Big List of Earth-Friendly (homemade, compostable, recyclable, no-plastic) Holiday Decorations



My previous post on this subject garnered so many excellent suggestions that I decided to condense all the suggestions into one big list for easy reference. In addition, I’ve added a new board to our Pintrest account called Compostable, Recyclable Homemade Holidays.  I’ve started gathering projects which reflect this list.

A big thank you to Bellen, fishbee, Hazel, Indigotiger, rainey, Michael and Practical Parsimony for offering suggestions!

I know–the last thing Pintrest needs is yet another board devoted to holiday decorations! But I figured my standards are a little sterner than most, so it is a worthwhile project. I really want these decorations to be able to return to the earth. This means I’m avoiding paint, glitter and Styrofoam (not to mention plastic and batteries!)  and I prefer things which don’t feature glue, or can use a simple non-toxic white glue.

Why this obsession with natural ornaments?

I like the idea of ephemeral decorations–decorations which are meant to last only for the season, maybe only for a week or two. It is more work to make decorations afresh every year, but gathering materials and making simple ornaments is an act of meditation and appreciation.

This kind of work helps us slow down and reconnect with nature. This alone can be enormously calming at a stressful time, and may help us back into a more expansive state of mind. The holidays can be so loud and jangly and rushed. Just stepping back and spending some time admiring the geometry of a pine cone or the cleverness of an acorn helps cleanse the mind of all that noise.

Seasons come and go. Holidays come and go. Ornaments which reflect the seasons should come and go, too. The fact that they don’t last, that they have to be savored in the correct season, is what makes them special.

Also, this kind of decorating also saves on storage space, and saves the labor of packing up ornaments once the season is over.

Most of these things can go to the recycle bin or the compost pile–or just to some obscure corner of nature to return to the earth.

But, more romantically, they can be hung outside for the remainder of their lives: ornaments for the fairies. This makes it easier to part with them at the end of the season.

Finally, these ornaments are light–they don’t burden our earth with yet more plastic and toxins. They aren’t made in some far off factory by an underpaid laborer. They are not helping the bottom line of some soulless big box store.

The List

This is broken down into two parts: the first list includes ornaments that come straight from nature, and which will only last a short time. Collect them on walks around the neighborhood, collect them as mementos of trips to the mountains, the beach, or grandma’s house. Bring them home and hang them straight up! At the end of the season, they can be returned to the earth.

The second list is more crafty, requiring more input from you, and creating ornaments which you may or may not decide to keep.

Straight from nature:

  • Sturdy winter berries
  • Rose hips
  • Dried herbs and flowers
  • Moss
  • Feathers
  • Cool looking seed pods ( milkweed pods, thistle heads,  sweet gum tree pods, sycamore pods, star anise, Indian cigar tree pods, magnolia pods–keep your eyes open in the autumn and you’ll find lots) If you want sparkle, sugar them instead of getting out the glitter.
  • Nuts
  • Clusters of acorns
  • Sticks covered with pretty moss and lichen
  • Curls of bark
  • Seashells
  • Dried hops
  • Fresh ivy
  • Fresh holly
  • Dried citrus peel spirals
  • Dried citrus slices
  • Wild grapevines made into tiny wreaths
  • Pine cones
  • abandoned or human-constructed bird nests, filled with moss, pine cones, quail eggs, candy…
  • Succulent rosettes–should last a week or more after cutting

Some assembly required

These projects require some crafting, and some are not as ephemeral as the ornaments above–you may want to keep them from year to year. Or, they are made stuff you find in your house, instead of out in nature.

If glue is necessary, use non-toxic glue. Make the yarn and cloth projects biodegradable by choosing cotton or wool yarn, and natural fiber cloth. Making little cloth ornaments is a great way to use up scrap cloth and yarn. Save colorful scrap paper for the paper projects.

