An update on our blueberry crop

14 05 2009

IMG_1738The last I reported, our blueberry bushes were looking spindly and rather pitiful as they awaited planting. You can read the full post here and see photos of just how pitiful the three bushes looked. While that original post was generally optimistic, I had huge unspoken reservations. (It was all I could do not to vocally second-guess my husband’s choice of plants.)

IMG_1739Well, what a difference a month makes. Those once sad-looking bushes are now thriving with numerous clusters of berries. Not tons of berries, but enough to top more than a few bowls of Cheerios mixed with Fiber One. (I don’t care what the FDA says, Cheerios are still the best.)

Another month and the first of the three bushes should be ready to pick. After researching what types of blueberry bushes to get, we settled on two Rabbiteye and one Southern Highbush. You need at least two types, we learned, for cross pollination to increase the yield and quality of the fruit.

From these two types, we chose three different varieties, which will bear fruit at varying times in the blueberry growing season. This will spread the wealth, so to speak, and won’t inundate us with fruit once the bushes grow larger.

Now there’s only one thing standing in our way to a successful first-year crop. Birds!


Christmas in May

11 05 2009

IMG_1694It’s May. And in North Carolina, that means it’s strawberry season. And in my house, for the last decade, that means it’s time to make jar upon jar of strawberry jam.

Granted, it’s a lot of work — the picking, washing, cutting, crushing, cooking, sterilizing and cleaning up. But when those Ball jars are filled and I hear that satisfying “ping” as the jars seal shut, I can’t help but feel just a tad smug.

All of that labor in the month of May translates to more leisure in the month December when I attach homemade gift tags to these crimson-filled jars and give them as Christmas gifts. And who doesn’t need a break in December?

IMG_1734So this past week, with temperatures in the 80s and my AC cranking to combat the heat emanating from the stove top, I was humming Christmas carols as I stirred juicy crushed berries picked from a farm less than five miles from my house.

Not only do I have my neighbor and teacher gifts taken care of seven months early, but I’m giving them something I made.  I’m giving them something affordable and I’m giving them something that is consumable in a container that is reusable.

In my quest to save some green, be green and lead a simpler life, I’ve got all my bases covered. I’m no Martha Stewart, but I would have to say my jam is a very good thing. 

The recipients of my jam are typically friends, family members, neighbors, my daughter’s teachers. I have a feeling that if I broke with tradition and delivered something different to my neighbors, there might be rioting on my tidy suburban street. OK, that’s a bit of an overstatement. But they would be sorely disappointed.

Throughout the year, my neighbors will make not-so-subtle references to my strawberry jam in casual conversation. Often, I will find empty jars left at my front door. A silent plea for more.

For a frugal girl, such as myself, making jam for gifts is an affordable way to let folks know how much I care about them. Here’s a breakdown on costs:

*at the strawberry farm nearest my home, pick-your-own berries are $1.50 per pound. It takes three pounds to make eight jars of jam. 

*at Harris Teeter, my grocery of choice, sugar is $2.27 for a five-pound bag; Sure Jell fruit pectin is $3.15 a box;  and a 12-pack of Ball jars is $7.99. Twelve replacement seals are $1.79. That’s roughly $14 to make eight jars of jam.

Of course, I’m always on the hunt to save even more money. This year, thanks to some nicely timed bargain shopping throughout the year, my jam is costing me only about $4 to make eight jars. That’s just 50 cents per gift. OMG. That’s the first time I’ve ever done the math. I can’t think of a nicer gift at such an affordable price.

If you’re interested in giving jam-making a try, here are a few tips:

*shop year-round for bargains on sugar, pectin and jars and seals. I have had great luck finding these on clearance. Last fall, for instance, I found boxes of pectin on clearance at Walmart for 75 cents a box. That was a great price, but I ended up paying just 25 cents a box after using the 50-cent coupon inside each box. Since the boxes were all dated 2010 and 2011, I bought enough boxes to last the next three years. This year’s sugar supply was free, thanks to a great coupon that tripled at Harris Teeter. The seals were also purchased on clearance for less than half the regular price.

*check yard sales for canning jars. Two or three years ago, I hit the jackpot, buying six boxes of canning jars that were still sealed in the boxes for $2 each. Someone’s jam-making plans that went bust turned into my bargain.

*encourage your jam recipients to return the jars and rims, which can be used over and over again. Only the seals must be replaced.

*ask your farmer if he has bruised fruit for sale at a lower price. In the height of the season, farmers at the farmer’s market are often willing to sell their culls at a lower price.

