Grow, Part 1 From interest to obsession

Anyone who’s talked with me recently soon hears about my relatively new obsession with gardening, landscaping, pruning, and compost. Really, anything that has to do with growing plants. Without chemicals, if I can help it.

I’ve always had an interest in it, probably because my dad grew vegetables for a time in three raised beds in the backyard, and has always had a good looking front yard. But living in a condo meant that there wasn’t a whole lot we could do outside, and for the first four summers here in the house, we’ve been more focused on, well, the house.

I think the current obsession was probably kicked off two summers ago when MT decided the backyard needed a stone patio. That got me thinking about designs and materials and installation methods, with frequent Google searches and debates over what we liked. We’re really happy with that patio, and last spring we also used some leftover stone in the front yard.

That’s when things really got going. We removed some lawn, an undertaking which is simultaneously easy and difficult. It was easy to cut the turf with a shovel and lift up each small section of lawn. It was difficult to transport it to the backyard in a wheelbarrow, where we’d decided to build a berm—at first we called it a swale, but a swale is basically the opposite of a berm. We flipped the turf upside down onto a section of the backyard, and soon had a pile that resembled a grave for siamese twins. Later in the summer, we half-heartedly bought a packet of wildflower seed and spread it on the berm. Some of it grew, half-heartedly, but it never really took off in the heat.

A slight detour to talk about goutweed

This has been another obsession that started a couple years ago, just as I began to turn my attention to the outdoors. Aegopodium podagraria or Goutweed, also called Bishop’s Weed and Snow-in-the-Mountain and Ground Elder, is a rather attractive perennial ground cover. It’s either solid green or variegated, and grows well from spring though fall. It’s highly aggressive and fast-growing, however, and can quickly choke out other plants. One year it’s just over in that corner there, not causing any trouble, and the next year it’s taken over the entire yard. It is evil. It’s so invasive that its sale is banned in some states. It spreads via seed, which is fairly easy to control if you cut off the flowers as they appear. But it also spreads underground via a vast network of rhizomes. My goal has been to eradicate it from our yard. Last spring, I took a long, hard look at each area, dividing it up into manageable sections. Then I got down on my hands and knees—MT got me one of those garden knee cushions, which I highly recommend—and started slowly digging through the soil, pulling out every bit of the plant I could find. Tilling and digging is not ideal, as it tends to stir up weed seeds, but it was really the only way to get at all the rhizomes. (Incidentally, goutweed shrugs off chemical herbicides such as Roundup, which I’d never use in my yard anyway. And if you’d prefer to simply cut it down, go right ahead. In two weeks, it’ll come back even stronger. It loves a good pruning.) By October, I’d managed to remove all above-ground evidence, but I know that some of it will be back this year: I’ve seen bits here and there, and my neighbors’ yards are already showing it as well. More tips on removal, if you’re curious.

I also got interested in our hostas and learned how to divide them, a process that is really simple and really cool. Basically, you cut a circle around them with a shovel, lift the whole plant or grouping out of the ground, then slice it in half or in quarters right down from the top and replant. This is cool because you think you must be killing the poor things, but they actually love being divided every few years. Our friends John & Lisa had also given us some of their hostas in May, so we’re starting to get a little more variety (there are many species and cultivars). Hostas are amazingly hardy and resilient, love shade, and produce tall flowering stalks later in the season.

A couple things happened in August

One day in August, I was digging around (ha!) on YouTube and came across the BBC series How to be a Gardener (they’re not updating the site, but the info is still good). Alan Titchmarsh does a great job of taking you through the basics, and it’s a lot of fun. This is a good place to start. I also recommend the Cottage Garden episode. Crucially, he makes it all seem so easy and simple.

Then, another day in August, I landed on Mike McGrath’s TEDx talk Everything You Know About Composting is Wrong. This was the moment I went full-bore obsessive. It’s so simple: you take your fall leaves (and your neighbors’), suck them up through a leaf blower/shredder, deposit them into a bin, and wait. There’s more to it than that, naturally, but that’s the basic concept. I also recommend his book. And I recommend his radio show, You Bet Your Garden, which can also be found in the iTunes podcast directory. I currently have three bins constructed of hardware cloth, which is actually a metal mesh that comes in 10′ × 3′ rolls. Just unroll, form a cylinder, attach the ends together with zip-ties, and fill with shredded leaves. You can also add coffee grounds/filters, but no food waste. Food waste attracts rodents and raccoons. For that you’ll want a worm bin.

Wait, did you say “worm bin?”

Yes, yes I did. Read Part 2 to hear about that. Part 3 will be about our nascent Square Foot Garden.

