Tuesday, December 29, 2015

An Outdoor Sink

The weird warm weather is gone and today it is very cold and sleeting. Less pleasant but more seasonal. Everything is coated in a thin layer of white finally.

I am indoors, thinking about things I need outdoors. This is what I need:
Found on Root Simple

The potting bench I have is sturdy and big, and I have a hose hanging next to it, but without a place for the water to drain, potting activities are limited. Small pots can be put up, but anything involving washing off the rootball or cleaning out used containers or rinsing tools has to be done out in the garden, usually on my hands and knees.
My bench on the patio -- there's a hose for watering but nowhere for washwater to drain.

My big potting bench could be so much more useful if I could find a sink like this, assemble it in the bench top and put a big bucket below.
Found on Hometalk

Even this simple set up would work -- either on the patio with a 5 gallon bucket under it, or out in the garden itself, freely draining into the dirt.
Found on Earthfinds

These set ups require salvaging an old sink. The stories accompanying the pictures talk about using one found in the house they were renovating, or scoring one of these old enamel farm sinks discarded by the side of the road, just waiting to be hauled home. Right.
Found on faded charm cottage

A couple years ago I did see an old farm sink at an antique store in Vermont and knew it would fit my plans exactly. Perfect! The price was over $1,200 dollars, though, so that didn't happen.

Where do you find old sinks by the side of the road?

Saturday, December 26, 2015

An Uncommon Christmas

Christmas day was unusual here. Too warm.

It was record setting, in the 60s, and warmer than in L.A. where we had just spent the prior weekend having an early Christmas with Tom and Greg and Zaneta.

I gardened on Christmas day. In shirtsleeves, without a jacket.

Well, I mostly just puttered, putting away new garden tools and gloves that Santa brought, and potting up a little holly plant.

Christmas day was also disrupted here.

We were supposed to have dinner at my sister's but she decided at the last minute to spend the holiday in the hospital, giving all of us a terrible scare and a lot of worry.

She is okay, but while our dinner was disrupted, her holiday was a disaster. Thank god for the nurses and doctors and everyone else who works Christmas shifts to help others.

Today we'll go to Massachusetts to celebrate with Hope and Steve and it is another unusually warm winter day. What is going on? All over the east coast the temperatures are bizarrely spring-like.

It's been way too warm for many days, and the winter weeds (popweed, creeping charlie, etc.) are greening up and spreading. The early irises and the daffodils and alliums are all peeking up out of the soil. The snowdrops went by and have wilted.

'Dawn' viburnum, which has never flowered much in past springs, has pink buds opening all over it and is threatening to burst into full bloom before New Year's Eve.

The lawns are all green, the Christmas wreaths are brown, and the whole season is out of kilter. I've never seen the holiday greenery go by so fast. The wreaths are dried out and have to come down already.

Under the windows on the front of the house, below the desiccated wreaths, the pink blooming heath is in full flower.

The holiday has been uncommonly strange this year. But despite the odd weather, brown wreaths, untimely health problems and missed dinners, there was one event that put Christmas day into perfect balance: I am going to have a new daughter in law. An engagement ring under the tree, a happy phone call, and excitement all around!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

December Music

Here is some music for today:  Thinking Out Loud

There is more music here:  More. . . .

I wish peace on earth, music, and m&ms to all!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Dim Corners

It's the darkest time of the year and I crave light. Indoors, where I spend the short days now.

It used to be so easy (so much was, sigh). You bought 40, 60, 75 or 100 watt incandescent bulbs. 90% of what they produced was heat, and 10% gave off light. When they blew, and they blew often, you put another one in.

The wattage was printed right on the top of the bulb. Easy, although 3-ways only worked in certain lamps, and exceeding the wattage for the lamp you had was hard to determine. But still, who even thought about lightbulbs?

Now it's a science project.

Here's what I mean:

When we had solar panels installed the state required an energy audit before they would let us take the hefty state rebate for solar installation. The audit involved two men roaming our house for two hours, looking for insulation air leaks and power inefficiencies. The really cool thing was that these two guys replaced every single one of the light bulbs in 29 lamps and fixtures throughout the house.

They did the tiresome work of unscrewing and replacing every light bulb, put in CFL bulbs, and even left us about 20 extras. All for free -- and those bulbs are not cheap!

So we are upgraded and lit. But now, the desk lamp broke and I need a new one, and as I move furniture around and am trying to light spaces in my house that weren't well lit before, I am at a loss on lightbulbs.

It's not easy to figure out what wattage is currently in the lamps I have, or what wattage I need for the new lighting I want. Some of the new CFL bulbs have a watts number printed on the base in tiny print, but it's hard to find and many do not even have that.

