All posts in: Kingston House

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.

 

Business in the Front, Party in the Back: Garage Edition.

I’ve owned my house for over five years now, and I have never—not once—parked a car in my garage. Honestly I often forget that it’s even a potential option, even though it’s right behind the house and I see it everyday. Both online and in real life, people persistently tend to refer to my garage as a “shed” or a “shack,” which for a while confused me. It has a garage door that faces the street and everything! But then I realized…that I use it as a shed-shack…and think of it as a shed-shack…and more than likely talk about it like a shed-shack while I continue to not utilize the ENTIRE SEPARATE BUILDING that I have ON MY VERY PROPERTY built SPECIFICALLY for the ultra-fancy purpose of sheltering THE THIRD MOST EXPENSIVE THING I OWN, behind my house and my debt, and MAYHAPS I should really start thinking of it as a garage?

Which really conflicts with my evident aspiration to also have a personal lumberyard, so it’s a tough call. I don’t know. We don’t need to dwell on it. We’re just talking about what the shed-shack is like right at this moment in time. To do that, let’s look at where we’ve been. Behold:

This is when I bought the house. The great thing about having such dire before photos is that I can never really feel that bad about how things stand today because, well…look! Evidently, there had been some kind of half-baked effort to extend the garage to accommodate a boat, which—speaking as a person who can barely maneuver my small utility trailer into my own driveway (or any kind of space, really)—sounds patently absurd. Clearly the project was abandoned before it had really gotten off the ground, though, leaving this…weed and trash pit?

Additionally, take note of the little door in that first image, because it becomes relevant shortly. OMG HANG ON, we’ll get there.

SO. When ALL THAT ASPHALT got removed from the backyard (prompting the insane summer of dirt-hauling and praying for the sweet relief of death), so did that cinderblock foundation, which left this charming view! There’s something about an old sloppy siding patch that I’m actually kind of fond of, even though I have NO patience for new sloppy patch jobs. I finally made the connection that the missing window on the back of the garage never actually left the premises, but rather got recycled as the old laundry room window! Which has now also been replaced, but anyway. What an odd choice.

Inside the garage, things had gotten a JUST A LITTLE crowded. Demo over at Bluestone Cottage had left me with piles and piles of wood trim to store until it gets cleaned up and re-installed. My first fencing project had left behind an extra panel. Upstairs kitchen demo supplied a kitchen’s worth of base cabinets and formica countertops, poor decisions granted me a bunch of falling-apart shutters that I intercepted at the dump, a twenty-dollar price tag on a cute art deco dresser had saddled me with…an extra dresser. And so on. You get the idea.

I’m not really sure when or exactly why somebody drywalled the whole interior of the garage, and in retrospect it might have been kind of nice…but it wasn’t in good condition, appeared moldy in some spots, and somewhat interfered with the plan to install new electric in here to run power tools, new exterior lighting, etc.

SO! I gutted all the drywall, exposing the unpainted backside of the shiplap siding and the studs. Rustic? Sure. Rustic.

A couple months before, my friends Kim and Scott over at Yellow Brick Home had put some super impressive work into their own detached garage, including adding these simple and strong wood brackets for storing excess lumber. Their garage is what garage dreams are made of. “Great!” I said. “I’ll do that, too!”

So I did that too.

Except I have a lot more wood than Kim and Scott do. And also a much smaller garage. These are two facts you might think I would have considered beforehand, but evidently I’m incapable of thinking this many steps ahead.

Simple brackets. I can build simple brackets. Here I am, building simple brackets as day turns to dusk. Brackets out of scrap wood to hold more scrap wood.

Turns out there is a real compatibility problem between me and these brackets. You also might think I would have foreseen this, but once again. Too many steps ahead. Lower those expectations PLEASE.

See, each one takes up a lot of space. The space that is a particular issue is that diagonal brace, because once your wood pile gets to the base of that diagonal brace, subsequent pieces of wood inch forward, causing your pile to be weird and uneven, and things to fall, and general mishap. The solution here is obviously to not have so much goddamned wood that the piles ever get higher than the bottom of the diagonal brace, but that’s obviously too much to ask of me at this moment in my life. Someday I will have used up a lot of this wood (I SWEAR I HAVE PLANS FOR ALMOST ALL OF IT PROBABLY I THINK) and this might not be an issue anymore. Even still, though, it’s not an especially space-efficient design.

