Bye-Bye, Butterfly

Do the wing thing!

- Bart Simpson

We saw probably the last monarch butterfly of the season weekend before last. Monarchs migrate south when the weather turns cooler — you may have seen the recent item about a monarch cloud confusing weather radar in Missouri. Despite radar-confounding swarms, though, monarchs are “near threatened” as a species, meaning they are at risk.

milkweed monarch full

Monarch on milkweed flowers

Habitat loss is the major issue. While many flowers provide nectar, monarchs can only use milkweed as a host plant for eggs, so no milkweed, no new butterflies. Most people see milkweed as a weed (it’s right there in the name!), with the result that there are far fewer host plants than when it grew everywhere wild. Between that and other stresses, it’s tough out there for a butterfly.

Buddleia is good for nectar, but not for eggs

Buddleia is good for nectar, but not for eggs

That’s all a shame, because thing one, milkweed is easy to grow, and thing two, it’s pretty!

On the easy-to-grow front, milkweed is a prime candidate for winter sowing. There could NOT be an easier way to start plants for the spring.

Milkweed (and weed-weed) seedlings from 2014 winter sowing

Milkweed (and weed-weed) seedlings from 2014 winter sowing

All you need are seeds (and dirt and a milk jug). Lots of places want you to have milkweed seeds:

There are many different milkweed (Latin name: asclepias) varieties. Monarch Joint Venture has a terrific guide showing which milkweeds grow best where. We mainly grow Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), although I started some Common Milkweed this year (the seedlings above, Asclepias syriaca) that will be well-established next year.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Bees like it too!

Bees like it too!

All varieties are attractive plants. Swamp Milkweed is about a meter tall and very upright, good for the back of the border. It’s easy to care for, and has a long bloom season, with these beautiful pink flower clusters.

Butterfly Weed, on the other hand, is a shorter variety, maybe about a foot tall. It makes an excellent screen plant around the feet of clematis vines. I’ve seen it marketed as “Butterfly Flower” and “Orange Glory Flower” but it’s still a milkweed variety. Orange is my favorite, but it is also sold in a range of flower colors.

Monarch butterfly on butterfly weed. Photo by Randy Loftus, USFWS

Monarch butterfly on butterfly weed (Randy Loftus, USFWS)


Orange butterfly weed in the middle, planted in front of the purple clematis

Keep in mind, these are host plants, so if you see caterpillar bite marks on leaves, that just means you are doing it right!

All the milkweeds are versatile and easy-care plants that lend themselves to any type of garden. If you garden in North America, find a variety you like and plant a few. Monarchs are expert at finding milkweed — you will be rewarded by many visits. Plus, it just feels good helping a friend in need.

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A Home Decor Drinking Game

Marge: Have you been drinking?
Homer: No! Well, ten beers.

If you’ve ever seen the original Bob Newhart Show, you’ve probably heard of the “Bob” game.


Tangent: If you haven’t seen this 1970s classic, you might recognize Carol’s voice. That’s Marcia Wallace, the actress who voiced Edna Krabappel until her death a year ago this week.

mrs k

Back on topic: the “Bob” game in its simplest form involves everyone taking a drink whenever anyone on the show says “Bob.” But the show used everyone’s name frequently (as in the clip above), so an alternate version involves everyone picking a name of a major character and taking a drink whenever that character’s name is used. I never played this game, because I didn’t go to college in the 1970s. But it was still legendary by the time I did go!

Still on topic (bear with me): Here’s a picture of our main bathroom.


What’s that on the bath ledge?? Well, it used to be a real orchid, but now it’s a fake. I know that’s anathema to many, but given my real orchid experience, I’m ok with it! My original orchid was purchased while in flower. Floral suppliers know what they are doing–they get the orchids to bloom and sell them while they are all showy. I decidedly do not know what I am doing with even an “easy care” orchid, such as our original plant. I certainly kept it alive for several years, but after that initial flowering died back, it did not rebloom, despite my research and fussing over it. The plant itself was very healthy, but orchids…let’s just say they aren’t grown for their foliage.


No one’s looking at you, leaves. (via)

It is supposed to be easy to get the popular phalaenopsis orchid plant to rebloom (I’m sure many of you have done it), but an informal poll of our friends who bought them or received them as gifts indicates a low success rate. I finally gave away my set of orchid leaves to someone who later chucked it because she couldn’t get it to bloom either.

If you use a faux orchid, small and simple is the way to go. Too many fakes are so large and exuberant as to be unbelievable. My small fake originally had more leaves and another two flower scapes, which I trimmed out. People ask me how I keep it so healthy!

