Changes.

Time is so funny. It’s been all most a year since the last time I was able to post. Between starting a new school year for both my daughter and myself while also being pregnant, time just got away from me. We have gone through a lot of challenges and changes that have lead us back to the city where everything began for our family: Chicago. In both mine and Reese’s minds, we never saw a future for us and our young family here. We were worried about the dangers a big city can bring to children and the overwhelming streets filled with an endless mass of people and cars. We were worried about the people they may run into, all of course in our worried minds bad or dangerous people.

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In the past few months we felt we needed a change for our family. We weren’t sure where we were going to end up or even where we really wanted to be. All we knew was that where we were wasn’t offering us the type of life style we really wanted. So, here we are. Back in Chicago. This time, with two kids. I am excited to set out on a new adventure with my growing family.

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Illinois State Beach

Tuesday was one of those magical days where it seemed our whole family had the day together uninterrupted. These days don’t happen often, but when they do we try and take advantage of them. The heat and humidity seemed to be easing up a bit on us but it was still a hot and beautiful summer day. The perfect type of day to try a new beach. I have seen pictures of the Illinois State Beach online a few times and instantly became intrigued with all the smooth rocks that inhabited the beach.

The Illinois State Beach is a bit of a drive from Rockford, but nothing that we haven’t traveled on our adventures before. It is in Zion, Illinois which I heard advertised often on the radio in Chicago but never had a reason to go there. It’s far north from Chicago, close to the Illinois-Wisconsin state border.

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We got there at a great time in the early afternoon and found a small patch of beach that we were lucky enough to have all to ourselves for a while. When you walk from the parking lot towards the beach trail, you don’t feel like you are near a giant body of water. The area surrounding the beach is full of beautiful wildflowers and more trails that lead around different hiking paths in the park. We were warned by other park visitors about the rampant mosquitoes on the other trails, so we decided to play it safe and just enjoy the beach for the day.

It never ceases to take my breath away every time I see Lake Michigan. The sheer size of the lake just about knocks you down and demands you to relax. And that is what we were able to do during our time here. We decided to walk down to an area of the beach that was separated by the cement break walls from the main stretch of beach, mostly because we brought Kennedy with. We discovered during our short beach trail walk that dogs are not allowed onto the beach, the trails yes, but the beach no. Kennedy is a fan of swimming and used to spend hours at the Montrose Dog Beach during our summers in Chicago and I knew he would be heart broken if we didn’t let him put his dogs back in the lake.

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This beach is much different than the the stretch of beaches we have grown used to living in Chicago. It’s amazing how the same lake can have so many different personalities depending on where you view it from. The waves were large and beautiful here. The beach was full of beautifully broken and sun-bleached trees with wild roots reaching out from under the trunks. ISB3

After taking the dog for a stroll up our newly found stretch of land, it was time for rock collecting. The stones were so beautiful and smooth, each one unique. There wasn’t a lot of beach in this spot that was exclusively sand, so most of the time we were walking barefoot on the rocks. Luckily the edges have been smoothed down over time, so our feet didn’t suffer too much.

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Start to our rock pile.

During our time collecting rocks, a few other groups of people joined us on our little patch of beach. The waves were crashing onto the beach and the sun was hanging bright in the sky, it seemed prefect to try my hand at rock stacking, which is much trickier than I had anticipated.

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Kennedy had a difficult time battling the waves. He decided to keep a safe distance away from the shore and watch as his sister played in the waves and created nests out of the sand.ISB5After spending some time building, digging, and creating with the rocks, sand, and sticks we decided it was time to take a break and have some lunch. To make up for the cost of gas for our trips, we always pack a lunch and plenty of snacks . Four year olds always seem hungry and me being 5 months pregnant means plenty of snack breaks! After our lunch, we decided to check out the main beach even though we have Kennedy with us. Finn was done swimming and excited about our latest idea: creating our own rock collection. The main beach had much more sand than the part we were at and also seemed to go on for miles. We walked north up the shoreline and started our hunt for a few unique rocks to have at home for building and other projects.

