30 June, 2009

Garden Inspirations, Parkway Planting and Creative Use for Vintage Dishes

Look! Our morning glories and lilies opened within a day of each other. The long, cool spring has been good to our yard.

I'm still working on filling in the foundation beds, which we just started this year, but I'm already debating about what to do with the parkway.

We have a lot of tall trees on our block, not as ancient or towering as some of the giant elm trees that our village is known for, but old and shady all the same. So far, all I've done is plant hostas around them. I haven't even edged the rings yet.

Very few of the parkway plots along my street have any sort of landscaping, other than the trees. But a block or so to the east, the parkway gardens begin. Here are a few pics I snapped on my last walk 'round the hood. I want to create a complicated-looking, but easy-to-care for plots. I think some of these look amazing.

I took this photo because I really like the light green plants underneath the dark purple foliage of the tree. We do have room in the parkway for a few more trees; it looks like there were some cut out in the last decade or so. I need to check with the city to see if I can request new ones, or sneak one or two in like some neighbors have. At any rate, I'd love to try something with purple leaves. (And I should ask them if that red rope actually keeps dog walkers from letting their dogs poop in the yard or trample beds.)

This bed is comprised of annuals, and while I'd have to replant each year if I tried something like this, I do like the bright, cheerful carpet they create.

Okay, this one's not technically the parkway, but I like how they have taken out more than half their grass and planted ivy. I want to get rid of as much of our grass as possible. On a corner lot, we do have a ton of it.

While I'm not overly fond of the shape of the stone or the pillars it rests on, I do like the idea of putting a bench in the parkway that would be too heavy for someone to walk off with.

Ultimately, I think I want something like this. It will be very, very hard for us to achieve this. The frontage for this lot is your average city plot; ours, on the corner, is as wide as this on one side and--I'm not kidding--at least five times as long on the other side. That's a lot of plot to plant and maintain. But it's gorgeous. I suppose I'll try a segment or two each year until it's done.

But this I can try in the near future. I saw them at the Custer fair last week. Garden "flowers" made of antique dishes. The stem was a length of rebar attached to the back of the largest plate; they were all glued or cauked together, I'm not sure what the material was. They came in all colors, but my eyes were attracted to the cobalt blue.

I especially liked the bird bath. What I think I might do is try to find enough vaseline glass to create either a flower or a bird bath, and set it in the garden somewhere with a UV light shining on it. It would give a fun, glowing effect at night from the uranium content of the glass.

Wouldn't that be awesome at night? Time to hit the resale shops!

24 June, 2009

Calling All Housebloggers...How Do You Unclog Old Pipes

With all the long-haired hippie types living at The Box House, our drains frequently clog, even with hair traps over everything. Most of the time, a plunger will work, even for the tub. However, the time between clogs seems to be getting shorter.

The problem is, we have ancient cast iron pipes that are probably rough and rusty on the inside, making them perfect hair catchers. I'm loathe to use non-mechanical means to unclog, because I've been told that Draino and the like are too corrosive for old pipes. What's everyone else using? Our tenant suggested bleach, but the info I'm finding online is rather conflicted. Some plumbers say okay, others say no.

So, I'm hoping someone will chime in with their fail-safe, house-safe method for unclogging a drain. Thanks!

22 June, 2009

Box House Garden Update: Cherries, Honeysuckle, and an Experiment with Moss

We took a major break from home improvement projects this week, and don't feel the slightest bit guilty about it! Instead, it has been a week of catching up with client work and enjoying the garden. Luckily, I had one project that I could drag outside with me and work on at the table. It's the most time I've spent in the garden all summer, if you don't count the hours of actual gardening.

Few things are more satisfying than watching your yard transform through your own efforts. From mud pit to oasis in one year! Here are a few garden updates:

Just about everything growing to the right of the washing machine is a weed tree; I cut them all out to ground level early spring, but they're coming back. But because there are at least four different kinds growing there, including a lovely purple-leafed something-or-other, I'm letting them stay for contrast and to hide the garbage cans from view. I'll cut them back again in the spring.

