The Clarington Forge Rubber Rake: The Coolest Tool You Never Knew You Needed

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Sometimes you come across a tool that solves so many problems you wonder how you went so long without hearing about it. The Clarington Forge rubber rake is one of those tools.

“A rubber rake?” I hear you asking incredulously. “Really? WTF?”

I’ll forgive you for asking, because if you remember our review of the rubber rake from last year, Amy Stewart had the exact same reaction on first glance.

I’ll explain the advantages for the uninitiated:

Neighborly relations. Have you ever had a neighbor who wakes up the entire-freaking-neighborhood at 6AM on Sunday morning because they cannot wait to get out the rake and be industrious about the leaves coating their sidewalk? SCREEE! SCREEEE! I mean, all that activity comes from a nice place in their heart, but if anyone in the neighborhood has a hangover, or worse, a baby that has just gotten to sleep, that poor hardworking soul is in mortal danger of being impaled upon the very tool they are using to bring order to their world. If you are that person, I beg you, get yourself a rubber rake and you can enjoy raking at whisper-soft volume any time of day or night.

Decks and patios. What do you do if you have a beautifully-stained deck, or a flagstone patio with a clear coating on it to keep the color looking bright? Even plastic leaf rakes will scratch the stain off a deck when used with vigor. A rubber rake, by contrast, rakes just what it’s supposed to and leaves your hardscape alone.

Gen cleaning out a Blue Oat Grass with the rubber rakeOrnamental grasses. You know all those icky dead leaves that start to clog blue oat grass and others, and keep them from looking their best? You could spend for-freaking-ever running your hands through each individual grass to pull out all the dead blades, but some of us have Project Runway episodes to watch. I’d rather run the rubber rake over the grasses and get back to stalking Christian Siriano on Twitter that much faster.

Groundcovers. Whether they’re herbaceous or woody, groundcovers can be a challenge to rake. Every time I run a traditional rake over them, the tines catch on the stems and I end up ripping or displacing my plants. Yet if you’ve ever picked clumps of leaves off your groundcovers by hand, you know what an arduous task that is. Necessary so your groundcovers don’t smother, yes, but if I’m going to spend time outdoors in that fall chill, I’d rather be planting bulbs or harvesting apples or something. The rubber rake once again shines at removing the leaves quickly without hurting your plants.

Raking on mulch. The rubber rake is also good for more pedestrian raking tasks. Ever tried to rake trimmings or leaves off an area that’s got wood mulch on top? It’s kind of challenging to rake up all the detritus without raking up all your lovely mulch as well. The rubber rake’s a lot easier to control than the usual stiff leaf rakes, and makes cleanup a snap. It’s also extra-grippy on things like pine needles which like to stick to pavement.

wizard rubber rake  (21)No more whomping yourself on the ears. Have you ever pulled a smooth move in the garden by stepping on your rake when it’s sitting face-up and having it whack you in the head?

Every new employee likes to try this maneuver a few times in their first weeks, and it’s embarrassing for all involved. I mean, it really hurts. But it’s also really funny, and it’s very hard not to laugh when it happens, which creates poor relations between crew members. Save yourself the worry and stock your toolbox with a rubber rake. I personally tested this by jumping up and down on my rubber rake and was unable to make it hit me in the face. Score!

But don’t the tines wear out all the time?

The one concern I had when I first saw the rubber rake was the tines. I saw a great big cha-ching tattooed on those rubber tines and figured I’d be buying replacement tines every other month. Strangely, that hasn’t happened. My landscaping crew’s been using the rake for a full year now, and even with regular professional use (it’s really nice because we don’t disturb our clients when we clean up), the tines are holding up great. They still have quite a bit of life left in them, and I imagine for the average homeowner, the tines would last 5-10 years. (Need a tutorial on changing the tines? I created one here.)

The rubber rake from Clarington Forge comes in two sizes: the Wizard for raking large spaces, and the Merlin for raking in between shrubs. If you’re an urban gardener, you’ll probably want the Merlin, but if you have a large area, the Wizard’s ace for making cleanup fast.

Want one of your own? Enter here! Clarington Forge has offered up a choice of the Wizard (big) or Merlin (small) rake to one lucky reader. To enter, just leave a comment saying which one you want, and I’ll pick one lucky reader on October 24th. US only.

