All posts in: Kingston House

Kitchen and Pantry: 2018 Edition + 2019 Plans

Oh, did you think this was a reveal post? A real meat-n-potatoes before and after? You’re so CUTE! It’s not done. Don’t get crazy.

It’s been about nine months since we talked about my kitchen and pantry, though—the two rooms at the back of the house that have undergone the most extensive changes of any part of the house. I’d recommend giving that last post a read-through if you want to get a sense of the whole sequence of events! Normally 9 months would be an adequate amount of time to comfortably complete a kitchen renovation, not to mention the two years that preceded it, but…well, not in this house! This is a huge project that has required changes to every single wall—interior and exterior—which of course took serious time on its own and occured in the background of a bunch of other huge projects that also take a lot of time and attention.

It’s also an EXPENSIVE project, as kitchens tend to be—a lot more expensive than you might expect given the fact that I’m doing the vast majority of the work myself and avoiding a lot of huge expenses that normal kitchen renovations might have—a tiled floor, for instance, or all new appliances or custom cabinets. I still EASILY managed to budget out $25,000—almost entirely materials—before I freaked out and lit my computer on fire. That’s serious money that I do not have! If you’re really interested we can get into how that breaks down, but that would entail me actually looking at the Excel document that spit out that number which…eh, I’d rather not. 

SO ANYWAY. 

Major progress was made in 2018, so let’s discuss! Less than a year ago I was still cooking on a hot plate in the dining room and running to the upstairs bathroom whenever I needed the luxury of running water, and I had my dishwasher draining into a bucket, sooooo. Things have improved immensely, slow as it may be!

This is the south wall, which is the side of the house I just finished up working on this fall, sporting its new windows! For reference, more or less in that space between the two new windows, there used to be a large doorway with a transom window leading out into the now-demolished, then-deteriorating solarium. Around the middle of the window on the right, there was a wall that separated the kitchen from what was originally a back staircase (removed in the 1930s), which had been turned into two closets, which I made into one long skinny closet that housed my old pantry

JUST A FEW SMALL ALTERATIONS. NO BIGGIE.

I think last time we saw my old laundry space, it was looking something like this. Now that I have a new second floor laundry space, I no longer mourn the loss of this one, but…man. Gutting that (perfectly nice, totally functional, already renovated) room felt so horrible at the time. I felt confident in my plan but I was still worried I’d regret it, and I really can’t even explain how chaotic the house felt at the time. So purposefully creating EVEN MORE CHAOS was just all around extremely unappealing, but it had to happen for everything to proceed. Sometimes you make a big mess.

I think I can comfortably say I’ve seen the upper asscrack of everyone I’ve ever worked on a renovation with. That doesn’t mean you get to. It’s earned, not given. 

With the old laundry room all gutted out, as well as the bathroom on the other side, and the new window/exterior door placements all squared away, it was time to take care of the last of the framing work! It never ends! One of the things I’d like to spend a little time doing is mocking up the original layout of these spaces, from what I’ve been able to tell during renovation. It’s amazing how many times the back of the house appears to have changed to suit different periods and needs as the house moved from having servants to being divided into apartments to (maybe?) being restored to a single family before being divided again. 

So with this iteration, I’m stealing the space that the first floor bathtub used to occupy (yes, otherwise known as the corpse tub), turning that bathroom into a half-bath, and using the stolen space for the fridge and pantry space. Haunted fridge! I also had that waste line from the upstairs bathroom re-routed to fit between the wall that divides the new half-bath from the pantry. It’s so nice not having to box it in!

Finally. The entrance to the new pantry space got moved over a few feet from where it was and enlarged. I wanted a nice flow between the spaces but definitely am not going for “open concept,” so essentially I replicated the doorway that used to be on the other side of the room that led to the old solarium. So it’s wide and tall and will have a transom window and it’s all fake but I think will easily pass as original. Except for the part where I tell everyone.

And JUST WHEN YOU THINK you’re done, you remember that you still have to frame in the ceilings in the pantry and half-bath. Easy enough, but just like…really?! MORE?! Then I laid new 3/4″ plywood subfloors right on top of the existing floors—the kitchen is actually built a bit lower than the rest of the house, so this works out because now all the floors should be level with each other, and it meant a lot less demo! I’m not usually a “slap another layer on” type of renovator, but in this case it made sense. 

Then electric and plumbing went in, which of course was a whole rigamarole too. New sink location. New stove location. New everything locations. Unreliable plumbers. Same shit.

I’m not not a little proud of my garbage little sink stand I made to fit a stainless steel sink that came out of a project a few years ago. Hey, it’s a sink!! IN THE KITCHEN! It only took a mere 19 months from the removal of the other sink! Right on schedule; just fabulous. 

