Necessity is the Mother of Invention - Maple Syrup 2015 - Part 2

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Homemade spile from a ball point pen

This Maple Syrup year started off really weird. The weather was super warm and the trees were hardly running. From March 1-21st we collected approximately 17 gallons of sap - which boiled down to 3 quarts of syrup. You can see that adventure here: Maple Syruping 2015 Part 1.

Now the trees are going crazy!! From March 22nd to the 25th I have already collected over 25 gallons of sap! Due to the weight and my lack of proper containment vessels, I have even lost a bunch of sap.

If you remember from the beginning of the month, one of our trees was a complete dud. It did not run a single drop.'s now running....all over the ground. 

The problem is - we only have 5 buckets and spiles. I literally have no place to store all this sap, but I hate to waste any of it.

So I rigged a diy homemade spile and bucket set up for the dud tree that finally started running.

It was super easy. I cut the ends off of a ball point pen and stuck it in the tap hole. It turns out Bic pens are exactly 5/8" and fit perfectly. I then tied a bucket (my berry bucket) onto the tree with an extra long shoelace (pink - woo! The orange string is my marker so I can find the maples in the winter.)

I just need to fashion a lid to keep leaves, bugs, and animals out....

Plus I need to find a large holding tank! My refrigerator is full of sap, my 5 gallon pails are all outside FULL of sap. There is at least a week if not 2 weeks left of sap season. We are going to be busy!

Camping Lantern / Power Bank Review

Disclosure: I received complimentary product for review purposes. All opinions expressed are my own and this article does NOT contain affiliate links. No compensation was received.

Unless you head out into the woods on a regular basis, you are probably unfamiliar with just how dark it gets. Living in the suburbs, even our nights are pretty light because of city light pollution and vehicles. 

If there was ever a  major electricity outage, you want a super powerful lantern that can light up your living space. You even want such a lantern for camping, hiking, reading at night, or for sleepovers. 

We had the opportunity to review the Orion Ultimate Survival LED Lantern and Power Bank by Supernova. It's a super bright LED lantern with built in power bank, featuring: 180 Max lumens, multiple modes of operation (using 3AA batteries or 2 lithium ion rechargeable batteries.) It turns on or off by simply opening (lifting up) the lantern. You can operate the lantern in either high, low, red, or flashing red.

 I am currently storing this unit in our emergency area but with the flashing red lights I am tempted to move it to my vehicle emergency kit. It would be a great way to attract attention if you needed help on the side of the road. And if you happened to have a cell phone with you - the power bank could keep it charged so you are able to make that life saving phone call.

Best yet - all the batteries are included! It's compact and easy to store. I would highly recommend this lantern for anyone.

Francois et Mimi Vintage Double Wall French Press Review

Disclosure: I received complimentary product for review purposes. All opinions expressed are my own and this article does NOT contain affiliate links. No compensation was received.
 I have fallen in love with making tea in a french press. I typically use a small press that makes 1 cup of tea at a time. Of course, the press could also make 1 cup of coffee, hot cocoa, an herbal infusion, or even a fruit infused water. 

The uses for a french press are almost endless. They are such a useful piece of kitchen equipment. I recently add the opportunity to review this French Press from Francois et Mimi. 

It is absolutely gorgeous. Seriously, this piece is stunning. It's stainless steel with loads of vintage charm. I have put it front in center in my pantry just because of how great it looks. And it's also useful. It has a double walled construction to keep liquids hot longer and holds 24 oz (a whole liter!) and is amazingly dishwasher safe.

It pours really well with its dribble-proof spout and has a nice and tight filter to keep tea leaves or coffee grounds from escaping into the brew. If you are in the market for a french press - this is a good one to get!

Alite Advanced LED Plant Grow Light Review

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Disclosure: I received complimentary product for review purposes. All opinions expressed are my own and this article does NOT contain affiliate links. No compensation was received.

I like to grow things...but the winter months are especially difficult. We have low E argon coated windows that block 90% of the sun's plant growing radiation, so plants suffer in my house. Even "low-light" houseplants suffer.

