All posts in: Kingston House

Fall Checklist: Installing Locks, Lights, and a Few Garage Updates!

This blog mini-series is a paid partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

BY GOLLY the last couple of weeks have been packed. While I’m working on pulling together a post for the wild and wholly ride that was/is restoring the side of my house (it’s done! finally! mostly!), I wanted to pop in and share a smaller project I tackled last week on my long-suffering garage! We took a brief and enlightening tour of the garage’s status back in August, including a bunch of work that I’ve put into it over the years, so feel free to catch yourself up if you’re interested.

In a nutshell: I have, over time, made small and large-ish gestures toward improving my garage. I have also, over time, generally failed to really see these garage-centric projects through to polished completion. Why? Because there’s a whole lot of house that keeps me more than occupied enough, so the garage takes a back seat. Various smaller tasks have been put off until some later date TBD, which is fine and par for the course except for the part where seeing those unfinished items bothers you every single day for months or years. Ya know. It’s not fun having that stuff hanging over you.

SO. Having wrapped up the majority of what I wanted to get done this fall on the side of the house AND being blessed with a few more days of nice fall weather, I took the opportunity to tie up some of these loose ends on the garage! I FEEL SO MUCH BETTER! Allow me to explain myself.

Last time we saw the garage, I’d painted it black, gutted the interior, added a ton of lumber storage, redone the electric, and added a set of 5′ wide french doors to the back to provide easier access for large and unwieldy items that frequently get moved in and out. Of course, in this time I’ve also torn off the back of the house twice, the side of the house once, brought massive amounts of soil into the yard, built raised beds, hauled as much wood in as I’ve brought out…the garage has taken kind of a beating and the time was nigh to give it a little attention.

With all that work behind me you might think there wouldn’t be that much in front of me, but you’d be so adorably wrong, you cute sweet thing. Haven’t we gotten the hang of this by now? The rule is, there’s always more to do. So there are some parts I’m not mentioning, like how that little old deadbolt on that little skinny old door above Mekko’s head in that first picture is…well, we’ll generously call it decorative. It used to work. By some miracle the key actually was conveyed to me at the house closing, and by some additional miracle I didn’t lose it. But at some point it stopped latching, and no amount of fiddling seemed to fix it.

Instead of fixing this security-breach-waiting-to-happen, I went ahead and installed a set of french doors that come with no hardware whatsoever! I elegantly painted one coat on the exterior of the doors, and then only scraped the glass on one of them, leaving the decidedly “in progress” look you see above. Which kind of stops being acceptable after a couple of years.

SO. With a broken deadbolt on one door, and the other set of doors being held closed inside the garage with a heavy object that successfully defeated the wind blowing the doors open but wasn’t likely to stump a person, we have some issues. SECURITY CONCERNS, you may call them. NOT SMART, DANIEL. Particularly as I have steadily filled the garage with lots of lumber but also various valuable outdoor power equipment that I’d be super duper incredibly bummed to have walk off. Unfortunately this concern has actual basis—the garage did get robbed once, years ago. I hadn’t owned the house long and there wasn’t much out there, but this is why I no longer own a bike! I miss my bike. Some jerk has my bike.

So. Let’s try to avoid that happening again.

Here we’ll be replacing an old surface-mount deadbolt with a new, regular through-the-door deadbolt, so the first order of business was removing the old one! Obviously different brands/eras will mean different designs and parts, but generally you can do this as long as you have access to both sides of the door and a screwdriver.

My surface-mount deadbolt was mounted to the door with a bracket, and then the lock housing was attached with three flat head screws.

After removing all of the parts from the inside of the door, removing the exterior trim was easy-peasy. Insert key and pull.

Here’s where things get slightly tricky. Because most of the surface-mount deadbolt’s guts are in the surface-mount housing, the hole in the door is way too small for a modern deadbolt where the guts are housed inside the door. This hole was 1.5″ or so, but my new lock called for a 2 1/8″ hole. At this point I could have decided to just drill a new hole below the existing one and patch the old hole, but that’s one of those solutions that’s somehow lazy and also more work.

For larger holes like this, you’ll need a hole saw. Over the years I’ve just bought them piecemeal as-needed, but it’s nice to get a snazzy set with a little carrying case if you’re fancy like that. In case you’ve never used one, essentially that part in the bottom fits into your drill, and that drill bit in the center kind of acts as a pilot to anchor your hole saw in place while you drill. Without that small bit (it’s removable in case it breaks), it’s pretty much impossible to keep the hole saw in place—instead it’ll jump all over the place, damaging your surface and making you so sad.

So. The problem is thus. There’s already a hole where that bit needs to drive in to keep my hole saw from walking as I drill. Never gonna work.

SO! Using a speed-square to mark the location of the existing hole for reference, I then attached a small piece of scrap wood temporarily to the door. A couple of drywall screws does the trick, and those holes are small enough to patch super easily.

Then, continue as usual. The deadbolt will almost certainly come with a simple paper template, which makes quick work of figuring out exactly where to drill. Many, like this Schlage one I’m using, allow for a couple of different options for the center point, in case your door has narrow stiles (like this one!) or you need to align with other existing hardware.

Because my scrap wood block throws off the thickness off the door, I opted to drill my pilot hole and then remove the paper template, so I could reuse it after removing the temporary block. Remember I’ll also need to drill a hole through the side of the door for the bolt to go in and out of.

See how nicely that works? The temporary block continues to keep the hole saw in that spot until you’ve made it all the way through the door. Then just unscrew it and you have a perfect hole! Then it was just a matter of taping the paper template back up and drilling the 1″ hole through the side with a different drill bit, where the paper template instructed. I used a forstner bit, but a spade or auger bit would work, too.

Congrats on your perfect hole. One down, one to go!

For the french doors, I decided to keep it really simple and went with this nice Schlage keyed entry door handle, so the lock and the handle are one piece of hardware. It installs very similarly to the deadbolt, and because there weren’t any weird existing conditions to work around it went pretty fast!

So that was the project. But then…you know…one thing leads to another. Instead of just installing the new hardware and walking away, I decided to spend a little extra time finally finishing painting the new french doors, and repainting the old side door. Because each of those french doors has 15 lites, it’s kind of nice that the glass comes with a protective plastic film that you can just cut away and dispose of after painting and be left with very little to razor blade off the glass.

I also figured there was no time like the present to give the original doorknobs from the side door a little TLC. There wasn’t a ton of old paint but it was stubborn, so I threw them in my dedicated old hardware crock pot to loosen it all and then scrubbed them clean. Works like a charm.

A note about those knobs and the door they came from: I noticed during this adventure that the rim lock on the inside of the garage door has a patent date on it from 1869! That aligns pretty closely with when the house was likely built (1865, until proven otherwise), but I can’t imagine this garage pre-dates the early 20th century, just looking at the framing, materials, foundation, windows, etc. Most of the doorknobs in my house are white porcelain, but these kind of marbled faux-bois ones are used in a few places like the inside of closets (presumably they weren’t considered as fancy?). It makes me wonder if there used to be a different barn/shed/outbuilding of some kind that got demolished, with parts like this door getting reused for the newer structure.

Who knows, but it’s things like that which make me feel very…comfortable in this house? I totally would have done the same thing a hundred years ago. Love a recycling project!

Sooooooooooooooooo. Before I know it, I have all the tools and ladders out and am just casually repainting half the garage in a day, as one does. There were a couple little areas of peeling paint, plus some caulk splitting, plus I used a satin finish this time instead of a matte finish, which to me looks a little nicer and feels easier to keep clean and avoid scuffing. It took about a gallon of Valspar Duramax exterior latex in satin, which I had color-matched to the same color I used the first time around, Ben Moore’s Onyx.