At this point it was April, and I knew it was going to be a supremely busy spring/summer, between freelance work and the projects at my house I really needed to prioritize during the warm weather, like resolving a ton of exterior work. At some point I made peace with the realization that there was no way in hell this kitchen was getting done for another year or more. And really? That’s fine. Totally fine. I can work with undone as long as it functions reasonably OK, and it would give me ample time to use the space, really settle on finishes and things, and address any possible errors in judgment up to this point before all the finishing work is done and it becomes a massive pain to change anything. 

I’m fickle. In case that was not painfully clear. 

I began putting up walls—but probably not the walls you were expecting! More plywood! I did this for a few reasons:

  1. I had a lot of scrap around, so I could do part of the room that way. Free is good! I could also manage the pieces myself.
  2. I know, kind of, that I want some treatment around the lower part of the room, and at the time thought vertical beadboard. Since then I have tossed around approximately 7,000 more ideas and it could end up being anything. Rather than installing a ton of blocking or adding furring strips, plywood turns the whole surface into one big nailer, which makes install easy. Added to this, plywood is a very stable material that doesn’t expand and contract like regular lumber, so it helps avoid movement of a finish material like beadboard over time. I picked this up from a restoration friend of mine and I think it’s a good tip!  
  3. It’s modular! If I need to make changes to the electric (which—surprise!—I do need a few changes), it’s easy to take the ply down to add outlets or re-set boxes at a desired height and depth, etc. It’ll also be easy to swap with drywall if I end up tiling.

At long, long last, it was finally time to say goodbye to the exposed ceiling joists, that ugly insulation, the dust-shedding backside of the plaster dining room wall…I have no words. It was the best.

I gladly hired Edwin and Edgar to hang, tape, and skim the drywall. I’m glad I did. In a few days it was done, and that’s a beautiful thing. I used Purple XP drywall in a 5/8″ thickness, which is mold and mildew resistant and has a high-density gypsum core, making it a lot more substantial than your regular 1/2″ lightweight drywall. I like a solid wall.

Bear in mind that I have not had walls or a ceiling since this kitchen renovation started so many moons ago, and open walls/ceilings swallow up a lot of natural light. I’d gotten used to the kitchen feeling…not dark, I guess, but not what I had in mind when I tore off two additions, a fire escape, installed four large new windows and a big doorway into another room with another window and a half-lite door. YA KNOW?!

AND THEN I REMEMBERED WHAT THE WHOLE IDEA HAS BEEN ALL ALONG, which is a big (well, not too big) bright beautiful kitchen!  IT’S ALL HAPPENING. Walls. Ceilings. Both such nice things to have. FYI.

Now it is the end of April. Which means it’s time for outside work to commence. Which means it’s time to wrap this shit up for at least the next 6 months or so. I gave myself a single weekend to make it happen.

Watch carefully. I was like a madman. 

First, I cleaned off the skim-coated walls and ceiling of compound dust and hit them with one single thin coat of primer. This seals in any dust and makes the walls a little wipeable. Parts of the walls will need more compound and/or caulk as I get around to things like installing moldings, so there didn’t seem to be a lot of sense in really painting. Just a little painting. 

Then I pulled a gallon I’d labeled “Frankengrey” out of the basement and hit the plywood walls with it. I ran out of paint so I didn’t do the pantry, just the kitchen. I was SUPREMELY lazy with this paint job and a little pleased with myself for it not even being the worst-looking thing ever. Like literally I just turned my roller sideways and ran it along the top of the plywood and I don’t care at all that it’s not a perfect line or anything. It’s fine. It’s all fine! Tape is for squares. 

AND THEN. THE PIÈCE DE RÉSISTANCE. I pulled all my half-empty little cans of dark wood stain out, threw them in a bucket, mixed in some mineral spirits, and stained that damn plywood subfloor. Because IDGAFFFFFFFFF.

Then I sealed it with a gallon of Bona Traffic HD that I found at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore for about 94% off retail cost. I don’t want to live with an unsealed plywood floor, especially in a kitchen, but if I can mop it? SURE WHY NOT. 

This is also a good opportunity to try out having dark wood floors! An admission, friends: I’ve lived in my house for almost 6 years and haven’t refinished the floors (which desperately need it) but, worse, I don’t even know what I want to do with them. The hardwood flooring is a later addition so nothing is really “correct”…it’s more a matter of what will look good? I’ve definitely seen very dark floors look great in houses of this vintage—I feel like it helps them sort of fade into the background so things like rugs and furniture can shine. 

But. I think. I’ve decided that. I DON’T LIKE THESE DARK FLOORS. They’re…well…dark, for starters. And they seem to show everything. Not nearly the way my white painted floor in my little office used to, but enough that they don’t stay looking clean for more than a few hours after mopping. With two dogs going in and out of the backyard a hundred times a day, I just don’t think the very dark floor lifestyle is a match for me.

So. That’s been informative.