New lightbulbs are not sold by watts. Watts measure power. New lightbulbs measure light output, or lumens, not power, since the whole idea is that they drastically reduce the power needed. You rarely have to worry about exceeding the wattage rating for the old lamp you've had since college -- it doesn't matter any more with CFLs or LEDs.

Some new bulbs do give an equivalent (such as: 13 watt CFL = 60 watt incandescent) but that's way off, I learned.  It's not really equivalent, it's more like a range, or maybe like a suggestion. CFL bulbs are variable in the power they use compared to the power (watts) the old bulbs used. The pertinent info is lumens.

Okay. Here's some homework. Study, discuss, and get back to me.

I had to learn these conversions, and I did. Even so, when you go to buy new lightbulbs, these equivalencies are all over the map between different manufacturers.

This chart doesn't even show all the 23 and 32 watt CFL bulbs I have and what they convert to. The 40 watt CFL I bought because it was supposedly equivalent to an old 150 watt incandescent is so glaringly bright I had to remove it before the airport started landing planes in my foyer.

I also had to learn that "soft white" means 2,700 kelvins which is a yellow glow, and the cool bright white of daytime and operating rooms means 5,000 kelvins and boy, does the color of the light make a difference with CFL or LED bulbs.

So, this is the basic stuff you need to know about lightbulbs now:
  1. lumens for brightness (800 for desk work, 1600 or more to light an area) 
  2. kelvins for color (2,700 = yellow and warmer, 5,000 = brighter and cooler)  
  3. and wattage doesn't matter since new bulbs use 1/4 the wattage my lamps are even rated for, and they only covert to the old wattage in a wide and confusing range of equivalency. 
Got it.

Now, the other problem.

The dining room chandelier is a builder grade light fixture that came with hard plastic sleeves to cover the wires in the "candle" stems. When I put black chandelier shades over the incandescent candle lights, the original white plastic sleeves charred and turned ugly brown after a few years. Replacement sleeves looked good in these photos, but literally melted into plastic puddles inside each brass cup after one use, leaving the wires exposed. Ack.

I can get LED candle lights that burn much cooler under the shades, but they are not dimmable with my current dimmer switch. And the cooling effect comes from a "heat sink" (the solid wrapping at the base of LED bulbs) that looks dumb and directs light upwards into the shade and not down to the table.

It took two days of intensive research and going down electrical chat room rabbit holes before I learned that dimming + LEDs + bulb temperatures + strobe effect problems + light direction all have to be coordinated in confusing combinations when buying LED bulbs.
LED bulbs have an alternating current / direct current conversion technology inside that solid base that would leave Edison and Tesla muttering. Me too.

So, cooler bulbs that won't melt the fixture under black shades are Not An Option. Bare bulbs might not melt the sleeves, but are also Not An Option -- without any shades the 5 bulb fixture is small and skimpy in our large open dining room. And without shades, you can see the replacement sleeves don't quite cover the black wire housings which show at the top. It looks cheap.

We need a new dining room chandelier and I am making a project out of finding the right one. With the right lightbulbs. And the right shades.

And we need a new desk lamp to replace the broken one. With adequate lumens. And kelvins! And efficient wattage.

All this attention to lighting has now made me realize how shabby my lamps are. With the exception of the new floor lamp I just bought with the butterfly shade next to the bookcase, many of my lamps are ancient -- either from college or from my first house in the 1970s.

They wobble, are the wrong size for what I'm trying to light, are missing hardware, and the old faded shades look cheap. Or they are builder fixtures that were also kind of cheap when they were installed 11 years ago. I never realized how dim corners of my open floorpan house are. It's dark in here at night.

But who knew upgrading and fixing the lighting in my house would require an electrical engineering degree?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Breakfast Book Nook

We've been living with the new furniture arrangement for a while now. Patterns have developed. I use the desk in the breakfast area constantly and Jim uses the kitchen table in the reading area for his paperwork and computer surfing. We eat breakfast and lunch here.

We got a rug. It's jute, very neutral and probably too small (6 foot round).

But a larger size would have made this look more like a dining area, emphasizing the table. We already have a large dining room. As my friend Peggy suggested, this area works better in the open room as a book nook, emphasizing the bookcases and going for a study carrel vibe rather than a cafe feeling in the living room.

So no pendant light, no large rug under the table, and the fact that Jim leaves his stuff all over the table makes it look library-esque (humor me here).