So I was super thrilled when I had the chance to review this Alite Advanced LED grow light.

This light is different from the usual bar lights people use to start seedlings and is better for individual plants. Or you could set up an array of them and grow a bunch of plants together.

My plan is to use the light as "therapy" for my houseplants that have been light deficient for so long. Each plant will take a trip under the light to try and perk it up.

The first under the lights: my newly planted Shasta Daisies. These babies will spend the spring and early summer indoors as "decoration" but will eventually make their way out to the garden where they can bloom permanently (they are perennial.)

I chose these because daisies are a natural source of pyrethrin which is a "natural" insecticide. I will probably never turn them into insecticide unless there is a major world wide catastrophe and we need to kill some bugs.

But I digress. On to the show.

Here are the seedlings in all of their glory:

Shasta Daisy seedlings 3 weeks old

Not very impressing for 3 weeks of growth. These guys have been inhabiting the "best" seat in the house and if you look closely, you can see all the little seedlings stretching hard for the light.

This is how the manufacturer shows the light in use:

This is what it looks like at my house:

So, here are the good and the bad from using this light. First off, it can fit in any light socket, so you can technically put it in any of your light fixtures. But.... it's heavy. I put it in a flexible lamp and it practically pulled the whole thing over.

If you are serious about grow lights, you are going to want to invest in a good system for rigging this light up.

I am not able to give much info on the impact on my plants yet, but I will come back and update this post - deleting this sentence and adding the pertinent information.

What I can tell you is the light creates a psychedelic experience wherever you place it. I currently have it stationed in my office. It is a 12W LED bulb that gives off the most efficient wavelengths for peak photosynthesis, and it does this without throwing off a ton of heat.

I  will update how it works for each of my houseplants and may even start a tray of tomato seeds under the lights in April. I will be especially interested to see how this compares to the natural light greenhouse for tomatoes. I'll keep you posted.

Can you grow Green Beans on an indoor windowsill?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

So the question of the day is: Can you grow green beans inside on a windowsill?

I'm about to ruin the entire blog post by giving you the answer. It's yes, and they WILL make beans.

Green Beans growing in a windowsill in early March - check out my cut and come again lettuce next door. 
So why would someone even attempt this? I wouldn't have, but my daughter's third grade class was experimenting with sowing seeds. They grew them in the dark in a recycled school milk container (with no drainage!) Then they brought them home.

She handed me 2 bean plants, barely rooted in the soil, and asked me to keep them alive. Oh blob. It was late February and we had just finally reached 10 hours of daylight. Did I mention the plants were barely even rooted in the soil. I mean, the seed pods were all above ground for Pete's sake!

I should also note that we have low E argon coated windows that block 90% of the sun's glorious plant growing radiation. Growing things inside my home is a constant battle. This did not seem promising.

So I stuck them in the window and they were the best growing plant I had. Figures...

Eventually, I had to repot them so I upgraded their sorry milk carton for a bigger sorry soda bottle - this time with drainage. (I firmly believe all plants should live in recycled containers - just check out my entirely recycled greenhouse.)

And they just kept growing. I thought surely they would wait until mid June when any respectably planted bean would start to flower, but no, they wanted to challenge all of my gardening assumptions.

They put out flowers and without a bee in site, they pollinated themselves (beans do that almost all the time, that's why you can always save their seeds and "almost" never worry that you will get some creepy marriage of different varieties.)

Then they started producing beans. With crappy sunlight, minimal heat (we keep our home at a balmy 65F all winter/spring/fall.) no fertilizer, and none of the goodness of being outside, they flourished. And made beans.

It is now March 21st and the beans are still growing. They are putting out more flowers and the plant has enlarged. The roots are visible through the plastic container and it appears it may be on it's way to "root bound" soon. Of course, this plant has challenged all of my assumptions, so who knows.

As it has grown larger, some of the leaves inevitably end up touching the window and have been freezer burned. Such is the life in a winter window I guess.

Soon, we will pick the 5 beans and eat them - woo! And at the rate it's going, we may be picking many more.

