Checklist of Must-Have Tools for Living Off the Grid

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An urban homestead with vegetable garden.
An urban homestead with vegetable garden

Homesteading has become a buzzword du juor and an increasingly-popular lifestyle. But what is it exactly? Dictionary.com gives this somewhat legal definition, “a dwelling with its land and buildings, occupied by the owner as a home and exempted by a homestead law from seizure or sale for debt.”

More popular usage means living in a self-sufficient manner as much as possible. This means growing your own food, keeping livestock and fowl, and living off-the-grid in as many ways as you can. This includes generating your own electricity with wind turbines or solar panels, etc. This also means acquiring some must-have tools and supplies for living off the grid. Here are some essentials.

General Repair Tools

  • Duct tape. You already know — a million different uses. My Grandpappy swore by Scotch tape but I prefer to go industrial-grade.
  • Heavy-duty scissor car jack. Not just for changing flats anymore. This all-around tool will be a willing helper that won’t talk back or complain.
  • Belt sander. When building or repairing/refinishing furniture this is an invaluable tool.
  • An assortment of rope and tie-down straps. These will find a use on a day-to-day basis on your homestead.
  • Cordless drill, sawzall, circular saw, etc. Cordless is the way to go because you won’t always be working where an outlet is available. Just be sure to buy all your cordless tools from the same family (manufacturer) of tools so the batteries are interchangeable and you only have to keep up with one charger. I use and recommend Ryobi but Milwaukee and Makita are good as well.
  • Chainsaw. Useful for clearing brush, cutting up firewood, and heck, your artistic endeavors, if you are into that kind of thing.

Gardening/Farming Tools

  • A set of gardening tools. This comprehensive set should ideally be kept in a container that can be transported to to the garden/field as one unit so you won’t be making multiple trips. It should contain at least a kneeling mat if you use one, a shovel, gloves, limb trimmer, a basket to carry your daily harvest, and pruning shears.
  • Rotary tiller. If you have a good sized plot of land to work, this tool is essential for good root growth. You can rent one but it will be more cost-effective to buy your own in the long run.
  • A bucket or two. This is a multiple use tool, as simple as it is. I usually use one for mixing soil and amendments when planting.
  • Rain barrels. While a rain harvesting system might not technically thought of as a “tool,” it is essential for irrigating your crops close to the house. In general, plants prefer the pH (a figure expressing the acidity or alkalinity) of rainwater to tap water. And what would happen if your public water supply is cut off or contaminated?

Health-Related Tools and Supplies

  • Tweezers. Handy for close work and removing splinters. Keep one in your medicine cabinet and another in the glove box of your truck.
  • Antiseptics. You will need to apply this lickety-split, quick, and in a hurry when you get any cut or abrasion.
  • Bandaids. Keep an assortment of sizes and shapes on hand.
  • Moleskin. Take care of those inevitable blisters on your feet.
  • Safety glasses. This is one that many people ignore but do yourself a favor. The good Lord only gave you two eyes; replacements not currently available.
  • Soap. Yes, we’ve all got some but do we use it often enough? It should be a habit with the onset of COVID-19 pandemic or the Coronavirus as it is also called, but you can also pick up undesirable things in your soil and mulch in your vegetable garden.
  • Hearing protection. Save your hearing! The ones I use are headphones with a built-in AM/FM radio.
  • Fire extinguishers. Keep one in the kitchen, one in your pantry, one in your wood shop (next to your wood shop dust collector is a good spot), and one in your truck. They are cheap; there’s no excuse.

This is not an exhaustive list of must-have tools for living off the grid in the homesteading mode but it’s a good start. When the SHTF you will be glad that you prepared in advance. And you don’t have to live out in the country; we have a modest 1,200 square foot home but over the years I’ve surrounded us with fruit trees and my vegetable garden and my herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes. My latest addition is a Don Juan Avocado tree.

