Books to Celebrate

by MK Martin

Have you ever read the Nutcracker? It’s a stunning book, illustrated by Toller Cranston who, if you’ve never been into figure skating, was a prominent athlete in the sport. Do yourself a favor and search for him on Youtube. Preferably in his canary suit.

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There’s also a lovely version illustrated by Maurice Sendak I love very much. But the reason I love these stories is the same: Godfather Drosselmeier. This resplendent, but somewhat homely be-caped uncle, shows up at an otherwise ordinary Georgian/Victorian Christmas (depending on the version) and brings with him the most fantastic mechanical inventions, of his own design.25358410_10155332707358737_3923440631684682061_o.jpg

There are children in this story, but this guy, this is who I wanted to be. He wowed the crowd without witticisms, he stunned the savvy without good tailoring. He was far more interesting than Santa, and he didn’t outsource. Though his creations were all wondrous, it was one in the back that over a young lady’s heart. A carved Nutcracker who, though his proportions were mishap and his grin a little wide, his purpose was clear and his mission unfailing. When night comes, and the dread Rat King comes to terrorize the world of magic, it is the Nutcracker who saves the day. The illustrations are beautiful, captivating, and somehow, Sendak manages to convey Marie’s expressions in just a few lines, and terrify with the enormous Sweet Tooth, who could represent any frightening authority figure of any era.25398240_10155332707408737_2490535478702731558_o.jpgBabar, Jean de Brunhof’s epic tale of his title character’s search for Father Christmas, comes up in our reading rotation even if it isn’t Christmas. Any story where the characters are all animals, walking around our human world in suits and silks, and ruling their own kingdoms is instantly a favorite. I love that Babar is a champion for his subjects, that he adopts orphaned members of his family, and others, and that his wife, Celeste is always the quiet (well, elephant quiet) voice of reason. One of his adopted kids, Zephyr, discovers Father Christmas brings toys to children all over the world, and he wonders if it wouldn’t be a good idea for them to write and see if he will come to Elephant Country too?

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Since it’s too long to wait for mail of any kind, Babar decides to go on a quest for his kids, to make sure their letter gets there alright. He’s lead a merry chase through interesting places, aided by some and thwarted as well. The ending is happy, and Father Christmas has a very cool airship.

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My very favorite holiday story, though, is The Secret Staircase, by Jill Barklem. The illustrations in her works are breathtaking journeys, a story to be told in each one. It was this story that first introduced me to Midwinter: the ‘pagan’ observance of the darkest day, the Death of the Year. It is a fleeting moment in the calendar, because, the next day is already longer than the last. It is like witnessing the Universe being born all over again; from the darkness, light, and then everything begins.25394764_10155332707413737_3003422095016284018_o.jpg

Ms. Barklem must also find this to be magical, because she takes us with her little mouse heroes up, up into the palace hewn and carved from a massive tree, to rooms and cupboards not seen in any remembered age.

Every turn shows them beauty, majesty and hidden secrets of a world since forgotten. If there’s a history buff lurking in your kid, this story will draw them out. The purpose of their search, is to find something a little bit more stunning for the Midwinter recital and log burning. A popular, but well worn poem has been chosen, and they are looking for a little glamour. Where else should you find those things, but in your great-great-great-great-great grandparents’ closet? The greatest illustration is of the denouement, and I read the poem out loud, with gusto every year.

When the days are the shortest, the nights are the coldest,
The frost is the sharpest, the year is the oldest,
The sun is the weakest, the wind is the hardest,
The snow is the deepest, the skies are the darkest,
Then polish your whiskers and tidy your nest,
And dress in your richest and finest and best ..

For winter has brought you the worst it can bring,
And now it will give you
The promise of SPRING!!25440301_10155332707378737_9020581678556255886_o.jpg

To me, it’s the kids’ books that are the classics, of any age. Grown up stories tend to drag along with them the social trappings of the age, while a child’s story is to the point. I hope you get a chance to read these, some day.