Our honeysuckle vine is in bloom; this is one of the few things we had planted last year, and it's doing well. We planted two other vines along the side of the house this year to keep it company.

Just a couple of comfy chairs. The forsythia I planted in the corner is doing well; I can't wait to see it in bloom next spring.

Some random planters; ignore the super long grass in front of them. It's been very cool these last weeks, and raining like crazy, so it's growing faster than my crappy push mower can handle. Mom tried some super-powerful fertilizer that she's been spraying on the foliage of our plants once a week, and I'm not kidding, everything tripled in size in about 10 days. It's the healthiest coleus we've ever had. (Oh crap, I just realized I still have to plant the ferns I bought two weeks ago.)

Front flower bed that I (mostly) planted this year; there aren't many things growing here yet. It's anchored by a dwarf cherry on each end, and another forsythia in the middle. In the background, you can see the overgrown grapevine on the back yard fence. Most of the hostas we have planted throughout the yard came from the base of the grapevine; it's amazing how fast and how big they grew as soon as they were divided and transplanted.

The same grapevine as seen from the back yard; to the left of the chairs is a peach tree. Yeah, I know, peaches in Chicago! How cool is that?

Between the two cherry trees, planted last summer, there were maybe two dozen cherries. This is a first for me, growing fruit. This year, because there were so few, we're letting the birds have them. And my goodness, the robins were out there today, gobbling them down whole! When we start getting substantial crops, then I'll think about covering them in netting.

This is probably my favorite stretch of the garden this year. It makes me smile every time I step out the back door. The limestone fragments were something cheap we picked up from Home Depot; they come in groups of five, backed with a plastic mesh. I plopped them here because this section of the yard gets muddy when it rains. The sandy dirt I packed between has already washed away, but the stones themselves are settling nicely. I dug up some moss that was growing behind the house and transplanted it between the stones; I don't know if they'll take hold because it does get a fair bit of sun in this spot. If not, I'll probably try growing creeping thyme between them instead. The grayish-green patch is grass seed mulch. I've been using it, with great success, to patch the bare spots.

Variegated orange blossom. (Stop looking at the uncut grass. Sheesh. I'll get to it.) We actually planted two of these last year. The other one, in the park way, was peed on every day by neighbor dogs. It is one-fourth the size, and doesn't have blossoms. As all other growing conditions were the same--light, moisture, etc.--this is proof positive that dog urine hinders growth. Grrr. I actually dug the poor one up and moved it closer to the house last week. With luck, it will catch up to this one--already two and a half feet tall!--by next year.

That's about it on the updates. My godmother stopped by today, with a bunch more perennials she divided from her garden. I'm so psyched! Friends and relatives have been kind with their plant donations for our new garden. I know how I'll be spending tomorrow!

16 June, 2009

Renovation Recap, New Tenants In

I barely crawled out of bed yesterday. I think all the stress of prepping the tenants' unit, getting ready for and taking a week-long vacation, and juggling real work had caught up with me. I woke up with one whopper of a cold: scratchy eyes, sore throat, stuffed head, congestion, the works. So I dosed up on Nyquil, didn't get out of my jammies, and brought one of my client projects to bed with me, although I didn't actually get much work done on it.

I'm feeling much, much better today, and rather self-satisfied with all the work we did accomplish. We pretty much hauled butt on the tenants' unit, taking advantage of a few weeks of down time between tenants.

