How to Do Pretty Much Everything Wrong: Front Door Edition!

Warning: this post is full of disappointment and personal shame. I pretty much feel like a fraud of a home-improvement-y blogger, a terrible neighbor, an awful friend, a poor example, a cheap whore…all the bad things.

So here’s what happened.

Don’t you just love a front door? I love a front door. I mean, it’s the first thing you see walking into a house. It sets the stage and the tone. Front doors are important things. You’re welcome for these pieces of valuable information.

housebefore

More than front doors in a broad sense, I really, really love my front door. Doors, rather. Before I even SAW the newel post and the banister and the original interior doors and moldings and windows inside the house, I fell in love with our front door. It has a beautiful knob, great proportions, gracious windows, fancy molding work both on and around it, a transom window above…the whole set-up just makes my heart swell, even after walking through it nearly everyday for over a year now.

I wanted to show this before shot of the house just to show what we’re working with, here. The major problems I see are 1) the stupid exterior light mounted to the molding, right above the transom window, 2) the 50s mailbox attached to the front of the door, and 3)the overall lack of dimension and interest.

I have lots and lots of plans, big and small, for restoring the exterior of the house. It’s a HUGE job—a renovation unto itself, really—so almost all of it has to wait for a while. The good news is that the roof is done an the house looks good, so it’s not pressing. At least whoever decided to put the vinyl siding up had the good sense to keep it white.

paintonpaintonpaint

ANYWAY. Fixing up some doors is a pretty manageable project when compared to, like, tearing off a house-full of vinyl siding and repairing rotted clapboard and missing trim work and all that. That’s a Someday Project. So, at some point in early summer (yes, I’ve been holding out on you…), after I’d finished the laundry room and was itching to get outdoors, I decided I really wanted to give the front doors some attention. They’d been slathered in layers and layers of paint over the years, which left more of an impression of the intricate detail work lurking underneath than a real view. I always kind of knew that the best option for these doors would be to fully strip them down to the bare wood.

This is where things start to go south, FYI. I knew I didn’t want to take the doors down to strip them—either to have them sent off to be dipped (which is a service I can’t seem to find up here for the life of me anyway…anyone?) or to chemically strip and paint them from the ease and comfort of my living room. This would have involved closing off the whole entrance to our house temporarily with plywood, and carrying really heavy doors, and none of it sounded all that fun or practical. The outermost layer of paint was applied very recently (when the house went up for sale), but layer upon layer upon layer underneath? For sure lead-based. I knew this. It wasn’t even really worth testing because…duh.

Now, the responsible way to deal with lead paint is pretty much to not deal with it at all—paint over it and let it be. Since that wasn’t an option here (I mean, sure, it was, but a shitty option), the next most responsible way to deal with lead paint is to chemically strip it, carefully containing and disposing of stripped paint to keep it out of your home/environment. Lead paint actually can be scraped and sanded as long as it is kept wet to contain any particles, and then properly disposed of, but it isn’t really recommended. There is a supposedly fabulous product widely used for historic restorations called Peel Away which is a chemical stripper that’s made specifically to take off TONS of layers of paint and contain the lead, and that was always loosely my plan for the doors.

I didn’t do that. For some reason it got to a point where I was itching to strip the doors so badly that I was willing to make all kinds of bad decisions and own up to them on the Internet rather than order the paint stripper and wait for it to get mailed to me like a grown-up. Go me.

stripping

So, I pulled out my trusty heat gun. And got to stripping. Bow-chicka-wow-wow.

You shouldn’t use a heat gun for lead paint. You shouldn’t really use a heat gun for paint removal generally because of the risk of fire, but you really shouldn’t use it for lead paint. Not only does it release small pieces of toxic paint, but the lead can also vaporize and be released into the air you are breathing as you heat gun. So do as I say, not as I do.

Anyway. I wore a mask. So there’s that? And cleaned things up as I went along. So there’s that? And vacuumed up the pieces with a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter…so there’s that? I handled my guilt by telling myself that I don’t have children, I’m not pregnant, and my dogs were safely tucked away in the kitchen throughout the whole ordeal. So…there’s that. I’m about to get lacerated by comments, aren’t I?

Anyway, heat gunning may be bad but it is relatively quick and relatively satisfying. It still took several hours, but it was exciting to see the detail on the doors really reveal itself as I went along. Also, the odor was delicious. 

The other exciting discovery was that, while the top layers of paint were all whites and off-whites, the bottom layer of paint? The original paint color? BLACK. AS NIGHT. I really don’t see any evidence that the doors were ever stained wood, but at this point they need so much repair work that it isn’t really an option anyhow.

This isn’t at all surprising. People think of black as this color invented by sad people in the 90s, but Greek Revival houses generally heavily employed either black or dark green paint in various places: on the exterior of window sashes, on shutters, and on doors. The idea is that the black helps these elements sort of recede, which in turn makes the house look more like a Greek temple—which would have just had voids for windows instead of moveable sashes to protect from the elements and whatnot. Cool, right? I’d pretty much planned to paint the doors black regardless, but knowing that it was the original color made the decision even more of a no-brainer.

post-sanding

After using the heat gun to remove nearly all of the paint, I used my mouse sander to wet-sand the doors, still wearing a mask. Again, not the best plan in the world…but it is what it is. It worked. It’s been a couple months and I’m alive.

hardener

Seeing as the wood on these doors is somewhere around the 150-year-old mark, and some of it was a little rotted and a little dry and brittle, I wanted to give them a little extra boost in the hopes that they’ll last another 150 years without some jokester deciding to rip them out to put something shitty in their place. Anna recommended this Minwax Wood Hardener (please, get your mind out of the gutter!) stuff, which she’s used on window sashes with great success, so I figured I’d give it a try.

You guys, I have no idea what’s in this stuff. Probably cancer. Probably explosions. Probably the brain cells that it kills on contact. I don’t even care, because it’s kind of amazing. You just brush it on (with a brush you’re OK with throwing away). It dries almost immediately. The wood looks amazing—kind of like it’s just been polyurethaned—and it feels…hard. Yes. My wood was so hard. I’d like to tell you more about that, but maybe there are kids out there reading this.

HARD. WOOD. INSTANTLY. I wanted to rub it all over everything.

afterminwax

I know some people will say that the doors looked really beautiful at this point and I should have sealed them and left them as-is. If I were running some hip Brooklyn restaurant, then yes, you would be correct. If I’m trying to restore an old house that already looks a little like it’s falling down? No. There’s also the issue of this being outside, which means Mother Nature, which means rain and snow, which means rot, all of which does not add up to doors that have already seen about 150 winters and some rot and large gaps having a whole lot of future longevity. Sorry, Charlie. Paint, caulk, and wood filler is the answer here.

siliconecaulkandbondo

I used paintable silicone caulk (which should hold up better than latex) to fill in all the voids where water might collect, and Bondo as a wood-filler to reconstruct the rotted corners. Bondo isn’t really recommended as a wood-filler, particularly for exterior wood since it doesn’t expand and contract like wood does, but I know lots of people who have used it on rotted wood with great success and swear by it. It’s also relatively inexpensive and easy to work with. I buy the type that’s marketed as an auto-body filler, which is pink instead of a more natural wood color: it’s cheaper and I’ve been told it’s the exact same thing, aside from the color, which you’d be painting anyway.

bondo

Bondo is really great to work with. It’s a two-part epoxy that smells like toxic death, but basically you just have to smear it on with disposable tools (I like a paint-stirrer), wait for it to dry, and then sand it into the correct shape/finish. When I need to achieve a certain shape (like reconstructing the rabbet in the inside edge of the door), I like to use a piece of wood temporary to fill the negative space and wrap it in cellophane, which the Bondo won’t adhere to. Once it’s dry, it’s easy to just remove the piece of wood and the cellophane and sand down from there. It’s pretty much impossible to get a smooth finish during the application, but it sands very easily. I like Bondo.

primerpaintsample

ANYWAY. After the doors were Bondo’d and caulked, I primed them. Since I’ve used it so much in the past with great results, I went with Zinsser’s B-I-N shellac-based primer. This stuff is super thin and dries almost immediately, and can go over both latex and oil-based paints as well as seal in unpainted wood so that the knots don’t “bleed” through the paint over time. In my experience it’s always provided a great base for fresh paint to adhere to. I plant to use it on our interior moldings before painting them, just as an added precaution against future chipping/peeling. It’s great stuff…for interior. It even says on the can that it’s only for “spot” exterior work. Maybe I should have read the can. Maybe I should be less dumb.

molding-outlines

One of the things I noticed when I stripped the doors down was that it looked like, at some point, there was some additional molding work on the doors that kind of framed the windows. See the outline? Kind of? It was more apparent in real life. It looks like it had been removed long ago, but all of a sudden the doors looked kind of incomplete without them. And since I clearly like to torture myself and replicate original molding work and it wasn’t so hard to deduce what the molding probably looked like by looking at the moldings on the panels below…why not?

