Category Archives: The Suburban House

Moving my 30 Projects to the Burbs?

Of course I have a lot to do at home, but my parents needed help, too. They bought new shrubs for 2 beds that they had to overhaul and were eager to get them in the ground. One, we lost a beloved beech tree. Its memory lives on thanks to Google Street View.

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It was super great for climbing.

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Since these Street View images were taken, we had made some effort to fill in the useless lawn between the tree and the walkway and mask those steps that awkwardly jut above grade. Then my parents were working on pulling up most of the pachysandra. They were left with some odd shape patches that needed to be tamed and some disjointed remnants of the previous attempt to turn this into a shade garden.


My mom bought 2 more fothergilla to (hopefully) match the one you can see left of the lamp post. I made the pachysandra bed bigger around them by yanking out that weird patch to the left in solid sheets and laying it down like sod. There’s still a bit more pachysandra to come out, and after that this bed will look like half of a pear. They have a few other ideas for the other end of it once they decide what to do with the yews. Back when the tree was alive we had 2 yews die on us, and I thought they were supposed to be invincible!


Then, the at the opposite end of their property there was some kind of a big evergreen shrub/tree thing. It kept getting bigger and more weirdly shaped over time (this picture is 5 years old, from back when it kind of looked good) and my parents wanted it out except for the privacy they’d lose.

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They picked up 3 new clethra, a deciduous shrub that is supposed to grow to 6 feet high, and we relocated 3 existing lower shrubs just beyond those. The bed now runs along the street as far as ever but will be a few feet narrower along the hose line.


Then the next door neighbors were working on their property and said, “We have too many anemones and they scrape against our car. Do you want some?”

Um, yes! (That would be the pink flowers that are staked up.)


And for reference, here’s the back yard. It’s pretty private but is laid out with a straight line clear through it, so this bed we just redid is supposed to block that line. I wish we had before pictures and/or the design plans I drew up for this space when I was in high school. A lot of the plantings have changed around (for the better) after the original plans, but the layout worked well. My mom said that she wanted this small back yard to be a “Charleston courtyard,” so I laid it out this end of it as well as I could on a formal axis, broken into spaces each roughly the size of a typical city garden, or 3 times the size of a South Philly back yard.


But without those things the blog may not return here, so I’ll also remind you of the urn fountain I built back here after college.


And where am I with #30ProjectsIn30Days? These 2 beds would be Projects 12 and 13 now. I have 4 more done and possibly a few more along with them later this week. If I help myself to Sunday, maybe I can pull off #30ProjectsIn31Days. Maybe.


Office Chairs and Free Rugs – More Complicated Than It Sounds

My parents wanted to do my dad’s office on a shoestring budget (though they did put a little money into 3 days of Irish labor), so they happily took some free stuff. I picked an office chair out of the trash at work and my aunt happened to have a good Oriental rug in her attic.  The problem is the edge of the rug is in just about the worst place possible for the chair.


I had pictured the rug being just a little bit smaller and thought that it was going to be turned around the other way and kept clear of the desk. Instead it almost fills the floor space in the middle of the room. (Yes, that means that they did move the bed out of the center of the room.)

So we decided to butt a small, rug up against the big one and then put a clear plastic chair mat over this area so the chair could roll around and not damage anything. My dad ordered a chair mat, then when I was visiting we found a cheap rug that was the right size and ordered that. He seemed happy. But then he told me that rugs weren’t quite the right sizes to cover the whole space under the mat.

Anyways, he dwelt on this problem and proceeded to work himself up into a fit. He said that he’ll just let the mat hang off the rugs and void the warranty, or that he could make it work by never stepping on the edges that hang off. He said he’ll push the big rug as close to the cabinets as he can get it, which would buy him all of 2 extra inches. He said he’d use remnants of blue wall-to-wall carpeting underneath… even when apparently he also apparently has remnants of every other carpet they ever had installed, some of which are better colors for the room. And as he shouted about the stress it was giving him to design a room around a free rug that is not suitable for an office, he said that he’ll just leave the room vacant and use my sister’s room, where a wooden chair and carpet scrap are less of a problem than the insurmountable dilemma of putting a chair mat over area rugs.


So, disaster. Irredeemable, right? Not so much! The mat and rug came, he likes them, and his blood pressure is back to normal.


