When we first built our raised beds over top of the roots of our neighbors’ maple tree where the previous owner grew a crop of weeds for years, I did my due diligence and learned the best way to keep the tree’s feeder roots from getting into the fluffy moist veggie garden soil we planned to put on top of them and wanted very much to keep them out of was to put down a layer of landscaping fabric under the beds before placing the soil on top. Optimistic, that is what we did.
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Fast forward two years and our beds were so full of feeder roots, last summer the beets were crowded out and growing on top of the dirt! After more research where I learned a) it was best to give up and, b) if you didn’t want to give up then bullet proof it so we decided to tackle the remediation head on.
First we removed all of the soil from the raised bed, placing it on top of a tarp. It’s good organic stuff and we didn’t want it to mix with the potentially contaminated soil from our Gowanus Canal neighborhood.
The next step was to lay down a layer of landscaping fabric, cutting it slightly larger than the bed frame. We lifted the frames gently and slipped it under the edges.
After the fabric we put down a layer of 1/4″ hardware cloth under the edges, also cut slightly larger than the frame. Hardware cloth is a fine mesh of metal you can buy by the yard or the roll at most hardware stores. When calculating the amount you’ll need be sure to allow for overlap. It will most likely take two lengths x the width of your box. Each section of our bed is 4′x5′ so two, 16 foot rolls was enough to do one. All together we put down three layers of landscaping cloth (A) and two of hardware cloth (B), so the sequence is A-B-A-B-A. The maple roots may grow back, but hopefully they’ll get lost for a few years inside the layers and not venture past.
Finally, after a long afternoon of digging and sifting we planted the rhubarb back. We’re so excited the raspberry canes are leafing out everywhere and little strawberry shoots are popping up in the bed next to it. It’s their third season and we’re optimistic it will be a great berry crop! We also learned last year when NOT to plan our vacation (during the first week of July) or we’ll miss peak berry season in Brooklyn, NY.
In the last photo you can see the next bed we have to do – half of it is a double height bed where the tomatoes grow and it’s completely filled with feeder roots. If you are planting over a maple tree, all I can say is good luck and bring on the hardware cloth!
Today was such a gorgeous fall day and there were a million indoor things on my to do list so naturally I thought, “Hmmm…maybe I’ll work outside for a bit?” Well, a bit turned into a whole morning of trimming raspberry canes and chopping barren tomato vines and eggplant stems and I finally did something I’ve avoided for a couple of years now – empty the processed compost out of the bottom of the bin. It needed to happen to make room for our Halloween pumpkins. How adorable are they? Seriously – I love the way the contorted faces reveal their inner ghouls. The one on the right even ate the lids of the others.
We discovered our compost bin after a lengthy internet search and the best feature is that it works year round including through sub-zero weather thanks to an insulated sleeve. It is a ‘Green Johanna’ hot composter from Sweden where they know all about cold winters. Our hope was to compost 100% of our vegetable scraps and amazingly, we’ve done just that. Although the instructions say it will do meat and cheese we’ve avoided it – an occasional egg scrap or baked goods with butter but that’s about it.
Amazingly, as the waste decomposes, the volume of the bin compresses and it seems like you can add scraps forever without filling it up. This is perfect for lazy gardeners like me. However, they recommend taking compost out each spring and fall so after two years it was long over due. Although I love the idea of composting, each time I visit the bin with a new bowl of scraps it’s not unlike the feeling I get entering an outhouse – my senses are aware there are organic things afoot connecting me with my waste cycle. A little nervous about what might jump out, I carefully opened the side panel but it was only dirt on the other side – a rich sticky soil resembling worm castings. I’d noticed the composter becoming more of a worm bin last spring and consulted with the fellow at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket one Sunday who pronounced this beneficial – even ideal when this happens. He also assured me the melon-sized clutch of grubs who’d moved in were also friendly residents. I wasn’t so sure about that. Worms I’m ok with – but grubs have a certain ‘ick factor’ closer to cockroaches.
