Wednesday, May 29, 2013


My freshly sodded backyard the day I bought the house. Pretty boring. 

When I moved to Portland and bought a house, I was no gardener. I suddenly had a backyard and a front yard. Now what? I ran to the nurseries and garden centers of the city and bought the things I'd always admired:  roses, peonies, dahlias, tulips, iris, daffodils and hydrangeas. And put them in the ground. No plan was organized, let alone thought through. I was a cook, so of course, I had to plant herbs. I didn't know that mint and oregano could be invasive. Who knew cilantro was so fussy? I discovered that I'm not very successful with the herb I used most often:  flat leaf Italian parsley. It always ends up going to seed. 

The brick patio has acquired this green mossy grown between many of the bricks and adds
some character to the walkways.  Archie enjoys sunbathing on it. 

There are people in my life who are natural gardeners.  My mother tried to make a gardener out of me, but aI resisted. Too dirty, too much weeding and it wasn't fun at all to this fifteen-year-old. My friend Dyanne, is a master gardener. She see the garden the way a famous decorator sees a Park Avenue co-op and knows just where everything belongs. Her Manhattan terrace has spectacular views, but on that 10 x 12-foot space, the view has to compete with her containers which bloom all summer and are an amazing retreat from the heat. My pal, Trish, has an amazing garden that she's arranged into a haven for exploring, dining and enjoying. She grows the most amazing rhubarb, and my garden has benefited from so many cuttings she has given me over these past four years. 

The previous owners were not gardeners either. In an effort to make the garden as pleasing to the eye as possible, they put down sod, covered all the flower beds, and the dog run. They planted ornamental grass in the front yard, which also had an ugly Cedar tree that I share with my next-door neighbor and a stunning Camellia tree that produces an early spring display of white blooms and is in need of a really good trimming. The driveway is bordered by heather in three colors. The back yard is dominated by a huge and very beautifully shaped Cedar tree which sheds. The other shrubs included a male Holly which was the mate of my neighbor's female Holly tree who's branches reached well into the side of my garden. Not much will grow under a cedar because of acidity, or so I'm told. So it's become home to a collection of hosta plants which I put in the first summer I moved into the house.

Maybe I was too ambitious my first year, and it was a hot and dry summer, which meant a lot of watering. It got so that I resented giving up an hour every day to the garden. I had a house to organize and maintain. The garden was a lot of work. It still is.

The pear and pluot trees (a little to close to each other) early this month. The grass was still
high and in need of a lawnmower.

The next season, except for the installation of a large brick patio, I didn't do much in the garden. Kyle installed the waist-high raised vegetable/herb bed and I failed miserably at growing tomatoes. I had a harvest of lovely French breakfast radishes and the lemon squash beat zucchini in its harvest and I ended up pickling jars and jars of the the stuff. Last summer I switched to cherry tomatoes, and the harvest was huge. Two tomato plants yielded lots of roasted tomato sauce and jars of tomato chutney, and garnished many a green salad. I planted pear, fig and pluot trees. And Deb, my last housemate tried to establish a path of chicks and hens alongside my driveway. Most of them didn't survive, though some have taken root and perhaps in another few years, it will fill in.

The shady side-yard, ready for entertaining. The umbrella was up but fell over
during a very windy day. I keep forgetting it is too early in the season. 

A long spring season this year may have induced me back into my garden, but I was encouraged by all the growth. The fig tree had fruit on it in April and when I returned from Paris, the blossoms on the pear and pluot trees had evolved into little pluots (green) and baby pears (green and red). The hostas have got to be dug up and broken up.  The roses went nuts with showy yellow and apricot displays. The Camellia generously bloomed such a pure white, I couldn't take my eyes off of it. The iris are peaking now and the peonies are at their best. The patch of grass left in the backyard has been mowed every week. I've found myself going out to the garden every Sunday to plant something or clean or sweep, or weed the patio--I even took the shopvac in my garage and vacuumed the patio just in time for a big downpour to wash the bricks. And I finally stood up to the male holly bush and cut it down. It gives more light to the finished room in the basement, and the female holly is without a mate. Maybe she won't produce so many berries which fall on my patio and make it a mess to clean.