You see many, MANY orchids in blog and decor photos. I call them Obligatory Orchids (OOs), while calling mine an Obligatory Fake Orchid (OFO). (I’m guessing there are more OFOs than bloggers will admit to.) Whether real or a good fake, they add a touch of height, drama, and luxury to a room. Judging by the internet, a lot of people agree.

Screenshot from image search for "interior decor vignette" -- at screen size, I saw four in this sample.

Screenshot from image search for “interior decor vignette” — at screen size, I saw four in this sample.

So here’s the drinking game idea: go to Pinterest or Houzz or the “decor” section of a magazine site. Scroll through the pictures. When someone in the group spies an OO or OFO, everyone else takes a drink. Or vice versa, depending on the goal of the evening. Or play for money. Kev and I played for M&Ms the other night, and I was the OW (Obligatory Winner).

Winter is coming. Consider this another entertainment option for the long, cold nights!

Posted in Decor | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Rain Barrels: Truth is More Work Than Fiction

Right as rain! Or, as we say around here, “left” as rain!

- Ned Flanders

I originally named this post “What Hippies Don’t Want You to Know About Rain Barrels” but I didn’t want to attract real-life Cartman types.


The Kev and I certainly have some hippified leanings. Our rain barrels are part of that — we are harvesting the natural water from the bountiful sky to provide for the flowers that sustain the birds and butterflies! It’s all part of the beautiful, ever-turning wheel of the universe!

homer hippie

Yeah, it is.

Until you realize…that water ain’t gonna move itself.

Just because you save up 55 gallons of water in a barrel doesn’t mean the plants that need it are anywhere nearby. Commercially produced rain barrels come with a fairly short hose for filling up watering cans and buckets to take the water to the plants.

One of our rain barrels in place.

One of ours. The supply hose (the smaller hose to the right) is only as long as the barrel is tall.

Gardeners often want to set up a rain barrel to provide trickle irrigation to a sizable area by hooking up a longer line. I asked my sister-in-law Mary (a professional landscaper and lifelong gardener) if she thought this technique could work in any sort of reliable way.

“Sure,” she said, “if you’re a WIZARD.”


Rain barrels are generally elevated slightly to help maintain pressure when you are emptying the barrel into buckets and watering cans. A single, elevated barrel will have good pressure for at least the first half of a full barrel — unscientifically, it seems about like a bathroom faucet on nearly full. But that goes by quickly, leaving diminishing pressure for the second half of the supply. (You can add a solar-powered pump, but that has its own prerequisites, including “is my rain barrel in the sun?”)

Using a trickle hose or series of sprinklers, the pressure needs to be constant to provide water to the end of the run (as it is when supplied from an outside faucet). I contacted my engineer brother (a/k/a Angry Dad) for a formula to show the hows and whys. He replied:

200px-Angry_DadYeah, it has to do with internal friction of the pipe, liquid pressure/density and some other factors. You would need a reference book to get the hose information.

That’s more work than I’m going to do for y’all, sorry. You’ll just have to trust my experience when I say that barrel water runs out fast and doesn’t have enough pressure to make it all the way to the end of the run for long.

(Some folks link a series of barrels from a single downspout. This technique can provide more water for gravity-driven irrigation. The bigger the cache, the better, but there are safety issues with large cisterns, and aesthetic reasons to avoid a stack of barrels next to your house. I’m not THAT much of a hippie.)

Ok, why am I being such a harpy about rain barrels when I claim to like and have several of them? Because it’s a shame to have a rain barrel and just leave it to breed mosquitoes. You should know what you are getting yourself into, which is something like this:

NGS Picture ID:599932

Rain barrels will turn you and your family into stylish Dutch women.

Here’s what I do:

Rotate watering cans. I fill up one large watering can/bucket, then I leave the hose open in the next watering can/bucket to fill up while I schlep the first container to the targeted planting. Generally, I return to the barrel about the time the next container is full, and then I swap them. Schlep, swap, schlep, swap. Fortunately, you’re probably only doing a few runs each time, because that could get old in a hurry! I try to put my container plants on a geographically logical rotation so that I don’t need to do too many at a time.

Be strategic about your plantings. If you have something that needs a fair bit of water (I’m looking at you, Endless Summer hydrangea), think about planting it relatively near a rain barrel. My hydrangeas and I get on much better since I moved them closer to the barrel. Watering them isn’t a panic-driven chore anymore.


Land’s sake! I’m a hyDRANGea, and I simply MUST droop! Do bring me a bucket of water. (via)

Choose watering cans and buckets that are comfortable to carry. I had a watering can that was really cute, but it made a crease in my hand every time I carried it. Now I have a cheap two-gallon unit made from recycled plastic that adds very little weight to the endeavor. I alternate that with whatever milk jugs I am rinsing for eventual winter sowing use, or with a two- to three-gallon bucket.