Timid at first, I cautiously dug out bits of soil. Eventually I would be down on hands and knees, covered to the elbows with sticky compost like a six year-old making mud pies. I dug out about three cubic feet of compost thinking any minute the ceiling of material above would collapse on my arms but it didn’t. A combination of archaeological dig and spelunking – pulling out the rich, dark soil was a thrill and I also discovered what’s not so popular on the invertebrate menu: avocado skins, fruit labels, pine needles, and anything that’s extra twiggy.
Satisfied, I surveyed the growing mounds of nutrient-loaded soil covering the vegetable beds. Our commitment to composting not only keeps garbage out of the waste stream but turns that garbage into beneficial fertilizer for next year’s vegetable garden. Our neighbors are amazed when we tell them we don’t throw anything out (and I should add, also confessed after the first year they were wary it might smell and attract rodents). Our small bag of garbage at the curb once rather than twice each week is a welcome sign we’re keeping our footprint small.
“Maybe I’ll dig just a little more,” I thought, sticking my mud and glove covered hand deeper into unknown territory. I could no longer see what I was hacking at with the trowel, but more good soil again fell down onto the floor cavity of the bin. And then it happened, the contents started shifting and the first thing to fall was the clutch of grubs. That was it for me. Done. I sealed up the side cover on the twisting mass and hosed off my gloves. They could have the rest of the compost. Until spring that is, when I’d be back.
The next big push in our renovation is finishing the basement and opening it up to the garden. Before we get started though, I’ve been wondering if we should repoint the rubble stone foundation first. In fact, I’m actually losing a little bit of sleep over whether our poor neglected base will crumble right out from under us and back into the pile of rubble it came from. Check out the photo below and you’ll understand my anxiety – large communities of house mice would fit nicely between the chinks.
How did it get like this you ask? Well, the previous owners made a party room downstairs in the 1960′s which was lovely for them but meant the walls were covered by paneling when we bought the house – paneling that trapped moisture and caused the 150 year old mortar to crumble. Our plans involve removing the back foundation wall, replacing it with windows and excavating a foot in the back half of the basement floor for more head room in the new space (the current 6.5′ works for me, but isn’t for everyone, especially when ducking under the even lower main beam). With all the demolition planned, I’m thinking strong walls are a must.
I’ve been checking around to find someone to fix it and am beginning to realize it’s going to be EXPENSIVE to have it done correctly and thinking hey, how hard could it be to do this? Soo…
A little research yielded this nice link to Old House Web and explains why it’s important to treat historic buildings with care when re-pointing. It turns out the mortar they used before the early 20th century was different from the portland cement we use today. While not of any great significance, being from 1864, our place qualifies as historic and is definitely a candidate for old-style mortar.
So what is the right kind of mortar and why is it important? What I learned is the stuff right out of the bag from Lowe’s is not it. It’s way too hard and not porous enough for historic work. It lacks the flexibility of old mortar and can actually damage the foundation. Definitely want to stay away from that! I found another article on the same site that gets specific about what to use for old stone and how to apply it. Stone mason Ian Cramb, author of, The Art of the Stone Mason, explains:
A two-step process to re-pointing stone walls
“Ian’s approach involves two separate steps – tamp pointing and then finish pointing.
In the first, he cuts back into the joint at least 3 inches. Then he packs the first 1 1/2 to 2 inches with mortar and a tamper. The mortar is made of 7 parts sharp sand, 1 part lime and 1 part cement (no more! he says).
This initial layer is topped with finish pointing. It should be a uniform depth so it dries evenly but never less than 1/2 inch thick.
Ian mixes his final pointing mortar on a board, by hand with a shovel, not in a mixer. It consists of 6 parts sharp sand, 1 part lime and 3/4 part cement.