Unsurprisingly, the dimensions of wood I needed were not easy to come by. I figured the molding around the windows probably matched the outer two pieces of trim on the lower half of the doors—sort of an oblong half-oval shape and a very thin piece of molding surrounding that. I found something resembling the thin outer piece (close enough!), but the half-oval stumped me. I thought maybe I’d use my router to make something, but then it occurred to me: base shoe! Base shoe molding is different than quater-round because one side is longer than the other. Maybe if I took one piece of base shoe, and glued it to another piece of base shoe…I’d get the right shape?

half-oval

People, it totally worked. All I had to do was glue the long sides together (I used Gorilla brand wood glue), use painter’s tape to tape it together tightly while it dried, and sand the whole thing one it was dry and the tape was removed.

addedmolding

This was my singular stroke of genius throughout the whole project. I used 3/4″ 18 gauge brad nails along the length of the new glued-together trim piece for some added support, and then I was able to cut them to the right lengths, just like a regular solid piece of trim. I placed a thin line of construction adhesive along the back before using my nail gun to affix them to the doors, and then used the same paintable silicone caulk to fill the voids and nail holes.

I don’t want to self-congratulate too soon since I’m a little concerned that the half-oval piece will separate over time, but so far, it’s holding up great and looks completely legit. I don’t think anyone would ever look at my doors and pick out that the molding around the windows isn’t original. I’m pretty proud of it.

lightpatching

During this, I also filled in the hole where the old exterior light fixture had been installed. This fixture was removed when we had the new exterior lights installed (which are much better placed now, I think! they really illuminate the house beautifully at night), leaving a large hole in the top of the molding surrounding the door. I used my jigsaw to square-off the opening and then screwed a small scrap piece of lumber to the inside of the molding. Then all I had to do was cut a 5/4″ thick scrap piece of lumber to the right size, screw that into place (attaching it to the scrap I’d screwed on inside the molding first…for some reason I don’t have a picture of it—ARGH!), and cover the whole thing in Bondo. Realtalk: I still haven’t gotten to sanding down the Bondo, priming, and repainting this area. Call it dysfunction. Call it distraction. Call it sucking at life. Call it whatever you want but it’s the truth! Excuse me while I go burst into tears.

oldbell

While I was at all of this nonsense, I decided to also replace the doorbell. The old doorbell was actually really cute and understated: the problem was, there were two! Since we’ve pretty much done everything else to take this two-family home back to a single-family, taking the second doorbell out of the second floor was kind of the last thing on the hit list. I’ll admit that I felt a little sappy and emotional with this one…the house has come such a long way in the past year, and having just one single doorbell at the front door as the final nail in the coffin for this house being an on-again-off-again rental for the past almost 80 years felt really exciting.

Changing out a hardwired doorbell is SUPER  easy. The voltage on the cables is so low that you don’t even really need to turn the power off. It’s all pretty self-explanatory.

doorbell

I ordered the new doorbell from House of Antique Hardware (I got the “antique brass” finish). The price is good and I think it looks really cute, but I have to say that the quality is just OK… one of the screws did snap during installation and the button doesn’t work flawlessly. It’s fine, though, and it works well enough that I’m definitely not rushing to replace it unless it breaks. I had to patch in some of the molding with Bondo, which now needs to be primed and painted…I’LL GET TO IT, OK?

transombefore

I also removed this weird situation in front of the original transom window! At some point, somebody added a stationary storm window of sorts in front of the transom (just a piece of glass with some small molding holding it in and a “decorative” center brace…). Not only did it look bad, but it blocked all access to paint or maintain the transom window itself and the surrounding trim. I know this was put in to help with heating, but honestly…the doors are so drafty that I’m pretty much positive it wasn’t making any real difference. What really needs to happen is for the doors to be properly weather-stripped, and maybe a heavy velvet curtain hung on the inside of the house right inside the doorway in winter to keep the drafts out. Since we don’t have a vestibule, I think that’s going to be the best answer to the whole heat-loss problem. Sure, a brand new airtight door would also do the trick, but…no.

mailslot

I also installed a mail slot!! No, it’s not original, but it certainly feels more authentic to the house than the 1950s metal one, and it’s also nice that our mail gets delivered directly inside the house now! Taking a jigsaw to these old doors might have been the most panic-inducing thing I’ve ever done, but I’m so happy with how it turned out. The quality of the mail slot is great—super heavy, super substantial—and the only thing I had to do was swap out the screws it came with for longer ones, since our doors are 2″ thick and nothing is really made for that anymore. No big deal.

afterpaint1

EEP, painted doors! I do want the mail slot to look a little less…new. The brass bits are pretty shiny and I’m kind of just waiting for it to develop a little patina to blend in a little more.

I painted the doors with Benjamin Moore’s Onyx, which is a color I’ve loved for years since I used it on the doors in my apartment! It’s such a perfect black—it’s a little less intense than a true off-the-shelf black paint, but doesn’t have any trace of a blue undertone, which always seems to be my problem with paints that look off-black or charcoal grey on the swatch. I love it. Anyway, I bought a quart of the Aura exterior paint in pearl finish, which is something between a semi-gloss and an eggshell. I was SO EXCITED.

doorsafter

So, the doors look pretty good. Until you got up close a few days later.

bubbling

HOLY BUBBLING AND PEELING. Ugh. Ugh Ugh Ugh. More Ughs.

After all that fucking work…this. THIS SHIT. I’m so unhappy. Hold me.

Admittedly, I did not really research the best primers to use on exterior woodwork…and apparently used one that doesn’t even claim to be good for exteriors. Its also just doesn’t seem like the primer and the wood hardener interacted very well, for some reason, since the paint and the primer both started bubbling almost immediately—not just the paint. Major bummers.

I also think painting exterior stuff black with latex paint when the weather is really hot WITH the sun also beating down on it is maybe just a bad plan, generally. The bubbling is definitely way worse where the sun really hits it…I’m sure it’s getting HOT, which is no good for paint adhesion. Anyway, it’s just all a horrible mystery that ended in terrible sadness. Beautiful doors. Beautiful ruin. All the sadness.

I hate that I have to redo this now. Yes, the hard part is done…all the layers of paint are peeled off, the molding is restored, the mail slot is in, the doorbell is exchanged…but do I have to strip the doors AGAIN? I know the answer is probably yes. This sucks.

One weird discovery I made during this whole ordeal was when peeling off the cheap pine stops that were providing some weatherstripping. The weatherstripping was totally dried out and useless and wayyy past its prime, but what was interesting was the paint underneath—not on the doors, but on the surrounding moldings.

understopblack

BLACK. The bottom layer of paint on the doors AND the enormous molding surrounding it was BLACK.