Rain barrels are a smart idea — they save water, reduce stormwater run-off, and maximize a natural resource — plus, they provide a HECK OF A WORK-OUT. Embrace all the benefits of the barrel!

(If you already have barrels, don’t forget to prep them for winter soon.)

Posted in D'oh!, Outdoor Building Projects, Repair & Maintenance, Yard & Garden | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Keeping the DIY Dollar

Silly customer! You cannot hurt a Twinkie!

- Apu

When we were shopping for our dishwasher (now installed, about which more soon), I eliminated a specific large manufacturer from all our searches. I accidentally read specifications for one dishwasher from this maker, but I discarded it from consideration based on our past experience. (I’m not mentioning the name of the manufacturer because I haven’t contacted them to be involved in this post.)

When we originally remodeled the kitchen in 2002, we bought a new range (UK: cooker) by this maker. In 2010, it failed. DRAMATICALLY.


Here is the email I sent to customer service (the model number and purchase information were included in the subject line):

Hello! This evening, I was baking a frozen lasagne at 400 degrees for 90 minutes according to package instructions. At about the 70th minute, the oven started to beep and display “FI.” I quickly discovered that “FI” stood for “FIRE” because the edges of the lasagne and the bakable package tray were, indeed, on fire. I turned the oven off and removed and extinguished the lasagne. Having turned the oven off, I assumed it was OFF (as in “not on”), but within two minutes, it started beeping and flashing “FI” again. I opened the oven to find that the broiler element was on full blast despite the oven having been turned off, causing the oven to smoke (also despite the fact that I never turned on the broiler). I hit the “cancel” button several times, but it stayed on. At that point, I sprinted to the breaker box and turned the whole oven circuit off.

After my heart rate came back down, I checked to see if the oven had been recalled. It had not, but the symptoms appear to be very similar to those reported in the [recent year] recall.

I am a frequent baker and I am very familiar with this oven’s functions (except “FI” which was a new one on me!). It’s been fine until today.

Is there a new or upcoming recall on this oven? If not, how should I proceed? Does the company want to check the appliance for faults? I’m going to have houseguests in a week, and I’m going to need an oven, but I’d rather replace than repair (since it seems to want to burn down the house). Should I just buy a new oven and chalk this up to “ovens last eight years”? I’d really appreciate your guidance, because I’m not really sure what to do, having never had an oven with a “firestarter” setting before!

Thank you for any advice you can offer asap, and have a great weekend.

I did not ask for the manufacturer to replace or repair the range. I asked for their guidance and whether they wanted to look at the unit in light of similar problems.

The manufacturer responded:

It’s not under warranty anymore, and there isn’t a recall. The control unit is bad; you could pay to have it repaired. Hope you understand! Screw you.  – Customer service

I am paraphrasing, but only slightly.


The Kev and I both have day jobs (we blog because we love!). Mine involves quite a bit of coordination and planning with the customer service department. In that role, I used to work with a customer service manager who said, “Every customer complaint is a gift.” Although I often laughed when she said it, her point was a good one. If a customer takes the time to give you information that could teach you something, you’d be foolish to dismiss it. Instead, see if there’s a larger pattern or a process issue or a product/service gap that can be addressed. And empower customer service to do something other than just bat away issues like whiffle balls — that’s a tough job made tougher by having no discretion to create solutions.

You know what would have made me a loyal customer? Something like this:

[Paragraph 1--establish human contact/pass the Turing test] That does sound alarming! I hope you were able to find something other than the lasagne to eat last night.

[Paragraph 2--emphasize issue importance and escalation] Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a recall, but I will forward your message to the team that is responsible for considering these issues so they can review your information.

[Paragraph 3--show that the customer was heard/provide manufacturer-focused options] I appreciate your concerns and the time you took to alert us to your experience. From your description, it appears that the control unit on your range failed. The range is out of warranty, but we are improving our products all the time based on customer feedback. I’m attaching a $50 coupon that you can use toward the replacement control unit, or toward another [manufacturer] range. For fast delivery of a new unit, try [preferred vendor], or click here to find certified repair shops in your area [link].

[Paragraph 4--thank the customer] I hope this information helps you. Thank you for contacting us, and please feel free to get back in touch, with any follow-up questions or other concerns.

Probably any oven could fail in this way — that’s not really the core issue. Most people just want to be heard. I needed a new or repaired range fast, and having that issue heard (plus a small coupon) could have made my decision.


I could have been this happy! Wait…no one is THIS happy.

Instead, I walked into a big box store, refused to look at the manufacturer’s units, and bought a competing product. Almost five years later, I still will not consider that maker for any appliance type. Certainly, I’m willing to hold a grudge(!), but a better customer service commitment would have brought out my loyal side.