What I SHOULD HAVE DONE (and later did do on one wall) was suck it up and buy these storage racks, because they’re a) made for this very purpose b) well-designed and very sturdy c) pretty macho. Unfortunately once I started building my simple brackets I couldn’t stop building my simple brackets.

Because I simply must tell you EVERYTHING, demo revealed another now-covered window on the other side of the garage, directly opposite the other window!

Siding is patched over on the exterior, and this window faces the fence that divides my property line from the neighbor’s. Maybe someday I’ll restore it but for now it’s kinda not hurting anybody.

SO. Back to the wall opposite the garage door. At this point there is lumber everywhere so I take a break to use a very small amount of it.

Remember when I said to take note of the skinny door on the side of the garage? It’s only 28″ wide—which is fine for just walking in and out, but try carrying a table saw through it. Or a long piece of wood. Or the lawnmower.

YES there’s a big garage door on the opposite end of the garage, but it’s outside of the fence, doesn’t have an electric opener, and stays locked for security…so using it means making sure the dog is in the house, opening the garage door from the inside, out onto the sidewalk with whatever the probably heavy thing is, back into the backyard through the gate, back into the garage to close it, back to the house to let the dog out who has now eaten something I forgot I left on the table…this was a pain.

Long ago I dazzled you with this beautiful SketchUp rendering of my backyard, which is mostly different than anything I’ve done or plan to do anymore, but adding doors to the back of the garage didn’t change! The idea is that it allows more light into the garage, and provides an easy, convenient, and LARGE access to bring big things in and out. In theory you could put a table saw or a planer in the middle of the garage, open up both sides, and feed a long board through. In practice, thusfar there has always been too much stuff for this concept to become a reality, but I HAVE DREAMS, OK?

So, I invited my friends over for a relaxing afternoon of light framing work and demolition. And by friends I mean Edwin and Edgar, the ride-or-die power duo I rope into pretty much everything I do. We built a header with hoarded lumber and supported it with hoarded jack and king studs. Evil plan in action!

Then we cut a big hole! Light streamed in! Angels sang!

Into the opening, we inserted this set of pre-hung french doors. Pre-hung doors are so simple! So drama-free! A few shims, a few screws, and viola! Doors!

Edgar, who is magic with a circular saw, ripped off the ends of the siding around the door to accommodate a new casing.

The hardest part of assembling the new cashing is, luckily, not very hard! A few passes on the table saw and I had a good replica of the drip cap that sits over the other doors and windows on the garage and parts of the house. Some lumber yards have this piece available, too.

Some more scrap wood and a hefty dose of Bondo later…looking pretty good, doors!

Speaking of Bondo: Bondo is a bit tricky and, I find, unreliable for exterior wood repairs, at least in this climate. Some people swear by it, some people won’t touch the stuff—I fall somewhere in the middle. I’ve had repairs fail after just one year on bare wood, although repairs where I’ve used at least 1-2 coats of primer on bare wood before applying Bondo have been fine—for now, at least. A much better product—although more expensive and time-consuming (it takes about a week to cure)— is Abatron WoodEpox. For what it’s worth, although not recommended, I’ve never seen a Bondo repair on interior painted woodwork fail—just outside. It can’t seem to take the expansion and contraction that occurs with exterior woodwork in the upstate NY climate.

SO. Way back when I said I was going to do this, and then a bit later did it, and then neglected to blog about it, there was comment drama about the doors. They are pine. They are made for interior, not exterior use. They are single pane and not particularly weatherproof. I chose them in large part because they were affordable at $377, and I figured worst case scenario, someday I’ll have to replace them into a now-existing standard-sized opening, which isn’t really such a big deal. I stand by it! They’ve been through 3 whole winters at this point and haven’t shifted or shown separation at joints, etc., and I think they should last many more years without issue.

