Tagged: brooklyn

Maple-Proofing your Raised Bed Garden

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.

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.

Roxy the dog surveys the work

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.

the landscaping fabric goes out underneath the edge of the frame

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.

next comes a layer of hardware cloth

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.

Yay! The soil is back in the raised bed


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!

our next project...the bed next to it

Supplies You’ll Need

- Lanscaping Fabric, enough for three layers

- Hardware cloth, enough for two layers

- Scissors to cut the landscaping fabric

- Tin Snips to cut the hardware cloth

The Big Dig

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.

Halloween Gouls

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.

Our Green Johanna with rich compost coming out the side door

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.

Digging rich compost out of the bin

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.

Rich worm-filled compost for the garden

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.

More info about the Green Johanna:



Foundation Fix-ation

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.

Our mortarless foundation - yes, this is our house and that white stuff is mortar dust pouring out of the wall

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. :)


Fish Heads, Fish Heads…

Tomatoes in the foreground with a view of the fortified strawberry patch on the right

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.

Wild salmon head, crushed eggshells and organic fertilizer

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!!

One down, two to go.

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 Old Bath: blue veined Formica, blue toilet, pink stencil wall detail

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.

This is likely what a modest Brooklyn bathroom consisted of

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.

A tenement toilet from Douglass Flats in Washington, c. 1908

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.

A fancy 'Mott' toiliet from NYC, c. 1888
A fancy 'Mott' toiliet from NYC, c. 1888

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.

secret door to the backyard bordered by rotted lath walls


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.

Spanish tile for the floors

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.

Layers of old floor tiles - spa blue underneath

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.

Glass wall tiles behind the sink

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.

pintuck curtain detail

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).

IKEA sink and faucet, marimekko towel, full mirror to ceiling.


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.

indigo wall ?

Just Add a (back) Splash of Tile and It’s Done

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.

New Kitchen
The Old Kitchen