One of my new painting must-haves is this particular paintable Big Stretch caulk by Sashco, which is now available at Lowe’s! I was so excited when I saw it there, since it used to be kind of difficult to find. It’s great stuff. I hate it when I finish a painting job only to have the caulk crack after a few months, not to mention the damage that can cause when it’s on an exterior.

Oh right, also! I had all but forgotten that when I roughed in the electric in the garage, I left a wire for another exterior light over the french doors! I picked up this simple and classic light, which I opted to spray paint black. All black everything garage! I considered a pop of color but then thought…nah, better not.

I used some Rust-o-leum spray paint I had half a can of down in the basement (this one is similar!), and it looks so nice! One VERY COOL feature of this light is that it has a light sensor on the canopy, which automatically turns it on when it gets dark out. Why don’t all exterior lights have those?! You can actually buy a similar part and retrofit almost any fixture fairly easily—I’m already thinking I might do that for the lights on the street-facing side of the garage, since I can’t seem to program the timer switch to save my life. I can’t handle advanced technology.

And THEN, taking a step back from my work, it occurred to me that even though those french doors bring a lot of nice light into the garage, once the glass has been scraped and cleaned they also REALLY expose the yard to a view of all the mayhem inside. NOPE. I HAVE NOT COME THIS FAR FOR THIS. Too much realness. I just want to keep up appearances, damn it!

So THEN, I picked up two of these affordable curtains from Lowe’s, plus four of these rods so I could kind of stretch and pleat the fabric on the back of the doors without having flappy curtain fabric in a place where they’d likely get dirty or caught on something. The curtains themselves are a pretty sheer polyester with kind of a linen look, so they should hold up well to this kind of use. The rods are also easily removable from the brackets, meaning the curtains can be taken down with little effort and thrown in the wash to my heart’s content.

(Sorry for the scary nighttime pictures—it gets dark early now and my momentum cannot wait for things like natural daylight.)

The curtains were a bit too long for my doors, so I had to hem them about 10″. OH YES HE DID BREAK OUT THE SEWING MACHINE. He’s drilling through doors! He’s painting the garage! He’s stripping hardware! He’s refinishing a light! He’s installing electric boxes! He’s sewing curtains! These are the days I’m really hoping no neighbors are watching me from their windows, because I seem patently unhinged. Is this…the blogger lifestyle? Am I finally doing it right?!

The curtains worked out really well, though. I’m kind of proud. GETTIN. IT. DONE!

Hey hey, garage! Looking pretty slick! You may note that CLEARLY I am unconcerned with the garage showing its age in the from of layers and layers and layers of old paint. Am I the only one who kinda…digs that? Like I think I actually prefer it on a building like this?

I love the way that old doorknob really pops against the black, especially now that it’s clean.

So. Real talk. If I had to choose my favorite thing about the past few years of world history, I can tell you one thing that would rank. It used to be that finding matte black hardware for anything was near impossible, and often meant resorting to spray paint. NO LONGER. The powers that be have deemed matte black a FULL ON TREND and now the options are vast! I love that major brands like Schlage have caught on so quickly and made this option available—I know it’s JUST A DEADBOLT but I’ll still agonize over how it looks, and this one looks handsome and inconspicuous and legitimately makes me happy. Also it WORKS! VERY WELL! Obviously I wasn’t obsessing over the security of my garage before this, but it bothered me and now it doesn’t. I have room in my head for all sorts of other things to bother me now!!

I’m also really pleased with the Schlage keyed entry handle on the french doors! I installed a simple slide bolt at the top of the left side door inside to keep it stationary, and the right side door now does all of these door things that are very exciting. It opens! It closes! It latches! It locks! The improvement is night and day. Also can we appreciate how nice those curtains look? I SEWED. FOR YOU. Mostly for me but also for you.

I’m not mad about this 5 year progress! In case you’re looking for flaws…I decided to extend the sill under the french doors to the edges of the casing (it should have been done that way to begin with; I’m not sure what we were thinking), so the wood epoxy covering the patch was still curing and not ready for paint when I took these pictures. The window on the side also needs a lot of work, so I’m saving that for another day. So there are still some problem areas, but the improvement achieved in this short exciting whirlwind has me feeling SO much happier with the whole thing in the meantime.

Super thrilled with how this light came out! The factory finish on the inside of the shade was white, which I considered leaving alone but I’m glad I sprayed it black. That combined with this adorable (and honestly pretty convincing!) LED filament-style bulb creates a really nice amount of light in this area of the yard. I really like those faux Edison-style LED bulbs for exterior lights—they cast a very warm light (even warmer than an incandescent), and the energy consumption is so low that they don’t drive up the old electric bill.

So there we have it! I’m having a hard time putting this feeling into words, but I’ll try anyway: we’re decidedly at the end of fall, and for the first time in this house, that fact isn’t inspiring major panic and feelings of immense personal failure. In years past it’s always been something…the roof, or the heat system, or the unfinished exterior work, or last year when the kitchen was just a total shell with no walls or insulation (not to mention electric, plumbing, or anything else), or the year before when walking through the house felt like a tour of the post-apocalypse. Which is all to say, if you’re in the thick of it: I don’t know that there’s a point at which the work ever get easier, but it does get more manageable. A day will come when that fall to-do list feels more plausible than aspirational, and you might actually feel like you’re doing this whole thing kind of right. One foot in front of the other.

Fall Checklist: Planting Shrubs & Trees!

This blog mini-series is in partnership with Lowe’s! Thank you for supporting my sponsors!

Fall is, hands down, my favorite time of year to plant. Who wants to dig a big hole when it’s super hot and muggy out? Who wants to watch a shrub struggle all summer because it got too hot too quickly after it was planted? Nobody. Fall is a great, oft-underrated time to plant trees and shrubs especially (before they go dormant for winter), and this year I was determined to do both! AND SPOILER: I DID!

I’ve been REALLY trying to pay serious attention to gardens I like when I see them out in the wild—from the layout to the particular mix and massing of plants that make them up, and this longitudinal study into my own preferences has resulted in one thing I know to be true: I love a boxwood. I love them as individuals and I love them as hedges. I love them when they form parterres and I love them when they form other things I don’t know the terminology for. I love that they stay green all winter and I love that the only real work that goes into them is giving them a haircut once in a while, which is a task I actually enjoy.

So let’s start at this area in front of my recently pressure-washed porch. Back when I bought the house, it looked basically like this. See that mass of hosta? I dug that up and divided it, creating TWENTY-FIVE individual plants.

I moved them to the space in front of the low wrought-iron fence with some purple heart and creeping jenny. Evidently it gets too cold here for purple heart to be a perennial (live and learn!), but the hostas have come back bigger and bigger year after year, as they do! They work really well in this spot because they’re so hardy—they get a little abused with foot traffic in this location but they can handle it. And since they die off for the winter, that space can get mounded with sidewalk snow and come back fine in the spring.

You can kind of see right behind the hostas on the other side of the fence, I did a hideously dumb thing. I planted day lillies. They came from somewhere in the backyard, and at this point I know I was feeling like I’d NEVER accumulate enough plants to deal with this yard and I simply had to use what I had, regardless of whether I actually liked it. Personally, I do not like day lillies. They produce a weak showing of flowers once a year, look crappy the rest of the time, and reproduce and spread like a small annoying plague. More on that in a second.