Lighting is still an issue, but I got a taller, sturdier floor lamp and put in a brighter CFL bulb and it's a little removed from in front of the thermostat. It does light things up better. I moved a small glass-shaded bankers lamp I had to the bookcase instead of that too-large table lamp you see in the picture, and it's bright enough.

There's just no direct light over the table, so at night card playing or sitting around going over maps of Paris or decorating Christmas sugar cookies is not easily done at the table.

With little direct light it really doesn't function as a library study spot. But it does look and feel like a cozy book nook and we do eat our breakfasts here and I'm happy with the arrangement.

The cardinal at the top of the Christmas tree agrees, and we all know how judgmental cardinals can be.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

What to Cut Down

It has warmed up in these shortest days of December and we've had temperatures near 60. Unreal.

I got the big asters and the nepeta cut back last week. I leave a lot of things standing in winter, but those get smushed when snow comes so they need to be cleaned up.

I'll leave the 'Karl Foerster' grass standing. It's at the edge of the meadow behind the berm, and when snow comes it will just lie down with the other tall things out there.

Meanwhile, I can't even think of taking it down. Early morning light illuminates it so dramatically.

I liked the look of this feather reed grass edging the line between meadow and lawn so much that I planted a couple other clumps along the boundary of the lawn, and those light up later in the day, just as beautifully. I'll leave those standing too.

We did get the miscanthus grass by the garage door cut down. It too is beautiful right now, but snow and ice will destroy it and cause it to flop in front of the garage door, so it has to go.

It's a job, but Jim dispatched it pretty easily this year with the hedge trimmer. I used scissors to cut the Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa) along the walkway, and pruners to get at the amsonias.

The trio of 'Northwind' panicums remains standing. They also suffer from winter smushing, but they are at the back of the garden, in front of the meadow and I think I'll leave them up.

I have regretted that in past years when they looked so bad in heavy snow, so I'm not sure why I think this time will be better. Maybe because right now there is something vaguely biblical about these three standing vigil out there just before Christmastime.

I cut the 'Henryi' clematis at the front walk all the way back. But should I take down the viticella clematis 'Alba Luxurians' on the tower beside the patio wall? It's still green in December, and it makes a nice pairing with the bronze sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina).

I cut this clematis back in midsummer and it regrew vigorously all the way to the top of the pyramid by fall. But unlike other years when I chopped it down in midsummer after flowering had gone by, it didn't rebloom very much.

All the pots are removed from the patio now, some in the garage, others on the unheated porch, where it's above 60 degrees due to this warm spell.

What else needs cutting down?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Beads of Frost, Rays of Sun

Right now I am loving the patches of epimediums that grow under two trees in my garden. In early December this sturdy groundcover just shines. Frost decorates the foliage in the mornings, and in the afternoons the low sunlight makes the papery translucent leaves sparkle.

Epimedium perralchicum 'Frohnleiten'

Under the flowering dogwood tree at the front walk 'Frohnleiten' has turned bronze and copper and olive green. It's a beautiful, complex mix of autumn colors still going strong into winter.

A second patch grows under the maple tree in the back garden. This is 'Rubrum' and it has a more uniform coppery fall color with an occasional red leaf peeking out.

Epimedium alpinum 'Rubrum'

The leaves are curled and shaggy looking now, but the warm color is nice with a clump of still green 'Ice Dance' carex next to it. These are two tough plants that laugh at winter.

Epimediums are great plants to cover a spot of dry earth under the shade of trees, but they spread very slowly. It takes four years to get a patch going, and they don't grow incrementally each year -- they simply do nothing for three years, not bulking up even one bit to your impatient dismay, and then in year four they move out and cover quite a bit of ground quite expansively.

They have cute nodding flowers on tiny stems in spring that look like little hats, and one common name is bishop's hat for that reason, or sometimes fairy wings, which describes their airiness. But epimediums are most commonly called barrenwort, (old English "wort" meaning medicinal plant) because the plant contains the compound in sildenafil, so it was used  to ward off infertility from erectile dysfunction. If you watch TV and suffer through Viagra ads, you know what sildenafil is.

The sweet flowers and aphrodisiac uses are benefits of these plants, but it's their foliage and ability to cover ground that I love. They have interesting leaves in summer, and those leaves make a lush carpet under trees where little will grow. They do well in tough conditions because they have tenacious roots (I've tried to divide some and it's a job), wiry stems, and stiff leaves that don't tear or wilt.

And look at how they behave in winter, turning bronzy and curling, but still carpeting the ground thickly as they catch beads of frost and rays of sunlight in the cold winter air.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


So much violence in the news. Guns, shootings, ammunition hoards, war and bombs. I escape to my garden.

