  Later, I wondered why I did that, since nothing was going to be growing under the bridge anyway, but at the time, it seem really important.  I set the bulbs aside, and re-planted them in areas that were not going to be covered by the bridge.


 I was worried that if the logs were just laid on the ground, they would rot quickly. Our ground is wet most of the year, because of the amount of rain we get in the Pacific Northwest. To reduce the risk of that, I set four pieces of concrete in place, on which to rest the ends of the logs. They were not fancy blocks, but rather pieces of cement I had found lying around on the property.


After a lot of measuring and re-measuring, and repeated checking of levels, I finally was able to lay the two logs across the bulb garden, on the base of cement pieces. That was easier said than done. I set one end of a log on the concrete, and moved to the other end. When I set that in place, the first end fell off. It was a struggle. Logs are round, so they tended to roll. Once I got a few cross pieces of the walking surface in place, the logs were more stable.


To make a walking surface, I first tried using small branches, because—well, I had more of those than anything else. On top of that, I could cut them with my compound joint clippers, rather than with the chain saw. The more pieces I got attached to the two logs, though, the less comfortable I was with it. The sticks were too thin. Even when I had a solid line, with each stick butted up against the next, they bounced when I walked on them, and made me nervous. As I said, I’m old, I break easily, and the bouncy surface brought visions of catastrophe to mind.


I finally gave up and pulled them off. My family has known for a long time that I had to do a project two or three times before I get it right. It took many years, but I have learned to stop before I got too far along, because re-doing a part of a project that wasn’t working was much less disheartening than re-doing the whole thing.

I began to gather two- to three-inch thick sticks that were as straight as I could possibly find. That was easier said than done, too, because although tree trunks were relatively straight, branches were not. They tended to be curved, bent, and crooked. Still, I found some, and cut others from trees where the loss would do no damage. I cut each stick to length with my chain saw, laid them across the two logs, and nailed them in place individually. One time the hammer slipped and hit my forefinger, but that was only a minor injury. I’ve done worse things. The finger was blue and lumpy for a while, but it got better.

Little by little, the bridge grew. Some of the branches split when I nailed them down, but that was okay. I knew they would stay in place and not roll and throw me off balance.  I could only nail down a few sticks at a time, because MS has made my wrists very weak. Hammering becomes painful quickly. Whenever I got to the point that I was wildly flailing with the hammer, just hoping to hit the nail, I had to give up. Because of that, it took me almost a week to nail down the sticks, even though most people would have finished in a day. Finally, I nailed the last stick in place, and took a triumphant stroll across the bridge.


It felt a little risky though. There was one thing missing. The bridge was not finished. I needed hand rails. Returning to the book, I tried to figure out a way to do hand rails. The book didn’t help much, and I actually considered options for two weeks before I came up with a plan. I didn’t want a straight handrail. Not only was I lacking straight sticks that were long enough, but I would have found a straight hand rail boring. Sadly, I have always been easily bored, and I have never tolerated it well. The handrail had to be interesting.  I didn’t have any curved sticks that were long enough to reach the whole distance, so I just wasn’t sure how to make an interesting, curved hand rail. On instinct, I began to set aside all of the curved sticks I found. Branches of trees are often curved, so I found a fair number.

I laid them out in a series, and I laid them out in lines. I played with them and re-arranged them. Finally I came up with an idea. I put an upright in the middle of the bridge, on each side. Then I took similar length curved branches, and attached the narrow end to the upright and the wide end to the base of the bridge. I repeated the process on the opposite side of the upright, and in the opposite direction. That gave me a simple, though irregular, arch in the middle of the bridge. I added more arched branches, overlapping them in the middle.


As a final step, I found some thicker straight branches, and fastened them to the ends of the logs, covering the raw edges, and blocking the view of the landscape fabric underneath the bridge.

The arched handrails would not have been strong enough to hold me if I fell against them with my full weight, but they would give me something to hold and grab. It made me feel safer and more secure. The bulbs in the garden were already beginning to come up. I knew that in the spring and summer, they would grow tall, and bloom. The pink lilies, and lavender gladiolas, the asters, the hyacinths and daffodils and crocuses will cluster around the little bridge, contrasting with its rustic nature. Not only did I finally have a bridge, but my daughter pointed out that between the stick fence near the gate, the branch structure of my little woodshed, and the tree-trunk fence posts around the garden and chicken run, the yard was beginning to develop a rustic, backwoods theme that we found quite appealing. My bridge isn’t fancy. In fact, it’s kind of weird. But it fulfills is purpose, and adds interest to the area. I’m happy with it.

That’s So Zen!