What To Give

by MK Martin

I’m going to mention the Grinch again, because it really is a story that laid the path for my life. I used to wish he would come and steal Christmas where I was, and everywhere, so we would all have to go outside and hold hands and sing. He never did, though I did go to a few midnight masses with my Mum.whos.jpg

Are there any holidays revolving around Midwinter, that do not involve gift exchange? I couldn’t find any. The hot Pagan dirt this year, is that there was a Mother Deer before a Father Christmas, but we still have to give her all our butter and hope she leaves us something in return. Because the days are dark, am I right?

Every year, after everything has been opened, after my shoulders come down from around my ears and my nails start growing again, gift giving anxiety sets in. The season means so many different things, to so many different people, and I know most of them. Many have all they could want, or need, some proclaim not to want or need anything! How can I work with these parameters?

Knowing as much as you can about your giftee is the key, of course. You could try reminding yourself that it doesn’t have to be the best gift ever, but that’s really the only reason I can think of to give such a thing. You want their experience to be a little thrill, sometimes.

With that in mind, here are my top gift ideas for three stereotypical receivers, that everyone thinks exist. We’ll call it: The Anxious Person’s Guide to Gifting.

Person: Unenthusiastic Receiver:

You could try to stun this person, but they are suffering from too much stuff. It’s all interesting, and beautiful, and designed well. What this person needs is a big hug, and maybe a box of their favorite chocolate. If you really want to up the ante, ask them how their day is going.

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Person: I Don’t Want Anything!
This person is me. They are too anxious about receiving presents, giving presents, being present and anything in general that has to do with anything. They do like to receive, but they couldn’t possibly figure out what right now. Consider a combination of small items with personal meaning, that equate to a quiet, still moment. Or, a pat on the back to remind them they’re not as close to exploding as they think they are.

Person: Itemized Color Coded List with Alternative Shopping Locations:
This person is either your kid, or they just really know their own mind. For either, the best idea is to pool money for one not too extravagant option and make sure you soak up the excellent reaction they will give you. Another great option is a little outing for lunch, or to an interesting shopping space they’ve never been.

Person: Partner
This person wants to be surprised by you, so do that. If it’s been a rough year, observe them carefully for a few days without being weird, and see if anything is obviously missing. If it’s been a good year, write them a note about it, thank them for being around with you. If it’s just another year in the stretch you agreed to walk together, thank them for that too. Nothing’s more surprising to people, sometimes, than the appearance of true gratitude. Sure, they’re still doing that thing that’s so annoying!! But not all the time.

It might be easy to see that the theme here is: you don’t necessarily have to buy something to give a gift. Like Eeyore’s friends, who included him in every activity and always remembered his birthday, even though he was sour as pits and rarely ever grateful, our only job as fellow humans is to be there for each other. Sometimes that looks like a pair of earrings, brand new socks to last the year, or toys and sometimes, it looks like a warm smile and watching the stars from the porch with nothing whatsoever to do. You are the gift that keeps on giving, and I guess maybe I am too. Happy Holidays, friends ❤calvin.jpg

Krampus is a Comin’

by MK Martin

Have you been good? Hide all your birch switches, and say something kind to everyone you see today. In many parts of Europe, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated December 6th. On the night before, the horned devil Krampus roams the streets, seeking out the homes of naughty children. Mostly, he just swats at them, but some stories suggest very naughty children will be eaten! With that in mind, here are two sweet Icelandic recipes to try. Maybe if you leave him a little shortcake, he’ll walk on by.

Coconut Wreaths
(makes about 2 dozen)
These are pretty, and they smell great.wreath.jpg

The recipe calls for a cookie press, which is a tube gun you attach a metal thing to at the end. If you don’t want to use one, you can roll little balls and flatten on the cookie sheet, or try to loosely shape the wreaths yourself, but the dough gets a bit hard to handle! I found a free form photo above ^^

Ingredients:

200 g flour
200 g dessicated coconut
150 g sugar
200 g butter, softened
1 egg

Mix the flour, coconut and sugar. A whisk works well here.

Fold in the egg and butter, and mix until it just comes together. I know, it’s counter intuitive to most cookie directions, but it will come together.

Run the dough through the cookie press, fitted with a simple attachment, and run it through in lengths of about 6 cm, which you then shape into a wreath right on the baking sheet.

Bake at 350, for 8 minutes (but you know my rule, check after 7), until light and golden.

