5/23/2012

Porch Ponderings

Good morning from the back porch here at Red Telly. I'm sitting here with my wake-up coffee, in my comfy Ikea chair, enjoying a very pleasant start to the day. The birds are singing and a light cool breeze is gently ruffling the leaves of the clematis on the trellis just outside the window. The sun was shining but some light clouds have moved in, which is good because it's keeping it cool. We're in for some hot, humid, stormy weather all the way through the holiday weekend. I loathe heat and humidity. The idea of spending a long holiday weekend cooped up indoors is not my idea of a holiday, especially when there is so much to be done outside right now. At any rate I could sit here for hours, if that were possible, soaking up the loveliness of it all. However I need to venture out to do shopping today. It'll be one of those all day "need to find something to wear for a specific occasion" shopping ventures. I hate it when I absolutely have to find something because it usually ends up that I have to settle for something that I end up hating and never wearing again.

Chives

I need to do a bit of tidying on this porch. As always, entropy rules once again. No matter how hard I try to keep this space orderly it eventually becomes a convenient dumping ground for daily life. There are an assortment of shoes (all mine I'm afraid) kicked off when I come in from the garden. Gardening gloves and flower pots for some transplants I've been intending to do. The necessary mosquito repellent and sunscreen for when I head out to the garden. I have a retractable line where I hang wet dishcloths, dishtowels and bath towels to dry for a few hours or in the present case for days. There is the box with the paint sprayer I've been meaning to try out soon. A small pile of throw blankets I keep in the car during the winter months which haven't been put away yet. Grilling utensils and mitts I keep meaning to take out to the garage where they belong. The compost bucket to be carried out and emptied next time I head out the door. A hat and pair of sunglasses. A small folding table I haven't figured out where to keep that we sometimes use for dining on the front porch. A cardboard box. If you offered me a million dollars I couldn't tell you what it contains. And finally a wicker laundry basket of sheets and pillowcases that I brought in from the clothesline yesterday and haven't folded yet.

My favorite iris.
The yard and garden are looking especially fine. I love this time of year. Everything is so green and not overgrown. The peonies and red poppies are just about to bloom, the iris and salvia are in their full regalia. The vegetable garden is all planted and weed free! I'm afraid that if the weather predictions hold out it will all be a mess soon. Heavy rains and wind forecast. It seems to happen every year just as the peonies start to bloom and their heavy blossoms end up bent and sagging. I need to properly tie up my climbing rose again. Last fall it had gotten so big and unruly that I decided to cut it all the way down. I also thought we were going to be painting the garage that it grows next to but that didn't happen. It doesn't seem to have hurt it any as it's now about four feet tall and full of buds. Nice to know it'll survive a heavy pruning like that because we really do need to paint the garage later this summer.

Last summer's climbing rose.
I suppose I had best get on with my day. The sooner I go the sooner I can be back home. The only part of the day I will enjoy is the stop at one of my favorite thrift stores that has half price Wednesdays! I'll let you know if I find anything good.

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5/08/2012

Garden Pt. 3 - The Garden Shed


My garden shed.

When we first moved to our house there was an area in the corner of our lot, behind the detached garage, that was a wild unkempt space. There were lilac trees, ferns, wild flowers and other woodland plants. We called it "the jungle". It was pretty but kind of a wasted space since we couldn't use it for anything, so one summer my husband built a little clubhouse there for our two boys to play in. They called it "The Eagle's Nest". It stood on stilted legs a couple feet off the ground, with a little ladder to climb into it. It was a fun spot for the boys and their friends for a few years. But, as boys will do, they outgrew their nest and eventually it became just a storage spot for junk and an unsightly one at that, as it was built out of unpainted particle board and reclaimed lumber.

I used to fantasize about having a little garden shed or greenhouse someday, a space for a potting bench, room to store my garden tools and maybe a spot to sit and read a book. It would be a place of my own where I could escape to once in awhile for some quiet and solitude, kind of a grown up version of the playhouse I had when I was a kid. I presented the idea to my family and finally managed to get them on board with the idea. The boys were ready to let their clubhouse go and my husband agreed to be the contractor/builder with the kids and I as helpers.