The customer has a role to play here as well. It’s useful for complaints to be informational and concise. Messages should be polite! It’s not the customer service person’s fault, so no need to be aggressive or rude. Finally, the complaint should be clear about what is requested as an outcome. In this transaction, I was overly wordy and a little sarcastic (albeit in a peppy way), and my request meandered quite a bit, so there is improvement to be had on my side as well.

Generally, DIYers are skeptical folks who are very careful with their money, but they do spend money! Someone who is re-doing a kitchen is probably replacing a range that another family might keep longer. A little customer service savvy goes a long way toward attracting–and retaining–that kind of spending.

Posted in American vs English, D'oh!, Electrical, Kitchen | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Geek Garden

Bart: There is no way all this junk is gonna fit.
Homer: Now, don’t worry. This is what all those hours of playing Tetris were for.

Fall is a great time to put in raised beds — do the construction now, and in the spring, you’re ready for the fun stuff. When we started dealing with the redneckitude of our backyard, we knew we wanted raised vegetable beds — we just needed to figure out the lay-out. We knew we wanted a central bed and enough room between the beds to move a wheelbarrow. One day, Kevin showed me a plan that made me laugh and that made sense. Here’s how it looked when we first completed it in fall, 2009:

finished beds

Each bed is a Tetris piece, based on a 2.5 foot “square” — the paths are also 2.5′ wide so that everything is spaced out evenly. A great way to fit a bunch of raised beds into a confined space!


BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, it tickles our geek sides! We get such a kick out of showing it to people who will also be amused by it. And for those who would not be amused, it just looks like a nice set of raised beds. Win-win.

The beds are constructed with 2″ x 6″ planks, doubled up for the height we wanted. Cedar is generally recommended for raised beds because of its rot resistance, but we used plain, untreated pine. Thing one, it was cheaper than cedar. Thing two, we were thinking we would tire of the Tetris lay-out and want to change it before too long. But this is their fifth full year in all weather; no planks are rotting yet, and we’re still loving the lay-out. This is one occasion where whimsy and function aligned, and how often can you say that?

I don’t have a photo of this, but once we marked the location for each bed, we leveled the ground for each unit and tamped it down with vigor. And with a tamper.


Then we laid landscape fabric across the whole area and set the beds. The planks are attached through their ends with three-inch deck screws. The stacked planks are attached vertically to stakes driven into the ground inside the corners and along the long sides.


Some of the stakes are visible in this picture.

We used a large spirit level to make sure that the bed was sitting flat and level. Then, we cut the landscape fabric inside the beds and turned the flaps up against the inside of the bed walls, as shown in this superb diagram:

Cross-section (I hope that's obvious)

Cross-section (I hope that’s obvious): path on the left, bed on the right.

We tacked the landscape fabric a few places with staples and then filled up the beds about 75% full with good rich dirt. We put wood chip mulch down around the beds to make paths. Here it is in its first growing season:

first summer beds

Look at that tiny pie-cherry tree in the middle! It was the northern stand-in for a bay tree in the center of the garden.

bay tree

In the Birmingham Botanical Garden (via)

That cherry tree looooooooved that spot and got Big. Fast. It’s not bigger than it was supposed to grow…eventually…it’s just it’s already there and judging by what it’s doing to the side of its bed, it needs more root space!

cherry tree bed

The tree is about its full height and width only four years on (10-12′ in both dimensions). It’s just too big for a 2.5′ bed. Come spring, we’ll enlist about 20 folks, detach the bowed side, and move this tree. I hope we can transplant it successfully so it can really dig its roots in. (I love this tree and regret that I didn’t think further ahead. Bah!)

But other than the misplaced tree, these have been perfect raised beds. The Kev knows how to put the “fun” into “function”!

Posted in Outdoor Building Projects, Yard & Garden | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Project Updates: How’s THAT Working Out?

 Are we doing this again?

- Marge Simpson

When I search for how to do a project, I find many tutorials that look great, but don’t say how the end product held up over time. “Why don’t they just say what happened!?” I fume. But then I had a pot-kettle-black moment and realized I am just as guilty of this omission as the next solipsistic self-publishing purveyor of random projects. Time to fix that! Here are the epilogues on three oft-visited D’oh! tutorials.

1. Activated Charcoal Air Freshener

Original Post: Carbon by Any Other Name Would Smell as Neutral

bags done

Using cheap activated charcoal available from pet supply stores (for use in aquariums) and some scrap fabric, I stitched up some DIY carbon air fresheners. Commercial versions sell for around $20, but this little project costs about a tenth of that per bag. Would be good for gifts, come to think of it.

Epilogue: These work! They are easy and fun to make, and as mentioned, far cheaper than store-bought. Fortunately, I have yet to have one break and dump activated charcoal hither and yon.