I think maybe the chair mat should go all the way up against the cabinets, and if the wants full mobility in the chair maybe they do need to find little plugs of carpeting to cover those gaps. It would look a bit rigged but who’s paying attention? Now how does one find a piece of carpet that would blend in and disappear here? I suggested going to a junk yard and getting a black floor mat from an old car. My mom said I’m crazy. I think my dad liked this plan for exactly that reason.

But anyways, this room is starting to look like a room now! Soon it might be done enough for me to show it to you!

An Irishman in the Suburbs

Remember that project to turn my room at my parents’ house into my dad’s office?


Yep, they got him to help. Now you might be wondering what they were thinking after all I went through. Are they totally out of their minds? Maybe, but maybe it made sense.

They sold the desk and wanted a counter that runs the length of the room, leaving space for grown-up knees. But the room is 12′-7″ and the longest off-the-shelf wood countertops are 12′. Custom work would cost hundreds of dollars. Ross suggested shifting the closed cabinets in and letting the counter be only 12 feet long. My parents weren’t too keen on this idea. He also suggested rebuilding the shelving to float above the counter instead of sitting on it, and they were keen on that one.

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  1. Building a countertop and bookshelves require either lots of time to do things by trial and error or mad skills.
  2. This job doesn’t require the precision of a work shop (which is where my kitchen cabinet doors went wrong).
  3. And, my dad worked alongside him for the entire day 3 days he spent on the project.

But let’s start at the beginning. First, my dad had to strip one of the two windows to bare wood because an ice dam damaged the paint a few years ago. And he had a harder time getting the wallpaper off than expected.


At this stage, the room brought back memories of when we first moved here. I was 9 and relieving me of the indignity of a pink bedroom was a high priority, though a flood in the basement knocked it off the very top of the to-do list. (Today pink paint wouldn’t bother me in the least.) And the 20-year-old paint job was surprisingly dingy in what I still thought was a decently nice room. He said a while back that my bedroom (the one in Philadelphia that is) was a cool color and that he’d use the same in his. I still think it’s funny to call a neutral “cool” but maybe that’s just me.

Then an all too familiar sight reappeared. And my “NOT TRASH” sign is still taped on the plastic!


But the result?


The important things here: My dad made sketches and imposed organization onto the Irishman. They joined the counter together with a biscuit joiner in the kitchen. My mom wasn’t thrilled about this but it wasn’t messy. They raised the cabinets 3/4″ and will need to install quarter round around the bottom to hide it. And my dad still needs to install the IKEA kitchen drawer he got for under the desk top. The new cabinets are better made than the old ones and spaced to hold reference books and only reference books instead of the mixed library I had when I was 9. Also, is it me or does the design look top heavy?

Bonus: he hung 5 new doors! My parents’ house was built in 1951 with flush doors. Pretty nice ones actually. Then sometime probably in the 80’s someone downgraded most of them to the flimsiest hollow paneled doors I’ve ever seen. Like, if you pressed on them they would squish. My parents have then been replacing them all with new solid pine 6 paneled doors, but the last few were particularly beat. Mainly because my sister and I would try to shove them in each other’s faces and wedge our feet in under them to hold them open and they were starting to come apart. My already had all the replacement doors but they sat in the garage for something like 15 years. So now they’re all up! They just need to be painted. And it might take a bit to get the adhesive residue from 15 year old packaging off.



Hopefully soon you’ll get to see the room finished.



Baby’s First Christmas


This isn’t what I meant…


No, 2016 was my first time hosting holiday dinner, so I feel very grown up!


And I decided to pretend to be Italian because I live in South Philly (even though my part is more southeast Asian than Italian now). I went all out and served the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. What is this? Catholics believe that you should strengthen your faith through self-deprivation by not having meat on Fridays or the eves of religious holidays, and Italians made a tradition of following the letter of this rule by preparing the most over-the-top decadent seafood dinner humanly possible. I made baccala, salt dried cod with tomato sauce, and lobster bisque. There was a pack of stuffed clams in my freezer after I got them on sale at Aldi 2 months ago, so I finally used them up, and my dad made seafood pasta with a white wine broth, one of his signature dishes, with 4 more kinds of seafood. Some people said that’s cheating but we say close enough. I did follow the rule that Italians really care about and made about twice as much food as we needed.