Instead of mixing up a day’s worth of mortar and adding more water as it dries out, Ian recommends mixing only as much as you’ll use in a half-hour.”
Sounds easy, right? Wait, what is ‘sharp sand’ and how is it different from smooth sand? How would I know how much I’d use up in half an hour? Do they have all this at King’s? How much will I need to buy? Hmmm…I think maybe I’ll get a couple of contractors in to see what it’s going to cost to fix things after all. At least now I’m an educated customer.
Inspired by how they plant tomatoes at Love Apple Farms, I’m going to dig ours up today and re-plant them. Dunno if this is a good idea or not, but who knows, it may help. I planted them back in April straight into the ground – duh! And here we are, sitting on gobs of worm castings from our basement worm set-up and lots of crushed eggshells. The only thing missing are fish heads and those should be easy enough to get from our local fish monger.
Later: well, got the fish heads and my 8yo helped put them in the holes. The kids are having a blast telling everyone about them. 8 yo to friend: “Do you know what we have under our tomatoes? Dead fish heads!” He wanted to pop the eyes before we covered them up but I was too squeamish. Thanks to hubby for cutting the heads (quite large, from wild salmon) into more manageable halves.
It’s been a week now and after some initial shock and a dropping of all their lower leaves, the tomatoes are now busting out. What a difference the fertilizer brew seems to be making! The plants are greening up, setting on blooms and have grown several inches. We also planted them deeper into the ground so they’ll hopefully have a solid support system as they grow up. Here’s hoping!!
8/9/12 – Update, three of the tomato plants died, one is flourishing. I was baffled because they were doing fabulously and then suddenly started to brown and die except for one plant in the corner. I was so sad!! Then, while reading a book on companion planting I learned the reason they died was the potatoes I planted next to them. Because they are from the same family, they are more susceptible to blight which is exactly what the tomatoes died of. The potato plant is ailing too compared with a sister plant elsewhere. I also had a total fail with the radishes planted in the same box. Turns out tomato roots release and exudate that radish roots do not like. I should have planted the radishes with the beets but not next to the eggplant (it’s in the same family as tomatoes). Next year I will be much smarter!!
The new bath: IKEA sink and faucet, marimekko towel, full mirror to ceilingThere’s so much to catch up with on our renovation – thought I show you the downstairs bath redo next. It was one of the first things to go and the last to be completed since we had the one upstairs that wasn’t in too bad of shape. We did the demo with the rest of the house – out went close to sixty years of bathroom layers, we wired and plumbed it and then the contractor used it for storage while working on the kitchen. A couple of months after moving in, it was clear six people and one toilet was not workable long term so it jumped up on the priority list.
The house has one full bath up, one down dating from the days when, believe it or not, our micro 1200 sq ft home was a 2-family. Out came the blue toilet and tub (with a rusted out bottom, conveniently hidden during the inspection by a rubber bath mat). Gone, the pink stenciled wall flowers. Layers of floor tiles came next until finally the space was a empty except for the now uncovered old door to the back yard where the home’s first accommodations (aka: the outhouse) would have been.
I’ve been asking some of the long-time residents of our block if they remember when the first indoor plumbing was added to most of the circa 1860-1900 homes and they think it was the 1920′s. One contractor I spoke with who grew up around the corner said he remembers when they had one toilet in the hall at his home and took a bath in the kitchen. He said some of the houses he works on still have only one bath on the first floor and for the tenants on the 2nd or 3rd floors they walk downstairs. Even so, it would be better than sharing a ‘three holer’ with a large building of your neighbors. The ladies up the block were amazed when I told them my grandparents never did have indoor plumbing and the other set put the first bath into their home in the 1950′s. One of the perks of living in the big city I suppose.
The fancier homes like the one I used to live in on the other side of town would have had much nicer bathrooms – maybe even featuring a “Mott” toilet like the one pictured below. There’s a plumber on Court Street who has some old toilets in his window that date back to earlier times.