SO. Current Status: TOO MUCH WOOD. In fairness there are many not-wood items like a few large tools, 2 spare cast iron sinks (as one does), various gardening and landscaping accoutrement, roofing shingles for a rainy day (get it?), window sash (pl.), extra corbels, uh…I don’t know, stuff. It’s an overcrowded disaster which I swear is not nearly as disorganized as it might appear. I have a LOT of interior finishing work coming up (THANK GOD. I AM SO TIRED OF FRAMING AND PLUMBING AND ELECTRIC AND INSULATION AND SIDING I COULD SCREAM. I AM SCREAMING.), so I’m kind of perversely excited to see how thinned out I can get this in the coming months. Also, intensely motivated to get this garage back under control because this is driving me nuts. At a certain point the strategy backfires because there’s too much to even see what you have, and fishing it out becomes a big hassle.

Additionally. You may note. That the last two are recent pictures. And I mentioned these doors were installed 3 years ago. There is a simple explanation for this. I never actually finished painting the doors. Because I just did not. The options were to finish painting the doors or do something other than finish painting the doors, and I have consistently chosen the latter option for multiple years now.

Also, they really need hardware. The lack of hardware is an issue.

TA-DA!!!

Living Room, 5 years In!

I’ve realized lately that I tend to blog about a room once it’s renovated, and then I kind of move on. I guess I feel like…how many times does anyone possibly want to look at the same room, just a little altered from last time we looked at the room? I never feel like a room is finished because I move stuff around ALL THE DAMN TIME for shits and giggles, and then posting about it feels so…self-indulgent? Unimportant? And then years go by and the room actually does look TOTALLY different than it did before, and then I feel a little regretful that entire iterations of the space have gone undocumented in the meantime. The public must know. For the purpose of…I don’t know, this is a blog and that is what we do here.

Which leads us to my living room, which regularly ends up as the victim of my late-night puttering. And the last time I felt inclined to write a blog post about it was OVER THREE YEARS AGO! Oopsie! We have some catching up to do!

Back when I bought the house, the living room looked like this!

A couple years later, it looked like this! Let’s take a moment to appreciate and mourn the extreme cuteness and specialness that was Linus. I miss that dog so fucking much.

Today, it’s more like this! I didn’t consult my old pictures before taking new pictures, so APOLOGIES for the inconsistent angles. I didn’t ask Mekko (or Linus, who did not take direction) to pose for pictures—she does that on her own free will—so, I don’t know, do we feel weirded out she chose the same spot? It’s like she…is trying to tell me…something. (She isn’t; she’s a dog.)

So some things have changed and some have not changed. My dumb little bench is still my coffee table, which really just goes to show how utterly impossible it is to find a good coffee table. I MEAN MY GOD. All the ones that are right in most ways are still so wrong in other ways I fear I will die before the culture at large figures this mess out.

I got that painting a couple weeks ago from a local consignment place. I had this idea that I’d paint the frame but instead I got home and immediately just put it up and so far have not addressed it further. It appears to be signed S. Eagle in the bottom right corner. Seagull?

Also, the sofa is new! And by new, I mean no longer really new, but I guess making its big blog debut? Just in time for me to WANT IT OUT OF MY HOUSE RIGHT NOW? Fancy that! So this is the IKEA NOCKEBY 3-seater, which I found in the As-Is section at IKEA around 3 years ago for something stupid, like $200. I didn’t like the legs so I swapped them for these Pretty Pegs, which this couch isn’t really made to do but I made it work. I’ll spare you the DIY tutorial but it involves extra screws and additional support and it’s just not that interesting. Anyway. The NOCKEBY is in most ways a good sofa, but I’m not allowed to own a sofa that isn’t going to also serve as a luxury dog bed. This sofa has a limited selection of slipcovers, and this one (which may now be discontinued?) is TERRIBLE when forced to interact with either dog hair or dog nails. TERRIBLE. Of course it can be taken off and washed, but with IKEA couches that’s actually kind of a production, and it doesn’t wash well, and I just do not like it at all.

This lead me to purchasing a SECOND, DIFFERENT slipcover, which had a tighter weave, and that was SOMEHOW EVEN WORSE. After trying every stain removal method I could imagine, I could never get the thing clean and I eventually threw it away.

SO now I’m at this dumb crossroads of either buying yet another slipcover ($$) for this so-so cheap sofa I performed some light hackery on, or getting this menace out of my life and buying a new leather sofa ($$$). I suppose I could also just put the original black/chrome sofa back, since I still have it, and it IS leather, but I didn’t like it in here either so I’m not sure that’s an improvement.

