24 November 2010


Eesh. Looks like I've been MIA for a month. Sorry. We've been busy with winter and holiday preparations. No huge projects, but things that needed to get done before the cold sets in. We mowed the lawn a final time, cleaned up the yard and back porch, removed/drained the hose, put an insulated cover over the hose bib, covered all accessible plumbing supply lines with pipe wrap (a much bigger project than it sounds like), fixed our basement furnace (because of Tom's brilliance, we didn't even have to call a furnace company, which saved us at least 60 bucks), and got our security system fixed. The monitoring unit they originally installed was junk and continually gave us a "communication error" message. The siren would go off, but it wasn't sending the alarm information to the security company. They're giving us a few months service and upgrading our motion detector to a pet sensitive one for free. It was a favorable resolution to what has been an annoyance for several months.

I was also busy baking for Thanksgiving at Tom's work. I made a big double batch of pumpkin scones and a Mississippi mud pie. (The mud pie was very nearly a disaster. I unwittingly bought one box of instant and one box of cook-and-serve pudding. The recipe called for mixing the two together, which I did before I realized the difference in preparation. Trying to cook instant pudding just results in burned pudding. Bad news. Leave it to me to perfectly execute a from-scratch recipe but totally botch a box of pudding.) We'll be traveling to Baltimore tomorrow, so no big family ordeal for us. We'll be celebrating Thanksgiving together as a family of three for the first time, and that is something for which I'm truly thankful.

26 October 2010

On the fence.

I've eliminated a lot of fencing options, but there are still plenty of designs and variations left to ponder. First there's the fence panel shape to consider. There's curved concave:

stepped concave:


and straight:

Then there's the post style. You can choose to add moulding:

cut the ends:

add a cap:

or a finial:

or cut it lower than the pickets so it all but disappears:

And if that wasn't enough, you still have to decide on pickets. There's dog-eared pickets:

gothic style pickets:


and flat:

and any shape you can imagine:

not to mention your choice of picket width and spacing. You can even alternate picket heights:

Is it any wonder that I get utterly overwhelmed with the choices?

25 October 2010

The plan

After much nagging insistence, I finally convinced my sister, a landscape designer, to draw up a plan for my new flower bed. My requests:

1. Peonies! Beautiful, beautiful peonies. I love the big blooms and am fortunate enough to live in a perfect climate for growing them.

2. Low maintenance. Do I even need to explain why?

3. No reds or deep pinks to clash with the brick of the house and flower beds.

Here's what she came up with:

I don't know if you can read the labels, but the big pink circles are peonies, the green is iris, the yellow is tulips, and the blue is crocus. Since she didn't do any specs for exact varieties of the plants, it was up to me to make sure I selected plants with different bloom times. March blooms:

April blooms:

May blooms:

I couldn't find peony root stock locally, so I ordered those online. I got two different varieties, the Solange:

and Sarah Bernhardt:

Hopefully all the colors will work together and not fight each other for attention. My mom assures me that "peonies thrive on neglect," so it might be something even I can manage. I can't wait for spring to show them off!

22 October 2010

Tah dah!

Building this tiny little wall (a measly 50 linear feet) has taken so long I can't even remember when the whole process started. Alas, the bricks are done. There is still much to be done, so this isn't a true before-and-after. I still have to build ANOTHER one and build the fence. Hopefully I've learned enough from the first raised bed to make the next one go faster. Anyhow, here's how it looked before:

And here is the much-anticipated wall in all her glory:

Yeah, pretty unimpressive for as long as it took me. I made lots of mistakes (like deciding to build this thing in the first place), but let's just call it charm, shall we?

11 October 2010

Nope, still not done.

I've had a lot of people stop by to check on the progress of our little project. As it has been built, reactions have evolved from, "What in the heck is that?" (when we were digging the trench) to "Are you building a flower bed?" to "You sure know what you're doing!" to "Are you for hire?" and "You've been out here all afternoon. Here's a cold Pepsi to drink." That's a good sign, right?

