Sunday, July 12, 2020

Lisa Falls Trail

Covid-19 is clogging up our national parks with stir-crazy, outdoors enthusiasts, but that’s not a problem when you live 20 minutes from the mountains. No, the greatest challenge to hiking in the mountains with children is… the children.  I find that people use the term “family-friendly” loosely on hiking websites and apps; perhaps their families consists of robust, fit teenagers. Mine has a baby, a preschooler, and a six-year-old along with my husband and myself, and though I want to instill in them a sense of wonder for nature and a sense of reward for accomplishing hard things, most hikes are too difficult for our set. Well do I remember the many hikes of my childhood, and I hated them all. They were simply too difficult.

So, are there excursions in the Salt Lake area we can realistically do with my short-legged companions and a baby strapped to my back? The answer appears to be yes, and this is our summer to discover them.

Our first hiking attempt? Lisa Falls Trails. Here are the deets: it’s a 0.3 mile out and back hike with 121 feet of elevation gain. It’s located in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and google maps did a pretty good job telling us when to pull over and park. There’s no dedicated, paved lot, perse, but there was plenty of gravely parking off the road. We were initially unsure where to find the trail head, but we followed more knowledgeable hikers to the correct spot.

Water is, apparently, a great incentive for my children, and luckily there are many hikes in the Salt Lake area that culminate in a waterfall. This one is a rocky climb which, come to find out, is exactly what my boys enjoy. Scrambling over rocks is much more enjoyable for them than walking on pavement. We appreciated the late morning shade that lasted up until the falls themselves. Our attempt was in late May, and though the trail itself didn’t seem overcrowded, there were groups of people gathered at the top. Social distancing was more difficult at the actual falls. Thus we didn't stay too long; a few quick pics, and we were back in the trees, enjoying the scramble back down.

Kids are parents alike found this a short and sweet winner.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Simple Cutting Hack for Making T Shirt Quilts

One of our granddaughters was involved in soft ball, band, theater and an assortment of other extra-curricualar events during middle school and high school. So for her birthday, her dad thought it would be fun to create a quilt out of the old t-shirts that she wore as she participated in those activities. He and my daugher asked if I wanted to help. I've made a lot of quilts over the years, but I have never done a t-shirt quilt before. I knew this would be a big project--she has a lot of shirts--and trying to figure out how to cut those soft, stretchy shirts into twenty even squares was a little daunting.

So I spread the shirts out and measured side to side and top to bottom to see if I could figure out what dimension would allow me to include the important patterns on the front without running into the sleeve and neck edges. I ultimately decided that 14 inches was optimal.

But then, how to cut them? I needed to be able to see that 14" square while I cut the t-shirt fronts so that I could center the designs. For most quitlting, the easiest option is use a cutting mat, plastic cutting guide, and a rotary cutter. But I didn't have and couldn't find a template that size, and the smaller templates that I do have are somewhat opaque. I remembered that you can buy fairly thick clear plastic sheets at the hardware store, so I went to Lowes, and, sure enough, they had them in varying sizes. None of them were exactly the size I needed, but the helpful hardware people will cut them to size for you without charge. For $12, I was able to purchase the plastic and have it cut into a 14 x 14" square. (I got to keep the left over pieces. Future projects. . . .?) Not cheap, perhaps, but certainly worth it for the time it saved me.

I cut the backs off each shirt and sent them to a thrift store that recycles fabric. Then I simply placed each front on my cutting board. I didn't have to worry about measuring or straight lines or anything other than having the fabric smooth. I centered my plastic template over the emblem on the t-shirt that I wanted to highlight in the square:

Using my rotary cutter, all I had to do was cut around the template:

Voila! I hope the rest of the process goes as smoothly. . . .

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Number Three Caterpillar Birthday Cake

It was a busy weekend, as so many are. Gumdrop's family party was fast approaching, and I showed my other half various birthday cake options on Pinterest, hoping for his help narrowing down the choices. So when he lovingly suggested that we do something simple... I realized it was up to me alone.

Not that I blame him. He grew up on box cake baked into a rectangular pan--"regular cake," so they call it. His mom made a tasty buttercream frosting, and voila! Birthday cake. For my mom, however, cake was her artistic medium, and for your birthday, you ate a boat or a bunny or something of that sort. Further, box-cake isn't my jam; it tastes kinda ho-hum. I'm sure Gumdrop could care less, as he usually eats little frosting before asking for a handful of chocolate chips instead. Still, if I'm going to make it, I'd like to enjoy it, too. Besides, last year SourPatch got a delicious and fun Octonauts cake; Gumdrop deserved one, too. So I said to myself. Because I wanted to make one.

