Embracing a Funky Old Tool Shed

Siding: Cedar Shakes, Trim: Cedar Shakes/White, Door: Red, Roof: Light Brown/Metal - This is a custom building.

Photo by Sheds Unlimited

When we moved here ten years ago, I was very grateful that our house had a tool shed in the back yard. It’s a luxury to have storage space for garden tools, pots, soil, the wheelbarrow and other various outdoor odds and ends.

Since I’ve written for home magazines for many years, I’m often exposed to fabulous, high-end homes and landscapes. Most home design writers will agree with me that this is both a blessing and occasionally, a challenge.

It’s endlessly fascinating to hear about people’s crazy remodels and sloping lots and zoning issues and architects and builders and interior designers. It’s a rare privilege to see their incredible, perfect homes. On the other hand, sometimes I return home with a critical eye instead of a grateful heart for all that we have.

I recently wrote about a beautiful lakefront home in Montana’s  Whitefish  Lake for Mountain Living magazine. The homeowners Orlan and Debra Sorensen built the most fabulous stone garden shed you’ve ever seen, complete with a sitting area and porch overlooking the lake. You can peek at it here, and the shed is the last photo at the end of the story.

Dreams vs. Reality

If I were going to splurge on a new potting shed, perhaps I’d consider one like the custom structure by Sheds Unlimited posted above. Something charming, with windows to let in the sunlight, and maybe even with a little table inside where I could escape and read fine literature and sip something like…oh, I don’t know… a sparkling drink with fresh mint and lavender syrup.

But the reality is that our shed is of a slightly… different architectural style. Our shed, in fact, looks like this:


Tool shed covered with reclaimed fencing | Happy Simple Living blog

It’s rectangular with a flat roof, and the exterior is covered with old, reclaimed cedar fencing. Because it is so wonderfully utilitarian and because we’re trying to live sustainably with what we have, I’ve given up trying to class up the shed and have decided, instead, to celebrate its unique flair.

I added a few metal signs to the front of it to celebrate its funky siding, and nailed the warped boards back in place.


Funky old tool shed | Happy Simple Living blog

The shed is topped with a lovely faux owl that is supposed to scare the flickers away from our siding but which, in fact, does not fool fowl or the rabbits who visit the garden.

I had the structure re-roofed, and Pop kindly added vents to keep it cooler in the summer. It may not be a magazine-worthy shed, but it’s functional and fun and I am grateful for it.

How About You?

Do you have an area in or around your house where you’ve decided to simply go with what’s there? Have you decided to keep your rare pink bathroom fixtures or sturdy Formica counters and let them become part of your home’s charm? I’d love to hear your stories in the Comments section below.

Here’s to making the best of what we have, and embracing the funky!


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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

A Present for You – Block Island Organics Cleanser Giveaway


If you’re concerned about the chemicals used in skin care products as I am, you’ve probably tried to find safe, quality, non-toxic alternatives. It’s not always easy to find products that contain non-harmful ingredients and also perform well.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I rarely feature product reviews. However, when the nice folks at Block Island Organics asked if I’d like to try a sample of their Organic Purifying Facial Cleanser I didn’t hesitate to accept. Last year I tried the company’s natural mineral sunscreen, and loved it.

You may remember that I wrote about my environmental concerns with Aveeno Positively Radiant skin cleanser. The packaging seems green, but the ingredients list reads otherwise and contains polluting plastic microbeads.

The Block Island Organics cleanser, on the other hand, is fresh and light. Its ingredients list includes organic additives like rosehip, chamomile, sunflower, avocado and olive. The clear gel feels really nice going on, and after rinsing it off your skin feels soft and smooth, and not dry at all.

So that you can try it, too, Block Island Organics has reserved a full-sized bottle of cleanser for one lucky reader. Just leave a comment at the bottom of this page and answer this question:

What simple pleasure are you enjoying during this holiday season?

Whatever brings you comfort and joy during this busy month of December, share it in a comment and you’ll be automatically entered. The giveaway is open for readers living in the United States, now through Thursday, December 24, at midnight MST.

You can also save 25% on any product from the Block Island Organics site between now and Thursday, Dec. 24 by entering this special discount code: elizac. (The code may not be combined with other codes.)