Anyway. Since I know I love boxwoods, I’ve tried to add new ones every year in the hopes that someday I’ll have all the hedges and fanciness my heart desires. I counted them up and it turns out I’ve actually planted thirty boxwoods since I’ve lived here, which ain’t bad! I tend to buy the smallest ones at Lowe’s, mainly for cost reasons. Prices vary year after year, but they’re usually in the $10-range. I planted these three years ago in front of the porch and on the side of the portico, since neither of these foundations are particularly good-looking but nothing a nice hedge wouldn’t conceal! I’m not really a fan of foundation plantings around the house generally (since I want to maintain access to the siding and foundation for current/future maintenance, and don’t want roots affecting my foundation), but I think around a porch is more OK. Boxwoods don’t root very deeply, which both makes them decent candidates for planting close to a structure and pretty easygoing if they need to be transplanted.

Anyway! This photo is from a few days ago, and despite clearly being on their way out, the hostas have all gotten so big and bushy! The boxwoods have all grown! And those day lillies did exactly what they do, which is propagate and look a mess!

It occurred to me that this area in front of the porch might be a nice place to enact a little parterre action, like in that inspiration image (which is Kingston’s own Senate House, the building where New York ratified its state constitution in 1777!). I already have two of the four sides installed! So I ripped all those day lillies out and took myself to Lowe’s hoping the nursery still had boxwoods in stock.

OHHHHHH YEAHHHHHH. I may have gotten a little excited. Did I mention that another reason I like fall planting is because of clearance sales??! It varies by store, but you can pretty much count on end-of-season promotions as they need to clear out summer/fall stock, so these babies were being offered at 50% off! Yassssss. I bought 22 of them, like any totally normal person whose house is under hella construction would, right?

Whatever, I will take a major discounted boxwood windfall whenever and wherever it comes. These things cannot be controlled.

A couple of quick notes about boxwoods, specifically, after having done some light research. Apparently boxwoods smell unpleasant, kind of like cat pee, to some people. Personally, I don’t have this problem. There are a lot of varieties of boxwoods, which is helpful to know when selecting them—particularly if you’re sensitive to the scent! Evidently English Boxwoods are the stinkiest and on the more difficult end of the spectrum to grow. The ones I bought are called Winter Gem Boxwoods which are a type of Korean boxwood, and they’re one of my favorite varieties. They’re super hardy, grow quickly, and have a nice dense foliage. You might have seen people wrap/tent their boxwoods in the winter, but I’ve never done that (that’s totally one of those aspirational fall tasks that current-me totally envisions future-me doing, but likely I will not) and they’ve been great even with heavy snow loads and record-setting low temperatures.

OK THEN.

Here is where I freely admit that I don’t think I’m a natural-born gardener from a design perspective. I love houses and rooms but I find gardens INCREDIBLY challenging from a conceptual standpoint—this is the part of the house I’d totally hire a designer for if I could. That being said, I enjoy the puttering, and I think I AM really pretty good at growing stuff—very rarely do my plants die, and I certainly can’t credit outstanding maintenance or any other special skills. I do, however, plant pretty much everything exactly the same way, so I like to think that’s what I bring to the table. It is not complicated.

It starts with laying things out. Like a dry fit! Obviously this is so you can get an idea of how it looks and figure out if you have enough plants, adjust your spacing, etc.

Once that’s done, I start planting. If there’s mulch (especially fresh mulch), rake it out away from the hole you’re digging so you don’t mess it up with a bunch of soil. Then dig a hole that’s twice as wide and twice as deep as the pot the plant came in. It’s tempting to not do this, especially if the plant is large, but it’s important to give those roots a good chance at success, and the ability to spread into soil that isn’t so compacted.

Into the hole, I’ll throw a few inches of good, nutrient-rich soil. I try not to freak out about exactly what this is: there are a lot of options but basically a compost, composted manure, topsoil, or a soil mix formulated specifically for whatever you’re planting seem to all be just fine (or at least better than nothing! gardeners, feel free to chime in). In this case I’m using compost from my own composter!

The most important thing is to not panic. That’s a general statement but also applies here.

Then I flood the hole with lots of water, and then mix up the fancy rich soil with the water and other soil in the hole with the shovel or a stick.

Then I remove the plastic pot to expose the roots! Look at those roots! Such vigor! Big up, Monrovia.

Then I use my fingers or a small shovel or whatever I grab first to break up the roots a bit. It’s ok if some of them break. This encourages them to spread out into their new environment and create new growth.

Then I just stick the roots down into the hole, making sure that the base of the plant is even with the surrounding grade. Pack around the roots with some compost and the soil you removed from the hole.

Afterwards, I give everything a good soak from above. Sometimes if I haven’t packed the soil well, this watering settles loose soil around the plant, so check to see if you need to add more soil. Of course, I try to remember to water frequently during the first few weeks or so, but ya know. Sometimes that doesn’t work out, but it’s the intention that counts. Unless the plant dies, in which case the watering is probably what would have counted.

So that’s how I plant stuff.

Then I got to break out my new toy—the Greenworks Pro hedge trimmer (which is currently on sale!)! The hedge trimmers use the same battery as my lawnmower and my leaf blower, which I just love. It’s all so easy to switch between tools. The hedge trimmers are seriously powerful and the quality seems great. I almost wish they didn’t work so well because the job was done so quickly and I was just getting into the groove!

You have to be careful about trimming boxwoods too late into the fall since you want the trimmed parts to harden before the first frost, but I felt pretty confident I still had time left on the calendar. I only trimmed the plants that have been here for a few years already and are well-established, and I tried to be cautious to only give them a light trim—just enough to even things out and make everything look under control.

Finally, MULCH TIME! Normally I just mulch once in the spring, but I didn’t get to it this year! I probably would have just waited until this coming spring since retaining moisture and preventing weeds aren’t such big issues in the winter, but mulch also acts as an insulator to keep roots warmer and protected through the winter—which with freshly planted shrubs is more important than ever.

My old faithful is this inexpensive black mulch from Lowe’s. I think of mulching a lot like painting a room—it’s that thing at the end after all the hard work that instantly makes everything look so goooood. I aim for about a 2-3″ layer, making sure to get all the way around the base of the new plants. Then it’s just a matter of watering everything again to help kind of settle the mulch into place.

Different time of year, but this is as close as I could get to a before-and-after! I’m so happy with how this area has progressed over the past few years. I feel like it’s starting to look like something nice! Feel free to review progress from 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 if you really want to take a deep dive.

The two old rhododendrons are amazingly still going, although I think their remaining years are numbered. I’ll probably rip them out when I make it to restoring the porch itself and need more space to work. It’s possible I’ll have to transplant the boxwoods during that process as well, but that’s OK. This stuff can be tricky to figure out, because there’s so much of the house to get to but I’m not sure exactly when that will come to pass, and I still want it to look good and relatively cared for in the interim! I have a deep fear of making it a decade down the road with this house and realizing I don’t have any mature plants to landscape with.

Oh! I also dug up those hostas in front of this section of the fence, split them, and planted them closer together so they form more of a hedge than they currently do. I think if the boxwood hedge gets to about the height of the porch floor, and the hosta hedges much closer to the ground, this will look nice and layered but still structured and simple. We shall see in the coming years! I hope to get to splitting ALL of the hostas this fall but that might be rapidly becoming a spring project. We’ll all find out together.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Because I bought…so many bushes.

The rest of the boxwoods went to the newly-restored side of the house, which may not FEEL that exciting—but holy cow, getting to the point that I can safely plant stuff without worrying I’m going to accidentally trample them or squish them with the ladder I’ve moved around this area a thousand times over the course of this summer/fall was VERY EXCITING. Finishing up the work on this side of the house has felt like climbing a mountain, at the top of which are a series of many smaller mountains I won’t be able to climb this fall (like restoring every window), but having the bulk of the work done and something nice happening with the landscaping feels like major victory. I’ll show you the whole thing soooooon!

