Coffee heat rising

How to Make a Composter

A couple weeks back, I purchased a would-be composter from Costco. Rejected: too complicated to put together, too obtrusive, and at around $100, too expensive. Lucky Costco has a generous return policy.

You may recall that I had a wonderful composter, a gift from my friend La Bethulia. I really loved it. In the first place, its design was the soul of simplicity: a round plastic barrel that fit in a base, allowing you to turn it like a ferris wheel to mix and aerate the compost.

It died a gruesome death at the hands of a so-called “beekeeper” who wrongly decided the feral honeybees that had invaded it were nesting inside it. This idiot filled the thing with powdered insecticide—after I told him not to. It not only destroyed the compost inside, I couldn’t get the contaminated compost out because every time I tried, clouds of powdered poison flew up into my face.

These things are surprisingly expensive: around $170 at Amazon. They’re probably worth it, because of the simplicity of their design, their effectiveness, and the fact that they do not contribute an eyesore to your garden.

However, in my current state of chronic unemployment, that’s a little more than I’d like to pay. Hence the unsuccessful attempt at the cheaper model from Costco. Ninety-nine bucks looked pretty good for a 75-gallon tumbler. w00t!

Having returned it, I was depressed. A big old plastic plant pot covered with its (now sunlight-crumbled) pot saucer was decocting a small amount of compost, mostly compiled from the pool’s leaf-catcher and pump pot. But it wasn’t enough to do much for the garden, and a plastic plant pot the world’s most efficient composter does not make.

Then the other day I cut back the cat’s claw, which after reviving from its drubbing by last fall’s hail and the winter’s hard freezes has decided it’s a jungle plant. Had to scissor it back from around the pool equipment so the Leslie’s guy could service the filter. Along the way I pulled spent veggies out of the garden, harvested the leeks and trimmed off their tough outer leaves, and raked some leaves. The result: a large pile of highly compostable vegetable matter that I really, really, really did not want to throw in the garbage.

The yard needed a composter. It needed one that did not take three men and a horse to put together, would not cost upwards of $150, and would not be plug hideous.

So I decided to make one. Here’s how that came down:

The trash can

First: the Home Depot run. There, purchase a plastic trash bin (round, not square, and not the kind with wheels). Be sure it has a lid that snaps on securely.

Drag this home and take off the manufacturer’s glued-on stickers. Place it in the backyard near an electric outlet.

Haul out your trusty electric drill and a handy-dandy extension cord. Install the heftiest drill bit you own.

Beloved drill

And yes, gentlemen! I know that’s a masonry bit and I do know the plastic is gonna melt all over it, but I’m past the time in life when I crave to drill any more holes in concrete. Besides, as a practical matter, the plastic didn’t melt onto it at all.

Okay. Flip the trash bin upside down and take the drill to the bottom of it. You want to drill plenty of drain holes all around the bottom, because compost likes to be damp but not soggy.

While you’re at it, drill a bunch of holes around the trash can’s sides, too. The idea here is to let enough air in to please the little compost bugs. Although much of composting is an anaerobic process, compost bugs go a long way to break down vegetable matter, too. These useful little creatures will suffocate unless they have enough air. Voilà…

Once the bottom and sides are thoroughly punctured, set the can upright in the corner of the yard where you’d like to keep it. Throw in some stuff you’d like to compost—just about anything organic that is not meat or animal waste—and sprinkle lightly with a little water. Don’t overdo this: moist is good; boggy is not.

I topped my recent cuttings with the half-composted stuff in the plant pot. If you already have a little compost, it’s a good idea to put it in with the new material, because it acts like starter dough: the organisms that break down plant matter are already thriving in it, giving you a head start on the new batch.

Snap the lid on firmly, and then just go away. Over time, the organic material in the dark, warm, damp environment will cook down into lovely black compost, which will make your plants extremely happy. You can keep adding kitchen waste and garden trimmings ad lib.

Now and again you should toss compost to aerate it and mix it around. A small pitchfork would work with this contraption, but I have a much better plan: when the time comes, in a few weeks, to shake it up, I’m going to secure the lid with a tight bungee cord run through the handles. Then flop the thing on its side and just roll it back and forth a few times. That will accomplish the same thing the fancy tumbling composter does, for about a quarter of the cost.

Speaking of the garden, here’s what’s been growing lately…










































Darn It! How to repair a hole in your sock

Have you ever noticed how whenever you realize you really like a piece of clothing or household object, it immediately wears out and you can’t, under any circumstances, find another one like it? Especially if the object is a sock. Who would think styles in socks were so fleeting?

Women’s socks no longer seem to come in colors—they’re all black, gray, or white. So when a favorite blue pair developed a couple of holes, I remembered a frugal way to extend their lives, something I learned when I was a little kid and pretty much forgot: darn ’em!

Darning is a crude form of reweaving, and it’s pretty easy. Simply create a “warp”—a structure on which to weave horizontal threads—by stringing thread or yarn across the hole. Then run your “weft” over and under the warp threads. The process is simplified by placing an “egg”—a wooden ovoid or globe—inside the sock to stabilize the fabric around the hole.

Well, naturally I didn’t happen to have a wooden egg sitting around the house. I used a rubber ball instead.

Turn the sock inside out, and then place the ball (or whatever you choose to use as an “egg”) inside the sock and smooth the fabric across it, like so:

It’s a good idea to stitch around the hole to create a sort of frame, although it’s not always necessary. Don’t tie a knot in the thread, because a knot will irritate your foot. Just make a running stitch to secure the thread.

Starting on one side of the hole, run thread back and forth across the hole to fill the space. The more threads you can fit across the hole, obviously, the finer and firmer your repair will be. This is a job that can require some patience. 😉

Here’s what I came up with:

Not great, but good enough for government work. The sock’s weave is kind of loose—not that loose, though. Oh well.

Anyway, whenever the basis of the weaving process is ready, the next step is to run thread through it at right angles to the “warp” threads. Basically what you’re trying to do is imitate or rebuild the original woven fabric by weaving new thread over the hole. After a while, you have something that looks like this (significantly better, with any luck…):

Not hardly gorgeous…but what the heck! Whoever’s looking at the bottom of your socks prob’ly deserves what he gets.

A finer, more careful weave probably would last longer, but this will hold for a while. It’s been a long while since I darned a piece of fabric, so I felt OK to get the thing more or less together.

With better skill, it’s possible to repair fabric with a stitch that looks very much like the original weave. Some reweavers can unstring pieces of the fabric’s thread from a hem or hidden spot and use it to make a truly invisible patch, restoring a torn or cigarette-burned piece so that you can’t see the fix at all. The Swiss darning at right imitates the original fabric’s twill-like texture. Really fine reweaving is called Belgian darning.

In my callow youth, I  had a Siamese cat that loved to eat wool. Leave a wool garment, any wool garment, laying around, and the cat would chew a hole in it before you could blink twice. One day I lent a beautiful and very expensive white wool sweater to my mother-in-law. When she was done with it, she tossed it on the bed. By the time I discovered it, the cat had eaten out a hole an inch across.

Luckily, the buttons were hand-made, rings with the sweater’s wool yarn woven around them, and a couple of extras were included. By unraveling the spare buttons, the reweaver was able to retrieve enough yarn to fill the hole. To this day—thirty-five or forty years later—I still have that sweater and still wear it every winter. I can’t even find where the hole was.

Darning: it’s a frugal way to extend the life of an expensive or a beloved piece of clothing.

A Handmade Christmas Present: Bath Powder

Have you noticed how difficult it’s getting to buy scented bath powder? Drugstores have about stopped carrying it—probably because talc is now believed to cause respiratory problems and even cancer. You can still buy it at a department store, but a brand like Guerlain or Lanvin charges sixty bucks for a box of it!

After I decided to move up from bluejeans last spring, I was reminded of why one wants bath powder: it’s mighty uncomfortable to walk around in a skirt on a hot, sweaty day. Baby powder works OK, but between you and me, I don’t want to go around smelling like the changing table.

Making your own bath powder is easy and cheap. Take a look at the ingredients on a can of Johnson’s baby powder: it’s mostly cornstarch!

You can use 100 percent cornstarch, creating a soft, soothing powder that absorbs moisture and adds no extraneous perfumes. If you’d like a deodorant effect, you can add baking soda; the proportion is one part baking soda to three parts cornstarch. Some people add rice flour, but this is difficult to find and unnecessary.

To add scent, simply spritz a cotton ball with your favorite perfume or scent it with some vanilla or an essential oil. Let the cotton ball get dry, and then toss it into a Ziplock bag with the unscented powder. Shake well. Leave the scented cotton in with the powder for about three days, shaking once a day…and voilà! Bath powder in your favorite scent! After the powder has absorbed enough scent, remove the cotton ball.