06 October 2010

This is not an update.

I'm only half-breaking my promise not to update until the wall was completed. It's been cold and rainy here, so building the wall has been a no-go. However, I did get a visit on Monday afternoon just as I started working outside from a previous owner! I could tell he is the sort of person who loves to talk and tell stories, so I picked his brain about the house. Some things I found out:

1. The bricks we've been digging in the yard weren't there originally.

His brother (who is now 66) installed them, so they've probably only been there for 30 years. Yeah, *only* 30 years. The family owned a construction business (the largest in town at the time), and whenever they had to dig up roads or alleyways, he'd gather the bricks and use them in the yard. That explains why there are so many different stamps on the bricks.

The bricks that I found more recently, buried next to the sidewalk, simply lined a flowerbed. The flowerbed contained 4 rosebushes, 2 of which still exist.

His green-thumbed grandmother planted them, and they're over 100 years old.

3. I speculated that the side porch was not original, due to the different mortar thickness and color and the fact that it's not integrated into the pilaster very well.

I was partially right. He told me that a drunk driver ran into it, but that it was rebuilt the way it was. So, the work is new (relatively), but the design and materials are original. He also said that the original owners had run short on money when building the house next door, so their porches were done in wood instead of brick.

4. A mysterious pole in the side yard, that our neighbor warned us could be a vent (for what I don't know) and we therefore shouldn't remove it, is just part of an old clothes line. It's probably not even anchored in cement, so it should come out pretty easily.

5. According to him, the state gave them virtually no time to clean out the house before a forced sell date. I can only assume there were back taxes owed on the property. He said they threw out all sorts of historically significant items, including original blueprints to local landmarks (remember, his family owned a construction company) including the stadium (the original home of what is now the Detroit Lions). Being a lover of historic architecture, knowing these were thrown away breaks my heart.

And the absolute BEST part is that he's going to give us some old photos of the house and surrounding area! I may be a total architecture nerd for loving such things, but I won't apologize for it.

03 October 2010

Are we there yet?

Here's how it's looking now:

Leveling each brick is tedious.

We were rained out today (rain also cut our work short yesterday), but I look forward to finishing the first course soon. Hopefully tomorrow, if weather permits. No more pictures or updates until it's done...so I'll see you in a few years.

28 September 2010

Rain delay

Tamping the soil got delayed due to the rain we've had the past couple of days. This rain helped transition temperatures from blistering hot to unseasonably cool in a snap. I can't complain, though. I'd much rather do yard work when it's cool outside!

Anyhow, we got a break in the weather and I got out there and tamped the soil. Tamping reduces the amount of soil settlement once the wall is built, which could cause the whole thing to topple. Then I dumped gravel into the trench to about a 2" depth, staying roughly level, and tamped again.

Since I'm not digging beneath the frost line, having gravel under the wall helps drain water and prevents frost heave.

I should also say here that I prepared for fence posts in a somewhat unusual way. I laid concrete blocks at the corners on top of the gravel, leaving room for the brick in front. I put one half-block (free from Lowe's) on top of a full block, aligning the cores and bonding them together with construction adhesive.

Always helps to have a baby with you when asking for broken items for free.

The 4x4 treated post will be placed in the core and backfilled with gravel, tamping as I go. Believe it or not, you don't have to set your fence posts in concrete. Having the wood against gravel rather than concrete or soil also provides better drainage and will hopefully extend the life of the fence. (Green note: LEED for Homes awards 1/2 a point for eliminating wood-to-concrete connections as part of Nontoxic Pest Control, so maybe there's something to this method after all.)

I have to wait to place the second set of these concrete blocks on the far end because I wasn't sure exactly where the end of the wall would fall. We don't want to have a cut brick on the end of the run. We 'll lay the first course of brick and then place the block at that end. The intermediate posts will be done after this step to ensure even spacing.