One word of warning, though. I had not looked behind the one hanging on the basement doorknob since putting it there. This is a fairly tightly woven fabric, but…

Well, crap.

Well, crap.

The charcoal dust worked itself through the fabric and left a mark on the door. It doesn’t shed dust elsewhere, but it might leave a mark on clothing hung in contact with the bag. This smear came off with an eraser sponge, but it might be harder to get out of clothing.

I would still recommend this project as long as the bag is not going to touch other fabrics. If you are going to hang a bag against a door or wall, line that side with a thicker piece of fabric, such as denim or thick dropcloth canvas (but just that side, or the air won’t be able to filter through the charcoal). Alternatively, just buy some eraser sponges.

2. Fireplace Crackler

Original Post: DIY Fireplace Sound System

I used some battery-powered speakers and a cheapie MP3 player to add a crackling sound to our fake fireplace. Because our fireplace insert is electric, I set the whole assemblage inside the fire screen.


Epilogue: This solution is fun and really adds to the old ambiance around Chez D’oh — or at least it is when the MP3 player is where it’s supposed to be. I’m prone to snagging the MP3 player out of the fireplace and failing to return it promptly, or at all. At fire time, it’s out in the car or at the office.

Given this foible, I prefer the solution suggested by a commenter (Rev. D. Scheffey) on the original post. The commenter recommended using an old smartphone instead of an MP3 player. Simply connect to your wifi and use the phone to play fire noises. If you do that, then you can use extended YouTube videos for your fire sounds. Here are some good links:

I’m far less likely to run off with an old phone, so that just might work. For now, though, we’re still using our “old” smartphones, so I’ll just have to bring the MP3 player home.

Yay for options!

3. Mail Catcher

Original Post: A Tisket, A Tasket, A Hack Involving A Basket

We took an Ikea magazine holder, a box cutter, and some twine and made a mail catcher for our front door mail slot.


Epilogue: Color me surprised, but this thing is hanging in there! I thought it very possible that we might have trouble where the back attached to the sides, especially if something heavy fell in the basket. But anything really heavy is too big for the mail slot anyway, so it’s only magazines and letters that really make it in.

The important thing to remember if you cut up a basket is that you need to re-bind it together around something solid. The twine that is looped around the front and sides and connects the back goes around the metal posts at the corners. If it only went through the wicker, it would pull through in no time. Over-engineer that twine binding, is my point.

So far, so good on these! I’m particularly pleased by the durability of the mail basket, especially given the costliness of purpose-made mail catchers. It’s also nice to have an alternative idea for the fireplace sound system, and I’m glad charcoal dust readily comes off of glossy paint. Little victories.

Posted in D'oh!, Decor, Organization | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Love Letter to a Doorknob

You are unique, you are special, and someday those things are going to come together and work for you.

- Marge Simpson

When nephew Drew was about nine, he told us we needed to make our house more “modern” and “futuristic”. When pressed for details, he proposed renovations both large (new furniture) and small (painting the recycling can crusher). His recommendations focused on polishing up Chez D’oh’s finishes and fittings so it didn’t look so much “like the olden times”. He was so adorably earnest — it was really hard not to laugh!

Uncle Kevin and Auntie Stacey at home, as perceived by 9-year-old.

Uncle Kevin & Auntie Stacey, as perceived by a 9-year-old.

Drew recently reached the advanced age of 12, but he is still interested in house design and still prefers clean, modern lines. We went on a walk around University Grove recently — an enclave of modernist homes — where he selected this house as his fave.

ASdflskd (via)

I also liked this one best. So what it’s not a bungalow? I’m an onion, I have layers. (via)

Over time, Drew has also come to (somewhat) appreciate the appeal of an old house. He is interested in the history of how things were made, and he likes to go to salvage yards to help search out whatever’s currently on our list. He doesn’t even roll his eyes anymore when I say, “It’s ok for something that IS old to LOOK old.”

But he will never get why my most beloved detail in our house is the bathroom doorknob.


To be fair, I don’t think anyone gets that. But look at it!


This doorknob is original to the house, which means that everyone who lived here used it, and often. It might be the most-used original piece of the house, and it shows. The chrome is scratched through to the brass from years of wedding rings, and the backplate has wear from being polished. And that off-center dent on the front must have had a good story!


When we bought the house, the backplate and lock lever were painted over, but the lock was still operational — it just didn’t line up with the bolthole anymore. When the Kev stripped the paint and realigned the bolt, we saw why the mechanism worked so smoothly. Decades of people seeking privacy here resulted in smooth lock parts accustomed to working together.


Despite its utilitarian and banal purpose (and placement), this unit was really made to last, and I love that it has done so, despite its battle scars. This doorknob has poetry and soul!

Or is it just me? Is it time to replace this thing? Would I love anything boring if it just lasted long enough?

