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.

Get Out There!

“Red Lips” is a free sharable graphic by Lisa Congdon for ImVoting.com

Tomorrow is election day. If you’re an American, you probably know this. And surely, I’d assume, you don’t need me to tell you to go out there and vote, but I’m going to do it anyway a) because I don’t want to wake up on Wednesday knowing I didn’t do this one small thing to help spread the word and encourage my fellow citizens to action and b) because my mother might actually murder me if I didn’t do this one small thing to help spread the word and encourage my fellow citizens to action.

Here’s the deal. There are so many issues I could get into, each one deserving of way more discussion than I can reasonably commit to giving on my blog that’s primarily about home renovation. If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, or have any powers of deduction to speak of (hi! I’m a New-York-Gay-Jew-Millenial! Nice to meet you, too.), I’m sure you know where I stand on the direction of this country and our past two years of leadership.

To be honest, I’m not !FIRED UP! this time. I remember being !FIRED UP! for past elections. I wish I was, but I’m not, and that’s not how I’m supposed to be feeling, and that failure to feel correctly makes me feel worse. We should be JAZZED, right? Because there IS a lot at stake. Because the outcomes WILL be consequential. Because some of us have been waiting to cast this ballot since November 9, 2016, and the day is finally arriving. Yet…I’m not excited. And maybe I’m not the only one who hasn’t managed to muster the correct feelings for the occasion. I think this is what it is:

I’m angry. I’m anxious. I’m scared. And I’m tired—of day after day seeing/hearing/reading about a new or growing atrocity in my country. I was kind of prepared for the deluge of Bad Stuff I Don’t Like At All—when someone tells you who they are, BELIEVE THEM. All the warnings we needed have always been right there. The part I wasn’t prepared for was my response to the Bad Stuff I Don’t Like At All. I’m pretty sure I’m a person who cares about stuff, sometimes perhaps too deeply, and yet I’ve felt myself becoming numb. I see myself caring less. I never thought I’d watch myself feel so little when confronted with so much: seeing migrant children in concentration camps on American soil, mass shootings, the intentional acceleration of environmental destruction, constant attacks on the free press, attacks on the LGBTQ community, attacks on women and people of color, on our elections, on religious minorities, on common decency and some semblance of mutual respect, just to name a few that come to mind. To feel it all is too much, and so my brain has replaced outrage and devastation for this uncomfortable-comfortable numbness. Because I still need to kind of function like a normal person. Because I still need to wake up in the morning and go about my day and do the things I need to do.

It freaks me out that I’ve learned to care less. That I’ve learned in short order how to put my principles in a box that I can only open when I have time. It freaks me out how quickly learned helplessness takes hold, and that maybe that’s exactly the strategy at work here and maybe it’s working exactly as intended. On me.

I don’t have answers here. It sucks. Maybe it’ll suck less soon. Maybe it’ll suck more, or a lot more. But I know one response that’s absolutely not an answer: not voting. Our hands might feel tied in a great many ways. Our hearts might feel broken and our faith in the system might feel shaken and the whole endeavor might feel pointless. Those are all valid ways to feel. But far from perfect as it may be, it’s all we’ve got. And it only works—or even kind of works—if those who are capable of showing up and doing it, in fact, show up and do it.

So please show up and do it. Don’t expect things to work themselves out. Don’t expect everyone else to take care of it. This is the moment—use it. I’m including some helpful links below to help you out.

To check your voter registration status, click here!

To find your polling location and hours, click here!

To see exactly what will be on your ballot, BallotReady.org is a great place to start! There’s actually more on the ballot this election than I even realized—I know what I’m doing for the House/Senate races, but I’m glad I took a closer look at the state, local, and judicial candidates, as well a ballot measure for my county! Down-ballot races are just as important if not more than the big national ones.

Life
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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!

Recipe Time! Green Tomato Crisp!

The other day, as part of my Fall-To-Do-List-I’m-Determined-To-Really-Do-This-Year, I began shutting down the garden for the season. It’s one of those tasks that’s so thoroughly…fall. Cutting back spent perennials, pruning back shrubs, bagging leaves, splitting bulbs…taming all that stuff and taking care of this kind of ordinary business just feels so GOOD. I usually feel like a spectacular failure around this time of year because, inevitably, there’s always way too much renovation work to button up before winter, so tasks like these just fall by the wayside—so it feels like a huge mark of progress to be able to take the afternoon and just…putter around in the vegetables and set myself up for some highly successful spring planting in a few months. Little by little things are starting to feel rather civilized around here, as though the vision of living here that I’ve held onto in my mind is finally starting to align with reality. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it’s moments like this—out there in the crisp autumn air, peacefully yanking the languishing tomato plants from my modest backyard produce farm and wrangling them into a neat row of yard bags—that feel like glimpses into what life might look like someday. It ain’t bad.