References:

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Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

Growing Mint: An Herb Garden Staple

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Chocolate mint in the garden next to tomato plant
Chocolate mint in the garden next to tomato plant

Mint is a perennial herb with very fragrant, toothed leaves and tiny purple, pink, or white flowers. It has a fruity, aromatic taste and offers many health benefits. There are many varieties so you have a wide range to select from. One thing is certain — mint, grown organically, is an herb garden and kitchen staple, much as basil is.

The Many Varieties of Mint

The number of mint flavors can be a bit overwhelming; I like to keep at least two of them growing. An odd thing is the way you can identify it other than the smell. If you look close, the stem is actually square. The oddities of nature, yes? Anyway, pick your favorites from this list:

  • Chocolate. Yes, it really does look and taste like the real thing. My favorite additive to go into my dark-roast coffee grounds in the morning. None of those artificial chemical flavors for me.
  • Apple/Pineapple.
  • Spearmint. Was this your favorite chewing gum flavor as a kid?
  • Pennyroyal.
  • Citrus Mint. Just the thing for iced tea on a summer afternoon.
  • Corsican. This is one of the strongest tasting of mints and it is also the smallest; growing tight-knit it makes a good ground cover in semi-shady areas. Unlike most mints it can be difficult to grow. It likes to be well-watered. It makes a good companion plant for things like chives and tomatoes.
  • Peppermint. For adding a bit of candy flavor without all the sugar.
  • Banana.
  • Orange. Also good in tea and cold brew coffee.

Planting and Care of Mint

  • First, consider that mint spreads rapidly. This means growing it in a container or enclosed within some kind of root barricade to rein in the horizontal runners and underground rhizomes.
  • Mint likes light soil with good drainage; its native habitat is along stream banks.
  • Most varieties prefer some shade; check the exact requirements of your favorite variety/s.
  • It likes a thin layer of compost or organic fertilizer every few months.
  • Keep the area covered with a layer of hardwood mulch to retain moisture. Do NOT use any colored mulch. Those color chemicals and dyes are not your friends, especially if you intend to consume the leaves.
  • Other than watering, a light top-dressing with compost, some mulch, and occasional organic fertilizer, these are easy plants to grow.
  • Prune them back regularly. the smaller, younger leaves are the most flavorful… but, where you let them flower, the butterflies will thank you!

Nutritional Benefits

  • Aids in digestion.
  • Eases dizziness and nausea.
  • Helps with nasal congestion.
  • Boosts dental health.
  • Improves blood circulation.
  • Boosts immunity. That’s not a bad thing during the CORVID-19 pandemic.

By now you can see why growing mint in your garden or containers is a good idea. It’s healthy, tasty, nutritious, and importantly to many of us, easy to grow.

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Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

Roasted Beets with Herbs and Orange Recipe

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Roasted beets with herbs and goat cheese
Roasted beets with herbs and goat cheese

This is a very easy dish to make. Some people think they don’t like beets, but be forewarned, this is not that processed stuff that old Aunt Martha plops out on Thanksgiving and Christmas along with the turkey. As a bonus, beets are super-nutritious and can help to lower blood pressure.

Buy your beets in a bunch at the grocery store. They are actually the root of the plant and so will most likely have the green leaves attached. These are also edible. Or, throw them in your compost pile. You do have a compost pile, right? Compost is just as important as mulch and you’ve already paid for the food.

Roasted Beets Ingredient List

  • 1 dozen (preferably organic) beets
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 large cinnamon stick, crumbled
  • 1 large shallot, minced
  • Finely grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/4 cup chopped tarragon
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 – 4 oz. crumbled goat cheese (the pic above used about 3 oz. to give you an idea)
  • 1/4 cup chopped chives

Preparation

  • Preheat the oven to 375°. Cut the leaves and the roots from the beets, wash them, and arrange them in a roasting pan (I use an 8″ X 8″ Pyrex) and add the cinnamon and water. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour.
  • While it’s baking, make the dressing by pouring the vinegar in a bowl, mixing in the minced shallot, orange zest, tarragon, parsley, chives, and oil.
  • Let the beets cool a bit and cut in 1/4″ slices. Some people might want to peel the beets but I prefer to leave it alone and get the added nutrition. Arrange them overlapping on a serving plate or platter.
  • Spoon the dressing over the beet slices and sprinkle the top with the goat cheese.
  • Eat.