We based our plan on a mail-order kit I'd seen in some gardening magazines. It had a sloping wall of plexiglass windows, a hinged window on one end and split style barn door on the other. Inside the 8 x 12 shed would be a long potting bench under the windows, a wall of pegboard for hanging tools and operable vents in the roof for ventilation. The location was perfect. We were able to situate it with south facing windows that had a view of the garden. The lilacs were between the shed and garden and in the heat of summer would provide shade, but in early spring there would be plenty of sun for bedding plants. Building it took longer than expected but after a few months it was done. It's held up very well for a long time now.

At first it was just as I envisioned. I'd go out every day and open up the half door and window. I'd sweep it out and putz around. I gussied it up with some cute garden decor, a hanging plant or two. I organized the peg board so everything had a place. We found a remnant of vinyl flooring to put down to make it look a little nicer than just the rough plywood. We'd even sit in there sometimes on late winter or early spring days enjoying the passive solar heat that would warm it to a very cozy temperature, even though outside was still cold and snow covered. It was a great spot for a winter picnic of sorts.

But like all things go around here we started acquiring too much stuff! In the winter it was a great place to store the all the summer gear: bikes, the barbecue grill, the canoe paddles and life jackets, lawn chairs and whatever else. Eventually some of that stuff started staying in there permanently. I'd have to move a bike or two out if I wanted to work in there. Stuff started accumulating on top of the bench and underneath. There was always something to move in order to get to what I needed and I started losing interest in trying to keep it tidy. Eventually my cute garden house became just a shed.

Sure the garden shed still looks cute on the outside, but as a functional space to pot plants or easily access garden tools it fails. It's just a huge embarrassment. I've decided it's finally time to reclaim it as my garden house / retreat spot once again. That's my goal for the summer at least and it probably will take all summer. I've broken it down into a list of things that need to be done. Here's the plan:

  • I have several furniture refinishing projects stashed in there. I need to either get at those projects or get rid of them. Currently there's the Jenny Lind bed and typewriter stand to paint, a child's rocker and a slipper chair to reupholster, two x-benches to paint and recover, and four vintage folding chairs that need to be painted and have seats recovered.
  • Whittle down the number of flower pots that have accumulated.
  • Craigslist any lawn chemicals, fertilizers, etc. since we now are committed to going all organic, or mostly.
  • Move the bikes back to the garage (with some kind of hanging organization) and start using them! I still am holding on to my beautiful green 70's French Motobecane Mirage 10-speed. Maybe I can hang it from the rafters of the shed somehow?
  • Sand the cedar bench top to bring it back to it's glory after some water damage from leaking windows.
  • Reorganize the pegboard and add some new hooks and shelving.
  • Get rid of the light colored vinyl floor and replace it with something else more practical. 
  • Give the inside a coat of white semi-solid stain?
  • Replace both roof vents with new opening skylight versions. (Sourced from a RV center.)
  • Dig out the old crumbling bricks in front of the shed and make a proper patio and walkway with paving bricks. (Already have the bricks which we got from a neighbor.) 
  • Replace any cracked plexiglass window panes and add new weatherstripping.
  • Add a lock to the window.
  • Maybe make some mesh sunblock shades for the windows. (They'll be needed once we trim back our overgrown lilacs.)*
  • Possibly paint the door trim a fun color like lime green or periwinkle.
  • Add a trellis and window boxes of impatiens to the back of the garage.
(*I really love the gnarly twisted branches of the old lilacs but they've gotten much too big. We'll cut them back and allow the smaller shoots to grow.)

It's quite a tall order given the other home projects we have planned for the summer, not to mention a son's wedding, family reunion and helping our daughter move and get settled in a new city. Summer seems to fly by even without a long list of things to accomplish. I'm hoping that by putting it down here some of you will help keep me to my promise. Deal? Then I'll finally be able to show you the inside without cringing.

Anyone else have a garden shed or other special space that is your retreat?  Leave a note in the comment box or post a link to pictures you'd like to share. If anyone else is working on cleaning out a long neglected spot I'll happily be your task master if you'll be mine. If we get enough people we could form a support group! I know there are plenty of you out there who could use the help too. Hope to hear from some of you.