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On our walk we found more sun-bleached trees and a few other interesting things. Some sand had been dyed by the rusty metal that lie in piles next to the trees.

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On our way back towards our car we decided to explore a little bit away from the water and found some sparkley rocks that Finn said were made from glitter.

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After a relaxing stay at the beach and some successful rock collecting, it was time to head back to the car and make the journey back to our town. This beach was worth the trip and will be one for us to visit in the future. The waters of Lake Michigan have never looked so clear, colorful, and inviting. The next time we make the trip to the Illinois State Beach will be in a cooler season and to explore some of the many trails.

Lately

The past few weeks have been on the busy side for us. The school year begins much earlier this year than in years past so we are filled with the slight anxiety of the summer coming to a quick end. The slow, peaceful days filled with relaxation will soon be replaced with getting to know new students, new classmates, and busy weeks of school and work schedules. For now, during my last weekend before it all begins, I am going to reflect.

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The weather will still be warm, days will still be full of wonder, just in a new and exciting way.

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The night before having our 20 week ultrasound we took the kids to one of our favorite parks for a swim, for Kennedy, and ice cream. The Belvedere Park is full of beautiful bridges and playgrounds. Our favorite activity is to visit the Kishwaukee River shore line and throw rocks while the dog takes a dip in the water. After is a trip to the Dairy Ripple for some delicious ice cream!

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She was so excited to see her new sibling and picked out the perfect outfit for the occasion. We decided to find out the gender so we could begin to wrap our minds around nursery decorating and picking out new outfits. Not to mention, there was a bet of sorts in my family on what the gender was going to be. Reese didn’t think he had a chance of having a boy.IMG_0789

It’s a boy! One day my son will have the knowledge that I put his private parts on the internet for all to see. 🙂

 

Instead of going for our usual hike on Wednesday, we decided to take Finn to the water park to celebrate! IMG_0791IMG_0800

More updates to come this weekend. For now, we are working through the busy time before school begins. I am currently caught somewhere between planning for the new baby, working with our daughter on activities, and getting the most out of the days before work begins. My Pinterest has been a busy place these days!

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Enjoy the weekend! Now to make our baby announcement.

Matthiessen State Park

If you live in the Midwest, I bet your are in the middle of experiencing our first heat wave in four years. It’s muggy and hot here, making it almost unbearable to go outside for any activity. Luckily, we narrowly missed the heat by just one day and were able to experience one of our best hikes to date.

Matthiessen State Park is near the Illinois River in a small town called North Utica, IL and just a few miles away from the more famous Starved Rock State Park. I have been to Starved Rock before, and even though the park is very beautiful, there are so many people traveling along the paths that it makes it a bit difficult to stop and enjoy your surroundings.

Matthiessen is off of I39 and roughly 74 miles south of Rockford and 96 miles from Chicago (thanks Google Maps!), and will take you through the cute little downtown area of Utica. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Google Maps, but sometimes it can lead you a bit astray. Turns out the bridge to get to the main parking area was out. So we decided to try and go around to the other side, but no luck. Luckily there was a nice local gentleman that pointed us in the right direction. Using the map but without the GPS we decided to take the small unpaved road that took us through a golf course and some lovely country club style homes. It might have taken us an extra 20-30 minutes, but hey, it’s all part of the journey.

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Lake and bridge overlooking the waterfall. I’m afraid of heights, so Reese is laughing at me panicking while he holds Finn over to look and I try and take a picture.

There is a wooden staircase to the right of the bridge that takes you down to the path to the waterfall and gorge. We decided not to walk down there right away and wanted to hike around the paths first, but by doing this we also skipped the park map that told us where the trails were, but again, part of the journey. When you go straight on the bridge, it takes you down a paved path lined with beautiful tall trees. It felt a little surreal, maybe because it is a paved path in a forest in the middle of nowhere.

