garden : mystery flowers, lily refugees, and stumps

White mystery flowers.

There are these little white flowers that spring up all over our neighborhood in late spring. For a long time I thought they were spring star flower; now that I’ve received some ipheion from a neighbor I can see they’re different. I now believe they are zephyr lilies, however the most commonly described variety appears to be only one flower per bulb without branching stems and are listed as blooming in autumn. They could be a native regional variety in the same family; I haven’t been able to tell from photos whether this variety has a branching stem, although the habitat description certainly fits with our town. At any rate, I moved several clumps of them out of the lawn last year and into the small bed with the daffodils, on the right side of the porch steps. Only two bulbs sent up flowers but the greenery did quite well; as with the crocuses, I’m hoping to get many more flowers next year.

In addition to puzzling over these little white flowers, I spent some time this weekend transplanting perennial lilies from my neighbor’s front foundation beds. The folks who owned the house before her planted hundreds of spring bulbs through their flower beds a couple of years ago, and the lilies in particular are now coming up everywhere. True lilies are not my favorite flower—I find the scent overpowering—however, in the spirit of providing a refuge for the neighbors’ flowers, I took some and planted them along the back fence behind the peonies. Of course, as soon as I had them in the ground I became paranoid that they would bring black mold with them that would destroy the carefully nurtured peonies just as they’re ready to flower for the first time. This is the life of a novice gardener; never being quite sure that what you’re doing is really the best thing for the plants, always fearing that you’ve missed some crucial piece of information in the one gardening book you chose not to consult. In this case, nurturing the peonies has meant weeding around them, clearing the mulch off the crowns in early spring, and otherwise leaving them completely to their own devices. I’m sure it will be fine, and I can always resort to spraying toxins if things get completely out of hand. Not that I’m likely to go that route, but it sometimes helps to remind myself that the nuclear option is there, anchoring the other end of the continuum.

While I was busy moving lilies, my partner was hard at work removing stumps. You may remember that we are still in pioneer mode when it comes to the beds in the backyard, dedicating enormous amounts of time, energy, and sweat to clearing the various sapling stumps, pricker bushes, grapevines, English ivy, liriope, violets, Virginia creeper, and last but certainly not least, poison ivy. The way that works is that we work together with the spade to clear several yards of ground of anything that can be easily dug out, and then my partner spends hours toiling alone with the landscape bar and the tree saw to uproot the pricker bushes and tree stumps. Sometimes we invite friends over for this process, have a beer afterwards, and call it a party. Last weekend it was just us, and it was only the two stumps; nothing like two years ago when we did battle with the pokeweeds for what seemed like months and was really just days. As it has been every year, my goal is to have the side beds cleared of weeds and under mulch by the first frost. Why give it up? It’s a good goal!

We all have to have something to strive for, and my something is a yard bordered by flat brown stretches of bark chips. When that day finally arrives, I’ll be glad to move on to a goal involving actual plants. For now, the front yard is where I am able to fulfill my desire to have living, growing, flowering plants, and I let the backyard be where the killing happens.

garden : mystery flowers, lily refugees, and stumps

happy new year!

Happy New Year, all! Welcome to 2009! 2008 was certainly a full and busy year, and I can’t say I’m sorry to see the backside of it. I’m looking forward to a more steady 12 months; getting married was great, but I wouldn’t want to do it again. Ditto with all the traveling we did; we were glad to see family, but not always happy about the reasons for the trips.

Looking ahead to this year, I am excited about the next round of work we’ll be doing on the house. Installing some kind of trench-and-pump system in the basement to deal with the water inflow is the highest priority, and we plan to get that taken care of over the next few months. Once that’s done we have two small projects on deck—installing an exhaust fan in the upstairs bathroom and in the kitchen—and then it’s (‘just’) gardening and painting. We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made this year, both by ourselves and via the folks we’ve hired, and are starting to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s true that the major renovations we started out discussing—central air and a redone addition, namely—are going to have to wait until the unforeseeable future. However, we’re coming to the end of the smaller scale repairs and back maintenance, so that feels good. After we complete these few projects the work we do on the house will be optional and voluntary and much less costly, a shift that we greatly look forward to.

I hope that the new year brings peace and harmony to your homes, and outward from your homes to the world. Namaste, friends.

happy new year!

home log : new toilets

The new Toto Drake in our snazzy yellow master bathroom.