5/07/2012

Garden Pt. 2 - Oh Dear, Deer!

Gardening always presents challenges that one must constantly surmount. The weather is always an unknown from year to year. Blights and infestations crop up. But our biggest hindrance for quite a few years of gardening was black walnut trees. Our neighbor had several mature walnut trees growing adjacent to our garden. We were unable to grow tomatoes, except in pots, because of the juglone which is in the leaves and roots of black walnuts. Potatoes were also impossible. Juglone is toxic or root-stunting to many plants. The plants would start out nicely but within a month or so start turning sickly and die. The toxic zone is 50-60 feet from the trunk of a tree and our garden was well within that zone. In autumn the walnuts would fall into our compost pile and it well should have been a hard hat zone as well! They are black messy things once the shell is broken open and stain anything they touch. As you can imagine the only ones happy about it were the squirrels which we have in abundance. They will bury the walnuts anywhere they please and those walnuts easily sprout, but don't appear until they have established thick roots that are about a foot deep. We were never so happy as gardeners the day the last black walnut tree was cut down! It took a couple more years but eventually we were able to grow tomatoes successfully.

Then three or four years ago we were faced with another issue. Deer started showing up in our yard. Within a block or two there are several small wooded hills where deer have established themselves and grown in population. The younger ones have never lived outside their little urban zone so are quite tame and unaware that there is a wider world available to them outside our neighborhood. Naturally there is plenty of vegetation available for them to feed on and our garden is one of their buffets. They do most of their grazing at night or in the early morning. Almost every day there would be new hoof prints in the garden beds, damage to plants and occasionally deer droppings in the yard. It had gotten so bad that by last year we'd nearly given up on the idea of even attempting to have a garden. It wasn't just the vegetables but flowers and shrubs as well. There were a handful of things they didn't touch: coneflowers, my blue hydrangea, daylilies, daffodils, peonies, marigolds and lilacs. Everything else was fair game.

My first attempt to make the buffet less inviting was brewing up some homemade deer repellent spray. Not only is it repellent to deer but to me as well. Phew! Stinky stuff. There are several recipes you can find around the internet. The one I use involves a concoction of raw eggs, garlic and hot peppers which is left to ferment for a few days until it is a godawful reeking putrid potion. Then it gets sprayed around all the plants you want to protect. The problem is it stinks up the whole yard and when you're working in the garden you get it on your hands and have to worry about touching your face and getting hot pepper in your eyes and so on. At most it was a slight deterrent for a few days and had to be reapplied whenever there was rain. I made it in large batches and applied it with a gallon hand held sprayer.

Our next line of defense was trying to block the vegetable beds with some fencing. All that did was make it more difficult for us to get access to the garden and the deer could easily reach over to munch on the tops of the pole beans and tomatoes. It also didn't do anything for the flower borders and other landscaping that we weren't able to fence off. There is nothing so disconcerting as to pull into the driveway in the middle of a lovely day to find four or five deer lounging in the back yard like they own the place, happily munching away. Or, as in one case, step out the front door to retrieve the mail and find a deer standing right at the bottom step a few feet away as if guarding the homestead.

I haven't tried some of the other methods I've heard of like Irish Spring soap-on-a-rope , strewing hair around the garden, and even...ummmm...peeing in the garden. Ewww. One person I read about used Tidy Bowl with some success, the type that you hang inside the tank, which they hung around their garden. I think I prefer a more organic approach and would worry about the chemicals.

This year we're trying something new and I am almost afraid to say that it appears to be working for fear of jinxing it. We heard about a product called Milorganite. It's eco-friendly, organic, and safe to use on vegetables, flowers and lawns. It's a slow release non-burning fertilizer that has the added side benefit of seeming to repel deer. And it is made of Milwaukee sewage waste. Yep, you read that right! I found it locally at just $6.95 for a 36-pound bag. It was flying off the shelves so I suspect there is some truth to the claim. I've strewn it in all the garden areas and around the perimeter of our lot and so far so good. I haven't seen a hoof print ever since nor evidence of damage to a single plant. I'll also be using it as a lawn fertilizer throughout the season. It's recommendation is for four applications but I'm planning to use a crabgrass preventer for my first application since we haven't done that in a few years and I need to knock that stuff back. I will remain skeptical until our garden gets really growing but will let you know the results further into the summer. I'm holding my breath, knocking on wood, and keeping my fingers crossed. Maybe this will be the year I can grow some swiss chard, which must be like candy to them, and get a nice crop of beans. With any luck it will work to keep away rabbits and woodchucks too!


