Thursday, December 30, 2010


I'm borrowing this picture of Mt Rogers from a friend. I imagine the snowy coat from a couple of years ago is similar to what Mt Rogers is wearing now. I backpacked up there for the first time in October of this year. It is truly beautiful. As I reflect back on 2010, one of my personal heroes comes to mind - Rachel Carson. Though the subject matter of some of her writings will unsettle the most stable person, her writings are eloquent, provocative and beautiful.
"Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts."
I have definitely tapped into those strengths this year. This winter I find myself pouring over seed catalogs and a book entitled Edible Forest Gardens yearning to turn the soil and plant new life. I will plant some old favorites: rosemary for friendship and remembrance; lavender for its calming smell and simple beauty; candy tuft as a nod to familial generations before me; sage for deserts of Oregon and its yummy addition to food; hellebores for a wonderful gardening friend. I'll also plant a tree or two - probably a dogwood and a redbud. I like to plant trees to mark significant years in my life. With inspiration from the Edible Forest Gardens, I'm pondering wild ginger and galax for areas of my yard that are in full shade beneath the maple trees.

I look forward to closing out 2010 settled into a local gem to enjoy some amazing food, have my ears tickled by the sounds of my roots, and smile at the prospects of a new year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bubbles. Tiny Bubbles.

The last week or two have proven to be an adjustment and dynamic experiment to living with single pane windows and an older home. Some of the steel windows downstairs don't seal as well as they used to seal. Weatherstripping on doors is deteriorated or non-existent. Cold air pours off the bottom of the windward windows. My thermostat is already set higher than I would like and I fear this month's gas bill.

On advice and generosity of a friend, I have taken action. It's action on a budget, but something is better than nothing. Over the course of a few days, I made a mental note of which window coverings I rarely open and which windows were not as important for views in the winter months. I narrowed it down to the all of the basement windows, the master bedroom, and the upper half of the second bedroom windows.
Bubble wrap installed pane-by-pane
While my inner interior designer went to war with my inner greenie self, I measured window lites, cut bubble wrap to corresponding sizes, wiped down windows with an old wet rag, and adhered the bubble wrap pane-by-pane to select windows throughout my house. As I put up the bubble wrap, the designer in me took deep breaths and knew that it could all come down in a quick flurry since it is only held up there with good ol' water. 

Bubbles installed - trash and recycling bin view impeded

The downstairs "bedroom" is used as more of a seasonal clothing and craft storage space so views to the exterior were not critical (especially since the current highlight of the view out the big window is my trash and recycling bins).
Stealth bubbles. Privacy at ground level. Glimmer of daylighting to admire Granny and Papa's handmade quilt. Eclectic.
With the makeshift window coverings salvaged from years gone by, the bubbles are not too noticeable. The unfinished basement windows are clerestory windows. In the winter their primary purpose is to provide daylighting when I happen to be down there to do some laundry, source a cardboard box, or grab a sled.

Bubble wrap installed.
The master bedroom is on the front of the house. Given the slope of the land, the "deluxe" vinyl 1" mini blinds that came with the house are always closed. The white plastic of the blinds glows in the morning so the bubble wrap only cuts the glow factor by a teeny bit.

Bubble wrap installed, the blinds still glow at 4 p.m.
I do not live in a neighborhood with a homeowner association so there is nothing forbidding me from putting bubble wrap, styrofoam, cardboard, plywood, etc. in windows other than sheer heinousness. Not wanting the neighbors to hate me, I had to take a look outside to see what I had done (again keeping in mind that a quick swipe of the hands and bubble wrap would be GONE).
Exterior view of installed bubble wrap
I am standing about 10' away from the window taking the picture. The sidewalk is a good 25' feet from the window. All-in-all I don't think it looks too horribly bad especially considering the payback I'll potentially get in my investment of time and materials. The master bedroom feels noticeably warmer. The basement feels less drafty. I am anxious to see what the gas utility bill says about it. Until then, I'm crunching numbers and looking at more energy saving options to tackle these single pane windows.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bottled Up

A couple of my friends reminded me that I did not provide full disclosure to my water savings success in my last post. I totally forgot about working for a few days to maximize water displacement in the toilet tank. I fell victim to out of sight out of mind and have been letting the bottles do their thing.