BUT WAIT, THERE’S STILL MORE! I’M NEVER SHUTTING UP! Let’s time-hop again, back to…

3 years ago, I planted 3 Cleveland Flowering Pear Trees from Lowe’s in that strip between the sidewalk and the street. See them? One of the truly striking things when you compare old pictures of the neighborhood to new ones is the current utter lack of trees in a neighborhood that used to have tons of them! My block, for instance, used to be lined with big beautiful trees, and now there are exactly three trees and they’re all babies and they all belong to me. It’s a shame, because nicely placed trees are not only one of the easiest ways to instantly boost curb appeal, but they also help with pollution, storm water management, property value, and more. Research even shows that mature trees make a difference in public safety and crime! A quick google search returned this nice succinct run-down of why trees are so important to urban spaces.

I am the Lorax.

I’m not sure why it took so long, but it finally occurred to me that I could totally plant a fourth tree in the same line, but to the right of my garage. There’s space!

So I went and picked up another Cleveland Flowering Pear. Flowering pear trees also seem to have a certain…olfactory problem for some people when they’re in bloom (which realistically is a couple of weeks in the spring), which…I’ll let you research on your own. But they’re beautiful, they grow quickly, they flower but don’t fruit (helping avoid vermin that might want to snack on fallen fruit!), and they grow in this predictable, very upright columnar shape that makes them great for a narrow spot like this, where you don’t want to interfere with the sidewalk or eventually have it growing too close to the house. They’re also SO hardy—I probably haven’t watered the three original ones basically since they were planted, and they’ve easily quadrupled in size and are really starting to look great. This is even with the teenaged neighbor kid who seems determined to kill them and breaks off branches and messes with them when he thinks nobody’s looking. Facepalm.

I used up all my homemade compost on the boxwoods, so I picked up a big bag of this Sta-Green Tree and Shrub Garden soil. Otherwise my planting method was exactly the same.

Grow, little tree! Grow! This guy was also 50% off, making his total cost a whopping $15. For a whole tree! Can’t beat that. Hopefully at some point it’ll catch up to its siblings that have had a few years head-start. This also reminds me that I have to get out there and add some mulch around it! There’s always something, am I right?

PHEW! Well I’m pooped! My big fall checklist is winding down, though, and I’m starting to get excited to turn my attention back toward the inside of the house. I guess technically we have another month of fall, so I’m going to try to keep working through those remaining items and see how far I get. Hang on just a little longer, mother nature!

MINE: Lighting and Lighting Parts

Welcome to another special episode of MINE, the show where I go out and buy cheap old stuff and then we play show and tell! Except I’m the only one playing! It never gets old! For me!

They say with thrifting, lightning never strikes the same place twice but I’m not sure that’s true. Point of fact, after some truly exhaustive research on Yahoo answers it appears it’s not even true when you’re talking about actual lightning. It’s sometimes true with regards to thrifting, but nevertheless I persist. I will return to that same funky watering hole 25 times because of that one time I showed up and there was a cold bottle of Fiji nobody else seemed to notice.

OK, that’s enough metaphors to last us a while. Point is, I went back up to Albany on a recent thrifting trip (friend needed interior doors, I needed to oblige my FOMO) and I feel I did PRETTY GOOD. My first stop is always the Historic Albany Foundation’s parts warehouse—I’d keep it a secret, but I love these folks so much, that wouldn’t be cool. The Historic Albany Foundation is a non-profit, so aside from a ton of other important work they do, they have an architectural salvage warehouse full of things saved from old buildings during remodels or prior to demolition. Prices are VERY fair—I can’t fault other salvage/antique places for needing to turn a profit, but it really feels this place is there to help and support people at any price point who are trying to do right by their old houses. This old house owner appreciates that a lot!

First up—such a pretty glass shade! I love that it’s so simple and versatile but still has some unique detailing. The rest of the light is missing, so this could become a semi-flushmount or a pendant. For $5, it was a buy-now-and-figure-it-out-later kind of situation. I try to keep an eye out for milk glass shades where you can’t see the bulb—I feel like LED bulbs are getting better and better looking all the time, but I still don’t really want to see one exposed.

Then I saw THESE and at $20 for the pair (in PERFECT shape) it was…the same situation. So pretty! I’d guess they’re kinda late Victorian? All these shades are good excuses to design and make some light fixtures. Which really is my idea of a good time (seriously, it’s relaxing!), although coming up with the supply list is kind of overwhelming. I’ll likely order parts from Grand Brass, which my friend Allison over at Deuce Cities Henhouse uses for her slick-ass DIY light fixtures (some of which are now available as kits—so smart!). I have some ideas! I’ve been considering using them for my main kitchen fixture. Hmmmmmm.

BTW, the bowls on the shelf above are by a local ceramist named Andrew Molleur who is SO goddamn talented. I have a few of his pieces around the house, and watching his work and business evolve since I’ve lived here has been a real treat. Plus he’s a really cool nice guy.

More Alabax lights! The one on the left is new (to me) and the one on the right you might remember from the last time I went up to Albany! I put them side-by-side so you can see the difference in shape/scale.

But even more exciting was that it’s a perfect mate with the other Alabax fixture I bought almost 3 years ago! What’s funny is that the one from 3 years ago was $85, and this recent acquisition was $5! The only difference is that the first one was fitted with new socket/wiring/crossbar, and the new one doesn’t have any guts. That’s a pretty easy fix, though, and it won’t cost nearly $80! I think these are both headed to the cottage, but that could change. I sort of feel like I overpaid the first time so now it’s like the balance has been restored. $45 a fixture, not bad! (that’s some Advanced Placement thrift calculus for ya.)

For something like $2, it just felt unethical to leave this cute little utility light behind. Even if it just ends up at the top of some basement stairs or something, still worth it.

AND THEN! To round out this theme! LOOK HOW CUTE IS THIS BABY DECO LIGHT! For $10! My friend said I shouldn’t buy it because it was “just so common” and I was like “I CAN DO COMMON! I’M FINE WITH COMMON!” and it was settled. I love the detail on the porcelain base, and the intact shade is just so classic.

I know, what a diverse collection of items—ha! Does this ever happen to you? I feel like it happens to me a lot when I thrift—everything I find that day will sort of adhere to a certain theme for whatever reason.  Like the other day, I bought several things and they were all green. Since I feel I’ve done my scientific research for the day with the aforementioned lightning thing, if anyone can shed some light on this phenomenon (I didn’t mean to write that pun, but once I did, I wanted everyone to endure it), I’d really like to hear it.

Finishing the Side of the House: Part 1!

I didn’t really know when I embarked on this ~journey~ that the first five years of renovating my house would fall into two fairly distinct phases: before restoring the side of the house, and after. At the beginning it felt more linear—after the major, non-DIY work of replacing the roof, replacing the boiler, and upgrading the electrical system was completed, it felt like things would proceed at a steady and fluid pace as time and money allowed. Living in the house would certainly never be more difficult than it was in those first few months, so if we could just get over those early hurdles it would be relative smooth sailing afterwards. Not easy by any means, but not trying in that way where you question all of your life decisions and rue the day you ever thought homeownership was an appealing goal.

That’s not exactly how it worked out. Some projects are bigger than others, and restoring the south side of the house—a project that began over 2 years ago at this point—was HUGE. Primarily because walls have two sides (fancy that!), so it’s not as though this work was isolated from the interior of the house, too. At this point I think I’ve written more about putting the inside of the house back together after all of this—starting with the bedroom (which saw the addition of a window) and then the den (which lost a bay window but gained a regular window). This is also when the kitchen went from pretty shoddy to totally gutted, and the dining room—though the least affected in terms of actual construction—turned into a total renovation war zone.

WTF am I even talking about? I’ll try to go through this fast, since it’s been a while and it occurs to me that maybe 2 years is approximately 2 years too long to expect anyone to remember the elaborate details of my home renovation. Perhaps.