Health Benefits of Beets

With all the good things going on with beets, it is a wonder that people don’t eat more of them. Consider:

  • Beets can lower your blood pressure. This is because they are high in healthy nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide inside your body. Nitric oxide can help dilate blood vessels and lower your blood pressure.
  • Beets give your energy a boost. By dilating your blood vessels it delivers more oxygen to your muscles.
  • Lots of fiber. One cup of beets contains about 3.5 grams of fiber. Regularity is a good thing, even if we don’t talk about it much.
  • Many, many antioxidants. That is why beets have that vibrant red color. One in particular is betalain, higher in fighting off free radicals than vitamin C.
  • Good for your brain power. This, because of increased blood flow.

So there you have it. There’s no reason not to make roasted beets with herbs and orange for dinner today.

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Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

List of Cold-Hardy Mexican Avocado Trees

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A Don Juan avocado tree; freshly-planted
Don Juan avocado tree; freshly-planted

There’s only one drawback to fresh avocados that I can think of — the price. That’s why planting your own tree is such a good idea. The image above is the Don Juan variety that I planted yesterday. I’m generally not a big fan of staking new trees but this time, as I was finishing my tree planting adventure, the wind was beginning to whip and a rain storm was blowing in. This afternoon I can follow up with a top-dressing of compost and some hardwood mulch. Which species is right for you? Here is a list of cold-hardy Mexican avocado trees in alphabetical order.

When planting avocado trees, keep in mind that they like well-drained soil. They do not tolerate overly-wet soil well. As with your other trees and plants they prefer the pH of rain to tap water. It is always a good time to put in a rainwater harvesting system.

List of Avocado Tree Species

  • Brazos Belle. This one tolerates cold in the mid to low teens. The fruit is large and purple-black.
  • Brogdon. A mature tree can reach as high as 30 feet tall. Expect the crop to ripen ripen late from mid-July to mid-September.
  • Day. If you are into container gardening, this is a good choice. It will grow to 6 to 8 feet and will produce when it reaches 3 to4 feet high.
  • Don Juan. The Don can handle temperatures down to the mid to high teens. In height it can reach 20 to 25 feet when fully grown.
  • Fantastic. It’s considered to have one of the creamiest textures of the flesh. It is very thin-skinned and is very freeze-resistant.
  • Joey. This variety boasts a dark, purple-black skin and an egg-shaped fruit.It is one of the most prolific producers of any of these species. It is right behind the Fantastic in cold hardiness.
  • Lila. Lila bears medium-sized pear-shaped fruits. It is cold-hardy variety down to 15 degrees and when mature maxes out at 10-15 feet high.
  • Mexicola. This one is cold-hardy down to the low 20s. It’s known for its creamy, smooth taste which makes it a natural in dishes such as Tuscan kale salad.
  • Mexicola Grande. It is known for nutty flavor and has the best reputation for consistent fruit size if that is important to you as a home-owner. That would be low on my priority list but it is what it is.
  • Opal. No, not a precious stone or European car brand, but a medium-sized, pear-shaped avocado that many consider to have the “richest” flavor of them all. It is also the greenest of all the soft-skinned varieties so be aware of that when judging harvesting time.
  • Poncho. It is also called the ‘Pancho’ and bears a medium-large green fruit. It can tolerate cold down to the low 20s and is the latest of the producers from mid-August through October. In that respect, it pairs nicely with and early producer if you want fruit for a long period. And who doesn’t?
  • Pryor. The Pryor is cold-hardy down into the high teens and is also listed as one of the green-skinned varieties.
  • Wilma. It was probably not named after Wilma Flintstone but is one of the largest avocados on this list. It is known for its great flavor. It is a black-skinned variety and has been around longer than most on this list.
Avocado nutritional facts
Avocado nutritional facts

Avocado Health Benefits

Although avocados are high in fat, don’t let that put you off. They contain the “good fat.” As far as health benefits go, the avocado is right up there with tart cherries. Check out these health benefits:

  • Healthy weight loss. They are high in fiber so they make you feel full.
  • Eye health. The nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin fight macular degeneration.
  • Helps to prevent type II diabetes. It does this by stabilizing blood sugar levels.
  • Increases nutrient absorption.
  • Bone strengthening. It does this by providing copper, folate, and vitamin K.

