Blog: My Little Farm in Town

Living a rich country life in a small Midwestern town.

Showing 11 posts from June 2010 for this blog.
Frugal Family Fun: Indian Mounds
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

There are literally thousands of Indian mounds in southern Wisconsin. The mounds where built long ago by indigenous people in many shapes and sizes. Some are linear or look like small round hills, while others are shaped like turtles, buffalo, jaguars, and eagles. There is even a man-shaped mound! ( )

Many state, county, and city parks and historic sites in southern Wisconsin contain mounds. If you go to see one, keep in mind that they are Native American sacred places and many were burials. Don’t walk on the mounds or dig in them. Respect them as you would a grave.

When we visit mounds as a family, we usually bring a picnic lunch and dress for hiking with stout shoes; a walking stick; and depending on the time of year, a hat and/or a jacket and sun and/or bug protection.

Some mounds are near parking areas and some require a hike. Viewing mounds in city and county parks in southern Wisconsin is free. If you want to see mounds situated in state parks, you will need to buy a day pass or an annual sticker depending on your state. Be sure that you obtain permission first if you want to see a mound that is on private land.

We recently visited one set of mounds and another that are reproductions as art near the Wisconsin River. We saw linear mounds in a wooded area (where we were nearly carried off by bloodthirsty mosquitoes) near the Battle of Wisconsin Heights site. The reproduced set of mounds are located in August Derleth Park between the small cities of Prairie du Sac and Sauk City along the Wisconsin River. (This area is also known for the number of Bald Eagles that can be viewed here year round.) We had a nice walk on paved trails along the river, interspersed with prairie restorations and lovely river views.

There are Indian Mounds in at least 34 states. Check out this website and see if there are some near you! ( )  Begonia


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Gardening Tip: Getting in the Cracks
Friday, June 25, 2010

I wage war at this time of year—a war with weeds. The ones in the vegetable gardens are controlled by mulch. I hand weed as needed the few that struggle up through the thick cover. My “no till garden” is hay covered and takes about a half hour every two or three weeks to weed.

It’s the weeds that come up in the cracks of my sidewalk and rock paths that are my greatest challenge. Some volunteers I welcome, such as the pink panda strawberries and the creeping thyme. Others are just Bad Seed. I’m talking about the ones with  long stubborn tap roots or tops that come off in your hand, while the real problem remains in the ground to cause trouble again.

I’ve seen people burn them and poison them—expensive and dangerous. I prefer boiling them.

I use whatever hot water I have in the kettle after making tea or coffee. I even have ladled the boiling water from my canner on the beasties! One application is usually sufficient. The really tough ones might need a couple of dousings.  

Don’t bloody your knuckles pulling weeds this summer. Try the boiling water method. Begonia



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A Tribute to the Local Hardy Perennial!
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My garden is filled with hardy plants suited to our hot summers and cold winters.  I used to spend way too much money on plants that died or didn’t reproduce themselves well on My Little Farm in Town.  Although I still buy a new plant to try out now and then, I mainly trade with other local gardeners or buy plants at backyard and garden club plant sales in my area.

There are a number of advantages to adding to your garden this way:

1.       These are plants that have already made it through the winter here and will probably make it through the summer, too.

2.       They are accustomed to the soil type and pH of the area.

3.       The price is a lot less then retail prices.

4.       I can talk to the person who grew the plant I am interested in buying for cultural information and sometimes can even see where he or she dug it.

5.       There is an opportunity to trade plants and no money changes hands.

6.       Goodwill and generosity are common—sometimes a fellow gardener will just GIVE you free plants.

7.       Often if you get a plant locally and lose all of it one winter, your neighbor or the person who originally gave it to you will be able to give you another piece to replace it.

So next time your neighbor offers you a plant you consider local or common, just take it, smile, and say thank you. It may just become the anchor in an area of your garden that never fails to produce color and inspiration. Begonia


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Good Cheap Food: Shopping at Surplus Grocery Stores
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Food prices have increased and continue to climb. I have lowered our food bills in various ways: barter, coupons, rebates, no-waste scratch cooking, gardening, canning, drying, freezing, end cap and loss leader shopping, distribution warehouse bulk buying, co-oping, and buying directly from the local producer.

My biggest savings, however, have come from shopping at surplus grocery stores (aka Bent and Dents). Surplus grocery stores purchase their stock from distributors that buy back slightly damaged and past or near date items from regular grocery and chain stores. These distributors also purchase closeouts and overruns. They sell to surplus grocers by the pallet, case, or by the truck load in mixed banana boxes (“mixed banana boxed grocery loads”), depending on the item. I did a short search on “Surplus Groceries,” and here are some of the more interesting sites if you want to learn more:  , , and .

