Home Improvement

Making a Garden Bed in Rocky Ground

Invariably finishing one project leads to the next project. Finishing my patio left me sitting and staring at two patches of dirt next to the patio which needed to be turned into something not ugly. Running drip irrigation and planting green things seemed the prettiest option, so I began digging again. Or chiseling might be a more appropriate option.

There is a reason that during more agricultural eras Orem was a place of many orchards instead of fields. The ground here is rocks and clay. The clay is hardened to almost concrete levels of hardness, particularly when dry. In order to turn rocky clay into plantable dirt, I have to sift out the rocks. I constructed a sifter using wire mesh, a frame, and a wheelbarrow. My sifter needs repair as the mesh has pulled loose from the frame, but I’m still making it work for now.

I then scrape and shovel to pile dirt and rocks onto the sifter.

You can see that some of the dirt immediately falls through the holes into the wheelbarrow. The rest I stir around with my shovel. As I stir the dirt falls through and the rocks stay on top of the mesh. Eventually all I have left to stir are rocks. Lots of rocks of all sizes.

I pick out the biggest and prettiest rocks to use for decorative purposes later. The rest get dumped into a bucket to be hauled away. This leaves nice crumbly dirt in the wheelbarrow. Note that the amount of rocks and the amount of dirt are roughly equal.

The rocks get hauled over to a corner of the yard where I put all the spare dirt from digging the patio. That pile is flanked on one side with spare un-sifted sand, and now on the other side I’m building a pile of rocks and gravel. Theoretically these things might be useful resources for a future project. If I ever get around to building raised garden beds anywhere.

For now I just have to keep sifting dirt until I’ve scraped away enough that I can reasonably plant growing things in the soft dirt I lay into the hole.

My Pandemic Patio

Near the end of June I was in dire need of a project. I needed something physical to do which didn’t require much thinking. So I decided it was time to tackle my long-intended patio project. Back in 2014 we demolished a rotting deck, leaving a dirt patch.

I decided to tackle the project in pieces. Dig out a section, lay pavers, dig the next section, etc. Doing the project this way had some benefits in spreading out the cost of supplies. It also let us see finished sections much sooner than we otherwise would have, which was important encouragement and motivation to continue. I don’t regret our process even though I can see how construction would be simplified by digging everything first then laying each layer all at once. Instead we muddled our way forward, finding tree roots, and fixing leaky sprinkler pipes as we went.

They layers are: fairly level dirt, landscape fabric, gravel, sand, pavers.

We used a level when laying the pavers so we could push around the gravel and sand to make sure each paver was set correctly. I’m certain we would have gotten a more even result by leveling each layer completely and tamping it down before adding the next layer.

In fact, toward the end I had to pull up pavers and re-level because I discovered that a whole corner of the patio had developed a slant. The end result still has un-eveness and a slight dip in the middle.

The final step was sweeping polymer sand into the cracks between the pavers. You sweep the sand on dry and then wet it down so that the polymers bond and set into a mortar.

So now our patio is set into place and ready for use. I just need to save up enough money for some patio furniture. The thing I’d really love is a fire pit table that runs on propane. It’ll probably have to wait for another year though. I’m really grateful I had this project. I’m glad to have an outdoor space where I can invite a friend for a socially distanced visit. And hopefully in the future I can gather friends in a group. The patio will outlive the pandemic, and that is reassuring.

Long Slow Remodel: Pantry Wall (nearly) Complete

When last I did a Long Slow Remodel update, we had just laid a bit of the new flooring and set the base cabinets into place so we could start visualizing.

Once we had the cabinets fastened into place, we were ready for the countertop company to come and measure things. We waited two weeks for the appointment. During the wait we lay planks across the top so that the cats wouldn’t jump into the drawers and break them. We also put up papers to visualize where the upper cabinets would go.

The counter top people measured, then we waited another two weeks for the counter to be fabricated. Then they installed it. Yay!

Except we discovered a problem. The sink was larger than we had pictured, which meant our cabinet plan had a cupboard on the very edge of the sink. This didn’t seem ideal, so we re-thought our plan by taking the cabinet boxes and shuffling them around.

I then used one of the boxes as a prop to hold up the cabinets which wouldn’t be sitting directly on the counter while I attached them to the wall. The end result was a cabinet arrangement that really pleased us.

We have a nice open space around the sink and some artistic asymmetry. All that remains is fixing the back splash which is now too short, installing handles, installing the sink, and paying a plumber to install the faucet. One thing that is fun is to look at how our plans evolved from the first sketches to the end result.

We’re happy with this new pantry and we’ve already moved our food into the cupboards. Because the next goal is to make the old pantry wall be gone. The fridge will move so that its back is against the wall with the door, and an island will go where the fridge currently sits.

I’m really looking forward to being able to sit in this front space and talk to people who are in the kitchen without shouting around the wall.

Bit by bit the kitchen is inching closer to where we need it to be.

Long Slow Remodel: First Section of Floor

We got the first section of flooring laid. As usual Callie and Milo were super helpful.

So helpful

Even with help we got the new floor in place.

Having it there already changes the feel of the space. The stone look has a cooler feel than the wood, but it already creaks way less and will be far more durable for the way our family lives. Now we can move into the next phase, assembling the pantry wall. I’m sure the kitties will help there too.

Long Slow Remodel: Flooring Begins

Today I began the work to tear out hardwood flooring so we can lay down LVP instead. I was pleased to discover that I’m going to be able to salvage the hardwood planks so they can be donated to habitat for humanity.

Being able to donate the planks makes me feel better about pulling up good hardwood. Why am I tearing it out if it is still good? Many reasons. The first being that not all the wood is good. There are places where water damage has warped boards. The wood next to the door where water leaks in has begun to show signs of dry rot. Second, we’ve already got areas where there are holes in the flooring. Most notably the spot where we removed a closet to install a railing instead.

You can also see spots where the wood was removed to make space for the railing.

While it is possible to patch these sort of things, the reality of doing so is exceedingly tricky. Also there is the fact that we’re planning on removing a superfluous wall which will create an even larger and more visible gap in the flooring. On top of the existing damage, our experience with floods and hardwood floor maintenance has led us to conclude that our family will be better served with a different material on the floor. Hopefully I’ll get to show you the stuff we’re installing soon. For now, here is the space that I’ve cleared so we can install flooring and then cabinets.

A Tour of House Projects in Progress

After last summer’s detour into flood damage repair, this year I’m back to working on the house projects I want to get done. Because of financial and time constraints, the projects move slowly, however the life shifts around pandemic have me needing hands-busy-not-too-thinky tasks. Home improvement fills that need nicely. Progress has been made.

The largest and most ongoing project is our Long Slow Remodel of our kitchen. The current goal is to get rid of that wall in the middle before November launches the holiday season.

The next step is to waiting on flooring to arrive. I have to tear out flooring in front of this wall, lay new flooring, and then we can install a pantry wall with a secondary sink. (The plumbing for the sink was installed spring of 2019.) We’ll live with a patch of mis-matched flooring while we take a bunch of other steps like new counter tops, wall removal, re-wiring the location of the fridge, etc.

I already have the cabinets which will go on the pantry wall. They’re waiting out in my garage.

We had paused the kitchen remodel because purchasing flooring is a big spend and I was worried about finances. But we think that re-configuring our kitchen to match the way that our brains work will help Howard in his quest to improve his health. So we’re moving forward. During the pause I was in need of projects, and my son was also in need of things to do, so we decided to put a patio in the dirt patch that used to be under our deck that we had to demolish because it had rotted. (Deck demolishing Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) Here is what the patch looked like in 2014 after we removed the deck:

This is how the dirt patch spent most of the intervening years: Covered in leaf piles and various other detritus.

This is the current state of the dirt patch, which is well on its way to becoming a patio. We used the wheelbarrow to haul excavated dirt to a large (and growing larger) pile of dirt in the corner of the yard. I’m thinking we’ll use some of it to fill raised garden beds. Hopefully we’ll do that faster than the six years it took us to move from dirt patch to patio. The pile of sand on the tarp was salvaged from an old sandbox which we disassembled in early spring of 2019. We’re using it in the laying of pavers, but the size of the pile suggests that we’ll have some left over for other projects later. Process is dig, remove tree roots, level dirt, lay landscape cloth, layer gravel, layer sand, place each paver carefully using a level. At the end I’ll use polymeric sand to seal everything into place.