Per the date inside the toilet tank, my toilet was manufactured August 24, 1970 - a verified water guzzler. I've heard of displacing water with bricks placed in the toilet tank. This is not a good option as the bricks may erode and leave sedimentation in the toilet tank (not that mine could look much worse). Since I don't typically drink sodas, I solicited a few polyethylene terephtalate (PETE or #1) bottles from friends. In addition to my mellow yellow practice and with a little finagling around moving toilet parts, I managed to wedge one - 2 liter bottle and two - 20 oz bottles into my toilet tank. The bottles are filled with water for ballast.
Bottled up toilet tank
I never promised that my photos would be glamorous. For that matter, I don't know that I've ever seen the inside of toilet tank that I would call glamorous - even the brand, spanking, new ones (my apologies the toilet manufacturing industry).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mellow Yellow

While looking at the house with my realtor, at my request the previous owner had kindly left a copy of their utility bills on their table for me to review. For a house with one bathroom and two adult occupants, their water bill came in at a hefty $50+. My good friend that works at the Western Virginia Water Authority pointed to the old toilet and said the water bill would drop by about $20 if I got a new 1.6 gallon flush toilet.

Funding is not exactly dripping from my pockets these days and I won't settle for anything less than a $200 Toto toilet (the slippery finish, wide flush valve and large trapway ensure great performance and easy cleaning for a 1.6 gpf toilet), so I've had to be a little creative in the interim. Here's a little ditty I learned over 10 years ago, "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." I'm willing to give anything a try, so I gave it a "go".

In tracking my utility bills, my monthly water bill dropped from $45.38 to $33.40. Needless to say, I was impressed and committed to my strategy. For now, the old toilet remains. 

I try to remember to flush before visitors arrive, but I'm apologizing now if you find a little mellow yellow in my vintage toilet. You can just shake your head and know that I'm saving my pennies for a deluxe model toilet.

Monday, November 29, 2010

I Bought a Jungle

I'm all for verdant outdoor living, but the backyard was a bit more than I was willing to live with on a daily basis.
Jungle? Nope. My backyard before moving in.

A mire of briars
Love lost

 The backyard was covered in 30+ years of overgrowth that included, but was definitely not limited to, Tree of Heaven (a horribly misnamed specimen), ivy, briars, poison ivy, and wild grape vines. With my back against the house surveying the super slope of a backyard, I spotted something. With some fancy footwork, I picked my way down the set of marvelous metal stairs set into the hillside beside a large tulip poplar. Someone some day in years past loved this property.
House-eating Holly

To say the backyard was encroaching on the house was quite literal especially when you took into account this specimen of Ilex domina mandi.  Ok I made this Latin name up but it is quite accurate.

The extents of my backyard. YAY! Not.
Now to move on from the flora to the structure of the house...the back steps exiting from the kitchen left much to be desired architecturally, but the kicker that required immediate action was the structural integrity. There was none. I'm guessing that the previous owners were not very outdoorsy as I certainly would not have navigated these stairs on a regular basis. The demolition guys said that there were two rebars tethering the stairs to the house.
Don't step on the crack or you'll break your back.

The slope of the stairs is not an optical illusion.
All I could envision was my two-year old, two miniature schnauzers and me sliding under the code-abhorrent handrails and plummeting into the briar patch below.

Decision: The backyard had to be cleared of brambles and briars. The stairs had to be demolished and new stairs had to be built prior to move in. A fence was going to be added to cage my canine kids and save me a little sanity.

I had worked with this wonderful landscaping company that understood my love for native plants. As they cleared the backyard, I gave them instructions to salvage anything that was salvageable i.e. if they found perennials from years gone by, a hedge of forsythias, or a dogwood sapling (a girl can dream...). They found a black snake, a garter snake, a copperhead snake, years of lost dog toys, children's toys, and the unfortunate but expected plastic and beer can debris. The underlying ivy was left on the steep slope of the yard and the rest was cleared to topsoil.

