We were playing down by the creek. Clouds of tiny insects lifted off the water like dandelion fluff, disturbed by my son who was happily standing knee-deep, throwing rocks into the quiet pools. I whispered an apology to any crayfish hunched beneath the stones, while I sat with my feet in the cool water, mostly happy that he was entertained. We’re on the Blue Trail at Tyler – a spot that’s on both our lists of best places to be in the world.

July had settled hot and dry all around us. Still, the forest was pleasant with its dappled shade. I love the deep forests of Pennsylvania in mid to late summer, the familiar smell of the rocky soil, and the filtered light through the beech and oak trees. It reminds me of my childhood; hours spent crawling up hills and climbing trees. It makes me happy that my son is growing up as I did – free to explore and interact with nature. He feels at home here. The woods are a place where he knows he can roam and find plenty to do. I even love putting him in the tub at night and watching the water go brown with swirls of dirt and bits of leaves.

The Blue Trail at Tyler

We’re staying home for July and August. No travel for us as we await the arrival of our second baby. The rest of the world seems to be traveling as two plus years of a pandemic has inspired everyone to get as far away from their backyards as possible. I can’t blame them. Still, with the painful gas prices and continuing COVID uncertainty, it’s a tricky time to plan a trip.

Instead, we’re doing a staycation theme for July and August. It’s an opportunity to have some fun in the area, get to know our local community a bit better, and focus our thoughts on home. It’s a staycation with a purpose – or rather several purposes. First, to have some fun and learn something new. Second, to prepare ourselves for the winter to come – a winter that could bring any number of surprises. Finally, to soak up this season, and this time with our three-year-old, before he becomes a big brother and grows any older.

We’ve spent a great deal of time in our local community. Partly this is a function of being frugal (our motto this summer), and partly it just seemed like a good opportunity to get to know what exists all around us. We’re fortunate here in the Philadelphia area. A half an hour circle drawn around your home captures a lot of great things to do and fantastic ways to get involved.

Here are my top time and money-saving ways to have fun on your summer staycation:

1. Check out your local library – I’m consistently impressed by how much you can accomplish at a library. From very inexpensive programs and events to local resources, they truly have it all. Need help? Ask a librarian – they know everything. Don’t know how to find your local library? You can look up that information here.

Bonus! Did you know that Tyler Arboretum has a Library Program? It’s true! You can check out a membership card to Tyler – and other local places – right from your library! It’s a fantastic way to see something new on a budget. Ask your library whether they currently participate in any programs.

2. Visit your local public gardens, museums, and other attractions. Did you know that a Tyler Membership gets you free or reduced admission to more than 1,000 different museums and more than 300 different gardens? I did, but I had never taken advantage of this benefit. I was blown away by exactly how many places were on the list! You can check them out here. My advice is to call ahead and see what their practices are; it’s a little different everywhere. It’s a phenomenal way to explore the area.

3. Get to know your township resources. Do you need compost or wood chips for the garden? Check to see if they have a dump or materials handling area that gives these things away for free. My township is single-handedly responsible for mulching my veggie garden free of charge. Need to cool off at the pool? Check to see if you have a local option – and their guest pass policy. Since we’ve joined our local pool, we’ve been very popular with our friends and neighbors. If you’re unsure where to start in your township, call your state representative. They can connect you with a list of resources from your township or municipality. Greenspaces, public pools, you name it! Don’t know who your state rep is? You can look it up here.

4. Celebrate your backyard. We’ve spent a lot of time out there this year creating a garden oasis. From planting some new flowers to framing out a HUGE veggie garden for next year, we’ve turned the backyard into an extension of our house. And we’ve done it fairly inexpensively – check out The Frugal Garden to learn some great tips and tricks. The Notes from the Community section is full of great tools.

Exploring the community this way has been a fun adventure. I have a new appreciation for everything this area has to offer. And we’ve had fun – lots of it, without traveling very far. From long hot days at the local pool to hiking in the beautiful Pennsylvania woods to picking berries at one of the many local farms, we’ve really soaked up the best of Summer 2022 – without spending an arm and a leg. And, of course, we’ve spent lots of time at Tyler, where the Pollinator Preserve, Lucille’s Garden, and the trails have been crowd favorites with my family.