After the block was set, I laid a 2" layer of sand on top of the gravel, leveling it carefully. This provides an even base for the brick, and it's easy to accommodate small variations in the brick size by adding or removing sand under each brick.

That's as far as I've gotten so far. I'm working during the day while Clara naps. With the exception of one or two hours of digging, I've done this all myself while Tom's at work, including buying the materials. If I get the first course laid this weekend, I should have the rest of it done by the end of the week. Presumably if I take the time to do a thorough job with leveling the first course, the rest should go up easily.

The wall in progress

Work has, as usual, been going slowly. The last time I checked in, the yard looked like this:

Not pretty.

Now it looks even worse:

Everything has to get worse before it gets better, right? Oh, I hope it gets better...

But fear not. The next steps should go a bit faster than the digging did. The soil that we were excavating was very compact and very rocky, which translates into very hard to dig. Besides naturally occurring rocks, there were also chunks of broken bricks (many of which match the house and have probably been buried there since it was built) and asphalt (probably from when the adjacent road was paved) and coal and bone (crossing our fingers that it's not human...though would the city help us dig if it could be a crime scene?). There was also another kind of brick that didn't match the house or the pavers in the yard. I came across a few broken ones, which I dug out and tossed aside. Then I dug out a whole one, then another. There seems to be a whole row of these earlier paving bricks lying about 8" below the line of the existing sidewalk:

Couldn't tell you when or why those were put there.

Rather than dig them all out, we'll leave them there and build on top of them. Now that the whole trench is roughly level (we had to dig much deeper on one side because of the slope to the yard), we can begin the next phase of this never-ending process. I hate to end this on a down note, so here's the only pretty thing currently in the yard:

13 September 2010

The State of the Yard

We spent a few hours this weekend taking up grass and weeds from the perimeter of the yard. It now looks like this:

You can see the small mock-up of the wall at the bottom of the picture. I haven't quite decided how high to build it. If we go five bricks high, it is a good height for sitting, but we're not sure if that should be encouraged, given this scene a few months ago:

Mmm, beer and cigarettes at 8 am.

What we're doing in the yard: The wide swath of dirt where we removed the grass will be enclosed by a low brick wall on all sides to form a raised planting bed. We plan to also build a picket fence along the outside perimeter just inside the brick wall. Hopefully I'll have the next step of the process done in the next few days with some more uninteresting supplementary photos.

30 August 2010


As you might guess, yard excavation can sometimes yield interesting relics of ages past. We've discovered lots of little treasures, mostly mundane artifacts of daily life (spark plugs, nails, bits of glass and pottery, light bulb bases, and the like). We even found a little metal toy car. The coolest things though, in our opinion, are the bricks themselves. We've found at least 9 different stamps on the paving bricks, mostly from the Peebles Paving Brick Company. Here are a few (don't mind the water marks):

------- 1908 -------

----------- BLOCK

---------- BLOCK



There are lots of other stamps, mostly variations on these, but these are just a few I pulled from the top of the stack and rinsed off with the hose to photograph.

08 August 2010

Shifting Priorities

Well, we just found out we have a new addition on the way. Here's a first look at our new baby:

My sister has asked us to take in one of her dogs, Zbikowski, Zibby for short. It breaks her (and her husband's) heart(s) to have to get rid of him, but the decision has been made. We look forward to taking care of this sweet and energetic pup.

However...before we can take him, we need to get our yard fenced-in. It has long been the plan to build a low wall out of brick (about 3 bricks high) around the perimeter of the property and then top that with a picket fence. It will actually be two separate walls to form a raised planting bed on the inside of the fence. It'll provide privacy without having a huge 6' or 8' privacy fence all around, which would look too imposing on our corner lot. The good news is, we've already got most of the materials we need to lay the brick wall. The bad news is, we have to dig them out of the yard. So while it's always been on the list, it just got bumped up to first priority.