If the plant is still around by the end of May, I will transplant it into the garden and have hopes that it will still thrive. I will update in June/July.

Tapping Maple Trees for Syrup on a Small Scale

2 Maple trees with buckets and tubes
This year we tapped 5 Maple trees. Some of them are the "bare minimum" size for tapping and one of them didn't drip a single drop of syrup. Of course, 2015 has been extremely weird for syrup production. It's been unseasonably warm - in the upper 60's for weeks in March and as high as 73 degrees Fahrenheit!

Despite this, we were still able to pull out 17+ gallons of sap over the first 3 weeks of March (we didn't tap the first week as it was too cold for sap to run.) We spent today boiling down all 17 gallons. It took 9 hours!!!

Two pots of sap waiting to start boiling
In the end, we wound up with 3 quarts of the best tasting syrup...ever! (We're fortunate to have pure sugar maples with a high sugar content.) And we're not done tapping. The weather has finally turned "right" and the trees are running heavier. It may only last another week or two, but we'll be saving the sap and running an all day boil once again.
3 Quarts of Syrup - The pint on the left is still unfinished as we were waiting for the ash to settle out of it. It's probably a half  pint of finished syrup. The pint will be boiled with our sap next week, and the prego jar will be heading to the fridge. All others are properly hot canned and headed to the pantry. 
Here are some tips for small scale tapping that we've gleaned over our 3 week adventure.

1.  Buy 5/8" taps with tubes. We used the ones from and they are fantastic. The set comes with 5 taps/tubes, a book, detailed instructions, and a filter. It's perfect for small scale tapping and the tubes allow you to let the sap drain all day without having to constantly empty bags or buckets. Look at the precarious slope my trees are on and tell me how much you think I loved having 5 gallon buckets that didn't need to be emptied every few hours!

2. Get a lot of buckets/bottles/containers ready and clear space in your refrigerator! I had planned to store the sap outside in 5 gallon containers I had washed. I gathered snow to save in case it got warm and we lost the snow. Well, we lost ALL of our snow when a streak of 60+ degree days hit for a week in a row. We had to store it all inside. Do you have room for 17 gallons of liquid in YOUR refrigerator? What about 30 gallons? Do you have enough containers that can not only hold the sap but can fit inside a refrigerator?

I didn't. So I had to wash every possible container. In the end, I stored sap in a ton of juice and milk containers, a vinegar bottle, a gumball container, a big
plastic licorice bottle, and a huge container of cheese balls. Waah! Be prepared for anything, even 70 degrees (or 73 as it we had) in March.

3. Wash everything really well (even the filter and tubes!) then wash them all again.

4. Cook it on an open fire if you can. The taste is amazing. But be ready for it to take all day. ALL DAY! If you can use more than one pot, even better. We found that we averaged about 1 gallon of evaporation per hour per pot.

You can use stainless steel or cast iron. Either way, be sure the pot is completely clean. If you use stainless, coat the exterior with dish detergent so it will clean up easier after the fire.

How did we cook over an open fire? I had planned on using a rocket stove, but the one I ordered on Amazon arrived broken and it kind of lost its allure after that. So we used our fire pit.

Why didn't I want to use the fire pit initially? It's not very efficient and how do you put a pot over an open fire? Well, we remedied both situations, sort of.

We put rebar across the span of our fire pit and covered the rebar with grates off of a broken grill. All are made from iron and can withstand the heat of an intense fire. You can see the set-up in the photo above. My husband built a great fire with really hot coals that maintained the heat for hours. We did use a lot of wood, but far less than you would imagine. We got all of our wood from downed trees.

5. Use more than one pot if you can (more pots equal faster evaporation!) Also, if you can heat the sap before you add it to your boiling sap, that helps keep the evaporation going. We did not do this, but I may revisit the rocket stove idea just for warming sap to add to the open fire pots.  Of course the rocket stove would also evaporate the sap while its "heating" so that's a bonus. It would also be smaller and easier to manage while working with it and uses way less wood.