Above is the back and side of the house pretty much when I bought it. This was after the roof replacement so the fire escape and little roof over that 2nd floor door have been removed, but otherwise this is more or less where things started. Demolishing that single-story box off the back of the house was the first major demolition project, which we’ve talked about a lot—including the two ways that elevation has been rearranged now!

Removing that back addition did a lot for improving the proportions of the house (and bringing natural light into the kitchen!), but the south side is where I really saw potential for major improvement—both for the interior and exterior. The more I lived here, the more I tried to deduce the series of events that had transpired here—seemingly taking a neoclassical house and making it look like…this. It’s an easier task when additions are more modern—where you can really easily see how things don’t match, or are made of completely different materials—but everything was some level of old here except for those three vinyl windows on the first floor. I put a lot of thought into how I might be able to repair and renovate these parts of the house that were old but not original, but ultimately I couldn’t shake that this elevation of the house (which is really more visible than the front to a passerby) just looked wrong. And I really wanted to make it look right again. Not new. Just…as it ought to be. And that meant tearing some shit down.

YOU KNOW, JUST THIS?! On another project you might, ya know, have an architect or something render this out and have something legit and precise for the contractor to work off of, but…I’m the contractor. It’s all in my noggin. What else could we possibly need than this beautiful mind?????

So, um. You know I like a story, so I’ll tell you a story.

I wasn’t planning to do this project when I did. I was considering it “someday” work that I would merrily undertake at some future date when the finances and the time and the pre-planning stars aligned to make it possible. But then there was a glitch in that plan, and that glitch was basically me being dumb.

Here’s some context: I was at the end stages of what had unexpectedly become a very large and very time-consuming freelance project. As a result, I hadn’t been able to do any significant work on my own house for a long time—which sucks when you’re living in a house in need of so much work. I’m not talking about, like, painting walls and swapping out hardware for something so fresh and cute. I’m talking major work. Needed work. Never does a house feel more like it’s falling apart than when work hits an extended stand-still, especially when you’re actively pouring everything you have into someone else’s home while yours feels increasingly hopeless. The job was stressful, the house was stressful, everything was stressful.

Suffice to say, I was not in a great headspace. Like on a scale of Bad to Very Bad, I’d rate it Pretty Fucking Bad.

So we’re at the end of this project, and in my experience something happens at the end of big renovation/construction projects. Things get really slow. On TV we’re used to seeing a mad dash to the finish, but in reality I’ve never really seen this come to pass on a big project. Because you’re waiting for some product order to come, or for the countertops to get installed so the backsplash can go in, or a homeowner really wants to see something in person before committing one way or the other. It’s just…like that. People often talk about how difficult it is to keep contractors “on the hook” while they work through those final items big and small on a project, and it’s often cast as contractors just being selfish or unethical—which sometimes is actually the case (dealt with that shit, too!), but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Because everyone has to make a living. Say you have a full-time job, and then your boss announces that you’re going down to part-time and your pay is getting cut accordingly. This isn’t great but it’s pretty normal for your industry, and so you need to find another job to make up the lost income. The problem is that the first job—now part-time—expects you to be like a doctor on call, ready to make an appearance and do good work with little notice. This doesn’t jive so well with your new job, which expects your consistent attendance, and promises WAY more in the way of future income than your first job which you know is going to end pretty soon anyway. So you do the thing that’s in you and your family’s immediate best interest: prioritize the new job that offers more consistency, money, and satisfaction, and get back to the first job as time allows because your old boss won’t leave you alone and just finishing is easier than getting sued or whatever.

FOR INSTANCE.

So that’s kind of where we were with this very large freelance project. Lots of finishing touches that had to be done but couldn’t be done all at once for various reasons, clients who had very little patience for that, and contractors who wanted so badly to be OUTTA THERE, that last couple thousand dollars in their contract be damned. At the center of this stood me, trying to keep it all together and afloat with everyone getting along (ish) and the project actually getting completed. Which is how an idea was born.

I needed to keep everyone busy in order to keep everyone paid full-time so nobody was scrambling for other work. Must keep contractors in my clutches.

But I could only keep everyone busy a little bit at the freelance project.

But I could keep everyone busy a lot at my own house by just hurriedly embarking on the largest renovation project this house will likely ever see! When we couldn’t be working at the freelance project, which was most of the time, we’d be at my house. And when that product order came in or the counters got installed or whatever, I could transition everyone back to the freelance job at the drop of a hat, which in turn would keep the clients satisfied that things were proceeding at an acceptable pace.

And so. A mess was made. Here, Edwin stands in the new south garden, created by removing what was once a long skinny solarium space.

Behold! My cozy relaxing den and its new window.

Here’s more or less what remained of my kitchen and pantry.

Then my bedroom joined the fun!

MEANWHILE, the outside of my house is looking something like this, and something like this is not going to fly for a Hudson Valley winter. The idea of really doing anything with the interior before the exterior was totally buttoned up was ridiculous—this had to take priority. You know, behind the never-ending freelance job but ahead of having a decent place to sleep or cook or really do anything at all.

Some of this might seem exciting, and it kind of was, but I can tell you firsthand…IT. FELT. FUCKING. TERRIBLE. Exactly zero square inches of the house felt clean or OK to be in. I didn’t really doubt the vision so much as deeply regretted the process and the lack of preparation—which included financial.

Oh my god, THE MONEY. MONEY IS SO HARD. IT IS SO HARD TO SAVE BUT SO EASY TO SPEND. I thought I was such hot shit because I’d managed to squirrel away about $12,000 to put toward the house before this, and before I knew it, it was gone. Then I did the super fun and advisable thing of maxing out my credit cards! Yayyyyyyy! This is exactly what I needed during this terrible time inside my brain and also inside my house! Everything at once!

So, I’d say around the project’s midway point, I realized I had to start being very strategic about what work I’d be able to pay someone (Edwin) to do with me, vs. work that by economic necessity I’d have to complete alone.

Which was…a lot of work.

Which I think is why EVIDENTLY this is the last image I shared of this !!huge transformation!! 2 years ago, because all I really wanted to do was to go from this directly into sharing a big reveal which never came. It didn’t come because…well…I didn’t finish.

A big part of the reason this took so long and cost so much was the amount of particularity that went into reconstructing the original details without going totally broke. Half the point of this was to bring the house back to a closer resemblance of its original construction, so new work had to blend seamlessly with the old to pull it off—end of story.

Demo had fortunately left me with the cornices of the old 2nd floor bay window and the solarium, so I was hopeful that these parts would provide at least most of what I needed in order to reconstruct the third side of the bay window and patch the cornice upstairs. A lot of this wood was too rotted to be useful, but the corbels and various lengths of trim were generally salvageable.

That being said, there were three major pieces that I just didn’t have. The first was the decorative drip cap above all of the windows. The original windows still had them, but they’re meant to have returns on the sides—these were hacked off when the previous owner had the house covered in vinyl. Sigh.

I had one relatively intact piece, aside from that notched out part, which had escaped the same fate because it was above the dining room window which faced into the solarium. I carefully removed it and brought it to Spiegel Architectural Woodworks—right here in Kingston!!—which is ESSENTIALLY the point of this post; it’s just taken me 2,000 words to get there.

SO. I did not know how getting woodwork reproduced generally works, but now I do so I’ll tell you.

When a place like this has to reproduce a molding, first a knife has to be created from an example of the molding profile. Sometimes this is done in-house and sometimes it’s contracted out–in this case it’s sent out, which is only really notable because obviously it affects lead time.