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WIRED: The Pro Dumpster Diver Who’s Making Thousands Off America’s Biggest Retailers

WIRED: The Pro Dumpster Diver Who’s Making Thousands Off America’s Biggest Retailers

A few things occurred to me as I read this:

  1. There must be employees of these stores who have figured this out as well. I can’t imagine working for Best Buy and being told to toss this stuff in the dumpster without realizing I could make a few bucks off it on Craigslist or eBay.
  2. I’m amazed these stores haven’t figured out that they can sell this stuff rather than send it to the landfill. It’s shameful that Walmart and other big boxes are now using huge compactors to “reduce” the amount sent to the landfill. Compact, recycle, or compost the actual trash, and then figure out a way to sell those bikes or donate them to a worthy cause. It’s just lazy.
  3. How many people will read this and immediately head for the back of the nearest strip mall or big box?
  4. $600,000 a year? Um, really?
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From kottke: 24 pieces of life advice from Werner Herzog

They’re are all fantastic, but I especially like these:

4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.
5. Learn to live with your mistakes.
6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.
11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.
17. Don’t be fearful of rejection.
18. Develop your own voice.

The accompanying photo is priceless.

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Hook 21 steps to hanging a towel

Step 1: Get a sudden inspiration

Glancing in the corner behind the bathroom door, I realized: what a great place for a hook! Why didn’t we think of that before?

Step 2: Accept that what you currently have is inadequate

I’d suggested that we try one of those over-the-door 3-hook jobs on the door itself, but I hate those things. They’re ugly, they’re an obvious stop-gap, they usually bang against the door, and they put stress on the door and hinges when you load them up with things like wet towels. But we happen to have one that we’re not using and it seemed like an adequate temporary solution while my dad and stepmother were in town for Thanksgiving. Fortunately, when we actually tried it, the door wouldn’t shut.

Step 3: Consider options

Of course, I’ve also considered screwing a hook into the door itself, but it’s managed to survive that indignity for close to a century and I just can’t allow it on my watch. It’s a nice door.

But the wall hadn’t occurred to me. The space is 14 inches wide, plenty of room, and the door would still open fully. Plus, a hook there would balance the one I installed on the other side of the built-in linen cabinet. Brilliant.

Step 4: Assess the worth of your brilliant idea

Now, home improvement and design magazines always pitch the idea of the bathroom “spa” or “getaway” or “oasis,” words that imply the rest of your home is a desert wasteland through which you must crawl, parched and sunburned, in order to reach paradise so that you can pee or brush your teeth. I suppose this is because many bathroom activities are solitary and, for many people, it is truly an escape.

But our bathroom was remodeled in the late 70s or early 80s. The original white porcelain hex tile remains on the floor, and there’s the built-in which holds a lot of stuff, but everything else came later: the beige-ish wall tile, the beige-ish double-layered wallpaper, the beige-ish granite-topped vanity, the beige-ish pickled finish applied to the woodwork, the ornately-gilded-yet-still-beige-ish mirrored medicine cabinet.

It is fully functional and mostly clean. And, having lived without fully functional bathrooms in the past, I’m grateful for this one. Do I wish there weren’t squares of drywall “temporarily” covering the gaping holes I had to create in the wet wall while tracking down rusted pipe joints? Sure. (I didn’t even bother screwing in the patch behind the vanity; who knows when I’ll need quick access to that.)

I mention all this because we plan to someday renovate the bathroom, and I therefore want to spend as little time and money on it as possible. Any improvement is temporary. And while our bathroom is the perfect size, it lacks the horizontal wall space that you need for multiple towel bars. There’s one hovering over the toilet, but it’s 7 feet from the tub. And there are two towel bars in the shower/tub enclosure itself, opposite the showerhead, but when there’s a towel on the upper bar, it hangs over the lower bar, and a towel on the lower bar is at risk of getting wet from the shower itself. You get the idea.

Step 5: Locate a hook

My goal with most house projects is to use only what we already have. Thanks to our kitchen renovation a few years ago (and many other projects) we have a lot of tools, fasteners, materials, etc. So, I knew we had a hook that matched the one I’d installed in the bathroom several years ago, but then I remembered that I’d installed it on the back porch where it sees everyday use. If I moved it up to the bathroom, then I’d have to replace it, and we get into the land of Scope Creep.

Step 4: Proud of your ability to keep this project under control, locate a hook

I looked around my basement shop and workbench, sorting through various knobs and handles and entirely unsuitable hooks, all of which brought back memories of past projects.

Step 5: Pause to reflect on how much time and energy you’ve spent on past projects

Step 6: Confident that this little project won’t turn into an all-day affair with several trips to the store, locate a hook

Yes! I ran upstairs to the guest room closet, slid open the door, and there it was: an odd metal ornamental hook that MT had found at World Market a few years ago. We’d used it in the powder room during that project. I slipped it up and off the screw from which it hung and tromped over to the bathroom. A good fit. I sought MT’s approval, which was easily obtained.

Step 7: Assess your wall

Lath and plaster. There’s nothing quite like this bizarre combination: a slurry of lime plaster, horsehair, and sand spread across horizontal strips of wood. I love the simplicity. I love the sound-proofing (far better than paper-coated gypsum drywall). I even love the cracks that inevitably form.