  • Popcorn/cranberry strings (pro-tip: stale popcorn threads better)
  • Gather a few evergreen branches by the branch ends to make a broom or fan shape, decorate with a spray of berries, tie with a ribbon. Much easier than a wreath!
  • A few cranberries strung in a circle= mini wreath
  • Re-purpose old jewelry directly as tree ornaments, or use pieces in making other ornaments (loose beads, pins, chain, etc.)
  • Tie scraps of pretty cotton ribbon into bows on tree limbs
  • Make paper chains
  • Sugared flowers, leaves, berries, etc. White sugar adds a little natural bling to things
  • Milkweed pods glued into star shapes
  • Bay leaves glued into wreaths and stars.
  • Paper cones with raffia hangers filled with…sweets? berries?
  • Blown eggs, especially quail eggs
  • Origami birds, stars, boxes, wreaths, etc. (use up scrap wrapping paper!)
  • Paper birds
  • Paper snowflakes
  • Gingerbread figures
  • Bundles of cinnamon sticks
  • Homemade rock candy
  • Orange peel roses
  • Citrus pomanders (you know, clove-studded oranges)
  • Oranges with decorative carving of the peels  (see this, scroll down)
  • Stars made out of twigs
  • Creatures and whatnot nestled in walnut halves
  • A tiny boat made of a walnut half and a paper sail
  • Make little creatures out of teasels, acorns, milkweed pods, etc.
  • Make cookie-type ornaments out of a simple dough made of applesauce and cinnamon–add applesauce to cinnamon until it forms a dough. Just leave to dry–no baking, or maybe try drying in a very low oven. These smell great, and their scent can be revived by sanding them.
  • Tiny God’s eyes
  • Hollow an egg and cover surface with beans and seeds and rice. Can dip the finished egg in wax to seal,  can also swirl some wax inside the egg to strengthen it
  • Make tiny felt dolls, dressed with scrap cloth
  • Crochet tiny stockings
  • Cardboard stars wrapped with yard
  • Bird seed ornaments, either to hang outside right away or after the holidays
  • Needle felted creatures
  • Hang up corks from special bottles of wine or champagne
  • Slice a loofa into rings and add natural fiber bows to make little wreaths
  • Goats made out of straw (Yule Bocks)– a Finnish custom

If you want to add to this list, speak up in the comments and I’ll move your suggestions into the list.

Camping on Halloween Night

tent in the forest, autumn

I was lucky enough to be able to camp this Halloween weekend. While I love the costumes and the candy and the gentle anarchy of Halloween in the city, I was very happy to be able to spend this Halloween out in nature. My only other nature-based Halloween was many years ago, in rural Ireland, where I wandered the countryside alone at sunset, hoping to spot a ghost or a fairy or a faun.

Maybe it is just the power of suggestion, or maybe it’s something else, but Halloween night has always carried a charge for me–it just feels different, whether you’re on the street with a bucket of candy, holed up in the house with a pumpkin beer or out in the woods. It’s said that the veil between the worlds is thinnest on Halloween night, and I’m willing to buy that, because somehow the air always feels full of potential.

This Halloween night, I was camping at 6,300 feet in the Angeles National Forest. The weather in Los Angeles has continued depressingly hot and clear and dry, despite the arrival of autumn. On Halloween evening, though, clouds gathered in the sky, obscuring the relentless blue. Around twilight  those clouds dropped. They just fell straight down from the sky, as if someone cut their strings, and they turned into a sort of high fog with feathery, creeping tentacles exploring the tops of the pines and the cypress. And those creeping clouds drifted ever lower as the light faded, and a breeze kicked up, which sent the golden leaves on the ground a-dancing. I sat by the fire, looking down a long path lined with swirling leaves, shivering bushes and tendrils of fog and waited to see a fairy, or maybe a Black Rider.

Then the daylight vanished abruptly, like someone turning out an overhead light.  Fifteen minutes later, I couldn’t find my hand in front of my face. Darkness swallowed everything whole.  We read scary stories by the campfire and ate apples baked in the coals.

Late that night, after I was safely tucked in my bag, rain started to fall. The first significant rain of the year, the first significant rain in maybe 9 months or so. All night long the wind in the trees roared and boomed–it sounded like waves crashing on rocks. The rain sheeted down on my tent while the wind shook the sides.  (A five year old tent which has never been tested in the rain–that’s SoCal camping for you!). It did not leak, thank the Great Pumpkin.