'Tardiva' hydrangea flowers, dried at the peak of their rosy color, are a soothing sight on the porch. The winter sun coming in through the windows makes them glow.

It's too cold to sit on the porch, but I see this pretty arrangement from inside the kitchen, through the sliding glass doors. Soft pink. Beautifully tall and elegant. The container is perfect to hold them.

It's very heavy cast aluminum, about 15 inches tall, with an inner ring inside the narrow tube that holds the hydrangea stems in place. It's bronze colored. It is not a florist's vase.

It's a spent shell casing.

Jim pilfered it 45 years ago when he was in army training and they had concluded some night action, leaving shell casings all over the field. He took one.

My lovely rosy pink panicle hydrangea arrangement, so calming and soul soothing in these times, is standing in a discarded ammunition cartridge.

Something is not right.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

View From Inside

For six months of the year the garden is seen from inside the house. The view out the window is the main way to enjoy it. Even in summer, being in the house but connected to the outdoors is important.

Our house has big windows across the back (north) side of the house that look out onto the patio and back yard. Those large windows give us a great view to the outside.

The middle set of windows is the breakfast area off the kitchen. The table has always been centered in front of those windows. The problem is that the space is only 6 feet 8 inches wide -- windows on the one side, kitchen counters not even 7 feet from the windows.  We could get a standard kitchen table in the space, but with chairs, you could not walk by it.

On top of that, the porch door opens to the breakfast area and it's the only way to the back yard, so all traffic into the kitchen has to negotiate around the table, sidling by it in the few inches to spare. We pushed the round table all the way against the windows and only used two chairs of the set, and it was workable, at least for two people, but for the 11 years we have been here it has been annoyingly cramped.

After Thanksgiving, when tables had been moved around to accommodate a crowd and the house was in general disruption, we decided to do away with an eating area in this tight space and started moving furniture around.

We brought the desk out from the den, put it in front of the breakfast area window, and suddenly this narrow space is manageable. There is room to walk by as we go to and fro to the back porch and outside.

The biggest advantage, though, is that I suddenly feel connected to the garden. I spend a lot of time at my desk. Facing a view, I am pulled out into it even as winter arrives and everything looks bare now. In summer I'll sit here and work while I supervise the hummingbirds. In spring I'll watch the daffodils come up while I pay the bills.

In fall I won't be a be able to do any work at the desk at all, since this is the view from the window.

It isn't just that I am sitting facing a view now; somehow having the desk against the big window brings the view in even when I'm not at the desk. I think it's because the desk with items in the foreground frames the scene.

It's the same effect I have in the other big window at the back of the house -- that's the bedroom, and having a dresser and some items on it in front of the garden scene outside frames the view. This picture from last winter (no, we haven't had snow here yet) shows what I mean.

The desk in the kitchen now creates that same visual stage for the garden outside. I'll need to keep the stray mail and paper clutter down, as that's not going to enhance any view out the window if it piles up.

I like it. There's enough room to walk by now, and a pool of sunshine to sit in while I read my e-mails in the morning and watch the birds.

A bonus feature is that the small den is much less cramped with the desk out of there; now it's a TV room.

And where did the kitchen table go? We put it in the reading area in front of the bookcases. For the first time we can use all four chairs, and there is enough space to walk around the table. It looks like it is supposed to look. We need a rug.

This area is right off the kitchen to the other side, so it's still convenient for breakfast and lunch, but it's essentially an extension of the living room. The main living area is all one big open space, and the kitchen set is a little casual, even though I don't have a very formal living room. There is a separate, large dining room that we use for dinners.

The kitchen set in the main part of the house gives me a cafe vibe, which I'm not sure about.

The problem for the displaced table is lighting. Without a pendant light over the table it is dim on all except the sunniest mornings. It's the interior of the whole house, away from the windows. When it was the reading area I had two chairs and a reading lamp in front of the bookcase. Now the table, out in the middle of this area, is completely unlit and the whole corner is dark at night.

I put the bedroom table lamp on the bookcase (for some reason there is an outlet inside the shelves). But it's not enough. With high ceilings and an open floorplan, it's hard to light this house. The builders tried to push a system of can lights installed in the ceilings, but we thought it was too expensive. Now I know why they recommended it -- lamps don't illuminate much in a 10 foot tall space.

I added a floor lamp with a pretty butterfly shade, and mostly it lights the corner but not the table, and heats the thermostat, which it is right in front of. Lighting needs a lot of work in this area.

I'll figure out the lighting somehow. For now, I am sitting at the desk, watching the birds outside who are carrying on right in front of me as I try to type this post. It's cold, it's sunny out, and I have a great view from inside.

Awfully distracting, though.