Some surplus groceries are modern and well lit, while others are sheds with a wood stove in one corner and only the light that comes in the windows. The Bent and Dent I patronize the most fits the latter description. It is in the country –as these places so often are in my area—and is run by a large Amish family.  I LOVE this place, but I’ve learned over the years that not everything is priced cheaper than I can get it at a regular grocery store, some things are not worth buying at all, and other things are worth a the gamble for the price. Here are some tips for shopping surplus groceries:

  • Always check the condition of the packaging. In the excitement of finding food for such a good price (in sometimes dim lighting), you may overlook the state of the box or can. If it is a cereal or grain, you need to be sure that there are no gaps or breaks in the bag or box. This is especially important for such items as flour, rice, pasta, bread crumbs, and cereals. Watch for tape covering a hole. Even a small hole can cause staleness or contamination.
  • Always check the expiration dates. This is not always easy. Sometimes these codes are indicated by a series of seemingly random numbers and letters. Usually you will be able to see month, day, and year clearly. Other times, month and day will be reversed, and the year will be two digits. When in doubt, don’t buy the item if you are uncomfortable with not knowing the date. (By the way, it is also a good idea to check expiration dates in regular grocery stores. They don’t always keep up with their stock or follow up on how employees are stocking the shelves.)
  • Keep up on the current price of groceries. Surplus groceries carry an incredible assortment of brands and sizes, and pricing can be a challenge. Sometimes if the surplus grocer doesn’t value or is not familiar with a product, they will price low. If it is an item they value or are familiar with, they will price higher.  I often will see items that are a better deal on sale or as a loss leader (or even at normal mark up!) in a regular store.   If you’re are a scratch cook, you will want to know the cheapest price per pound for such staples as rice, beans, flour, sugars, pastas, or cereals. Sometimes I can find a better price by the pound in a bulk food store or a store that deals in volume sales like Aldi, Sam’s Club, or a large grocery store.
  • Beware of loading up on luxury items and junk food. You can easily cancel out your savings by buying too many of these items.  It is very easy to indulge a sweet tooth or support a chip habit at surplus groceries. Do you really need that cheap case of candy bars and fifteen 50-cent bags of Doritos? Man does not live on bread alone, but you can buy a lot of items with actual food value for the money you squander on treats.
  • Don’t buy if you aren’t sure.  Caveat emptor (buyer beware) is always the rule in salvage grocery buying! I generally don’t buy items that are too far past date. How far past date you are comfortable buying is an individual decision.  A can of tomatoes I would buy past date—but not a bottle of creamy salad dressing.


What you buy is up to you, but here are some of the things I don’t buy surplus:


  •   I don’t buy items that are high in fat that can easily go rancid—like tortillas, taco shells, salad dressings, chips, peanut butter, etc.
  • I don’t buy anything with broken seals, torn inner packaging, or pieces of tape covering holes (or teas with boxes that have broken cellophane, unless the tea bags are individually foil or plastic wrapped).  
  • I don’t buy any powders or mixes that have started to solidify. (Drink mixes will do this and brown sugar that is too old.)
  • I don’t buy anything that has melted, is discolored, or has sun-faded packaging.
  • I don’t buy cans or containers that are rusty or too dented, especially around the rims.
  • I don’t buy frozen or perishable items.


My best buys are usually condiments (salsa, ketchup, mayonnaise, vinegars, mustards), tea, coffee, tuna, breakfast cereals, baking chips and chocolate, chewing gum, olive oil, and canned vegetables, fruit, and beans. Sometimes there will be a lot of an item and it will be priced extra low. That is when I buy cake mixes, some types of candy, crackers, and soup as treats. I like to pay 50% or less of the regular store price and way less than regular store price on items that are past their expiration date.

A few final tips:

  • I will at times make exceptions to my “no tape” rule. Sometimes labels fall off and are taped back on; or you can see that someone got overzealous with a box cutter and a cereal or cake mix box is taped shut again, but the inner packaging is intact (Shake the box. If the stuff inside sounds like it is rattling against cardboard, don’t buy it.)
  • Sometimes there will be dried product on the outside of a bottle. This doesn’t always indicate a leak. Sometimes one bottle will break in a case and the grocer can’t sell the whole case.
  • I always rinse, wipe, or wash the tops of all bottles and cans before opening.


 I hope I’ve helped some of you cut your grocery expenses a bit. It is one of the strategies that keeps me on My Little Farm in Town and not commuting to a cubicle somewhere in order to pay the grocery bill! Take Care, Begonia.