Thanks so much to Block Island Organics for sponsoring this giveaway, and enjoy this holiday week!


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UPDATE:  Congratulations to Karin, who won the Block Island Organics facial cleanser. Thanks to everyone who participated!

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Planting Peas and Hoping for the Best

Planting Peas

I planted peas last week, so the 2015 summer garden is officially underway.

I probably should have gotten them in the ground earlier, but we had heavy, wet snow last weekend and I was ensconced inside with a good book and hot tea.

With our changing weather patterns it’s hard to know exactly when to sow seeds and how our plants will respond to temperature extremes, but we do our best and keep trying.

Gardening always has been, at its heart, an act of faith.


How to plant peas


These are organic Oregon Sugar Pod snow pea seeds. They soaked in filtered water inside for 24 hours before planting, so they were nice and plump. I planted half of the packet, and will save the other half for a fall crop. The seeds are planted about an inch apart — twice as dense as the recommended 2-inch separation. When the plants emerge I’ll thin them and we’ll enjoy the tender pea shoots on pasta.

Close up of peas before planting


To give the vines something to climb on, I planted them around a cone-shaped support woven of willow:

Willow support for peas


How about you? Have you started planting your summer garden yet? What do you hope to grow this year? I’d love to hear about your plans.

Hugs and happy digging,

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Nepal-childP.S. My heart is heavy this morning, mourning for the people of Nepal. So far away, all I know to do is offer the two things that can help — prayers and support. Organizations like Mercy Corps and American Red Cross are on the ground right now providing assistance, and we are grateful.

Photo: Mercy Corps


About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Let’s Talk about Toilet Paper – Part 1

Toilet paper holder

My friends, I’ve decided to give our toilet paper choice a comprehensive review. Because toilet paper is an ongoing expense and a resource we use continually, I want to be sure we’re making an informed decision. Naturally, you’re invited to come along for the journey.

Last year, I finally got fed up with the store brand of toilet paper. Over the years the rolls had gotten thinner and shorter, and the paper seemed increasingly prone to disintegrating. One day I marched into the store muttering to myself, “You work hard, you make sacrifices for the family, and darn it, you deserve nice toilet paper.” I yanked a 12-pack of Cottonelle Clean Care off the shelf, and never looked back.

Cottonelle toilet paper

This wasn’t a frugal buying decision at all. At our local King Soopers, a 12-pack of Cottonelle is $7.49. With tax, it’s 67 cents a roll. We don’t belong to a price club, so the only way we save money is when it goes on sale—which is rarely.

The label is printed in nice, bold print. Yet for some reason, the text at the bottom listing the number of sheets per roll is printed in the lightest, impossible-to-read pale blue. Why do you think this is?

toilet paper info

With the aid of high-strength binoculars, I was able to read that a pack contains 12 rolls, each with 208 1-ply sheets per roll. It also lists the square footage (266.4) and square meters (24). This information could be handy for easily comparing brands—if only one could read it.

The package boasts that my 12 “Double Rolls” are equal to 24 “Single Rolls.” Like me, do you scratch your head when you read this? Since every toilet paper brand now considers its products to be double rolls, ours don’t seem particularly robust.


Magnifying the text on a t.p. roll

Aided by a magnifier, I found the Double vs. Single explanation on the package back in a font so small that Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum once used it to print the Declaration of Independence on the head of a pin:  “1 Double Roll equals 2.3 times the number of sheets as the leading ultra brand regular roll.” Ahh, now I understand.

Fancy T.P. and Sasquatch

Wait—what “leading ultra brand?” Are you telling me the leading ultra brand only has 90 squares per roll? I’m skeptical. Let’s keep our eyes open for pricey—but skinny—super-fancy t.p. rolls in the future. Will you let me know if you find this elusive, half-size luxury roll?

On the plus side, I also discovered this information in tiny elfin text: “Paper from responsible sources,” accompanied by a miniscule logo from the Forest Stewardship Council. Greenwashing? Not this time. A little research convinced me that the FSC is a legit organization which promotes responsible harvesting. Here are the principles of FSC-certified forests:

* Never harvests more than what grows back
* Protects biodiversity and endangered species
* Saves rare ancient trees
* Guards local streams
* Supports the local people
* Uses narrow skidding trails so as not to disrupt the rest of the forest
* Prohibits replacement by tree plantations
* Bans toxic chemicals
* Bans genetically modified trees (no GMO)

In the coming days, I aim to delve further into whether Cottonelle is the best choice for us—and if so, whether we can buy it cheaper elsewhere. All three of these attributes are equally important:

a. Comfort

b. As earth-friendly as possible

c. Reasonable price (would this be the right time to make a “cash flow” pun?)

How about you?

Do you make your own toilet paper from recycled feed sacks? If not, would you be willing to share the brand of toilet paper you use? Do you buy it at the grocery store? Or do you get those Volkswagen-sized packages at Costco for a better price? Are you Single Roll, Double Roll, Triple Roll or Mega-Quintuple Roll user?

I look forward to flushing out all of the options with you in the days ahead.


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Top photo: A.N. Berlin


About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Why I’m Sending Back My Aveeno “Natural” Skin Cleanser

Aveeno Cleanser contains polluting microbeads

My friends, I’m embarrassed to tell you that I was greenwashed.

I’ve used this Aveeno face cleanser for years. With its green packaging, soy extract and “active naturals” tagline, I naively thought it was making a good, clean choice for my skin. What I didn’t know is that my skincare product has been polluting our oceans.

Shortly after purchasing a new tube of the cleanser, I was distressed to read that Aveeno Positively Radiant is one of the brands that contains plastic microbeads. As you may have heard, non-biodegradable plastic microbeads are too tiny to be caught by the standard filters used at sewage treatment plants and pass from our bathroom sinks to streams and oceans, where they pollute the water and also enter the food chain. You can read more about the devastating environmental effects of these tiny plastic particles at BeatThe Microbead.org.

I learned that many of the polluting microbeads used in personal care products are made of polyethylene, and sure enough, there it was—the fifth ingredient on the list on my cleanser:

Polyethylene microbeads in Aveeno Positively Radiant cleanser

Johnson & Johnson, which makes Aveeno products, has issued a statement promising to eliminate plastic microbeads in its products by the end of 2017.

You can check this list and see if your product contains plastic microbeads. I was surprised to see toothpaste, shaving cream and shower gels on the list in addition to cleansing scrubs.

You can find a list of microbead-free products here.

If you’re going to return your product, you can use this excellent example letter from Beat the Microbead.

I replaced my Aveeno scrub with Alba Botanica’s Even Advanced Enzyme Scrub, which uses powdered walnut shells for a truly “natural” exfoliate. (This isn’t a sponsored review—just my own experience.)

You can also make your own facial scrub, using ingredients like baking soda, honey or oatmeal.

How about you? Do you have any microbeads lurking in the products in your drawers and shelves?


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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Pine Needles for Mulch and a Garden Experiment

Tomatoes mulched with pine needles

I recently had the opportunity to speak with David Salman, Founder & Chief Horticulturist of High Country Gardens, for a short gardening article I wrote for Sunset. Being the opportunist that I am, I couldn’t resist asking him an off-topic question about my own garden. “What do you recommend for mulch?” I asked. I was curious because I’d tried grass clippings, leaves and wood chips and none really seemed to keep the plants happy and cool while fending off weeds.

“Pine needles,” he said, without hesitation. I was surprised, having always thought that pine needles (also known as “pine straw”) were too acidic for mulch. But he thought they were fine (he suggested pecan shells, too), and my research confirmed that the needles’ high acidity is a misconception and generally isn’t an issue. We have a large Ponderosa Pine in the corner of the yard, so I have a ready supply of pine needles that have been rained and snowed on for several seasons.

So this summer, I’ve mulched the tomato plants with pine needles and we’ll see how they do. This is our kitchen garden, which is right off the back patio:

Mulch tomato plants with pine needles

In addition to six types of tomatoes, plus basil and thyme, we have an aromatic section with chives, onions, shallots, garlic and leeks:

Onions, garlic, chives and leeks

I don’t mulch these plants because they’re pretty tough. Don’t you appreciate tough, hardy plants?