Years ago, I visited a doctor’s office and saw a small zen garden on his desk. He said raking the sand helped to calm him on stressful days. I had seen full-sized zen gardens, but having one on a work desk was intriguing.

Later on, my daughter went to Australia to visit a friend, and decided to stay. She met her adorable Andrew there, and lived happily in her new home. I visited—I had always wanted to go to Australia anyway—and loved the differences between my North Dakota home and her Australian one. I loved the animals I had never imagined, and the forests that seemed very normal until I noticed that the trees were palm trees, not fir or pine. I loved the beaches, with their golden sand and turquoise water. I only wished I could take it all home with me.

I did take some things home. I bought souvenirs: a sweatshirt, a hat, a few small boxes painted with aboriginal art, and a little digeridoo. I also took home a small baggie of that golden sand and some shells.

I have never been one to just keep things for no use, though. I didn’t want boxes of souvenirs tucked away in a closet. I could wear the sweatshirt, and the hat, but I had a hard time thinking of something to do with the sand. Then I remembered the doctor’s miniature zen garden.

The doctor had bought his zen garden, paying about $100 for it. At 12 inches by 18 inches, it was larger than I wanted. I had an idea, though. I went to one of the big box stores, and looked at picture frames. Most of them were too fancy—and too expensive. I found one, though, that was five inches by seven inches, plain black, and very flat. It would work.


I took the frame home and went to work. First, I removed the glass,, because I didn’t need it. I kept it for a long time, thinking I would surely find a use for it. Eventually, I got tired of having a rectangle of glass floating around the house, and threw it away.


I did have to remove the cardboard that helps a picture frame stand up. It was attached with rivets, and was hard to remove, but I finally just pulled it loose, leaving the rivets behind. They were flat enough that the frame sat straight on a desk or table. I taped the back of the frame thoroughly with duct tape. That kept the cardboard backing from shifting, and sealed the back of the frame so the sand could not leak out. I poured the sand into the frame, and I had a zen garden!


I wasn’t done, though. I found a couple of interesting looking rocks, about an inch tall, and added them to the sand. They could be moved, so sometimes they were in one of the corners, and other times they were in the center, or in a line, or wherever I felt like putting them.


The only thing I needed then was a rake. I couldn’t find a rake the right size anywhere—and I searched. In desperation—because a zen garden is no good if you can’t rake it—I scoured my home for possibilities.

Finally, I sacrificed a pencil, cutting off a ¾ inch piece with my hand saw. I painted the piece black. Then I tried to drill tiny holes in one side to hold rake tines. I struggled. The drill bit slipped off the pencil. The pencil rolled. I could not make holes where I wanted them. I tried driving tiny nails into the pencil and removing them to leave a tiny hole. The pencil split. Eventually I simply used pliers to hold the pencil piece, and hoped for the best. I should have known enough to do that in the first place. It would have saved me a lot of frustration. Good thing I had a zen garden!  I did the same thing to make a hole for the handle, about t a third of the way around from the tines.


I bought a small box of round toothpicks, and cut a piece about ½ inch long off each end of a few. Using a leftover piece of toothpick, I worked some wood glue into the holes for the rake’s tines. The end of each toothpick piece went into the hole, gently but firmly pushed in as deeply as possible.

A bamboo skewer worked as a handle in much the same way. I pushed it into the hole on the other side of the pencil. After painting the handle brown and the tines silver, I had what looked very much like a garden rake. It wasn’t as fancy as the store bought ones, or as perfect and straight, but it looked good.  Or at least okay.  Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for.


My first zen garden was small—about five inches by seven inches. I tried to make water and a beach in one corner. That was fine, but I much preferred a plain sand surface. Still, I kept the zen garden/beach on the desk in my office, and though I used it, some faculty members called it a sand box. One even brought me accessories for the sand box. In time, I accumulated a tiny alien, a miniature Gumby with his pony, and a group of miniature people. I added a tiny paper umbrella intended for fancy beverages, some scraps of paper to serve as beach towels, and other things to set up scenarios in the sand.

When students came to my office to discuss their grades, or ask questions about assignments, they often played with the sand. Many raked and smoothed it. Others set up the tiny toys in different ways.

When colleagues were promoted to positions of stress and difficulty, I packaged up sand, rocks, rakes, and adapted picture frames to give them zen gardens for their desks. If nothing else, it gave them a little laugh.

Years later, I made a small zen garden for my sister, who likes to keep toys on a ledge in her house. Now, every time she or her husband pass by, they stop to rake the sand a bit, or move a rock to a different spot. They seem to enjoy it, and that was my hope.