Another major development has occurred: after 2+ years of hot plates and a small toaster oven, I have a working stove again! My kitchen itself is still a long ways from completion—almost everything in it is still “temporary,” except for said working stove—but it’s workable. And I am WORKING IT. Over the past week I’ve rediscovered the magic of roasted vegetables (didn’t realize how much I missed those!) and have baked like 7 different things. I don’t think of myself as some kind of great cook but I do enjoy it, and so restoring this basic functionality feels like a big deal.

SO! We’ve all heard of fried green tomatoes, yes? It’s, like, a thing in the South. I also vaguely remember my friend, originally from Tennessee, saying something one time about his mama’s Green Tomato Pie, a “this could come in handy someday” detail I catalogued somewhere in the back of my brain, only to have it reemerge as I looked down at all the green tomatoes still clinging to the plants I was about to rip out of the ground. So instead of just throwing it all in the yard waste bags, I collected all the remaining green tomatoes first and asked my friend for mama’s recipe.

He didn’t know the recipe. GREAT JOB, FRIEND. So I turned to google, looked at a few recipes, and decided I’d just make something up instead. Firstly, I didn’t want to make a pie crust. Secondly, the more traditional recipes I was finding struck me as extremely sweet with way too much sugar for my bland Yankee tastebuds. So instead of a pie I made it a crisp, and instead of the sticky-sweet filling I scaled way back on the sugar, plus I added some things, and then it occurred to me “wait, did I just develop a recipe? DOES THE INTERNET NEED TO KNOW?” so I’m going OFF BRAND to tell you all about it. This is when I take my dramatic turn as a food blogger. I have found my passion. Fuck houses; I’d rather eat.

So anyway. This is a dessert you can make with all those green tomatoes at the end of the season, and I don’t think it’s horrible for you as far as desserts go, and I really like it. The green tomatoes bake much like an apple, and the restrained use of sugar allows the tart green tomato flavor to come through without hitting you over the head with it. It’s a little weird but so far a limited selection of friends have confirmed that it is, in fact, pretty delicious so here we go.

INGREDIENTS:

Filling:

3-4 Cups thinly sliced green tomatoes
4 Tbsp flour (I used an all-purpose Gluten Free flour)
1/4 Cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar (I like Bragg’s, but any kind should do)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Crisp Topping:

1/2 Cup ground unsalted raw almonds
1/2 Cup ground unsalted raw cashews
3/4 Cup oats (I used Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Old Fashioned Rolled Oats)
2 Tbsp brown sugar
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
Pinch of salt

Step 1: Preheat oven to 350. Wash your damn hands.

Step 2: In a large bowl, sprinkle flour over the green tomatoes and toss to combine. Throw in the rest of the filling ingredients and mix until all tomatoes are nicely coated. I used my hands. Transfer the filling to your baking dish in an even-ish layer (I used a 1 1/2-Quart round baking dish, but you do you).

Step 3. Grind your almonds and cashews. I used a coffee grinder, but whatever works (blender, food processor, mortar and pestle, rolling pin, laser eyes). Mostly you want a kind of coarse powder, like the texture of coffee grounds, but it’s good if there are still some larger chunks, like around the size of a…pencil eraser? Do what feels good. Choose your own adventure. Grind enough nuts to measure 1 cup and then transfer to a bowl.

Step 4. Melt the butter. I use the microwave. Mix the melted butter and the brown sugar, and then add the oats.

Step 5. Combine your buttery sugary oats with the ground nuts and mix until well-combined.

Step 6. Top your filling with the crisp topping in an even layer over the whole thing. It should be enough to provide good coverage! Sprinkle a pinch of coarse salt over it all—Maldon if you can; it’s the best! If you’re feeling fancy, distribute a few 1/2 T slices of butter on top before it goes in the oven.

Step 7. Bake at 350 for one hour, remove and let cool a little. You should see some of the filling bubbling up around the edges and the crisp topping starting to brown.

Step 8. Serve warm with ice cream! Or eat it however you want to! You’re a strong independent lady and you don’t need me to tell you how to enjoy dessert!

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