And for a second chance, head on over to Garden Rant, where Amy Stewart’s giving away another rubber rake. If you were lucky enough to win both, I guess you could give one to your noisiest neighbor and hope they get the hint. Good luck!

EDIT: Crystal S. is the winner! Congrats, Crystal, and enjoy your new rake!

Disclosure: Clarington Forge sent me some free stunt rakes so I could jump up and down on them and attempt to wear out the tines.  All opinions are my own.

Grow Your Own Microbrew! How to Grow Hops

how-to-grow-hops.jpgAs an ornamental gardener, I’m used to growing hops as a summer screen for chicken coops, bare walls and other elements in the garden that can be unsightly. It’s easy to grow, but needs to be sited just right, as it has an eat-your-home style of rapacious growth that can be either exactly what you need or overwhelming – depending on the spot. Here in Humboldt, we’re known for our amazing microbrews (and have a lot of home-brewers), so when I connected the dots that this lovely garden vine was actually useful, it upped my enthusiasm for it even more. I love plants that do double-duty in the garden! Hops, or Humulus, is a great plant for Humboldt County. It’s related to our local cash crop, and you’ll know why when you see those sticky buds forming in late summer. Yet it’s not just for Californians – it’s hardy to zone 3, so people in much harsher climates can grow it successfully. Fern Richardson of Life on the Balcony joined me in making this video to show you how to grow your own: You can see it’s pretty easy – here’s what you need:
  • Hops plant (either bare-root or potted)
  • Stakes or trellis (remember to put up supports the day you plant it as it will grow FAST once it gets started)
  • High quality organic amendment to create a planting mound, as hops are heavy feeders and need good drainage
how to grow hops If you’re growing hops for home-brewing, you may want a few types. You’ll need both a bittering and an aroma hops, and maybe more just to have a variety of flavors. ‘Cascade’ is the classic aroma type, while ‘Nugget’ is the most common bittering variety. Or if you’re like me and just appreciate the fast summer growth and lush look of the hops vine, there are some lovely ornamental varieties, including golden ones. ‘Summer Shandy’ is a new dwarf golden vine (hardy to zone 5) which is much better-suited to small sites, as it grows only 5-10′ tall and 2′ wide. While it may produce buds, it’s been bred for its looks and small stature more than for flavor. ‘Summer Shandy’ could even go into a container for vertical interest. Of course, whatever variety of hops you choose – when you plant – don’t let Fern hold your beer! how to grow hops (2) Further reading: The Homebrewer’s Garden, a great book on growing fresh microbrew ingredients at home. Disclosure: Gardner and Bloome paid to produce this video with me, but opinions are my own (I’ve bought over $3K of their products in the last two months for my landscaping business, so you know I’m a fan of their soil and fertilizers!).

Got No Pot? Grow Tomatoes Right in the Bag!

Planting-tomatoes-in-a-potting-soil-bag.pngHere in Humboldt County, it’s time to plant warm-season vegetables like tomatoes, zucchini and more. But some of us don’t have a plot of land to work, and sometimes, there’s not enough cash to buy a pot. I mean, have you seen the cost of pots these days? Some of them can run pretty steep. Planting high-yield crops right in the potting soil bag is a trick I learned when I worked at a nursery years ago. It’s cheap, effective and fast. Beyond the ease and the price, there is another advantage to planting this way. If you’ve ever gotten late blight or other diseases on your tomatoes, you’ll know that you’re not supposed to plant the same crop in that spot for three years to make sure the disease won’t come back. Planting right in a fresh, sterile bag of potting soil avoids all of these soil-borne diseases and allows you to have a great crop every year with little planning or expense. My friend Fern from Life on the Balcony is a container gardening expert (she literally wrote the book!), and we created a video together showing you how to do this: The most important elements:
  • Start with a high-quality potting soil, especially if you’re using plants that need a lot of nutrients like tomatoes or squash. I’m a Gardner and Bloome girl since I’m a totally organic gardener (their Eden Valley Blend feels like velvet!).
  • Choose varieties that will do well in a container (I love the ‘Sun Sugar’ grafted tomato from Log House Plants, as well as the ‘Astia’ patio zucchini seeds from Renee’s Garden).
  • You don’t need to fertilize for the first six weeks, as a high-quality potting soil has the nutrients to you get started. After that, one application of a granular organic fertilizer will get you through the rest of the season.
Beyond that, it’s pretty simple, as you can see from the video! If you haven’t gotten around to preparing a raised bed this year or you just don’t have the space, try this technique on for size and see how it works for you. Disclosure: Gardner and Bloome paid to create this video with me, but the reason they invited me is that I’ve been using their organic soils and fertilizers in my business for years (I just bought half a pallet of fertilizer for all the gardens I maintain!), so the opinions here are definitely my own.

The Worm Factory 360 and The Earth Moved (With Video!)

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When I first bought my own home years ago, there was one fact that made me particularly happy: as a responsible grownup and a homeowner, I was now allowed to get any pets that I darn well wanted, so long as I could take good care of them. No landlords or reluctant parents to tell me I couldn’t!

Chickens were an easy sell to my other half, since we love eggs, as were a couple of kittens. But after that, I started hitting a wall. “Guinea pigs!” I suggested. “Bunnies!” “Geckos!” Each of these brilliant suggestions was met with a dubious stare. Perhaps there were still some limitations on the pet front.

But when I read about vermicomposting, I realized that here was a pet that was useful, quiet, didn’t need their litter box changed, and wouldn’t get snippy with me if I went on vacation. There was still a doubtful eyebrow raise about the relative awesomeness of worms as pets, but there was hardly any reasonable objection to be made. I was to become a proud keeper of worms.

Figuring I’d better learn a little more about my new choice of pet, I picked up a copy of Amy Stewart’s The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms. Even setting aside my new enthusiasm about worms, the book kept me rapt until the wee hours of the night, learning about the relatives of my new pets. Amy has a knack of finding the story in anything, and the curious tales of worms, and the scientists and business people who work with them, read like a thrilling bit of fiction. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up!

And I discovered that worms made me very popular at cocktail parties (at least at the type of cocktail parties I go to). Nothing like  bit of worm trivia, delivered with a cheerful grin, to perk up a boring conversation. Fern Richardson apparently agrees; she started the Twitter hashtag #WormFact to share her favorite tidbits. The fact I can’t get over? There is a type of worm, I believe in Oregon, with lily-scented slime. LILY-scented! I wish I could keep them as pets.

Anyway, we all know the benefits of worm castings: great for seed starting (helps prevent damping-off), helps retain moisture for hanging baskets or container plants, and generally full of good stuff for the soil. Being able to grab a handful of castings anytime is a great way of giving plants a boost.

worm factory 360 (4)And this is why I’ve been using a proper worm bin, the Worm Factory 360, instead of some manner of DIY setup – the castings are super-easy to harvest. My first boss as a gardener had a DIY worm bin in a large tupperware, and on the first rainy day of the year, she had us spend a very long few hours harvesting the castings. It went like this: pick out worms, one by one by one, and after two hours of tedious worm-picking, my boss was able to use the harvested castings in her containers. I am tired just thinking about it.

But a proper worm bin has three or four levels, so as the lower levels fill up with worm castings, you just start adding your vegetable scraps to a higher level to lure the worms up out of the old castings so you can use them. If you’re impatient, something like melon or pumpkin guts will draw them up very fast, and you’ll feel like a rock star when you see how happy the worms are wallowing in their melon bits. It’s not too hard to be a good worm parent, as long as you eat your vegetables and have some occasional peelings, guts or rinds to share.

The Worm Factory 360 is easily the nicest bin I have tried. It is small and square, so it fits under a sink or among a container garden with relative ease, and the flat, sturdy top means you can set a cute pot on top to disguise it. It comes in black, green, or terra cotta, and it kind of looks like a modern little table of some kind once you get it set up. It’s certainly not an eyesore, which is more than I can say about the cats’ litterbox!

Would you like to try your hand at vermicomposting? Amy Stewart and the Worm Factory have teamed up to offer an amazingly awesome giveaway: A copy of The Earth Moved to get you inspired, and a Worm Factory 360 to get you started! Just leave a comment to enter and I’ll pick the lucky winner on Wednesday the 28th. US only. Good luck!

Congrats to Karen of Le Jardinet, who has won! And if you’d like a special discount on The Worm Factory, visit this link until April 30th 2012.