Do you like my 1/4″ plywood window casings?! Thank you I worked very hard on them.

I moved in what’s left of my old kitchen cabinets and topped them with an 8′ piece of butcherblock from Lowe’s, and placed my life-saving induction burners where the range will eventually materialize. I found a little antique work table and stuck that in there as an island, too.

I threw down this kinda hideous, kinda great rug just to brighten her up a little, some furniture and shelving and an art and BADABOOM, GODDAMN IT, IT’S A KITCHEN. I mean I’m not congratulating myself on it being gorgeous but HEY, it doesn’t look like a construction site totally either?! That’s progress. 

I’m not sure I can adequately express how nice it was to finally get the fridge and this dresser out of the dining room! The dresser has been very helpful as extra kitchen storage while I’m working with so few cabinets. I opted to just plywood everything in this room for the same reasons as the lower half of the kitchen—except this room is going to be ALL cabinetry and woodwork. 

Speaking of—this may sound weird, but I’m actually going to prioritize the pantry over finishing the kitchen. The reason being in part that it’s smaller and more achievable, and part that it’s practically going to be a very small kitchen itself (fridge, sink, and those induction hot plates are portable!), and therefore can do kitchen things during the eventual period that I’m doing finishing work in the kitchen. Check back in 2031.

Also. I have new plans. I’m excited about them. Ready. Let’s go.

Here’s what I had last time we went over this goddamn thing:

But I’ve had some thoughts since then. They look like this:

Thensies:

Nowsies: 

OK so a few changes have taken place. The concept has changed.

Before, I was thinking the pantry would be finished off the same way as the kitchen. This house was built circa 1865, so a Victorian-style kitchen doesn’t really feel right, as beautiful as they are—I think the vibe has to be more primitive and understated. 

But the pantry is an addition to the kitchen, not an original part of it. So. New vibes are:

Maybe this was a little porch (it wasn’t, unless it was? TBH, no idea).

That was enclosed during Victorian times, because they did that kind of thing sometimes (it wasn’t…but was it?). 

And so it feels like a little enclosed porch, fitted in Victorian-style built-ins to maximize storage, beadboard ceiling, nice moldings, beautiful hardware; it’s real pretty. Trust me. 

Then. Instead of the wood floor, you do a REALLY GOOD tile, because it’s 40 square feet and you’ve worked your ass off and you should just get the nice tile because the world could end tomorrow and you don’t want to die knowing you should have just gone for it with the nice-ass tile.

Think about it.

Then you further justify the nice tile by reminding yourself that you “budgeted” (the budget you can in no way afford) for radiant heat flooring but have since decided against it, so that should really free up some money (that you’ve never had to begin with) to buy the super nice tile.

It all makes so much sense. Almost too much sense, honestly. 

So then. Instead of the tiny sink that was kind of hard to source anyway. Why not. Just have a stone sink custom made for your very special specs and then also have a countertop from the same material made for it. 

Think about it. Why not.

Here’s potentially why not: you’ve really put all your eggs in the basket of one vendor to do the fabrication at a very reasonable price, and now that vendor has repeatedly violated your trust and probably/definitely you should not attempt more business with them but you really fucking want that $250 custom sink?

Maybe it was too good to be true. But like, my life hinges on it. I’ve committed to it. 

Because I already built the cabinets!

*music swells*

*fade to black*

Next time, on Manhattan Nest.

Fall Checklist: DIY Spray Foam Insulation with Dow Froth-Pak!

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

If you’ve read the title of this post and are thinking it’s already winter, then meteorologically yes, you’d be correct. BUT NOT ACCORDING TO ASTRONOMY, which places the first day of winter on December 21st this year, so take that! We’ll now move forward with the premise that it’s still fall and I’m right on schedule with wrapping up a semi-gargantuan to-do list of time-sensitive projects I really wanted to accomplish before this winter—at which point I will…uh…keep working, but on different stuff. Fun stuff. I’m excited for this winter stuff.

So. Having taken care of some overdue work like overseeding my grass, planting shrubs, pressure washing filthy siding, securing my garage/personal lumber yard, and wrapping up the major outstanding work on the side of the house, I’m turning my attention back toward the inside of the house. And there was a pretty major, glaring issue that I’m a little ashamed to admit. Behold:

It’s literally been YEARS since we’ve talked about it, but maybe you remember this room above my kitchen? It’s been through a lot…maybe this will jog your memory? Behold, again:

When I bought this house, it had been divided into two apartments and this room served as the upstairs apartment’s kitchen. I wrote about the preliminary demo work all the way back in 2013…and then evidently didn’t mention it again except in the context of the exterior work which involved removing the door and the window and replacing them with two little casement windows—an approximation of what I think that back wall originally looked like.