I have to say, I have never been happier on any Halloween.

At dawn I woke up to a world soggy and remade. The rain had carved deep channels and rivulets in the hard-packed soil. The scrubby, hard-bitten plants eking out their living on the granite slopes shimmered in the morning light, free of dust for the first time in months, revealing their true and gentle colors.

I heard water and ran to the stream bed. The day before it had been dry, now it ran with water. I knew it was a temporary flow, but the sight of running water after a long dry summer brought tears to my eyes, and I remembered that Halloween is the Celtic New Year. It’s a time of darkness, and a time of death (the traditional time for slaughtering stock), but in death there is renewal, and I felt that renewal in the moist loam beneath my feet and the cheerful dripping of the trees, and I heard it in the water, and I gave thanks for the rain.

And an hour later, it began to snow.

snow on pine trees

Checking in on Kelly’s projects

tote bag

Today a tote bag, tomorrow the world!

Okay, so this is not the most useful post for the world at large, but I figure that when I mention on the blog that I’m going to try to learn something new, I should report back, to stay honest.

Mattress making:  My post on mattress making has, surprisingly, turned out to be one of our most popular posts ever. I think that shows there’s just a wee bit of dissatisfaction with our available mattress options. (Note that the post has been updated with linkage to an interesting how-to pdf).

Here at home, however, we’re still sleeping on our old mattress. We turned it again and found a side which doesn’t bother my back so much, so this very ambitious project has gone on hold until the crisis arises again. Making a mattress is intimidating, just because of the sheer cost and scale of the materials needed, and as far as I can tell, there’s no one out there to help you do it.  If I ever do make a mattress, it will be like summiting the Everest of homesteading. On the other hand, if I ever learn how, I think I could make a mint teaching other desperate people how to do it themselves!

Shoe making: Shoes are as ambitious as mattresses in their way, and very hard to get your head around. Fortunately I’m going to be taking that turn shoe class I posted about a while back.

I’ve finally realized that I am not a lone wolf when it comes to learning new things. I know people who’ve made beautiful shoes just by figuring them out in their head. I don’t have that kind of head. I like and need teachers. So from now on, I’m just cutting to the chase, kissing the confusing Internet and 70′s how-to books goodbye, and seeking out teachers. (Yes, and it is ironic, being that I’m an Internet how-to teacher.) As of October, I should have my first pair of homemade shoes.

Sewing my uniform: Sewing is also a hard-earned skill, and history has proven I’m no natural born seamstress. Yet, I want my uniform. So instead of blinking stupidly at patterns and sewing books, I’m getting some professional help here, too. I took a “meet the sewing machine” class this week at Sew LA, figuring it could not hurt to start over from scratch. I came out of it with the tote bag you see above–and I only screwed up the bobbin feed three times while making it. Yay me and my special bobbin confusing abilities! Very soon I’ll follow up with a basic skirt class or something similar. I’m on the road to being a crazy homemade dress lady, shod in medieval shoes.

Surfing:  Why do I keep choosing hard things to do??? Some small progress. I have been out a few times. I have been up. (Once. Or twice.) I really like it. And truly, I enjoy falling into the water over and over and over again, and it’s a good thing I do, because for me, surfing is mostly about that. A big shout out to my friend Ellie for being my surf mentor. Thank you, also, to everyone who offered to take me out when I first posted about it! None of you are safe yet: I may come knocking on your door soon as I’m out of the whitewater.

Natural dyes/Shibori/Indigo:  This has been a lost cause as a solo project. I’ve blogged about my plant dye failures. The furthest I got toward my own indigo was collecting a huge amount of urine in a bucket, which I then had to dispose of when it became clear I was not going to turn it into dye. Pouring out all that stale urine, I had one of those out of body moments in which I realized that normal people don’t deal with urine quite as I do.

Yet there’s hope for me still.  Some of you may recall when we posted about our friend Graham’s indigo project. He’s crowd-sourced indigo growing, and has promised some sort of community dyeing fiesta for the growers at harvest time, which should be soon.  Graham is a wizard with natural dyes and shibori technique, so any time spent working with him over a dye vat is time well spent. We’re growing three indigo plants for him, and I’m looking forward to harvesting and dyeing. I suspect that if I take dyeing up more actively, it will be after I get better at sewing.

