All posts tagged: Exterior

Hidden Treasure!

You hear those stories—you know the ones, where people are renovating an old house and they open up a wall and find a bag full of cash or bonds or diamonds or human teeth or something else really cool that had been squirreled away decades before by a previous owner. So pervasive is the idea that when people hear that I’m renovating an old house, 9 times out of 10, they’ll crack a joke about something like that happening.

It could totally happen.

But it probably won’t happen.

I’m much more likely to open up a wall and find black mold or termite damage or live electrical wires threatening to start a fire. If every old house came with a glamorous time capsule, something tells me there’d be more of a market for them.

Sad faces.

Anyway.

banistertoday

Remember how I like to kvetch about the super-60s iron banisters that extend between the front columns and the front of the house? In case you don’t, I’ll do it again. They’re super 60s and totally wrong for the house, and I don’t like them.

I mean, sure, the base of the portico looks like a crumbly mess and the house is covered in vinyl siding and the columns themselves are covered in so many layers of paint that they basically look like alligator skins, so maybe these railings shouldn’t be something I think about a whole lot right now.

But I do think about them. A whole lot. Because that’s how I do. Zero in on something dumb and agonize over it forever.

entry

The picture from 1950 shows the portico (which, as several people pointed out, actually looks like has been entirely rebuilt since then!), and instead of these iron railings, there was a chunky wood handrail with chunky wood balusters. It looks way better.

I don’t know for certain if these balusters are original, either. Several commenters also pointed out that originally, the front porch and the portico may have been wide open, which admittedly would probably be pretty glamorous, at least aesthetically speaking.

If I could do anything I wanted, I’d probably go for it…but the problem is that I fear going handrail-less would present something of a safety/liability concern. I actually had a long, long battle with my homeowner’s insurance company about the fact that there weren’t handrails enclosing the front porch, which they saw as a big liability problem. I had to make the case that the porch likely didn’t have handrails originally, and that technically it doesn’t have to—both national and New York state building code doesn’t require handrails on porches that are lower than 30 inches off the ground. Even with this information, the documentation to prove it (you’d think they’d know that?), and my very adamant insistence that I had no intention of complying with their dumb nerdy request, it was still a huge hassle.

So anyway, removing the handrails that are already there? Probably pushing my luck. I don’t want to lose my insurance, because then getting new insurance is super hard, and it was hard enough to find an insurance company that would insure a house under renovation with a Pit Bull. Insurance companies are generally not fans of either of those things, which is totally unfair bullshit, but it is what it is.

On the other hand, I found out that the original builder of my house was in the insurance industry and his son was a lawyer, so maybe the railings were original after all. Or maybe they didn’t care about these things in the mid-19th century. WHO IS TO SAY.

garage

So this one day, I was attempting to clean and organize the long-suffering garage. There’s a lot of stuff that has been left behind across the ceiling joists over the years…garden stakes, sections of downspouts, a bunch of lumber…I’d never even really looked at it very closely, let alone climbed up on a ladder to try to sort through it a little bit. UNTIL THIS DAY.

balusters1

AHHHHH! Hidden up in the very back dark corner was a bundle of old balusters, tied together with what appears to be an old cable cord!

They’re so pretty. Yes, they have some rot and are covered in flaky old paint, but they seem to be in good enough shape that they could be repaired and put back in use at some point. There are 18 of them, which would obviously allocate 9 to each side. In the old picture, it looks like there are many more and they’re more tightly spaced, but I think it would look OK this way, too. And since the portico floor is below 30″ off the ground, I’m going to go ahead and say that means that I don’t have to worry about current building codes that mandate the railings, if you do need them, to be between 36″ and 42″—which would just look ridiculous on my house. Phew! Using these balusters would actually place the handrail a few inches below the existing one, which would look way better with the house. Then we will all pretend that they were there all along if anyone asks, cool? You’re the best.

closeup

If/when I ever get around to this, I’ll probably still try to build as much of the new handrails as I can in the garage and then install them, all clandestine-like, in the dead of night so as not to draw attention. Because I am a paranoid, nervous person, basically.

House
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The House: Then and Now!

Evidently, at some point a few weeks ago, I got drunk at a party. Evidently, I started talking to a friend/acquaintance about my house, and how I’d never seen an old picture of it. Evidently, he jotted down my address to ask his friend what he could come up with. I don’t know who this friend of a friend is, and I recall 0.0% of this event, but this mystery person came through for me!

So last week, I got a photocopy of the assessment record of our house, which includes a photo from 1950! Our house is outside the fancier/more historic Uptown Kingston area, so it’s situated in an area that doesn’t seem to be heavily documented, despite how many cool homes there are in Midtown. We still don’t know the exact year that our house was constructed (we think 1830s or 1840s, based on the style and the post-and-beam construction), or when the additions were put on, or really much information at all…but seeing this picture taken in 1950 nearly brought tears to my eyes. Really.

You see, I love this house so much. I’m putting my blood, sweat, tears, and pretty much all of my money into it. I loved it from the second I walked in the front door, and I love it more everyday as it comes back to life. I don’t feel like this is bragging, because I can’t take any credit for it: it’s a beautiful house, in my eyes at least. Sure, it isn’t a super fancy architectural gem of a Greek Revival mansion. Sure, it doesn’t hold a candle to so many of the amazing structures throughout Kingston. Sure, it had some regrettable things done to it over the years. But honestly? There’s no way we could have bought it if it hadn’t been a little busted, and I feel overwhelmingly fortunate and grateful everyday that I’m the lucky person who gets to restore it. I’ve learned enough to fill a book. My house has taken on a whole personality in my eyes, and all I want is for it to be happy. I’ve never seen anything but potential here, and even after a year of tough, trying renovation and years more ahead, it’s that amazing potential that keeps me motivated. I feel like this is the place where I belong. I love Kingston, and I love this house, and I hope that all the owners after me will feel exactly the same way. It’s a special place.

OK, I’ll stop cheesing it up now. I have feelings, OK?

By 1950, when this photo was taken, the house was likely already over a century old, which is a little hard to wrap my mind around! I know the Europeans out there reading this will laugh, but this is considered a really old house in the States. The fact that it’s still standing with so much original stuff intact is pretty incredible.

The point here is that this isn’t a glimpse at the original house—just what it looked like 64 years ago. Still, lots of stuff happened in that amount of time. Since the photo was taken, the house had two subsequent owners, and then me. The owner during this period had already split the house into 2 apartments (that happened in the 30s).

(UPDATE! According to some new, awesome information, it looks like the house finally has a date—1865! And even better, it was built by the father of the man who owned it at the time this picture was taken. Not only does that mean he lived his whole life here until he passed away in 1962, but that it was in the same family for 97 years! Thank you, Robin, for the amazing information!)

The next owners bought in ’63 and sold in ’74, and we bought the house from the estate of the people who bought in ’74. Amazing, right? I think the fact that it only had three (4, including me) owners in the past century probably has a lot to do with why it wasn’t too wreckovated to be rescued.

OK, enough rambling. LET’S COMPARE PHOTOS, SHALL WE??

house-then

1950.

house-now

2014.

I should really save this post for the winter since that’s when the original photo was taken and the tree wouldn’t be blocking half the house, but I’m too excited! Sorry.

OK, so the first thing I noticed (AND FREAKED OUT ABOUT) is…there are extra windows!! See them? On the side of the house, second windows in from the corner. Upstairs and downstairs, there were windows! I’ve always thought the front of my house was really pretty, but the side…not so much. It’s an awkward mash-up of strange additions, and it lacks the nice balance of the front. I’ve always sort of thought that aesthetically there should be windows there, but there wasn’t any evidence that they ever existed, and additional windows in those two rooms would effectively eat up any usable wall space (the interior walls all have doors and, originally, wood stoves, so there literally wouldn’t have been walls spanning more than a few feet!).

The weird thing about the windows is that I’ve stripped all the paint/wallpaper from our bedroom (which is where the missing window on the second floor would be), and the walls are all the same plaster—there’s no evidence of a window being patched in. NATURALLY, after seeing this photo, I cut a hole in the wall in the downstairs room (which is the future library space) and found….plaster, lath, and BRICK. All of our exterior walls are full of brick and mortar—it’s a type of insulation called nogging that pretty much stopped around 1900. And the walls are really, truly lath and plaster, not just a plaster veneer over old drywall or something. They wouldn’t have filled the walls with brick between 1950 and whenever the windows were removed, because there were better products for insulation by then.

Given all of this, I have pretty much decided that those windows…FAKE! You can see that they’re both shuttered closed. Originally, the entire house would have had shutters, so it would have made a little more sense aesthetically…but I honestly believe that there were never windows there, and the house was built with faux windows on the exterior to provide the architecture more balance (while still allowing those rooms some actual walls!). So crazy, right? The house has always been a little bit fake-y! It makes me feel a little less silly about installing a fake fireplace and new-production ceiling medallions made of foam and all that. If it looks right, maybe that’s just good enough.

This is also good to see, though, because it shows what the original shutters looked like. Getting shutters to look right is a tricky thing since there are a lot of different styles, but if I can ever save up the money to put shutters back on the house, at least I know how they should look.

Obviously this photo was taken before the vinyl siding was installed, so I’m glad to know about this whole fake window thing! I wonder what’s still lurking under the vinyl…it makes me want to rip it off RIGHT NOW. The house looked sooooo much prettier without it, don’t you think? I know the window moldings aren’t very elaborate, but they are THERE and they give the facade so much more dimension—unfortunately, they were brutally hacked off with the installation of the vinyl, which is part of what makes the project of removing it seem like such a big deal. It’s also interesting that the corner boards aren’t wider. Wide corner boards with some decorative molding at the top is typical for Greek Revival…and the fact that this house doesn’t have them makes me feel further that the house started out as much more modest and kind of became a Greek Revival a little later, or just that it was built as a more modest Greek Revival to begin with, without all the bells and whistles that typically go along with that style.

It’s hard to tell what color the house is in this black-and-white photo, but I actually think it was a soft yellow color, not white. At various times, I think the house has been white, yellow, blue, and a kind of minty green. What strikes me more is that the window sashes aren’t painted black, as they are today and as they likely were originally—indicating that one of the two owners after this one seems to have some sense for restoration and preservation of the original appearance. There is some more evidence throughout the house of earlier restoration efforts. My money is on the folks who owned the house from 1963-74, which is interesting because the restoration movement hadn’t really caught on yet at that point. Who knows! I don’t think ANY of these people had children, so I’ve had a pretty impossible time trying to track down anyone who would really know.

The other funny thing about the paint is how the cornice is painted! I doubt it was like this originally, but it looks like the trim is white and the cornice is mostly white with a black (or very dark) edge just on the crown molding. Huh!

Flipping between these photos also shows how many trees there were! I really kind of hate that big tree out front—I don’t know the type but I think it’s ugly and I kind of wish it had stayed about 1/2 the size. But those two trees in the “hell strip” on the side and one on the opposite corner? So nice!! It makes me want to re-plant all of them, and maybe a few more down the street. I mean, who is going to stop me? I think more trees would really give a boost to the neighborhood…it’s a little barren nowadays. The side street, for example, has NO trees at all anymore, which is too bad. I also wish I could convince the city to put in more attractive street lamps, either like they are in the 1950 picture or nice old-fashioned freestanding ones. The huge fluorescent ones at the top of the telephone poles are just so…unfriendly looking at night.

I guess I should address the missing center chimney, since I know people will notice. I’m a little ashamed to say…I did that. The chimney, while beautiful, runs off-center in the house itself and then above the attic floor steps up toward the center of the roofline, effectively bisecting the whole attic. It’s a pretty crazy construction. Over the years, the stepped design had failed under its own weight, causing the chimney to sort of collapse and damage the roof in the process. Somebody added some precarious-looking bracing to hold the whole thing up, but it really just seemed structurally unstable AND would have provided another space for potential roof leaks down the road if it continued to shift over time. When we had the roof done back in November, I made the decision to have the roofers remove the chimney down to the ceiling of the attic, figuring I could handle the additional demo myself and we could reuse the bricks for landscaping (I have a plan! And yes, I know they shouldn’t be near where food is being grown because of the creosote…). This would also open up the attic into one big space, giving us potential to finish the attic someday and actually do something with it.

I still wrestle with that decision, though. You couldn’t see the chimney at all when looking at the front of the house, and it seemed like the benefits of gaining potential attic space, removing a structural hazard, and giving our very pricey roof a better shot at longevity outweighed trying to keep AND repair something that would always be purely decorative (it was unlined and too damaged to be functional). So there you have it. Most days I don’t even remember the old chimney, but flipping back and forth between these two photos makes me a little sick over it, to be honest. I don’t know. I can talk about the logic behind the decision until I’m blue in the face, but at the end of the day, it was original and very pretty and from a purely aesthetic standpoint, I’m sad that it’s gone. I guess if that’s the worst thing I do to this house, that isn’t so bad. Sigh.

ANYWAY.

sideporchthen

1950.

sideporch

2014.

One of the stranger and more unsightly aspects of my home is this enclosed porch. I’m pretty much 300% positive that it isn’t original—originally, there would have been a three-sided bay window on the first floor, a window next to it (which is still there in the dining room, but faces out to the porch), and one window directly above that one where that bump-out sits on the second floor. The side porch and bump-out are old, though. I need to write a blog post about it, but I recently gutted the side porch and found brick nogging in the walls at the top and bottom—likely placing its construction pre-1900. It may have even been added when the kitchen was added to the back of the house.

Fortunately or unfortunately, this side porch thing has seen so many alterations over the years, and it’s in TERRIBLE shape. There’s a lot of water damage from roof leaks over the years, and the entire thing is resting on about 9 cinderblocks. The grading on the strip of land in front of the “porch” is all wrong, too, so water drains back toward it instead of away, causing the already weak foundation to have more problems. The bump-out above is sort of a charming detail, but unfortunately you can see that the windows on the sides were removed and patched over at some point, which is super lame. Anyway, the whole thing is sagging and just generally looks pretty awful. They did a nice job when they added it—patching in with a matching cornice and everything—but still…it’s a mess.

I always assumed that the side porch was, at one time, an open-air porch, probably with columns, much like the porch on the front of the house. But I don’t think it ever was! Gutting the interior revealed that there appears to have always been a very low wall in the front across the entire length and a window at the opposite end. So seeing this picture from 1950 is pretty amazing! If that isn’t what the porch looked like originally, I think it’s very similar—basically a wall of glass with a central double-hung sash window to allow for ventilation. The only access was from a doorway in the kitchen. I’m guessing the original function was almost like a greenhouse, allowing the occupants (or the servants, more likely) to grow various plants, start things from seed, that kind of thing.

To restore both the bump-out and the side porch, we’d need to do a ton of work. The structural issues are a real problem (it would need a new foundation and lots of repair work to the rotted parts of the framing), and we’d need to somehow replicate that wall of glass, find 2 six-over-six sash windows (one for the front and one for the side), and 2 more two-over-two sash windows for the sides of the bump out…and even then, what do we really gain? Even in this picture from the 50s, while the side porch is definitely MUCH cooler, it still makes the house look pretty unbalanced and ruins the effect of the original bay window. The vintage car parked in front of it is kind of my favorite part of the whole set-up, but we don’t have one of those.