If you own an old house, what well-worn thing do you love best?

Posted in Bathroom, Decor, Windows & Doors | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Brick Edging Happens

My back yard makes my front yard look like an idiot.

- Homer Simpson

For some years now, I’ve been using our boulevard space (sometimes called a “hell strip” for good reason) as a place to put plants in transition. If I’m not sure where to put it, but I’m pretty sure I’ll want it later, I stick it on the boulevard.

The Kev and I made three boulevard beds for this purpose, but they haven’t fared well. We used a ditch edge, and because I was sticking plants in there all the time, I didn’t use any landscape fabric. Accordingly, it’s become a disorganized, weedy mess.


A rose…another rose…a juniper…a boxwood…weed…weed…weed…weed…

I set out this past week to edge and clean up these beds. A week later, I’ve only got one done. Well, mostly done.

bed done 1

Some things left to do, like weeding the dang gutter.

Last summer, Kev posted about brick edging a path, but there are some differences when edging beds, I found out to my dismay.

1. Make any changes to the height and grade of the bed before edging. The idea with this type of edging is to set the bricks so that you can mow the grass on one side and retain mulch on the other. If the bed’s soil level is close to the grass level, you’ll be able to mow the one side, but the bricks won’t hold mulch in place. Shave down the bed level before edging, or it will complicate the next step.

2. Dig out a trench just slightly wider and about an inch deeper than the bricks. 


Picture from Kev’s path in progress, 2013.

You will want to use a string line or straight edge to give you a line to follow when you are trenching. I like to measure from a reference point (in this case, the edge of the sidewalk) and paint in the line on the grass with left-over spray paint.

Use an edger/trencher tool if you have access to one — it gives a nice, straight line. A square shovel also works well, but requires more work.


Edger/trencher (via): just line it up and step on it.

Obviously, you will have had utility lines marked before you started digging! In the states, just call 811. Everything’s supposed to be deeper than this, but our cable line is only about four inches deep in places, and I doubt our yard is the only place someone took a shortcut. A trencher can cut or rupture things that shouldn’t be cut or ruptured.

Once I’d cut both sides of the trench, I dug out the center using a hoe and a spade. Don’t go crazy! I dug way too deep in spots and had to use additional sand to bring the bricks up. About an inch lower that where you want the brick to end should do it for a garden bed. Note this is why you want to have leveled the bed first — I didn’t, and that left the back of my trench unsupportive and overly wide. Dealing with the bed grading before trenching gives you a straight back to the trench, which helps keep the bricks in place.

I had a d’oh moment with one side of the first bed — I thought I cut the trench straight, but without realizing it, I actually bowed it out to go around some plants that were still in the bed. Once the trench was dug, I noticed that it wasn’t straight. Fairly big hassle to straighten it out, so measure, mark clearly, and tie back anything that might get in your way.

3. Line the trench with landscape fabric and sand.

Use high-quality landscape fabric; it’s more expensive, but it’s worth it. The non-woven “five year” variety just doesn’t hold up–you’ll have weeds coming through it in a year. Take one piece of the fabric and start at the grass side of the trench, bringing the fabric level with where the grass starts. Then, line the trench and carry the fabric on across the bed. I also tuck newspaper under the fabric across the bed, which is a secondary way to keep down weeds. You can cut the fabric (and newspaper) around plants you are keeping, or cut through it later to plant new ones.


This is a path picture, but it shows the lining technique.

Put paver leveling sand (roughly the same as sandbox sand) in the trench so that there’s roughly enough in there to bring the bricks up to where you want them. Compact the sand by banging on it with something flat or by walking on it.

4. Set the bricks!

Starting at a corner, stick a brick in the trench! Wiggle it around in the sand (possibly taking it up and throwing some more sand underneath it in the process) until it’s straight, flat and lined up with the grass line. Tap it with a rubber hammer to make sure it is in there. It’s not going to be like it’s set in concrete, but you want it to be stable.

As you add bricks, keep checking that you are keeping the line straight and that the bricks are at a consistent enough height to be able to mow over them (so you don’t have to do more grass control than necessary in future). Snuggle them up close to each other–after you’ve done the initial brick-wiggle, you can lift the new brick and brush away any sand that was trapped between the new and the prior brick in the wiggling process. This bit of housekeeping will keep the edging tighter.

After everything’s in, fill in any gaps in the trench wall (on the soil side of the fabric, either side of the bricks), then use locking sand to firm up the joints. Locking sand is extremely fine sand mixed with polymers that you dust over the finished bricks and brush into the cracks. The fine grains lock together and help keep everything in place.

5. Almost Finished

Pin down your landscape fabric and dump in the mulch. Et voila.


Need to trim up the excess fabric on the right side and finish the locking sand. And weed/re-seed the grass areas.