Wicked Bugs: Video Interview with Amy Stewart

wicked-bugs.jpgI am adoring Wicked Bugs, the latest from author Amy Stewart. She’s back with more deliciously morbid musings, this time about the insects, spiders, and squirmy things that have us so outnumbered that for each one of us, there are two hundred million of them. Eeep! While Amy’s a huge fan of bugs, she didn’t focus on their virtues in this book. Instead we’re treated to the gory sexual lives, dietary quirks, and reproductive evils they take part in every day just to survive. Amy’s dry humor is the perfect balance to these horrible happenings, and the tales of zombie cockroaches and filth flies had me alternately laughing and cringing with glee. I did find, however, that my desire to read portions of the book out loud did not go over well at mealtimes. I’m lucky enough to live locally to Amy, and she graciously invited me over to talk with her about the book, and to see some mildly off-putting but thrilling specimens: If you love science, zombies, and tales of wickedness, you’ll definitely dig this book. I’d especially recommend it for gift-giving because the dry wit and short chapters make it easy for people to read bits out loud in a group setting. Plus, it’s one of those lovely hardcovers with a ribbon for a bookmark, and has crazy-detailed etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs (who did the etchings for Wicked Plants). You can check to see if Amy’s speaking in your area soon, and definitely pick up a copy of Wicked Bugs if you haven’t already. I’ve already bought a few as gifts!

More from Amy Stewart:

Buy signed copies of Wicked Bugs from the author Wicked Plants talk at Northtown Books in Arcata Tour of Amy’s Wicked Plants garden of evils

Eartheasy Raised Beds

eartheasy-raised-bed-kit.jpgWhen I got an email from Eartheasy offering a cool wooden raised bed kit to try out, I was suspicious of their claims. Takes less than five minutes to put together? Easy to assemble? Um, not for me. I’m, like, DIY-challenged or something. I can’t even hit a nail properly. So Amy Stewart of Garden Rant and I decided to make a video showing people exactly how long it takes to put these things together. Since we each had a raised bed kit, we decided to stack them for a taller bed, and see how that process went. Curious how fast we could go? Watch us in action: (If you want to see how fast the assembly really went, you can watch the unedited version of our video here! It still went pretty darn fast.) Seriously though, that was an insanely easy raised bed construction.  No tools needed, and you don’t even need to weed before setting this in place. If you’ve got particularly tenacious weeds, just mow and put some cardboard down before loading this sucker up with soil, and you’ll be good to go.

What you should know about the Farmstead Raised Bed Kit:

  • Totally tool-free construction, using a mortis and tenon joint seen in ancient boat and other architecture from as early as 4800 years ago. I feel all cool and Amish just thinking about it.
  • Can stack them four high, with no need for brackets or anything. The weight of the wood and thickness of the boards hold everything together easily, and once the soil is in there it won’t shift.
  • Made from rot-resistant Vermont white cedar, with the pegs of black locust wood. It’s all untreated and natural.
  • Solid construction, with rough-hewn wood that’s about an inch and a half thick.
  • The inner sizing of the beds is different from the size of the boards, because of the way the boards are held together once constructed. The exact sizes are listed on the site.
  • They provide extra pegs, which is nice because we managed to lose one while fiddling with them!
  • Pegs fit into the holes easily, with no need for force or tools.
  • If you wanted a taller raised bed without buying as many kits, you could take inspiration from Johanna Silver’s S.F. Garden Show displays and create a straw bale garden with a single frame on top to hold in the soil and make the whole production look streamlined and neat.
  • Very eco-friendly packaging for shipment – the waste from the packaging fits into one hand.
  • Eartheasy is a carbon-neutral company, and they have chickens. Really cute chickens, named Thelma and Rampage.

Want to win your own raised bed from Eartheasy?

Just leave a comment below, and I’ll choose a winner next Wednesday. Good luck! (You can head on over to Garden Rant for a second chance to win.) Erin @ The Impatient Gardener is the winner! Congrats, Erin!!