This room where the bath is in our house was likely the location of the home’s first toilet and the timbers under the floor look worse for the wear. Yep, termites – with a healthy dose of rot tossed in. Nothing that can’t be fixed during the next phase of the renovation though.
You can see the old three panel door to the back yard we uncovered in the wall behind the tub – in fact, it’s still there holding up the wall.
As for the new bath, we had visions of a light, spa-like retreat so lots of work to do! Funny thing about re-decorating, sometimes you take out the old, only to replace it with a more updated version of the same. As we searched for new tile, I fell in love with a swirly aqueous number from Spain for the floor that looks like the phosphorescent night ocean.
Peeling back layers of tile and paint, I suddenly realized our new color scheme wasn’t so far off and earlier one you can see under the white tiles.
For the sink wall we chose a translucent Italian glass tile the color of tumbled sea glass. White subway tiles line the shower/tub to the top of the nine foot ceiling.
After months of searching (and using a plastic curtain liner), finally, the perfect cotton lawn pintuck curtain turned up at West Elm – luckily we bought two because it’s discontinued.
Mostly finished, the new bathroom is our very own refreshing oasis and something to look forward to during morning showers and candlelight baths (all two of them) in the deep roman tub (made of lightweight plastic because it IS a 150 year old wood frame house after all).
We secured some fixtures from IKEA and the bathroom was done by Christmas. Well, almost done. What’s left is the most painful part of being a designer – picking a paint color. At the moment we’re thinking of glazing the wall opposite the sink in a deep mysterious indigo wash like the one in this last photo. Could be just the thing.
We’re gearing up for the next big renovation – adding a new living room/great room to the back of the house and we *hope* a bedroom upstairs and/or a finished basement. I’ve been spending some time on Pinterest – ok, maybe a LOT of time – looking at images of fireplaces and dreaming of finally having one. There’s nothing like that mesmerizing feeling you get from staring into a fire and all six of us are starved for some of it. We used some of our Christmas money from the grandparents to buy an outdoor fire pit we’ve become addicted to (winter s’mores – yum!) and having one indoors would be amazing. As we meet with architects and dream of how we want the room to look what’s really on our mind is, “What will the fireplace look like and will it be done in time for Christmas?”
We’re especially drawn to fireplaces with built-in seating, shelves and wood storage – blame it on the urban urge to fit everything into a compact, efficient space. Some also have windows in their design. Our favorites are simple, modern and ‘elemental’ – reducing fire to it’s essence.
Love the cozy light from the window and the simple mantel. Who wouldn’t want to curl up in that chair with a book (or iPad)?
Such a stunning use of Tom Dixon’s ‘Beat’ lights and a nice cozy bench I can picture laying on, soaking up the fire’s warmth. It’s nice the way the wall is out over the fireplace creating a large horizontal opening.
Stacked wood creates a nice visual composition and a stone slab makes a simple hearth
Nothing like winter’s chills to get us thinking about spring. After so much work on the inside of the house, we spent the spring and summer months of last year planting in the garden and enjoying our first harvest of vegetables and flowers. Mom and dad K helped us install a bluestone cap to the unfinished retaining wall in the back and brought hand-hewn flagstones from Ohio that used to be in the basement of the farm house dad grew up in for a path in the front garden. (For their age, my parents totally rock!) The kids love meandering via the garden to the front door while we unlock it and it’s a lovely sentimental connection to our country roots.
Away went the old scruffy holly and gangly rose bushes (mom replanted them at her house in Ohio – she loves orphan plants) and we repurposed gravel-bound hosta and day lilies to new locations in the updated layout, added an assortment of flower and foliage plants topped it all off with a Japanese Stewartia tree. The garden now looks like the start of a shady woodland path with clusters of like plants grouped together and interesting discoveries to make as you wander along the path. The top photo was taken shortly after the garden was planted in July and the one below is how it looked when we first moved in. In October we planted hundreds of bulbs for waves of spring color along the path and clusters of crocus and daffodils here and there among the bushes. A bed of bearded iris will make a big show in front of the stewartia tree through June and July. The kids have no idea and I can’t wait to see their faces when the things wake up and the delight begins.