6. Get a good filter. Then get a better filter. The filter that came with our tapping supplies is great for getting rid of wood chips, bugs, and big bits. It kind of sucked for getting out ash. And a fire pit creates a lot of ash.

Don't worry about the ash, just strain it out at the end. We found that using an old t-shirt works great at removing the ash from syrup.

7. Don't boil it too long. I boiled a small sample during the first week and boiled it into accident.

8. Start out small. We started with 5 trees. 3 turned out to be duds. Two fo them barely produced and one did not produce any so we ended up putting 2 buckets on the largest tree (a super big one that could technically support 3 taps.) Even with a wild weather year, we had a lot of sap to manage. It was tough to store and took a lot of time to boil down. Don't start larger unless you have really good equipment, experience, and storage space.

Next week, when we boil the sap again, we will be putting 3 pots on the fire. We are hoping the sap boils down much quicker that way. I will update on our progress.

GreenWorks 80V Chainsaw Review

Friday, March 20, 2015

Have you ever fought with a gas powered tool just to get it started? Then you use it for a few minutes, let it sit in the garage for a few months, then you perform the necessary pre-winter maintenance, only to have the entire process start again the next year. I have.

Gas powered tools have been stressing me out year after year. I even had to stop watching GoldRush with my husband because every episode features the "guys" fighting with some piece of equipment breaking down or refusing to start. The stress!!!

We upgraded many of our gas power tools with electric ones, but if you've done the same then you know there is a trade off. First, most electric tools just aren't as powerful as their gas counterparts. And second...they come with a cord. That cord limits where you can go or forces you to have a really long extension cord.

But that's not even the worst of it. My husband has cut through the power cord of our hedge trimmer TWICE. He's lucky he wasn't electrocuted. Really lucky!

It's not worth the risk to use corded equipment, yet it's not worth the stress to use gas powered tools. What do you do?

I may have finally found the solution. We recently had the opportunity to review products from the GreenWorks 80V Pro series.

GreenWorks has created a line of Lithium Ion battery powered power tools. They have an amazing array, including: hedge trimmers, snow throwers, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, chainsaws, and string trimmers.

We were given the chance to review the chainsaw. Take a look at the chainsaw up close:

Right off the bat, a couple of things should stand out at you. I put a chainsaw on the carpet.... That because this chainsaw uses no gas! It's clean. It uses a battery system similar to that of cordless drills, just a lot bigger!

Just like a cordless drill, you just charge the battery and pop it in the slot. So easy! There's no mixing of gas and oil, changing it out for the winter, priming the starter, pulling a chain.... You just pop the battery in and push a button.

This product does not burn fossil fuels to operate, but you will need chain oil to keep the chain lubricated and running smoothly.

So how does it work? How powerful is it? 
This chainsaw has power equivalent to a 45cc gas powered unit. It can slice through any branch or limb you have in your backyard. When I told my husband we would be trying an electric chainsaw, he was concerned about the chain not stopping like a gas powered saw. This chainsaw features an electronic chain break to quell that issue. It also features steal bucking spikes to limit kickback.

The battery lasts for 150 cuts and/or 30 minutes. The battery is interchangeable between multiple products and you can always buy additional batteries if you are going to use the saw for a job requiring more time/power.

The best thing --- it starts every time!!! There is no guessing. It just works.

It stores well and has none of the gas/oil/greasy problems of a gas powered tool. You can transport it without fear of combustion and there are no fumes. The batteries can be charged on or off the grid.

The bottom line:
This chainsaw is pretty amazing. It is ideal for someone with a suburban lot, a cabin surrounded by woods, or a small homestead. It's great for an occasional cut here and there or an afternoon of storing firewood. If you are a major lumberjack, it might not be your primary chainsaw. But for the rest of us, it's pretty much perfect.

You can find GreenWorks Pro Series products at many of the big box home improvement stores and online.

Disclosure: I received complimentary product for review purposes. All opinions expressed are my own and this article does NOT contain affiliate links. No compensation was received.

WearMax Scratch Concealer Review

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Disclosure: I received complimentary product for review purposes. All opinions expressed are my own and this article does NOT contain affiliate links. No compensation was received.