In three weeks, this is what we did. There are links to some of the projects:

Bedroom #1
Updated electrical, including new wiring and installation of a reproduction push button switch
Stripped the original sconces, refinished them in silver, and rewired them
Painted the room blue using Behr Venetian plaster
Replaced all switch plate and socket covers

Bedroom #2
Updated electrical, including new wiring and installation of a reproduction push button switch
Stripped the original sconces, refinished them in gold, and rewired them
Installed new smoke detector

Repaired door so that it closes
Recaulked tub

Installed new lock on door (the old one was unsafe, and not up to code, requiring a key to lock from the inside)

Dining Room
Updated electrical, including new wiring and installation of a reproduction push button dimmer switch
Replaced light fixture with a vintage chandelier, which Ted rewired before installing
Painted the room Tuscan Tan using Behr Venetian plaster

Living Room
Updated electrical
Found the original light switch hidden in the wall, and restored
Found the original sconce boxes hidden in the wall, and restored
Rewired and installed a set of sconces, circa 1920, found on eBay
Installed new ceiling fan, where there was no other light fixture
Painted the room using Behr Venetian plaster

Cleared one of the rooms in the basement to create a storage area for tenants

Although not related to the tenants, we cleared a lot of crap out of the garage

I created two new flower beds along the front of the house, pictures to come

Whew! I think I need another vacation!

I'm sure I'm forgetting a few things on the list, so I'll let Mom and Ted chime in to remind me. Now that the new tenants are in, we can refocus our attention to other portions of the house. Upcoming projects include Mom's bedroom, installing two new doors in the basement, and clearing out (the goal) 30% of the junk in the basement as we reorganize all storage areas. Oh, and Ted and I have hopes of moving to the basement soon. We'll see how that goes.

12 June, 2009

There's Gold in Them Thar...Rooms

I am soooo pleased with how the stripped and refinished sconces turned out for the tenant unit. They look great against the blue Venetian Plaster walls.

They look so good, in fact, that I decided to strip and refinish the matching set in another of the bedrooms in the tenants' unit.

In the process, I found a paint even more dreadful than the dreaded fleshy peach--the innocent baby blue. So far, it's taken four stripping cycles to remove it--each time leaving the stripper on for 10 times longer than the directions call for.

This does not bode well for the task ahead--removing the same blue paint from all the trim in my bedroom. It seems the previous owners worked with monochromatic color themes: everything blue, everything peach, everything white. Whenever we discover one color of paint, there's a 100 percent certainty we'll find it in every other room.

Slowly, slowly the stripper worked its way through the paint, while I puttered in the garden.

This set was originally gold, without any polychrome, so I refinished them in gold again, although I chose a reddish-gold instead of a yellow-gold. I drybrushed on a base coat using a product called Rich Gold from Sophisticated Finishes, and then did a top coat of an antiquing liquid from the same line called Black Tint. It's hard to tell in this photo, which was taken at 2 o'clock in the morning, but the finish looks appropriately old, and matches the gold finish on our 85-year-old electric fireplace--a close enough match that most people probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between vintage and new finsh. I'll try to get a better picture in the daytime, as we finish up with the last few projects on the tenants' unit.

(Special thanks to Ted for rewiring all of these fixtures!)

10 June, 2009

Stripping for the Tenants

I tried, honestly I did, to strip the sconces with an environmentally friendly product.

Truth be told, I hadn't even planned on stripping these quite yet. They belong in one of the bedrooms of the tenants' unit, and I thought they could wait.

But after seeing them against the freshly plastered blue wall, I couldn't stand how ugly they looked. It bothers me when people don't remove switch plates, socket covers, and the like when repainting. This is always the result: a fixture with three or four coats of thick paint on it. It was obvious these were lovely at one time, but the paint had obscured all the details.

And so, despite the fact that we have a to-do list as long as my arm, I threw one more project in the mix. I first tried to remove the paint with Franmar's SoyGel, a product I've had mixed results with. It did well on the first layer of off white, and the underlying rancid butter yellow. But then I came across the dreaded peach enamel.

At one time, everything in the house was painted a gawd-awful peach. Long ago, long before Crayola came out with its Multicultural Crayon set, they had a crayon named "flesh."

That's what color I'm talkin' about. Picture it on wood trim, on walls, on light fixtures, on the ceilings. Oh yeah, we've encountered it on everything. Everything I've attempted to strip in The Box House has a coat of this enamel hidden somewhere in the layers. And SoyGel can't cut through, not even if I leave it on way longer than required, not even when I place a sheet of plastic wrap on it and leave it sitting for days. It won't budge. And our Silent Paint Remover? That starts smoking almost immediately when it encounters this paint. I'm not sure what it is, but this paint's evil, and has nearly reduced me to tears many a time.