The fence was built - shadow box style wood fencing from each of the back corners of the house to the top of the steep slope then black vinyl chain link fence to encompass the rest of the yard. The vinyl made me cringe, but I did the best I could given my budget and the slope that had to be navigated. I was careful to leave about a 10' corridor on the back edge of the property so the deer and other footed wildlife could continue on their daily roam through the property if my neighbors behind me ever built a fence.

My treehouse
Cardinal having a little breakfast
If I was going to build stairs, I decided I should just build a deck. With all of my green building material training, I priced recycled plastic lumber and Forest Stewardship Council Certified lumber. Sometimes the economic reality does not jive with one's desires and a choice must be made. All of this work was going to be exterior - outside our enclosed indoor living environment. I bit my lip and opted for the standard treated wood. I added structure above the railing to hang lights, wind chimes and bird feeders. When seated with my back up against the wall of the house, I have this wonderful feeling of being in a tree-house. My son loves putting out bird food (seed) and bird juice (hummingbird nectar) and calling the birds to come eat. The birds seem to like their new neighbors.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

New Digs

Having never gone through the process of buying a home, let alone tackling it as a single mom with a child,  two dogs, and a home office in tow, I was a bit overwhelmed by the task before me. Per my usual protocol when faced with daunting tasks, I started dumping the thoughts and snippets rattling around in my brain into a notebook. (Please note that this notebook was selected for its fun and happy cover design and 100% post-consumer paper, ecojot - a girl has got to have her standards! Smile.)

Here are the features I targeted to find in a house:

  • safe neighborhood - diverse is good
  • good schools
  • lots of daylight in house
  • three bedroom (one for office), two full baths
  • hardwood floors
  • ranch
  • brick
  • energy efficient
  • open plan in kitchen, dining room, living room is good
  • good storage in kitchen (pantry is preferred)
  • fenced in yard
  • smaller yard/minimal grass that needs to be cut
  • two car garage/carport/off-street parking preferred
I enlisted the help of a realtor who understood what I meant when I said daylight and energy-efficient. We jumped in feet first viewing 4-6 houses every time we went out. I was looking for houses mid-February through March of 2010 when the deadline of the first time homeowner's federal housing incentive was bearing down upon me. Given the state of the economy, the well-priced, solid houses that may have been sitting through the winter were now starting to move in the neighborhoods in which I was looking. I also was eager to move on from my previous house. I fully understood the commitment of the investment I was about to make so my house-hunting was thorough. I immediately ruled out houses that would require major renovation work (i.e. removal of carpet and installation of new flooring throughout the house, swamp-like backyard, oil heating, questionable electrical or plumbing systems) as I knew that as single mom I would not have the time or money to invest in getting do-it-yourself projects done. In the end, I found a gem. Check out how much of my target list that I hit. 
  • safe neighborhood
  • good schools
  • lots of daylight in house
  • three bedroom (one for office), two full baths (managing with one)
  • hardwood floors
  • ranch
  • brick
  • energy efficient  (the attic is insulated but the rest needs some attention)
  • open plan in kitchen, dining room, living room is good
  • good storage in kitchen (pantry is preferred) (there is a nearby closet that I converted to a pantry)
  • fenced in yard
  • smaller yard/minimal grass that needs to be cut
  • two car garage/carport/off-street parking preferred
New to Me Digs
Not pictured here is the backyard and back steps. After the home inspection was done, the backyard and steps became the first item on my homeowner's to do list. I'll tackle that one in my next post.

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Memorial Day weekend 2010 the boxes were packed and loaded sideways, upside down and right side up into the moving truck along with all my other material possessions headed for the city. I locked the doors of the structure I had called home for just over 9 years and followed the truck.

My son looking at the "baby, tiny" grass
Inspired by friends and a compelling feeling to share tidbits of what I learn along the way, I'm carving out a little niche for myself, friends, family and others that wish to gather here for us to listen, share, grow, learn, and love.