I think I just need a different sofa.

Let me think about it for another three to five years.

The rug is also new! But not new-new. I got it at auction and I like it! The colors and the pattern are so bright and bold and fun. Which is also me saying: I have not taken the time to learn anything about the origins of this rug, but it is a nice rug that was $300 and the main color is mustard and I’m into it.

2013! Those walls were wild, man.

2015.

So this looks like that now, you get it. More stuff on the mantel. Less big scary lady. Bertoia wire chair from yore still hangin out.

Ya know, I feel like I pulled this faux fireplace project off.

The arts above the fireplace are by Gregory Gummersall. On the mantel are stuff and things. We have vintage studio pottery. We have my dead dog’s collar. We have 2 Dala horses. We have my precious lamp. We have some antique crocks.

WE HAVE THIS BANANAS CRYSTAL I paid $5 for at a garage sale recently. I’m not, like, a ~crystal person~ but I’m totally a crystal person. Also, Dala horse butts are so cute.

This is 2015. This wall has always been tricky. I’ve since moved the piano. I have NO IDEA what to do with the piano. It’s HUGE and in reality, there are exactly 3 walls on the main floor that can fit it. I do not play piano. I do not have any desire to learn how to play the piano. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to know how to play the piano, but I do not see myself trying to learn that of all things in the foreseeable future. Shower/car singing is my only real musical passion. But I have this huge piano that came with my home, because the man who lived in it FROM AGE SEVEN TO NINETY-TWO was the lead organist at the Old Dutch Church and taught piano lessons out of this very house during the Depression and, like, the war and shit and who the hell am I to put his piano on fucking Facebook Marketplace?

It’s a real problem.

Also I got a nice bench that matches it pretty perfectly. And then I moved them both into the hoard room of doom.

So, in a fit of I-don’t-know-what, I made this situation all by myself and I call it Curiosity Corner because I don’t know what it does, it just is. It is my things assembled in a way that is just a way to look at a lot of things at once. Shiny objects I have acquired by various means.

The mirrors are nutso but I like it a little nutso.

I inherited these two really groovy lucite end tables from a recent exciting purge of my parents’ storage space, which came in a shipment including things like my old soccer trophies and these truly astonishingly long spools I made of my finger-knittings (not pictured). The tables originally came from my grandparents’ house! I don’t really have anywhere for large end tables like this right now, so to maximize Curiosity Corner I put them side-by-side and then put things all around them. Over! Under! Inside! More things!

That blanket folded up on the chair, yonder, I bought at a war reenactment with my friend Chandler in high school. The bud vase I got at a thrift store in Sweden. That little colorful container has a set of matching coasters in it, and once lived in my grandparents’ rec room (the other grandparents, not the lucite table grandparents). My friend Maya gave me that mirror above the lamp. The lamp is from IKEA and I love that thing. Maybe not as precious as some of the other stuff but I’d still TRY to save it in a fire.

Also on display are a few things I’ve found in the walls or swept into the corner of the attic, that kind of thing. I blogged about the one in the back a while ago!

Is this…doxxing? Forgive me Madame Jeanson.

That pillow in the background was part of the Marimekko for Target collection and the alpaca wool pillow on my safari chair was a thrift find a couple weeks ago! It was $20 with the down insert and is in PERFECT condition. It’s by Elvang Denmark and was…definitely more than $20 new. Look at me with a fancy throw pillow.

Does that about cover things? Mekko’s OVER. IT.

The Great Dirt-Moving Effort!

Every year it’s the same: I spend all winter being sad about the cold, and then spring and summer hit and I’m all like HOLD UP because that means I have to pick up where I left off with exterior work. The earlier I get to it the better because summers here are hot and muggy, but of course there are a finite number of hours in the day so the interior work slows way down. Which is sad, because the interior of my house is still…well, a work in progress, let’s say. A work in progress that’s occasionally frustrating to live in, that I have to force myself to de-prioritize during these warmer months because otherwise the exterior might, I dunno, get overtaken by weeds and die of neglect. Houses, man. Yards. They keep you busy. I do not recommend them if you value free time.