The cool thing is, once a knife has been made, it’s catalogued and stored for future use. That means that if you need more than you thought, you don’t have to start the process over entirely, and it ALSO means that it’s possible somebody has had the same profile replicated before. The reason this matters is that there are two flat fees that will come along with any amount of molding you order: a fee to fabricate the knife, and another fee to set up the knife at the mill so the work can be done. If your molding has already been replicated, you should only have to pay that second set-up fee, plus the cost of the material you’re having made! The material is typically priced by the linear foot, and there’s a big range depending on the type of wood. For the window drip caps, I went with Western Red Cedar because it’ll get the most exposure to water/snow.

So. Because getting these details wrong would be so so very sad, I was adamant about getting them right. Close enough wasn’t going to cut it! And then, sure enough, someone in the past did have the same molding profile as my original drip caps reproduced!

ALMOST.

SO CLOSE. SO SIMILAR. The difference was that the rounded part on mine is a little oblong, whereas the existing knife was a more perfect quarter-round.

Remember that thing I said about close enough not cutting it for my fancy obnoxious ass? A $200 knife fabrication fee for the tiniest, most imperceptible difference was, apparently, enough for close enough to be JUST fine. Funny how that happens.

That left this nice simple crown, which is part of the cornice all around the house. I love that simple profile so much! This one required a knife to be fabricated for $200. But then they made me 150 feet of it! For cost purposes, I went with pine.

This is the uppermost crown molding below the roof, and this is where “close enough” was really not going to cut it! Here’s kinda why:

My house has classical eaves returns, which to me is a super important detail to be preserved, and says something about the quality of the craftsmanship that went into its beautiful details! With a “poor man’s return,” you could probably get away with replacing rotted crown molding with a similarly scaled stock molding and nobody would be the wiser, but a classical eaves return requires two variations on the same profile—one for the flat parts and one for the raked parts. Using a similar but different molding for the flat sections would completely ruin this transition to the raked parts and I couldn’t live with myself! And so, because this molding was the biggest, the knife fee was $300. Ouch!

If you thought $12,000 seemed like a lot of money to do this project, here’s a good example of why it wasn’t. I spent like $3,000 that summer on reproduction moldings. That’s completely separate and apart from other lumber, trim boards, stock moldings, siding, windows, primer, paint, nails, roofing…just three molding profiles.

ANYWAY.

Between salvaged pieces, reproduced pieces, pieces we could mill ourselves with saws and routers, and stock pieces (or just parts of stock pieces, as the case may be, like in the image above!), we sorted it out! I actually like figuring stuff like this out.

Here you can get a sense of it—the basic structure of the cornice was there because the second floor bay window was added, but all the details were missing. I had hoped for a more seamless, staggered patch job, but to be honest…truly restoring the cornices is a project for another time, and I didn’t want to start tearing into existing stuff because that is a goddamn can of worms if I ever saw one. That job is going to require scaffold and a tonnnnnnn of time—but after patching and paint, I can TOTALLY live with this.

Recreating the third side of the bay window was…intense. SO MUCH MOLDING. SO MANY LAYERS.

To reconstruct the cornice, we tore off the roof to try to recreate how the original two sides were built. Like the rest of the house, this bay window has box gutters so there were definitely some uncomfortable flashbacks to the roof replacement of a few years before. Luckily this time I was much more prepared for the near-inevitability of rotten gutters so I was able to move a little more efficiently into just fixing them instead of freaking out.

You can also see how deteriorated the top of the crown molding is—luckily, by this time I have more!

I’m not sure what we call the framing that creates the structure of the box gutter, but it looks like this! The originals were all in various stages of decay, so we used one as a guide and recreated a bunch of them out of 2x4s, which are thicker than the 1″ thick boards the originals were made from. Because the gutter needs to pitch in a direction for drainage, we had to be very careful about cutting and fastening these pieces to avoid low points away from the downspout outlet.

Once we’d sistered in our new pieces, it was just a matter of following the same principal to rebuild the third side. It was hard, not gonna lie.

I think we did well, though! There are a couple pieces still missing in this photo but you get the idea. The new reproduction crown wasn’t installed yet, either, and we basically threw a piece of ice and water shield over the roof until the roofers could come.

This is now mid-October. I really can’t afford the help I’d, ya know, ideally have. Especially because it’s getting late in the season and half the house still doesn’t have siding installed (let alone caulk, paint, downspouts, the list goes on). I took on installing all of the siding on the first floor by myself, and then Edwin and I did the second floor together.

Cutting and installing siding alone is not a good time. It’s very much a two person job and not only will it be slow, but you also MIGHT fall into a depression spiral of feeling so super alone in this exciting restoration journey! you’ve undertaken that has taken all of your money and all of the years of your mid-twenties and left you chasing daylight on a crisp autumn evening, shivering outside of your barely-habitable house where there’s nothing inside but destruction and more aloneness.

NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW ABOUT ANY OF THAT. I’M JUST SAYING IT MIGHT HAPPEN.

Ten days after that last photo was taken, this one was taken. Snow. Winter had arrived. This text exchange with my mother pretty much tells you what you need to know:

Oh right and the freelance job was somehow STILL going on.

The deal with the roof was essentially this: I could not, for the life of me, hire a roofer to come and do this roof. I called all of them. I think one or two showed up for give an estimate, but then never got back to me. That feeling—of not being able to give somebody money to do the thing that they do to make money—is so lousy and helpless. I feel it with plumbers constantly. I think the job was just too small and nobody thought it was worth it.

SO. You can kinda see above the bay roof, about 5 courses of missing siding. This was left intentionally to allow the roofer to flash up the side wall, and we’d patch in those missing courses once the roof was done.

Except there was no roofer and it’s now November. I had wanted/assumed I’d do a EPDM roof, which is how my box gutters were lined on the rest of the house and is a common way of addressing flat/low-slope roofing and box gutters here. The problem was that—at least at the time—I had an IMPOSSIBLE time sourcing the products. It was crazy! The rubber, the underlayment, the fasteners, the mastic—all of it! I KNOW IT EXISTS. NOBODY CAN SEEM TO SELL IT TO ME.

Cue more anxious feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. I’m a lot of fun.

And so, eventually, I gave up on finding a roofer. “Edwin,” I asked. “Do you think we can handle this?”

“Of course we can. Done it a thousand times.”

Mostly due to ease of availability, we went with this torch-down rubber roofing product. So listen. We know I adore this man, and have worked with him on many projects for years, during which his experience has been a tremendous asset. Which is really why I bring this up, because it’s a good reminder that when you’re working with ANYBODY, on ANYTHING, EVEN if you know and trust them—KNOW HOW THE THING IS SUPPOSED TO BE DONE. You have nothing to lose by being an informed consumer but a whole lot to gain.

At this point, I was so drained. Financially, emotionally, physically just beat. Edwin said the roof was no problem, so we bought a roll of this stuff and got to work. About midway through, it occurred to me that our installation process just seemed…not right…and THAT’S the first time I googled how the fuck this stuff is supposed to work.

We were doing it very wrong. Edwin told me not to worry, I told him I was worried, he told me it would be fine, I told him it didn’t seem fine, and so forth. But we were halfway through, and an incorrectly installed roof had to be better than no roof at all…so I just…went with it.

I don’t really know how, but before winter really, really hit, we got the bay window roof done, the rest of the siding patched, and everything got at least a coat of primer if not caulk and paint.

And you know what? Everyone survived. The house survived and I survived, and even the bay window survived.

I’ll cop to this, too: you might expect that during the next summer, I was able to circle back and do that last 10-15% of the work and really get it finished off.

I did not. I was super busy, this time on a different ever-expanding freelance job, and when it came to my own house I decided to focus on redoing the back again instead of wrapping up this side, because both things definitely weren’t happening and getting the window and door arrangement right on the back was standing in the way of much further progress on the kitchen.