In the back we planted raspberries, tomatoes, beans, strawberries, onions, eggplant and herbs in raised beds along the fence and in March started our family composting operation that includes worm bins in the basement and a year-round compost system in the back garden. Because the soil is contaminated from the nearby Gowanus Canal with industrial waste from the last two centuries, we are careful to practice safe gardening and installed a barrier at the bottoms of the new beds to keep the roots contained and put clean fill in the beds. We’ll use the composted organic kitchen waste in the garden. We mulched tree leaves to provide winter cover for the flower beds. Both the front and back will likely undergo major changes with future renovations – thank goodness they look half way decent now in the mean time! It was a lot of back breaking work – especially digging all the trash out of the back flower beds. That was a project that took the whole family weeks!
We used a pick axe and our hands to break up the cement-like soil packed with bricks, rocks, broken glass, household trash and riddled with roots. Next was sifting 10 gallon bucket after bucket of gravel and glass shards from the remaining soil and adding back at least a dozen bags of soil and amendments to take the place of all the rubble removed before finally planting roses, shrubs and flowers. The difference was amazing. Mom and dad took the buckets of gravel for their driveway in Ohio so I suppose you could say we traded some small rocks in for some bigger ones. Every time they visit now they bring us a truck load of good Ohio topsoil – we’re so lucky!!
Over the winter we have a couple more projects: building a fence with a gate to protect this year’s vegetable garden from the digging adventures of our new pup, Roxy, and installing a raspberry trellis before spring comes and thorny canes take over the yard. We’ll be sure to post pictures of the bulbs when they come up in spring and keep you updated on plans for the vegetable garden. Last week we worked close to forty pounds of worm castings into the soil and have plans to raise one of the containers another 12″ for nice deep tomato roots. This year I’m buying plants instead of growing from seed – we only need six tomato plants so it’s a lot more practical. We’ll definitely plant Japanese eggplant again, some pole beans and look forward to our first season of mature raspberries and strawberries – that is if we can outsmart the critters who like to eat them. The down side of having one of the only gardens around is you’re the go-to snack joint for the local birds, squirrels and raccoon population.
We’ve been dying to post the kids’ room and finally it’s presentable enough to make public. Of all the transformations in the house, this one is not only the most dramatic, but is also the most loved and lived in.
When we originally saw the house, the layout of the two extra bedrooms was key in making it work for our four-kid combo pack. The one larger room (16′ x 13′) would become a boys’ sleeping nook and kids’ play room and the smaller room (8′x 6′) would be for the girls to sleep in (and also meets their very important girlie privacy needs).
The original room had the same lovely linoleum as the master bedroom and a drop ceiling like the kitchen. A former kitchenette from a long ago apartment had been closed off and turned into the strangest closet you’ve ever seen (13′ wide x 3 1/2′ deep with a 28″ door in the wall to get to it). This space would become the boys’ sleeping nook and closet.
We did a lot of demo in this room, including the exterior wall and ceiling to add insulation. The floors came out revealing more linoleum which we left, installing wall to wall Berber carpet over top. We chose not to level the floors in the upstairs due to time constraints and pushing it off until later down the road when the kids move out. They like to spend all their spare time in the new space. Who wouldn’t? They have their own iMac, art gallery, a TV where they play Wii and do TV stuff, they play games, do their homework and have a cozy sofa for curling up and reading. On any given evening, we grown-ups are downstairs making dinner and the kids will all be upstairs: playing Lego, drawing, goofing and chasing around. It’s their own little universe made just for them and is a BIG reason why our tiny house works.