Icelandic Spice Cake

Here is a cake full of the flavor of the holidays, without the weight and prep time of a fruit cake. The warming spices are anti inflammatory, and anti bacterial, even if they’re being mixed with sugar. A little dark cocoa ups the ‘health’ factor.This is also a cake you mix by hand, but you might be able to get away with a stand mixer on lowest setting. (makes enough cake for two layers, but is often cut into 4. You can do a sheet pan as well.)

Ingredients

500 g flour
350 g sugar
250 g butter
2 eggs
3 tsp ground cloves
3 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp baking soda
2 tbs dark cocoa
milk, as needed

*What does ‘as needed’ mean? For many European cake recipes, a kneaded dough is used, rather than a batter. This is batter style, but the recipe still calls for a ‘medium thick’ batter, such as a muffin might have. I pour out a 1/2 cup of milk and use that, usually all of it. *

Cream together sugar and butter. Mix in the eggs, one at a time, until incorporated.

Sift, or whisk, your dry ingredients together. Add to the butter mixture a few TBSP at a time, mix, then a splash of milk. This is why this part is better done by hand, as it will go faster than it sounds and not be overmixed.

Pour into greased 8 in cake tins, and bake at 350 for 40 minutes, give or take, depending on your oven. My bake time always varies, thanks to spotty heat.

Serve frosted with layers of buttercream, or our favorite: for breakfast with a little fresh whipped cream.

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Sugar Cookies for Every Day

by MK Martin

The only STEM subject I enjoyed in school was Chemistry. It’s pretty easy to make the jump from chemistry to ‘alchemy’ in the mind, and making fantasy a part of my reality was a form of anxiety quelling mechanism that, whether for better or worse has been my constant companion. The Food Network happened to be in its relative infancy while I was finishing high school, and a hibernating interest awakened.
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A lot of noted worriers love baking. It’s a mid brain exercise, calling up some of your more complicated cognitive equations to partner with the ritual zen movements of creating something to eat. Cooking is the first ritual, one we all need and one we all infuse with love whether we realize it or not. Is there anything more loving than giving someone a big tin full of cookies? Sure, we know sugar is evil now, but in between the Omegas and the kale massages, our primitive honey seeking hunter gatherer brain is asking ‘but where is the honey?’

Kids tantalized by the glory of the season can get overwhelmed, and be full of Ferrero Rochers before anyone’s the wiser. Not that I’d know. Having a little tin of cookies you can have with tea after school in festive shapes means not being asked for Ice Cream in the dead of mid winter. As Martha would say, it’s a good thing.24313163_10155299697563737_6792725580191210636_o.jpg

These cookies are not vegan, but the substitutes for vegan fat options like coconut oil are one to one, and you may use all manner of things as an alternative binder. 3 TBSP of chia seeds, soaked, or 1/2 cup of that ‘new’ aquafaba, for example. Which is literally the bean juice from a can. I recommend chick pea, for minimal odor.

I am, however, using all Canadian non GMO milled wheat, and butter made over in Alliston about 40 minutes from here. Using what’s made nearby usually means your ingredients can last a little longer, and they’ve supported someone in your community.

I don’t ice cookies anymore, preferring instead to make a million little cookie sandwiches, filled with successful or failed ganache, lemon curd, freezer jam, ice cream, etc. Maybe you have a new idea for me?

For the Cookies

3 cups leveled flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch sea salt
1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 tsp cinnamon, or more
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup sugar
1 large egg

In a separate bowl, whisk together dry ingredients.

Beat egg and vanilla together. Using a mechanical mixture, or your own bare arms and forceful intentions, cream together the butter and sugar.

If you have a stand mixture, you can fit your machine with the dough hook and slowly add the flour one cup a time, while set to low. Otherwise, add and mix by hand, do not overmix. It will begin to clump together.

This dough can be tacky, so I turn it out into a floured glass pie plate to form into two discs. Wrap individually with plastic wrap and chill at least 30 minutes. At this time, you can also freeze your dough for later.

If you have a marble rolling counter, you’re winning. Otherwise, you can use a piece of wax paper to roll your cookies out to desired thickness. Thinner cookies will take less time to bake. We usually aim for 1/2 inch thick.