Anyway. At some point in there, I gutted the whole room. Part of one wall had been lost early on to a plumbing issue. Another wall because of the new window arrangement. The rest of the walls and ceiling were a material probably installed in the 1930s called Celotex, which is generally used as a rigid insulation board rather than a finished wall surface, but I digress. It all had to go—nothing original left anyway. Unlike the rest of the house, this section is 1 1/2 story—meaning there’s no attic above this room, and no reason the ceiling can’t be vaulted up to the ridge. Sweet!

Except…that was approximately 3 years ago. And aside from becoming a dumping ground for random crap (what else do you do when your mom sends you boxes of stuff you thought had long since been disposed of from your childhood bedroom?), it’s just sat that way. A shell full of potential, but not even approaching the top of any priority list.

Do you spot a problem here? I’ll give you a big hint that’s literally in the title of the post: NO INSULATION. I LIVE IN UPSTATE NEW YORK, PEOPLE. HEAT IS EXPENSIVE AND IT GETS COLD COLD COLD. WHAT A BAD CHOICE.

Seeing as this uninsulated room also became an unheated room as a result of other work, and therefore basically a barn atop my kitchen, this has meant a frigid kitchen below and the necessity of a space heater up here in the winter to prevent the pipes from freezing, as my bathroom is on the other side of one of the walls. Lest you feel like that’s overkill, I initiated this program only after the pipes had already frozen.

Twice.

Now, I’m no energy efficiency expert (SURPRISE!), but this much I know. Hot air rises. Insulation keeps it from rising up and out of the house. I chose not to insulate between floors in my house (a subject of some debate in the renovation world), meaning that any heat from my kitchen/first floor rises up into this room, and then promptly out the walls/roof and away into the sky. You know that emoji of the flying stack of money? That’s kind of what I’ve come to picture emerging from my roofline around this time of year.

If you’ve worked on an old house, you’ve likely encountered the issue of insulation at one point or another. There are many options out there, each with their own pros and cons, but one that’s been gaining major traction for the last couple decades is closed-cell spray foam insulation. There are a lot of great things about it—it’s efficient, fairly quick to install, provides a vapor barrier, and even improves the structural rigidity of a building. That last aspect dovetails nicely with the fact that it fills irregular gaps and areas in an existing structure that might be difficult to access/fill with more traditional products like fiberglass bat. Old houses tend to have both weird areas like that and structural components that may not necessarily be a problem but also wouldn’t meet modern building standards, so the added structural strength—while it shouldn’t be relied upon to resolve an actual structural issue—is a nice bonus. To my knowledge, closed-cell spray foam application has always been the purview of professional installers, but now there’s an option for the ambitious homeowner or budding professional too! That’s me!

We are talking specifically about the Dow Froth-Pak system, available at Lowe’s! Right off the bat I want to make clear that this stuff is SERIOUS BUSINESS—while this post is intended to help others and share my experience, you absolutely must read the manual that comes with the kit, take all necessary precautions, and research anything you feel uneasy about before trying this at home. Don’t be stupid, basically. Let’s dive in.

When I first saw this product, I didn’t totally know what to make of it. Is it closed cell or open cell? Can someone like me even use it? Is it just a big version of those cans of Great Stuff? Can I do a whole room? A whole house? What is a board foot??! I will try to address all of these things, because there isn’t a ton of information online about it in one place.

EVALUATE YOUR PROJECT

So you’re thinking of using Dow Froth-Pak to meet an insulation need. There are a few things to consider.

  1. How much area are you trying to cover? My room is about 13′ x 16′, with a vaulted ceiling about 10′ at the peak. Two of those walls are exterior walls that need to be insulated, as well as the whole ceiling. I haven’t excluded windows in that calculation, which is my lazy way to round up when figuring out what I need plus accounting for some waste. I think this product is good for a situation like mine—where you need to do ONE room or ONE ceiling or something like that, or you want to seal up areas like where floor joists meet the rim joist over a foundation in an entire basement. If the project is bigger than that, I’d definitely recommend at least quoting the job with a professional spray foam installer—it may actually be less expensive than buying the amount of kits you’d have to buy, and obviously save you some serious, potentially hazardous work.
  2. Is there a product better suited to your needs? There are several compelling reasons to choose spray-foam insulation—but fiberglass bat, blown-in cellulose, or a number of other products may help bring costs down. In my case, I have irregularly spaced studs, meaning variably sized stud cavities, as well as a lot of weird shapes and angles  (due to post-and-beam construction and the vaulted ceiling) that would make installation of other products difficult. Obviously insulation works best when it achieves good coverage, and all of the irregularities with my framing would leave opportunities for lots of gaps and cracks with a product that can’t easily adapt to the shape of its space.
  3. Are you up for it? If you’re not one for following directions or reading warning labels, avoid this. It’s not technically difficult but it can be somewhat physically demanding and messy. You also need to be at the proper stage of your project—which is AFTER framing work (including adding nailers or furring!), rough electric and rough plumbing are done. If you aren’t ready to put up drywall, you aren’t ready for spray foam insulation.