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While walking down the paved path, we only encountered three other groups of hikers, which seemed to be the theme of the day. Not a whole lot of foot traffic, not sure if it was because of the bridge being out or because the weather but the park seemed empty at times. Which is pretty strange when you are walking in the woods and you don’t hear many sounds and see a lot of restricted hunting signs.

After a while, we finally came to our first park map and we picked our course through the forest. We decided to take the long way which would give us the full view of the park and also bring us to two gorges that we could explore. Right near the map, the trail is no longer paved and there is a pretty creek that leads through a little stone arch and a small waterfall into a larger creek.

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Small creek.

The path is a little on the difficult side, on the right side there is a drop off that leads down to the gorge area. Along the way there are multiple signs that urge hikers not to try and hike down, its steep and muddy and I’m sure full of lovely poisonous plants and large spiders. During some parts of our trip, you can hear the sounds of people yelling from the waterfalls and pool areas below. Another thing we noticed while we walked is that there was a lot of garbage thrown into the woods. Garbage and clothes. Somewhere, there are a few naked people running around or people missing various shoe and or sock items. If you decide to explore this park, I would highly recommend sandals with straps or even, hate to say it, Crocs. Your shoes will not make the journey, they WILL get wet and muddy. Especially if you want to go down to the waterfalls. There are no real paths there and you have to hike through the creek.

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Path. To the right is the lovely drop off.
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To add to the sort of eerie vibe of the day, there is a boy in the tree.
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The explorer in me wanted to keep following the creek, but the hunting signs told me probably not.

At the end of the trail, it begins to curve around and head back towards the lake. On the map, the part is labeled with a big rock called “Strawberry Rock”. We took a few pictures here but we were having issues with the lighting. Very grey plus shady trees equals not the best picture taking. The path begins to go back uphill, which is slippery with mud and then meets a wooden staircase. Around here we ran into a few people without shoes wearing swimsuits or missing various items of clothing. No one actually naked though, which was nice. We also started to understand where all the mystery clothing items must have come from.

It took us sometime to get from Strawberry Rock back to the bridge where there is a staircase that takes you down into the gorge. There are a lot of stairs. Being 5 months pregnant tends to slow you down a little and I can tell you that I was more than happy to find the park map and nice little bench to rest on. While resting we also got to talk with an owl hooting from nearby trees. An awesome experience for both us and Finn, it’s not everyday you get to hear an owl!gorgpathWe found the staircase that lead us down to the “path” of the gorge. When we got around here we started to see more people, including a high school football team taking their senior pictures at the waterfall. As you can see, there is literally NO path to walk through that isn’t muddy or in water.

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I cannot get over how much of an awesome experience this was. It might seem a little treacherous with a little one and pregnant woman but it’s important for children to get this experience. It helps them understand how they relate to the world around them and how to use their gross and fine motor skills. The creek is rocky and slippery so watch your footing!

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I love this tree. The roots are so amazing.

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There is another set of rock steps that bring you to another staircase. The water here was much deeper than the other parts of the creek so if your interested in a swim, here is you spot! There is

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Stone jumping.

After a few more feet wading in the creek water, we finally made it to our destination: the waterfall from the beginning of our walk near the lake. Luckily for us, there was a staircase that goes right back up to the parking lot and bathrooms where we began. By the way, these bathrooms were scary! But, when you gotta go, you gotta go.

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Along the way, our camera got a little wet so we put it away before the waterfall and used our phones to snap a few pictures in front of the waterfall. Check out my Instagram to see more! *note, check out our hiking Hello Kitty bag!

Pros:

  • Challenging paths to explore
  • Amazing views
  • Multiple connecting paths
  • Walking through a creek
  • Great opportunities to cool off!
  • Incredibly photogenic area with A LOT to see.