*finally, don’t be intimidated. Jam is not that difficult to make. I simply use the recipe chart included in every box of fruit pectin.

Later in the summer, I will make blueberry, peach and fig jam, depending on the availability of local fruit and the price. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to be given fresh figs from a friend’s tree, which I turned into jam. 

There’s something almost magical about giving homemade jam as a gift, particularly at Christmastime. It’s reminiscent of simpler times. And reminiscent of spring.

As I often write on my homemade tags: “Bringing you warm thoughts of springtime on a cold winter morning.”

DIY Birthdays: A wrapup of 11 budget-friendly ideas

15 04 2009

img_16921The cake has been eaten, the presents unwrapped, the thank you notes sent. All that’s left of my daughter’s 11th birthday are the fabulous memories. I invested a lot of time on the party, but not much cash. What a great feeling. Much like that after-Christmas feeling when you’ve stuck to a budget and are not dreading that January credit card statement.

I didn’t keep an exact count of how much I spent on the party because I used so many items I already had on hand. But if I had to put a figure on it, I would say the entire party cost less than $10.

Many of you may be skeptical. How much fun can a kids’ party be on so small of a budget? Let me give you a run-down of what we did at Caroline’s “dog lover’s” party.

First, Caroline and her five guests made homemade dog treats, following a recipe I found on the Internet. Click here to check it out. They mixed up the dough, rolled it out img_1653and cut out shapes with dog-themed cookie cutters I had on hand and borrowed from friends. (I bought two jars of peanut butter at $1 each and a five-pound bag of flour at $1.79 for the recipe. The rest of the ingredients I had on hand.)

While the treats were baking, the girls watched the first part of  Bolt, a movie about a super hero dog with his own TV show. (We rented the movie from Redbox on Monday, using the code for a FREE rental!) Click here to read my post on Redbox.

When the treats were finished baking, my homemade pizza went in the oven for the girls’ lunch. (I used three of the many Pillsbury pizza crusts I bought at Kroger a couple weeks ago for a few cents each. They also munched on chips I bought FREE with those great coupons from a Pepsi rebate a few weeks ago.)

The birthday party plates and napkins, along with a matching mylar balloon, were leftovers from her family party on Friday evening. All were purchased at a dollar store.

Next, Caroline opened her presents. She had asked that her friends bring a donation of dog food or treats for the animal shelter rather than a gift for her. Each of the girls went around in a circle, showing what she brought for the animals.

img_1683After that, we loaded up the girls and took them to the SPCA of Wake County in Garner to drop off their donations and take a FREE tour, which I had previously arranged. Led by the shelter’s education coordinator, the tour was fabulous. The girls learned all about taking care of pets and how the shelter protects animals and finds homes for them. The girls also got the chance to pet a rabbit, play with the cats and play with two border collie mix puppies.

At 11, these girls were the perfect age to learn all about responsible pet ownership. They oohed and aahed their way through the shelter and especially loved giving treats to the puppies. If you’re a local reader of my blog, click here to check out the SPCA’s tour opportunities.

Once we got home, the girls ate their ice cream and dog bowl cake. The cake was such a huge hit, the girls all asked for a second piece. (The cake, which I estimated to cost about $3.25 for the ingredients, was the most expensive part of the party.)

After that, they finished watching the movie. When their moms came to pick them up, the girls went home with a huge goodie bag filled with the dog treats they had made themselves.

With so many of today’s parties at bowling alleys, roller skating rinks and gymnasiums, I think an at-home party is almost a novelty. And don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a couple of parties at these expensive venues so I’m not criticizing those who choose that route. I’m simply saying that you don’t have to spend a bunch of money for kids to have fun.

With three kids, I have hosted just about every type of birthday party imaginable. Themes have run the gamut — from pirates and baseball to Barbie and roller skating. But my most favorite children’s parties were those I have spent time on rather than money. This year’s party definitely ranks right up there in the top 10 — and that’s saying a lot considering I have hosted more than 40 children’s parties over the years for my three kids. (Thank goodness the children’s party circuit is over for my two boys!)

Here are some of my money-savings tips for at-home parties:

1) Use the Internet to do your planning. Once you and your child have decided on a theme, simply Google key phrases, such as “pirate birthday cake” or “princess party favors,” to see what other parents have come up with. Unless you are super creative, which I am not!, you’re better off taking advantage of the tips and ideas of others. If you are totally at a loss for ideas, check out, the online version of the magazine. Click here  to check out its A-to-Z list of party themes and ideas. 

2) Make your own invitations, using craft supplies you have on hand or using your computer to make an invitation with your child’s photo on it. Better yet, have your child make his or her own invitations. Keep in mind, these invitations are usually tossed out after the event so they don’t have to be perfect.

3) Keep decorations simple and make them do double duty, if possible. Party favors, for example, can be used as table decorations. Use paper punches to make confetti for the party table.

4) Instead of spending a bunch of money on goodie bags filled with trinkets and candy that frequently get tossed out, think about having the kids make something to bring home as their party favors. Once again, you get two for the price of one. I have heard of kids tie-dying t-shirts, for instance, as a party activity turned party favor. The most creative thing we did along these lines was during my daughter’s sleep-over party last year. Capitalizing on that sleepover theme, the girls sewed their own pillowcases. For some girls, this was the very first time they had ever been exposed to sewing. They went home the next morning so proud to show off their “party favor.”

4) Utilize your talents and those of your friends. If you are a scrapbooker or your husband likes to garden, for example, consider planning a party theme around these talents. If an older sibling is a cheerleader or basketball player, have them teach a clinic for the party. When we sewed pillowcases last year, a friend of mine who is a talented seamstress helped out, giving the girls mini sewing lessons while guiding them through the pillowcase construction.

5) Make your child’s cake. Every year, for my daughter’s family birthday party, I make a doll cake — the very same cake that my mother made for me since my first birthday. It’s the same doll, the same recipe and the same mold. This has become such a tradition — and it’s so easy — that we wouldn’t think of doing anything different. Also, be sure to check the Internet for cake ideas. That’s where we discovered the idea for this year’s dog bowl cake. Click here to read all about it.

6. Take advantage of local resources or surroundings that may be free or extremely low-cost, such as the free SPCA tour. Other ideas: hosting a pool or luau party at your neighborhood pool, a camping party in your backyard or a game room party at your local community center. A fishing party could be held at a nearby lake, and most communities offer free or low-cost permits for children.  

7. If your child is begging for a party at a pricey venue see if you can duplicate that party at home. Instead of taking a group of girls to have their nails done, have a “spa party” at home. I helped a friend of mine pull off this party one year with terrific results. We painted the girls’ finger nails and pampered them with lotions, cucumbers on their eyes, a facial scrub and, of course, plenty of magazines to read.

If your child wants to go to the movies for his party, rent a brand-new DVD and set up a “theater” in your home. Dim the lights, serve popcorn in those cute red and white boxes or bags and let each kid pick a theater-sized box of candy, which are readily available at most dollar stores.

8. If you’re absolutely set on having a bowling or skating party, consider skipping the party option these places offer and simply take the kids there for an outing, then bringing them home for cake and ice cream. Paying a $6 fee per child will end up being far more affordable and your cake and ice cream will be far tastier than any a rink could offer. And you might even be able to use coupons!

9. Buy your paper goods at your local dollar store. Our Dollar Tree has a great selection of party goods and mylar balloons. Better yet, consider using your every-day dishes to save money and reduce trash.

10. Borrow items you aren’t likely to use again rather than purchasing. For this year’s party, I already had a few dog-related cookie cutters but not enough for the party. I didn’t want any more so I borrowed. In the past, I’ve borrowed an ice cream maker, jump ropes and hula hoops. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve loaned out our bingo set. 

11. Offer your child the option of skipping the party in favor of inviting just one or two friends for an outing to a zoo, a museum, a day trip to the beach, or other special location.

Got any budget-friendly birthday ideas? I would absolutely love to hear them because I’ve still got a few more parties to go before sweet Caroline ages out of the kids’ party circuit. Leave a message in the comments section below. Thanks!

DIY: Kids’ birthday cakes

14 04 2009

img_1647My daughter turned 11 last week but is celebrating with friends today. That means I was in the kitchen yesterday whipping up a birthday cake to go with her party theme.

Why pay a fortune for a cake when you can do it yourself for much less — and bake up some fond childhood memories?

A big animal lover and the proud owner of a miniature dachshund named Maggie, Caroline chose to have a dog theme. At 11, she is computer savvy so I sent her to the Internet to look for instructions for a dog-themed cake.

All of the cakes she found were cute, but several were way above my abilities. After 21 years of  kids’ birthday cakes, I know my limits.  We settled on a super-simple cake with a high cuteness quotient.

As you can see from the photo, Caroline was all smiles with the dog bowl cake she helped me make. We used a chocolate cake mix to bake two 9-inch layers. Then, following the instructions here, we carved and frosted the layers into a dog bowl. In case you haven’t already guessed, the dog food is Cocoa Puffs.