So…was the ENTIRE door surround black? Not just the doors? Well…

moldingblack

I took my investigation a little bit further by chipping away the old wood filler and caulk between the base of the molding and the tongue and groove flooring that extends about a foot and a half out in front of the doors. I had delusions that I might strip and stain that bit of flooring, but I think I’m more inclined to just repaint it a better grey. This grey it too blue and I’m not a fan.

Anyway, yep…the bottom-most layer is black, even on the outer parts of the molding! Wasn’t really expecting that one…

Before, I was thinking I’d just paint the transom window frame black and the rest of the moldings white and call it a day. Like this poorly done photoshop mock-up:

frontdoorrendering1

Sure, yeah, it’s nice and all. I like it.

frontdoorrendering2

But knowing (or, at least think I’m knowing…) that the whole thing was originally black…do I just go for it? It would be pretty dramatic. Obviously I like DRAMA…I mean, I live for it. This photoshop mock-up is so poorly executed and flat-looking and therefore not very convincing, but maybe it could be amazing if I actually did it? The 50s metal banisters definitely need to go, and the exterior light clearly needs to be swapped out, so try to ignore those. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmmmm. Decisions.

I guess I’ll finish the doors when the weather cools down a little and hope the paint really sticks this time. Basically this whole thing was a semi-unsafe bummer and failure of a DIY project, but I guess I feel like the heavy lifting is done and all I really have to do is figure out how to make some paint stick. Still, going back and re-doing a job I already tried to do…lame. I guess that’s just how it goes sometimes.

Has this kind of thing ever happened to you? Words of wisdom? Good advice? Prayers for my soul?

Also, to all the lead-fearing folk out there: rest assured I have since procured Peel Away and will be more responsible in my lead abatement efforts from here on out.

More Progress in the Front Garden!

I wouldn’t say I have a lot of special skills, but one of the things I’m really good at is being obsessive. If you’ve been reading this blog for, say more than two posts, you’ve probably caught onto this fun fact. One thing that my childhood forays into gardening taught me is that almost nothing brings the mercury higher on my obsessive-thermometer than working in the garden. I’m not a terribly outdoorsy person, but hand me a shovel, a few plants, and a patch of land and I will forego nearly all aspects of human functioning and brave bug bites and worms and grubs all day long. There’s just something in my brain that tells me to.

I’m still working on the inside of the house here and there, but the ongoing lack of ceilings has kind of caused things to stall out a bit on that front. In the good news category, I think I’ve successfully hired out the ceilings to a competent contractor who is supposed to start the job on Saturday, so I need everyone to cross everything they have that this actually comes to pass. Also in the good news category: all the painful and annoying waiting for electrical and plumbing and drywalling over the past few months has forced me outside, and I’m so happy with the progress there! Sometimes you need things to go a little wrong to force you to redirect your attention, you know? More good news? The weather in the Hudson Valley has been STUNNING. Like, perfect summer. Not too hot, not too humid, lots of sunny days and good rain storms…it’s like this summer was custom-built for gardening. So I guess it’s all good news? Sure. We’ll go with that.

progressshot

SO! Last time I wrote an update on the garden, I’d dug out about half of the front yard, re-set the bluestone path from the sidewalk to the backyard gate, put a little bluestone path of scrap pieces through the garden (which will provide access for watering, fertilizing, pruning, etc…), and planted some stuff. I wasn’t sure when I’d gather the energy to dig out and plant the front half of the yard, but a couple of weekends ago, I totally did it! It started when the plant sections at Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Adams (which is a local grocery store chain with a terrific nursery) all started having sales, and I bought some cheap clearance plants and needed a place to put them. Oopsie!

digging

See that? That entire area used to be grass and weeds and clover and other stuff. I dug and dug and dug. Luckily, given the current state of the backyard, all I really had to do was fill a wheelbarrow, bring it into the back, and dump it in the area that used to be covered in asphalt. So all of this digging kind of played double-duty of clearing space for the garden in the front and providing some fill dirt for the back. I haven’t really made any progress on that front, either, but given how much dirt we’ll need and how large the space is, I think we’ll probably bite the bullet and end up having it brought in and graded with a backhoe so that we don’t end up with drainage problems. We need to build up the ground about a foot back there, so all this digging in the front really only made a small dent. But still! It’s better than nothing!

Digging out all the old sod was definitely the hardest part of this whole thing. It’s time-consuming, physically tiring, and the results aren’t all that exciting until you start getting plants in the ground and mulch spread out. I think I carried somewhere upwards of 60 very full wheelbarrows to the back. It was intense.

My arms are looking kind of awesome, though. So there’s that.

before1

Here’s just a reminder of where I started at the beginning of the summer, right after I built the fence! I’m still really happy with this decision…everyone seemed to think I was crazy when I told them I was going to build a fence essentially in the middle of our yard, and even crazier when I said it was going to be black, but not only has it provided a little privacy and kept the dogs safe, it also gave us this wonderful front garden space! I think it all just frames the house really nicely, too…the black really just recedes (you might have to trust me on this one…) and makes the house look so pretty. Zero regrets.

after1

And here we are today, a couple months later!

The blogger side of me feels a little funny about even showing pictures of the garden at this stage because it has such a long way to go! Everything needs to mature and fill in, I already want to move stuff around, the hostas won’t really recover from their fairly aggressive mid-summer splitting/transplanting until they come back next spring…there’s a lot that needs to happen before it really starts looking good. But that’s OK! Not everything has to be a perfect, beautiful before-and-after, and gardening is one thing that REALLY requires patience. This summer was really about getting the sod out and getting some stuff in the ground. I fully expect to end up moving almost everything around and transplanting things to other parts of the yet-untended yard, but at least the hard part of getting all the sod out is done and things are starting to take root!

I’m really glad I did this now instead of waiting a year or two. I’ll be so happy a couple years from now when I have some great mature plants to work with, and the neighborhood is super pleased about it. Spending so much time in the front garden has allowed me to meet SO many of our neighbors, who have been so kind and supportive and encouraging—it’s been really awesome. Nobody really has any way of knowing how much work we’re doing on the inside of the house, but everyone who walks by can see the garden. It’s important to me that the house looks loved and cared for (even with the garden in these beginning stages!), and even more so because it’s so important to people around us. People really notice this stuff. The neighborhood even got together and brought us a (delicious) blueberry pie! Midtown Kingston gets sort of a bad rap, but man—I’m so happy we live here. It’s such a warm, welcoming place full of such kind people.

Garden1

ANYWAY. For this second half of the garden, I transplanted some creeping jenny and purple heart, even MORE hosta (I hate how much of the same variety of hosta is happening here, but I still have TONS of areas to plant elsewhere, so I’m sure I’ll be happy to have them then!), and picked up a few new things, too!

endofpath

I moved the autumn joy sedum from this back corner to the front corner and put a couple of small christina marie azaleas in their place, which were on sale at Lowe’s for $6! They seem healthy and nice, though, and should have pink flowers in the spring. I’ve never really loved azaleas, but they were inexpensive, seem appropriate to the house, and I think could potentially be pretty, so I’m giving them another shot.

azaleas

Up in the front far corner, I planted a clump of 3 more azaleas and 3 fairly large spirea bushes sort of spaced around the tree trunk. The spirea should have large white blooms…we’ll see! I’m not always a fan of spirea, especially certain varieties, but even the foliage on these seem pretty nice.