I hate attaching anything to it.

If you can find a stud to screw into, you’re fine. But you only get that chance every 16 inches, and the older the house, the less reliable that becomes. My spot behind the door? No stud.

Plaster itself has no real holding strength and is very brittle, but I’ve learned that the wood lath is very strong if you take a few precautions. (As a side note: the previous owners of our house didn’t hang much on the walls.)

Step 8: Drill a hole

I use a smallish bit, say 7/64″, and go slowly. If I’m lucky, I’ll hit the lath and feel the resistance as the bit passes through it. However, even though it’s statistically less likely, I usually manage to choose a spot in between the strips of lath and the bit just pops through.

Step 9: Drill another hole about 1″ above or below the first one

You see, that first hole was exploratory. And, no, I won’t patch it because then I’d be spending too much time & energy on this bathroom. I hit the lath this time around, so I’m good.

Step 10: Expand the size of the hole using a 1/2″ bit

If your hook is going to see light duty, you might be able to just send a screw into the lath and be done with it. Your 7/64″ hole will act as a good pilot hole for a standard drywall screw. But there are a few problems:

  1. The wood lath is very dry. It might crack, which will make the screw wiggle.
  2. Remember that the screw has to pass through 3/8″ – 1/2″ of brittle, crumbly plaster. Whenever that screw wiggles, and it probably will if you’re regularly hanging things off it, the plaster around the hole will deteriorate.
  3. The beige-ish wallpaper will not keep the plaster from crumbling.

So my solution is to drill a large hole that will accept any number of different anchoring systems. My current favorite is the Toggler Snaptoggle BB Toggle Anchor with Bolts. That Amazon page has a little video that shows how it works. It works well with plaster & lath because the plastic collar helps protect and stabilize the plaster somewhat. And despite what I said above, the wallpaper provides a surface for the anchor’s collar to lock onto.

Step 11: Insert the Toggler anchor into the hole

As you do so, make sure the steel channel will run vertically on the other side of the lath. Then slide the collar up tight against the wall and snap off the extra plastic straps.

Here’s what it looks like, with the bolt inserted loosely:

Toggle anchor installed. Note the exploratory hole just above it. I also like this system because you can easily remove the screw without losing the anchor.

Toggle anchor installed. Note the exploratory hole just above it. I also like this system because you can easily remove the screw without losing the anchor.

Step 12: Discover that the head of the bolt is too big

I started to hang the hook, anticipating that my work would be done and I could start cleaning up. But the keyhole on the back of the hook wasn’t large enough to accommodate the head of the anchor’s bolt.

Step 13: Sigh

Step 14: Over-engineer a solution

I stared at the hook for awhile, then at the wall, then at the hook. I could have tried enlarging the hook’s keyhole, but I’m not that patient and I didn’t think I had the right file to do that.

Instead, I came up with a truly ugly solution. I’d use a scrap of window/door stop moulding as a mounting plate for the hook. I’d attach the moulding to the wall using the anchor I just installed, and then drive a smaller screw into the moulding for the hook to hang from.

However, I didn’t want the stop moulding to spin around on the wall, so I decided to install another anchor to support it.

Step 15: Realize you just used your last Toggler anchor

Unfortunately, I’d just used my last Toggler anchor. The next best option I could find in my shop was a common toggle bolt, also known as a butterfly anchor. (I’ve actually been calling these Molly bolts my whole life, but that’s a different little beast.)

Step 16: Drill countersink holes in the stop moulding

One of the best purchases I ever made was this clever countersink drill bit. I’ve had it since my first house in the mid-90s.

Pre-drilling a countersink in the stop moulding

Pre-drilling a countersink in the stop moulding. You can see that I’ve already attached the upper bolt.

You have to guess at the depth of the hole as you’re drilling, but it’s easy to get the hang of. Countersinking the bolt heads allows the hook to hang flush against the moulding.

Step 17: More drilling

With the holes countersunk, I then drilled actual holes through the stop moulding to accommodate the bolts. Then I installed the moulding using the Toggler in the upper hole.

As with the Toggler, I drilled a 1/2″ hole in the wall. This one isn’t as crucial since most of the work is being done by the upper anchor, plus I want this project to stop creeping, so I’m moving fast now.

Step 18: Install it already

A picture is worth a thousand words, and I’m pushing 2000 already, so this should clear up any confusion:

It's an optical illusion. The upper bolt is perfectly aligned with its anchor.

It’s an optical illusion. The upper bolt is perfectly aligned with its anchor.

Step 19: Find a screw that fits the keyhole

This one was pretty easy. I found a screw that fit, I drilled a pilot hole in the moulding, and I screwed it in.

Step 20: Just hang the damn hook

Okay:

So close.

So close.

Step 21: Remember why you didn’t like this hook to begin with

I forgot: since the hook hangs from the single keyhole, and it’s impossible to tighten the screw through all the filigree, the thing swings around. A lot.

Somehow, this has now become my hook, for my towel.

 

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