So for the sconces, I gave up and used the super-toxic-strip-through-anything stripper from Home Depot. And, thank heaven, it worked, because I'm dealing with a tight schedule for this project. But I do feel a little guilty.

The original finish was gold, but we decided silver would look better on the blue wall, so I drybrushed it with American Accents craft and hobby enamel. I'm fairly happy with the results, because all of the rich detail is still visible. If I had more time, I'd try to add a faux antique finish, but we need to get these back up on the wall ASAP.

07 June, 2009

A New Record for Junk Collectors

Sometimes, the most satisfying projects aren't the ones you can photograph. Today was like that. Ted and I were standing in the garage, contemplating what to do with a ginormous pile of scrap metal left by the previous owners. Most of it was extra garage door parts--springs and tracks and the like--that we've been hanging onto "just in case." But we recently decided that if the garage door ever does need to be replaced, we'll convert it back to a two-door style and won't need this stuff, anyway.

"Let's just haul it all to the curb," I said. "It's garbage night, and I'm sick of looking at it."

"Okay," Ted agreed. "We'll leave it for the tinkers."

Almost every day, we can spot an overloaded pickup truck slowly driving down our street in search of scrap metal. There are so many of them, in fact, that the city considers them a nuisance and wants to start regulating them. Evanston, which charges a $25 fee for special pickups, claims it lost nearly $90,000 in revenue last year to junk trucks that beat them out. I say "whatever," we already pay a lot in taxes and fees 'round here, and if a junk collectors does take something, at least we know for sure it's actually being recycled.

"Let's just lean them against the bins, then," I said. And just as I was dragging out the first piece, what did I see rumbling down our alley? Yup, a junk truck. So instead of trying to figure out how to carefully balance everything without it spilling into the alleyway, we just waved the driver down instead, and he loaded up his truck directly. A new record for the removal of unwanted junk!

Eager to clear out more space, we decided to put a curb notice for an old refrigerator on Craigslist.com. Since last summer, I've been meaning to list it for fifty bucks or so, but never seemed to get around to it. The ad said it was on the driveway, come and get it if you want it. We rolled it out to the curb and...fifteen minutes later two big, burly guys drove up in an SUV to take it off our hands. Woo-hoo! A Craigslist record, too! I'm sure it will find a second life as a beer fridge in someone's garage.

So, while we didn't get much done on our place this weekend (although we did help my cousin hang up drywall at his), it felt like a satisfactory day just clearing out that stuff.

What do the rest of you think? Should junk trucks be regulated?

05 June, 2009

Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota, Some Buffalo, and Custer State Park

Road Trip, Day Six and Home

"Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and I'll show you a dirty house..."

I haven't thought of that in years, but a memory of my mom singing that to me when I was little just popped into my head as I was looking at the photos of our trip.

Our last night of camping--and the only night it didn't rain--was in Hot Spring, South Dakota. Our only reason for picking this town was so we could go to The Mammoth Site in the morning. The site is the world's largest mammoth research facility, and over 55 mammoths have been identified in the dig, along with the remains of giant short-faced bears, camels, and llamas. Yeah, camels and llamas in South Dakota; who knew?

We spent far more time at the exhibit than we planned; it was a very well put together museum, and the staff was great. You could even go down to the research labs, where people were working, and watch them through the glass. It was set up so you could ask questions through the window. Very cool

Because we were there for so long, we got a much later start back to Chicago than planned. Still, we decided to take the longer route through Custer State Park, which has a large herd of buffalo and other assorted critters...

...and some very twisty roads.