Then there’s a little Crooked House inside the Crooked House now – my roommate made one out of gingerbread! I said she should have printed tiny little political statements for the rainbow candy in the windows but we’ll call it close enough. She wanted to build it to be broken open like a piñata but she forgot to bake a roof so she just


And because this post is a bit of a catchall, I’ll show you a renovation-related gift I gave my parents this year. Their house was built really nicely in 1951. Alth0ugh it’s kind of nice to have a newish house that was built for TV’s and not for a kitchen maid, theirs was sadly built with flush doors and ordinary looking hardware. Then around 1990 (I think) someone downgraded the doors to the flimsiest hollow paneled doors I’ve ever seen. But at least they don’t have a faux woodgrain embossed into them. My dad has been very slowly replacing them with solid (veneered, finger-jointed pine doors. And by slowly I mean about one door every 5 years on average. Remember, solid pine doors are $60 more than the cardboard ones, so if you have a large house with any upgrades at all and you have these doors… I won’t say what I’m thinking. I’m nice like that. (This is their hallway by the way.)


Back again to door hardware because it’s the most important thing… they still had the flimsy circa 1990 Kwikset knobs even though the house had nice doors for the first time. They can’t have awesome vintage hardware with skeleton keys like I have, so I sought out the best modern hardware I could find. I happen to know that my mom loved the circa 1930’s Georgian brass knobs in my back bedroom.


And so when I was deciding between plain enough to be appropriate for a postwar house and conspicuously fancy, I went with the Waverly handleset from Emtek.


I got them 3 so they can have good hardware in the downstairs hall. That covers what other people see at least. The tragedy of having to buy these new might preclude ever getting them throughout the house but that’s life.

Beating Back all the Clutter

Would you believe that my parents had a normal looking basement in the beginning of May 2010? But we were already losing the battle against clutter. My grandmother and I both moved that month. But we were already losing because for over a year before that my grandmother fought tooth and nail to keep things. But most of her stuff went into storage. Then the next year my sister took a bunch of furniture and the rest went to my parents’ basement.

The basement was a cluttered but usable. Next she had to go to assisted living. We’re now in December 2014, the Crooked House is nowhere near habitable, and half her remaining possessions wind up in that poor basement.


It’s about a full year later, November 2015, that I got the floors done. And in came the furniture without delay. Before it made sense even. But now she’s moved again, to a smaller room (hopefully with better care). And it got just as bad all over again.

So I started listing things on Craigslist. I feel pretty good about my writing but the real star of the show here is the old rug my dad pulled out of the garage to style the photos.

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And everything sold within a week except the chairs! So 2 things about that: Shameless plug. Buy them, please! And I’m using my grandmother’s table with different, smaller but less sturdy chairs and we’ve decided not to feel guilty about breaking up the set.


Now do we sound like saints? Because yes, we are taking care of her and diligently dealing with all of her things. But my mom and I also picked what she was going to part with by taking what we liked best first. I got this lamp.


For years now we’ve discussed a fall yard sale, then a spring yard sale, then fall, then spring, and so on. Now one of my parents’ neighbors has one scheduled of September 17 so the date is set. The basement is cleared out enough (thanks to selling 3 bookcases and a set of tables) to be a sorting station. But a lot of what we’re selling is antiques and we’re trying to get higher than yard sale prices, so there will probably be another round of Craigslist listings soon.


There’s a lot of this stuff. More than we know what to do with. But I still sometimes feel guilty about getting rid of it. After all, my wash stand is bare (now that I’m not using it for long-term storage of unfolded laundry) and this set has been in the family for generations. So we’ve been pulling things out here and there. But mostly we’re keeping things we’ll actually use.

And we’ve left my grandmother with only the books about her 2 favorite things, opera and Obama. It’s all for the best, but… tell my mom she’s not allowed to keep the 1968 World Books. (I already put the good books on her shelves.)

A DIY Urn Fountain Tutorial

We’re going back to a time before blogging and progress photos were a thing. Mother’s Day 2011 that is. The photos are from last year’s redo but they get the point across.

My mom had always wanted a small fountain or pond and after considering a few different spots, we decided that a kind of boring slope right next to the patio would be the place to put it. But ponds are too much work and the fountains were far too ornate. I went on the hunt for something massive and multi-tiered with a statue of a naked baby pissing up into the air. Then a neighbor built her own using a nice urn and a hidden underground basin. Yes this is a real person’s garden.