Amy and Gen Tropicanna the Garden: a Giveaway!

tropicanna-from-tesselaar.jpg***Giveaway below*** Outside of the garden, I’m attracted to cool, subdued colors, like purples, blues, blacks and greys. But lately, in the garden? Give me some color! Wild, exuberant color, that shocks the eyes and cheers the soul. So when the kind folks out at Tesselaar Plants offered to send Amy Stewart and I some Tropicanna cannas, I was all over it. Miss Zonal Denial is ready for spring! Three Tropicanna varieties The original Tropicanna, Tropicanna Gold, and Tropicanna Black (photo courtesy of Tesselaar Plants) happy lemonsWe took some of our Tropicanna bounty over to local artist Linda Mitchell’s home. Linda (yes, those are her lemons at left!) has a gloriously tropical garden of her own, with loads of exotic fuchsias, bold foliage and exciting colors that come up in summer. Here’s Amy and I finding homes for all the different kinds of Tropicanna: These are one of the hardiest “tropical” plants around. They’re safe in the ground to zone 7, and gardeners in zones 6 and below can plant them in containers, or just dig them up each season and bring them in. In my area where they overwinter easily, they reach about 6′ tall, but in pots they’ll stay a more sedate 3-4′. Inspiration board for the three kinds of Tropicanna canna:
Tropicanna4173954047_e6f935f9c5_bCanna Tropicanna Black AlstroemeriaEuphorbia photo by wlcutler on Flickrsunrose or helianthemum UnciniaGolden CallunaClianthus puniceus Parrot's Beak - Copy
Top row: Tropicanna canna, Alstroemeria ‘The Third Harmonic’, and Uncinia uncinata ‘Red’ Second row: Tropicanna Gold, Euphorbia characias, Calluna ‘Beoley Gold’ Third row: Tropicanna Black, Helianthemum ‘Henfield Brilliant’, Clianthus puniceus ‘Red’

Would you like to grow your own Tropicanna cannas?

Tesselaar Plants has provided a whopping FOUR SETS of Tropicannas for Amy and I to give away to some lucky readers. Each winner will get a generous set of all three types of Tropicanna, enough of each to try them in a number of cool combinations. All you have to do is comment here and over at Garden Rant to win, and next Thursday Amy and I will each announce our two winners. US only. Good luck! And if you want to connect with the nice folks out at Tesselaar Plants, you can check them out on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

Monday Miscellany: Garden Video Edition

Misc.pngYouTube’s always been cool for us gardeners. Where else can you find gardening tutorials, product reviews, and adorable animal videos all in one place? This week, I’ve got a few favorites to share. Billy Goodnick, the Garden Wise Guy,  cheers us up with his adorable music video about getting rid of lawns. Yes, people, I have been singing “takin’ out the grass is a gas, oh can you feel it?” all. Flipping. Day. Thank you, Billy. I needed something to get the latest Ke$ha song out of my head. [Read more...]

The Fiskars UpRoot Weeder: An Organic Way of Getting Dandelions Out of Your Lawn and Garden

chickens-helping.jpgchickens helping When I heard about this tool, I knew I had to have one. As an organic gardener, I find it extremely hard to keep dandelions out of the lawn. The herbicides that can be used in lawns are so nasty that I can’t bring myself to use them. But the constant up and down, bending and kneeling that hand-weeding requires makes my 32-year-old knees want to cry. Enter the Fiskars UpRoot Weeder. A tool that gets dandelions and other tap-rooted weeds out easily, with no kneeling required? I am SO THERE. After Amy and I tested the UpRoot in her garden, I wanted to test the UpRoot more extensively, in an actual lawn. Lawns can be so compacted, and I wasn’t sure that the UpRoot would be able to handle the hard soil and roots involved. So we went over to the vacant lot near Amy’s place to give the UpRoot a real challenge: off into the sunsetAs you can see in the video, it worked great! The UpRoot got lengths of taproot that I can only dream of when weeding by hand. I am so impressed with this thing, and it’s addictive to use. I’ve brought it along in my truck everywhere I go for the last few weeks so I can show it off and catch up on dandelion removal at all of my clients’ gardens. If you’d like to try a Fiskars UpRoot Weeder, Fiskars has two of them up for grabs! Comment here and at Garden Rant to win. Susan in the Pink Hat has won! Congrats, Susan. Enjoy your new UpRoot Weeder! And if you’d like to connect with the kind folks at Fiskars, you can check out their Facebook Page and Twitter Stream.