CALCULATE THE AMOUNT OF PRODUCT YOU NEED

  1. Dow Froth-Pak is closed-cell insulation, created by combining the contents of two tanks. One difference between closed-cell and open-cell spray foam is the thickness you want to spray. Open-cell spray foam is less dense, so you can fill a stud cavity and cut away the excess before installing your finished walls. Closed-cell is denser (with a higher R-value) and ideally should be a bit recessed in the stud bay—it can be cut back, but it’s more difficult. The amount of product you need will depend on the thickness you want to achieve. Each inch of thickness creates about R-6. So two inches = R-12, three inches = R-18, and so on. Local building code may require a minimal R-value depending on where you’re installing—always check.
  2. Calculate your BOARD FEET. The Froth-Paks come in different sizes—to make it simple, let’s look at the Froth-Pak 210. The “210” refers to the number of board feet—which is a measure of volume, NOT surface area, but all you need to know to calculate it is the square footage of the areas you need to cover. It’s a simple calculation:

Length in inches x Width in inches  x Preferred depth of the spray foam in inches. Divide the result by 144.

So for example, an 8′ x 8′ wall with 3″ of foam would be:

96″ x 96″ x 3″ = 27,648 / 144 = 192 Board Feet

In other words, one Dow Froth-Pak 210 will provide about 3.25″ thickness of foam over an 8’x8′ wall.

AND THAT IS AS MUCH MATH AS I EVER WANT TO DO IN BLOG FORMAT. This is not a math blog. I’m sure those exist and I’m also sure I’m not interested.

I was hoping to get about 3 inches of spray foam on all exterior walls/ceilings, and my total board feet was about 1,350. Ideally I would have bought two Froth-Pak 650s and one Froth-Pak 210, but the 650 was out of stock so I bought all 210s instead. The product is the same, it’s just the amount in each kit that changes.

The total cost of that, by the way? A little over $1,800 clams. Add in various other supplies (we’ll get to that!) and it’s about $2,000 to insulate this room. To be honest I was excited to try the product and didn’t try to quote it out to a professional, so I can’t tell you how they compare cost-wise, but local labor prices can be all over the map so I’m not sure how helpful that would be anyway.

INSTALLING THE DOW FROTH-PAK FOAM INSULATION KIT

SO. With framing, furring (mostly just to compensate for old, uneven framing), and electric complete, it’s time to get down to it! Again—I AM NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE MANUAL. I’m just a guy with a dream of a warm house in January.

Step 1: Check the temperature of your tank contents—this threw me for a loop so I’m making it item 1. There is a small temperature gauge on the side of the tanks, and a cut-out on the front of the box so you can read it without even unpacking everything. The interior contents of the tanks need to be between 75-85 degrees for optimal performance/mixing. This is a two-part system, so dispensing the proper mix is essential, and the temperature affects that. 75-85 degrees is WARM! Just sitting in my house, the tanks were reading much too cold so I placed the whole box on top of my cast iron hot water radiators (which are toasty to the touch but nowhere near enough to burn you), making sure to check them every 20 minutes or so as the contents slowly warmed up. NOTE: Dow recommends use of a particular heat tape or heat blanket for this purpose. I didn’t have them. Again, don’t be stupid—this had the contents heating at a pace of about 5 degrees per hour, so it took a few hours. Heating too rapidly/aggressively could cause an explosion, you crazy thing!

Step 2: Prep! If you don’t want it to get covered in spray foam, mask it off—ideally with something you don’t mind throwing away at the end. I had some already used 6-mil plastic in the garage that I used to mask off the chimney, the baseboards, and the door to the room. If I had more I’d have used it on the floor, too, but I just had this tarp. You also want to seal off the work space from the rest of the house as well as you can, and ventilate it (I opened all the windows and had a good cross-breeze, but the manual goes into good detail). I used my Bostitch pneumatic staple gun (currently on sale for $40!!) to keep my masking in place—it was a bit easier to put it up when working alone, and more secure than tape. Contractor bags worked nicely for wrapping the collar ties, which will probably be cleaned up a little and left exposed.

Step 3: Put on your costume! Like I said—this is serious business. Spray foam is both extremely sticky when wet and all kinds of toxic, so this is not a place you want to skimp. That means a disposable full-body suit, full protective eyewear, chemical resistant gloves, and a full-face or half-mask air-purifying respirator—I used this 3M one from Lowe’s, fitted with these cartridges. Small tip I wish I had: cover the face of your goggles with clear packing tape that you can remove and replace as needed. Dried spray foam can be removed from glass with a razor blade, but goggles are plastic and overspray may accumulate and make it difficult to see, and the spray foam will not come off without scratching them up too much to be usable. A headlamp may be helpful for darker spaces—I love this rechargeable LED Craftsman one (also on sale!).

