Thank you, and good bye


I could keep this blog sputtering on indefinitely, but to all intents and purposes our gut-job  reno is over.

There will always be more things to do, but we have created a 3-bedroom house that’s cool in summer and snug in winter and a back yard that’s providing salad and the occasional raspberry, as well as more not-yet-ripe tomatoes than I can count on the sun-baked third floor deck.

But after a final adventures that included painting the pitted wooden front door a delicious shade of rich, rich red, and redoing the wood and brass door number that came with the house, it’s time to say goodbye.

To recap, we started a year and a bit ago with a 1910 Toronto semi that had lost most of its charm in a 1970s reno that introduced beige jacuzzi tub, recessed light fixtures and ugly baseboard radiators. There was one bathroom, plus one in the basement that I still shy away from, and no air conditioning. But the structure was sound and the location sang.

We ended with a super-snug house that combines traditional and modern in a way that works like a dream. The kitchen and bathroom are modern, practical and beautifully designed, and we stroked in a modern powder room in the sun room off the kitchen. But we recreated the original trim in every room and combined modern and traditional with a sleek black pellet stove insert set into a rebuilt traditional mantlepiece. I’m amazed how warm it keeps the house.

We have new, built-in closets that recently sprouted funky LED lighting so we can actually see what’s there, a crazily expensive bathroom vanity and extra closet space in every room. I think there’s one closet, in the spouse’s office, that isn’t even used for anything.

Behind the scenes, we put in more insulation than anyone has any right to add, as well as triple-glazed fiberglass windows and new wiring and plumbing throughout. We used salvaged, refinished old cast-iron radiators and added luxurious underfloor heating in kitchen and bathroom. Lighting is mostly LED, which means hydro bills are mostly small. (OK, I’ve not seen the bill for this air conditioning heavy month yet)

Outside, a weeds-and-concrete back yard has given way to classy brick paving stones, and a small square foot vegetable garden. The herbs are going crazy and I haven’t even used the fennel yet. How do people with real vegetable gardens cope with the produce?

We have a bird bath too, even if it is more of a bee bath right now (bees are pollinators, right? They don’t bother us, so we won’t bother them)

And we have new wooden steps up to the newly moved garage door, with vines getting ready to climb up and around them.

My thanks to you for following along, and my special thanks to the amazing spouse for his hands-on overseeing, managing and leading the transformation. We renovated a whole house, and we’re still married. This is good.

For more on the garden, its produce, and my other extra-curricular activity please check out my canning blog, which is all about trying to cook local, preserve the season and experiment with food.

Good bye, good luck.

It’s been quite a ride.

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Keeping cool

Back at the start of this renovation game, the first (high-end) company that came round to quote on heating and cooling wanted to install three separate wall-mounted AC units in our to-be-renovated three storey house, as well as a fiendishly complicated ductless heating system. It was the only way to keep things warm in winter and cool in summer, the salesman insisted.

Just shows what high-end salesmen know.

The reality of our renovation is a super-insulated house with triple-glazed windows, refurbished cast iron radiators, a pellet stove and just one single “slim Jim” cooling unit on the third floor, on the theory that the cooled air will pour down the stairs and into the bedroom, and then circulate happily through the rest of the house. I admit I worried if it would keep things cool enough to sleep in the second-floor bedroom and I had visions of moving upstairs to the Murphy bed in the third floor office/guest room.

Like everything else to do with heating and cooling, I was (of course) flat-out wrong.

Even this week, as the mercury climbs to 35C (a little below 100F), our bedroom is cool enough to sleep in, and the rest of the house is pretty pleasant too.

Amazing that a single unit on the wall, with the working bits next to the third-floor tomato jungle, can keep a whole house so cool.

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Square feet rising

For a rookie gardener like me, the whole concept of soil, seeds, sun and water transforming themselves  to edible plants is still somewhat baffling, but I’m proud to report that eight of our nine square feet are growing by the day, offering mini mustard plants to spice up salads. The ninth square it’s not sprouting that well yet, but I live in hope.