Cons

  • Litter- there weren’t any garbage cans at any point during this trip except right were we parked. It didn’t ruin the experience, just noticeable.
  • Not easily accessible. There are muddy and difficult paths to walk on plus multiple stairs leading to trails throughout the park. So if you have a hard time getting around be careful.

Bonus picture!

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I love these guys! They feel like phone cords and have the sweetest faces.

Reggio inspired alphabet practice

Summer months with a busy and active four year old can be both fun and exhausting, sometimes making you wish the school year would be begin a little quicker! I know there are times, at least for me, that it seems like a much better idea to lay down on the couch and put some PBS kids.  But, Instead of staying inside, I’d like to share some fun, inexpensive, and (best of all!) educational activities for everyone to enjoy.

Before my family and I moved to the Rockford area, we lived in Chicago for almost a decade. There, I went to college and had my first experience as a teacher. I worked at a school called Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center that was influenced by the Reggio Emilia approach, I will post more on this wonderful teaching practice as time comes. The short explanation: the Reggio approach is a child centered practice that uses the child’s interest to create educational and social learning. I was lucky enough to spend 10 days in Italy when I was in college learning more about this special approach and was more than excited when I was able to put it into practice in my classroom.

Since leaving the early childhood classroom and moving into early elementary, I still take this philosophy with me and use the teachings with both my second grade students and my family. To be able to teach a child fully and truly connect, you must first have an understanding of them and their needs.

Another key “teacher” in the Reggio Emilia approach is nature. Nature is the best tool you have to teach you child about the world around them. For the fun little lesson that I am going to share with you today, we use two simple materials: chalk and sticks.

My daughter loves chalk. She has also taken to the many sticks that you can find laying around our yard from that lovely hickory tree. To avoid problems when we mow the lawn, we started collecting the sticks in a bucket. Perfect for exploration and learning fun!IMG_7459

First, take a piece of chalk and write a few letters of the alphabet on the sidewalk big enough for the sticks you have but not too big so your child will get tired quickly. I went over the letters I wrote three times to make sure they were bold enough for her to see. Notice I did not do the alphabet in order. One reason for this is because you want your child to memorize the letters themselves and NOT just the pattern of the alphabet. I usually pick them at random, but if you are starting out fresh, I would start with the letters in your child’s first name. They learn to recognize their name fairly quickly and it’s an important first step!

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After doing a small demonstration, She was ready to begin working on her own! I never dictate which sticks she should use or whether it goes off the lines. Something that is important to remember about learning letters and numbers is they are symbols.  Have you ever looked at writing that is in a different language and your brain sort panics for a moment? That is how children see letters and numbers before they are developmentally ready to understand what the symbols mean. Start slow, repeat often, and never get discouraged! Showing frustration with learning will only make children feel unsuccessful.

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Trial and error for finding the right sticks.

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After working and tracing over the other letters, she was ready to try and write her own. With a little help, she wrote the letter “H” using two different colored chalks then set to work covering it over with the sticks!

What does this activity help my child learn? It gives your child an opportunity to explore and experiment with letters in a different way. Adding nature into the mix always helps solidify concepts in a more meaningful and concrete manner. While doing this with my child, We said the letter name and the sound. Nothing else. I don’t like to add things that the letter begins with for one important reason: you child will ALWAYS repeat that sentence! “A is for apple, /a/ /a/ /a/” This does not mean they have an understanding of the letter, sound, or word, just a good memory!

Activity stats

  • Fine motor skills- grasping, writing
  • Hand-eye coordination- placing sticks over lines
  • Phonemic awareness- identifying letters, sounds

Hiking: Colored Sands Forest Preserve

If you read my last post about nature feeling off balance and the need for a storm, things haven’t changed here. Since Saturday we have had the warnings of potential severe storms but they either go around us or dry up before they make it. Today’s weather was much the same as the other days this week. 82 degrees but 97 degrees with the lovely humidity. I know for some that weather is like nothing, but for here it isn’t fun.