When my son-in-law had a heart attack at 39, after moving here with my daughter, I built a large zen garden on my buffet. It kept me busy while my daughter stayed with him in the hospital. It also gave her something to do when he came home. That zen garden is still in my house, on a trunk that serves as a coffee table. It holds a couple of inches of Pacific Ocean sand, as well as a number of small sea shells and marine life figurines. I found a back scratcher shaped like a rake, and added it to the box.

The big zen garden doesn’t get as much use as my first tiny one did. Maybe that is because between the lush greenery and the sound of ocean waves, we don’t need quite as much help calming our spirits. Still, being able to run my fingers through the sand, and re-arrange the shells and figurines, does give me a sense of peace and relaxation. I wonder who else I can make a zen garden for!

Cougars, and Otters, and Bears, Oh My!


Not too long ago, my sister asked me to sketch a relatively life-sized cougar for her, so she and her husband (and I) could cut it out of plywood and have a cougar in their yard. I have never been able to sketch, though. I told her I was crafty, not artistic. Drawing an actual animal was far beyond my capabilities, but my sister had seen a life-sized bear I had cut out of plywood for my yard, and thought a cougar of the same type might frighten away the beaver that had eaten her five-year-old apple tree. It wouldn’t, but I didn’t tell her that.


She also thought slowing down for a second look might slow down the boaters whose strictly forbidden too-fast boating sent waves crashing over her bulkhead, damaging her property.


The thing was, I didn’t sketch the bear, either. I created my bear, the way I had done many things over the years, by finding an image I liked and enlarging it. In the olden days, I looked in books. I did that when I painted a mural on my bedroom wall, looking through garden books to find drawings of trees, rocks, bushes, and streams.

More recently, I looked for images online. I only used free ones, which I found by including “free downloads” in my search terms. For example, when I wanted a plywood bear in my yard, I searched online for “bear images free download” and went through the thousands of images that showed up until I found one that was simple enough for me to handle, and that would work as a flat image. I also looked for photographs to learn the right coloring to use. I had not realized, until I made my plywood bear, that black bears had tan muzzles. That made the bear look a lot more realistic.

To make my sister her cougar, I searched “cougar image free download.” That brought a lot of photographs, which didn’t help me. I added the word “art” to my search string, and found more drawings, including coloring pages. I also found thousands of mascots, hundreds of paw prints, and dozens of pictures of older women, often with younger men. You never know what’s going to turn up in a search.


Some of the images were noted as “for personal use only, as screensavers or on personal web pages.” Others were approved for commercial use. I wasn’t doing anything commercial, but I was careful about what I used.

Even the drawings of cougars didn’t all work, though. I loved some of the leaping, attacking cougars I saw, but I needed one that would look realistic standing still. I also needed a profile, so the cougars standing with their heads turned to look at the viewer didn’t work. I just didn’t think I could carry it off. I finally found several images in full profile.


After I printed off the image, I played around with size. A male cougar is about three feet tall and seven feet long—with the tail fully extended. The image I had chosen showed the tail looping down, though, so I didn’t need seven feet. I was sure there was an easy formula I could have used, but I’ve never been very good with numbers. I played around until I figured out that a half-inch square on my printed image could be a 4- inch square on the plywood. That would give me an 80-inch long image–a bit larger than life sized– which would fit on a full sheet of plywood, with room left over.


I bought some freezer paper, and drew 4-inch squares on it. Then I numbered the squares, across the top and bottom, and on both ends. One of the problems I have run into in the past has been losing track of how many squares in I was.


I started with the cougar’s ears, checking my grid on the smaller copy as I drew it onto the big one. If a line was a quarter of the way into a square on the small pattern, I put it a quarter of the way into the square on the big one. Little by little, the outline of my cougar began to take shape. I did an awful lot of erasing and re-doing—enough to consider buying a few pink erasers like I used in grade school.


When the image on the large sheets of paper was complete, I was ready to move on. First, I primed the plywood. I knew I would have to go back and prime the edges after the cougar was cut out, but I wanted to prime the surface before I added lines that would be covered by primer.


Next, I needed to cut along the paper’s outline, tack the paper to the plywood, and use a fine-tipped felt pen to outline the cougar on the plywood. That was not quite as simple as it sounded. There were some things that didn’t show on the profile, like the lines of the ears. I used a trick I learned back before computer days: I turned the paper over, and scribbled heavily with pencil on the back of the tricky areas. Because I had outlined the cougar with a felt pen, the lines showed through, making it easy to see where I needed to scribble.  With the paper tacked to the plywood, I drew firmly over those lines with the pencil. The carbon on the back transferred to the plywood, just like carbon paper.