I’ve been working on this garden for nine seasons. When we bought the house, the space was filled with two huge dying fitzer bushes, myrtle and gravel. For years I’ve been digging in compost to improve the soil, and clearing out rocks, myrtle shoots, fitzer roots and hard, packed clay. I kept some of the myrtle along one edge, and it grows like Jack’s beanstalk in the summer so I’m constantly cutting it back. It’s so pretty in the spring.

Garden with tomatoes

The bamboo and fencing are to keep rabbits out, although they can still squeeze through sometimes. How about you? Have you planted your summer garden? Do you have a favorite mulch? Have you ever tried pine needles? We’d all love to hear your experiences.

Here’s to a happy summer, and good gardens this season for all!


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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Tulips, Dandelions and Other Obsessions of Spring

Fringed tulip up close

Perhaps like me, you’ve read about the “Tulip Mania” that swept The Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age, an obsession with tulip bulbs that left families bankrupt and had people paying ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman just for a single rare bulb in 1637. Perhaps you’ve wondered how a people could become so nutty about a simple plant. Good thing we’re not that obsessive, right?

The other morning, I looked out the kitchen window at our back yard and was seized with shame because so many dandelions were suddenly blooming everywhere in the grass.

Dandelions and grass

I couldn’t see the inherent beauty in a field of yellow flowers with their faces turned to the sun. Instead, I saw work—endless hours of fruitless work ahead.

Since I’m an organic gardener, I have dug up thousands of dandelions. I have paid the kids to pick the flowers, which only seems to encourage the dandelions to bloom more. I have tried a dandelion killer made from organic corn gluten meal that costs $50 a bag, and I’ve never noticed any difference at all.

Having a small front yard makes it a little easier to keep the forward-facing lawn looking okay, but our back yard is big. We live in a neighborhood of nice lawns, and more than once I’ve fantasized about how much simpler it would be to replace the lawn with artificial turf—or volcanic rock, perhaps. I feel terrible that my dandelion seeds are blowing into the neighbors’ yards, too.

When I crouched down to shoot a photo of the yellow “weeds,” I saw the bumblebees buzzing about.

Dandelions attract bumblebees

And here is what I wondered, my friends:  Why have we, as a society, decided that dandelions are so very wrong?

Aren’t we in the middle of a bee colony collapse emergency? And yet, at least in my yard, dandelions attract all manner of bees. (When I pulled this photo up on my computer screen, I fell so in love with this little guy!)

A bee pauses above a dandelion

I’ve read that the reason dandelions and crabgrass and clover pop us amidst the grass is because our lawns naturally try to diversify. In other words, Mother Nature didn’t intend for us to have these large swaths of one single plant. Diversified plantings are hardier and less prone to disease. Why, then, have we decided that we must do whatever it takes to fight this natural order?


Terrible, rotten weed must be destroyed at all costs!

Five hundred years from now, will the history books say something like this?

“In the twenty-first century, the people had devastating weather events and clear signs of global climate change, the bee population was dying, and the earth’s groundwater supply was getting polluted from sources like lawn chemical run-off. Yet they continued to douse their turf with herbicides, and used precious, expensive water to maintain large areas of non-native grass, purely for decoration.”

Am I just trying to justify our less-than-perfect lawn? Maybe I am. Or does our country’s obsession with dandelion-free grass seem kind of nutty to you, too?

I’d love to reduce our lawn area and plant native, drought-resistant flowers someday. In the mean time, I do what I can. How about you—how do you deal with dandelions? I would so welcome your thoughts and suggestions.


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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Back to School Giveaway: Eco-Friendly Lunch Bags From Recycled Reflections

Recycled Reflections bags

This week, you could win a selection of 12 colorful, eco-friendly bags from Recycled Reflections. But first, let me tell you about the inspiration behind these wonderful bags.

Brooke Harris on Happy Simple Living

Brooke Harris

Brooke Harris is a 4th grade teacher and mom in upstate New York who is making her mark against the environmental perils of plastic, one bag at a time.  Brooke and her students are working to eliminate our use of plastic snack and sandwich baggies. “We were learning about the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean and the horrendous negative impact that plastic bags have on animals (100,000 marine mammal die each year from ingestion and entanglement!) and wanted to make a change for the better,” Brooke writes.