We’ve also had more time at home to spend on projects. Like so much of America, my family moved in 2021, so I spent a few months planning my vegetable garden for next year and prepping the ground so I could plant in the late fall and spring. I’m already creating seed lists and dreaming of designs.

Picking Blueberries

If you’re looking for some great projects to do with little ones, here are a few of my favorites from this summer. Some are small, and some are large. But all have been tested and approved by my three-year-old:

1. Berry picking. Seriously, we can’t get enough! Check out your local farms – we like the ones that charge a flat fee for a box size to place the berries. That way, we can really pack it full. When I get home, I clean all the berries in a mix of water and white vinegar and lay them out on a towel to dry. Everything we’ll eat that week goes into the fridge in a jar, and the rest I freeze in one cup portions for winter baking, smoothies, and eating. As for my son, he sometimes puts things in the basket – but mostly he eats what he picks. His face and hands wind up a mess, but at least I know he got his fruit serving for the day!

2. The Thousand Hours Outside Project. Bonus! Berry picking works for this one too. Essentially, this project encourages you to track how many hours your little one spends outdoors. There’s good research supporting the benefits of time spent outside, and this project is just a way to encourage everyone to get outdoors with their children. They have a curriculum you can purchase to help guide your time – but we didn’t buy any. I downloaded the free tracker sheet and just enjoyed running around in the woods.

3. Hiking. It can be intimidating to start a hike with kids. Trust me, I’ve been there. My best advice – don’t try to do too many miles. Honestly, if I get to one mile with my son, it’s an achievement. Not because he can’t walk that far, but because the simple truth is that there is just too much to see along a trail! We spend our time examining every tiny thing he finds. Sometimes I bring along a small circle of rope to throw down the path. Then we sit and look at each item inside the circle. You won’t get much exercise, but you’ll have fun. Also, plan for each adventure to take hours and pack snacks. Seriously – all the snacks. Every kid who enters the woods suddenly needs to eat as though they’ve never been fed before. The Blue Trail at Tyler is one of my favorites for little ones. You can stop by the bathroom at Lucille’s Garden on your way to the gate, and it’s almost entirely shaded. Easy win. You can find a trail guide to all the great spots at Tyler here.

4. Trash Scavenger Hunt. Okay, this is a weird one – but hear me out. My son and I go on plenty of walks, and I’ve started carrying plastic grocery bags with me wherever we go. If we take a walk to the ice cream shop or the library, I tuck one in my back pocket and if we spot litter along the way, we pick it up. He LOVES spotting it; it really keeps him occupied, and we toss the trash (or recycle the bottles and cans) when we get to where we’re going. I started doing this because litter drives me crazy, but the sense of pride and accomplishment my son gets from collecting it has kept it going. Plus, the neighborhood gets a little cleaner.

This is a short list for what is a long project – navigating what everyday life can and should look like. We don’t know what COVID will do in the coming months, and the only certainty so far seems to be a lack of certainty. With the added challenge of inflation, cost of living increases, and global instability, it can be a scary world to wake up to every day. And all that’s without Climate Change.

A few things, however, remain certain:

1. Knowing your resources increases resilience.

2. We’re all in this together. Get to know your community and build a network of supportive family, friends, and neighbors. There’s no better way to decrease stress.

3. Find joy. The world is full of it. Discover a new place you love, start a passion project, and reconnect with friends and loved ones. Make it a point to take a moment out of your day to do something you love.

Our Summer 2022 Staycation has been a labor of love, and through that and my exploration of Frugal Gardening (and living), I’ve gotten closer to my family, friends, and community. I hope I’ve made the world a little brighter too. We’ve certainly had a lot of fun, learned plenty, and made many wonderful memories. If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s gratitude. That every good moment – and there are many – is worth savoring. And that is something you can always do for free.

Watering the Garden