Today is Wednesday. Wednesdays we wear pink. Just kidding. This is the day of the week that our family gets out and goes hiking, no matter what the weather is. I am currently four and a half months pregnant with our second child and I still love to get out and explore. Part of my parenting and life philosophy is to be outdoors as much as possible and to try and connect with my surroundings. It might sounds cheesy, but there have been studies that link the effectiveness of being outdoors in the fight against depression.

I’m getting away from myself here. So despite the weather, we set out to find a new park to explore. When we travel up to Madison, WI, I like to take the back ways. I90 between Rockford and Madison gets pretty crazy and people drive like they are in an installment of the Fast and Furious franchise. The backroads to me are much more relaxing and more scenic, plus if it only adds another 20 minutes onto a trip, why not?

On the way we always pass a forest preserve and I’ve always wanted to check it out. Today we decided to take our small journey to the Colored Sand Forest Preserve in Rockton, Illinois. When we pulled up, there wasn’t anyone in the parking lot. Not always a bad thing, means that you have the park and the paths to yourself! Now we didn’t know anything about this park when we arrived, just that its not too far from where we live.

Colored Sands Forest Preserve does bird banding! Which, after reading about it from the signs in the park, means that they trap the small birds that live in the area, place tracking bands on them, and track their migration patterns and learn more about native species. Sand Bluff Bird Observatory is there and open on the weekends so you can learn all about what they do in the area. On the path, there were signs warning visitors about the nets that were up and what to do when you find them (turn around because they are doing work).

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Outside the trail. Bird observatory.

The path begins as a beautiful prairie walk with beautiful tall wildflowers and prairie grasses following the trail. The trail was quiet with the exception of many different bird species inhabiting the forest around the prairie. We didn’t see the river, although there is one nearby, but the mosquitos were horrible. Normally I don’t get bothered too much by them, don’t know if it was my fancy pregnant blood or what but they were eating us alive! We continued to walk along the path, hoping to get some relief from the mosquitos and sun, but could only make it to the half mile marker and needed to turn back around. If you like an easier path, this one may be fore you, but I would suggest in the early spring or fall when the risk of mosquitos is lower. The river has a slower pulse to it and tends to pool in places, leading to a lot of little blood suckers! There is a canoe docking area, a little mucky but it’s there.

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Colored Sands Forest Preserve
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Wildflowers: Cone-flower (fore ground) and Bachelor’s Buttons.
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Wildflowers: Black-eyed Susan and Bachelor’s Buttons.

Pros:

  • Wildflowers and prairie restoration.
  • Abundance of birds, perfect for bird lovers or watchers!
  • Abundance of butterflies and interesting insects.
  • Clean bathrooms! (yes!)

Cons

  • Abundance of hungry bugs!
  • Not a lot of variety in terrain.
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Here is Reese. Posing with the lovely bathrooms.

Natural Pest Control

Have you ever just felt like nature felt or seemed a bit off balance? It’s been feeling that way around here this week. The weather has been a bit off. Very hot. And humid. Which really isn’t unusual for summer but the feeling is almost hostile with the temperature. When you go outside, it feels like you are being smacked in the face with a hot, wet towel. It’s gross.

Any ways. If you read my last post I was doing some much needed gardening and sprucing up around the yard (um, minus the mowing… still not done but, that can wait). While weeding in the garden patch, I discovered I had some unwanted pests. Rabbits, squirrels, and ants. Yeah sure, rabbits are super cute. I was watching a baby rabbit frolic about in the yard nibbling on some clover, looking at me with those big brownish eyes. It’s all fun and games until your bean plants are eaten and your 125 lb dog finds a nest. Yes, this has happened. No it actually isn’t full of fun OR games. Just horribleness and no beans.

This post I am going to share some of my favorite and all natural pest deterrents that I have used in my vegetable gardens over the years.