Only three lonely roses left in this bed. I’m going to re-design this one in the spring, but I know the roses are staying on the boulevard somewhere. No point in moving them until I know for sure.

I’m using this cheap mulch from Menards that they say is recycled, but which is actually (as far as I can tell) chipped from bad lumber. Good idea, but it’s just not what people usually think of as “recycling”! Anyhoo, it looks bright and slightly silly like this for about a month, then ends up looking like any natural wood mulch.

I’ve counted up the bricks we have and measured the beds that are left, and of course we’re gonna need more bricks. Off to Craigslist!

Posted in D'oh!, Salvage, Yard & Garden | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Patience is a Virtue–A Really Annoying Virtue

I only have two questions: “How much?” and “Give it to me!”

- Homer Simpson


If only she were sitting on a bagpipe.

I have a complicated relationship with consumerism. I don’t like parting with money at the best of times (my heritage is half Scots, if you want to stereotype). I’m good at arguing myself out of even modest purchases–the Kev is similar (albeit not Scots), so we have some wild times at the mall!

When we do make a big purchase, it generally involves a fair bit of research and thought. Afterwards, I feel self-congratulatory. “Yes, that was a wise acquisition. This item will perform as intended for some time. My careful consideration has served us well.” But in the meantime, I drive myself completely crazy with the process!

Our current dishwasher (a Maytag) has been a champ. At 12, it was still getting the job done, but the racks had lost many of their spokes, making it harder to fill. And it took a heavier cycle to get the same result. I looked into buying new racks, and it was a comparatively large amount of money — might as well replace the whole unit! Which seems a shame, since I have a little crush on the new Maytag Man.


Hellooo, Sheriff Carter!

But my interest in hot, semi-uniformed Canadians wasn’t enough to make the decision (especially since he doesn’t come to the house personally; also I’m married).

After (way too much) research, I focused on the quietest, efficient models in what I considered a reasonable price range: 50 dB or so under $499.


“Urban Residence”? Also, OSHA couldn’t think of anything whatsoever to demonstrate 10 dB?

We also wanted a white washer with hidden controls. (I like white appliances — reminds me of vintage units, plus I’m unlikely to wipe down fingerprints on stainless.) Once we had our criteria in place, I started stalking sales and outlets, looking for the criteria and strong reviews rather than for a specific brand or model.

Dishwashers, more and more dishwashers.

Dishwashers, more and more dishwashers.

Since the Maytag was hanging in there, I had the luxury (duty??) of lying in wait until one of these places put the right machine on clearance. In addition to the big box DIY warehouses, three places seemed to have consistently good deals:

  • Sears Outlet–floor models, close-outs, sales, and scratch/dent appliances from Sears stores (searchable nationwide, with pictures of the actual items provided).
  • Local appliance centers–surprisingly affordable, particularly Warners’ Stellian (worth checking in the Minneapolis/St Paul area).
  • Appliance Smart–an appliance outlet located in a few US markets (Minnesota, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas); elsewhere, search for “appliance outlet” for similar options.

In the meantime, though, we experienced criteria creep — if you see enough dishwashers, you start to covet features you had not considered. A third rack at the top for utensils? That would be pretty sweet. Quieter than 50dB? Is that even possible?!

We almost pulled the trigger on a GE washer, but decided to wait a little longer. Warners’ Stellian had a clearance import, but I didn’t want to buy the required dishwasher salt. Then we took a break while we were travelling, but when I looked again…

Kitchenaid Dishwasher

KitchenAid Superba Dishwasher

Appliance Smart had close-out KitchenAids for almost 70% off. “KitchenAid!!” I said to the Kev. “Huh?” he responded. I guess KitchenAid hasn’t made it to the UK, but it’s a really good appliance make, probably best known for those status-symbol stand mixers.


We don’t own one of these.

All that research and stalking (about six months’ worth) really paid off. This model is white with a hidden console. It claims to run at 40 dB, which could usher in a new era of washing dishes while we are at home — our basic Maytag model is pretty loud. And it has that very special third rack. It turns out to be a bit more expensive than our original target, but for the features and durability, adding less than 20% to the price level was ok, especially with free delivery/haul-away and (of course) DIY installation.

I always wonder if I’ve fully amortized house stuff that we are replacing, but the Maytag (bless it) obligingly stopped working last night, meaning we have PERFECT AMORTIZATION, probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ahhhh!

What, that’s not on your bucket list?

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That Can’t Be Good

Licking an electrical outlet will not turn you into a Mighty Morphing Power Ranger.

- Rock Bottom

I am not a morning person, so I don’t mind east-to-west jetlag. It gives me a chance to see how the other half lives. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a day when you’re out of bed at 4:00 am.