It's taken the iris three seasons to at least give off this many blooms. It should
be even better next season. They seem to be happy next to the liars. 

Last week I spent over $120 at the nursery giving the side and shaded garden a fuller look of plants and shrubs. I have studiously avoided annuals because I can't stand the idea of spending money on things that won't last more than one season. The slugs are out in big numbers, and I've attacked them with Sluggo. Still they have chewed their way through the leaves of my hostas and emerging dahlias. The roses have been fed and treated for black spot and other scary rose diseases.

This was the first rose from my rose tree this year. It produces the most gorgeous blooms.

I left my fountain out all winter-long and it required emptying, cleaning and fixing the spigot so it would drop water as it was designed to do. A currant plant that my friend, Trish had given me was in real need of planting, having spent two seasons in a pot, so I planted it. I moved an azalea to the back of the garden, where it would get more sun. In its place, I put a purple climatis which I'm going to try to coax up the support of my balcony.

The peonies were better than ever this spring.

An aerial view of the fruit trees and the unruly Euphorbia
(to the left of the side garage door). The fig tree is at the top
of the photo right on the corner of the garage. See how scruffy
the grass is now?

A container rose busy and a Japanese maple, the second of 
two in my garden. 

The herb garden. That's mint in the pot on the corner of the raised bed.
There's oregano, fennel, red/green sage, garlic chives, rosemary, and a new thyme
plant that has since been repotted. The bay leaf, basil, and other rosemary are in pots and 
other areas in the garden where I can control their unruly growth.

There are still lots and lots of chores to do.  After the season is over, I'm going to move my pluot because it is too close to the pear tree. The dog run is now overrun with weeds and I have to grade the dirt away from the house to avoid basement leaks. It's time to find something interesting to do with that empty useless space. A gorgeous red rose tree is planted in the back of the yard, behind the blueberries, and it's nearly forgotten. It needs a place where the eye will delight in its gorgeous blooms. All, or most of the ornamental grass in the front yard has got to go. It's not very interesting to look at in batches---it's uniformly low in height and brown. I'd like to plant lavender, which isn't fussy, produces pretty flowers and smells divine. I'll plant other things around it, but I need to think more about it before I do (Oh--how about poppies?  I've seen them in deep purple--that would look great with lavender). I have been putting out seasonal plants, such as coleus on my doorstep, and I have a boxwood shrub that needs to go in the ground. When I opened my disastrous medical supply store, Jean-Francois sent me a gardenia plant for good luck. I had already killed a gardenia John Baker brought me in a gorgeous terra cotta pot for a house-warming present. I brought the gardenia home when I closed the store and put it on the doorstep, where its been for two seasons. It blooms, and thrives with very little help from me.

A vase-full of camellias. 

This apricot Old English Rose is from a bush I bought and planted 
three years ago. It always produces blooms, week after week, and is
acting like a climber. So I am urging it to climb up to my balcony.

I bought two miniature rose bushes on sale and planted them together
for this beautiful table centerpiece.

On the eve of summer, I think I've finally become something of a gardener. I walk out into my backyard, and start planning projects. I've got the watering thing down to a science. It takes me about 20 minutes on hot days. I no longer water my roses every day because my neighbor who has an amazing rose garden once told me she almost never waters her roses. Good enough for me. I've also stopped watering the grass. It's a waste of good water, and doesn't bother me in the least to have a yellow-brown lawn. Besides with the brick patio, I've cut out more than half the lawn. I weed more, even though I had the work of it more. I still don't think of myself as a gardener and when I post photos of blooming plants and thriving shrubs and fruit-bearing trees (speaking of fruit, the strawberries are just about ripe), I'm not bragging. It's more like astonishment that these things grow at all. Portland's damp weather makes it easier. Everything is also so green here. I don't consult garden books very often (if I did, I wouldn't plant poisonous things like Monk's Hood or Euphorbia--thank god my dogs show no interest in plant life other than grass). I find if I'm willing to put in some minimal effort, the results are really remarkable. I still hate to garden, only less so.

Archie got his own swimming pool this year, though he's shown 
little interest in it. Those plants by the large tree trunk are all
hostas. The large one on the left is huge and out of control and 
needs to be split. Another chore.

My white peonies (along with a tall "peace" rose). So beautiful.

Monday, May 6, 2013


The color of this room is the same I've been painting all my
bathrooms from Manhattan to my master bath in Portland.
Only my guest bath on the first floor is a different color. 

At last the glass walls have been installed.

Archie is wondering how the water is going to stay 
inside. As it turns out, he had reason to worry.

The wall sconce here is recycled from my master
bedroom. I thought the lights were too small
when I moved into the house. But I liked them and 
saved them for the right opportunity to re-purpose them.

These pebbles feel really good under bare feet. 

The shower before the glass walls were added.

One of the secrets not revealed to me at the time I bought this house was that during the bad winter storms of 2008, the basement suffered from water damage. The window frames were not sealed. Water somehow found a place to enter the basement, and as the owners contemplated a move, they apparently decided it was cheaper to gut the basement down to the studs. The inspector didn't quite do his job and without experience, I had no idea the space had been finished. But about a year and a half after I moved in, a lady knocked on my front door. She introduced herself by saying she had owned the house from the early 70s to 2000. She was curious to see what changes the house had gone through. I invited her in, poured her a cup of coffee and took her on the tour. She was impressed the previous owners had rewired the house, installed beautiful crown moldings (unusual and very appealing, than the usual crown moldings you see from Home Depot). She revealed to me that she had overlooked the addition to the house which included a vaulted ceiling master suite with a walk-in closet, a master bath and a balcony traversing the width of the house off the master bedroom. Below that was the kitchen/dining area, and below that, a poured basement under the new wing. She asked to see the basement, and when I took her downstairs, she expressed shock that the bedroom was no more and the bathroom, was stripped down to just the shower enclosure and the toilet, and neither of them worked. After her visit, I started to think about restoring the basement living area.

I asked several contractors to look over the space, but their estimates were very high and I kept dithering. At the very least, I knew that if I had a bedroom downstairs, I would have to install an egress window to make it a legal bedroom. I hired Dave McGee, a local contractor who had excellent reviews on Angie's list for his ability to install egress windows. We hit it off and I gave him the job. But he pointed out to me a big flaw in basement windows. The frames surrounding the wide windows that faced the back yard were bowing in the middle. I hadn't noticed. He showed me how the joists for the entire back of the house were resting on those frames were threatening to collapse. My first reaction was outrage that anyone had done such a shoddy thing and that I was going to have to fix it (so much for a good house inspection). Dave's solution was to place double steel King studs on either sides of the two windows and to jack up weight of the back of the house about a quarter inch so the joists would properly support the weight and relieve the pressure on those window frames. It took about a week and seemed remarkably reasonable. But with the egress window and the King studs, and three more replacement windows to replace the old wood ones, and I had spent $5,000 before a bit of cosmetic work was done. I put the restoration on hold.

Waterproofing the eastern wall of my house to stop the
leaks. This was the first step of the bathroom restoration.

A considerable part of the quote for the job was devoted
to plumbing, re-directing pipes, removing old and non-
functioning plumbing. installing the necessary hook-ups
for tenant washing machine and dryer.

A sump-pump was installed to gather any potential water
that might come into the basement and force it out deeply
into my back garden, and I installed a de-humidifier to 
lower humidity and keep the basement dry. 

The can in the middle bottom of this photo is a heavy
paint can covering up the drainage hole in the shower.
Two rats had taken up residence in the bathroom and when
Dave and I were going over initial ideas for the bathroom,
we were startled to find out those rats were inches away.

