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Sheila JulsonThere is a joke among we Wisconsinites that the mosquito is our state bird. A damp rainy June likely helped boost the population of the bloodsucking pests, and they’re everywhere this summer. People of all ages are complaining of itchy uncomfortable welts and unsightly scabs from scratching too hard.

But I’m armed, and not with the chemically-laden insect repellents found in big-box stores. Sure, those work. But they can also irritate the skin, and in extreme cases, can cause allergic reactions. After buying small-batch natural insect repellants made by local soap makers and artists, I began experimenting with my own homemade insect repellent formula, using essential oils known to repel bugs. I tested my concoctions as I lounged in the yard at night or went hiking. Overall, I was satisfied with the results. While homemade plant-based repellent doesn’t keep the pests away completely, I noticed that my arm treated with the natural repellent received very few bites, but I could play connect-the-welts on my arm that was untreated.

essential oils | 


Here’s how I did it: take a small empty spray bottle and fill it about two-thirds full with witch hazel astringent. You can also use distilled water. Then squirt the juice of a half lemon or lime into the witch hazel. Most insects don’t seem to care for citrus scents. Then choose your essential oils. The oils I found most effective for repelling mosquitoes are rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, and tea tree. Add a few drops of each oil variety into the witch hazel mixture. You can adjust the oils according to your preferred scents. Be sure to use good quality oils available at health food stores or businesses that specialize in natural beauty products, as they carry real essential oils extracted directly from the plants and trees. I’ve found that most “essential oils” found at dollar stores and discount outlets are really artificial scents just added to an oil base.

After you’ve added your oils to the witch hazel/citrus mixture, give the bottle a good shake and spray the mixture liberally to exposed skin before heading out into mosquito-infested areas. Reapply every one to two hours. The mixture can be stored in the refrigerator for up a week. I have also safely used this spray on my dog, Lenny, to keep him comfortable on summer nights.

mosquito | 


As for keeping mosquitoes away from the patio, I’m anti-bug zapper. Sure they make a fun sound, but instead of nabbing mosquitoes, they often trap and zap beneficial bugs, or harmless ones like lightening bugs. Here’s another way to enjoy a mosquito-free summer evening on the patio, again with no chemicals and just a little bit of electricity – a simple box or oscillating fan. I’ve noticed that mosquitoes aren’t present on breezy summer nights, as their slight little wings can’t seem to fly against the wind. Hmm. I brought my oscillating fan outdoors and set it up near our seating area. I plugged the fan into the outdoor outlet, turned it on the lowest setting, and simply blew the pests away!

I’m not sure where they ended up. Oz, maybe?


Sheila JulsonFor much of the past two months, my time has been occupied with ironing out the final details of my wedding. On June 28, I married Doug, the man I fell in love with nearly three years ago.

While we’ve each had long-term relationships, it’s the first marriage for both of us. Being in our 40s, we are well past the typical reception with rented limos and DJs spinning standard wedding tunes like “Y.M.C.A.,” but we still wanted a small yet classy party. With the wedding season upon us, here are a few things we did to put a unique spin on our nuptial while staying debt-free.

Off-the-beaten-path venues typically not used for big functions such as weddings can be economical, and guests will remember the unique space. We chose the historic Marian Center for Nonprofits in Milwaukee, a former Catholic high school that now serves as a non-denominational center for artists, writers and nonprofit organizations. The building, located on picturesque grounds across the road from Lake Michigan, has a social room with tables and chairs (saving us money from having to rent these items), as well as a small chapel. Public venues such as this, or park pavilions, community centers, and gardens can be great bargains compared to hotels or banquet centers.

A view of the reception hall, with our Mason jar centerpieces and hand-sewn table runners. 

Doug and I both enjoy cooking, but we lacked ambition to prepare food for 60-plus people. We decided on an afternoon hors d’oeuvres reception and hired Beans & Barley, a local restaurant and store specializing in healthy and vegetarian food, to cater the reception. A cocktail sandwich assortment, paired with local vegetables, Wisconsin artisan cheeses, and other appetizer trays provided small-bite variety for our guests at a very reasonable cost.

Online research showed that renting glassware could get pricey. In the months leading up to our wedding, I picked up funky mismatched glasses from rummage sales, antique shops and thrift stores. We set the glasses on display near the bar area with a sign encouraging guests to chose a glass for their afternoon drink and then to take it home as a souvenir; more useful than tulle baggies of butter mints, plus less to clean up after the reception.