Get a pretty shaker can or jar to present it to a loved one for Christmas. For myself, I just keep it in a convenient container. A small jar with holes punched in the lid works well.

To gild the lily, you can easily make a powder puff. All you need is some fleece or other fuzzy textured fabric, some satin or brightly colored fabric, a short length of ribbon, and a little batting. Cut a circle out of each fabric, so you have two identically sized circles about six inches in diameter. Take a piece of ribbon and cut off a six-inch long piece.

Place the fabric circles together face to face with the ribbon sandwiched between them. The ribbon can go across the diameter or be laid diagonally across the circle. Stitch around the perimeter, leaving an inch or so open. Turn the resulting powder-puff casing inside out, so the right faces and the ribbon are on the outside. Stuff the casing with cotton or synthetic batting and then stitch the opening closed.

If you don’t want to go to that much trouble, you can buy a less fancy powder puff for around $2.00.

Many people believe that cornstarch “feeds” fungi and therefore should not be used if you’re prone to yeast infections or on a baby’s diaper rash. Recent studies, however, show that this is untrue—cornstarch does not aggravate yeast infections. Indeed, at least one cream designed for diaper rash is full of cornstarch. For other reasons, I would not put any perfumed powder on intimate places. And if Baby has a diaper rash, it should be treated with a cream or ointment for the purpose. Diaper rash or a yeast infection that goes untreated will get worse, whether or not you apply powder to the affected area.

When you go to buy cornstarch, read the ingredients. Clabber Girl contains added calcium. I bought Argo because it’s 100 percent cornstarch with no adulterants.

Six steps to a frugal little Christmas

Ah, yes. Costco has had its Christmas merchandise out since Labor Day, a sure sign that a white-plastic Christmas is y-cumin’ in. Some of us suffer from chronic skepticism about the annual merchandising frenzy. But you don’t have to be totally cheap to come up with a pretty Christmas celebration that won’t leave you feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge.

Here are a few strategies that have saved me some bucks:

1. Stop sending out Christmas cards. Just because someone sent you a card last Christmas doesn’t really mean you have to reciprocate. Add the cost of postage to the price of the cards themselves and this custom gets to be an expensive proposition. Send cards or Christmas letters only to your closest friends and family, and, whenever possible, hand-deliver them.

2. But when people send you cards, put them in an envelope and save them with your Christmas wrappings. Next year, take a pair of scissors, cut out the cute images, and use them to make gift tags. Simply take a piece of good-quality paper, cut it into a rectangle as wide and twice as long as needed to accommodate a cut-out Christmas card image, glue the image to one half of it, and fold the other half under. Voilà! A free and very pretty tag.

3. Make your own Christmas wrapping. Get some brown wrapping paper or white butcher’s paper and a set of stamps. (Or, if you’re really frugal, save and cut open paper shopping bags to lay them out flat.) Each time a gift is wrapped, stamp it with cute little designs, and then tie it up with pretty ribbon or colored rope. A variant on this, if you have children, is to roll out the paper and have the kids paint Christmas motifs on it. When the artwork is dry, roll it back up and you have bright, colorful, and meaningful wrapping paper.

4. Get a living Christmas tree. Planted in a good pot, a small pine will live several years—once I had one last four years. Cart it inside for the holidays, decorate it, and then take it back out when the celebrations are over. Water it well before bringing it in the house and again when you return it to its backyard habitat. If you have a place for a big tree in your yard, you can plant it in the ground after it outgrows its pot.

5. Shop in artist’s consignment stores for unique and interesting crafted gifts. Last year, I found an incredible pair of handblown, solid glass mugs for M’hijito, heavy manly things with swirls of royal purple running through them. The store had so many hand-crafted possibilities it was hard to make a decision, and most of them were reasonably priced.

6. Shop for Christmas gifts all year round…especially in the post-Christmas and midsummer sales. This lets you buy things you know are wanted without paying top dollar, and it frees you from the crazy-making Christmas rush. By spreading the cost over the entire year, it allows you to buy plenty of presents, but pay for them without running up a tab on the credit card.

While it’s true that Christmas is a part of the universally human gift economy tradition, by emphasizing fellowship more and piling junk on everyone around us less, we can keep the costs within reason and have memorable holidays every year.

DIY splendor!

One of Funny’s Ten Money Principles is “do it yourself.” Great piles of cash are to be saved (and spent) by following this principle. If you’re at all handy or crafty, improvements to your house, yard, and vehicles are waiting for you.