We have children, and a pet, and visitors, and we live in our house, so we have scratches on our wood surfaces. Some of them are deep, horrendous scratches, and some are light and annoying.

I volunteered to review the WearMax Scratch Concealer because I would love to remove or at least hide some of those scratches.

WearMax Scratch concealer is used to hide the white lines made from light surface scratches. It creates a permanent seal, cured by ambient light, that doesn't wash away. It works on 99% of hardwood floors and comes with a 100% satisfaction guarantee.

Check out this video to see the product in action:

I was super excited to give this product a try. We have scratches everywhere, and I really wanted to try it on this:
I'll give you one guess who did this to my coffee table.....

So this is the first scratch I went after. Sadly, it is a deep scratch and the WearMax concealer did not change it's appearance.

I used it all over my hardwood floors and it removed the white scratches left by my planters beautifully. I tried some deeper scratches, just because, and they were once again a no-go.

It was easy to use and even came a practice board and rag, so you can get started with it right away.

It works great on surface, white scratches and not at all for the deep ones. But the product only claimed to take care of white scratches and in that area it excels.

Winter/Spring Seed Starting without Electricity - Part 3

It has been 12 days since the seeds went into the greenhouse and it's time for an update.
68F inside while it's 47F and windy outside

Once the seedlings started to emerge, I removed the milk carton tops so they would have the ability to breathe. Only 3 of the cartons have seedlings large enough to be opened. Apparently, rhubarb takes a long time to germinate or my seeds were duds?
Bok Choy - in desperate need of some water?

Sunflowers and Garlic
Chives (currently MIA)

A few reminders if you want to use a greenhouse of any kind:

1. Venting is essential. I have been diligently opening the greenhouse on all days over 60F but even still some of my seedlings were burned.

These amaranth seedlings were scorched in the heat:
Amaranth and Buckwheat - half of the amaranth tops were burned to a crisp

I ended up moving the greenhouse out of the direct sun. This decreases the internal temperature substantially and might negatively effect the "legginess" of the plants, but we'll have to see.

2. Bricks and/or water bottles are essential. Not only do they heat up and store energy, but they also keep a flimsy little greenhouse from being toppled or taken away by the wind.

3. Animals will get inside. I haven't had any mammals or birds enter yet, but I did have wasps take up residence inside the containers. They all died - scorched?? It's not a big deal but something to be aware of.

Want to learn more about off grid gardening or how/why we are growing without electricity?

Check out:
Winter/Spring Seed Starting without Electricity - Part 1
Winter/Spring Seed Starting without Electricity - Part 2
Growing Food on the Edge of a Forest
How to keep indoor plants and seedlings for getting leggy while grown in a window
How to grow seedlings in winter in northern climates
DIY self watering planters from recycled materials

Argan Oil - 100% Pure & USDA Organic Review

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Disclosure: I received complimentary product for review purposes. All opinions expressed are my own and this article does NOT contain affiliate links. No compensation was received.

Argan oil is my new favorite...everything oil. I use it for my skin, my hair, my face, my feet...

I have been very fortunate to be able to review this Argan oil from Adovia . This is a very high quality, organic oil.

For those of you not familiar with Argan oil or using oils in general, you should consider Argan oil to be a lot like olive oil except that it has a lighter smell and absorbs better into your skin.

People in Morocco eat Argan oil with their bread and put it on their skin. I have been using it to soothe my skin after being in the sun or bathing. I use it on my neck and face. I use it on myself and my children. I even use it in my hair (sparingly.)

If you wash your hair after use, it will leave your hair very shiny (for me, putting it on without washing leaves me looking like an oil slick.) It has also transformed my lips and facial skin - to baby soft for the skin and no longer dry and cracked all winter for the lips.

It's a fantastic oil. It's light and absorbs well into the skin. It's even 4oz, which is a wonderful size - once you learn to use it, you will want to use it on everything, all the time.

If you're worried about the cost, realize that this one product will replace so many others. You'll probably never want to buy "lotions" again. I don't think I ever will.