Transfer to parchment lined baking sheet, or silpat, or bare if you’re feeling lucky. Bake for 7-11 minutes at 350 degrees, again, depending on thickness. To err on the side of caution, just set your time for seven minutes and check the edges have set. Allow to cool on a wire rack before icing. If you are using sprinkles, you can press a few in that have shapes ahead of baking, but jimmies tend to melt.

Creative’s Calling. Will you Answer?

by MK Martin

December: the sleepiest of months. When the sun goes down before tea time, and the garden is full of hungry little mouths, looking for what’s leftover.DSC_0049.JPG

blackest night,
coldest dawn,
sharpest wind,
time moves on.DSC_0180 (1).JPG

Often, this month arrives with anxiety for me. I have never been very good at celebrations, often saying the wrong thing, or feeling out of place. While I enjoy some of the ritual of Christmas, the chaos and materialism get right under my skin, where it roils around and confuses the meaning of the season.

As a small child, I watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas so many times, I broke the VCR. The reason being, I wanted to see his heart grow again and again. I found the idea fascinating, and wondered if my own heart was too small. I also spent many hours in the bathroom, pulling Grinch faces. I felt like the Grinch. He was overwhelmed by it all, and struggled to find meaning in it.

This year, in the spirit of creation and passion, I want to see how many of our dear friends, peers and inspirational humans we can get together to share their holiday styles. A little festival of what we take away, personally, from this time of year. Reading about each other, from each of our perspectives, might bring what can seem like an insurmountable maelstrom into focus, and provide a little breathing room between wrapping and planning and baking and decorating and calling and writing and, everything, in between.

Won’t you join us?DSC_0310 (1).JPG

FTW Kitchen: Good for What Ails ‘ya Ugly Carrot Soup

Market season, for me, really begins in Autumn. Autumn has been a bit finicky, of late: not showing up at all two years ago, and quite delayed last year. But this year, frost has already come to Ontario and I immediately lined myself up at the market this weekend for bags of ‘unwanted’ carrots.

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My favorite stall is run by Fiddle Foot Farm, about twenty minutes from here. They plant heirloom varieties of all vegetables, and have the sweetest beets I’ve ever eaten. They also sell their ‘unwanted’ produce by the bags full for just five bucks.

When that happens, I make a big batch of ugly carrot soup. Made with a few peasant ingredients from all around, this soup is yummy, reduces inflammation, is soothing on the throat and pleasing to the eye. If you’re into balancing chakras, the yellows and oranges are vibrant and well suited to a balancing diet.

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Now, if you don’t have access to ugly, unwanted carrots, I am so sorry. Regular straight n’ narrows will work too, but they won’t make you laugh, or taste as sweet. You can also substitute Yukon Gold or another starchy tuber for the purple sweet potato, if you can’t find those. If using regular sweet potatoes, though, keep in mind the flavors will be different, and the texture a little runny.

Ingredients
About 1.5 lbs ‘ugly’ carrots. This was ten for me.
2 large cloves garlic, diced
1 large yellow onion diced
2 stalks celery, diced, plus leaves
1 large purple sweet potato, peeled and diced
2 TBSP grass fed, or best butter you can get
1 TBSP coconut oil
1 – 2 tsp ground turmeric (or more, if you are like me and staving off the sicks)
1 tsp grated ginger
1 can coconut milk (plus 2 cans water)
Himalayan salt, or sea salt
a few grinds of pepper, or 1 tsp
10 sage leaves, or other herb, roughly chopped
Splash of runny honey, or maple syrup

Method
Warm butter and oil on medium low heat, in a large stock pot.
Add turmeric, and cook with the butter for about a minute.
Add onion, garlic and celery, and cook another two minutes.
Add carrot, and potato, along with salt, pepper and ginger, stir thoroughly, allow all veg to saute 5 minutes on medium, stirring here and there.

Add sage leaves or herbs, splash of sweetness and stir.
Add coconut milk, and water.
Bring mixture to the boil, then cover, reduce heat to low and let simmer at least 30 mins, but preferably an hour.

Blend soup in a blender, or use hand blender. Season again to taste.
Serve with some roasted root vegetables, garlicky greens, and whatever else you like. Enjoy the beauty of Autumn, and the delicious flavor of being different.

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Close Enough

My hope is green, eternally, like my tomatoes.