With so much work constantly happening both on the interior and exterior of the house, the backyard in particular has inched along veryyyy slowly. I’ve probably put more effort into the street-facing front and side gardens, primarily in the hope that a few decent-looking plants might distract from the…less charming aspects of my perpetually-being-renovated house. But the back? It’s basically a blank slate. I have a fence. I have some patchy grass. In terms of other amenities, my yard also offers a pile of chimney bricks, a steady supply of dog shit and toys laying around, a ton of irregular bluestone pieces, and a few scraggly plants I’ve stuck in the ground.

It’s not like I have acreage or anything, but I do have a really large yard for Kingston! It’s part of what I love about the house, but it’s also a lot to take care of. And a lot to figure out, because I want it to be a beautiful lush amazing (much more private!!!) paradise but I also find it kind of discouraging because of how much time and money I’ve already dumped into it.

Yes, you read that right. Those two pictures above are the products of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of hard work. CAN’T YOU TELL? DO YOU FEEL MOTIVATED YET?!?

I guess I know it could be worse, because oh boy has it been worse! Sometimes when I’m out here feeling so sad and dejected about my barren landscape, I have to remind myself of how the majority of the yard was asphalt when I bought this place! The whole yard was covered in snow the first time I saw the house, so this actually came as a surprise at the first or second walk-through, but at that point I was too in love with the house for a little blacktop to scare me off.

“We’ll just get it removed!” I proclaimed with confidence.

And it did get removed…to the tune of about $2,000, if memory serves, because I have refused to think about it since. YIKES. It took 5 full days and multiple backhoes and excavators to get it done. The thing I didn’t totally realize at the time is that under the asphalt would be a layer of large gravel (item #4, if you wanna get all technical about it), so you have to remove a lot of material to get back down to something resembling clean-ish dirt.

Like, a lot a lot. About TWENTY dump trucks worth.

At the end, they did what they could to flatten everything out and left this attractive scene, which soon started to fill in with weeds. Sure, I’ll take it!

Then it rained. And rained a few more times. And that area that had been covered with asphalt? Turned into a very large, shallow pond. Which, in the winter, turned into a sheet of ice. It’s a shame that depth gets so lost in photos because it really doesn’t portray how bad this was!

The lumpy piles of dirt behind Mekko is all the grass I excavated out of the front garden by hand and then rolled back here in a wheelbarrow. I adorably thought this would solve the problem or at least improve things, but the dent it made was…negligible.

A little while later, I transported a couple pick-up truck loads of dirt from Bluestone Cottage’s front yard, since that yard needed to be graded down and this one needed to be graded up. “This’ll fix it!” I thought to myself again.

Not remotely.

At this point, the availability of free solutions had seemed to run out, and with the new fence in placereally wanted to start getting the backyard in shape! So I stuck the plastic stakes from Lowe’s into the ground and attached a long length of neon pink nylon twine between them, pulling VERY taught. This helped me see where the lowest points were and build up as needed. I considered getting a delivery of soil, but the delivery was kind of expensive, and even with a soil calculator (like this one!), I didn’t feel confident that I had any idea how much I actually needed. I also liked the idea of bringing it into the yard in manageable chunks rather than having the landscaping place deposit a mountain-sized pile that I’d have to just chip away at, blocking my driveway until it was all gone. Hauling it myself seemed, at the time, to make a lot of practical sense.

Not that long before, I got a new car—a practical Subaru SUV. I kept saying that perhaps a pick-up truck would be a better investment at least for this period in my life when hauling large and heavy things is such a regular occurrence, but everyone in my life seemed to think this was patently ridiculous. So instead I got this utility trailer, the bed of which is slightly over 4×8 feet, meaning it’s perfect for drywall and plywood and lumber. I subsequently learned that the trailer is a complete pain in the ass, and difficult to steer in reverse, and in short order I managed to crunch both front corners of my bumper and a rearview mirror while trying to maneuver it. More recently the trailer became unhitched on a job site and smashed the trunk in, too. I hate that thing with the fire of a thousand suns. But also I need it. Because I didn’t buy the pick-up.