I’m fortunate that my sister, Nancy, is an artist. She designed and printed beautiful invitations and programs on card stock and materials available at paper stores and online. Her boyfriend, Mike, helped design and assemble graphics and signage.

Once we had the teal and chartreuse color scheme down, I gradually purchased fabric to make table runners. I chose a couple of different prints with the main wedding colors. The runners made great accents for the wooden tables that came with the venue, and I’m currently in the process of repurposing the runners into curtains for the kitchen and for the living room.

I found an ivory lace vintage dress on The only problem was that the measurements for the bust were a little small. OK, a lot small. But it came with a matching bolero jacket that wasn’t my style. Hmm ... For under $100, I ordered the dress anyway. Instead of taking the whole garment apart at the seams in standard tailor fashion, I removed the zipper from the back and cut a V-shaped panel of fabric from the bolero jacket. I sewed in the panel where the zipper was and stitched loops up each side of the V-panel. I added cording to give the gown a corset look. Most guests thought the dress came that way, but I did end up bragging on my creativity to the people who commented on the design.

Katherine, my friend and editor for a local paper I write for, lent to me blue Mason jars once used by her grandmother. They made great vases for the table centerpieces. We used wild white daisies harvested from a nearby field (they were just sitting there, unused and unappreciated). Baby’s breath made dainty accents, and we bought lilies and carnations from a grocery store to use for the bouquets, boutonnieres and corsages. My mother Kathy, my aunt Pat, cousin Tayler, and our family friend Gena who also served as our officiant, all got to work assembling the floral arrangements.

Doug, being a musician, already had speakers and a public address system. We complied an MP3 music mix of jazz and other favorites to play in the background. Doug’s sister, Cindy, made our cake, and Dennis and Leslie, Doug’s brother and sister-in-law, snapped pics with their fancy camera.

We received many compliments on the personality of the wedding, with especially high marks on the venue and the food. They said it was a wedding they’ll remember.

And so will Doug and I.

The happy couple, along with Nancy, the maid of honor, and Christopher, the best man.


Sheila JulsonI’m constantly challenged by the limited gardening area in my yard, so I’m always perusing magazines and talking to other growers to come up with creative ways to maximize space. Even raised beds would likely take up too much room.

So when my neighbors gave us some faux terra-cotta window boxes they weren’t using, I brainstormed more ways to garden up, better known as vertical gardening. I also want our lettuce and spinach up off the ground and away from the ravenous critters who snack on our greens.

The plastic window boxes clash with the slate blue-and-white color scheme of the house, so I didn’t want to actually use the window boxes by the windows. But the boxes did look nice against the six-foot-high wooden fence that surrounds the backyard. My mother (who lives downstairs in the lower flat of our duplex) and I put our heads together, and we came up with a way to mount the boxes decoratively onto the fence. We chose a fence panel that gets the most sunlight for the project.

We found a bracket in the basement, and my fiancé, Doug, purchased another bracket to match. After spray painting the brackets black to give them a decorative touch, we mounted one bracket inside each sturdy post at each end of the fence panel. A board in the garage was trimmed to fit the length of the fence panel. We rested the board in the brackets and secured it with screws.

We attached brackets to the inside of each fence post to hold the board. 

With the board in place, we drilled mounting and drainage holes into the backs and bottoms of the window boxes. We lined up the mounting holes against the board and marked and drilled the holes for the screws. We then screwed the window boxes to the board. Again, it was the neighbors to the rescue, who provided large washers we didn’t have on hand. (Note to self: check supplies next time before starting another D.I.Y. project!) Once the lettuce flourishes into healthy green bunches, I will share it with the neighbors.

The boxes are mounted to the board with screws and washers. 

Then came the fun part – planting. To reduce weight in the window boxes and provide extra drainage, I scattered foam packing nuggets in a single layer on the bottom of the window boxes. I topped that with a few inches  of organic soil, sphagnum peat moss and compost. I planted butter crunch and romaine lettuce varieties, and spinach.

I put a single layer of foam packing peanuts on the bottom for drainage. This also helps with the weight, as I can use less soil. 

We’ll likely mount more window boxes for planting other leafy veggies that tempt furry intruders. Now, to use that extra garden space....

Add a little dirt, peat moss, and compost, and you're ready to plant!


Sheila JulsonHappy Earth Day!