I decided to focus on the things I couldn’t get that easily in the market, and here, for the record, is what we have:

Back row: Sugar snap peas; chard and different sugar snap peas
Middle row: spinach;  red amaranth and red mustard
Front row: red frisee; green mustard and red lettuce

Just to the side of that we have herbs, sorrel and fennel, including a Vietnamese coriander that clearly loves its site so much that it’s taking over as ground cover. And elsewhere we have giant hostas from the spouse’s old house and a Virginia creeper that’s creeping rapidly up the garage wall.

But it’s the third-floor non-deck that I’m proud of too, and our heirloom tomatoes are healthy, bushy and starting to flower. Given the lack of any sort of barrier, we just have to remember not to think of watering them when drunk.

Anyone got any recipes that will use up very large quantities of burning, biting Vietnamese coriander?

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Flat square feet

We were not actually planning a vegetable garden in our tiny patch out back. But one packet of seeds led to another, and before I knew it, I had started reading up on square foot gardening and worrying whether we really needed the raised beds and inches of compost they told us to do. We had back-breakingly fresh-dug soil, with sub-surface roots axed out of existence, so I added peat moss and a little fertilizer and bravely plotted out a three-by-three (ish) space, with peas and chard in the back, mustard greens and spinach in the middle and lettuce and more mustard greens at the top. The ground was bone dry, so I watered generously, fretting as the dry soil flooded from one square to another, and now have a 6-day wait to see if anything will sprout at all.

We did, however, stick vaguely with The Plan behind the square-foot patch, with a weigela from the old house in the corner and three crimson and gold ornamental quince bushes against the window.

I admit I’ve very excited about those. I had been dreaming about a quince tree for the back yard, because I love the pink flowers and hate paying $3 for a single quince in the market, but I shelved that dream after discovering they grew to 4 meters, and we would need two of them anyway. These shrubs could be even better. They were The Guardian’s “plant of the week” earlier this year, and the blurb is totally enticing:

“You want stunning, bright red spring blossom followed by gourmet fruit, without the hassle of time-consuming pruning or a big tree in the garden? This shrub (Latin name chaenomeles, not to be confused with the quince tree, Cydonia oblonga) is what you need.”

Of course mine are not flowering yet, let along producing gourmet fruit, so here, with thanks to http://www.gardenality.com web, is what they ought to look like next year.

In other news, I planted a small army of herbs, including fennel for its pretty feathery leaves, as well sorrel, for the bitter bite, some more basil, creeping thyme for a border and a couple of interesting looking things I have never heard of.

A blog from My Schoolhouse Rocks reminds me that I forgot the catnip. Will cat forgive?

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Classy in clay

Like everything else in a renovation, it’s the prep work that really takes the time, but after a week of demolishing, digging, grading and gravelling (if that’s a word) I spent my long weekend humping hundreds of red clay bricks from the front of the house to the back to help create the patio to die for. It gave me a new respect for manual labor, a deep thirst for Gatorade and a thick layer of red grit, covering me from head to toe.

We started this project with scraggly grass and an ugly concrete path in our tiny back yard, had a chunk of Big Dig last month to hack out the foot-deep path, and then carved out a thick layer of dirt for the gravel bed to take the pavers.

Then came an anti-weed cloth, then six inches of gravel, tamped down viciously with an heavy yellow gizmo on rent from Home Depot, and then another layer of cloth, to prevent the weeds from even thinking of making a below-ground entry.

And hundreds of bricks and a lot of very heavy lifting later, we ended up with a smooth, paved patio that screams out class and comfort.

Lessons learned.

