Make Mushrooms out of Lemonade

If you’ve heard the expression “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” then you will understand that I am of course speaking metaphorically. Nature gave the East Coast a whopping crop of lemons last October, in the form of hurricane Sandy, followed closely by a heavy snowstorm. As I stepped around the piles of wood and tangled branches cluttering up the sidewalks, I realized this could be a wonderful opportunity: I could give these trees another useful life, I could inoculate them with mushroom spawn.


As with most projects it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. Oak is the best kind of wood to use for many of the tree growing mushrooms, but most of the downed trees in my neighborhood were Honey Locust or Bradford Pear. Still, I dragged a few limbs home, only to realize that I needed thicker branches. The thicker, the better, for several reasons: first, growing fungi need moisture, and the thicker logs will not dry out as easily. You can remedy this by watering your logs regularly, but the 3/4″ plugs needs to go into the outer sap wood (the lighter ring right underneath the bark). The fungus won’t grow as well in the inner heart wood.

mushroomplugTo make a long story short, a very kind arborist at the Botanic Garden provided me with a half dozen huge oak logs, and a very kind neighbor and fellow mycological enthusiast helped me lug them home. Then I ordered spawn from Fungi Perfecti and proceeded to drill hundreds of small holes in all my logs, plug them with the little wooden plugs with the delicate fuzzy white growth I’d gotten in the mail, then seal them with a few drops from a beeswax candle.

Some logs I just left outside all winter, but I kept two of them in the shower to escape the cold. I just put them out a few days ago, now that the danger of a hard frost seems past. I’ll have to wait to discover which logs do better — this is a long term project, it will be a year, maybe two, before I see any results.

In the meantime I will do my utmost best to train my kids to eat and enjoy mushrooms — but I’m afraid that may prove much more difficult than growing these finicky fungi.


Hands Free Shooting

Although camera phones have all but replaced point and shoot and low-end video cameras, there aren’t many tripods or camera mounts available for them. I needed some sort of system to shoot movies of my hands for pop-up card tutorials. Rather than waste time and money finding and buying  a product which doesn’t exactly fit my needs, I used a tin can, hardware from broken lamps found in the trash, and a couple nuts and bolts to put together this quick and easy rig. I really do love trash….

Wear the sea

My favorite seashells are the ones which have been battered by the waves, smashed, carved by sand and worn so thin only the iridescent shadow of their former selves remain. I can’t walk along the beach and enjoy the sun — my eyes are glued to the sand, ready to pounce before the next wave pulls its treasure back into the ocean. I collected these fragile shells without knowing how to use them — they are so friable, most fall to pieces before I even get home — then I discovered Sugru.

In case you don’t know about Sugru, it is a new and interesting material with many qualities and just a few drawbacks: the main quality is that it’s as easy (and fun) to use as play doh, but it also bonds to almost anything, does not shrink when it cures, it remains flexible, waterproof, and dishwasher proof once it cures, plus it is heat, cold and UV resistant. The cons are that it is not food grade (meaning you can’t use it on anything which will come into contact with food) and it has a limited shelf life — a few months, not a few years. This is really too bad, because it would be great to have around for odd repairs. Instead you will need to order it online (I don’t think it’s sold in stores) when you have a specific project or repair in mind.

Click here for detailed instructions.

Fix it and Flaunt it

Usually when we set out to fix anything broken our goal is to make the repair invisible. We take great care to match the wood grain or paint, to sand down the seams and make the item good as new.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

When I saw this chair in the trash I could tell it was brand new: not a scratch was visible and the original box was folded nearby on top of a stack of cardboard. Cursing our society of waste (while blessing my lucky star for the incredible find), I pulled the chair out from the pile of trash bags only to discover why it was there. One leg was missing, probably broken off in shipping. Since it was made of molded plastic, it could not be fixed.

I tried to walk away, but I couldn’t do it. Even broken it seemed like too much of a waste. I grabbed it and hurried home, ignoring the looks of passers-by who obviously considered me the worst kind of crazy-lady-trash-hoarder.