Earth Day isn’t my absolute favorite holiday on the calendar, but I do get excited by its approach every April. My biggest hope is that, like Christmas, more and more people will keep the spirit of Earth Day by celebrating its principles all year long.

We all know how recycling water with rain barrels, reducing plastic use, taking reusable bags to the store, or planning driving routes to use less fuel are all great practices. In honor of Earth Day, I’m sharing some less common ways in which I try to be kind to both the planet and my wallet:

1. Most dentists say we should change our toothbrushes every three months. I’m not usually one who ignores the advice of my doctor or dentist, but I get away with stretching the life of my toothbrushes longer by alternating between two brushes, which extends the use of both. (And so far, my choppers are in good shape with no cavities in recent years!) When it comes time to switch, the old toothbrushes make great scrubbers for tile grout or for cleaning those tiny crevices in faucet fixtures. Preserve Products makes great toothbrushes, all from recycled #5 containers:

2.Spring and fall brings lots of birthdays among my circle of family and friends. Instead of purchasing store-bought wrapping paper, I like to have fun with old maps, the Sunday funnies, scarves, and scrap fabric to wrap gifts. My local thrift shop usually has a good selection of used children’s books, and when I find one with colorful illustrations, I tear those pages out to wrap gifts for kids. I also collect spools and remnants of fabric craft ribbon to pretty up the packages, instead of using store-bought bows.

A repurposed scarf, the Sunday funnies, or sheet music all make great eco-friendly wrapping paper.

3. My house is occupied by coffee lovers. We often buy from a local roaster who works directly with growers’ co-ops, earning them a fair wage. But what about those darn filters? We’re aware of the bamboo and biodegradable filters available for most drip coffee makers, but we found a reusable mesh basket brew filter for just a few bucks. After brewing a pot of coffee, we empty the grounds and set them aside for the garden, rinse the filter, and that’s it. This jobbie has already lasted over a year and is still in great shape, even with all the coffee we brew. We also have a percolator with a permanent basket for small batches.

Reusable mesh coffee basket filters and tea ball infusers are economical and environmentally friendly alternatives to paper filters and tea bags.

4. There are many well-known green cleaning methods. Is there anything the fun fizz of baking soda and vinegar can’t clean? But for extra scrubbing boost, I add a tablespoon or two of Borax to my vinegar and baking soda mix, along with essential oils or lemon juice. But those items have other great uses. A cut lemon or lime (after I squirted the juice to freshen my glass of water or to use in a recipe) can remove most odors and kill bacteria when rubbed on cutting boards and counters. Two to three tablespoons of baking soda added to a bowl of water makes a great fruit and veggie wash and removes dirt and residue. A half-cup of baking soda, when added to the usual cleaner in the washing machine, will add extra cleaning power.


Sheila JulsonMy neighbor across the alley recently told me that another neighbor of ours was contacted by the city to remove the empty milk jugs he was saving from his backyard.

My first thought was “Whew! Glad it wasn’t me!”

My neighbor who unwillingly drew the ire of city inspectors is, like me, an avid gardener and urban homesteader. We know how plastic milk jugs, two-liter soda bottles, cardboard egg cartons, plastic produce and deli clam shells, and newspaper can make excellent mini-greenhouses and biodegradable pots to start young seedlings for the garden. It also saves a few bucks from having to buy peat pots and regular pots.

After reading about and experimenting with winter sowing methods using plastic containers, I've found this technique to be a great way to germinate seeds in the extreme weather conditions we have here in the Great Lakes region, especially since I don’t have space for an indoor light system or an outdoor hoop house.

Milk jugs repurposed as  

I remove the caps from the milk jugs and punch drainage holes in the bottom, and then cut around the middle, leaving about an inch intact near the handle for a hinge. This creates a flip-top. I fill the containers with about three inches of compost, and then plant the seeds.  Then I simply close the tops, tape the tops down, and neatly place the jugs outdoors on an old plant stand. Putting the jugs outdoors allows the seeds to freeze and thaw with the weather, which helps loosen the seed coatings. It also toughens them up for the challenges of the up-and-down spring/early summer weather. On mild days, I remove the tape and open the tops of the milk jugs for extra air and sun.

Roma tomato seedlings on my sun porch.  

I do have some space for indoor starts, also using milk jugs and egg cartons. My old house has radiators that heat the home, but don’t get too hot; thus providing warmth as well as a handy stand for my houseplants and the tender seedlings. The houseplants don’t seem to mind sharing the pad with the young'uns for a while, and my upstairs sun porch has also been taken over by dirt-filled plastic and cardboard cartons that normally would have gone into the recycling bin. The inspectors won't see them up there!