Garbage in the Pacific Ocean

Garbage in the Pacific Ocean

“During my research I discovered glassine bags.  They are 100% biodegradable, recyclable and reusable – glassine is paper that has been pressed very thin and is translucent.  I began using glassine bags when I needed containers for snacks, sandwiches and classroom treats.”

“The reader/teacher in me was inspired by their smooth, blank surface and I began writing my favorite quotes from children’s books using colorful markers made from food coloring.  The bags have added a little love in my daughter’s lunch, encouraged my students and brightened my day with their messages.  While it’s not a perfect solution for the planet, I feel good about eliminating plastic baggies from my life!”

Recycled Reflections bags

“When you’re done with the bags, stick them on your fridge, refill and pass them on to friends or add to your paper recycling (glassine is thin, but durable, translucent paper). The quote is written with nontoxic food decorating pens made entirely from food coloring. Reuse, recycle or put the ties out to help the birds with nest building.”

Bag from Recycled Reflections

Brooke has generously donated a selection of 12 of her wonderful bags to one lucky Happy Simple Living reader in the U.S. or Canada. To enter the giveaway, just leave a comment below and answer this question:

What’s your favorite thing to pack for lunch?

Whether you’re making school lunches for your kids, taking a picnic in the park, or bringing your lunch to eat at the office during your lunch hour, what makes your heart sing when you open the bag? The giveaway is open through next Thursday, August 15, at midnight MST.

Thanks so much to Brooke for sponsoring this giveaway, and you can order her bags on her Etsy page and learn more about her on Facebook.


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P.S. This giveaway is now closed. Congratulations to Susan at Lil Bit of Mama Time, who won the bags. Thanks again, Brooke!

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Save on Laundry Detergent With This Simple Tip

Measure laundry soap carefully at Happy Simple Living

Have you ever wondered why laundry detergent manufacturers provide us with such confusing measuring cups? You don’t think it’s so we’ll inadvertently use more than we need to — and thus buy more, do you? Nahh, surely they wouldn’t want us to waste their product just to make more profits.

(“They might or they might not be trying to trick us into using more detergent, but don’t call me Shirley!”)

One of these days I’m going to make my own laundry detergent, perhaps using this recipe from our friends at DIY Naturals. For now, though, I use the most eco-friendly phosphate-free detergent I can find in recyclable packaging, at the best price. “70 Loads,” the box proclaims.

Still, it comes with this confusing scoop. According to the directions, line #1 is for “medium” loads. Is a medium load a regular load of laundry? “For family size loads, fill scoop to top line.” (Who among us doesn’t wash family size loads of laundry?) But “fill scoop to top line” sounds like you’re supposed to fill the scoop, when  the top line isn’t the top of the scoop, it’s the line marked with a ‘2.’ And then, of course, you have the option to fill the scoop all the way to the top.

It takes some talent to fill the scoop to the ‘1’ line. I had to pour some out, then scoop some back in, then sprinkle a little more out. Writing this post made me wonder – how much detergent does it take fill the scoop to Line 1? In my case, it was about 1/3 cup.

Measure your detergent - Happy Simple Living

Filling the cup to Line #2 took 2/3 of a cup, and filling it to the top was almost a cup. In other words, if you fill the scoop every time you do a load of laundry, you’ll actually only get 23 or 24 loads out of that 70-load box.

You readers are so smart, you probably already pay close attention to exactly how much detergent you use. But if you’ve been a little befuddled as I have, you may want to take a moment to investigate exactly how much detergent you need to do an average load of laundry and carefully measure out just that amount from now on – or even a bit less. Small adjustments can add up over the long run, especially when many of us reduce our detergent usage a bit, load after load. We’ll all save money and help the environment. Shirley, that’s a win/win for everyone!

I also use the Cold cycle for most loads, rinse just once, and hang our laundry on the clothesline whenever possible. How do you manage the laundry operations in your household? Inquiring minds are dying to know.


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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of a dozen books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.