Step 4: Unbox your Froth-Pak kit, ensuring the temperature gauge is between 75-85 degrees. The room and surfaces to be sprayed don’t have to be that warm, just the interior contents of the tanks. Shake both tanks for 30-60 seconds. You can shake them individually or use the carrying handle to hold them above the ground and rock them back and forth.

Step 5: Open the top valves on both tanks COMPLETELY. It’s very important that both valves are entirely open to ensure a proper mix. You should see the chemicals move through the hoses as the valves are opened—one is clear and one is brown-ish.

Step 6: Using the packet provided, apply some petroleum jelly to the inside face of the dispenser. This is primarily if you plan to use the Froth-Pak over multiple sessions and need to keep the dispenser free of dried foam between uses.

Step 7: Insert the nozzle into the dispenser gun. The Froth-Pak comes with two nozzle shapes—a blue “fan” nozzle and a clear “cone” nozzle. For a situation like mine, the fan nozzle proved the most helpful in terms of creating an even spray across a large surface. Dow gives you lots of spare nozzles that you may or may not use—but after you’ve started with one, it has to be changed any time there’s more than 30 seconds between sprays because the product cures so quickly and any blockage could screw up the ratio of the two parts. When the nozzle is fully inserted, you should hear a click and the yellow nozzle ejector will be clamped down.

Step 8: Pointing the dispenser into a container like a trash can (I used the box it all came in), purge the lines for 5-10 seconds. Foam should dispense pretty quickly.

Step 9: Practice! TAKE THIS PART SERIOUSLY. It definitely takes some getting used to. Using whatever you have available (I had a scrap piece of sheetrock), practice applying the foam as you will on your surface. You want to stay perpendicular to the surface, at an even distance (6″-24″ away), moving at an even pace in a side to side stroke. ALSO. VERY IMPORTANT. The foam only cures properly (and safely) if the layer of expanded foam is 2 inches or less. It will expand 3-4 times its thickness, so you want an even 1/4″-1/2″ coverage while you spray.  Inconsistencies in your pace, distance, or angle will result in an uneven application—and it’s harder than it looks, I promise. Especially with all that gear on and the pace you kind of need to keep up.

Step 10: Check your practice area. About 1 minute after spraying, it should have fully expanded and dried to the touch. It’s fully cured in 5 minutes—which is kind of bonkers.

Step 11: Start spraying! At this point you’ll probably want to change your nozzle. Using all the knowledge in your brains and safety equipment on your body, get to work. Perpendicular to your surface. Even distance. Even pace. Side to side. 1/4″-1/2″ thickness. Don’t panic. Because the foam cures so quickly, you can apply additional layers within minutes to build up to your final thickness—it’s better to do several thin applications than a too-thick application . To ensure you don’t run out of nozzles, you want to work fairly quickly. Avoid applying foam over foam that was just sprayed and is in the process of curing, and avoid build-up of foam beyond the depth of the wall, as this will need to be removed later on. Each Froth-Pak 210 took me about 20-30 minutes to mix, get set up, and use. By the way, the foam will stick to a lot of things including rigid foam boards—which you can see were already installed on parts of the back wall, and I just sprayed right over them since there was plenty of space in the cavity. Those foam boards should be R-10 on their own.

Step 12: The tanks will become increasingly lightweight as the contents are dispensed, which makes them more likely to tip over as you move. I’d highly recommend having a helper for this job (also in full protective equipment) who can help ensure the tanks stay upright, move them while you work around the room, and help identify areas that need more applied. As the tanks are nearing empty, you will notice the pressure change (kind of a quick sputtering) and the foam may look slightly different (darker, more viscous). STOP IMMEDIATELY. This foam is the wrong ratio and will not expand/cure properly—don’t think you can squeeze just a little more out, because those tanks are DONE. RETIRED. NO MORE FOAM 4 U. The tanks should feel empty, although there might be a little more liquid in there you can hear. That’s OK. It’s still done. I promise.

Step 13: Do not. Think that. You can just. Throw these things away. I said it all dramatic like that so you read past the word “done” (see item 12.). The manual explains a whole easy-peasy but super duper important disposal protocol, which is in place so you don’t inadvertently cause an explosion. I have nothing new to add to that so just please make sure you read it and do it, ok?

SO. IT HAS COME TO PASS. The whole insulation process took about 4-5 hours start to finish (including the masking and prep, but the tanks had to heat up for longer beforehand), and I think the coverage was basically as advertised so I didn’t need additional tanks. I found the technique of getting an even coating fairly challenging (you can see areas that look good and areas that look…not so good)—I do feel like I improved throughout the process, but since my first coat wasn’t especially smooth I didn’t give myself the best foundation. Like with painting, small lumps become bigger and bigger lumps with each new coat.