Well, there you have it. Choose your favorite one or two from this list of cold-hardy Mexican avocado trees; enjoy money-savings, shade, and good health.

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Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

Covid-19 Lock-down Homemade Whole Wheat Bread Recipe

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Loaf of bread with an oval Banneton proofing basket
Loaf of bread with an oval Banneton proofing basket

It may seem strange that I called this particular recipe the Covid-19 Lock-down recipe but there’s a reason for it. Since we all began this pandemic adventure America has become a nation of bakers. Yeast is a rare commodity; I searched high and low for two weeks until I struck gold. Good whole wheat was almost as hard to come by.

Anyway, I like to experiment and this is what I came up with yesterday. It may seem an odd assortment of ingredients but it really worked. I used the oval Banneton proofing basket and a cookie sheet rather than a loaf pan.

Use organic ingredients whenever possible. You can also use this dough ingredient list when you are making homemade pizza.

Ingredient List for Covid-9 Bread

  • 1 c quick-cooking steel-cut oatmeal
  • 1/2 c quinoa
  • dash of Himalayan salt; I like because they don’t remove all the minerals like regular salt.
  • 3 T honey, or to taste
  • 1 packet yeast
  • 1/2 c wheat bran
  • 1/4 c milled flaxseed
  • 2 T gluten; it’s optional but gluten is the “glue” that holds the loaf together.
  • 1 T cinnamon
  • 3 c very warm water
  • 3-4 c whole wheat flour; as much as you need to make the dough and knead it.
  • 1/2 c rice flour if you are using a proofing basket.
  • Just a thought: next time I’m going to try putting in some finely-sliced basil leaves; it’s going gang-busters in my garden right now.

Preparation Steps

  • Put the oatmeal and quinoa in your mixing bowl and just cover the mixture with water. Since the mixture will absorb water, check it periodically and add water as needed. About an hour will do the trick.
  • Add the 3 c warm water.
  • Mix in the yeast well.
  • Mix in the rest of the dry ingredients; the flour is last.
  • Stir in the flour well bit by bit until it is hard to turn over.
  • Turn the dough out on a floured surface. Sprinkle some flour on top of it so sticking to your hands is minimal.
  • Commence kneading, adding flour as needed (see what I did there?). I usually fold it over 20-30 times.
  • Proofing time! If you use a proofing basket, prepare it by spraying the inside lightly with water and sprinkle rice flour. Wheat flour will NOT work. Fit the dough in and cover with a damp dish towel. If you are using a mixing bowl, lightly coat it with olive oil or cooking spray so it won’t stick. Plop the dough in and cover with a damp dish towel.
  • Let it rise for 2-3 hours or whatever your brand of yeast recommends.
  • Put a pan of water on the oven rack; the steam will keep you loaf from drying out.
  • Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.
  • Turn your dough out onto either cooking-sprayed cookie sheet if you used a proofing basket or into a buttered loaf pan. Cut 3 thin slits across the top of the loaf; I used an X-acto knife.
  • Bake it! 25 minutes was perfect for me. Use the toothpick test to be sure.
  • Turn the loaf out onto cooling racks and let it rest for at least 10 minutes.
  • Enjoy!
Hot, fresh homemade bread
Hot, fresh homemade bread

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

Basil: a Savory Addition to Your Herb Garden and Kitchen

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Fresh-cut basil
Fresh-cut basil from my garden

The basil pictured above is fresh-harvested from my garden in preparation for making pesto (yum). Believe it or not, it is a member of the mint family. It is also known as great basil, sweet basil, or for the scientifically-minded, Ocimum basilicum. Whatever you call it, it’s delicious and an essential part of any foodie’s herb garden.