Fiskars PowerGear Pruning Shear: Rolling Handle Pruners That Don’t Kill Your Pocketbook

Fiskars-Pruning-Shear.jpgOne of my most popular posts has been a Hand Pruner Showdown in which I compared and contrasted Felcos, Coronas, and Bahcos. One of the first comments on that post was a Fiskars fan, saying essentially – “OMG! Try the Fiskars pruners – they’re inexpensive AND ergonomic”. And so they are! Now that I’ve tried them for myself, I’m shocked at how much I have been enjoying them. As a professional landscaper, ergonomics are incredibly important to me. I want to be able to garden for years to come with no pain or injuries, and the Fiskars PowerGear Pruner has a wonderful fat grip that is very comfortable to use. I’ve never been a fan of rolling handles on a pruner, because the handles on some brands are hard to grip and get into position. The Fiskars are the first pair that actually felt comfortable to me right away. The rolling handles are meant to help our hands bend in a natural way when pruning, and these pruners have actually gotten approved by the Arthritis Foundation for being easy on the hands. I’m already a fan of the metal that Fiskars uses on their blades and the special non-stick coating that lets the blade make cleaner cuts – I’ve been using the Fiskars PowerGear Hedgers for years – so I was happy to see it on these pruners. The only improvements I’d recommend to these pruners are a wire-cutter included on the blade, and a sap groove to help divert sap from the moving parts and keep them from sticking together. So, the good:
  • Replaceable blade
  • Easily adjustable blade tension
  • Very comfortable rolling handle
  • Good for small to average hands (even petite-handed Amy was able to prune comfortably with these)
  • PowerGear helps it cut thicker branches with less effort
  • Non-stick coating on blade
  • Very inexpensive considering the features
And the wish list:
  • Wire cutter
  • Sap groove to divert sap
  • Purple (why oh why does nobody make a pruning shear in purple? I think we should petition Fiskars to change their brand’s signature colors to purple and black. I would SO BUY THEM in purple.)
make an avatar Anyway, Fiskars was kind enough to provide two pairs to give away, so if you want to try one of these bad boys out for yourself, you know what to do: leave a comment here and over at Garden Rant and we’ll each choose a winner next week. Good luck! EDIT: Ms Green Jeans is the winner of the PowerGear Pruners! Congratulations, Ms Green Jeans! Your pruners will be on their way shortly. And if you want to get to know the nice people at Fiskars, check out their Facebook page and Twitter stream.

Fiskars Cuts + More Scissors: For Gardeners Who Enjoy a Cocktail

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Even in winter, at a certain hour of the evening I feel drawn to the garden to check on things and putter about, snipping a few stems of chard and some herbs for dinner, watering this, weeding that. There’s very little that could improve a peaceful half hour of puttering in the garden.

You know what could make it nicer, though? A cocktail in the garden, with fresh herbs scenting it. If you agree, the Fiskars Cuts + More is the tool for you.
Amy and Ladybird testing out the bottle opener on the Cuts+More
Amy and Ladybird testing out the bottle opener on the Cuts+More
Fiskars (their Facebook page is here) was kind enough to send Amy Stewart and I a pair of them to try out, so we got together to test them and see what the Cuts + More scissors are all about: You can see they’re pretty multi-purpose, with a wire-cutter, rope-cutter, and bottle opener. The scissors work surprisingly well for nipping deadheads and cutting herbs or flowers. And they come apart to go in the dishwasher! No worrying about rust or sap gumming up your scissors. I was so stoked on mine that a few days later, I decided to have a little cocktail party in my garden:

My drink:

  • Reed’s Extra-Spicy Ginger Brew (a spicy ginger ale)
  • Angostura bitters
  • Brandy
  • Squeeze of fresh lemon
  • Rosemary to garnish
Would you like to join me in my cocktail hour? Fiskars has a Cuts + More to give away to two lucky readers - one here at North Coast Gardening and one over at Garden Rant. To enter here, just leave a comment with the name of your favorite cocktail – extra bonus points given if you share how to make it! I’ll choose a commenter Wednesday 2/9 to win. Want another crack at one? Go on over to Garden Rant and see what manner of contest Amy’s cooked up. Good luck!

Edit February 9 – Fern from http://owlhollownews.blogspot.com/ is the winner of the Cuts+More Scissors! Congrats, Fern!