The great thing about these is you can make them as rustic or as formal as you want. We decided to build the slope up to grade with the patio with a semicircular retaining wall and put the basin in the middle of that new flat area.

To start we needed the wall. I looked at decorative concrete block systems but they’re expensive and not that attractive. In fact, the tops of them don’t look any different than regular old cinder block, and for us, the top would be the only part that showed. I decided to cover it up with one layer of stone, but the stone options at the Home Depot SUCKED. Instead I went to the Media Quarry and got mica schist (or Wissahickon schist) dry stack for only 20 bucks!  So definitely source your stone locally. We also wired up an outlet here.


So here’s how it goes together. Dig a hole about 6 inches too deep. I used crushed stone “paver base” underneath the basin. Remember to get 3 times as much as you think you need. It’s way better to return the extra than to run out.


For the basin, a regular pond liner did the job for about 15 dollars. And to size the pump, I bought one that was rated to carry water about twice as high as the urn we got. Pumps will be labeled with a maximum flow rate with minimal change in elevation and a maximum elevation at which you’ll only get a trickle. So go in between. A couple of cinder blocks will hold the urn.


The urn needs to be shaped so that water will trickle down the sides and not splash out of the basin. We got this one at City Planter in the Northern Liberties and they were nice enough to drill the bottom for the fountain. I plugged the old hole and shoved the rubber hose from the pump through the new one. Then we used whatever was available to shim it level. Slate seemed like a good idea but my dad used wood and it was fine.


Then, my mom wanted it to gurgle on the surface a little bit, but the stem the fountain came with doesn’t connect with the rubber hose. So I dumped some pea gravel in and just shoved the stem in. This sounds half-assed but it worked. It’s not watertight but what leaks out stays in the urn anyway.


I backfilled around the basin with more stone and arranged more schist (and an antique frog) it.


And then regular pond pebbles from the home depot finished it off. Happy Mother’s Day Mom! I made you a giant fermata! (And of course I underestimated the work, so on Mother’s Day this was still just a muddy hole.)


And here it is with plants. (Seeing them in a photo is a reminder that they’re never really done)


Planting Drifts

It’s pretty weird to write about this at all – since it has nothing to do with me at all. But it was kind of a fun project. The deal is, my parents have always liked bulbs but haven’t gotten around to planting them. Which is a shame because they have a zoysia lawn that’s brown for half the spring. When she did get bulbs, my mom got something like 25. That sounds like a lot but it was only enough to do one little clump. I’ve always wanted to plant a lot of them, and last fall we did.

My friend Eric works in horticulture and hooked us up with, a wholesaler that was cheaper than expected. And so we got 400 tulips!

It started with debating the catalog. My mom said that I should pick because I know more than she does about plants. I said only she could pick because it’s not my job to pick colors for her. There was some back and forth about this and finally I gave up and asked, “How about this one?”

She said, “No, I don’t like that one.”

“This one is kind of nice”

“No, I don’t want any red.”

“How about this one?”


I love being right. So finally, I decided that we’d plant the bulbs in drifts in the large area out by the street. We should use solid colors in the drifts and stick with the types that are supposed to come back a few times. Usually tulips don’t.


So here’s how we laid out the drifts. We had 100 of each color, so I figured that would make 6 drifts with 50 bulbs each. We laid them out with rope and then tossed the bulbs in at the recommended spacing, alternating the colors. It turned out that they didn’t all fit so we ended up making 9 drifts.


Believe it or not, it took us only about 2 ½ hours to plant all 300. Eric said to get up all the little skins or the squirrels will have at them.

And here’s how it looked!


And the best thing about this is – look carefully – there’s deer fencing around them! My dad tried spraying when they first started eating them, and it kept them away until the flowers opened, and then the deer left the sprayed parts alone but ate the flowers off. My mom told my dad that he would be putting the fencing up every night and taking it down every morning. He counter offered to do that only on the one day when she leaves early for work and let her do it the other 6. But instead they decided it was well enough to just leave it up.

Then up by the front door they put in a blend of tulips. This mix was called Chiquita Bordeaux, which has to be one of the best plant names there ever was.


Note: Colorblends did not comp me for writing this. But if they would like to do so retroactively I wouldn’t say no.