On the very right edge of the picture you can jussst see some peony leaves (the plant is done flowering for the year), and the big bald patch next to it is full of bulbs! I planted 4 peony bulbs and 8 astilbe bulbs (I was reassured that it would be OK to plant them in the summer instead of waiting for fall…let’s hope so?). I don’t really know if the bulbs will do anything this year but hopefully next year I’ll have plants! And in a few years, plants that can be divided! And spread! Everywhere! Or something.

astilbe

I also picked up a few astilbes on sale, since I sort of just needed some more greenery to fill the space! I like astilbes, though. These are all supposed to have white blooms but the bulbs are a mystery mixed-bag so we’ll find out together! I think maybe this spot is a little too sunny for them, so I may move them in the fall.

indigo

Near the front of the garden, I picked up two false indigos on sale, which I love! The minty green foliage is so nice, and they look AMAZING when they really become established and fill out. They have very soft blue flowers in spring and these wacky large seed pods the rest of the summer and into fall. They’re supposed to be pretty maintenance free and drought-resistant, which are two qualities I like in a plant. And a man.

porch

Oh hey, Linus! The dogs like to watch me from this window while I’m working in the garden. It’s so cute and creepy.

I know this is a post about the garden, but to hell with it. I’m CRAZY. I CAN’T BE TIED DOWN. Here’s the porch. I picked up both the chairs and the planter at HomeGoods, and they’re both nice! One of the chairs used to be white, but I spray painted it black to match the other one. Easy. The planter is faux-concrete and I’m relatively into it. I was a little concerned that the chairs would get stolen, but so far, so good! The chairs are pretty visually light and surprisingly comfortable and I like the kind of faux-Acapulco vibe they have going on.

I recently picked up an ENORMOUS beautiful antique crock (20 gallons!) for something stupid like $20 (maybe $30?), so I think I’d like to replace the planter with that when I get around to it. I think it’ll add some nice contrast and make the porch look less HomeGoods Happy, if you know what I mean.

summer2013

summer2014

Anyway, I’ll stop apologizing for all my wilt-y hosta and just say that I’m SUPER PUMPED about how far this part of the yard has come in the space of a year. It feels really good to be out gardening after all these years, and I’m really excited to see (and show!) how things fill in and shift and change in the coming years! Someday, it’ll be a nice garden. Really. I promise. I think.

I’ve never been super serious about my gardening, but if ever there was a time to start, it’s now! I have tons to learn and tons of space to experiment, and I’m really excited about both. Before fall, I really want to make a to-scale map of the garden so that I can remember where everything is and what’s supposed to come back up in the spring (mostly so I don’t mistake them for weeds and pull plants by accident!). I also want to make a spreadsheet of all the plants I planted so I can keep track of all the maintenance required—what gets cut back and what doesn’t, what gets fertilized and when—that type of thing.

You could say I have big goals.

The Great Radiator Shuffle!

There’s this hip new dance in town called the Radiator Shuffle, which involves multiple strong plumber men removing century-old cast iron radiators. Then, once they’ve all left, a small nice Jewish boy pushes said radiators around into different rooms with all the strength in his arms and legs because he’s an anal weirdo.

It’s really fun.

So this is what happened.

pipesbefore

You might remember these heat pipes that went up the corner of our dining room, next to the now-removed non-original closet. You probably don’t. But you MIGHT because many (like, probably at least 3) commenters brought up that I should consider removing the pipes when they appeared in photographs in earlier posts. The long and short of it is that the radiators were probably installed around 1900, and our house was probably built around 1840, and so almost all of the radiator pipes serving second floor radiators are exposed throughout the house because the whole heat system was retrofitted. It doesn’t really bother me—it’s part of the history, and they’re not all that obtrusive—and these were particularly out of the way, so I kind of disregarded the idea of trying to get them removed. What a hassle. I hate hassle.

JK, I love hassle. My whole life is hassle, and finding ways to create more hassle. I thrive on it.

So when my plumber mentioned that while the pantry was gutted anyway (oh yeah, remember how I’m supposedly renovating a pantry, too? How’s that going? Shut your goddamned mouth. That’s how.), it would be pretty easy to remove the unsightly-ish pipes and have them buried in the wall.

I hemmed and hawed very slightly, but going ahead with this relatively simple and relatively inexpensive change affords multiple benefits.

1. The pipes aren’t terrible looking but the room would look better (and more historically accurate) without them. So there’s that.

2. The pipes had to be messed with anyway because one of the pipes actually branched off into two pipes above the ceiling level. One pipe fed the radiator above, and the other one went straight up to a big holding tank in the attic from when the system operated differently than it does now. The holding tank was removed when the boiler was replaced, but because we still had a dining room ceiling then, the pipe had to just be capped about a foot above the floor on the second floor. Not a cute look. So that pipe had to be disconnected and capped at the joint under the floor, which is easier said than done. I have no idea if this is making any sense. Bear with me.

middlebedroomradiatorbefore

3. This is the radiator the pipes were feeding (the pipe that goes straight up is the one leading to the tank in the attic). Note how it is sitting on a weird white wood platform instead of on the floor. I really don’t know why this is. A leak might have rotted the floor boards at some point, leading to them getting cut out and this piece of wood artfully put in its place? I don’t know. I don’t really care. Removing the radiator would give me the opportunity to feather in new floor boards to cover this area, which was very appealing. It would also give me the opportunity to move the radiator over a few inches to center it on the wall (between the corner and the door to what used to be the upstairs kitchen, which is frustratingly right out of frame), which I like. I like centering things.

4. Our heat system originally relied on steam, and at some point it was converted to hot water. I’m glad this was done, whenever it was done—there are more options for hot water boilers, I believe it’s more efficient, quieter (steam radiators “knock” as the pipes heat and cool), and I find the heat a little nicer (steam radiators get hotter—ours are never too hot to touch but they work EXTREMELY well regardless). ANYWAY, steam radiators require quite large pipes, since they have to transport steam. Hot water radiators, by contrast, need much smaller pipes—I believe 3/4″ is standard. Since our system was converted but the pipes were never swapped out, this essentially means that we are wasting energy (and money) heating a bunch of hot water to fill these huge-ass pipes when we could be filling very small pipes and saving a lot of energy. Even though I’m really pleasantly surprised by how low our heat bills were this winter (especially when compared to our friends with oil-powered systems—YIKES YIKES), the idea that we could be doing better by exchanging some of the huge pipes for little pipes was appealing. The new pipes will be run with Pex, which is a relatively new type of flexible plastic piping that is much cheaper and easier to install than copper, but seems to be just as good (if not better, since copper pipes tend to corrode around the joints after many years, and burst easily if they freeze).

SO. DECISION MADE. LET’S DO IT.

The pipes came out. The radiator was moved out of the way a couple of feet. I lifted up that little platform under the radiator  so I could start thinking about how to repair the floor.

holeinfloor

So, this is not so great, FYI. Because so much of the subfloor had been cut out, the plumbers were actually surprised and amazed that the radiator had never come crashing through the dining room ceiling. That would have been really bad, considering these things weigh several hundred pounds and I do NOT like surprises that weigh several hundred pounds.

holesindiningroomfloor

Removing these pipes obviously means that I have to do some floor patching in this room, which got me thinking about moving the dining room radiator.

diningroomradiator

Here’s a bad picture of it in its original location. It was sort of an awkward spot because there’s already so much going on with this wall, between the window and the archway to the bay window. The radiator covered a lot of the molding, which just looked sort of bad and lame.

diningroomwallbefore

Lurking in the back of my mind for a while had been moving this radiator to this wall. This is the back of the wall where I’m installing the faux-fireplace in the library, and at some point in time I’m almost certain there was another mantel here with some kind of stove for heat. When the mantel was removed, the baseboard was patched in pretty poorly, and it just seemed like a good location for the radiator to live to hide that.

Typically radiators are installed under or at least near windows (for good reason—the radiator is supposed to warm the cool draft coming in from the window before it alters the temperature of the room), but my plumber assured me that moving the radiator to this wall wouldn’t make any appreciable difference for how our heat would disperse and that I should do whatever I wanted.

Nobody should ever tell me that, btw. “Whatever I want” is usually a recipe for disaster and devastation.