All other things aside, consider the economics of the situation — you can buy a plant from the nursery, or even Walmart for crying out loud, for the same price or cheaper than a plastic-wrapped one-time-use bundle from the grocery store. Who knows where that came from? Mine is organic and two minutes from plant to recipe. Why is there even a comparison? I understand that even apartment-dwellers can grow it in the kitchen window or better yet, a balcony if you have one.

Health Benefits of Basil

Most of the studies that indicate that tulsi (holy basil) was used to determine benefits. Tulsi is traditionally used for religious and traditional medicine purposes, and for its essential oil. It is widely used as an herbal tea, commonly used in Ayurveda.

  • Supports liver health.
  • Fights cancer. This is due to the phytochemicals present by increasing antioxidant activity, changing gene expression, triggering cell death, and slowing cell division.
  • Supports liver health.
  • Protects against skin aging. This effect is from using basil extracts in topical skin creams to improve skin hydration and reduce roughness and wrinkling. Eating it will not provide the benefit.
  • Supports cardiovascular function. The theory is that it lowers blood pressure due to the plant’s eugenol content. This can block calcium channels in the body, lowering high blood pressure. Calcium channel blockers are a popular class of blood pressure medications.
  • Boosts mental health.
  • Reduces swelling and inflammation.
  • Fights infection. A study in 2013 as reported by the US National Library of Medicine showed that sweet basil oil was effective against E. coli bacteria. The researchers determined that certain preparations of basil oil could help treat or even prevent some varieties of infection.

Recipes for Basil

It goes without saying that basil can be added to almost any recipe but here are a few of my favorites. Try them all. These are recipes that I have either invented or morphed together from several traditional recipes and modified to my taste. When I get into the kitchen to experiment, my wife invariably says, “Oh no!” But never fear, she has approved all the ones below.

Obviously, basil can be added to a variety of dishes whether you are going for taste or the nutritional value. But to ensure freshness, availability, and organic quality, plant it in your herb garden.

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Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

Health Benefits of Tart Cherries

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Tart cherries harvested
Tart cherries harvested

Tart cherries which are also labeled as sour, dwarf or Montmorency cherries, have become increasingly popular over the last couple of years, and for good reason–their health benefits. It is most often consumed as a juice. Tart cherry juice is extracted from the ripe fruit of the Prunus cerasus tree. The tree is native to both southwest Asia and Europe.

Whether you purchase concentrate bottled juice, frozen, or concentrated liquid, it is important to note that the product can contain a substantial amount of added sugar because, well, they’re tart! Be a label-reading consumer. And as always, look for organic products. That being said, here are some health benefits.

How Your Health can Benefit from Tart Cherries

  • Reduce muscle soreness and optimize strength. If you’re a runner, walker, or indulge in another sport, this benefit is obvious. In one study, runners were given 16 ounces (480 ml) of cherry juice in the days before and immediately following a marathon. They were found to have less muscle damage, soreness, and inflammation than they had experienced in previous races. In addition, they also recovered faster. As for weight trainers, tart cherry juice and supplements may increase muscle strength. If your goal is weight loss, reducing muscle soreness means more productive workouts.
  • High in nutritional value. Even though an 8-ounce (240-ml) serving contains 119 calories, it’s packed with valuable nutrients. For example, offsetting the 28 grams of carbs are 5 grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein, 7% of the RDI of vitamin K, 14% of the RDI of manganese, 62% of the RDI of vitamin A, 12% of the RDI of potassium, 12% of the RDI of copper, and 40% of the RDI of vitamin C.
  • Sleep better and longer. Not many people get the recommended amount of nightly sleep, do they? But tart cherries are naturally high in melatonin which is a hormone responsible for sleepiness. Many people are afflicted with insomnia as I have been for years. I have found that melatonin is a natural, safe, non-habit forming solution. Further, tart cherries contain a healthy helping of tryptophan and anthocyanins. These two compounds are thought to help the body create melatonin.
  • Strengthen your immune system. It is widely believed that that tart cherries’ high antioxidant content may help prevent infections. During flu season and the Coronavirus pandemic, who doesn’t need that to hedge their bets?
  • Control symptoms of gout and arthritis. Some studies have looked at the effect of tart cherry juice on gout. Gout is a specific type of arthritis accompanied by repeated attacks of swelling and intense pain. The thought is that tart cherry juice seems to reduce blood levels of uric acid which is a chemical that triggers gout when present in elevated concentrations. The juice is often claimed to reduce arthritis symptoms, such as joint pain and inflammation.
  • Improve your brain health. Degenerative brain disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are caused, at least to some extent, by oxidative stress. Tart cherries and their juice offer a large amount of antioxidants as well as other beneficial plant compounds that may have protective effects on brain cells.