The first year I grew tomatoes, it was a year of perfect weather. The last of its kind. A unicorn summer of bursting, fleshy sweetness and easy breezes. For the seven years hence, it’s been one Farmer’s Worst Case Scenario after another. Aphids. Surprise frosts. Early blight, late blight, middle blight and Elevensies blight. Locusts. Okay, not that last one, but instead, we’re having a summer with no sun.

And yet, despite no sun, too much wind and barely 20 degree days, I have somehow grown tomatoes. They are glossy, and green, and they come in many different sizes, though their shape is mostly the same: roundish and mottled with water filled veins. They are affixed to their waning stems, who are giving up on summer, like me. They spend the remainder of their energy on the fruit hanging below, sending what energy they can glean from an eternally cloudy sky to their product.

Like the tomatoes I’ve grown in impossible conditions, in spite of all the things that are ‘wrong’ with their spot in the yard, the dirt where their roots spread out, or the timing of their growth, my hope has grown too. So today, I am bringing them inside to ripen in our sunniest windowsill.  To reach their full potential, they must be removed from their crumbling foundation and brought in, where it’s warm.

I am counting these as one of my successes.

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grow your own, sprout, seedling, seed sprouting, grow your own food

Brave New World

By MK Martin

Do you remember the first time you felt The Fear? When you’re a kid, the world is enormous, and there are often dimensions to it your grown up counterparts cannot even see, let alone protect you against. You are afraid, but you do not have The Fear. You are small, but there hasn’t been enough time for you to really doubt yourself. Come what may, you’ll put your hands up, jump with your scraped knees and shout until the walls come down.

I’m asking, because I see you.

I see you, thinking you can’t grow things. Your thumbs are parched from sticking them out in the sun, trying to catch a break. You have so many things to do, any plant in your periphery is doomed to wither and die because your kids have to eat before you do. And actually, you don’t like nature that much. Bugs are lethal these days, aren’t they?

So start small. Go back to the smallness of what a person was expected to do, when your face was a bare peek above the table top. Head to your local nursery, and stand in the greenhouse, enveloped by sweaty oxygen and feel small. Stand next to a plant that looks bright, and green, produces something (in theory) that you might eat. Say hello. Do it in your head, if it makes you feel less silly. Feel less silly, anyway, when the person standing next to you is also talking to seedlings.

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Take your bundle of leaves home with you, see that it is small. Find it a biggish home, for the summer, where it will try its hardest to grow for you, if you are willing. Set it in the sun, so it can feel warm, and water its roots every few days, so it can stretch its legs. Grow, inside, as you watch your plant multiply, and marvel at the shrinking Fear inside you. Even if it does not fruit this year, even if aphids take it down after weeks of fighting against them valiantly, you have succeeded.

This is the marvel of the plant world. A physical representation of the magic of energy, and how it is never wasted, only reimagined.

You can do it.

Cut it Down

By MK Martin

Life. For humans, it’s full of lessons. In every life, a little rain must fall. The sun’ll come out, tomorrow. To grow, you must be cut down to size. You would think, with lessons like these, all humans would resonate with the plant life around us. Our folk words are their commandments. The truest, most barbaric and most necessary, is that of the cutting.

If you want bunchy blackcurrants, the wafting, floral scent of sun warmed raspberries in summer and fall, blackberry stained fingers and faces and shirts, gruesome with nutrition, you’ve got to cut those plants down to the quick. This counts too, for roses, if you like to line your shelves with ruby kissed shotglasses of vitamin C and sugar.

So, you’ve put in a few raspberry canes, and they shocked you with fruit on your first try. If they are summer bearing, your only job is to mow them down to the quick. Doing so will allow light and air to move through the plant, stimulating its growth. To minimize your raspberries taking over the world, as they ought, bury some wood planks under the dirt, in the space you’d like them to occupy.

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Blackberry bushes require a little more attention to achieve robust growth, but the steps are easy to remember after the first year: prune once, to encourage growth, and then again in fall. In spring, once the snow has melted at least once and exposed slumbering dandelions to sun, cut your canes to 24 inches. If smaller than that, just cut the first inch or so of each cane. Remove any diseased or dead canes. After fruiting, blackberry canes are spent. Cut any canes down to the ground that have fruited, and it will encourage the plant to send up more canes next year.