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My Little Cold Frame 8: Last Salad
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

We’ve eaten our last salad from the greens I planted in March. They were pretty toasted and starting to bolt. I gathered them for one meal for the whole family—human and feathered. Not much gets wasted on My Little Farm in Town!

After harvesting and a little weeding, I refreshed each side of the frame with compost. I’ll give the frame a rest while I tend other parts of the garden, until it is time to plant again in hot, dry August for fall and winter harvest. My goal is a fresh salad for Christmas! Begonia


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Getting the Most for Your Food Dollar Locally
Monday, June 14, 2010

I live in a small town. It is a 25-minute drive to the nearest town with large grocery stores and specialty shopping. The drive costs me about  $6 in gas and wear and tear on the vehicle. I’m also a busy person, and that extra 50 minutes has a price tag of it’s own.  As a result, I do a lot of my day-to-day food shopping right here in town.

Many small town businesses are eager to keep local money local.  The ”buy local” movement is strong in my area. I support it as much as possible because I want to be able to live in a freestanding town without having to travel long distances for basic needs. I don’t want to be living in a bedroom community or a suburb where most of us are strangers.

On the other hand, I don’t support unsustainable businesses or shoddy merchandise simply because it is local.  I think it is reasonable to want a fair exchange of merchandise for money.  Here are the ways that I operate within this ethic locally in my food buying:

·         The farmer’s market. I buy from them if they have a superior product or one that I can’t or won’t grow myself. Most of the folks who sell at our local farmer’s market cater to a niche market of people who place the greatest value on organics, locally grown products, and atmosphere.

·         Honor-system sales. Local gardeners will put a cart or wagon at the end of their driveway with a locked money box and sell their extra produce for wonderful prices. They have all they need and are making a little extra money on the overflow. It is a win-win situation for both parties. I buy a lot of the fresh food this way. It is a great local system.  There was a glut of squash and pumpkins last year. I bought giant butternut and banana squash for $1 a piece. I still have one butternut squash in my cool pantry waiting to be eaten.  I bought a year’s supply of green peppers for 25 cents each and froze them.  We will finish them at about the time this year’s pepper start to ripen.

·         Meat and vegetables purchased directly from the farm. Another win-win situation. The farmer gets more money for their product because they don’t have to package it (much), ship it (much), or share the profits with anyone else. I get a superior product for a fair price (usually less than at the supermarket). Truck farms with roadside stands, beef that a local farmer brings to a local locker plant, and honey from a local apiary (bring your own gallon jar) are examples of the types of food I buy.

·         The local grocery store. We have an independently owned grocery store in our town. They get a lot of their food from a large distribution warehouse that doesn’t get their food locally. Oh well, at least the store owners are locals! I shop mainly the weekly sale items and loss leaders. I use coupons to bring the local price down to what it would be if I had been shopping in a larger store or town. I also keep an eye out for discounted, near-date merchandise, which also makes the local store’s prices more competitive or cheaper than that of the bigger city grocery stores.

Have I missed anything? Growing your own food for the cost of the seeds and your time, gathering wild food, and bartering (I barter eggs for fresh goat cheese) for fresh foods is probably the most local eating you can do! Take care and happy bargain hunting. Begonia

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Volunteering: Gaining by Giving
Saturday, June 12, 2010

Volunteering adds another layer of richness to life on My Little Farm in Town. Every week involves some form of volunteering. How we volunteer depends on what we are learning, the time available, our interests, and what needs to be done.

My daughter and I volunteer weekly at the local nursing home doing one-on-one visiting; are involved in community service through our 4-H club and home school group; make Midwife Kits for Global Health Ministries at home (see my Dec. 22, 2009 blog); and participate regularly in church activities.

Since moving to this small town 15 years ago, we have had the opportunity to volunteer in a variety of areas:

·         Public Library: shelving and checking books and other materials

·         Friends of the Library: fund-raisers as working  and organizing pie, cookie, and book sales

·         Garden Club: digging, potting and selling for the plant sale and doing civic beautification projects

·         Meals on Wheels: packing meals

·         County Parks: planting prairies, collecting seeds, stewarding trails, tending blue bird and poetry trails, participating in work days, keeping track of volunteer hours, participating in archaeological digs, and collecting prairie seed

·         Public Schools: Tutoring, aid in the classroom, and checking papers when my older children where in public school

·         Home schooling and civic and charity volunteering: Part of our Philosophy of Instruction from the start!