I needed to buy paint, but judging from the pictures I found, cougars were not all the same color, so I had some leeway. Rather than buy multiple colors of tan and brown and beige paint, I bought a quart of exterior semi-gloss brown that I could see would dilute to about the right color, with the addition of some white paint. I also bought some white paint, because I have always used that so often for various projects that I learned to just keep a gallon on hand, and I was almost out.


In disposable plastic storage containers, I mixed white and brown to make the basic color of the cougar, then mixed another container of lighter color to use on the belly and chest, where the cougars’ coats were lighter.

Many years ago, an artist roommate taught me do shading by adding a bit of the opposite color on the color wheel to my original shade. In other words, if I was painting something blue, the shading color would be blue with some orange added—because of the three primary colors, yellow and red mixed to provide orange, which was directly opposite on the color wheel. A bit of orange added to the blue made realistic shading.

color wheel

Another way to shade, though, was to darken the color I was using. Since I was using a fairly light color on the cougar, I could shade some things with a darker brown color. In fact, I kept both a dark brown and my lighter mix handy, and painted a bit of the outline, adding the lighter color before the darker one dried. The paints mixed, and if I was careful, that shading provided the dimension and shape I wanted. That also worked with the leg and belly lines that needed to be defined.


I let the paint dry for a day, and looked at it carefully to determine what needed to be changed. A touch of dark paint here, a little lighter paint there, and finally my plywood cut-out was beginning to look like a cougar.


When it was completely dry, I used an exterior grade polyacrylic finish on it to protect it from the elements. Both front and back got three coats, and the edges got even more—but carefully, so there were no drips.   After that, I felt confident that the paint would not fade or peel in the weather.

We set the cougar out in the yard, and waited for boaters to notice. I wished I could have seen their faces. I actually enjoyed the project so much that I made a second, smaller cougar to put in my own yard. They were not as common in my area as bears, but they were seen once in a while, and since my plywood bear was enough to startle me when I returned home sometimes, I thought a cougar would be fun, too. In fact, I also gathered some images of otters while I was at it, so my sister could have a couple of otters near the water. If I was doing animals, I decided I might as well do some fun ones.


Leaning Toward Living Fence Posts


I was recently thinking about fences, and realized how many I had build in my lifetime. When my children were very young, I built fences to keep them in the yard—and to keep the goats out. I built fences around individual trees, so the goats wouldn’t eat all the bark and kill them.


I built fences for chickens, and gardens, and orchards and driveways. Later, I built fences to keep my horses in. I couldn’t stop them from leaning over the fences to reach that undoubtedly greener grass on the other side, but I could keep them from actually going there—most of the time. In North Dakota, I built picket fences to keep the dog home, and separate my yard from the surrounding fields.


Back home again in Washington after retirement, I needed fences again, to keep my daughter’s two small dogs home, and out of flower beds I did not want them to dig up. I needed a fence around my garden, to keep the deer out.


  I’ve been working, a little bit at a time, on a property line fence, partly for boundary definition, and partly to keep bears and deer out. The bear that has wandered through our neighborhood has never caused any real damage, other than tooth marks on the garbage cans, but bears have always been attracted to bearing fruit trees. Deer have too, and I wanted them kept out as well. I had a lot of fence to build, and that meant a lot of fence posts to set. I noticed that most people around here had some kind of fence around their property.


Unlike some places, the soil here was soft and easy to dig. Tree roots were a problem when digging a hole for a fence posts, but compared to Utah, digging fence posts here has been like playing in sand box. There, the soil was hard-baked clay that we often had to soak with water and chip away an inch at a time.


There were lots of fence posts to choose from. Steel fence posts that were pounded into the ground worked in some places, but if they hit a root, or gravel, they were stuck. Store-bought, pressure treated fence posts were good, and lasted a few years before needing replaced. Both of those cost money though. Fence posts made from trees and branches I cut myself required special treatment to slow the deterioration that comes from sticking wood into the ground in a wet, mild climate.


Recently, though, I learned about living fence posts. I was researching the best wood for fence posts, and found recommendations about using living trees. That kind of living fence post has been more a matter of luck than plan, for me. When I was working on the property line fence, a few trees stood directly in the fence line. I learned that it was not only acceptable, but recommended, that those trees be used as fence posts.


I hesitated, because I have always hated injuring trees. Anything that damages trees made me nervous. What if the tree died? What if it was weakened and fell on the house? What if a nail-based wound introduced disease?