Pottery:  I did not post about this, but I got it into my head that I wanted to learn ceramics, so I can make ollas, a clay tippy tap, a clay rocket stove, and in my wildest dreams, beautiful earthy modernist ceramics like those sold by Heath Ceramics.  I took a  wheel class earlier this summer, and I was the sorriest potter in the entire class. I am not being modest. It was embarrassing. All around me people were raising beautiful pots on their wheels and I just got lots of clay in my hair. In the end I came home with three wonky, heavy bowls that a kindergartener would shun. I’m making the cats eat out of them.

But I’m getting back on the clay horse, because I’ve never failed at anything that I actually thought, going in, that I’d be pretty good at. To be sure, I’ve tried many things which I knew I’d be hopeless at, and so was not surprised when I sucked. But with pottery, I feel like I should be able to get the hang of it, because I’m good at sculpture and plastering and that kind of thing–additive processes. In other words, I’m good at building things out of gunk. But then again, the wheel is really it’s own thing, and not an additive process at all. At any rate, I’m going to try again, at a different clay studio. I didn’t mesh well with the teacher at the first place, so a change might help.

***

Looking at this list, I’m realizing that I do have a tendency to choose ambitious projects. (Ya think???) All of these arts require a great deal of commitment and skill and time just gain competency, and any one could absorb a lifetime of devotion. So, I know I won’t do it all. The interesting question, though, is which of them will stick, and what will I learn along the way?

Have you ever wanted a uniform?

1920" russian avant garde school uniform

On the heels of Friday’s fashion post, Erik has encouraged me to share my current uniform fantasy with you all.

See, I’ve always wanted a uniform. I love the idea of never having to decide what I’m going to wear again. The older I get, the more I want to keep things simple. I don’t want a closet packed with potential decisions. The less choices I have to make on a daily basis, the better. I think I’d be okay living in a cave with nothing but a robe and a wooden bowl.

As of now, my wardrobe is limited in both type (practical) and color (cool neutrals), which helps, but its not as simple as it could be. I still end up standing in front of the closet wondering “Black short sleeved shirt? White long sleeved shirt? Or is this a t-shirt day?”

I want even fewer options.

The uniform fantasy has been with me for a long time, although the uniform type changes. I’ve never taken the leap into wearing a uniform, though, for two reasons. The first is simply that I’ve been too lazy to construct a uniform. The second is that it is a rather eccentric move– adopt a uniform, and you become known for wearing that uniform more than anything else.

I suppose that if you’re super famous, like Tom Wolfe (white suit) or Erik Satie (identical velvet suits) you can wear the same thing every day and nonetheless your work and your personality will rise above that eccentricity. But I’ve feared that if I wore a uniform I’d become one of those strange local characters, like “the kilt guy” or “the bathrobe lady.”

Still, I do like the idea of fashioning a garment which suits all of my needs (fit, comfort, pockets, good fabric etc.) and making it my very own.

I also like to think that having a uniform would eventually save in laundry and reduce material waste over time. It would harken back to the days when people simply didn’t have more than a handful of outfits to wear, but those outfits fit them well and lasted a long time because they were made of quality materials.

Lately I’ve been obsessing over the outfit at the top of the post, which dates from Russia (or rather, the newborn USSR) in the 1920′s and various Internet attributions say it was designed by Nadezhda Lamanova and Vera Muhina, or perhaps designed by Lamanova and illustrated by Muhina, or perhaps even designed by Muhina alone–although she was primarily a sculptor. To make things more confusing, to me, this outfit seems very much like something Varvara Stepanova would design. It was a small community of people collaborating and doing similar things, so it’s easy to get confused.

I’ll be going to the library for both information and a higher quality image. So, take this all with a big grain of salt. If I find out more, I’ll amend the post.

Anyway, I’ve always been very fond of the Russian avant-garde and the Constructivist movement. In the 1920′s they were very much into designing clothes for an idealized workers utopia. The pattern itself is dubious from a sewing perspective, because it’s obviously more about the Constructivist love of geometry than the realities of hanging fabric. What isn’t visible in this picture but typical of the movement is use of folk embroidery/weaving on the garments, so they were modern yet spoke of place and history and identity.