We stopped briefly in Rapid City to take a walk down the historic stretch, gawk at the architecture (including the Hotel Alex Johnson, on the National Register), and grab some lunch.
From there, it was 14 or so hours straight across on Interstate 90 to Chicago, non-stop. Fourteen very, very long hours through South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The first leg of the trip was through a coffee-shop-free zone, or at least it seemed that way, so before leaving Rapid City we packed some iced coffees into the cooler for our later enjoyment. I know, it was a little pathetic. But a Venti Starbucks Doubleshot on Ice is so loaded with caffeine, it really does help you stay alert on the highway. Well, jittery at any rate.

And yes, those are Wisconsin cheese curds packed beside the coffee. Yummy! We were set for the road.

Washing Machine Planter, Take 2

We're not the only ones who think that an old washing machine makes a nifty planter. Rae from Travels with Miranda sent a photo of this one she came across in Dawson City, Yukon. Very, very cool. You should all mosey on over to Rae's blog to read how she's traveling the continent in a 31-foot RV with her two cats, Neelix and Tabitha.

04 June, 2009

Surprise Irises and a Ring of Granite

These purple iris plants weren't here last year. Last summer, this corner of the garden was filled with debris and scrub brush. When we removed all the junk and began adding new plants, the iris popped up unexpectedly, a lovely gift from a previous owner. Who knows when they last bloomed.

When we were at Crazy Horse Monument last week, we loaded up the trunk with some rocks that came from the blast pile. You can take some for a small donation. So yes, we drove back 900 miles with a load of pink rocks, but we managed to get enough to ring our dwarf peach and plum trees.

Now I just need to find enough rocks to put a border around this tree, my favorite in our yard. I planted all of those hostas last summer; they'd be doing better if every dog in the neighborhood didn't pee on them. Really, why do people let their dogs do that?

I hope that by making it look more like a planned garden, people would be less inclined to let their dogs stomp all over the plants. But who am I kidding?

Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore and the Dramatic Prairie Dog

Road Trip, Day 5

We were on the go from six in the morning until ten or so at night, hiking and doing the tourist thing. The day started off with a visit to the Devils Tower Visitor Center, where we learned the formation was a monolithic igneous intrusion, sacred to many local people, and the first United States National Monument, so named by Theodore Roosevelt. It rises 1,267 feet above the surrounding terrain. Afterwards, we took an hour-long hike around the base, and then went to visit a prairie dog town. That's our P.T. Cruiser parked alongside the road; there was a narrow trail through the prairie dog town that we walked.

I was on the trail, about six feet away from one of the critters, when I took this picture:

Not as dramatic as the Dramatic Prairie Dog, but still fun.

Most of the day was spent at Crazy Horse Monument, a work-in-progress begun in 1948.

One day, the entire mountain will look like the model done by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski . It is the largest mountain carving in the world. Just how big is big? Well, the entire Mount Rushmore carving can fit where Crazy Horse's head is. That's big.

I thought this was sweet, a 23-year-old cat that hangs out at the Crazy Horse Museum gift shop. The caution sign is placed wherever the cat flops down, so nobody steps on it.

A visit to the Black Hills is not complete without a trip to Mt. Rushmore. We took a hike to the base here, and were appalled at the conversations of those around us who admitted out loud that they didn't know who the people carved in the mountain were! These were not foreign tourists; these were Americans. Sad.

03 June, 2009

Alley Garden Progress

When we first moved to The Box House, the alley side of the garage was a bit of a mess.

It was a dumping ground for sand, refuse, broken glass, and dead leaves. A tree was growing from the foundation.

Here it is today:

Last year, I had whacked the weed tree down and soaked it in root kill. I have yet to decide how I'm going to remove the root ball. You can still see a bit of the stump at the far end of the picture. The hostas are all hand-me-downs, transplanted from the gardens of friends and family. The brick edging is primarily made from bricks I've found or dug up in the yard. The bushy things at the far left are two forsythia saplings I got for free last year. When they've had another year or so of growth on them and can fend for themselves, I'll plant them elsewhere in the yard. For now, the garage blocks the roughest of winter winds. There are some lilies of the valley here, too, transplanted from the back of the house, where we found hundreds of them growing.

Not bad for a free garden, eh?