Standard disclaimer: if you are considering going on a tart cherry regimen and you are on any type of medication, consult your doctor. For example, it contains quercetin which is a plant compound that may interact with certain meds, blood thinners in particular. But for most of us, the health benefits of tart cherries are well worth a look.

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Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

Types and Benefits of Mulch

Soil Improvement and Water Conservation in Garden and Landscaping

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Cypress "Nofloat" mulch
Cypress “Nofloat” mulch

Mulch is an integral part of ornamental and vegetable gardens and landscaping beds. If you think about it, in most cases nature abhors bare soil, and as gardeners so should we. While mulch provides aesthetic qualities, the “under-the-hood” benefits are numerous. During the Coronavirus pandemic everyone has time to improve their garden.

  • It conserves water.
  • It reduces weeds.
  • It keeps the soil surface cooler and that benefits earthworms, microorganisms, and plant roots. Earthworms are essential for many reasons but particularly because they keep your soil aerated when they tunnel, allowing water and fertilizers to enter. Unfortunately, when homeowners put pesticides on their lawn they kill the earthworms. The two things that should go on your lawn are organic fertilizer and beneficial nematodes.

Types of Mulch

  • Cypress: When mulch breaks down it feeds your soil. Cypress does not break down well but when shredded properly it will not float off in the rain.
  • Recycled plant material: This includes organic material from your own property — leaves, twigs, dead plants, spent buds, bark, flowers, and other plant debris. I’ve even used spent grains from my beer-brewing days!
  • Shredded hardwood bark: A very good choice. It breaks down well to feed your soil, looks good, and is readily available. My favorite for mint and basil plants.
  • Pine needles: This is often an easy resource if you or a neighbor have pine trees. You will notice that needles make a fine bed in the forest? Same thing for your yard.
  • Any kind of dyed mulch: Let me be clear–NO, NO, NO. Yes, your landscaper may be a pusher for this stuff, you might be trying to complement the color of your siding, or your homeowner association might want you to “conform”, but NO. Do you know what chemicals are in the dye? Nope, me neither. Whatever it is they don’t list it on the bag; you do not want it in the veggies you put on the table. Or, getting down into the water table.
  • Pine bark: This may be one of the most popular mulches on the market but it is far from the best. It looks great but it tends to float away in heavy rain and turns to mush as it dries. Yuck.
  • Shredded rubber: I shouldn’t have to say this but NO, NO, NO! This is for the local high school track, not for your garden.

Other Mulching Gardening Considerations

  • Do not use plastic sheets or weed blocking materials. They may take a bit of the workload off you, but they stop the biologic process and cook the roots of your target plants.
  • Even if you don’t use cedar as a mulch, shred some on your table saw or with some other tool and add it into your mulch; it will keep many insects at bay in an organic way.
  • When you mulch a tree, make a “volcano” not a “plateau”. No need to introduce root rot when trying to help the tree, right?

Knowing the types and benefits of mulch can make it or break it in your gardening plan. It may seem like a minor issue but like other things in life, the devil is in the details. Happy gardening as we have time to do it in pandemic times.

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

No-Fry Eggplant Parmesan Recipe

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Breading Eggplant Parmesan
Breading Eggplant Parmesan

Although eggplant is often considered to be a vegetable, it is actually a berry by botanical definition. I know, I know; I don’t get it either. Health-wise, it’s got a lot going for it. According to naturalremediescenter.com, ” It is said that eggplant may have effects in preventing and treating high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high cholesterol. Eggplant is rich in phenols which may inhibit an enzyme tied to high blood pressure. Thus eggplant may do your body some favors in lower high blood pressure.” And it tastes great. So what’s to lose?