It’s one thing for jetlag to gently rouse you — it’s quite another thing for a Scary House Noise (SHN) to send you hurtling out of bed. Over the weekend, jetlag was just starting to wake me when I heard:


After hearing a second THWACK, I judiciously deployed our standard SHN operating procedure, which looks something like this:


After several more THWACKS, I located the noise in the main bathroom, coming from behind the outlet. The ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) receptacle had not tripped — GFCIs are designed to turn themselves off if there’s a problem — so using the handle end of my wooden hairbrush as an insulator, I pushed the “test” button. The outlet seemed to shut off as intended, but then: THWACK. Using the hairbrush, I reset it and waited. THWACK!


The GFCI outlet (sometimes called a “GFI”) in question, with cat. The testing and resetting buttons are in the middle of the unit between the sockets.

The THWACK sound was from an electrical short somewhere in the socket or in the wiring just behind it. A short is where electricity discharges along the shortest available route. Wiring is supposed to give electricity just one place to go to make it safer to use. A wiring short is like a tiny lightning strike. Inside your house, where you keep all your flammable stuff. That can’t be good.

"Big Tex" at the Texas State Fair burned as the result of an electrical short.

“Big Tex” suffered an electrical short in his right boot. I can’t decide which version is creepier.

Since the short was happening regardless of whether the GFI was tripped or not, I turned off the dedicated circuit for that outlet. I tested the outlet for power just in case, then I unscrewed the wall plate and the outlet and gently pulled everything out to take a look.

The wire insulation was all intact, and I didn’t see any nicks or scuffs through which the power could short. I stuck my schnoz down there and took a whiff; no acrid smell. The inside of the box showed no burn marks and nothing was heat-deformed. The body of the outlet itself looked intact.

old receptacle out of box

I loosened the connections and pulled out the hot and neutral. Both ends showed some scaling like white paint on the ends. These marks turned out to be the only possible evidence of the problem. Well, that and the THWACK had stopped, so I knew I was in the right place.

wire scale

White marks on the connection.

Some research indicated that a lack of evidence is not that unusual. While it was possible that simply tightening the connections would fix the problem, I could not be sure that was the actual issue (and the connections seemed plenty tight). A new GFI outlet is only about $10, so why risk reusing a bad unit?

In a bathroom (in the US), unless you have old wiring that has been grandfathered in, you need a 20-amp circuit that is dedicated to 20-amp bathroom sockets, which should be served by 12-gauge wire. IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE, call an electrician. Other reasons to call an electrician:

  • You don’t know if your house is wired with copper or aluminum (the latter was common in the 1960s and 70s when copper prices were high — I grew up in an aluminum-wired house). Aluminum wiring requires special treatment to avoid thermal and oxidation issues that might arise when aluminum meets copper.
  • There are only two wires in the box, or the hot/neutral wires are not distinguishable, or you don’t know if the wiring is the right gauge for the circuit.
  • You’re in a bathroom or kitchen but the existing outlets aren’t GFIs, or they are on a circuit with other stuff.
  • The supply wires are too short (or learn how to pigtail wiring).
  • The GFI has onward wiring that goes to anything other than another bathroom outlet.
  • There’s physical damage inside the box, or the box is really tight (or missing).
  • There’s anything that gives you pause whatsoever!

If you don’t have any of these or other issues, GFIs are simple to wire if you follow the directions that come with the new unit. Be sure to read all the information provided with your specific outlet, because brands vary. Never guess when you are doing this work — you can always call an electrician, even if you already started the project.

wiring instructions

Helpful guidance.

Most of these units have push-in connections where you strip the wire to a specified length, insert the clean end into the unit, then tighten up a screw to make the connection. Much easier than hooking a wire under a screw head!


Instructions and strip gage molded into the back (in addition to printed directions).

Since this wiring was new when we redid this bathroom about five years ago, there was enough extra wire in the box to work with (almost too much — I’m always surprised by the length required at rough-in inspection). I clipped off the scaled ends and stripped some fresh wire to insert according to the instructions.

After making the connections according to instructions, I carefully folded the wires back into the box and then tightened the whole thing down, alternating between the top and bottom mounting screws. Notice that there’s some wiggle room in the mounting holes to allow adjustments to keep things straight and level.

new receptacle going in

Add the cover and turn on the circuit. Use the test buttons to check that the outlet is working correctly. Listen for THWACKS!

Test button tripped on the left, and in operational mode on the right.

Test button tripped on the left, and in operational mode on the right.

You should test GFIs monthly. But even so, while shorts are rare, they can still happen (mainly in the pre-dawn hours). Not every Scary House Noise is a malfunctioning GFI, but when you are running around the house semi-clad, don’t discount them entirely.

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Posted in D'oh!, Electrical, Repair & Maintenance | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments