Baby Plants

Nancy and I planted a bunch of seeds last weekend, even though it was a full eight weeks before the frost-free date. If this mild winter blends right on into spring, I’m thinking that I’ll be able to transplant all these starters a couple weeks early. But even if it gets cold again, I’ll just transplant them to bigger containers to bide the time.

I love baby plants–they’re so gosh darned cute!

There was absolutely no activity for six days, but on the seventh day some mustard greens and tarragon showed up. Some pinks and one lonely arugula showed up on day eight, and this morning (day nine), there are a couple chives, a zinnia, some creeping thyme and some rainbow chard just starting to break ground. There are 20 different kinds of seeds in those little pots, and I keep checking them compulsively, because it seems like every time I look something new has poked up through the soil.

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Spring is Coming!


It’s almost springtime, and little things are happening in the garden to get me all excited! I wish I could plant things now, but it’s still quite a while until the frost-free date, so I’ll just have to be patient.

We’ve had quite a few of these yellow crocuses (croci? what is the plural of crocus?) for a week or so now. We’ve also got some tulips and ornamental onions breaking ground, although none of these are anywhere near flowering.

The Monarda (Bee Balm) must have put down about a million seeds, because that’s how many little seedlings appear to be coming up.

Then we have a bunch of buds beginning to swell and break: clematis, serviceberry, and dogwood.

We’ve had yellow crocuses (according to The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 9th ed., “crocuses” and “croci” are both correct for the plural of “crocus”) for a while, but today we got our first purple crocus! We actually have two of them! I like the yellow ones, but I loooove the purple ones!

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Grapefruit Brulée


Aaron prepares Alton Brown’s Grapefruit Brulée. The results are divine!

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House Tour!

It just today occurred to me that we have never given a photo tour of the house for y’all! I love looking at the house tours on Apartment Therapy and, while our house is nowhere near ready to showcase on an actual design blog, it might be fun to do a tour with the house in its current condition. Sort of like a giant “Before” for all the “After” shots to come in the next few years!

I took all these photos today, so this is not a true “Before,” as we’ve already done a considerable bit of work on the house. But this can at least show you where the magic happens.

For those who haven’t visited in a while, the house probably looks different. You should probably come visit us in person for a beer and a tour! And for those who have never come to visit, you should come, too!

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Digging Deeper in the Crawlspace

Pouring a footer

Our crawlspace was nothing of the sort: there was really no room for crawling, and the floor joists in that part of the house were resting right on the dirt. To offer the wood some protection, and to allow for ductwork and other modern niceties under the floor, we decided to dig out the crawl space.

This involved pouring concrete footers for the new floor joists to rest on, and then digging a trench deep enough for the main duct and the geothermal tubing to run under the joists. We didn’t want the walls of the trench to fall in, so we gradually sloped the dirt down to the bottom of the trench.

The whole process took about three months and was incredibly grueling. The footers were hand-poured using a wheelbarrow (fortunately we had a cement mixer, on generous loan from our friend Chris)–no fancy cement trucks for us! Then we hand dug the trench and entire crawl space over several weeks, lowering the floor of the crawlspace by eight inches over a 500 square foot area. We shoveled the dirt into the wheelbarrow and then wheeled it out to the yard, where we dumped it in a pile. Much gratitude to John (who for some unfathomable masochistic reason seems to enjoy coming to visit us) and Clay (who carried many bags of cement and buckets of dirt).

A finished footer

Of course, once all this was done our contractors were able to come back to finish off the installation and finally turn on our central heat!

The crawl space dirt was full of rocks, large and small. The larger ones are in a huge pile on our patio right now while we debate what to do with them. We used a few as stepping stones, but we still have about 95% of them waiting for a purpose. We filtered most of the dirt using a sieve rigged up from hardware cloth to remove the smaller rocks, and then distributed the soil in the backyard before planting grass seed. It raised the overall level of our 1500 square foot yard by about four inches.

Digging the trench. That table-looking thing is the sieve.


The yard soil was nice and level at first, but after some heavy rains it has settled into a rather uneven lawn. We’re contemplating pulling some of this soil off to use in raised beds for the garden. But we’re still undecided. For one thing, it took three months to sufficiently grow the grass from seed, and we’d be starting over. Secondly, we’re just not sure if a more level backyard is worth hours of manual labor.

Floor joists with moisture barrier underneath

A pile of dirt waiting to be sifted

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Carmen’s Very Own Indoor Bathroom!

These are photos of the actual equipment necessary for our geothermal heat. The first photo is the air handler in the attic, which handles the 2nd story heat. The second photo is the air handler in the basement, which controls the ground floor, and the “heat pump” or compressor, which circulates the fluid through all those coils 200 feet deep in our backyard. That’s right, the heat pump is in the basement, which means there’s no loud, unsightly A/C unit in the backyard–one of the best things about geothermal if you have a small yard or are a landscape snob!

We opted to go with a dual system (separate units for the upstairs and downstairs) for a few reasons. First, our contractor suggested it based on the square footage of the house. Second, based on the layout of the house, it was much easier to run the downstairs ductwork in the basement and the upstairs ductwork in the attic, rather than to retrofit ducts for both stories into/around solid brick walls. Third, we may someday rent the downstairs as a second apartment (and even if we don’t, we’re not using it right now in its unfinished state), so having separate thermostats allows us to keep the two stories at different temperatures.

And let me back up for a minute here. The original basement stairs were narrow, steep, and slanted to one side. They were scary enough that the dog would not walk on them. There was even a piece of paper tacked to the basement door when we first looked at the house warning us to be careful on the dangerous stairs.

In order to get all that equipment into the basement, Aaron and John set about rebuilding the staircase. The new stairs are sturdy, level, and not at all scary to Carmen-the-dog, who promptly ran down them, sniffed around the dirt floor, and urinated. This dog, who has not had a house-training accident in over four years, then came up to us wagging her tail as if to say thanks for her new indoor bathroom. I guess the dirt floor is confusing to her. Carmen has since been banned from the basement.

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The Frustrations of Street-Side Gardening

Someone picked our daffodil. Aaron found it a few houses down lying on the sidewalk. I’m inclined to say it was just some drunk idiot, since the daffodil was intact on Saturday evening (I was checking on it giddily throughout the day) when we went to bed and met its demise sometime before Carmen’s Sunday morning walk.

At least now it is brightening up our coffee table.

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Daffodil!

I know, I know, it’s not fully blooming yet, but I just couldn’t wait! This little guy has been creeping up for the last month or so (I think he* got stunted a bit by the snow and frost we had last week, but he seems to be progressing again). We’ve had a few other bulbs breaking through ever since mid-January, and I was a little nervous for them at first, but if the mild weather holds then hopefully they will be okay. This is the first one showing signs of flowering, though.

*Yes, I personify my plants.

P.S. lots of good updates to come about all the stuff we’ve done to the house over the past year!

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Backyard Hardscaping part 2: The Driveway Plus How To Install a Brick Patio

Driveway Subgrade

Our contractor installed the subgrade under both the driveway and patio sites: compacted crushed angular gravel to a depth of 18 inches under the driveway and 12 inches under the patio. Then it was our turn.

DRIVEWAY

For the driveway, we used Cobble Systems fan pattern in charcoal. The neat thing about Cobble Systems is that the cobbles come strung together in little sheets, so we didn’t have to spend hours arranging our pattern. It was really very easy to use, and I recommend it.

Finished Driveway!

Full disclaimer: I was conveniently “busy at the hospital” with “nursing school” on the day of installation, so Aaron and John had to do all the work. But they got it all done in a single afternoon, so I think it was pretty easy.

The installation involved setting the cobbles in a layer of sand on top of the compact subgrade surface and then going over them with a vibrating plate compactor (rented from our local hardware store). We then used a stiff broom to brush polymeric sand in between the cobbles. The polymeric sand “sets up” once it gets wet, similar to concrete, and is better for preventing weed growth. The polymeric sand had to go down onto dry cobbles on a dry, sunny day. After we meticulously brushed it all off the tops of the cobbles and into the gaps in between, we hosed down the driveway (using the mist setting to avoid blasting the sand out of the cracks) to set up the sand.

The downside to Aaron and John working by themselves is we have no photos of the driveway installation. When I’m around, I use photography as an excuse to shirk my work duties. Photos are a valid justification for laziness, in my opinion.

PATIO

For the patio, we measured out the dimensions to the nearest brick-length (allowing for a little space between each brick), marked the edges, and installed paver restraint edging along the borders. We then put down a layer of all purpose sand 1 inch thick. To do this, we lay 1-inch PVC pipes on the subgrade, filled in between with sand, and then used a 2×4 to screed it level.  We didn’t lay all the sand at once; we laid enough for a few rows of bricks and then used those bricks as a platform from which we could do more work.

Patio Construction: edging, sand on subgrade, and bricks! (And no, I am not a double amputee.)

Next came the fun part–laying the bricks!  Our bricks were all different sizes, which meant digging out sand under some and putting extra sand under others so they would all be level.  We pounded them with a rubber mallet to make sure they didn’t wiggle in the sand–if a brick wiggled, we simply lifted it up and added more sand to any low spots.  After we laid a few courses, we dumped some sand on top and used a stiff broom to sweep it over the bricks so it would fall in between them.  We used loose sand (unlike the polymeric sand in the driveway, which “sets up”), so there is a possibility of sandy feet if we walk barefoot on the patio.  But isn’t that the point?  Feet are supposed to get dirty from going barefoot outside! We’ll see if I change my opinion about those dirty feet with the coming of warmer weather this spring.

Also, we didn’t use the vibrating plate compactor on the patio for a few reasons. For one, our bricks are old and rather fragile. Secondly, some have text or indentations on the top as part of the character, and we didn’t want to ruin this. The patio is pretty level, but we’ll have to wait to see if not compacting the bricks causes them to shift.

If you’re looking to do this yourself, we found the Lowe’s videos (part one and part two) to be very helpful.

Checking for Brick Wiggle

Partially Finished Patio

Finished Patio and Driveway

Finished Patio

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Backyard Hardscaping (I smell a lawsuit)

Our contractor was just about to start working to restore our backyard to working order when the ice storm came. This was mid November 2010, a little earlier than normal for our area, and the ground froze solid. And while our winters are typically mild, it remained uncharacteristically frigid from mid-November through February. Which meant that our backyard was a mud pit for four months. Too frozen for our contractors to work, yet still somehow muddy enough that Carmen-the-dog tracked muddy footprints throughout the house if we let her in the backyard. Plus there was no fence, so we couldn’t really let her out there anyway. This meant additional walks first thing in the morning and last thing at night, in the dark, cold, and freezing rain. All winter long. We refer to last winter as “the dark times.”

Carmen enjoying the mud pit

Finally in March, it was warm enough to break ground, and our contractors came and prepared the base for our driveway and patio and built the wall. Now, it was about this time that I arrived home one afternoon to find a kid playing in our backyard. Apparently, a mud pit along his usual walk home from school is a fun place to play. He left when I came in, so I didn’t say anything. Aaron and I decided to hurry to get our fence built.

Aaron keeps the laborers in line

John and Nancy (best in-laws ever!) came down for a weekend to help us get all the fence posts in the ground and hang the stringers.  Aaron, our technical specialist, made a few decisions regarding fence construction.  First, we decided to set 1/2 of the above-ground post height, or 1/3 of the total post height, in the ground to prevent leaning, which meant that our 6-ft tall posts extend 3 feet into the ground, for a total length of 9 feet.  This meant we had to purchase 12-foot long posts.  They were massive, and people thought we were building a fortress until we cut the excess off.  Second, we decided to set the posts in crushed angular gravel rather than concrete.  The gravel facilitates drainage away from the post, and it is easier to remove the posts in the future when they inevitably rot and need to be replaced in ten or fifteen years.  More information about this is available from Tim at Ask the Builder.

Things were looking good until Monday, when I came home and saw the same kid climbingon our newly erected jungle gym. This time, his mother was there. She said to me, “I told him he won’t be able to play in there once your fence is done.” Well, that’s good to know, I guess. Except he probably shouldn’t be playing in there now, what with the piles of rubble and construction debris and boards with rusty nails sticking out of them. That, and the fence isn’t really designed to hold dynamic human loads. It’s not exactly a kid-friendly zone at the moment. But what do I know?

Fence framing/jungle gym

So we hurried up and finished the fence and hung the gate up to keep wandering miscreants from stepping on rusty nails and getting tetanus and having their parents sue us. Imagine my surprise when I came home the next week and saw a different kid sitting on the top of our fence! He then jumped down into our backyard. The original offender was already in there. I yelled at them, something about “keep out of here, you’re going to get hurt!” and they left.

It’s true; our backyard is a dangerous place at the moment! And I certainly don’t want to get sued. But still, I felt bad for yelling at them. I mean, once when I was a kid, my Uncle Larry scolded me and I thought he was mean for YEARS. (It’s funny how children’s minds distort things; Uncle Larry is actually very nice.) I guess if these kids think I’m mean and are afraid of me, at least it means they won’t break their arms falling off my fence. And since then, I have not seen any evidence of unwanted visitors in the backyard, so I guess it’s all right.

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