Archive | September 2015

How I Moved 3000 Pounds of Mulch, Saved $300, and Lost Three Pounds

Our house came with an extravagant children’s play area. (Extravagant to the point of danger–it is really too large for the space, such that a tot could hit his head on the fence, but that’s a problem beyond the scope of this post.)

It was, when we moved in, reasonably well-covered with rubber mulch. And then our children started playing on it.

Within six months of rough play and, ahem, inadequate maintenance, it was a crazy mess. There were giant holes in the landscape fabric and bare dirt was visible in many places.

Something must be done!

Something must be done!

I was really leery of taking on this project. I didn’t really know what would be involved. What would I find under the mulch? What supplies did I need to fix the problem? What were the giant metal staple-things the kids pulled up? Could I move all that mulch without injuring myself? But there was nothing for it but to get to work. And I had to finish the job as quickly as possible, because it put our backyard playground out of commission and, well, that’s bad!

Now, I HATE rubber mulch. I hate it a lot. It’s gross, and I feel like I have to pick it out of the grass piece by piece because it won’t decompose for like five hundred years, so my first thought was to replace the rubber mulch with actual wood mulch. I thought that the whole project, including mulch, landscape fabric, staples, and tools, would cost a couple hundred dollars, or less, because you can have a virtually infinite amount of wood mulch delivered to your house for $75.

Then I realized two things:

Damn, that's a lot of mulch.

Damn, that’s a lot of mulch. Several cubic yards.

  1. I had a truly massive amount of rubber mulch.
  2. You have to use special playground mulch for playgrounds, and this is really expensive.

So I revised my plan. Fortunately, Grandpa FP taught me that you have to be prepared for anything when you look under or behind. New plan: Keep the nasty rubber mulch, but move all of it so I could replace the landscape fabric bit by bit. I actually opted to spot-replace the landscape fabric rather than pull it all up, for two key reasons:

  1. My garage already had enough landscape fabric, left by previous owners, for a patch job. Probably not enough to replace every bit. And you know how I hate buying things.
  2. As I mentioned, there is a whole lotta mulch. By spot-replacing, I did not have to move it all at once. I could move part, do the fabric, and move it back.
Fabric replacement in progress. I wish I was one of those people who is super-organized with their tools.

Fabric replacement in progress. I wish I was one of those people who is super-organized with their tools. Little Brother was surprisingly helpful with the rubber mallet (both fetching it and banging in the staples).

The latter point was particularly important because I had to essentially sweep up the mulch. After I moved as much as possible with my snow shovel (seemed the best tool for the job), there would be a lot left that needed to be removed from the ground more carefully. So I wanted to get the fabric back down ASAP so I wouldn’t have to keep sweeping the same areas!

Fabric replacement complete. Let the raking begin!

Fabric replacement complete. Let the raking begin!

It would have cost about $300 to get wood playground mulch, so that’s money I saved by keeping what I had. I often make do with non-ideal hand-me-downs in order to keep more money in my bank account. Total cost was about $40: $25 for two boxes of landscape staples (I used a whole lot of these because it seemed like inadequate stapleage was part of why the fabric was coming apart) and $15 for a landscape rake. I used this for finishing the project, but will also find it helpful for doing a better job in the future of maintaining level mulch, to prevent further wear and tear on the fabric.

Ahhh, that's better. Time to get out the broom and dustpan again and sweep the sidewalk...

Ahhh, that’s better. Big Brother is helping level out the mulch. Time to get out the broom and dustpan again and sweep the sidewalk…

With all the exercise of shoveling mulch, I lost three pounds that week as an added bonus!

What projects have you taken on lately? Or what money have you decided NOT to spend?


Thinking Outside the [Shoe] Box. And the Envelope.

I’m always on the lookout for objects, tasks, and habits in my life that could be optimized. So when I began to feel the nip of fall in the morning air, and wanted to put slippers on my feet, I knew something had to change.

See, Mr. FP has, in the nearly sixteen years that I have known him, owned exactly two pairs of slippers, and the second is still going strong. They are leather-soled LL Bean moccasins that I believe I bought him in the early aughts.

Meanwhile, I have owned more like eight pairs. The problem is virtually all women’s slippers have hard plastic soles. Once the padding wear down, which in my experience takes like three days, you’re walking around on the hard bottoms, and they become extremely uncomfortable. What’s a girl to do?