So out that awkwardly-positioned radiator went, out went the big pipes in the basement leading to it, and over I shimmied it to the opposite wall (on some furniture mover things, which are pretty amazing if you need to move heavy shit alone).

diningroomradiator-moved

Here it is, freshly shimmied. I like this location for a radiator—after all, it’s the location of an original heat source, and I think it just looks nice. Anyway. Whatever.

diningroomradiatormoved

Removing the dining room radiator had the added benefit of revealing some interesting information about how the house was finished originally, or at least around the turn of the century when the radiator was presumably installed! That’s not wood (or poop) you’re seeing on the moldings—it’s actually faux-painted to look like wood. The moldings themselves are made out of wood, obviously, but often this was done in houses of this era to make the actual lower-grade wood look like nicer wood. I’ve never considered trying to strip the woodwork in this house (except occasionally when it’s really bad, but even then only to repaint it), but this pretty much confirms to me that the woodwork was never not painted—whether it was this faux-finish or various shades of white and beige.

originalwallpaper

This wallpaper was also lurking behind the radiator, right over the original plaster. You can’t really tell, but the dark lines in the pattern are actually a gold metallic. Fancy!

ANYWAY.

Moving that radiator in the dining room led, naturally, to me wanting to move another radiator—the one in the foyer. You know, while we’re having so much fun.

hallwayradiatorbefore

Maybe it looks OK in pictures, but this radiator, while beautiful, was also rather strangely located. It’s in the center-ish of the entire space, which makes a certain degree of sense, so as to diffuse throughout the entry/hallway evenly, but this space between the stairwell and the wall is only 3 feet wide. Add in a radiator that sticks out 10-11″ from the wall, and you’re left with a passageway just about 2 feet wide. It made the hallway feel unnecessarily cramped and strange, and impossible to move large objects through. Additionally, the area of the hallway/entryway that gets really cold in the winter is by the door. Even with more effective weather-stripping, I think this will pretty much always be the case, whereas the middle and back of the hallway seem to get enough heat from the surrounding rooms to be pretty comfy. My plumber concurred with all of this.

So out that radiator went, and moved closer to the door. The foyer space before the stairwell is really quite large (about 6′ wide), so it feels much less obstructive there, and it’s SO nice to have the hallway next to the stairwell restored to the right width.

hallwaysansrad

Once those pipes are gone and the floor is patched in, it’s going to be awesome. I love this change.

But then I had another idea. The radiator in the dining room, in its new location, looked a little small to me. The radiator in the entryway, in its new location, looked a bit large. Additionally, the dining room is a much bigger space that we actually live in, whereas the entryway is comparatively small and functions as a pass-through to the other rooms. And the plumbing needs to be re-run anyway, so what if I just swapped the two? It’s literally no extra work.

The radiator from the hallway? So. Fucking. Heavy. Even on furniture movers, it was almost impossible to budge. But I did it because I have a lot of determination and a lot of self-doubt and needed to just to see how it would look.

hallwayradindiningroom

It looks awesome. I feel like the size is just right.

radiator-in-entry

And the old dining room radiator works really well for the entryway, I think! My plumber actually wants me to move the radiator even closer to the entry door, but I’m stubborn and I like it where it’s sitting now—closer to the doorway to the library. I think closer to the front door would feel a little crowded and sort of take up the entire wall, whereas in this position we still have the option to add some coat hooks to the right of the radiator.

Oh yeah, I might have stripped down the front doors. The house looks more shanty than ever! Awesome.

I didn’t rush to have the new plumbing run and the radiators reinstalled because having them disconnected means it’s a pretty swell time to have them sandblasted to remove all the layers of old paint and caulk (yes, caulk) and garbage that has been layered on over the years. Cast iron radiators lose efficiency the more times they’re painted, so not only will stripping them down make them look super fancy and bring out the intricate patterns on them, but they should also work better. It was with this terrific plan in mind that I asked the plumbers to also disconnect the awesome corner radiator in the library (which is extra caulk-y)  in the hopes that I can just get them all done at once (and by “all,” I really mean 4—there are 11 in the house).

Once the plumbers left, it suddenly felt like pressure was ON. I mean, ideally these rooms (hallway/foyer, library, and dining room) would be DONE by the time the radiators return and get re-installed, so they don’t get damaged during the ceiling installation and all of the wall repair and painting. Which means I really want these rooms done(ish) by…late September?

It’s the end of July, FYI. I might be overly ambitious. But I REALLY want those rooms to be functional and finished looking. It’s about time! I’m tired of having so many spaces under construction and actually living in so little of the house. I need to spread my wings and fly. And also get some of the furniture and art out of the upstairs kitchen, basement, and garage. It’s piling up and I feel like a crazed hoarder.

Bright-ish spots:

1. The sandblasters are currently BOOKED BOOKED BOOKED and said I couldn’t get any of my stuff in until late August-early September. That’s actually OK—it buys me some time to figure out what to do with the radiators, exactly. Which feels largely reliant on what we’re doing with the floors, which is the subject of the majority of my inner turmoil nowadays. Stay tuned for some whining about that another day. Anyway, it also gives me lots of time to consider renting a sandblaster and doing it myself in the backyard, which seems like a bad idea all around but one that I continue to think about. A lot. Someone talk me out of it. Or INTO IT.

2. Originally I thought that having the radiators out also meant that the pressure was on to refinish the floors before the radiators needed to be reinstalled. I met with a floor refinisher the other day, though, and he said this was not the case. Which makes a lot of sense, since obviously not everyone who has their floors refinished also removes all of their radiators in preparation. ANYWAY, he said that since they’re out already, he might as well rough-sand the area underneath where they’ll go, just to make things a little easier, and then we can refinish the floors for real when everything is done-done, but any pro floor refinisher should have the necessary equipment to sand and refinish around radiators. So that takes a little of the pressure off, I guess, although definitely makes the DIY floor refinishing idea seem even more complex and impossible. Anyway, even though I’m really excited to refinish at least some of the flooring (on the first floor, only the dining room, library, and hallway have hardwood, so it isn’t a big job), the more responsible move is to wait until more of the house is done so I don’t have to panic over every paint drip or scratch or joint compound puddle or whatever. Renovating is tough on floors, even if they’re protected with paper and dropcloths, so I definitely want the bulk of that stuff out of the way first. Floors might end up being a 2015 or 2016 or 2030 project. Sighs.

3. The electricians are DONE (for now) AND we passed electrical inspection yesterday! This is VERY exciting, since it means we can now drywall the ceilings! AHHHHH! Considering we took down the ceilings back in December and January, I’m SO ready to have ceilings again. The ceilings are pretty much holding up everything at this point—there’s no sense in doing a ton of wall repair when there’ll just be a ton more to fill in the crumbling areas between the old walls and the new ceilings. I want ceilings bad and I want them now. Or yesterday.

4. I’m still debating whether to do the ceilings myself or not. On one hand, I met a semi-sketchy dude who wants to help me with them and says he has lots of experience, and it wouldn’t cost a lot to enlist his second set of hands. On the other hand, this isn’t something I have any experience with, and because our house was built pre-industrial revolution, our beams are not at all level—meaning wonky drywall unless the beams are properly and carefully shimmed out. I met with a contractor (this is #4…all the others were either super pricey or I didn’t feel comfortable with them…) who I really liked, so I’m waiting for his bid…if we can afford it, this is one thing I’m inclined to hire out. After redoing the office I feel comfortable doing all the necessary wall repair and skim-coating—and there’s a lot of it—but the ceiling isn’t really something I want to gamble with. Also it sounds like the opposite of fun as a DIY.

I’ll stop rambling now.