So, busy weekend or not, I settled on the classic number 3 cake, caterpillar-style. There are rough instructions for it in this delightful, jazzy video tutorial...doo, doo, doo-doo-doo, doo-doot-doo. It shows where to cut the bundt cakes AND has you use a cookie scoop to distribute the frosting. Have I mentioned how much I love my cookie scoop? I use it whenever I can: to fill muffin tins, to fill chicken puffs, and to, well, scoop cookie dough. Now, I shall use it to distribute frosting on a cake, and I love it.

Eh-hem. Anyways, here's the final result:

This does make a lot of cake. I love my Cake Mix Doctor cookbook and went into a panic when I could not find it in the new house (I later found it in the linen closet, naturally...)! This turned out to be a boon, as I discovered the popular Too Much Chocolate Cake recipe on It is as delicious as the 5 stars and 5000 reviews suggest. Armed with my fluted bundt pan and ramekins, I doubled the recipe and cooked up the 4 cakes in two batches. Obviously, the small "head" cakes cook for a much shorter time than the bundt cakes, so be sure to check on them and pull them out early once they spring back to the touch.

While letting the cakes cool completely on wire racks, I whipped up some buttercream (again, from an online recipe, as my cookbook also contained my usual one). After skipping all the ones that are Crisco based (really? For buttercream frosting?), I found a classic butter-powdered sugar-milk variety that tasted as delicious as anything made from those ingredients should. 

It was only then that I realized I grabbed a box of neon food coloring by mistake... ah well. For added texture and interest, I tossed giant round sprinkles onto the frosting immediately after spreading (before the frosting hardens up). I thought the effect was great... until we ate it a few hours later. Sheesh, those sprinkles are like rocks! I felt like a was going to break a tooth; I'm getting something smaller next time. Good thing it looked cute.

To finish it off, I added the facial features. Though the obvious choice of decoration was fondant, I shuttered to resort to it. Not only do I dislike the taste, but don't you also have to either make or buy a lot of it for a tiny amount of decoration? Luckily for me, I'd learned the Starburst hack from the dragon cake I made SourPatch ages ago. A small pack of Starburst will give you a variety of colors, and a few seconds in the microwave will yield them malleable for a few minutes before they harden again. So a few yellow, orange, and red squares plus two toothpicks yielded eyes, mouth, and antennae for our caterpillar friend.

Happy Birthday, Gumdrop. May your next year be as bright as this (neon) cake!

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Fairy Gardens

It's almost spring, so it's a perfect time to think about fairy gardens. Two of our granddaughters have spring birthdays, and their creative mom decided to help them (and their brother) create fairy gardens as part of their birthday joy. For us, it was a four-part process, and the children were involved in all of it:

Choose a container: 
This can be easy or hard, depending on what you're looking for. There are a bazillion pots out there within a huge cost range. Our goal was to make fun gardens at a moderate price, so we used pots that I already had. And I think I purchased them initially at thrift stores. You want to be sure that the pot or container is large enough to handle the plants you choose plus the fairy decorations. However, soil alone is heavy, so it is also important to consider the weight of the container once it is filled. There are great inexpensive plastic or resin pots that look like stone or terra cotta. That is what we chose to work with:

Choose plants:
Fairy garden plants need to stay relatively small, so check on growth height and spread when you choose your plants. We went to a nearby nursery to find ours, but I have noticed since then that both Lowes and Home Depot have fairy garden sections, and they may be less expensive. (Also, Kroger, our grocery store, recently had small succulents for $1 a plant. Super price!) We tried to choose plants that gave us variety--color, texture and height. You want enough greenery to fill but not crowd your container. (Leave enough space for the plants to grow, and if things start to look too crowded, it's fine to prune a bit. These pictures were taken right after the gardens were created, and by the end of the summer they filled in even more.) Be sure to leave plenty of room for your accessories. Also consider light and water requirements. Two of our gardens had similar plantings, but we chose succulents for the third. Mixing them might have been a mistake because succulents require much less water.

Notice that this garden has ferns, plants that droop over the edge, flowering plants, and taller plants at the back to add dimension. Check for variation in color and texture as well.