As part of our long-term plan to never go on vacation again, we are slowly fixing up our house. ‘Fixing up’ is probably too strong, as the house was fundamentally sound and generally nice-looking and functional when we bought it. It is by no means a classic fixer-upper: we are not rewiring, replumbing, taking out or putting in walls, et cetera. It is, however, a treasure chest of hidden defects, mostly in the form of (1) necessary maintenance deferred for 20+ years by the cheap former owner or (2) barely functional antique appliances and fixtures never replaced by the cheap former owner. The toilets commodes in the house were a happy combination of both: high-flow models that were no doubt installed when the house was built in the 1930s, with tanks held together by judicious amounts of caulk, that leaked and dripped when they weren’t lowering the water table with each flush. Clearly, they Had To Go.

Since we participate in the Maryland Heritage Preservation Tax Credit Program, we seek preapproval for each home repair project we undertake. The lag time between our proposal and their approval gives us plenty of time to make final decisions about what we are going to do. In this case, we spent months deciding whether we were really ready to spend $400 on a toilet (it certainly sounds more reasonable if you call it a ‘commode’). In the end, I successfully argued that reliable flushing was not a ‘luxury’ in a commode, and while it was a darn shame that other manufacturers had not yet created good low-flow models, I was not willing to compromise on that point. Which means that we decided to go with the low-flow commodes the internets and personal experience told us worked: those made by Toto.

Having made that first round decision to take the plunge, we researched different models and decided on the Drake, mostly because (1) an online guide to installation made it look easy, (2) we wanted something basic that would blend in with our older home, and (3) we weren’t sure we could fit the one-piece Ultramax into our smallish car. I knew that the Gmax flushing system was what I wanted, and I also knew that I wanted at least one ADA model in the house, for all the tall people with joint trouble who might be using it in years to come. With a little searching, we were able to find a dealer and inspect the pieces in person; we probably could have saved a little money by finding a way to order them online but I was nervous about breakage during shipping and happy to support a more local business.

Two trips to the store later (we wanted to test the smaller size in one bathroom before committing to the taller elongated models) and we have two new commodes installed and one on deck for tonight. Between the online guide I found and the instructions in what we fondly refer to as ‘The Man Book‘ the installation was a piece of cake. Wrestling the old toilets out to the alley for pickup (thank you, public works!) and cleaning up the nasty spaces underneath, though? Let’s just say there wasn’t enough beer in the house and leave it at that. The third one should be easier to remove — it’s on the first floor — and I’m hoping to donate it to Community Forklift since it still functions; maybe someone with more skills and patience than we have can rig it up to make it lower-flow.

After tonight, the final commode-related task is to have a plumber come out to remove the toilet from the basement and cap the sewer line. All the houses on our block have little shacks in the basement that include a toilet only, the 1930s version of a port-a-potty. I have no idea if the toilet even works, but I want it gone. The long-term plan is to remove the walls of the shack, address the basement water problems, and eventually put in a darkroom using that outgoing pipe.

For now, though, I’m just looking forward to next quarter’s water bill.

home log : new toilets

trials and tribulations : resolved!

This calendar year has been a bit one-thing-after-another and when-it-rains-it-pours, which has led despite my best intentions to quite a bit of kvetching and moaning around our household. I’m happy to report that our various unfortunate developments have all been resolved quite nicely.

Most recently, Carefirst has correctly reprocessed the remainder of my claims and sent me a letter clarifying that there is not and should not have been a waiting period on my account. It required the intervention of the Better Business Bureau: while Carefirst wouldn’t discuss my actual medical coverage with them, filing a claim led to contact with a real live person at Carefirst with the authority to just make things happen correctly. I appreciated that, was (I hope) very polite to her on the phone, while being grateful that she was very polite back to me. That’s all taken care of, without me needing to file a claim with the Maryland Insurance Administration as well, and I’m now established with Kaiser. Let’s hope I never have to return to the BlueCross network again.

Just before that came through, we successfully challenged the charges Speakeasy levied against our credit card for the failed installation of our DSL service. Thanks to my partner’s compulsive saving of webpages via the CutePDF Writer, we had access to the trouble logs after our account and its attendant access to Speakeasy’s website was discontinued. When we formally disputed the charges we could therefore submit some 60 pages documenting our communications with the company (wherein we explicitly decline to accept the service as satisfactorily installed no less than four times over the course of six weeks). Not surprisingly, the credit card company found in our favor there.