Still, everything I read suggested that attaching a fence to a tree was a workable option. A few people in chat rooms—not the most reliable source of information in any case—believed that as the tree grew, the fence would be lifted up into the air. That wasn’t actually true, and any fence seen raised into the air had to have been put there in the first place. I remembered my college botany classes, and learning that trees grow taller at the top, as the apical tip grows upward. The growth at the bottom had to do with the thickness of the plant.


I still had a problem with the idea, though. The nails and fencing attached to a tree would have been absorbed, after a few years, as the tree grew fatter. I had seen wires attached to trees—had one in my own yard from a previous owner—that had been grown over and engulfed by expanding bark. I wasn’t sure what to do.


The best solution I saw was a suggestion someone made to nail pressure-treated boards to the trees’ trunks, and then nail the fence to that. I decided I could live with that. The tree could grow, pushing the wide board away as it did, rather than engulfing it, like it would do to a wire. Using treated 2 x 6 boards scrounged from the damaged lumber pile at my favorite hardware store, I attached five-foot lengths to trees in line with my fence. There was less damage to the tree.


The advantage of using trees as posts was that they did not rot out, which is a big issue with fence posts in general. Because a tree was alive, rotting at the base was not much of a risk. However, especially in our very rainy area, trees have never put down deep roots. They didn’t need to, because water was so easily accessible. Since their roots were shallow, they fell. Sometimes, they blew over in a storm. More often, they leaned, a little at a time, until they reached an angle they could not maintain. If there was a fence nailed to a tree when it began to lean, it would take the fence with it. A fence was not much good when it angled so steeply that a bear could just walk up and over it. Still, it beat all the hassle and work of putting in regular fence posts.


The second kind of living fence posts was one I actually discovered by accident. I was working on the property-line fence (a long and on-going project) and had set in fence posts along the property line, and then up to and across from our driveway, leaving space for a gate. I worked on the fence through the winter, using posts cut from trees I had cut down on the arborist’s recommendations.


When spring came, I noticed something strange. One post seemed to be putting out buds. The buds turned into branches. The branches leafed out, which meant we suddenly had a new, six-foot tall, six-inch diameter willow tree next to the garage.  I was astonished.IMG_0676

Because I was so shocked by that whole situation, I did some more research. I had already looked into fence posts—what the best woods are, how long to age posts you cut yourself, how to prepare them to resist insects, fungi, and other things that encourage decomposition. I read up about how to prepare post holes, and everything else I could find. I had not, however, stumbled across anything that prepared me for fence posts that come back to life.


This time, I looked specifically for references to that kind of thing. Sure enough, there were articles and books that talked about it. Apparently, there are some species of deciduous trees whose branches will sprout under the right conditions. The best one is willow.  Alder,which is as common as dirt here in the Pacific Northwest, will also sprout under the right conditions. Both will also sprout new growth from the stump after being cut, which can provide even more posts, in time.


I had used both willow and alder for posts, but I never had them sprout before. The trick was to cut the posts in the winter, when the tree was dormant. Then, they needed to be set in the post holes as soon as possible and kept thoroughly watered. Here in Western Washington, watering has not been a problem until July or August, by which time the posts were (ideally) well on their way to a new life as a tree.


I had done this accidentally the first time. As I worked on the fence, though, I began to plan ahead for post sprouting. I got the holes for the posts dug in January. When I had six or eight ready, I cut posts to put in them. Then I worked on the next batch.


For these living fence posts, I still needed post holes, but two feet deep was enough, instead of the more usual three feet deep. I did not have to put gravel in the bottom of the hole, or age the posts, or soak them in motor oil or any other water repelling substance.


I dug two-foot-deep holes, and put the posts in them. I did not cement them in place, which I usually do with fence posts. Instead, I filled the hole, around the posts, with dirt from the pile I had dug out. I tamped it down with an old pipe. Sometimes I used a pole. Either one worked. With the posts in place, all I had to do was wait.


I had a friend comment one time that none of this would work in cold climates like Utah and North Dakota. I had never tried it there, so I didn’t know for sure. On the other hand, the property we owned in Utah had a lot of willows. It’s possible that, if I had dug holes in the fall before the ground froze as hard as it did there, I could have cut the posts in the earliest spring, while they were still dormant, and set them in place. Spring rains, and maybe a little help from the garden hose, would have provided the moisture. I don’t know if fence posts would come to life in those cold climates, but I could see possibilities. It almost tempts me to go try it. Not enough to move back there, though!

Out Behind the Woodshed


A lot of things happened out behind the woodshed when I was young. My father took us there for punishment. A neighbor girl smoked her first cigarette out behind her father’s woodshed. My son looked at his first Playboy behind our woodshed.


My home in retirement had no woodshed. It had a fire pit, like most homes in the area, and there was soggy firewood scattered around. I knew very soon that I was going to need a woodshed.