Ana Gasteyer’s Bathroom Makeover!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

I’ve mentioned this vaguely a couple of times on Instagram and Twitter, but I’ve been doing some design work for a pretty awesome client—the super-duper-multi-talented Ana Gasteyer! Ana’s pretty amazing: she was on SNL for six seasons, has been in a bazillion TV shows and movies (most recently Suburgatory), played Elphaba in Wicked both in Chicago and on Broadway (along with a bunch of other theater work)…she’s exceptionally cool. Aside from that, Ana is totally fun and funny and laid-back and has great taste and is just an all-around pleasure to work and play with. This job has been so much fun.

I met Ana initially through Grace about a year and a half ago, and since then we’ve pretty much been working our way through overhauling her whole apartment. We started in the master bedroom and bathroom, and have since moved on to the living room and dining room (kitchen, I’m looking at you next!).  There are still some loose ends to be tied up (as these things go…) in the more major areas, but they should be share-ready soon. But today: the bathroom! It is done! It is glam!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover (Before)

Here are some before shots of the bathroom, just to get an idea of where we started. Ana and her husband, Charlie, and their two kids live in an old warehouse building in Brooklyn, which was completely rehabbed about 15 years and turned into a bunch of really great loft apartments. While certain things about the renovation are really nice—like the marble basket-weave floors, the sinks, the tub, and the plumbing fixtures—the builders sort of skimped-out on other stuff. All of the walls were totally naked (aside from the cow triptych courtesy of IKEA), the light fixtures were all contractor-grade and totally sad, and despite being a master bathroom, it had almost no permanent storage—just two small medicine cabinets on either side of the sink and that glass shelf underneath the mirror. Not cool, builders. The bathroom is also situated in the middle of the apartment, meaning it has no windows or natural light, which also contributed to it feeling a little cramped and not as nice as it could be (also, disclaimer: hard to photograph). So basically the bathroom had these really nice elements but desperately needed more storage and a big shot of style. So in I came with my storage ideas and style.

Ana really wanted the bathroom to feel glam and a little glitzy and fun, so we tried to go a little over-the-top with some design elements while still keeping it grown-up and pretty.  Aside from more storage overall, Ana also desperately wanted a vanity where she could sit and do her makeup, which was a tall order! This bathroom really isn’t very large—definitely no space for a normal piece of furniture—so it required some creative thinking to get from Point A to Point B.

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Anddddd, here it is!

OK, so obviously I just have to just skip all the details and lead with this: DAT WALLPAPER!!! It is amazing, no? It’s from the new Rifle Paper Company collection from Hygge & West, designed by Anna Bond, and it is absolutely scrumptious. Going super dark and dramatic with paint is always a tough sell, but wallpaper takes it up about 20 notches since it’s definitely not something you want to get wrong. I’m so glad Ana loved this pattern as much as I did, though, and gave me the go-ahead to have it installed here. The pattern is screen-printed and has an amazing hand-painted feel to it, and I love how glamorous and luxe it feels while also having a super fun vintage vibe. The gold in the pattern is just perfection in real life, which has been my experience with all Hygge & West papers with metallics: never too much, always just enough. Just how I like it. OOMPH. I love it. Ana loves it. Everyone loves it. It’s that good.

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Believe it or not, the black really does make the whole room feel SO much bigger and more expansive—it’s sort of unbelievable. Dark colors work so well in spaces without a lot of natural light, whereas whites and other light colors can often feel really flat and lifeless. It adds so much dimension to the room.

The wallpaper was installed by Sarah Merenda, who is fabulously talented (both as an installer and an artist!) and amazing to work with. We were a little concerned about how wallpaper would fair in a bathroom, but Sarah assured us that using a good wallpaper primer and a strong paste would keep it adhered to the walls, particularly if everything was allowed to set for a couple of weeks before being exposed to steam or moisture. Ideally you’d also have a fan to vent the moisture—unfortunately this bathroom doesn’t have one, but Sarah said it should still be OK as long as the glue had a couple weeks to harden up.

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

OK, I’ll stop gabbing about the wallpaper now. Other stuff! To add some more architectural interest to the space without spending a ton of cash, we opted to put up a chair rail and this paneling detail on the lower half of the walls, all with stock pieces of molding from Lowe’s.

The chair rail is actually three different pieces that I put together, and then our fabulous painter/carpenter, Ryan, installed everything all fancy-like. He did such a great job! The lower half of the walls and the chair rail are painted All White by Farrow & Ball, which is delicious quality paint. It’s so pretty.

before2

cabinet2

To address the storage and vanity issue, the only way to really go was custom. I designed this piece (and then had it fabricated by a cabinet builder) to be about as big as it could be without totally overwhelming the space or blocking something important like the shower door or the toilet, since Ana and Charlie will probably need to use that stuff. Even though it’s much bigger than the little dresser that was there before, the shallower depth actually makes it feel less intrusive while still providing a ton more storage space. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Also, vanity! Since there wasn’t room for a ton of storage and a vanity, I made the middle section of the built-in a drop-down desk and picked up an adjustable DALFRED stool at IKEA that Ana can move to the front of the vanity when it’s in use. There’s a mirror mounted to the back of this section and a cut-out for an electrical outlet, so it’s super functional and fits all of her lady potions and tools. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

One of my favorite improvements to the space was framing out the existing mirror. This was done by our carpenter (and inspired by the molding in my house!), and it makes the mirror look so much more finished. It just conceals the frosted border (which you can kind of see in the first before pic), which we all thought looked a little dated and out of place, and I think it ties in really nicely with the molding work and with the custom cabinet now. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

I also love the light fixtures! We went from the blandest of the bland to the glam-est of the glam, basically. The two boring flushmount fixtures over the sink got replaced with these reasonably-priced flush-mount crystal chandeliers from Overstock, which I love in a weird way? They’re a pretty far cry from my normal taste, and on their own they’re a little…questionable, but I feel like they really work in this room. Glitzy! And I have to say, the crystals really do cast some nice light and subtle patterns onto the walls. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

The light over the tub was definitely calling out for a chandelier, so we hooked it up! I found this guy vintage on eBay, and I think it’s so cute! It’s just the right scale for the space. And look what’s at the top there—a pineapple! We bought and installed this light fixture longggg before the wallpaper came into the picture, but I love how they ended up tying together. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Between having a crazy busy career, a husband with a crazy busy career, and two kids, Ana wanted the bathroom to be as easy and low-maintenance as possible. I’ve long been an advocate of the ease of towel hooks as opposed to formality of bars—lest you wondered where I stood on bathroom towel politics—so we removed the original bars (which were sort of oddly located anyway) and installed new hooks. It was a little challenging to find ones that were inexpensive and reasonably matched the existing plumbing fixtures, but I finally found these at Home Depot for the sweet price of $14. Easy towel hanging! Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

I loved working on this bathroom SO MUCH and I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I know Ana loves it too—which I guess is the important part. I can’t wait to share the other stuff we’ve done! It’s so fun to see all the elements come together in real life after rolling around in your head for so long—as soon as the wallpaper went up, we all kind of went from feeling so-so about things to SUPER HAPPY ABOUT EVERYTHING. True story. Wallpaper = happiness.

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This post is in partnership with Hygge & West!

Progress in the Front Garden!

I feel like I’ve probably opened a few posts this way by now, but whatever: when I was a kid, we moved from one new-ish house in suburban Northern Virginia to a new-new house also in suburban Northern Virginia. Looking back, the move shouldn’t have been a big deal. The two houses were maybe a 10-15 minute drive from each other. The old house wasn’t anything terribly special, and the new house had more space and exciting futuristic amenities, like an ice maker. We didn’t have to change schools or anything, and all our stuff was coming with us, so I’m not really sure what the hell our big problem was with the whole thing.

I blame my brother, Jeremy. Since he was three years older than my sister Laura and I, and I guess we took our emotional cues from him, his upset over the move became our upset, too. And we were very upset. Whenever we went to visit the new house while it was under construction, whether it was to check out the newly-poured foundation or later to pick out our bedrooms, Jeremy stayed in the car. He was having none of it. And while I wasn’t about to sacrifice the opportunity to choose the best bedroom just for the sake of solidarity, Laura and I weren’t much better. We bitched and moaned the whole time, and were general nightmare children throughout the entire ordeal. Moving day found me literally clinging to the curtains of my old bedroom, wailing as if I’d been set on fire while my father dragged me out of the only home I’d ever known and into the car.