This recipe is a meatless dish so if you are the kind of person who opts for a soybean-based burger rather than traditional beef, you can’t go wrong here.

Ingredient List

  • 1 large eggplant, sliced 1/4 inch rounds
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 12 oz. Marinara or tomato sauce of your choice
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh basil (add other herbs as desired)
  • 1 1/2 cups panko breadcrumbs, regular or your choice of flavor
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (more is fine)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (more is fine)
  • Optional: hot sauce to taste, added to the tomato sauce

Eggplant Parmesan Preparation

  • The first step is to “sweat” the eggplant rounds. Since eggplant absorbs so much water by itself, it is important to remove as much moisture from the rounds as possible. Do this by salting both sides and then placing them in a colander in the sink. Two colanders should work for one eggplant. Let them sweat for at least 2 hours. More is better; just like the rising you allocate for homemade bread.
  • Rinse the salt off and press dry with paper towels.
  • Preheat the oven to 425°F.
  • Apply olive oil to a large baking sheet pan.
  • Whisk the eggs in a small bowl.
  • Spread some panko on a dish.
  • One at a time, dredge the rounds in the egg, coat both sides liberally with panko, and arrange on the baking sheet.
  • Bake 9 minutes, flip the rounds, bake another 9 minutes.
  • Remove from oven and allow them to cool.
  • Lower oven temperature to 350°F.
Layering Eggplant Parmesan
Layering Eggplant Parmesan
  • Stir the basil into the sauce.
  • Spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of an 8″ X 8″ Pyrex baking dish.
  • Lay out a layer of rounds in the dish. Since they are round you can cut one up to fill the “gaps.”
  • Sprinkle with both kinds of cheese; the amount is up to you.
  • Top with another layer of rounds.
  • Spread sauce and sprinkle with cheese.
  • Keep layering in this fashion until you run out of rounds. The top layer should have sauce and cheese.
  • Bake for 35 minutes.
  • Enjoy!

That’s all there is to it! Of course, you can try different kinds of cheese. This really is a bonus if you are feeding picky kids. This no-fry eggplant Parmesan is very versatile for the adventurous cook. You might pair it with a Tuscan kale salad or homemade low-carb egg noodles.

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About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

Creamy Potato Gratin Recipe

Creamy Potato Gratin
Creamy Potato Gratin

This very-familiar comfort food is just as well known as Pizza Margherita but the following recipe for Potato Gratin is my take on it and I find it superior to the mainstream version. The name sounds fancy but in reality, gratin just means ” a dish with a light browned crust of breadcrumbs or melted cheese.”

Potato Gratin Ingredient List (use organic when possible)

  • Cooking spray such as Pam
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1/4 cup mayo (I use the kind made with olive oil because it is more heart-healthy)
  • 1 tsp Himalayan or pink salt
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes (I leave the skins on for the nutrition)
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 3/4 cup chopped basil

Preparation Steps

Creamy Potato Gratin Preparation
Creamy Potato Gratin Preparation
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Spray the bottom of a 9″ X 9″ glass baking dish with the cooking spray.
  • In a mixing bowl, whisk the mayo, pepper, salt, cream, and cheddar cheese.
  • Wash and slice potatoes 1/8″ thick.
  • Arrange potato slices in the baking dish, spread on a layer of the cream sauce, and sprinkle on some parsley and basil.
  • Repeat layers as needed (you might have some potato left over).
  • Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour.
  • Remove foil, sprinkle the Parmesan cheese on top, and broil until the top is lightly browned, about 2-5 minutes.

That’s all there is to it. Creamy potato gratin is suitable for a side or a main dish by itself. Give it a try; if you have any interesting ingredients to add, let our readers know in the comment section. Feel free to pass this recipe along to your friends and social media.


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Visit Kelly’s profile on Pinterest.


About the Author:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation and financial and energy trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.