1: Cinnamon

Cinnamon is perfect for battling those pesky and mean red ants that LOVE to use your raised garden beds for their home. Why do they love raised beds so much? The soil drains fairly quickly do to the natural settling of the soil after it rains or you water it. I also sprinkle this in my garden bed to help keep regular black ants out as well. Have problems with ants in your home? Sprinkle some around doors or windows where you notice them sneaking in.

2: Red Pepper Flakes

Red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper work as a wonderful guard against those cute rabbits and naughty squirrels. Wild animals don’t like the hot smell of the spices and will generally avoid going near where they can smell it. There are two different ways that I have used these in my garden. The first and easiest way is to just sprinkle it around the perimeter of your garden and around much desired plants, such as tomatoes, peas, or berries. Thirsty squirrels will try and attack your juicy produce when there isn’t any water available for them. The second way that you can use these spices in your garden is to make a spray. To do this, you might want to crush the flakes up as small as you can so you don’t clog the straw of the spray bottle. The problem that I have with this technique is that everything you spray will have a lovely spicy layer on that. I think regular black pepper is spicy and need to drink all the water to get the sting out. So really, it’s a personal choice for which one is better. If you have a bad furry creature problem the spray may be your best option.

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My assistant helping with the red pepper flakes.

3: Animal Hair

This one seems kind of gross in some ways. Harvesting extra fur from your furry friend and placing it on something that you will someday eat. I know. Gross. But it honestly keeps furry creatures out of your garden! Not for long, but if you have a giant moose dog like I do, the fur is plentiful. The reason it keeps animals out is because of the smell. I have heard that cat fur works best for some pests such as rabbits, but we work with what we have. I also think it might be strange to ask my neighbor if I could borrow some of their cat’s fur. They might think things.

4: Garlic

Garlic is one of my favorite things to use in the garden! Not only does it deter animals but it also deters insects! Which is awesome if you are having problems with both, like we are. Now, to use this you are going to have to smell like garlic for a moment. I use organic garlic in my recipe because our soil and seeds are both organic, we try to keep it consistent. Mince a clove of garlic as finely as you can, add to a spray bottle and fill with water. I usually let it sit for about thirty-minutes to an hour, depending on how much time I have. I let it sit so I can be sure the scent has dispersed enough into the water. Then, I go out and spray where it is needed!

5: Irish Spring

Yes. I mean the soap. Yes I may be stretching the “natural” in this post but hey, thats why I didn’t say organic. Pretty sure there are zero organic ingredients in this stuff. The reason why I like to use this in the garden is because it lasts a long time, causes no issues for the plants, and it keeps those little creatures out. They really don’t like the smell and it’s a fairly discrete long-term solution when you are busy. Here I am going to show you my Garden Soap Sack. Yes, I just made that name up.

 

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You will need Irish Spring bar soap, old socks, scissors. Cut the bars and socks in half.
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Stick half of the bar of soap into the toe of the first half and then tie the pieces that are across from one another. The ankle of the sock is a bit tricker as you have to do this step twice.
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Continue the above process until you have used all parts of the sock. Result: Four cute little Garden Soap Sacks!

If you have it handy, cheese cloth also works. I like to use socks because we have so many lonely pairs that get lost in time, I blame the dryer like that episode of Rocko’s Modern Life, so to keep in the spirit of reusing and spending less I use them. They are also great because I don’t need to use anything to tie them around the garden fence or trellis. All you need to do is pull two pieces from opposite sides and tie them around your surface.

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I spy an ant, too.

Not all pests are unwelcome. As almost a reward for a tough day of work, we stumbled upon the cutest and fattest little caterpillar on our dill plant. After some research, I found out that it is a Black Swallow Tail caterpillar. So yes, he will eat my dill. No, I don’t mind because in the long run, I can always grow more dill but you can’t risk the importance of a pollinator.