Most of our yard is made of 100-year-old brick pavers. In the spirit of frugality, authenticity, and green-building, we are going to be reusing those bricks to build our wall. A few hours of digging and lifting and hauling last weekend made us realize a few things. One, we needed another shovel and a wheelbarrow. Two, this is going to take a while. Last Sunday afternoon was spent assembling the wheelbarrow using nearly-useless instructions. (To be fair, it wouldn't have taken us quite so long if Lowe's had the right handles in stock. We had to drill holes in the handles for the bolts, and it was a process to figure out the exact spacing.)

At first we were worried that we wouldn't have enough bricks to complete the project. But after further analysis, we've got bricks here,

{Stacked as steps to the back porch. The OSB is being used as a ramp for the wheelbarrow.}

{Something went funky with the color balance on the camera. Our grass isn't really that green. And that wall is now 11 courses high.}
and everywhere.

{Damaged bricks go here.}

Plus there's a whole lot more left in the ground.

Those aren't all the ones in the ground, either. They're just all the ones that I've uncovered so far. Hopefully we'll have enough to re-lay a path from the back steps to where the back gate will be.

25 July 2010

What's Cooking?

Since we lacked a kitchen when we first moved into the house, we found ourselves eating out a lot. Of course this is not very economical, and it gets tiresome quickly. I've made a conscious effort to cook at home more. The problem is, I tend to fall into the trap of preparing something on the spur of the moment, usually resulting in the same boring meal of grilled chicken breast, rice, and corn. I'm a decent cook when I give a little bit of effort, but I can never remember if a recipe I've tried is a hit or miss. I started keeping a notebook of recipes I've cooked to resolve that issue. On one side of the page, I write the recipe. On the back of the same page, I record any changes or substitutions I made, an out-of-5-star rating from each person who eats it, and any changes to the recipe I and the other people suggest to make it better. I know my mom is always on the lookout for new recipes and improvements to old ones, so I thought I'd share them with her and anyone else who's interested. So what's cooking this week?

Saturday: Indian-Style Chicken Breasts. Average rating: 3.75. This wasn't as sweet as I'd expected given the mango and raisins, but it was still pretty good. Marian and Ben used the leftover sauce later in the week and said they really liked it.

Sunday: Sage and Cream Turkey Fettuccine.

Average rating: 2.25. I used chicken instead of turkey. We both thought the sauce was pretty bland. Might be worth keeping with a reworked sauce. Perhaps just increase the quantities of the ingredients already listed?

Monday: Standing arrangement with coworkers at the Irish pub.

I'm pretty sure Clara is their youngest customer. Yes, we bring our baby to a bar. Don't judge.

Tuesday: Oven Fried Chicken Breasts.

Average rating: 3.7. Made a lot of excess breading. You could probably cut the breading quantity in half and still have lots of excess. I used regular breadcrumbs instead of cornflakes. Marian and Ben each gave the chicken a 3.5 rating, but increased it to a 4 when they used the mango sauce from Saturday as a dipping sauce.

Wednesday: Chicken Lazone.

Average rating: 4.3. I used garlic salt instead of garlic powder and omitted the salt, but it was still very salty. Marian gave it a 4 but would give it a 5 with the adjustment to the amount of salt. Didn't have cream on hand so used milk thickened with flour instead. At least double the amount of sauce next time.

Thursday: We tricked our houseguests (my sister, her husband, and her 2 kids) into performing slave labor for us on Thursday, so we took them out to dinner at The Scioto Ribber. Yum.

Friday: Hamburgers. No recipe for throwing a frozen beef patty on the stove.

Saturday: Macaroni and cheese.

Average rating: 4.5. I added about 1 1/2 teaspoons of minced garlic to the sauce. I also used whatever cheese I had on hand, which was a Mozzarella/Provolone mix and a Mexican blend. I lightly dusted the top with breadcrumbs before baking. This was the first time I used the convection feature on my oven and was impressed that it finished cooking in half the time.

What's cooking in your kitchen?