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We inherited a dog rose with our house, and it produces tart little blushing globes easily, ever year. I pruned it for the first time last year, being previously unaware that gardening requires a little savagery. With this rose bush, you can cut the whole thing down in spring, after enjoying its thorny stalks and a few left behind hips, in winter. There’s an old saying, ‘prune your roses when the forsythia bloom’. Forsythia is a flowering shrub, that flowers before pretty much anything else. You can loosely translate the adage to whatever first true signs of spring come your way. This could be when the robins return, when the redbuds bud, when the snowdrops slowly uncurl. Either way, do it before it gets too warm.

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To decapitate your fruit-bearing friends, you’ll want to invest in a strong pair of gardening gloves. I’ve tried a number of branded gardening gloves over the years, but the best I’ve found for most tasks is a small, streamlined work glove. They can be found at hardware stores in a variety of styles and are far more durable than traditional gloves.

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Once you’ve got your gloves on, you can wield your shears. Choose a pair of hand held ‘secateurs’, which will have an extremely sharp, curved edge and matching top shear. Make sure you can close the ones you choose easily.
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“You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.”

– The Little Prince, Antoine de St.-Exupery

rain barrel, rainbarrel, DIY rain barrel, rainwater collection

DIY Rain Barrel Project

By MK Martin

A steady, driving rain has been pummelling our newly patched roof since yesterday. Unlike the despondent scowls usually illustrated on human faces when faced with a deluge, mine radiates and looks around for ways to get outside.

More than the chemicals released, creating that pleasing petrichor of recent, nature type memes; more than the softening of an icy Canadian earth, so worms and things can awaken and get to it; more than just moisture, spring rain is akin to the rising of the sun in the morning: something your bones can rely on, something that brings a big heaving sigh of relief to your cells, where you didn’t realize you were holding your breath.

Sure, the aftermath of too-wet soil, flooded basements, and continuously damp wardrobe can be listed as major downsides; peeling mud off of everything can be tedious. But there is a purification in the first, flooding rains. It drives away your troubles, but also the salt, sand and skunk attacks of late winter, which tend to hang around the house. It washes away your stagnant snow molds, refreshes your lawn, and invites new wildlife out to investigate the territory.

rain barrel, DIY rain barrel, rainwater collection

This time can be crucial in water conservation. Getting your rain barrel up now, in monsoon season, means “free” water for any possible early hot days, or sudden drought. If your garden is in a community lot, or you aren’t near an eaves trough, you can make your own rain barrel from a plain, plastic garbage can with a domed lid.

Items you will need:

  • 20-Gallon plastic garbage bin, with domed lid
  • Small hole saw bit for your drill (approach your local hardware store to ask about these, sometimes you can rent equipment) *this will give you a clean drainage hole, but feel free to improvise and let us know what you discover!
  • Valve spigot with bulkhead fitting
  • Teflon tape, to affix the spigot

Drill 5, large drainage holes in the centre of the lid, plus an overflow hole about two inches down on the main receptacle. Use waterproof duct tape to affix a piece of mosquito netting over the holes on the convex side: cut this into a square about one inch larger than the drilled holes so you have plenty of spare netting to secure. This cuts down on debris, but also mosquitoes!

rain barrel, rainwater, rainwater collection, DIY rain barrel

Drill another hole at the base of the can, for the spigot. Place the inside part the bulkhead on the inside, outside on the outside, and use a wrench to tightly thread it into place. Use teflon tape on the spigot grooves to make sure it’s water tight, and wrench into place.

Place the lid upside-down onto the barrel so that rainwater will collect inside it and drain downwards. Use waterproof duct tape to seal the lid, or drill small holes in the lid and can and secure the two together with electrical wire.

rain barrel, rainbarrel, DIY rain barrel, rainwater collection

 

Your rain barrel has to be at least one foot off the ground. You can build a stand from pallet wood, or purchased beams, or use milk crates secured together, or even paint an old chair in a garden theme, and fasten a barrel onto it with strong cord. It all depends on your time, and budget.

Images by Dan Bruell, Adam Rice, and J Bolles via Flickr Creative Commons.