SO ANYWAY, now my still-new-ish car is super fucked and the trailer is not holding up annnnddddddd next time maybe I should listen less to those around me when it comes to my driving/hauling needs. It’s all very stupid. That’s not what we’re here to talk about though. We’re talking about the much more exciting topic of dirt.

I took my jacked up car with my jacked up utility trailer to a local landscaping place, where they sell fill dirt. Things like this (mulch, gravel, etc) are usually sold by the “yard,” which you can think of as a 3′ x 3′ x 3′ cube. There are different types of dirt—topsoil is higher quality and full of nutrients and shit like that, and lesser soils are cheaper and good for fill but not great for growing gardens and stuff. I decided to start with cheaper fill, and then finish off with a layer of better topsoil.

About 1 yard of fill fits in that trailer, or around 2,000 pounds, so thus commenced my new weekend tradition of getting as many loads into the yard as I could before it became either completely unbearable or the place closed. Because my trailer doesn’t have a hydraulic lift or anything fancy like that, I had to drive the trailer into the yard, climb in, unload the soil a shovel-full at a time, and then rake it out and level it.

Each time it seemed like SO MUCH DIRT and each time all that dirt barely made a dent.

So I kept having to go back to get more dirt.

Bring in the trailer, shovel it all out, spread, and go back for more. Did I mention how hot and muggy summers are here? This is the worst game I’ve ever played.

This was also getting expensive. A yard of fill from the landscaping place was about $45, so all of a sudden I’m spending literal hundreds of dollars and an obscene amount of effort to bring a bunch of crappy soil into my yard. THE JOYS OF HOMEOWNERSHIP!

After a couple weekends of this, I was bringing demolition debris of some variety to the dump, as I do. And then I saw something over yonder, in the distance.

Mounds. Mounds of dirt. JOE! TELL ME ABOUT THAT DIRT!

Joe is my friend at the dump. I like to bring him a milkshake if I go. Joe likes milkshakes.

Turns out, it’s county compost! From the county! Made at the dump! Literal garbage dirt! This is the dirt for meeeeeee!

It’s actually kind of cool—if you look closely at those mounds, on the far right there’s a pile of newly deposited branches and leaves and stuff. This is where the county’s yard waste bags end up, food scraps from the restaurant composting program, etc. There, they fester for a while, until enough of it has broken down to go into pile #2, and so on. Once it’s gone through this sequence, it goes into that red machine you see on the far left, which essentially grinds it up, breaking down any remaining branches or things that decompose slowly. Then it goes into another pile and continues to brew until somebody who might be me buys it. Cool. Gross. I like it.

Because it’s all compost, I assume this soil is actually much better than the soil I’d been getting, AND it was $35/ton (which is about a yard), so $10 cheaper than the landscaping place.

So I got a load.

Drive it home. Deposit the dirt. Spread the dirt. Go back again.

And again.

And again.

Also, again.

All told, I repeated this procedure THIRTY TIMES. Which means I moved, out of the trailer and into the yard by hand, roughly SIXTY THOUSAND POUNDS of dirt. Just dirt. It was SO much more than I anticipated.

This has to be the least satisfying way I have ever managed to blow through more than a thousand dollars. I stopped keeping track because it was just too depressing.

BUT HARD WORK PAYS OFF! JUST LOOK AT THIS OASIS I CREATED! It just feels like such a SANCTUARY from the outside world and…oh wait, sorry wrong slide. That’s Bunny William’s garden.

LOOK AT THIS OASIS I CREATED! LUSH! VERDANT! A TRUE OUTDOOR LIVING SPACE FIT FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!

Fortunately this is not a current picture, and things have improved somewhat steadily since that time. I’ve been terrible about sharing backyard progress, I think because I keep waiting for some part of it to look great. And what am I going to do, write a whole post about…moving 30 tons of dirt?

Then I decided that’s exactly what I’ll do, because progress is progress. No lie, it BLOWS that it took this much time and effort and money to get to this very barren depressing square 1, but a lot of landscaping work (hell, renovation work!) is a very long slog that only starts to feel good when all that slow progress accumulates to something that finally feels worthwhile. We have a couple of summers worth of work to catch up on, though, so in lieu of stunning After! images that are realistically probably a decade away, let’s just try to enjoy this whole process for the grueling and occasionally exciting operation that it is! I guess.

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