During our first summer, we brought home two short pieces of metal roofing we found beside the road, with a “free” sign. Those roofing pieces led me to the construction of a small (tiny) woodshed.


I was intrigued, initially, with the idea of building things from branches. I built a fence and a gate, and framed garden beds. It wasn’t long before I decided to build a woodshed from branches. The roofing panels were six feet by two feet, so a two by five shed would allow for a slanted roof.


When I built the woodshed, I was finding my way. I knew that one end wall had to be taller than the other, to allow for a sloped roof, and I knew that I needed support for the roofing panel. Beyond that, I was figuring things out as I went. I had never built with branches before, so I used four inch screws and crossed my fingers. Later, I saw books and articles about building with branches, with ideas for notching the ends and using a peg and hole type of construction. Those may be useful for more complicated projects, some day. For the woodshed, though, I began by building two open-style end walls by attaching several 24-inch-long pieces of one-inch thick branches to both of the uprights. I built a frame for the roof in the same way.


I built the roof frame to match the panel’s dimensions, and attached the roofing panel with special roofing hex screws that had thin rubber washers below the hex head. They weren’t obvious, but when the screws were tightened down, the rubber washers were compressed, preventing water leaks.


I had used metal roofing twice before, on a hay shed in Utah, and a carport in North Dakota. It wasn’t until I built the carport that I found out I had done that first roof wrong. Instinctively, I had put the hex screws on the low parts of the roofing panels, to ensure tight contact with the rafters and stringers. Before I roofed my carport, though, I looked for instructions online, and found that the hex screws should have gone on the higher ribs of the panels. That way, the screws would be above most of the water, reducing the chance of leaks.


The hardest part of attaching the roofing panel to the frame was getting the screws to go through the metal. When my oldest daughter helped me with the carport, I stood on the ground, and used a very long 1/8 inch drill bit to drill a hole upward, through the stringers and the metal. Then she knew where to put the screws, and didn’t have to fight the metal surface. I drilled holes from the top for the woodshed. I laid out the pieces of my woodshed on the ground, because I wasn’t sure I could put it together in an upright position. With all the pieces set in place, I fastened the roof to the side walls. I was able to walk the woodshed over and set it where I wanted it, near the fire pit. The ground was level, and heavily graveled, because it had been intended for RV parking. Once the shed was in place, I added several cross braces in a multiple “X” shape on the back, for increased stability, as well as plenty of side-to-side braces on the side walls.


I wove small branches through the cross pieces on the sides and back, hoping for a thatched look, and protection from wind-blown rain. The wood stayed dry, but the woodshed looked oddly fuzzy: fluffy. instead of thatched.


I worried about the screws working loose, and the woodshed collapsing, but that never happened. My fluffy woodshed survived two winters, and actually seemed relatively stable. As I continued to remove dead trees and prune the living ones, though, I accumulated more firewood. Before long, I had as much rain-soaked firewood stacked up in front of the woodshed as I had in it. It was time to enlarge my little woodshed.


All I really wanted to do was extend the woodshed by two feet in the front, using the remaining roof panel. I was not at all sure how to go about it. I needed four branches to serve as corner posts, but they were not easy to find. I had been stacking promising branches at the edge of the wood lot, but I had forgotten the climate. In Western Washington, with its heavy rain and mild weather, wood decays very quickly. Most of my branches were too rotten to use.


I found two usable branches, scrounged a third from a dead hemlock tree, and then cut a branch from a leaning willow that I needed to remove. A nice five-foot length in easy reach gave me the fourth post for my woodshed expansion.


Rather than build a whole new structure, I attached the first two posts—the back ones—directly to the front posts of the existing shed, using four-inch screws. Those would provide support for the back of the new roofing panel’s frame. I had found one more branch, too thin for an upright, that I fastened to the posts, across the front of the original wood shed to serve as the back of the addition.


I also added stringers, or crosswise supports, for the roof. Four of them went all the way to the back of the original woodshed. A couple of others only went a few inches beyond the back of the addition. They would still help to support the roof panel.


I removed the front row of screws from the existing roof. When the new panel was set in place, overlapping the old one, I was able to run the same screws into the top of the overlapping section. I was ready to secure the roof with more roofing screws—except that my drill died, and I didn’t know why.


I still had to build the front part of the frame, though, and I knew I could not leave the roof panel as it was. I had to resort to (shudder) nails. I prefer to use screws in building, for several reasons. First, they hold better, especially in an outside structure that moves a bit in the wind. The second reason is more personal. Using a hammer just plain hurts. The muscles of my hands and arms get tired, and cramp up for several days, if I use a hammer very much. Still, it had to be done.