The total cost of the cake was about $3.25. The box of Cocoa Puffs was the most expensive  item at $2 after coupon. The cans of frosting were 50 cents each after triple coupons and the cake mix was no more than 25 cents.

To compare, quarter sheet cakes at the grocery store start at $18. Add any type of personalization, and you’re looking at $25 or more. Add a licensed plastic toy or two, and the price skyrockets.

I have, on a few spendthrift occasions, purchased cakes. But for most of my kids’ birthdays, I have created my own — with the help of a magazine article or, more recently, online instructions. Some of my favorites:

*an orange striped Tigger cake, which required massive amounts of cutting and piecing together to form the head, body and tail of the famous friend of  Winnie the Pooh.

*a giant Lego cake made by placing cupcakes upside down on a 13 by 9 cake and employing massive amounts of frosting.img_0705

*a sleepover cake made with a 13 by 9 cake,  Twinkies, vanilla wafers and, you guessed it, massive amounts of frosting.

*and my most favorite of all, a doll cake I make every year for my daughter’s family birthday party — theimg_0700 very same cake that my mother made for me since my first birthday. It’s the same doll, the same recipe and the same mold. This has become such a tradition — and it’s so easy — that we wouldn’t think of doing anything different.

None of these cakes looks professional, but they all have a certain homemade charm to them. And I always tell myself, these cakes are not works of art but rather the work of a mom looking to make her child’s big day special without breaking the bank.

If the cake is a real dud, I remind myself that the evidence will be eaten.img_1645

DIY: birthday invitations

13 04 2009

img_1637My daughter’s birthday party is coming up so instead of buying invitations we decided to make them.

Do-It-Yourself projects are not always the cheapest route to take because materials can be pricey. But in this case, everything we used we already had on hand in my scrapbooking stash or we borrowed.

Money spent: $0.

Money saved: $3 to $6. This may not seem like much, but why spend any money when you can make them for nothing. Plus, these invitations are personalized and of much higher quality than you could find in any store.  If I were to pay someone to produce personalized invitations, the cost would be much higher. I’m guessing at least $25.

Time spent: a lot. But, since my little girl is tracked out of year-round school right now, I considered it a nice mother-daugther project.

These invitations are just the first phase in her low-cost, high-fun birthday party, which I’ll blog about later.

I’m dreaming of free blueberries

2 04 2009

img_1608These may look pitiful now but I’m hoping that within a few years these three blueberry bushes will produce enough to keep my  blueberry-loving family supplied for a year.

My husband and I have talked for years about growing our own blueberries but were scared off by the information we read about the soil needing to be just right — not to mention the recurrent droughts we have here in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

Last year, after we had an irrigation system installed, we decided maybe the time was right to try our hand at blueberry farming. We chose a sunny spot on the side of our home that borders a stone walkway leading from the front to the backyard.

This is probably the appropriate time to note that I am using the pronoun “we” here rather loosely. My dreaming, my suggesting. His research, his digging, his sweat. You get the picture, I’m sure.

Our first round of soil testing — free of charge, by the way — came from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Click here for more information on the free services offered.

Then we added aluminum sulfate and peat moss to lower the pH of the soil. A second soil test showed we were in the correct range so the plants will go in the ground this weekend, weather permitting.

After researching what types of blueberry bushes to get, we settled on two Rabbiteye and one Southern Highbush. You need at least two types, we learned, for cross pollination to increase the yield and quality of the fruit.

From these two types, we chose three different varieties, which will bear fruit at varying times in the blueberry growing season. This will spread the wealth, so to speak, and won’t inundate us with fruit once the bushes grow larger.

After consulting with a strawberry and blueberry farmer we know, as well as a North Carolina master gardener, we decided to purchase the bushes from Finch’s Blueberry Nursery just outside Bailey in eastern North Carolina. Click here to check out the website.

img_1610We initially thought we would have to pick all the blooms off this year to encourage growth of the plant, but the folks at Finch’s said that was only necessary with bare-root plants. Since these have been growing in pots for three years, Finch’s said we could allow the plants to bear fruit this year.

That was music to my ears. We may only get a couple of bowlfuls this season but they will be oh-so-sweet.

So far, our start-up costs on this little adventure in agriculture have been minimal. The plants were just $12 each. The soil prep materials cost us just under $20. The soil testing was free. So for an initial investment of $56, we should have berries for years to come.

Now if we can just keep the birds away.