·         Local Events: Century bike rides, Thanksgiving dinners, holiday giving trees, and community celebrations

·         Local Food Pantries and clothes closet : shelving and sorting food and clothing

We have learned a lot while volunteering. I’ve improved my analytical, organizational, and problem solving skills through big volunteer jobs I’ve done. My daughter started visiting at the nursing home with me when she was six years old, we learned together about life and death and faithfulness and people who don’t look or think the way you do, but you love them regardless.  The parks have been like giant laboratories of natural history, botany, and zoology. Through my work with the garden club, I learned the growing habits of all kinds of wild and domestic plants and gained enough skill to grow a diverse variety of plants both edible and ornamental on my own place.

Volunteering is a good way to build a resume and tells prospective employers and educators (college) some very positive things about you.  If your primary job is raising and or educating your children right now, it shows that you have been continuing to hone your people and work skills while you have been doing it. If you are a young person not of an age to be employed, it demonstrates your ability to be disciplined and apply yourself to tasks successfully.

Perhaps most importantly, we made lasting friendships and connections in our community through volunteering.  Meeting people is easy when you are potting plants or serving a Thanksgiving dinner beside them. The transition to a new community is made much more easily when you start contributing to it as soon as you arrive  Most people admire, respect, and trust people who freely help others or make the town they live in a better place. 

About two paragraphs ago you were probably thinking, “It must be nice to have all that time to do stuff for free—some of us have to make a living.” I have a more flexible schedule than most right now, but a lot of this stuff was done on weekends and an hour here and there when I was working full time in an office. Sometimes it was too wearing, and I had to choose what activity was most important; but a lot of the time, it was hours donated individually when help was most needed (“Just In Time” volunteering!).  Pick one thing that you care about and donate some of your effort to it. You’ll meet some neat people and gain a lot more than you expect. Begonia

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On Garage Saling: Arriving Late
Thursday, June 10, 2010

There are many strategies for getting the best deals at garage sales. Sometimes if you can’t be the FIRST person there when the garage door opens, it is best to be the LAST person!

Not everyone is looking for the same things.  You never know what you are going to find at the end of the sale, and it is often going to be cheaper than it was at the beginning of the weekend! 

Items will be half-price, bag sales happen, and the free box overflows in the final hours of the average garage sale. Don’t be shy about dickering. Build a pile of stuff and make an offer.  If you are crafting or gathering objects for charity, ask if they would be willing to donate.

Sometimes they have already started to throw stuff out or pack up by the time you arrive. As a courtesy, I always ask if I can junk pick if good stuff is on the curb while the people are still present packing up. I also always ask permission to shop if I arrive when people are in the process of closing their sale. If they don’t want me there, I politely withdraw.  Don’t take it for granted that you have a right to rummage!

 Many people hit the end of a sale and just want everything gone.  Others will scrape up every scrap of junk that should have gone to the landfill and pack it up for next year’s sale! When I have a sale, I’m firmly in the “I just want it gone” camp. I don’t bring anything out of the house that I want to bring back in at Noon Saturday.

 I used to have group garage sales regularly, involving someone who was breaking up housekeeping for one reason or anotherfantabulous stuff priced to go. We were just about to pack up one of these sales when a fifteen-passenger van pulled up. A woman and a man got out and wandered around. The woman bought some Gourmet magazines and then the man came back and asked if he could make an offer for everything I had left! I just looked at him dumbstruck, then glanced over at my sister and said, “Take it all for FREE. I just want it all gone! Here, we’ll help you pack it up!”

It definitely was a missed opportunity for a little more profit (by that time, it was all my stuff), but I loved the looks on their faces. I figure that everyone should have a little unmerited favor in their lives. I sure have enjoyed more than my fair share of it. Begonia

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On Garage Saling: Arriving Early
Monday, June 07, 2010

How many spring, summer, and fall mornings have I spent parked on a residential street with a cup of coffee, a sweet roll, and a good book waiting for some sign of life at a certain address? Am I a stalker, an undercover officer, or a private eye? No, I’m a dedicated garage saler waiting for that garage door to open so I can start my day of bargain hunting!

Why so early? When that garage door opens, all car doors open promptly.  As all hard-case salers know, the best “stuff” disappears quickly. Looking for a nice couch or power tools? Better be there early.

How early is too early?  There is some disagreement on this point. My sisters feel it is cheating to start shopping when the “door” opens if it opens 20 or 30 minutes before the time published in the local paper or ad shopper.  If the seller's response to my polite inquiry, “May I look around and start shopping now?”  is “Sure! Go right ahead!” or “OKI just want to get rid of the stuff! “ my attitude is, in the words of the immortal bard, “All’s fair in love and garage saling”!