That’s when I thought of looking for boy’s slippers. See, boys’ sizes go up to 6, and they run about two sizes smaller than women’s sizes. So any woman with feet size 8 or smaller has the option of shopping in the boys’ department for shoes, especially if her feet are, like mine, on the wide side.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never owned LL Bean women’s slippers, so it’s possible that their rubber soles are softer and their padding lasts longer, and they would have given me my money back if I was displeased. However, women’s slippers start at $39.95 for fleece with a rubber sole.

These boys’ fleece slippers with a nice suede sole–no rubber, yay!–cost me $19.95.

I was spending that much on slippers every year or two. So if these last me even just three seasons, I will have saved twenty bucks. And if they don’t last three seasons, well, I will ask LL Bean for my money back, and will still have saved twenty bucks.

My toes reposing happily on the front porch.

My toes reposing happily during my morning coffe-on-the-porch time. Preschool is a great invention.

Next optimization: Banking. Roughly every two weeks, I receive a paper paycheck for my trivia editing job that I must deposit at a bank. Quaint, isn’t it?

Now, Mr. FP and I remain devoted users of Virginia Credit Union for basic checking. We’ve moved a lot, and we just don’t like the trouble of finding a new bank. We’re used to this one, and the checking is really and truly free. Plus you can use any ATM gratis. So I was taking these checks, filling out a deposit slip (if I had any–when I ran out, I would use old tear-off pages from a trivia-question-a-day calendar), putting it in an envelope, and putting a stamp and return address label on the envelope. Super inefficient, plus the cost of the stamps and envelopes.

Yep, I made address labels just for my bank. That's how much I mailed to them.

Yep, I made address labels just for my bank. That’s how much I mailed to them.

Then I realized I could download the Ally banking app. Now I just have to take a picture of the check, and it goes right to our cash savings (which we’re trying to build up anyway).

Have I told you guys how much I love Ally? It’s easy to use, they pay a full one percent interest, and they just gave me and a bunch of other people twenty dollar Amazon gift cards in celebration of their one millionth customer.

This e-deposit is only saving me like thirteen dollars a year, but, as Grandpa FP would say, thirteen bucks is better than a nail in the foot. Sorry, USPS.

What minor things have you streamlined lately?

Apparently You Can Microwave Oatmeal

Oatmeal: It is ridiculously cheap, nutritious, and the kids love it. (I can take it or leave it myself, but they will eat it for any meal of the day.) It keeps forever, so I can have a virtually limitless supply in my pantry. So far, an ideal food.

The problem was that it is a pain to cook rolled oats. Takes several minutes on the stove, and who wants to heat their house up like that during the summer?

Now, there are directions on the box for making oatmeal in the microwave. I tried this years ago and it exploded all over my microwave. I filed microwave oatmeal under “fail” and moved on mentally. I made it on the stovetop or not at all.

When we visited Grandma FP this summer, I returned from vacation (thanks, Mom!) and was surprised to find that she had been feeding Big Brother boatloads of oatmeal. My mom’s house is usually more the kind of establishment where one finds packets of instant oatmeal and those pre-shaped cookies that you just separate and bake. While I have known Grandma FP (who is, incidentally, four feet ten inches tall) to rent a drum sander and refinish wood floors, I can’t picture her standing at the stove stirring oatmeal.

Evidently the oatmeal had entered the house for a cookie-making project and she wanted to use it up by feeding it to my tots. So she first tried the microwave and had the same experience I did. Oatmeal city.

But she was not as easily deterred as me and pressed on, experimenting with trial and error until she had it down pat. Evidently the secret is to use a container that holds about 4 times as much water as you are using. So a single serving of oatmeal (half a cup of oats to one cup water) can be comfortably prepared in a one-quart Pyrex measuring cup, should you have such a thing.

Turns out the directions SAY to use a one-quart dish. I don't think that was on the box I used when I painted my microwave with oatmeal.

Turns out the directions SAY to use a one-quart dish. I don’t think that was on the box I used when I painted my microwave with oatmeal.

I do not, so at my house I just use a large stoneware or Pyrex serving bowl. (I have found that I can make up to three servings this way–I’m not kidding, the dudes dig oatmeal.) After it’s cooked, I add a dab of maple syrup and plenty of cinnamon, or perhaps peanut butter and honey, and if it is thick enough, I add a little milk to help it cool off.


For some reason, I have three of these fancy serving bowls. I use them for… microwaving things.


