How I made my peace with hiring a housekeeper

J.D. and I have been employing an independent housekeeper for about 10 years. The one who's been working for us for almost five years, Michele, is fantastic and we feel lucky to have her. (We found her through Craigslist). Housecleaning is her full-time job.

It took us some time to get over our self-imposed barrier of hiring some help with the house chores. I'm not lazy, and it struck me as a weak, self-indulgent thing to do. But, as J.D. freely admits, he's a slob. We'd fight over the mess in the house, and time and time again would try to institute a “system” to keep it clean, only to fail once more and descend into arguments. With both of us working full-time, we wanted to spend our time at home in other ways than cleaning.

Still, I felt guilty for paying someone else to do work I didn't want to do myself. I admit it: It feels weird to pay someone to clean your toilets! And I felt guilty for even being able to afford considering “outsourcing” the housework. After all, anyone can do housework, right?

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The art of the potluck

J.D. and I love going out to eat, but we also like to cook. And, fortunately for us, so do most of our friends. This allows us to partake in the art of the potluck.

Potlucks are a frugal way to entertain and bring people together to share good food. Even with quality ingredients, making food at home lets us eat well for less. The hosts provide the space, the organization, a dish or two, and perhaps a theme to spice it up a bit. The guests each bring something for the feast, and the focus is on enjoying everyone's contribution.

This distributes the cost and effort (enabling more people to host), and makes gatherings more group-oriented. If everyone is on a tighter budget, a potluck still feels like a treat — but with a lower bill. The food choices are usually more varied, too! Continue reading...

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3 Easy and Delicious Ways to Preserve Your Berry Harvest

Berry season is beginning in Oregon. Strawberries ripen first, and they're followed quickly by raspberries, blueberries, currants, and blackberries! While these berries are ripe in your area, prices can be so low (especially if you pick them yourself) that you'll want to stock up.

But what should you do with all of that fresh fruit? Here are three techniques to make those berries do double duty (now and later). These methods are so easy that it's just silly not to use them.

Freeze the berries whole
The secret to freezing berries whole is to freeze them first and then pack them. Find a cookie sheet that will fit in your freezer. Line it with waxed paper, and load it with clean, de-stemmed berries in a single layer, spacing them so they're not touching. Freeze until solid (an hour or two), and then pack into freezer container or Ziploc bags.

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The neighborhood plant swap

Last weekend, my friend Rhonda hosted a Plant Swap. It was so successful that she's decided to make it an annual event. Although this story is specifically about gardeners sharing plants, the process could easily be adapted to parents sharing kids' clothes and toys, cooks swapping kitchen gadgets, or readers trading books...the possibilities abound!

Here's how it worked:

About two months prior to Plant Swap Day, Rhonda sent out a “Save the Date” email with details and instructions. This advance notice was vital to the success of the event, because it allowed us time to assess our gardens, dig up “extra” plants and move them into pots for transport. For our area of Oregon, mid-April is the ideal time to be adding new perennials to the garden. Early fall would also be a good choice because that's a prime time for digging and dividing overgrown clumps of bulbs or other plants.

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Starting seeds indoors: Jump-start your garden today

In some parts of the U.S., vegetable and flower seeds can be successfully planted directly into the garden. But in many areas, the growing season is too short to allow this.

Cool spring soil temperatures and cold weather can prevent seeds from germinating or kill young seedlings. If you wait until the weather warms, the plants get off to a late start only to be zapped by fall's first frost; they don't get a chance to bear a full crop or to put on a full floral display.

There are three solutions for home gardeners:

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Plant a tree to add beauty and value to your home

There's nothing like a breathtaking autumn to make us notice the trees. And fall is the perfect time to start thinking about adding a tree to your property.

J.D. and I are lucky to have many mature trees on our lot, but that didn't stop us from planting more when we moved in. We added four fruit trees and a Japanese Zelkova for shade on the southwest side of our home. In only its second summer, that shade tree was already a welcome spot of cool for J.D. and the cats.

In most climates, autumn and spring are the best times for planting new trees, but a tree is a lifetime commitment, so don't rush into anything! Do your research now so you're ready for a springtime purchase, or spend the next 10 months watching trees in your neighborhood before picking the one that's right for you.

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How to make your own canned salsa

J.D. and I already have our favorite fresh salsa down to a science, but we only get to enjoy it for a few short months when real tomatoes are in season. In order to see us through the rest of the year, I went searching for a canned salsa recipe that we'd like just as much.

Starting with a high-rated post on RecipeZaar, I've adapted this to our taste and the crops we grow (Anaheim and jalapeno peppers as well as the tomatoes), but you can play around with the heat by varying the types of peppers.

In the interest of full disclosure, the original recipe site has a few comments saying that the posted recipe doesn't have enough acid to be safely canned in a boiling water bath. They suggest increasing the vinegar to a full cup or processing the jars in a pressure canner at 10 pounds pressure for 30 minutes.

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Young Entrepreneurs: Encouraging Children With Kid-Sized Businesses

Last weekend I explored Portland's beautiful Eastmoreland neighborhood during its annual 140-family garage sale. In the past, I've come away with major bargains, but this year I had to be content with enjoying the first day of summer with a couple of friends. We admired the homes, gardens, and assorted cast-offs of the well-to-do.

Many of the adult garage-salers were raising funds for charities. Sidewalks and curbs were also strewn with young entrepreneurs selling their wares: homemade cookies (still warm from the oven), beaded jewelry, rice-krispie treats, iced bottled water, and grilled hotdogs.

Over the past two years, J.D. and I have had fun meeting one pair of entrepreneurial sisters who rise above the run-of-the-mill baked goods and soda. I was pleased to see them once again. In 2006 they were selling jokes:

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More about...Side Hustles

How to Make Your Own Small-Batch Strawberry Jam

Making your own jam doesn't have to be a big production.

While it's sometimes most efficient to do things in bulk with all the right gear, the small-scale option can be better if you're just starting out and want to make jam without much initial investment. Also, for the home gardener it's common to have only a few cups of berries ripe at any one time, rather than the 6-8 pints called for in many recipes. Small-scale jam-making also allows you to try new flavor combinations. So, if you've got a bowl of berries on hand, here are two recipes to inspire you to get cooking. (Although these are recipes for strawberry jam, other berry preserves use similar techniques and ingredients.)

Strawberry-orange freezer jam
For gift-giving and long-term ease of storage, jam in sealed glass jars is the best choice. But for ease of preparation, freezer jam wins hands-down.

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