I had two posts for the front of the expansion, but I couldn’t find a long enough straight branch for the top piece. Instead, I had to make do with two shorter pieces. I nailed one to the tall upright, and the other to the short one. Then I laid them out in front of the shed, decided where they should overlap, and nailed the two lengthwise pieces together. Then I stood the whole thing up and began to attach small lengths of branches to it, and to the front edge of the original woodshed. Those held the front part in place. The branches were not straight, so things didn’t line up exactly, but the basic structure was as solid as I could make it.


I worried about the half-finished roof being damaged by wind, so I put a couple of pieces of firewood and some large rocks on top of it. I also used some parachute cord to tie the roofing panel in place. That would at least keep it from moving until I could repair or replace my drill.

I’d done as much as I could, so I headed for the house—and that was when I saw that the extension cord was unplugged. I had not considered that possibility when my drill stopped, because there wasn’t enough tension on the cord to have tugged it loose. I suspected my daughter who had informed me, in passing, that it was time to stop and rest. At least I wouldn’t need to buy a new drill.


The next morning, I finished the little woodshed’s addition. I added screws to the roof, and fastened a few more short pieces between the front and back uprights. I pushed on the corner posts and pulled on the sides, The walls wobbled, but I believed—and hoped—the woodshed was stable enough to last. I was uncomfortable with its rickety appearance, but my daughter said it was rustic, not rickety, and fit right into its environment.  Someday, I would like to build a regular woodshed, with a roof six or seven feet off the ground and pressure-treated 4 x 4 posts, cemented in place. It could even have walls on three sides. I could paint it, and it would be beautiful. Meanwhile, though, I have a woodshed. It’s crooked, and wobbly, and even oddly fuzzy.


I never took my children out behind the woodshed. Child rearing philosophies had changed by the time my children were born, and that kind of punishment was not acceptable. I have reason to believe they played out there, hiding their childhood misbehavior behind the woodshed we had when they were growing up. This woodshed is too small, and too close to the large windows on the house, to hide misbehavior. It will keep the wood dry, and that’s all I really need to be concerned about, at my age. It does the job.

Blowing in the Breeze


I have always loved clotheslines. As a child I used them to pretend I was an acrobat or a circus performer. I hung by my knees, swung up and over the pole, did backflips and twirled around the cross bar on our clothesline poles. It was many years before I realized that everyone’s clothesline poles weren’t worn smooth and shiny from use.


My mother, though, hung clothing on the lines, and so did I, when I got old enough to appreciate the feel and smell of line-dried clothing—and the economy of drying clothes on the line. Sometimes, if the weather was mild and a breeze was blowing, the wind even shook the wrinkles out of the clothes.


There was a wire clothesline strung across a side yard when I moved to this house, wrapped several times around the trunk of a very large tree a few feet from the back porch. It had been there long enough for a deep groove to develop, threatening the life of the tree—and if that tree fell on the house, there wouldn’t be any house left.


The far end of the line looped around another tree. We removed the wire from the first tree, and clipped the wire on the second, where the bark had grown over it. Since that was another very large tree—it is Western Washington, after all—we called an arborist. The first tree, he said, would survive. We had caught it in time. The second would be fine because though a wire wrapped clear around a tree was bad, most other wounds would heal.


  Soon after moving into the house, I decided to replace that damaging clothesline. First, I had to decide what type I needed. There are many types to choose from: umbrella style, pulley versions, extendable devices you pull out to use, and then stow away, and the fixed version I had grown up with. Keeping the cost low was important, and buying umbrella-style or extendable clotheslines would have cost money. Even buying metal clothesline posts would cost money, both for the poles and for cement needed to fix the poles securely in place. Oh yes, and there would be the added labor of digging and cementing those posts. I had to find a cheaper, easier way.


My daughter’s husband did their laundry, and for him a standard, fixed-line version would work, if I could avoid needing poles. My daughter, though, was often the one who wanted to hang something out to air. A clothesline she could reach, and use, would give her that opportunity. I decided a pulley-style clothesline would be best for her. The advantage was that I could install one pulley on a convenient post, and the other wherever I wanted. For my daughter, a post on the back porch could be convenient. I bought some laundry pulleys for a couple of dollars, and began to plan her clothesline.


The next things to choose were specific locations for clotheslines. They needed to be in areas open enough to allow good air flow, or clothing wouldn’t dry. I liked to put clotheslines in out-of-the-way places. As useful as a clothesline was, shirts and underwear flapping in the breeze wasn’t my favorite landscape feature.