Semi-related: the curtains were part of a larger dinosaur motif that had been enacted throughout the decor of my room a few years prior—the bedspread, sheets, wallpaper border, and said curtains were all of the same pattern and very obviously formed a set. I guess since the new owners also had a young son and liked that the wallpaper border matched the curtains, they negotiated the sale of the curtains with the home. Altogether, the various dinosaur-themed pieces displayed quite a dramatic effect, but separated the whole thing just seemed sort of sad and amateurish, decor-wise. I still consider this decision a grave error on my parents’ part, if only because my new room looked really bad with just the comforter left as evidence of its former glory.

ANYWAY. In a move of questionable parenting, my mother and father attempted to quell our complaints and unrelenting sadness with bribery. We were promised a second dog, which we eventually got (Yophie, the best dog ever). We were told that we could each have our own small pet, which we eventually did (I got a hamster and my sister got a guinea pig and my brother got a small exotic frog). Lastly, we were promised that we could all have our own garden.

This last promise still puzzles me. It isn’t as though our old house didn’t have a backyard that we could plant shit in—as far as I know, we’d just never really had any inclination. My brother spent most of his time indoors on his computer, and my sister an I had a swing set we were quite fond of and a whole lot of Barbies who, thanks to me, were always missing the majority of their hair. Gardening? Sure. I guess. Whatever, Mom.

My sister gave it a try, growing mostly edibles like strawberries and a few cucumbers every summer. I started with tomato plants, which I quickly learned needed to be watered and staked and caged to stay upright to actually bear tomatoes. My parents used to buy bagels and lox and cream cheese JUST for the occasion of eating my freshly harvested tomato crop, and I remember both really liking bagels and lox and cream cheese with a tomato on it and the idea that I’d actually grown a part of what I was eating.

And that’s how tomato gardening became my main passion in life. It was a lot of work and I liked it for whatever reason. I was a weird kid.

Soon my interests expanded, I think when my mother took me to our local farmer’s market for the first time. There were a few vendors who sold various types of non-edible plants, and I made quick work of taking over all of the space allotted to my sister and brother with black-eyed susans, astible, hosta, lilies, lamb’s ear, various ornamental grasses, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember. When I’d filled up that space, I moved on to other areas of the backyard. When I got bored of that, I picked up where the landscapers left off and started filling in the front yard, replacing some dead azaleas with more exciting hydrangea bushes, putting some peonies  and evergreens on a forgotten strip of land next to the driveway, splitting the perennials that had matured in the back and moving them to various other places…I was prolific. Despite our hard, clay-dominated soil, for some reason everything I planted seemed to thrive. I’d spend entire days outside, completely engrossed in my gardening, and then make everyone come admire my efforts. In the summer I’d clip my flowers as they bloomed and arrange small vases of them throughout the house. In retrospect, I’m sure my mother was thankful for the free labor and fresh flowers, but I can’t really imagine my childhood without gardening. It taught me all the platitudes about life that gardening is meant to provide: about patience, the payoff that comes with a hard day’s work, and that it was OK to have a hobby that was totally my own—solitary, slow, and hardly the type of thing boys weren’t supposed to be spending their time on. I loved it.

I continued gardening here and there until I graduated from high school, albeit without quite the same vim and vigor I had when I was younger, and then I stopped. I moved from one apartment in Saskatchewan, Canada to another, and then I moved to a dorm room in New York, and then an apartment on the Upper East Side, and then another apartment in Brooklyn. Aside from a few houseplants I’ve kept alive with varying degrees of success, I never had the outdoor space or the inclination to do anything else gardening-wise. And sometime in the space of that near-decade, I forgot how much fun I used to have.

WELL. As much as I love working on the inside of our house, the electrical work is still not totally done, which means we’re more or less at a stand-still with what can be done for the moment. I’ve been getting some things accomplished here and there, but I’ve taken the opportunity to really start focusing on the outside a bit more—more specifically, the front garden that was created when I built the fence! The weather in the Hudson Valley has been beautiful, and even though I’m trying to be cautious about spending money on plants when I really need to be saving for ceilings and stuff, I’ve been having a hard time resisting buying a few things and putting in a ton of work to make my garden dreams a little closer to reality. Doing all this work in the front also helps distract me from the disaster in the backyard, which is an added bonus.

So! What did I do? Let me explain.

before2

It started with this huge clump of hosta growing next to the gate in the front yard. See it? It was huge. I had to dig out a section of it when I was breaking up the weird concrete path next to the entryway of the house so that I could fit a wheelbarrow into the space to cart off the concrete chunks and bring in soil to back-fill the resulting hole. I realized while doing this that the clump of hosta was long overdue to be divided and thinned out a little, so one thing led to another and I ended up digging out all of it and dividing it up into still-sizable chunks—25 plants in all!—each of them probably still bigger than what you’d buy at a nursery. All from about a 2’x3′ space. Crazy! I know the common wisdom with perennials is to divide them in the fall while the plants are going dormant for winter, but my childhood experiments in gardening taught me that hosta is super hardy and can pretty much be divided whenever. It won’t look so hot after it’s divided, but the next spring/summer it will re-emerge and look great.

Hosta isn’t really my favorite plant in the world and this variety of it definitely isn’t my favorite, but I don’t dislike it and I had so much to work with. So I started digging.

Before1

The first to go was actually the patch of grass in front of the original wrought-iron fence—a little over a foot of space between the fence and the sidewalk. I considered planting something evergreen here, but decided that was a bad idea when I remembered how much snow we got last winter, and how covered this area gets when we shovel the sidewalk! I felt like anything I’d plant would just get completely ruined, and we’ll be better off with something that completely dies off in the winter. Hosta it is!

The basic process of gardening this area was to dig out the grass and a fair amount of the soil to bring the ground level down a bit. It had built up a lot over the years, and the grass/clover/weeds had overtaken a good 6 inches or so of the sidewalk! It was kind of labor intensive filling up the wheelbarrow, bringing it to the back, and dumping everything in the newly-excavated area where the asphalt used to be, but it was kind of fun, too.

hostaprocess

After I dug the area out, I started placing my hostas about 2-3 feet apart. They’re going to continue to expand over the next few years, so I wanted to give them some space to fill out. After the hostas were planted, I mulched the area with black mulch and filled in the gaps with some creeping jenny and purple heart. I find that it’s easier to mulch around bigger plants, but easier to plant smaller things once the mulch is down. We’ll see how it all does! The purple heart is a perennial and supposed to be about 12″ tall and wide, so I’m hopeful that it’ll fill out and provide a nice contrast with the hosta. A few commenters have warned about creeping jenny (or any creeping ground cover, really!), so I’m keeping an eye on it. I liked the idea of planting something that would fill in around the purple heart and the hosta (and even creep onto the sidewalk and between the cracks, if it looked prettier than the weeds…), but I also don’t want it to be too aggressive and kill the other plants in the process!

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OK, yes, I’m aware that this doesn’t look so hot. The hostas definitely went through some trauma during the splitting process, and like I mentioned, they probably won’t really look too great until next year—I was hoping they’d perk back up this summer, but I don’t think it’s going to happen! They’re still growing and are just beginning to flower, though, so they’re OK. Just a little in shock and need some time to establish themselves.