And, some months ago now, we did manage to successfully install the EasyCloset system to convert our small hall closet into a pantry of sorts. It still wasn’t easy, and I don’t recommend the system for plaster walls unless you have a large closet such that you can’t just get a standard bookshelf and plunk it in there (which is effectively what we ended up doing, with a lot of cutting and remounting to fit the shelves in around the mouldings). The company did, however, exchange the uprights for longer ones that would sit on the floor at no extra cost to us, for which we are very appreciative.

While all that was going on, I arranged to have my grandmother’s dining room furniture shipped internationally, with much help from my aunt and uncle up north. The furniture arrived safely this past week, so that’s one less worry outstanding. For the last few weeks of summer I’ll work on wrapping up my remaining tasks in progress: mailing out marriage announcements, writing thank you cards for the receptions, submitting newspaper notices, and ordering and installing new toilets commodes for all three bathrooms. Good times.

trials and tribulations : resolved!

trials and tribulations : wet basement

Rivers running through our basement.

The least pleasant discovery about our house has been the amount of water that comes into our basement during heavy rains. Least pleasant both because it makes the basement a dirty dank mold-growing hovel, as well as because it makes it hard to let go of our anger at the previous owner for his fraudulent misrepresentation of the house during the sale. As much as we repeat to ourselves, It’s our home now, nothing to be done, move forward from here, we are not in actual fact the Buddha and our chains are righteously yanked when this happens.

After the flooding last spring, when we devised our super high tech move-the-lintel-and-let-the-water-flow-under-the-door-to-the-drain solution, we were hopeful both that only fluke high rains would bring the river inside and that we wouldn’t get those rains too often. This turned out to be a pipe dream, as we live in an area that gets ‘fluke’ high rains every spring and floods easily. Add to the equation last year’s drought, and it becomes apparent that we’ll need to address the problem sooner rather than later if we hope to use the basement in the future. Everything we’ve read and all the people we’ve consulted agree that an interior drain system connected to a crazy strong sump pump will keep the water seeping through our porous walls from coming up over the foot of the foundation and out onto our floors. This should also relieve the amount of water under the house, and diminish the chance that cracks reform in the floor once we repair them. Completely reasonable in the abstract; godawful expensive and disruptive in practice to jackhammer up the floor and trench a pipe to the alley for the sump to drain.

Another factor is, of course, the amount of water around the exterior of the house. We have been lax in cleaning the gutters on the original house, as they are really high up in the air and we have yet to invest in a 20-foot ladder. Plus, I’m a chicken about heights like that, so it’s not clear I would be able to actually make myself use the 20-foot ladder even if we had one. So we need to hire someone to do that. We suspect that the buried drainpipes are also clogged and/or broken; they drain water but not the volume that we think they should. Finally, we also have no grading around the house foundation, and water flows downhill from our uphill neighbor directly to our house. We’ve always known we need to grade, but there are a lot of foundation plantings and I have been loathe to either kill them or go to extreme efforts to lift and move them; I’m thinking in particular of the 50+ year old azaleas which have shallow root systems. It’s not clear that will even be possible for the trees, which might just have to go. So, yes, I concede: sentimental attachment to plants is keeping me from doing everything I can to keep water out of my house. I’m working on getting over that and just sucking up the potential loss of the plants.

Knowing that it will be at least several more months before the work is done, I am doing my best to relate to the house as a metaphor for what I need to learn in my life. Creating a strong foundation, clearly defining boundaries, clearing out old junk that’s just been sitting around for years: these are all things we’re physically doing in the house that we are also intangibly doing in our lives. It can be hard to see water and mold as an opportunity, but I know that it’s forcing us to undertake other projects we might have put off indefinitely. In order to relocate our belongings from the basement we’re cleaning out the attic: removing the 50+ year old insulation from the rafters of the roof and cleaning out the assorted bits and pieces of trash left up there. Since our belongings will be moving into a nice empty new space literally hanging over our heads, I’m working to be selective about what we keep and transport upstairs, which means pitching out a whole bunch of stuff that we just stuck in the basement to be faced later. Later is now, and I hope that we — and our house — will be the better for it.

In the meantime, boxes of my childhood belongings are once again stacked in my study and the many suitcases we’ve acquired during our years of international travel are piled in the living room with our artificial Christmas tree. I just keep repeating, it’s a process. We’ll get there.

trials and tribulations : wet basement