Traffic patterns mattered, too. Ducking under a clothesline was so annoying it made me want to tear out my hair. Or the clothesline. One or the other. The edge of the yard, where I didn’t need to walk much, was my best option.


The fixed line version I was planning for my son-in-law’s use was not going to be very long, because multiple lines provided enough hanging space. I paced the edges of the property. In a back corner, I found a convenient space. Sun would reach the clothing, and I could run the clothesline between two of the many trees on the property, so I wouldn’t have to buy—or bury–posts.


I chose two trees to which I could nail three foot long, pressure treated boards. In my workshop, I drilled pilot holes, and attached sturdy eye screws twelve inches apart. Then I nailed the boards to the back of each tree, so the weight of drying clothing would pull the boards against the tree.

IMG_0579Because my son-in-law is quite tall, I attached the boards higher than I would want for myself. He would be able to hang blankets and other large items, without worrying about them dragging on the ground. That clothesline was the easy one.


I knew the clothesline for my daughter was going to start on the porch, but there were other details to consider. I didn’t want it to cut across the porch. Strangling visitors–even salesmen or political campaigners–would not win us any friends.  At the same time, the line had to be comfortable for my daughter to use, without any painful leaning or reaching. I looked at the porch from all angles. I thought about it as I went about other tasks, and considered it as I waited for sleep to visit. Then one day, I realized that if I placed the post at the corner of the stairs and the railing, the lines could run above the railing, giving my daughter easy access without decapitating anyone.


Another pilot hole helped me attach an eye screw. My hands have never been very strong, so I have always had to use a large screwdriver to tighten things like eye screws.


The second pulley was attached to a tree. Because the line went over the garden, I kept it quite high, using a ladder to attach the second eye screw. With both pulleys in place, I only needed to add line.


Two clotheslines should have been enough for anyone, but it wasn’t. I wanted a clothesline at my house, too. I had a small alley, about six feet wide, behind my house. It had been a jungle of tangled weeds, but I had begun the process of landscaping it, laying cardboard, plastic, and carpet. Those would do until I rounded up enough wood chips or bark to cover it. It was a good place to store ladders, but wasn’t used other than that.


It was also about three feet from my door, which made it convenient. After attaching eye screws for four lines, I nailed one end of a board to a tree, and the other end to the wooden fence. I did have to shift one eye screw because I had forgotten to allow space for the tree.


At the other end of the alley, I attached another board, this time to the corner of the garage and the fence. To avoid having to duck under the lines, I did two things. First, I set the clothesline on the fence side of the alley, where I rarely had to walk. Second, I hung the lines just a bit higher than the top of my head.


Finally, I had to decide what type of line to use on the clotheslines. For many years, I used the standard white, vinyl coated clothesline. It worked, but it did stretch and sag. I used to have some little line tighteners that worked well, but even though I am certain I packed them when I moved, they disappeared somewhere along the way. In the meantime, the price had gone up so much that buying new ones is not feasible.


I tried white cotton clothesline, too, and that worked, but it stretched, too. The only clothesline I have used that did not stretch was wire. A heavy wire will hold, with minimal stretching. I have used vinyl covered wire, which eliminates rust and other marks wire sometimes left on drying clothing. Both plain and vinyl coated wire worked, but they were really hard to fasten to the eye screws at the end of the line. Even with pliers, it was difficult to get a tight line and a solid knot.


I recently decided to try using parachute cord. It didn’t stretch any more than any other non-metal clothesline. It was fairly easy to untie, when I did need to tighten the lines. Most important of all, using parachute cord allowed me to choose from a wider range of colors than wire. I could have purple clotheslines. Or pink. Or neon yellow. I do love color.


After a few missed connections and crossed lines, I got the cord up on all three clotheslines. Then I did one last thing. After rinsing out a bleach jug, I cut an opening near the top, on the side away from the handle. Then I cut a notch at the low end of the handle.


That allowed me to slip the jug onto the clothesline, where it would hang between uses. I drilled a few holes in the bottom, so rain water could drain out, and I filled the jug with clothespins. Of course, being the frivolous person I was, I had to paint flowers on the jug.


With that finished, I was ready for laundry day. The only problem was that I had built my clotheslines in the winter, because that was when I had time. Rainy weather has made it hard to dry clothes outside. I’d wait.

I haven’t played on clothesline poles for many years. When spring comes, though, I will hang clothing out to dry. My children will laugh, as they always have, when I sniff the clean cotton of sheets and nightgowns as I walk in from the clothesline. I’ll let them laugh, because I know the pleasure of falling asleep with those clean scents surrounding me. My clotheslines are ready. Let the sunshine come!