  • There are people out there who will take the 1,000 pounds of extra gravel if you put an ad on Kijiji or Craig’s list and tell them it’s free
  • The tamping machine works really well, but is amazingly heavy to lift back into a car
  • A dolly does a better job of carrying bricks from front of house to back than a wheelbarrow. (Note to Brit readers: a dolly in Canadian/American English is one of those two-wheeled carts that builders use to carry Stuff from one place to another. Britspeak, according to the homebase.co.uk web site is a hand truck.)
  • I can carry three bricks at a time fairly comfortably. Carrying four is doable, but harder. Two days of carrying bricks is also a really good workout, even if you are only carrying three at a time.
  • Walking barefoot on the flat roof of the third floor to try to take a birds eye picture of the work is a really, really bad idea. I got three steps onto the asphalt, and could feel my feet sizzling as they sank into the tar.

Spouse is now moving on to thinking about the new steps to the newly off-centered garage door, and whether we might be able to use some of the leftover bricks for that, if only as part of the frame.

Me, I’m looking forward to the fun bit, as we add plants to dirt and create space to grow things to eat.

This will be the first adventure. Please someone. Reassure me that it’s not too late to be planting them?

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Cat likes garlic?

We dug up the baby garlic plants today in preparation for tearing down the back yard and then putting it back together again.

And in this case, pictures speak an awful lot louder than words.

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Taming the sun

We  saw this as a reno that would crimp our carbon footprint just a little bit, and we’ve certainly baffled the utilities companies since we moved in back in December. Our gas bills swing from $100+ (for the months that they estimate our gas consumption) to a generous credit (for the months when they actually come along and read the meter). I could complain, but I admit I rather like the credit.

This week we moved the eco up a notch, hooking up the solar panel that is also acting as an awning to protect our sun-baked top floor. The spouse and his helper installed the panel on a cold, but sunny, winter day, but it took until now to get the pipes and other stuff attached.

It all looked scarily complicated, involving large wrenches, soldering stuff and many lengths of plastic and copper tube, and it added another layer of tangle to the octopus of pipes that already crawled down the longest wall of the basement. But even after a partly rainy day, there’s a slim, slim sign of progress. Water coming into into the heating gizmo (the rectangular white box next to the giant hot water tank) is icy cold, and water from gizmo to tank is warm. Not very warm, I admit, but solar panels don’t work that well in rain.

Anyone want to place a bet on next month’s gas bill?

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Living dangerously

We’re almost three weeks from the May 2-4 weekend that traditionally signals that it’s safe to plant stuff outdoors in Toronto, and I tempted the weather gods by putting two containers of freshly planted herbs and plants out on the back door steps today. But there was just too much good stuff to buy in a new (for me) garden center. Before I knew it, we had two flats of herbs, and they had to go somewhere.

I suppose I can blame fellow blogger My Schoolhouse Rocks for this one, because she blogged about Richter’s herb farm, which was only a 20 km detour from the garden center we were due to visit today, and I just felt I had to try it out.

And what a place. There were more single varieties of each individual herb than most stores have total varieties of herb (think lemon mint, lime mint, chocolate mint, mojito mint, spearmint, and many many more), and we came out three of the 20-or-so different types of basil, as well as some very pretty green-red leafy stuff (think arugula with extra taste), some ordinary mint and some stripy sage and green-yellow thyme. I planted some in real soil in front of the house and filled the two planters for the back, and then ran out of potting soil. It means things are stalled for now, but it does look pretty.

It’s the first stage in the putting-the-garden-back-together project, that has also involved some serious messing around with paper and scissors to see if the things we want to plant will fit in the places where we want to plant them. We definitely have room for one fruit tree, and we might even have room for two, although we’ll have to do a lot of pruning to keep them the size we want them to be.

And there’s a carefully constructed plastic greenhouse in the sun room to protect the tiny tomato seedlings after a cat attack just as they got their first real leaves. I started with two sorts of seeds, a knobby pink and green number that tasted awesome when I grew it a couple of years ago, and a yellow one that the friend who gave me the seeds says she found very disappointing. Of course I have no clue which of the spindly little plants is which, and even if I have both types, given that only half the seeds germinated this year.

You wouldn’t think this little thing would have it in her to attack a poor innocent tomato plant, would you?

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This is worse than the reno

The house was easy. We started with walls, doors, windows and a roof, moved a few of them around, spent  money with gay abandon, and ended up with the perfectly finished, perfectly sized dream.