With these little homemade greenhouses in any shape container imaginable, everywhere indoors and out holding seedlings in various stages of growth, my fiancé, Doug, and our busybody hound, Lenny, have to watch every move, step, gesture, jump or sniff. But it’s only temporary, and the harvest at the end of summer will be worth it.

Milk jugs, cardboard egg cartons, and plastic deli shells make great containers for seed starts. 

And I plan to share some starts with my neighbor, whose yard is now empty of milk jugs. He has to start all over again.

Does any else use the winter sowing method or cartons as containers to start seeds? What are your results?


Sheila JulsonWhen I told some people that earned a “Best in Home Economics” ribbon, awarded to me at my eighth-grade graduation banquet in 1984, those people erupted into snickers and giggles. Those same people laughed harder when I told them that I took home economics through all four years of high school.

“Had some hours to fill?”

“Needed some easy credits?”

Some people in my circle saw home economics as brainless fluff, but I ignored their chiding, as I did not consider nutritional education, healthy eating, and home finances as “fluff.” And can’t everyone benefit by knowing how to sew a button back onto a garment rather than to just discard it and buy a new one, or how to cook a healthy meal from scratch? Then there was the nutrition, as well as life skills like balancing a checkbook or changing a baby’s diaper (but we never did the “carry a pretend baby around” assignment).

As time went by, big box stores grew, offering ready-made anything and everything. That, along with cuts to public school education, brought the demise of home economics programs in many schools. I found it sad that the skills taught in home economics classes were considered disposable.

Sewing skills I learned in home economics rewarded me throughout adulthood. I created Halloween costumes that won cash prizes in contests, and I operated a part-time costume and sewing business that brought extra money into the household. My use with needle and thread saved me a few bucks by repurposing cast-off clothing from resale shops into unique garments that had a custom fit.

Then there’s the food. By studying the alchemy of cooking and baking, I mastered the process of turning a pile of milled grains into a scrumptious loaf of bread. While I can’t say that I’ve never consumed instant macaroni and cheese or used a boxed cake mix, through home economics I learned how to fine-tune and polish the cooking and baking arts I learned at home, giving me an appreciation of real food. But some kids don’t learn those skills at home.

baking bread

Photo: Fotolia/Alex Tihonov

With the resurgence in food awareness and sustainable living that we are fortunate to experience today, I was pleased to hear that some schools have added urban agriculture and homesteading classes into their curricula, as well engaging students in community garden projects. Several farmers in my region I spoke to over the last couple of years have developed programs and classes for kids and have welcomed hundreds of students to learn farming and food growing basics.

Some day soon, I hope to see a new generation of “Best In Home Economics” winners - or maybe “Best In Urban Agriculture,” or “Best In Consumer and Household Sciences.”

school garden

Photo: Fotolia/Maygutyak


Sheila JulsonI’m willing to bet the last of my frozen summer berry stash that anyone who lives in a cold-climate state is seriously suffering from cabin fever by now, especially after this unusually harsh winter. While I’m starting to tire of wearing what feels like 20 pounds of clothing every time I step outside, the worst thing is that we’re reaching the end of our preserved summer food stash. We finished the last jar of my canned tomato sauce, and the berries that I stockpiled from farmers' markets over the summer and stored in the freezer are dwindling.

But there is a cure, as winter farmers' and growers' markets have been increasing in my area, thanks to advancements in hydroponics and indoor growing methods, as well as hoop houses and greenhouses. There are several winter markets in the Milwaukee area, with growers selling sprouts, winter spinach, mushrooms,  pasture-raised meats, apples, winter squash, alliums, herbs, and root vegetables at these winter markets. As one could expect, the quantities and variety of produce are more limited, but the produce is of fine quality, local, and reasonably priced. The growers are often willing to share their techniques and offer ideas to increase indoor food production.

A winter's farmer market


Also present are local bakeries, artisan cheese makers, and vendors selling small-batch salsas, jams, olive oils, and sauces. Some markets have booths with direct sales vendors peddling cosmetics or kitchen goods, but for the most part, these winter farmer markets are a foodie’s cure for the winter blahs, providing fresh and locally produced food.

Has anyone else noticed an increase of winter markets in your area? What produce or artisan food products are available?

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