I think the current plan is to just eliminate it entirely, which I know might be controversial. We’ll need one six-over-six sash window for the upstairs room to replace the bump out, restoring a window to be centered above the existing dining room window that’s covered by the porch. Then we’ll need another six-over-six sash window to restore the bay window. I think we can reuse the existing cornice on these parts to patch in everything we’d need to, and a few hours with a roofer to patch in the gutter. Ultimately it will be cheaper, I think, and go a long way toward restoring the original appearance of the house. The dining room window would be exposed to the outside again, which I would LOVE—this is our south-facing side, so having all that light blocked by the side porch disaster is a huge drag.

I know. I actually want to make my house smaller. I’m basically a communist!

The other thing I like about this picture is seeing how the fence used to be! It’s always been a little puzzling to me that the wrought-iron fence just sort of stops where it does, and I obviously hate that it was picked up by 6′ chain link—yuck. My plan has always been to continue the wrought-iron fence line with something that’s at least the same height, since having the original wrought iron replicated is just not in the cards budget-wise. And guess what? That’s exactly how it was in the 1950s, and it looks pretty great. So much more open. You can see in the wide shot at the start of the post that this shorter fence then transitions at the back to a taller 6′ wood fence, which is also exactly what I’m planning to do. This will keep the dogs out of the side yard (right now the strip is so narrow that it’s easy enough for us to patrol to keep Mekko from running toward the low fence, which she can jump over) and enclose them safely in the back, and a wooden gate will open up to the driveway. I can’t wait to get the fence done, or at least this side. It’s going to make a huge difference.

entry

1950.

entrynow

2014.

Not too much has changed around the entryway, but there are definitely some interesting differences! I love that in 1950, the house still had its hitching post for a horse and the original upping stone—essentially two short steps that you’d climb to get onto the horse. So cool! A lot of houses in the area still have their upping stones out front. It’s so charming. If I ever find one, maybe I’ll just put it back for kicks.

It’s good to see what the foundation of the front steps looked like, since that’s something I’ve been wrestling with. Evidently somebody re-coated them with concrete at some point, but over the years the adhesion of the coating has failed, causing the concrete to fall off in large chunks and expose, I guess, the original concrete underneath (which is much lighter and smoother). It would be easy enough to just chip off the rest of the newer concrete coating, but then what? From the picture, it looks like at least in 1950 there was a kind of bevel detail at the front, and wider concrete bases at the bottom of the columns. The bevel detail isn’t something that ever would have occurred to me, but I think it’s super pretty—definitely something to consider trying to reconstruct. I don’t know exactly how to do that (grey tinted stucco, perhaps?), but at some point I’d like to try. The crumbling situation we have now looks pretty sad, and kind of makes it look like the whole thing is crumbling, even though it’s just a 1/4″ of concrete that’s falling off. The underlying structure seems to be in great, solid shape.

ALSO, the original balusters and handrail!! That’s DEFINITELY something I want to restore at some point. The wrought-iron stuff that’s there now just screams 1960s to me, and they look totally out of place with the house. Yes, it would be another wood thing to maintain and repaint and take care of, but I’d rather have the extra work than do all of this other stuff to the house and still have 60s metal banisters next to the entryway. It would make a huge difference.

Anyway, thus ends the tour! Seeing this photo makes me SO hungry for more. I’m in touch with the research librarian at the Kingston Library to see if she can dig up anything else about the house, and I’m really hoping there are more photos of it over the years. Is there somewhere else I should be looking for this stuff? I do have to go back to the clerk’s office to keep tracking the deeds—I did go one day, but had to leave when I got to 1869, but there are deeds from before that too that I haven’t seen. It’s hard to tell whether the deeds are just conveying the property or an actual house, though, but I’d love to see how far back I can take it regardless!

What do you think about all this? Has anyone ever seen/heard of faux windows on a house of this age? Does anyone notice anything I didn’t point out? Has anyone else been surprised by something in old photos of their old house? Let’s nerd out together!

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.

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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.

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…

hydrangea

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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