ROUND AND ROUND WE GO.

I actually think that little roof was OK for about a year, but then it started leaking. OF COURSE it started leaking.

So. I am bound and determined to get this side of the house really finished off this fall. A few weekends ago I replaced the roof all by myself (BOY WAS THAT FUN AND NOT AT ALL THE WORST THING EVER), and I’ve been working my ass off on sanding, scraping, caulking, priming and painting the entire thing. It’s an assload of work but really does feel good to circle back around and really give everything the care and attention it needs! And I gotta say—it’s looking goooooood. Give me a little more good weather and it’ll finally, at long last, be time for the AFTER!

Raised Beds in the Backyard!

When I was little, before I recall having any real interest in growing flowers or trees or shrubs, my parents granted me a little territory in the backyard where I was permitted and encouraged to plant things. Tucked behind the garage and a part of the deck, this was a terraced section of the yard, each level retained by railroad-tie-style walls. It’s a set-up not uncommon for over-scaled homes built in the 1990s, where developers insisted on constructing houses whose boxy plans bore no relation to any given site’s existing topography. The land was simply built-up as needed, compacted, retained, and mulched. Consequently, the soil was difficult to plant in: rocky, full of clay, and nutrient-poor. It was shady back there, too, but I did what I could to encourage the success of my garden. My brother and sister had their own plots adjacent to mine, although I don’t remember my brother ever taking advantage of the opportunity. For her part, year after year my sister wrestled with a few strawberry plants whose results were scant at best, but found her footing more successfully with cucumbers. She took to peeling one and then perching at the kitchen counter with a paper plate of salt in front of her, eating it like a carrot and dipping the gnawed-off end onto the plate between bites. She still does this, and I still find it equal parts cute and grotesque.

Tomatoes were my thing. I don’t recall even especially liking tomatoes, but I really liked growing them. Part of it might have been that I knew my sister—who despised tomatoes—wouldn’t mess with my crops. She treated the plants like they were toxic, as though failing to give them the proper berth would result in disease or instant death. I’m not sure why sibling tampering was such a concern of mine. Would she try to…sabotage me? I can’t really say. We’re deeply competitive.

Likely due to the aforementioned sun and soil conditions, our plants’ production was never especially impressive but we didn’t know that. To us, anything our plants grew that we could eat felt like some form of low-level sorcery. Ripening tomatoes were placed in a neat row along the windowsill behind the sink, and on weekends they’d get sliced and served with bagels and lox to much fanfare and accolades. I loved it.

Then I grew up. Summers in high school tended to keep me away from home for long stretches, so it didn’t make sense to plant crops I couldn’t tend and harvest. Of course I didn’t know that over the next decade I’d find myself in a series of small urban apartments without outdoor space, occasionally entertaining the idea of one of those upside-down tomato plant grower-thingies from Skymall before forgetting about it. Then again, tomatoes were readily available at the store, and—like I said—it’s not like I even love tomatoes. I like them. I really like growing them. Outside. In the sun. And the dirt. With bugs and stuff.

SO. Then I bought a house, and shortly thereafter experienced the revelation that omg I can do that again! Technically, as it happens, some olde-timey Kingston law actually grants me the right to practice my husbandry on a whole goddamned farm. I can have chickens and goats and ducks and probably other stuff I should never, ever be allowed to know about. Can you imagine?? GOATS??? I fucking love goats. I guess let’s see how the veggies go first, though. Then we can discuss urban homesteading the shit outta this joint.

Between the asphalt-covered backyard, and the fence-building, and the front-garden-creating, and then the side-garden-planting, and the great dirt-moving effort, and SO MUCH WORK on the house, and also several other houses, it took a few years for the vegetable garden to start to become a reality.

Originally the idea was something like this. I wrote about it back in 2015. Outside of the new french doors on the garage there would be a fire pit/chill zone, and beyond that 4 large raised beds. As often happens, I’ll throw out an underdeveloped idea, and you guys help to develop it! Primary concerns were a) the location of the fire pit/chill zone is sad and b) those beds are too big to easily tend and c) pea gravel is apparently the work of the devil.

So the plan changed in subtle ways. I put the chill zone in the middle of the beds, and made the raised beds a foot narrower—bringing them down to 3 feet instead of 4 feet wide to make them easier to manage—and aligning them with the structure of the garage and the placement of the new doors. Pea gravel got replaced with reclaimed brick for improved walkability and weed prevention, and this plan felt solid enough to at least get started.

During the autumn that followed the great dirt-moving effort, I managed to build one of my raised beds and even get a coat of stain on it! I was so antsy to just get something done other than filling up the yard with soil, and wanted to see even a small part of my plan enacted just to make sure I even liked it, and that the height and length were right, that kind of thing.

In the spring, I promptly and efficiently picked up where I left off, finished the beds, got them all filled with great soil, and by mid-summer had a booming garden!

HAHAHAHA. I KID. IT DID NOT HAPPEN LIKE THAT AT ALL.

First thing’s first: Marimekko did that line of stuff for Target, so I got myself some cute chairs. I ordered a fire pit on Amazon. It was smaller than I’d imagined and arrived damaged but I was SO DETERMINED TO GET THIS PARTY STARTED that I just decided to use it rather than deal with a return.

Then I set about building the rest of the raised beds. I don’t think it’s especially useful for me to walk you through my process because I wouldn’t do it like this again if I were building these today. Basically the structure is just 1×6 pressure-treated boards attached to 4×4 pressure-treated posts, and I did most of the fastening with shanked siding nails because I was working alone and a nail gun is way easier than a drill and screws if you’re trying to hold things up at the same time.

To keep the middle from bowing out once the box was filled with dirt, I fastened these 2×2 pressure-treated stake things to the posts. They do the job.

I don’t especially know why I chose the wood I chose, but I wish I hadn’t. Pressure treated wood ALWAYS breaks my heart. I don’t know why I keep giving it the benefit of the doubt. It’s like, if you let the boards dry out before using them, they crack and warp and split. If you use them and then let them dry out, they crack and warp and split.

Unsurprisingly, my planter boxes have cracked and warped and split. Not in a way that makes them non-functional, and it’s not even that noticeable, but it is just…annoying.

If you’re interested in building similar but better raised beds, my pals Kim and Scott (sometimes we live parallel lives, I think) tackled pretty much the same project but with a few adjustments, including using 5/4″ decking boards (which are actually 1″ thick) instead of 1-by boards that are actually 3/4″ thick. They also capped off the top perimeters with a board, which looks much better and has the added benefit of obscuring the 4×4 posts.

I’d also strongly consider using cedar rather than pressure-treated, which—again—I have no idea why I didn’t do the first time around, but I didn’t. Cedar should last a comparable amount of time, and is naturally rot-resistant rather than needing to be treated. It should be noted that pressure-treated wood is made very differently than it was years ago, and seems to be now generally accepted as safe for growing edibles, but even just from a functional/aesthetic standpoint I’d prefer the cedar.

Ah well. That’s why this is not a step-by-step tutorial post. The raised beds are 3′ x 10′, and I used Cabot’s solid-color acrylic siding stain in black just on the parts that are visible with the planters filled to avoid unnecessary exposure to the soil.

If this WERE a step-by-step tutorial post, this picture PROBABLY wouldn’t make the cut. Any fledgling vegetation you think you see is just weeds. I built my raised beds in the spring with big ambitions, and then I went and tore the entire side of my house apart, which then meant wrapping up an ENORMOUS exterior project while also trying to reclaim my house as a place fit for living, attempting to pick up the tattered pieces of my kitchen, laundry room, pantry, 1/2 bath, bedroom, office, and den. So some chaos ensued. That was two years ago and I’m honestly only STARTING to feel like the house has recovered. Suffice to say there have been some decisions I would revise if given the opportunity but, of course, that’s not how life works! Lolz. *bursts into tears.*

So I built these raised beds, and then I didn’t plant a single solitary thing. Instead of filling them with soil and plants I filled them with mayhem and foolishness. That was it.