It’s important, when collecting trash for recycling purposes, to use the momentum of your discovery and transform it immediately into treasure — otherwise you will have just another piece of rubbish in your home and you run the risk of turning into a real crazy-lady-trash-hoarder. That very night I rummaged through my closet and pulled out a piece of steel, a pre-drilled angle iron left over from a broken equipment rack I had saved*. I cut the metal at the right height and at a slight angle, to match the existing curved legs. I drilled four holes in the plastic and used assorted recycled nuts and bolts to attach the heavy prothetic leg to the elegant plexi body. To avoid scratching the floor I molded a piece of sugru around the steel foot. In under an hour I had the perfect entryway chair.

This chair is better than new. The repair gives it poignancy and meaning it didn’t have when it was just a pristine, pretty little chair. It stands there bravely in the entryway, challenging people to sit on it. Though at first strangers can be hesitant, the chair is strong and has never failed. “See?” it says “I’m not trash!” This chair is not ashamed; it flaunts its repair.

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Don’t hide your repairs, be proud of fixing your stuff!

* if the closet is neat and organized and you can access salvaged items when needed it’s not hoarding

Tin Can Reading Lamp

I love reading, but I hate most reading lamps available for sale. Most fixtures are designed to light a room, not a book. I want to sit in the dark with a little puddle of light so only the page exists. That’s why I designed and built this little tin can lamp out of dinner left-overs and spare parts collected from trash on the street.

View instructions here. This design was featured in Green Lighting, published by McGraw-Hill in 2010 and also on ABC News.

Secret Box in a Book

Although I don’t exactly have a lot of treasure in my house (I couldn’t find a bill worth more than a dollar!) I’ve been wanting to make one of these for a while. The hardest part was to find a book I would be able to sacrifice — as a bibliophile I find it painful to maim even the worst, unreadable, out of date volumes. I thought I hit the jackpot with this 1951 textbook of Cortina’s Russian Conversaphone, a method for teaching Russian by replacing classes or teachers with (long lost) vinyl records. Nobody could possibly ever want to read this book.

I clamped the pages and started cutting with my dremel tool. I also used a box cutter and scissors to even out some of the edges. It was easy work, but I was reminded of how long it used to take me to change my rabbit’s cage. I kept on getting drawn into the month-old newspaper articles I stuffed under his hay. Here little phases kept catching my eyes:

“Do you own your house? I bought my own house,” Americans were being taught to say in russian, in 1951. So, because of the draw of the printed words my progress was slow, still I managed to hollow out a nice little bill-sized rectangle. I sealed the inside of the cavity with white glue to create a nice snug, safe hiding spot.

Now I’m thinking of other applications: a carrying case for a kindle. A bedside table box. A music box. A bootleg liquor holder. A diary with a built-in camera which will snap a photo of any intruder when the cover is opened, then email you the photo via wi-fi…. but I know I’ll never be able to find books I can gut.

How to Hit without Hurting

As the mother of two boys who tend to show affection with their fists I am always trying to find ways to encourage games which will not end up in the emergency room. This weekend I  finally made the perfect weapon: an air bazooka works by pushing a blast of air through a small opening, which, if aimed correctly, can give a harmless (and agreeable, on a hot day) slap of air on your face. It took me about 10 minutes to cut the bottom off this kitty litter container, loop a string of rubber bands through the handle, and attach it to a plastic bag which I then taped around the cut-out bottom rim. When you pull the bag out the rubber band stretches, then when you release it — snap — air blasts out the front.

To attach the rubber band to the bag, fist use a little duck tape on both sides of the plastic bag for reinforcement (tape the bottom of the bag, in the center). Hook two small metal rings (or paper clips — but those can become unhooked) to each other through the reinforced area of the plastic bag. Attach the rubber band (which you previously wound around the handle) to the inside ring. The outside ring will be the “handle” you pull to shoot. Now fit the plastic bag around the rim of your container and tape it down. That’s it!
This can also be made with a plastic milk gallon jug, but since that container is smaller the air blast won’t be quite as satisfying.