While hauling dirt to our big pile, I noticed that one of our pine trees had been so overtaken by wisteria vines that it was in danger of dying. I cut the vines to give the tree a chance. Unfortunately that created this situation:

Instead of having a wall of green, there is a wall of dead. Dried, crispy dead just waiting for a spark to turn the whole mess into a massive torch. Particularly since the underside of all that dead wisteria looks like this:

So in between digging and laying pavers, I’m taking time to cut back and remove all of the dead from this tree. I’m also raking up a decade of dead pine needles and wisteria leaves from the ground. I’ll probably need a young, nimble person to get on a ladder or climb the tree to help me get some of the dead vines removed. Bit by bit it is getting less hazardous.

Not a hazard, but definitely an eyesore is this weedy patch which flanks the other side of my small deck. It used to be raised garden beds framed by railroad ties. Then we realized that all the terrible chemicals from the railroad ties would leach into the soil, and be taken into the food plants. We pulled the railroad ties, which left a couple of mounds. Then life got busy and the mounds went to weeds. Since there were mounds, we couldn’t just mow them. So in order to get this spot under control we need to clear the weeds and level the ground, or reinstall garden beds. I’m considering making this spot into a patio too or we could return it to being lawn, which is what it was before very-young me decided to make it raised garden beds. This project is on the list, but I doubt we’ll get to it this year.

Last, but not least urgent, are the front flower beds which have reached their usual state of July disarray. Weeds need to be pulled, plants need to be cut back. I need to fertilize to give all of it a chance of being pretty again in the fall and next spring.

Owning a house is a lot of work if you want to keep the house in good condition. I’ve lived in this house and tended to it for over twenty years now. Some of my current projects are me correcting my own past errors (railroad garden beds,) some are me fighting the natural entropy of living things trying to take over (tree rescue, weeds,) and some are me correcting long-standing problems (removing that wall in the kitchen.) It is a good thing I like having projects.

Making a Small Corner Prettier

This is how the corner of my bathroom used to look two weeks ago:

This is how that corner looks today:

The change over took a couple hundred dollars in supplies (window cling film, boards, varnish, paint, caulk) and about five hours of work broken into little segments. The end result is that I now have a place to display these vases that I got from my Grandma. She loved them dearly and I’m glad to have them where they can catch the light instead of being hidden away in a box.

It is nice to have a measurable accomplishment when so many other things feel discouraging or stagnant. Particularly since this project also felt stagnant for large portions of the time I was working on it. Projects do that sometimes, but small efforts add up. Then eventually you have something that didn’t exist before.

Prepping for Home Improvement…Again

After a summer of offices moved into living spaces, speed installation of drywall and flooring, then returning offices to their original homes, we were all ready to have life be calmer for a while. I decided to halt all house projects until after I returned from the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat. I figured that would buy us five weeks of relative calm. The dishwasher vetoed this plan and instead chose to leak underneath hardwood flooring a mere three days before my departure. We had to yank out the machine, turn on fans, and tell the kids they were hand washing dishes while we were gone.

It turned out the dishwasher wasn’t entirely to blame, a leaky valve contributed to the problem. This was discovered by my kids while I was away. They solved the problem with a bucket that they emptied regularly. Upon my return, I summoned the plumber once again, and paid to have plumbing fixed. For those keeping count, the plumber has been to my house for urgent repairs six times in the past five months. Six. I’ve begun to question the whole idea of indoor plumbing.

Here is the buckling on the hardwood floor, that light reflection should be a smooth circle, not broken up like it is reflecting off of waves. Which it is. Because my floor is all wavy now.

We’ll be living with the wavy floor for a while. I’m still trying to pay for the mess downstairs and can’t spend resources to fix a cosmetic problem like this one. The gaps between boards are also water damage.