Choose accessories:
This is the fun part, and you can be so creative. We found many of our fairies, structures and other accessories online, but we also found them at the dollar store, the hardware store, and thrift stores. (I spotted a darling mushroom at Hobby Lobby this week--a Christmas tree ornament that was 90% off.) The hunt is half the fun. In the gardens above, look for charming houses, bridges, a metal trellis, benches, woodland animals, stepping stones, and a pebble brook, The male of the group chose gnomes instead of fairies and succulents instead of leafy greens. The result was delightful, and of the three gardens, this was the only one that survived the winter cold. The others will need to be replanted:

Again, notice the variation in plant color, size, and texture (and the adorable hedgehogs.)

One of the cottages has little solar panels and lights up at night. SO FUN!:

Put it all together:
We bought a large bag of container potting soil and went to work. We had the children set out their design by arranging the pots and the accessories on top of the soil before we did any digging. That helped us create a pleasing composition without having to dig up and rearrange. Once everything is in place, it might be helpful to snap a reference picture so you can check back as you plant.

The children loved both the process and the finished products. And they are excited to re-imagine their plantings this year. It is fairy garden magic.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

There Was a Little House. . . .

Laurel and I have both taken a long blog break, mine longer than hers. But we plan to be back with a vengence because we have missed it. It stirs our creative juices, and, more importantly, it keeps us connected to each other in a special way.

Before I fell off the earth, I had started working on a children's garden and playhouse for our back yard. (I blogged about it clear back in spring of 2018.) Over the next few weeks, I'll update you on the progress and share what I learned from the experience--what worked and what didn't.

My yard growing up was a childhood paradise, a half acre of house, lawn and flowerbeds, and another half acre in back of orchard and trees--and a brick playhouse that my Dad and older brother built for me. I knew I couldn't replicate that sense of space and freedom in our much smaller city lot, but I did hope to carve out child-friendly, creative spaces for our grandchildren. That space centers around this playhouse--a much smaller and simpler version of the one that my Dad created for me:

I found the free building plans for this house at a site I use often for my DIY creations. Because the site has everything else you need to know, I'll just share the things I learned and the adaptations I made to make it more weather proof; the Ana White house was made for indoor use.

Although I wanted my structure to be sturdy, I didn't necessarily want it to be permanent, so I chose not to lay a cement foundation. Instead, I bought a prefab section of cedar fencing that was about two feet wider and longer than the house. Cedar was more expensive than pine, but I knew that it would weather better. If I had built it myself, I would have made it a about two feet longer to give the house a larger side porch area. As it is, it has a narrow back porch that is shaded by an overhanging part of the roof and a small side porch. It gave me enough room to add a little bistro table that can be served through the back window:

But choosing a pre-made foundation made sense; it was both less expensive and much easier since I was constructing the house by myself. I did add some extra bracing to the underside to strengthen it, and I attached boards to the front, back, and sides for strength and aesthetics.

To keep the platform off the potentially wet ground, I rested each corner on bricks. Since the ground slopes away from the house, I used smaller bricks in the front and cinderblocks in the back where the slope is greater.

I put the frame together on my porch because of a very rainy spring and then moved it to the platform to put up the walls. The biggest challenge was keeping everything square. Fortunately, wood is very forgiving, and when I had to, I just shaved a little off to make things fit.

In a way, it was a good thing that there was a lot of rain. It slowed the process down, and because of that, it quickly became clear that nails from my handy nail gun were not going to be sufficient to hold it together. As the tongue and groove planks became heavy with rain, they began to sag and pull away from the frame. So I went back and added screws to every board. It made all the difference, and I would recommend screws from the very beginning.

The plans call for a plywood roof, but plywood does not hold up well in wet weather. So my wise husband looked for and found a lighter and more durable solution online at Home Depot. We ended up using a Suntuf polycarbonate clear roofing panel that we cut to fit and then screwed into place. It keeps out rain and blocks harmful UV rays while letting in light. The entire roof is a skylight.

I painted the house, both inside and out, with two coats of clear polyurethane and painted the front trim with oil-based, green paint. (You can see from the pictures of the back porch that the wood is already beginning to weather a bit, but I'm okay with that.) Then I had the fun job of furnishing and decorating the interior. I found (or made) all the child-size furniture at thrift store bargains:

And the exterior--a thrift store rocker for the porch, solar lights from Amazon, and a genuine mailbox from the hardware store:

Welcome Home!