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I love our sidewalk, by the way. It’s made of these enormous and very old locally-quarried bluestone slabs, which is pretty common in the Hudson Valley and in Kingston. During all of this gardening, my neighbors from across the street sauntered over to talk about plants—they’ve lived in their house since 1958 (!) and were so excited to see us taking care of the outside a bit! They told me that there was an initiative at one point to replace all the bluestone sidewalks in Kingston with concrete to make winter shoveling easier, and while plenty of other people leapt at the chance, the previous owner of our home (yes, the same one who died in the bathtub…) would not, under any circumstances, allow the city to replace the sidewalk bordering his house. That still makes me feel really good for some reason. Even though I spend a lot of time wondering what the hell this man was thinking when he paved our yard with asphalt or smeared caulk on a beautiful old radiator, it’s nice to know that for whatever reason, he was so instrumental in saving this bit of history. I think our sidewalk is absolutely beautiful, so I’m happy I get to take care of it a little bit. I love being able to see the edges of the bluestone slabs on that side! It makes me want to plant out the “hell strip” between the sidewalk and the street in a similar manner, too…I’m sure I’ll get to it someday.

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After I finished planting the area in front of the wrought-iron fence, I still had a bunch of hosta and pretty much just needed a place to dump them! I put three back where the original enormous clump had been…and then I started obsessing over the bluestone path that leads from the sidewalk through the wrought iron gate and to the new wood gate (and continues beyond it!). At some point, somebody set or, more likely, re-set all of these slabs in concrete. I think it was an attempt to keep water away from the foundation of the house, but it wasn’t doing its job—the concrete hadn’t bonded with either the bluestone or the foundation, leaving lots of gaps and cracks and weeds growing through the cracks and general ugliness. You can kind of see what I’m talking about here, although I didn’t really get a good shot at all.

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I didn’t really plan to, but I ended up digging out all of the concrete and moving the bluestone slabs and re-laying the path entirely. It was a workout, but I think it looks a MILLION times better and more charming and more period-appropriate this way.

Once I got all the hosta in the ground, I felt the urge to get some stuff planted back along the new wood fence line and start to establish a little path through the future-garden.

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A big slab of bluestone in the backyard was unfortunately damaged during the asphalt removal, so I chipped the concrete from the salvageable pieces and began to set them in a little path through the space. I like how it turned out! I didn’t do anything fancy like set them in gravel or sand or anything like that…I just messed with the soil until they were level and let them sit. Old school! It’ll be interesting to see what happens with it over the next couple of years…if it’s not fairing well, it’s not such a big deal to just redo it. Anyway, the path looks a little silly and arbitrary right now since there’s still a fair amount of sod in the front of the garden that I need to remove, but that would then involve buying lots more plants and that shit adds up. Someday, though, the path will be a nice way to get into the garden to water and prune and all that.

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ANYWAY. I figured I’d start by getting some stuff in the ground by the fence line, so I marked off the general shape of the bed with a garden hose and got to digging! The shape didn’t really matter too much since the rest of the sod will eventually be dug out, too, but I wanted it to at least look kind of OK in the interim. I’m not honestly sure when I’ll do that second part of the project…hopefully later in the summer, but we’ll see!

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Andddd, done-ish! Done for now. Whatever.

I know this picture is awful, but it was the only one I got that kind of shows everything going on back here…

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I’m really pleased with how the bluestone situation is panning out. Removing all the concrete and rearranging the stones opened up a nice little gardening bed area next to the porch, which is nice! I already feel like the hosta behind the fence line needs to go and get replaced with boxwoods or something evergreen, but I’m hoping I can catch a sale. My favorite boxwood variety is the “green velvet” ones (which are a little softer and less formal feeling than the traditional boxwoods…), but I’m having an impossible time finding inexpensive ones. The cheaper and free-er I can keep this project, at least for now, the better!

One of the things I love about gardening, though, is how low-pressure it is, relatively. Stuff can pretty much always be moved and shifted around, so I’m not expecting it to be perfect the first time around…I just wanted to get some things going while the weather is nice. The hardest part BY FAR is getting all the old sod/weeds out of the way, so I’m glad to have a lot of that over with!

So here’s what I planted…

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Along the fence line in the back, I took a bunch of your suggestions and put in some big Hydrangea bushes. They aren’t so big right now, but they’re supposed to be huge! Like 6-8 feet tall and wide, although I’ll probably prune them when they start to get huge to keep things a little under control. The two on the left are Tardiva Hydrangea and were only $15 a pop at Lowe’s, and since I wanted one more and they didn’t have it, I compromised and bought a “Pinky Winky” (seriously), which is the one in the photo above. As the flowers mature, I guess they’ll start to turn pink from base to tip before dying. Sounds nice! The two varieties seem pretty similar, so it’s OK that they aren’t all identical, at least right now. Who knows how I’ll feel in a year or two.

Even though none of these are my absolute favorite variety of hydrangea, the price was right and I think they’ll be great when they mature next year and the year after. If not, I can put them to work elsewhere and plant something better up here. Not worried! I do think the size will be super nice, though, and the white flowers against the black fence will look really pretty. The hydrangeas should bloom in the summer and into the fall.

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Near the start of the path, behind the hostas which I want to remove, I put in 3 Dazzleberry Sedum, which are a type of succulent that seems to do well in our zone (5). I liked the blue-purple-grey color of the foliage, and that it stays pretty low (about 6″ high) but spreads a good 2-3 feet. I guess they’re supposed to start flowering in early summer and continue until the beginning of fall.

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One of them has started flowering since I planted it, and it’s pretty! I dig it.

Behind this sedum is some bleeding heart, which I transplanted from the backyard. It was getting strangled by hosta in its old location, and since the backyard is going to go through a lot in the next few years, I wanted to save it before it got killed. Bleeding heart is a really delicate plant, so it isn’t looking so hot post-transplantation, but I think next year the softness of the foliage will look nice among the hosta and the sedum and the hydrangea, and it should flower earlier in the spring. I’m trying to keep in mind that it’s nice to have things flowering at various times.

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Beyond that stuff, I threw some irises in that I also took from the backyard…same deal, just trying to save them before they get destroyed. I love iris but honestly have no idea what this variety is or what the flowers will look like, but I guess they also bloom early, so assuming they come back, it’ll be nice to have those little patches of color scattered around until the other plants take off for the summer.

I also planted a clump of 3 Autumn Joy Sedum, which should reach about 2′ high (they’re so tiny right now!) and about 2′ wide. I might have planted them a little close together, given this, but it happens. They should start to bloom pink flowers late in the summer and into the fall, which will be nice as everything else starts dying out. I like them! I’ve seen some mature plants around the neighborhood so they seem to do well here.

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In the back corner near the pine tree, I planted a Golden Mop False Cypress, which is supposed to potentially be really large—like 10 feet wide and 6 feet high. It can be pruned, though, and I wanted something evergreen to kind of fill in this corner near the tree, and I liked the color contrast it provides. It’s a slow-grower, though, so I don’t know how long it’ll take to start doing what I want it to do…

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Anyway,  I know it’s hard to get super stoked about a bunch of dead-ish-looking plants and things that really need to mature and fill in and this remaining patch of grass that still needs to go, but to me this reflects a lot of hard work and a huge amount of improvement! It can only keep getting better…at least that’s what I keep telling myself! In any case, the neighborhood is super happy about all of this, which makes me feel really good.

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I still have a ton to learn when it comes to gardening. I sort of ignored the traditional wisdom of amending the soil with good compost/topsoil/humus/etc., which may have been a bad idea. My friends in Kingston talk about how amazing and fertile their soil is, so I figured I’d give it a try just plopping things in the ground and seeing how they do. I do need to pick up some fertilizer at the very least, though.

Oh! And yes—I am aware that black mulch can be toxic to dogs. My dogs don’t really seem to be interested in eating it at all, but given that this is a dog-free front yard, I’m not really concerned. I’ll definitely keep that in mind when I get around to really working in the back, though.

Phew! OK, I know I can’t be the only one going a little garden-crazy right now.  Who else is logging some serious summer garden hours? Tell me EVERYTHING.

 

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