5/06/2012

Garden - Pt. 1

Our Garden
It was a busy weekend of yard and garden work done in between rain showers. Luckily most of the rain has been in the evenings or during the night so we've been able to get some things accomplished. I love working outside this time of year with mild temperatures and before the mosquitoes show up. This weekend I managed to get the lawn mown, do some weeding in preparation to laying down mulch, hunt down some cocoa bean shells that we use to mulch the beds next to the house (instead of wood mulch which attracts carpenter ants), and work up the soil in my raised garden bed. 

This is a schematic drawing of our garden layout:

Click to enlarge.
We have three raised vegetable beds, each 4' x 12' long as seen above. My husband and I seem to have very different ideas about gardening methods. We're constantly butting heads. So this year I suggested we each take one of the beds to do with as we want and the third will be shared. That means we'll have only one-third of the head butting we've previously experienced! Brilliant. The mister proceeded to plant something like seven rows of peas with no plan as to what the peas would climb on. Typical. Only one short row of spinach and one of lettuce. Somehow he plans to put beans, cucumbers, peppers and a dozen or so tomatoes in his bed too. Good luck. 

I'm taking a more planned out approach. First of all, we have very sandy soil which means constant watering. I decided to amend my bed with sphagnum peat moss and vermiculite to help retain moisture. I will also be adding sifted compost. Planting will be done using the square foot gardening method, which should allow for a nice variety of plants spaced appropriately. I also plan to take advantage of height, growing pole beans and training tomatoes up on stakes. Since I don't particularly care for canning and freezing produce I prefer having just enough to eat fresh from the garden without being overwhelmed by it. The one thing I really wanted to do was replace the lumber that forms the raised bed. It's getting pretty rotten and starting to fall apart which is letting a lot of grass grow in from underneath. But I needed help with that and couldn't get Mr. N to agree. Hopefully it holds together for one more year. 

The picture above was from a few years ago and looked pretty nice that year. The garden always looks nice early in the season before things get too overgrown. I think I did most of the planting that year, with the exception of the tomatoes. I also use seeds that are new or a year old. My husband will throw whatever he finds in the garden. Last year I caught him tossing in seeds that were eight or nine years old, with the expected result. We didn't have any peas last year. 

The grass that grows between the beds tends to be a problem. The beds used to be a bit further apart which allowed enough room to get the mower in between. The last time the wood started rotting my husband thought we could get by with just having rounded raised beds without anything to contain the soil. That was a big fail, particularly with our sandy soil. So the next year we bought all new lumber and rebuilt the raised beds. Unfortunately when he did that he wasn't thinking about spacing for the mower. The spaces ended up being just an inch or two too narrow. So now we have to use the weed whacker to keep the grass and weeds in control.

One big challenge to our gardening in the last few years has been the increasing population of urban deer. In my next post I'll tell about a few things we're doing to try and combat them this year.

5/04/2012

Does Your Home Tell a Story?

When I look around my house I'm sometimes appalled at the hodgepodge of furniture we've acquired over the years. I sometimes go to other people's homes that are decorated with a defined style, whether it be country french, cottage style or modern. They look nice and pretty in a model home sort of way, impressive in their perfection and order. But they're also missing something. I've never been one to follow the trends. Decor styles come and go and if you put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak, the basket can get pretty outdated looking when the trends change. If I have a style I suppose you could say it is Eclectic, or as I used to call it, Early Married. Somehow, thirty-one years later, it's still mostly the same. We have a combination of family hand-me-downs, thrift finds and a smattering of pieces we've bought new.