I was a bit nervous about fumes, but I left the windows open for about 12 hours after finishing up and I really don’t notice a smell when I go in there! Like…at all? Maybe something faint that could also be my imagination? I can tell you the difference is like night and day, heat-wise. It hasn’t been there long enough to know how it affects my bills/consumption (and those two casement windows are still drafty as hell—another thing on the ole to-do), but the kitchen below feels warmer and suddenly this room is OK to be in! It’s 30 degrees out! The street noise is also much quieter, and the whole room is immediately so much BRIGHTER—which doesn’t really matter because it’ll all be covered, but it makes it so much easier to work in especially in the evening hours which is when I’m the most likely to tackle stuff.

SO MUCH EASIER, IN FACT, that now I’m like…am I finishing this room now? To be totally honest I’ve forced myself to kind of stay away from it for a long time now just because there are so many more pressing things (I SEE YOU, KITCHEN. I JUST CAN’T AFFORD YOU. I’M WORKING ON IT.)…but now that it’s to this point, and I feel like I know what I want to do, it’s pretty much just a bunch of carpentry I could chip away at? Little by little? With supplies I mostly already have? And then? I could? Have guests? Like a person? Who owns a rather large house? And lives? Alone?

Dare to dream.

Finishing the Side of the House: THE BIG REVEAL!

WELL. This has been a long time coming. About two and half years ago, I embarked on what’s likely the biggest renovation that my house will see under my care, and it was a DOOZY. The goal was to bring the south-facing side of the house back to some semblance of how it was built, which meant demolishing two additions, adding windows (prompting a complete demo of my kitchen, and partial demos of my bedroom and den), insulating, restoring the original clapboard siding and various trim details, re-roofing a bay window (twice!), a ton of prep and paint, adding downspouts…it was a lot of work. Most of it was completed during that first summer, but then the remaining to-do list sort of languished as I attended to more pressing matters. At the end of this past August I was able to dive back in, and over the course of about 2 months I got most of those remaining items completed! There’s still work to be done, but those things could take years and I want to show you what I did NOW!

Did you know that there’s an archive function on Google street view? I did not know! So this is what the Googlemobile captured on its way through Kingston after my house had been put on the market but before I ever saw it! Check out that crazy antenna toward the back of the roof! This was also before the listing agent had a crew of painters quite literally slap a fresh coat of paint over everything (you can imagine how well that’s holding up), which to their credit did fool me into thinking the exterior was in better shape than it actually was. Lol whoops.

Then I moved in, and a few months later had the roof replaced and the fire escape demolished.

Later on I replaced the chainlink fence, demolished that boxy addition off the back, and added a little bit of landscaping. Which left us here! THEN THINGS GOT CRAZY.

More than one person walking by literally asked if we were tearing the house down—that’s how dramatic it looked at times!

I sort of love this photo. That bay window looks so BLEAK. The clapboard is about half new and half old. As in the past, all of the siding was removed, planed, primed, and usable pieces were put back up. I’m not sure why I’m using the passive voice because THAT WAS ME. I DID THAT. It’s a little cuckoo crazy but it feels like the right thing to do, and the old siding boards maintain more character than the new ones do. It would have been nice to have enough stock of old siding to use it exclusively, but I didn’t.

I did take some creative liberties, either where I just had no clue what was here historically or thought I had a better idea. The two new kitchen windows (bottom right) are an example of the former. I don’t feel like they’re especially right, but I was trying to take into consideration the second floor dormer window, which was likely added in the 1930s and isn’t the most elegant thing in the world.

Another departure from history was increasing the size of the cornerboards, which are originally 4″ on this house. What can I say! I like a wide cornerboard on a Greek Revival house! The front/main section of the house now has 12″ wide cornerboards, while the back kitchen addition has 8″ cornerboards. Once the other sides of the house are done, I’ll add some trim to the tops where the cornerboards meet the fascia, which is how they’re typically done to give the appearance of a pilaster.

Speaking of cornerboards, one decision I’m very happy about was to drop a wide “cornerboard” between the main house and the kitchen addition to kind of subtly delineate the two structures. The siding actually was continuous between the kitchen and the rest of the house underneath the vinyl, so it was tempting to stick with that…but I had this eleventh hour idea that I really thought would work, or look completely dumb, so I went for it and I’m glad I did. To me it’s just enough to restore the proportions of the original house without getting too crazy, you know?

Lastly, the windows! Originally, the “window” to the left of the bay and the one directly above it were both faux windows—trimmed with a casing and sill but with a set of closed shutters rather than a window. Purely decorative! People think this is nuts but I SWEAR a) it’s how the house was built and b) it’s actually how a lot of houses were built—you might see it more often than you think! Next time you see an old building with one or two shuttered windows, it might be because there’s nothing behind those shutters!

So anyway, I made the upstairs faux window into a real window, and moved both of them a smidge to the right of where they were originally so that the spacing between all the windows would be more even.