Replacing the hardwood with vinyl plank was already part of the kitchen remodel plan. All of which is on hold until I finish the repairs downstairs. The last, giant, piece of downstairs repair is that we have to remove all of the carpet from the family room and replace it with vinyl plank.

It is not a small room and we use it every day. Having it torn up is going to be seriously disruptive. Once I start I want to get the job finished inside a week. I think I can, even though I’ll be laying the floor by myself. The adventure begins in earnest later this week.

Post Script: A listing of the six plumber visits.
1. Disposal under kitchen sink failed and was actively leaking under the sink.
2. Dryer died and we decided to do the plumbing adjustment for the secondary sink in our planned kitchen remodel. If we’d known about the coming things, we would have put this off. At the time it felt urgent to get it done while we were moving the dryer anyway.
3. Downstairs toilet was clogged so badly we ended up replacing two toilets and discovering a major issue with the sewer line, ripping out flooring in three rooms, and flood cutting walls in two rooms.
4. Putting back the downstairs toilet and sink once the room was reconstructed.
5. The downstairs shower needed a new cartridge so that it could have hot water as well as cold. This felt urgent because I needed to be sure that the hot water wasn’t leaking inside the wall somewhere.
6. Replacing a valve under the kitchen sink that was dripping water down the dishwasher intake line at the rate of a gallon per day.

Edited to add: As of 10/8/19 we’re now up to seven visits from the plumber. We had him back today to install the new dishwasher when the Home Depot install team completely failed to do their job.

Long Slow Remodel: Weeks 5-7

Week five was the eventful week, we got the cupboards onto the wall. Because of the way we wanted the cupboards arranged and where the wall studs were placed, we started by putting up planks and then mounted the cupboards to the planks.

Milo was very interested in this process and helped out by inspecting things. Also by pretending to be a gargoyle.

Here are the cabinets completely mounted. Not yet installed: the knobs on the cupboards and more hooks for hanging jackets underneath the cupboards.

Things slowed down quite a lot in weeks 6 & 7. We were kind of taking a breather between projects. Also there were a lot of family events and business tasks which needed our attention. However we did order the final piece that will help complete the entry area: a bench.

We ordered it unfinished so that we could make it match the cabinets. We intend to cut it shorter so that it is a low bench intended to allow people to easily sit and put on their shoes. Loose shoes will live underneath the bench since I’m a person who kicks off her shoes when entering the house. (Howard is a shoes-on person.)

The next phase of the project will be building a pantry wall across from the cooking area. It will be on this big blank wall.

We’ve drawn up a rough plan for what we want to do. There will still be some shuffling around of cupboards, but this is the general idea.

Bit by bit we’ll get this done. Current focus, shuffling funds around to enable us to pay for the next purchase of cupboards.

Long Slow Remodel: Week 4

This week most of the progress happened in Howard’s office where this space:

Was turned into this space:

We called these our “test cupboards” we were learning the process of finishing the cupboards and experimenting with hanging them. That way we made most of our mistakes on cupboards that will not be on public display the moment people enter the house.

With Howard’s cupboards looking spiffy, I turned our garage into a full workshop and worked on the front room cupboards.

As of today, the boxes for the cupboards were ready, so we stacked them in the front room to help us visualize how it would go. Milo helped inspect. Picture this arrangement about four to five feet higher up on the wall with shelves in the gaps between cupboards.

Stacking and visualizing turned out to be really smart. We identified a problem. The spacing of those upright cupboards is such that it is impossible to attach all of them to studs simultaneously. We came up with a plan where we’re using planks behind the cupboards as additional support and to create a sort of framing structure. We also realized that our intended height would make most of the cupboards hard to access. but hanging the cupboards lower would cause a problem hanging some of our long coats on hooks below the cupboards. That was when we came up with this arrangement, which we like way better. The upright gap will still have shelves. The open bottom gap will house coats.

So now I’ve got planks to stain, side panels to stain and doors to finish varnishing. Oh, and there is crown molding that I also need to stain. The good news is that I enjoy painting stain and varnish on wood. So the project is being fun.