But the garden is still precisely where it was a couple of weeks ago and I’m starting to stress. We went with a designer at the start, but his ideas were mostly different from ours, and we probably won’t use him for the rest of it. So what will we do?

To explain my bafflement, we have a small blank canvas, there are an awful lot of interlocking decisions, and until we’ve made them all, we can’t move forward, and I feel very clueless about plants and gardens. Here is some of the stuff I’m fretting about:

  • How much space for patio and how much for plants, and how will we make the best use of the sunniest parts of the yard?
  • Is there enough sun and space for the two fruit trees we’re lusting after, assuming we need two for pollination? Will they grow too big for the tiny yard?
  • What about raspberry canes, which were my favorite part of last year’s digs? Designer dismissed raspberry canes as ugly and straggly. This is true, but raspberries are summer perfection. But what sort of raspberries? Is there a heirloom variety?
  • What about other beds? Raised beds or not? What will we grow?
  • What sort of barbecue, and where will it go?
  • What sort of furniture, and where will that go?
  • What about the awnings we planned when we ordered the windows? Will they interfere with the fruit trees?
  • Do we do drip irrigation? Install a water line? Survive with what we have?
  • Do we actually need to move the garage door, and if we do, what do we do with the space in the wall where the door is now?
  • What sort of steps  garage door to garden? What sort of pavers for the patio?

As a start-this-off venture we trekked out to Lowes and Rona, and then to sell-everything Beaver Valley Stone to try to make a decision on the pavers at the least. And miraculously we agreed on something called Greenwich, which is a clay brick that will sparkle in front of the darker red-brown of the brick on the house itself. Here’s the in-situ brick, just waiting for someone like us to come along and buy.

From there it was on to the garden center, where we pondered fruit trees and realised that we might need a specialized place for stuff like pluots/plumcots and Reine Claude, preferably in dwarf versions. But they had a sale on patio furniture, so we bought a few dozen boxed-up slats of wood (otherwise known as Muskoka chairs) and spent a confusing weekend screwing and glueing them together in preparation for a couple of coats of non-gloss varnish.
Here’s what the first chair looked like straight out of the box.
And here’s the almost-finished product, all ready for moving out to the porch for an evening of reading and watching the world go by.
The forecast is for snow tomorrow. Reading on the porch will have to wait.
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Homes and gardens

I thought we were done with the demolition game, but a nefarious plot to revive our pocket handkerchief back yard brought the dust and the debris back again, and we’ve barely started. If last year was the year of the house, this year we’re starting on the garden, and it’s going to be a Project, given that I have never done anything like this before and the spouse isn’t working on it fulltime like he was when we did the house.

We started off with an ugly concrete pathway slicing diagonally through the grass and the weeds, and a lot of rambling, overgrowing plants that might have been something somewhere along the line.  The grass more or less vanished  off during the reno, so come spring we had bare soil that would have formed the perfect breeding ground for yet more weeds. It was time for that path to go (two layers of path, as it turned out).

The plan now is to move the garage door to the left, build new, wooden steps going up to it and move the path to where the battered compost container is. That will allow the rest of the yard to become our outdoor room, with paving stones, herbs and perhaps a couple of fruit trees so I can pretend to be an urban farmer.

I have my eye on something called chums, a plum cherry hybrid that ought to make good jam, but have no clue if they would even work in our tiny patch. Our designer, having suggested water features, standard trees and decorative shrubs, has come around to the idea of “edible with flair”.

Well exactly.

Here’s a deck’s-eye view of the garden as it looks right now.

And here’s the first draft of the plan of what it might look like one day, minus the water feature and the standard trees.

Meantimes our first crop of 2012 is coming along just fine – the organic garlic cloves I planted optimistically last fall have a dozen leaves apiece, and I’m hoping for garlic scapes before too long, and real garlic bulbs come summer.

They went from clove to plant all by themselves. I’m very proud of them.

Anyone know how long we need to leave them in the ground to get real garlic?

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