Then I proceeded to take two years to get around to actually modifying the shutters and installing them, so it feels like the whole town knows there’s just housewrap behind them. That being said, literally as I was screwing in the last screw on the shutter hinge, someone walked by and asked why I was shuttering just that one window…so. JUST MAYBE nobody is paying as much attention to me and my house as I am paying to me and my house.

SO ANYWAY.

It was all really intense, you guys. I really didn’t want this to look like the product of recent work (especially major work), so getting those details right was extremely important to me. Moldings had to be recreated, the new windows had to blend with the old, and preserving as much remaining original detail as possible was the name of the game. The whole time I tried to think about how I might react to seeing this house if I didn’t own it…would it look like a new (tasteful, hopefully, at least) renovation, or just a nicely preserved 19th century building? The goal was definitely the latter and…I think I did it?

My, how those little pear trees have grown! Let’s run that back one more time.

Before.

And after!

Before…

During…

After! I don’t miss that skinny enclosed space one bit. The dining room used to be kind of dark and dreary, and now it’s all bright and cheerful! This house already had good natural light, but these changes allowed that to be true in every room and that makes it SO worth it to me. I very rarely turn any lights on inside until the sun goes down—they just aren’t needed.

Recreating the third side of the bay window took some serious patience and even more serious head-scratching, but I’m REALLY happy with how it came out. There are some imperfections if you’re really inspecting it, but I’m considering them part of the history. A professional carpenter might have done a better job, but hiring one would have been too costly and…well, it’s just not the story of this house. It’s not a museum piece. It’s my home. And I do my best with what I’ve got.

In the past when I’ve painted the house I’ve tried to do two colors (bright white trim and less bright white clapboard) in two finishes (flat for clapboard, semi-gloss for trim), and I was never especially happy with it. More and more I noticed that my favorite white houses seemed to be using just one paint for everything, so that’s what I did and I’m so happy about it. It would have been more period appropriate to use a less bright shade of white (evidently they couldn’t make paint THIS white back in the day), but the aforementioned slapped-on paint on the cornices is very white and repairing/repainting those completely is a project for another time, and I wanted it all to blend. Also bear in mind that the front of the house is still covered in vinyl and pretty much untouched, so this keeps everything looking relatively uniform in the meantime. So, white it is!

I can’t give you a color because I got a little frustrated with the color and finish, and ended up combining a few different paints which resulted in a mix with a really nice satin sheen. I wrote down the “formula” so I can recreate it for future painting, but this is what happens when you have a billion half-used cans of paint leftover from lots of projects. I think the color would be similar to Ben Moore’s Simply White mixed at half-strength.

The painting alone felt…ENDLESS. My neighbors started making fun of me after a few weeks because HOW ARE YOU STILL PAINTING THAT HOUSE?! WHAT IS SO WRONG WITH IT?!

Well…enough that it took a very long time, that much I know! I tried to do a REALLY GOOD JOB so I really hope it lasts a long time. Like long enough that I can afford to hire a good painter next time and sit on my ass instead.

I’ve found a couple of shutter hinges in the yard, and you can see where they were mounted on the original window casings. House of Antique Hardware sells very similar reproductions, and I’m really happy with how nicely they match what was here! Someday I’d love for all the windows to have shutters, but for now that’s kind of a pipe dream.

My smoke bush was so tinyyyyyyy.

The shutters themselves I bought new (ordered through The Door Jamb locally), but I had to cut down the length and increase the width. I also added a bead detail to the center, which most old shutters have on the rabbet.

Originally each shutter had two hinges, but they just looked kind of naked so I added a third to the middle. Look at me being so naughty! Original shutters would have probably been black or dark green, but I thought that would look too jarring while the rest of the windows are shutter-less.

The next phase of exterior work will be dedicated to restoring the windows! Four of the original windows still have the aluminum triple-track storm windows, which I’ll remove one by one as I restore the windows behind them. That window on the right was under the cover of that solarium addition for the last century+, so it’s actually in good shape but desperately needs new glazing and paint—it kinda kills me I couldn’t get that one done this fall, but it’ll still be there in the spring. At some point I’ll get around to the little basement windows, too—I think they’ll look much better in black! I’ll also have to repoint the stone foundation down the line, but let’s just pretend I won’t. There’s always something to do.

1950.

2014.

2018.

Thank you for your patience with me, house. I hope you like your fresh new look.

You can read all about this project from start to finish by clicking the links below! I put them in chronological order and everything.

  1. Restoring the Side of My House
  2. Matching My Historic Windows
  3. The Wreckage: Part 1
  4. See Ya, Second Floor Bay Window Thing!
  5. Found in the Wall!
  6. The Solarium is Gone!
  7. The Bedroom Has a Fourth Window!
  8. Finishing the Side of the House: Part 1

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!

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