Over the course of that exterior renovation project that summer, I remember one day it felt COMPLETELY logical to spend the afternoon going to get a couple yards of stone dust, so I could begin whatever paving situation I was planning for around the beds. It’s not like there were at LEAST one thousand more pressing things to take care of.

I think by this point I’d actually calculated how many bricks I’d need, and it was almost 2,500 bricks. Which is just simply too many fucking bricks. So then I had this whole idea of using my impressive stock of bluestone slabs to do kind of a flagstone thing between and around the planter boxes.

So we spread landscape fabric and a few inches of stone dust, and then I got to work!

On other stuff. I worked on other stuff. Not my paving solution. Did I mention I wrecked the whole house at once? So my stone dust sat in these weird almost-paths with landscape fabric elegantly bordering them.

Adding insult to injury, one day I was innocently burning off-cuts of framing lumber and whatnot in the fire pit, and the fire department came. They shut that shit down. Apparently there is NO OPEN BURNING in the city of Kingston, which I kind of knew but thought a) was clearly not at all enforced, because fire pits are totally commonplace here and b) didn’t apply to manufactured fire pits, only to, ya know, that guy who wants to arrange some rocks in a circle and burn stuff in it.

Evidently I was mistaken. No open burning. No fire pit. Nobody can seem to give me a straight answer on whether this also applies to things like chimineas, which don’t exactly seem open so I’m maintaining that as an option until I inevitably buy one only to be told I just wasted hundreds of dollars, and to please keep my pyro tendencies in check.

I love burning things. I have a constant and steady supply of things to burn. Everyone back off.

By early the next spring, the situation had devolved into THIS. Feel free to note that the defunct fire pit has not moved. Also feel free to note the extreme chaos and disorder that would be…impossible not to note.

I share stuff like this not because I think embarrassing myself online is THAT fun (it’s a little fun), or because I think this is anything worth emulating, but you know what?

THIS. SHIT. IS. HARD. ALL OF IT. IT IS REALLY HARD. I AM ONE PERSON. TRYING TO DO THESE THINGS. AND THESE THINGS ARE TAKING ME YEARS. BECAUSE THEY ARE VERY BIG THINGS. AND THAT IS JUST HOW IT IS. SOMETIMES LIFE LOOKS LIKE THIS AND IT DOESN’T FEEL GOOD.

So. That’s what I have to say about that.

Like a fucking cherry on top of this shit sundae, also the tree fell. There are three other trees in the opposite corner of the backyard, but seeing as this was the ONLY remaining bit of intentional vegetation within 50 feet or so, this felt like a real slap in the face. On the bright side it was a Rose of Sharon, which I don’t actually like, so. No big loss but I was hoping to have some other stuff going on before removing it.

It wasn’t until early that summer that the beds finally got a little more attention! It was getting late in the season and I didn’t want to delay things further by worrying about giving the raised beds another coat of stain, so I just went ahead and filled them with enough soil, amended with compost, and planted stuff!

After this prolonged process, you can imagine how exciting this felt. Growing things to eat! In my very own backyard! At long last!

This was taken a few weeks after planting and before things really took off, but that summer I planted tomatoes, brussels sprouts, japanese eggplants, parsley, basil, cucumbers, and broccoli! AND IT ALL DID WELL! Like, REALLY well. TOO well. At a certain point, nobody wants your weird homegrown tomatoes anymore. Nobody is interested in your buckets of cucumbers. You can take your multiple kinds of basil and shove it all where the sun don’t shine.

NATURALLY, this coincided with the summer where I really didn’t have a kitchen. Even the makeshift kitchen wasn’t nearly as equipped for actual cooking as it ended up being as the months went on and a new kitchen didn’t magically materialize. The only functioning sink in the entire house was the original bathroom sink upstairs, a shallow double-tapped roughly 130-year-old porcelain little number that is really not ideal for washing dishes or, say, vegetables in.

This is a roundabout way of saying that a lot of those vegetables ended up making really nice compost for this year’s vegetables, and I still feel lousy about it.

ALSO. AS WE CAN ALL PLAINLY SEE. I was delusional about the amount of stone I thought I had. It’s so hard to tell when things are in piles. Then you spread them all around and it becomes painfully obvious that you have miscalculated. Maybe you spread a little more, because denial. And then you’re like, why did I spend hours spreading all these individually heavy objects out that now I have to put back? So perhaps you don’t put them back. Perhaps you decide that by seeing them all splayed about, inspiration will come. Perhaps while the inspiration is coming, you allow the spaces between them to fill with weeds that seem to overnight become as tall as you, turning your compost-from-the-dump garbage dustbowl yard into a kind of weed resort-spa.

Perhaps.

Also you may notice I built 4 planters but have planted 2. On one hand, due to the truly insane amount of produce for someone with no easy means to cook it, I’m glad for this. On the other hand, it’s just because they were still in a state that was not good for planting, i.e. full of mayhem and foolishness rather than dirt and mulch.

WHICH brings us to this summer, where things are still nuts but not as nuts. This summer I got 3 of the 4 beds planted, this time with tomatoes, collard greens, romaine, chard, japanese eggplants, basil, parsley, cilantro, cucumbers, kale, broccoli, lavender and tarragon!

Every year you learn something about what to do next year, so now I know I definitely need to do tomato cages next year (I really like Joe Gardener’s approach!), definitely don’t need this many collard greens, strawberries are still kind of a waste of time, and I really don’t eat as much parsley as I thought I did.

Oh also! You can see where I decided to put the stone to use—walls! I’ve been chipping away at building these dry-stacked stone walls to kind of separate this area from the rest of the yard. It’s slow work but each stone that gets placed represents just a littttttle bit of progress, and there’s something kind of nice and meditative about that. Isn’t THIS ENTIRE ENDEAVOR basically just…that? Stone by stone until it starts to be something.

Look at those little tiny bottom teef! Look at the size of those weeds! The weed situation is sometimes under control and other times intense and not under control. This is in large part because there’s no weed barrier around and between most of the planter boxes or anything else to discourage weeds from growing.

Which leads us: back to the original plan for pea gravel! I cannot be talked down this time for various reasons. It is practical, it is affordable, it is beautiful, it is classic, and I have loved it forever. I believe I have a healthy understanding of the pros and cons and I have decided that the pros outweigh the cons and so IT IS SETTLED.

Except for the part where all summer now I have been talking about the enormous amount of pea gravel imminently arriving in my yard, but have not actually ordered or bought any pea gravel. Like every other summer, the demands of the house renovation and other projects have forced the backyard down the list of priorities, so while I WISH this area looked a whole lot better by now—and honestly expected it to—it’s not like the tomatoes really care whether they’re surrounded by pea gravel paths or bare landscape fabric or dirt. I’m still dying to get at least some of the gravel down while the weather’s still nice, since I’m excited for it and SO TIRED of looking at this mess.

ANYWAY. Now that I have more than sufficiently whined and moaned about stuff being difficult and time-consuming and disappointingly slow, I’d like to circle back to the part at the beginning—you know, about how this is fun and satisfying. I LOVE growing food in my backyard. I LOVE puttering around the beds, pulling weeds and cutting things back, yanking out spent plants to make way for new ones, thinking about what I’ll do the same and differently next year. It’s a fucking lovely experienceand someday it’ll be beautiful, too. Stone by stone.

 

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