Friends, what a revelation! No more standing at the stove stirring! Electricity savings! More importantly, oatmeal has entered our very short list of “emergency child meals” alongside frozen chicken nuggets and cold cheese sandwiches. Fewer chicken nuggets down their gullets = win for health. It’s easy enough that a babysitter can prepare it, fast enough to whip up for lunch even when I pick up Little Brother at 11 and have to be at work at 1:15. When I get a thermos for Big Brother, I’ll be able to pack it in his school lunch. 

I know lots of food snobs look down on their microwave. For me, it is an essential part of my efforts to eat almost exclusively home-prepared food. 

Do you get much use out of your microwave? What are your fallback meals?

I Made a Recognizable Skirt!

Just joining us? Don’t miss “I’m Making a Skirt! Phase 1: Practice,”Phase 2: Gadget Testing,” or “Phase 3: Caught in the Zipper.”

It’s amazing you can make so very mistakes and still wind up with something more or less wearable.

Probably will not actually tuck my shirt way down into it, but I thought you should see the buttons I sewed on.

Probably will not actually tuck my shirt way down into it, but I thought you should see the buttons I sewed on.

Seriously, the workmanship on this thing is terrible. The darts in the lining do not match up to the darts in the skirt, probably because the whole thing is asymmetrical thanks to my struggles with the zipper. (I had to cut half an inch off the side of the skirt because the fabric was so damaged. Next time I will sew on the zipper with contrasting thread in case I need to pick it out!) The hem is uneven. Something went wrong where the zipper meets the waistband.

Top of zipper sticks out awkwardly.

Top of zipper sticks out awkwardly.

Lining did not match up with skirt quite right, leaving me with this weird unfinished area.

Lining did not match up with skirt quite right, leaving me with this weird unfinished area.

It does, however, look more or less like a skirt. I would probably not wear it to work if I worked in a very stuffy office, but librarians are supposed to be quirky. (The woman who helped me get my job told me so. Thirtysomething white women are overrepresented among librarians and being quirky helps set us apart.)


It cost a lot to make and took waaaay too long, both in hours and in the number of weeks I let it drag on, partly because I am really slow at hand-sewing. It took me nearly an hour over two days to sew on six buttons, and that’s after it took me a few days to psyche myself up for sewing on the buttons.

Here’s the thing: It was fun and satisfying and I hate shopping a lot. So will I do it again? Definitely. For one thing, it will be a whole lot cheaper next time since I already own the gear now and would only need to buy fabric, other consumables, and–let’s be honest–probably a new gadget or two per project, like a quilting ruler or a non-plastic invisible zipper foot. (Not as cheap as buying a skirt at Goodwill, but cheaper than buying it, say, new on clearance or at a high-end consignment store.)

I also anticipate that it will be much faster next time and that the results will be better. I’m sure it will only take me a couple of tries to get the zipper on next time, as opposed to the five–yes, five, plus I had to get a new zipper–tries it took this time.

I almost abandoned the project more than once. But I figured I was still enjoying myself, still learning things, and still had hope of producing something wearable, so I pressed on. And I’m really glad I did. There were more skills ahead, like slip stitching the lining to the zipper. Now, that came out okay, but I’m sure I will do better next time, so I’m glad I practiced on my super-imperfect skirt instead of on the next one, which will hopefully be looking a lot better at that stage.

In the final analysis, I recommend the book The Essential A-Line with some reservations. Double-check all the measurements as some of them are wrong. Read several invisible zipper tutorials online as the book is not very clear about the orientation. And be prepared to look up online explanations of basic sewing terms you might have missed–like slip stitching. I didn’t know what that was when the book said that was how to sew the lining to the zipper.

Yikes. No wonder I kept losing the tiny white piece of the invisible zipper foot.

Yikes. No wonder I kept losing the tiny white piece of the invisible zipper foot.

Before I try again, I’m going to catch up on all the things I neglected while I was making this one, and maybe lose ten pounds. I definitely want some skirts for next summer, but I think I’m set for winter now. One thing I have done NOW that I wish I had done FIRST was organize my sewing area, which is a narrow console table I use as a desk. I spent way too much time looking for tiny pieces–the bits of the invisible zipper foot that kept falling off, spare needles, seam rippers, etc.–that I had lost somewhere in the mess on my desk. Also, next time I will clean and oil my machine mid-project, because it starts to go super-haywire after a while.

This is what happens when my machine has not been oiled in a while.

This is what happens when my machine has not been oiled in a while.

What new things are you learning lately? How’s it going?