A quick post to give you a peek at how the kitchen is progressing. It’s mostly done and only awaits back splash tile, a new floor after our backyard is done (the linoleum is a placeholder) and some wall paint. The first photo (below) is how it looks right now and the second one shows the same view from when we first saw the house. Amazing the difference! The yellow-green paint sample you see next to the trumpet print is the what we’ll put on the walls and we’re thinking of using a colorful glass mosaic for the back splash tile. The cabinets are the AKURUM/ RATIONELL system from Ikea, as are the Domsjo sink (sorry, no link) and TÄRNAN faucet . The counter tops are Caesarstone in ‘Blizzard’, the Halo fan is from The Modern Fan Company and the stove is a 36″ Blue Star range with six burners.
We kept everything mostly in the same places, adding a stacked washer/dryer where the old refrigerator was (they were in the basement) and moving the sink over toward the stove to accommodate a dishwasher – a must have for our big hungry family. We love the height of the restored tin ceiling that was hiding behind the old dropped one, and the full-depth counter that replaced the 12″ wide one that was there before. The Room and Board kitchen table and Eames, lcm chairs from my old apartment fit perfectly and we’re even able to put both leaves in. The eat-in style of the kitchen helps to create a wonderful family atmosphere and with the south-facing garden light, it’s always the brightest, warmest spot in the house – just the way we like it.
This is is what our kitchen looked like, below, at mid-project. You may recall it’s original state – peeling formica, faux brick, faux walnut paneling, drop ceiling and as it turned out, several layers of flooring: vinyl, more vinyl, brittle wood parquet secured by hundreds of nails, linoleum, more linoleum, roofing lumber used as flooring with still more nails and finally, the original pine plank floors. Sadly, after 150 years, they had seen much better days. In one spot, they were damaged by a long ago fire in the basement, in others by wood eating insects, water damage and dry rot. All in all, not much could be salvaged.
The good news was that behind the drop ceiling was a near pristine original tin one with only two coats of paint on it at most, very few holes and no rust damage at all. Even better, we found a perfect match on-line for a few sections needed to replace the Art Deco patch job done when the house was electrified.
Once the floor boards were removed, the next step was to level the floor. At one point in the project before the floor came out we had a small flood in the kitchen from a problem with the eave spout. The water collected in the center of the kitchen where it formed a deep pool in the middle of the three-inch dip in the floor. That’s how bad it was.
The next step, after removing the floor boards, was to ‘sister’ the the joists with new lumber to level them. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see how much the old joists sag at right near the center of the kitchen and the way they come up to the left near the wall.
The existing joists not only had a dramatic sway to them, they were spindly 4×6′s, spaced 20″ apart instead of old ‘to code’ 4×12″ joists at 18″ apart. If you jumped up and down, the whole place bounced. Surveying the scene confirmed we were nuts do be doing this – anyone else would tear it down – but somehow we knew hoped it would all work out.
After the joists, a new sub-floor went in followed by framing, insulation and new wallboard. In the photo above, you can see where the old chimney is. To the left of this was the former sink. In the new kitchen we built a wall flush with the chimney so we could add a stackable washer/dryer closet to the left, a dishwasher to the right of that and relocate the sink in front of the old chimney. The stove is in the same place to the far right near the window.
We also reinforced the exterior wall which had a great deal of damage in the corner near the stove with new 4×4″ posts. In the photo below you can see the new wall, nice and level, a freshly painted tin ceiling with new cornice and the duct for the stove vent. Along with the floors being off, the whole house leaned three inches to the east and the walls also needed to be straightened. The upside of this was we were able to fit the hard duct for the gas dryer neatly in the space at the top between the old leaning wall and the new one in front of it.
The next photo below shows the kitchen during installation. We chose an Ikea kitchen for the immediate gratification of in-stock delivery and the super reasonable price. Next post, promise, some photos of the mostly finished kitchen. We’re having a whole family paint the kitchen day tomorrow!