This weekend I visited the home of some friends who deserve the nomination for All-Time Great Do-It-Yourselfers. Fred is a firefighter, and Kathy works for the Great Desert University. A few years ago, not long before the real estate bubble began its final expansion, they built their dream house on an acre of land under the White Tank Mountains, a natural preserve on the far west side of the Valley. The basic structure of the house was built by the developer, a man they had met through their daughter’s sport, but Fred wired the place for sound, and working together Fred and Kathy installed a handsome stone façade in front. Then they started on the huge backyard.

Still a work in progress, it’s beginning to shape up as a lovely park-like retreat. Fred has made a hobby of metal-working; when they built the house, he specified a separate, fire-resistant workshop, which you can see in some of the photos here. At the outset, they laid two large patios, one of paving bricks and one of flagstone. The flagstone surface was the only landscaping project for which they needed professional help. Otherwise, Fred and Kathy designed and installed the entire hardscape, the structures, and the plantings.

dcp_2467This shade structure was built of scrap metal. The entire thing consists of recycled materials. It casts a cooling, airy shadow close to the house’s covered patio, where, Kathy says, the two of them like to sip wine in the evenings and dream up new projects. Beneath it, they built (themselves!) a complete outdoor kitchen with propane-powered gear and a stone countertop. Taken together with the house’s built-in overhang, the flagstone patio, and the great room that opens into the backyard, the whole arrangement makes an awesome entertainment area. 

(Click on the photos for larger views.)

But that’s just the beginning. In addition to the barbecue kitchen, they also designed and built a fantastic propane fireplace, complete with a Santa Fe-style wall and bancos. In this view, a protective covering is set in place over the firebox. The other evening, though, SDXB and I had the privilege of joining our hosts in front of this lovely hearth, where we watched the sun set over the mountains and the moon and stars come to vibrant life. That’s a young elm tree behind the structure. The flowering trees are Desert Museum hybrid paloverdes, an exceptionally beautiful xeric tree that, once established, provides great shade and hardly ever has to be watered.

dcp_2473Their latest development is an elaborate garden structure. Fred also built the framework in his workshop, although this time the metal was, I believe, not recycled. Here are Kathy and VickyC about to enter through the gated arch—the fencing discourages coyotes and can be equipped with a dog- and rabbit-repelling barrier. A couple of weeks ago, Kathy planted a pair of Lady Banks climbing roses, one on either side of the archway. It will take a year or two, but in due course these plants will cover the arch with flowering vines. The skeletal “roof” of the structure is designed to accommodate shade and frost fabric, which will protect tomatoes in the scorching Arizona summer and frost-sensitive plants during the chilly winter nights. 

They already have a healthy garden of tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplants, herbs, and the like:


The amount of work Fred and Kathy have done themselves represents savings in the tens of thousands of dollars. I can’t imagine what it would cost to have even one of those weather-resistant, termite-resistant metal structures built. An outdoor kitchen? I’ve never asked, because I can’t afford it. Outdoor fireplace? Doesn’t compute.

Kathy says that, except for the metalwork and the flagstone installation, most of the projects were not difficult to build. I think, though, that success with these projects requires meticulous care, knowledge of building codes, and understanding of how to design block and metal structures that will withstand the test of time. Clearly it’s not impossible to acquire these skills. The result is pretty amazing.

Cheap frames

In a comment at the post I published the other day about designing artwork to fit precut mats, photographer FF noted that acquiring frames is an expensive proposition. This is certainly true, even at an outfit such as Aaron Brothers, which has two-for-one sales every few months.

There are two very inexpensive source of frames, some of them quite nice: yard sales and estate sales. People are always trying to unload artwork they’ve tired of. Sometimes they’ll get the most ordinary prints and posters custom-framed. And of course, when they sell the print, they sell the frame and mat with it. You can usually buy these things very cheaply. Remove and throw out the cheesy artwork, and voila! a frame. Install your own mat (if you do this often, it soon becomes cost-effective to buy a mat cutter) and your preferred image or object, and you have a custom-framed work.

Here’s a pastel done by La Maya, whose hobby is painting in pastels and oils. The frame is an estate-sale find.


She cut the two mats herself and placed the entire arrangement in the frame, using her dining-room table as a workspace.

dcp_22431The frame itself is rather interesting, and it works very well with the mats to display the image handsomely. The cost was a fraction of what she would have paid at a frame shop. If you do a lot of photography or painting, it’s well worth stopping at yard or estate sales to check the offerings. Ignore the ugly, faded prints: just search for desirable frames.