I decided to finish the bedroom last summer. It had been started by Kyle, a friend of my brother's, who moved into the basement for fourteen months and undertook a number of projects for me, most notably a beautiful brick patio in my back yard, and the construction of a large raised planter bed for a vegetable garden. The basement project was well under way and when he decided to split. After the big earth quake and tsunami in Japan, he became convinced Portland would be the epicenter for the next big seismic shift. The room was framed and only partially walled and it had to be completed. I called Dave, who came to the rescue with his crew and finished the basement room. It was beautiful and light-filled and the time seemed to be right to finish with the bathroom. My roommate had taken over the room as a place for her to watch videos, read and do her desk work. But she balked when I told her I was completing the bathroom. She didn't want to move into the basement. I told her she had to move down there or leave. She left, which was fine by me. Frankly she and I were not compatible at all. 

While this drama was going on, Dave and I began to make plans. The first thing to be done was to get the walls waterproofed, which took about a week, but it couldn't be done before the end of January. The company did an excellent job and the space was cleared out and ready for framing. I left for a week's vacation in San Francisco. When I got back, only half the framing had been completed. This was typical for Dave. This was now our fourth job together, and I was used to deadlines coming and going. I went to see a tile company called Surface, to figure out what sort of look I wanted. Picking out the tile was easy. While there, we talked about various floor treatments. I didn't want to risk putting down wood, in case of water damage. I didn't want floor tiles, and asked for all possible solutions. It was suggested that I try something called quartz carpet. Tiny colored confetti-like quartz stones were mixed with epoxy and then poured over the surface of the floor. "What's it like underfoot," I asked, thinking it might not feel so well. "Walk on it in your socks," the sales rep suggested. It felt utterly therapeutic. It was expensive, but I couldn't get it out of my head. I decided that would be the floor. 

But a lot would have to be done to prepare the floor. With a sump pump now installed, I could decommission the floor drain in the bathroom, but the floor slanted unevenly in order for water to run off and drain. This meant several layers of wet cement would have to be applied and then several layers of a floor leveler which would not entirely level the floor, but the carpet could now be applied. 

A previously planned trip to Paris meant a lot of things would be done in my absence and I wouldn't be able to supervise the finishing touches. I would be gone for another eleven days. Christian, a skilled worker who had done the framing, most of the walls, was now installing the large tiles that would traverse the entire back wall of the bathroom behind the shower and toilet. The custom shower-stall pan had been installed, but now Christian would fit the tile over the frame of the shower pan. The same porcelain tiles would be used as baseboards for the entire room. Cutting porcelain tiles is a tedious project because it is such a hard surface and it took forever. When I returned from Paris, the bathroom was essentially done, save the glass walls of the shower. I demanded a few changes (dropping the medicine cabinet lower, lowering the wall sconces, re-tiling the riser on the step up from the bedroom to the bathroom. 

The glass kept being a sticking point. The order was lost, my sales rep was out of the office because of personal issues at home, and nothing was getting accomplished. Finally I got in installation date, but that got postponed when it was discovered the hinges hadn't shipped. I was giving everyone hell about it. Finally last Thursday, the shower walls were installed. On Friday morning, I decided to take a shower in the new bathroom. I turned on the water which hit the back glass wall and promptly leaked all over the floor. This wasn't just a little trickle of water--it was a waterfall. More screaming. Today workers arrived to seal the shower with a clear substance and add a few more plastic sealers. 

In all, I was told the project should take about five weeks. It took four months. I'm very pleased with the end result, but the delays made me very cranky.  

A pocket door closes the bathroom off from the large bedroom.

Washer/dryer combo on other side of the renovated bathroom.

I couldn't get the right color of the quartz carpet, but this 
gives a good idea of texture.

The room looking East in late afternoon.

An opposite view, mostly cleared out and ready for the new occupant.