When my husband and I first set up housekeeping we had only a handful of furnishings that we'd managed to scrounge up on the cheap. It consisted of our new bed (essential!), some hand me down furniture from our families along with the few things we had from college apartments. We used lawn chairs for living room seating for quite a few months until we finally found a sofa to buy with our wedding gift money, our first big purchase. My mom refinished an old coffee table that she and my dad had as newlyweds. Our TV was an old console black and white that only got one channel, but even that required some creative arranging of wires strung across the curtain rod to get reception. I remember how excited we were to buy four new folding chairs from Target so that we'd have seating at our kitchen table. I suppose we could have, like many newlyweds, gone out and purchased a suite of new matching furniture on credit. Luckily we were of like mind when it came to money. Having both grown up in thrifty households we knew that credit was not the answer and that we'd make do until we could afford to buy new. We didn't really care about the stuff so much. We were newlyweds and just happy to be together.

Needs always came before wants. Becoming pregnant before our first anniversary bumped a washing machine to the top of the list. An April baby meant I could use the clothesline all summer to dry all those cloth diapers, saving our dollars until we could afford to buy a dryer when cold weather arrived. A new Boston rocker, which we still have, was a baby gift from my husband's grandmother. The nursery was outfitted with a second hand crib, the chifforobe that I grew up with, and a library table from my grandparents used as a diapering station. When it came to other baby needs we kept it to a minimum, getting only the essentials...a car seat, high chair, playpen and stroller.

After buying our first (and only) house, when our son was three months old, we suddenly went from a cramped two-bedroom rental to a three bedroom two-story house that we needed to furnish. Although only about 1100 square feet it felt huge! Again, more family hand-me-downs to the rescue. What would we have done without family? We had a dedicated dining room for the first time. The table was one a tenant had left behind in a rental my Dad owned. The four high-backed wood chairs had belonged to my great grandmother. I refinished them one by one over several month's worth of baby naps. My dad found us a nice hutch at a fire sale. Although the finish on the hutch was fine it had a strong smoke odor. We cleaned and cleaned it but even years later it still retained a faint smoke smell, especially on humid days.

The living room was outfitted with our sofa, coffee table, the Boston rocker, and a couple other family pieces. A nightstand became an end table. My parents lent us a set of old folding wood theater seats that acted as a love seat. When my grandparents moved to an apartment I acquired the piano my grandmother had always promised would be mine someday.

The bedrooms upstairs were the last to be furnished. The master bedroom had our bed. That's all. Our previous place had built-ins so we didn't even have a dresser. What clothes couldn't be hung up resided in cardboard boxes in the closet for another year and a half before we could afford to finally buy furniture. We saved until we could afford to buy quality pieces that we're still using today. The nursery was the only room completely furnished. The third bedroom was being used as a storage room while we worked on getting settled with hopes of it becoming an office and sewing room. But just two months after moving I found out I was pregnant again! So with two babies just fourteen months apart our planned office/sewing room became a second nursery, furnished with thrifted finds.

Over the years we've kept some pieces and replaced others, sometimes with new and sometimes with used. As I glance around I see everything from Early American to mid-century. Each piece has a story. The little plant stand at the bottom of the stairs belonged to a good friend who gave it to me when she downsized to move across the country. The hutch reminds me of my father, no longer with us, who was so proud of his fire sale find. The white wicker desk that came from my grandparent's cottage brings back memories of my daughter sitting at it typing stories on the big old Smith-Corona typewriter. She went on to study creative writing in college. The coffee table we now have evokes the beaming face of my ten-year old son, proudly carrying home his find, after he rescued it from a pile of things thrown out when his elementary school moved to a new building. We removed the linoleum top and refinished the wood, leaving the chippy painted legs as found. It's been in our living room ever since, happily abused during the years of raising three kids, just as it was for several generations of kindergartners before that. Nothing in this house is too precious in that way.

I have parted with a few things that have really tugged at my heartstrings, things we no longer had a room or a use for or anyone to pass them on to, like my grandmother's piano and the chifforobe. But their memories live on. Grown children return home and want to feel like it's still their home. Whenever we change something they call us out on it. But homes are not static, just like the occupants. We change, we age, we adapt. And sometimes we move on. So I am slowly learning to let go of things. Now that my children are grown some of those things are finding new lives in their own homes, new stories. Some will become cherished memories. New things will find their way in and out. It's what makes our home ours and different from yours or anyone else's. I wouldn't have it any other way.