This particular design is for a school uniform, I believe. I didn’t know that when I first glommed on to it– I thought it was a factory worker’s uniform. But whatever — I like it. I like the red and black combo–very iconic, commie chic. I like her little boots, I like the Mandarin collar (it seems to have a black band at the front, like a negative priest’s collar!) and I especially like the black apron.

I’ve a real fondness for aprons, which has only developed recently. In the past, aprons seemed a symbol of oppression to me, but I’ve grown to appreciate their utility–and I especially love aprons with deep pockets (since, as we’ve discussed, women’s clothing is lacking in pockets.)

Nowadays I often wear an apron in both the kitchen and the garden, mostly because of the pockets, and also so I can wipe my hands on the apron, rather than my butt, which is a real step up in the world. Also, I’ve come to associate the apron with craft, the apron of the cobbler or the blacksmith, for instance, rather than the frilly ornamental aprons of June Cleaver.

And let’s face this: Just as the Constructivists, a bunch of arty intellectuals  developed many of their design concepts around their notions of the nobility of work, I–a keyboard-pecking “knowledge worker”–also fetishize the symbols of manual work, like aprons. (And I’m not alone– witness the artisanal axe.)

I’d like to make this dress in several versions, from a lightweight sleeveless form for summer, to a sturdy workday version, to a fancy version with embroidery for going out. Of course, I do happen to be the world’s worst seamstress, as Erik will relate to you, between the tears of laughter, as he remembers my previous attempts at sewing. However, there is a sewing school very near my house, 8-Limbs, and if I make the decision to go forward, they may be able to help me draft a pattern.

And then I can become yet another colorful neighborhood character (and believe me, my neighborhood is not short on characters.)  I just hope I don’t end up looking like a goth Laura Ingalls Wilder!

Should I do it?

Do any of you have a uniform which works for you? Or do you also fantasize about a uniform, as I do?

How To Diagnose a Tomato Disease

tomato mosaic

Tomato mosaic. Photo: Texas A&M.

It’s that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. If you’re lucky you’ve got tomatoes. If you’re unlucky you’ve got tomato diseases.

When I’ve got a tomato problem I turn to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension’s Tomato Problem Solver. What makes it handy is all the pictures. They’ve pretty much covered every tomato disease in pornographic detail.

How are your tomatoes doing? Any problems?

Local Bite Challenge Starts Today

Local-Bite-featured-basic

Sorry for the last minute notice, but I thought some of you might be interested in a project that our internet neighbor, Melissa, at Ever Growing Farm is launching her Local Bite Challenge today, and is hoping some of you will join her. She and her partner will be eating locally for 100 days on a budget of 100 bucks a week.  There’s all sorts of activities and mini-challenges over the 100 day period to keep you inspired.

So if you’ve considered eating more locally, but haven’t quite found the gumption to embrace it yet, this would be a fun way to take the plunge, and see what you learn about your local foodscape.

This introduction page gives an overview of the project: Local Bite Challenge

Meet our book & web designer: Roman Jaster

making it cover

Roman Jaster is the gifted designer who designed both Making It and this very website for us. He recently gave a Visiting Designer talk about his work at his alma mater, CalArts and made that lecture public on YouTube. In it, he talks about his childhood in East Germany, the decisions he made early-on which determined his career, his working methods (which are really interesting, combining coding with design) and talks about the concepts behind some of his projects, including Making It.

This all may be a little off-topic for the blog, but I’m sure some of you out there are designers, or who know someone who is interested in a career in design, or maybe, like us, you’re just curious about other people’s jobs. Roman is a charming guy and a good speaker.

The talk is available as a PowerPoint lecture in several short installments over on YouTube. This link should take you to the first video in the playlist. You’ll see the lecture is divided thematically so you can focus in on what you’re interested in — but we’d recommend you watch the first segment, about his early life, so you can see him 1) dressed as an Indian princess, 2) modeling German swimwear and 2) going to prom. ;)