What kind of stuff have I found? I was out for a pregarage sale walk with a friend when we noticed a man with the garage door open setting up a sale. He let us in to look, but we didn’t have any cash with us. He agreed to let us reserve items to buy if we promised to come back right after our walk and haul them away. (I love it when men are in charge of sales because they usually price low and just want to get stuff off the property as quickly as possible.) That is the morning I found my $5 grandfather clock.

 Was it the most expensive clock when it was new? No, we think they got it free with the purchase of a new sofa or dinette set,  a midrange value—not the cheapest, but not the most costly. The guy told us it didn’t work.  After breaking every rule of transporting grandfather clocks to get it home, my husband put it back together and adjusted the works. It now ticks gently and keeps perfect time as I type on my laptop. (In the spirit of complete transparency, I must note that it doesn’t chime—a disappointment to me but not to the rest of my household!)

I have also found that you have to be Johnny on the Spot or earlier for new building supplies, such as  flooring and fixtures. I bought an unopened case of recessed lights for $10 that my husband used in remodeling our laundry/bathroom. I have some nice tile in my entrance way and some high-quality laminate flooring in one of my bathrooms for 50 cents a square foot because of arriving early at the sales of tradesmen and general contractors.

I also find lots of gently used, big-ticket household items, such as my cook top, wall oven, and clothes dryer for $25 each.  My salvaged, high-end stainless steel kitchen sink cost us $3 at a local garage sale.

Don’t be shy about showing up early. There are plenty of bargains out there for all of us. Begonia



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Another Safety Tip: When Trimming Trees, Stay Away From Power Lines!
Friday, June 04, 2010

“Was there a shower of sparks?”


“Did it scare ya?”

“My wife was scared—I just felt stupid.”

This was the conversation my husband had with a village utility worker early this morning.

After a windy night, I discovered a broken branch on the sugar maple on the south east corner of our patio. I mentioned it to my husband, and he said he’d get to it. I had almost decided to grab the saw and take care of it myself because of what a busy time he’s  been having  in our home business, only to see him out with the pole saw trimming the tree.

Once he took down the broken branch, we started noticing others that now had to go. One of these branches was partially draped over the wire that brings electricity to the house. We both thought it would slide harmlessly down once the bottom was cut. Of course, it didn’t!

I wanted to put a rope on it and pull it aside as he finished the cut. My hubby wanted to use the lopper attachment on the pole saw to cut away the end of the branch draped on the wire. Of course, we didn’t have a ladder handy, so he climbed up one of the plastic web patio chairs. I commented that he was awfully close to the power line. He replied, “This pole saw has a fiberglass handle, it’ll be fine!” Teetering on the outer metal edges of the chair, he extended the saw, the picture of the hapless homeowner doing something dumb and dangerous. (We’ve all been in this type of situation at some time in our home owning careers—if we are honest enough to admit it!)

The first cut went well. It still wasn’t enough to raise the branch above the wire though. By this point, I was just keeping my mouth shut. (He was going to do what he pleased no matter what I said.)

The second cut was another story! I couldn’t see the placement of the lopper, so I passed under the branch and wire to get a better view. I had just cleared them both when—that’s right— a SHOWER OF SPARKS started falling all around me. I’m sorry to say that a few choice phrases burst out of me in my fear and anxiety.

The insulation on the power wire was nicked, but no one was hurt. We were more fortunate than we deserved. The moral of the story is. . . whether your equipment conducts current or not,  don’t get it or yourself anywhere near live power lines! Begonia

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Continuous Learning: Baskets O' Summer Reading
Wednesday, June 02, 2010

We are almost done with formal schooling for this home school year—the kind with paper or oral tests. That doesn’t mean that learning has to stop. I like to offer us all opportunities for continuous learning, either hands-on or from books.

As a kid, my most enjoyable learning happened by reading books from various libraries—I had four library cards at one point! When I found a subject interesting, I would read every book in the library on that topic.

You don’t have to be a home schooler to try out this activity, but you should adapt the books or materials you choose to fit your family’s interests and abilities. For example, if you have young children, you might fill one basket with books to read to them and another with picture story books and DK or Eyewitness books with photographs and drawings for them to "read" on their own. If you are unsure of what materials to choose, the friendly folks at your local public library can help you!

 I have a big stash of books to choose from that I’ve picked up at garage, estate, and library sales. We will have three baskets. One will contain poetry because reading it helps you to be a better writer of it; a second will be filled with classic science fiction because my daughter has been writing a lot of sci fi for the past year and is constantly asking me about plot lines; and a third will hold classics by Twain, Dickens,  Steinbeck, and other greats.

Put the baskets where ever you relax or gather as a family, and encourage everyone to dip in and explore the offerings, read to each other, and share what they are discovering. You won’t lack for good conversation all summer! Begonia



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